R.I.P. Patrick Leigh Fermor

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  06.10.11 | 9:58 AM ET

Reports are trickling in that Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of travel writing’s greats and the author of “A Time of Gifts,” has died at 96.

In a 1996 profile of Leigh Fermor in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane argued that the writer lived one of the most compelling lives of the 20th century—so fascinating, in fact, that it makes the rest of our lives “laughably provincial in their scope.”

We fret about our kids’ S.A.T. scores, whereas this man, when he was barely more than a kid himself, shouldered a rucksack and walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul. In his sixties, he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron—his hero, and to some extent his template. (He once hunted down a pair of the poet’s slippers, “their toes turning up at the tip,” in Missolonghi.) In between, he has joined a cavalry charge, played a game of polo on bicycles outside a Hungarian castle, observed a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, and plunged into a love affair with a princess. He has feasted atop a moonlit tower, with wine and roast lamb hauled up by rope. He has dwelled soundlessly among Trappist monks. He has built himself a house on the soutehrn coast of Greece, where he still resides. He has written seven travel books and a novel, though which is which one cannot readily say, for the travel books pass from fiercely empirical to the fantastic without drawing a breath.

Leigh Fermor’s book, A Times of Gifts, made our list of the top 30 travel books of all time. Tom Swick wrote of the book:

This is a glorious feast, the account of a walk in 1934 from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople. The 18-year-old Fermor began by sleeping in barns but, after meeting some landowners early on, got occasional introductions to castles. So he experienced life from both sides, and with all the senses, absorbing everything: flora and fauna, art and architecture, geography, clothing, music, foods, religions, languages. Writing the book decades after the fact, in a baroque style that is always rigorous, never flowery, he was able to inject historical depth while still retaining the feeling of boyish enthusiasm and boundless curiosity.

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