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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

VignoniI am back after a wonderful two weeks in Italy.  I strolled through vineyards, forests, and countless hill-towns in Tuscany, admired palm trees, snow-capped mountains and German tourists on Lake Garda, and found unexpected quiet on Venice’s twisting, charming streets and canals.

To be frank, I am not particularly excited to be home.  I would much rather be sitting somewhere in the Veneto with a glass of prosecco or visiting a spa in Merano or maybe discovering the ancient glories of Rome.  Instead, I am back at home where it is cold and wet and I am expected to work for a living for another thirty or forty years.  Most unsatisfactory.

the-road-to-little-dribbling-115989452My wanderlust is something I live with the whole year round, though my vacations are limited to three weeks a year.  I am already plotting where to go next year.  Italy again?  My beloved Germany, perhaps?  Croatia, finally?  Dare I pluck up the courage for India?  I thought I had it narrowed down but then yesterday I read Bill Bryson’s newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and now, of course, I am desperate to go back to the UK.  One of the delights of the UK, as Bryson never tires of pointing out, is how crammed full it is of fascinating people, places and history.  London alone has more cultural sights than many countries but there are thoughtful, original museums and galleries scattered across the rest of the nation with infuriating frequency.  I am ready to go NOW and spend three or four weeks (months?) roaming about, visiting museums and galleries, walking the South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.

What I shall actually do is stay here, work, study for a demanding upcoming professional exam, and, perhaps, occasionally remember to update this blog.  I do miss regular blogging but have been so busy this year that I’ve barely had time to read, never mind reflect on my reading.  It is something I miss and I hope in the coming months I’ll be able to make blogging part of my regular schedule again.

Though I didn’t read much, and certainly not deeply, I did come across some excellent books this summer.  Girl at War by Sara Nović, about the impact of the Serbo-Croatian war on a young girl, was excellent; Uprooted, a light, undemanding fantasy novel from Naomi Novik, was a fun distraction from my other concerns; and Man Overboard by Monica Dickens was a nice, light romance about an unemployed naval officer that reminded me of how well Dickens writes from the male perspective and had unmistakable similarities to the writing of my dear Nevil Shute.

Sofia Khan is Not ObligedBut the most delightful surprise of this summer was Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (of which Kate has already written an excellent and far more detailed review).  Sometimes, books appear that so perfectly match my dream book wish list that I can barely believe they are real.  This was one of those books.  Sofia Khan is a young British Muslim woman, working in the publishing industry in London (much like her creator).  Like many young women, she is looking for love but not prepared to compromise too much.  She wants someone who shares her faith, is close to his family (though not too close – living with the in-laws is a step too far for Sofia), and believes in her feminist values.  If he happens to be gorgeous and brings the banter, so much the better.

Through Sofia and her friends, Malik looks with humour and sympathy at the way young, educated, devout, modern Muslim women approach romance.  One friend is in love with married man and, as the novel begins, considering becoming a second wife.  Another is in a relationship with a black man, something her family and community would certainly not approve of.  Sofia isn’t quite sure who she wants but she knows she wants love and marriage and a family of her own.

As someone who has never been able to connect with alcohol- and regretful hook-up-driven Chick Lit novels (or television shows, like Sex and the City), Sofia Khan is Not Obliged was a welcome change.  It offered a cheeky, intelligent, fallible heroine who, although I may not share her faith or culture, I could identify with more easily than most of the other protagonists in the genre.  Once I started reading, I could not put the book down – it’s the only thing I’ve read this year that kept me up past midnight (on a weekday, no less).  I read it thanks to NetGalley and can’t wait for the paperback to come out in January (it is available now as an e-book).

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Letters from ItalyIn 1923, the great Czech writer Karel Čapek published his first travel book: Letters from Italy.  Having greatly enjoyed Letters from England (1924) and being now in the midst of planning my first trip to Italy, this seemed like the perfect time to read about Čapek’s travels there.

Good news about my upcoming trip: there will be fewer fascists (I hope) than Čapek encountered.  Needless to say, they were not the highlight of his trip.  Čapek spent much of his career speaking out against dictatorships and fascism in particular, which does make one wonder why he decided to visit Italy so soon after Mussolini came into power.  On the other hand, it is Italy.  I can understand how its charm would outweigh any feelings of disgust for its vile Prime Minister.

Čapek starts in Venice (as I plan to do – how cunning of him to mirror my own itinerary!).  The famously confusing streets befuddle the traveller almost immediately:

I, who flatter myself that I have the sense of direction, strolled round a circle for two hours yesterday.  I left St. Mark’s Square for the Rialto, a good ten minutes’ walk: after two hours I finally reached St. Mark’s Square.  These Venetian streets decidedly remind me of the East, clearly because I have never been in the East, or of the Middle Ages for perhaps the same reason.

Paragraphs like this are the reason I love Čapek so much.  Unfortunately, there are very few of them in this book.

Čapek moves on to, well, just about everywhere.  For a brief trip, he covers a lot of ground.  He moves comfortably through the country, despite speaking no Italian – perhaps, as he believes, because he speaks no Italian:

Undoubtedly in international hotels you can always make yourself understood in French: but there are places more interesting than all the hotels in the world, and there you have such a cosmopolitan babel that you cannot inquire or make yourself comprehensible or ask anyone for anything; there you rely upon people to provide you with food, drink, and lodgings and take you somewhere – how and where, that is of course in their powers and not yours, but you trust yourself to them as a dumb, helpless creature incapable of choice, self-defence, or insult.  And so they give you food and drink, protection and lodging; you accept everything with a thousand-fold more gratitude than if you ordered it in a lordly, comprehensive way.

On he travels but, to be honest, he moves too quickly to really observe any place very well.  It’s fun to say “oh, that sounds like somewhere worth visiting” but that is not what I look for in this sort of book.  I want to be charmed and entertained and, mostly, I want him to be funny in his criticisms of Italy and the Italians.  He did this brilliantly in Letters from England but obviously had not quite found his style yet with this book.  And what a shame – I’m sure he could have been quite devastatingly clever if he’d let loose (there are flashes of this at times).

The book ends in Bolzano, which Čapek views with relief.  After sunshine and arid hilltowns, palaces and museums, it is unbelievably cheering to come to a familiar landscape of mountains and forests and to see people who, until only a few years before, had been part of the same Empire as he.  Travel is broadening but never more delightful than when you encounter the familiar after weeks of feeling like an alien.

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Rick-Steves-Postcards-from-EuropeBack when I used to pretend to be cool (a ten-minute period back in 1997), I couldn’t imagine anything more embarrassing than using a guidebook while travelling.  If I’m honest, I still refuse to pull out guidebooks in public places and prefer to consult my maps in out of the way places where no local will dare offer to help me find my way.  Presumably this stems from the belief that if I don’t do these obviously touristy things, I will be mistaken for a local.  This has never worked outside of a select group of countries (the joy I feel when presented with a completely incomprehensible menu in Dutch or Czech is immense) but I persist in thinking it will.  But I am wandering off topic.  My point is that, while preferring to use them covertly, I love my travel guidebooks.  I study them religiously before going on trips, memorize the city maps they contain and any suggested travel itineraries, and, as a result, have a marvellous, stress-free time once I arrive at my destination, well-prepared to embark on my adventures.  And, though no guidebook is perfect or comprehends everything that you want to know, Rick Steves’ books are my favourites when it comes to planning my European holidays.  After years of reading his books and watching his travel shows on PBS, I knew much about Steves’ philosophies (for example, his passion for Travel as a Political Act) but very little about his background.  So, when I heard about Postcards from Europe by Rick Steves, first published in 1999, I picked it up eagerly.

The book follows Steves as he makes his way across Europe, meeting up with old friends, rediscovering favourite places, and marvelling about his luck at turning a love of travel into a full-time job.  Through the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France, he relates stories from his many years as a travel guide and from his own early adventures in Europe, first on a staid but eye-opening family holiday and then on the “Europe Through the Gutter” he and a friend took after graduating from high school.  It is a nostalgic journey, as Steves examines how he has changed over the years and what his influence has been on changing some of the places and people mentioned in his guidebooks.

For me, the best part of the book was learning more about Steves’ past.  How he came to love Europe and how he basically fell into the travel industry by giving talks (which turned into classes) to raise money for his upcoming European holidays.  The early years of the tour group business sound a little sketchy (stays in hostels and tents, rides on the top of the coach bus, torrid love affairs among clients, guides, and bus drivers, etc) – a particularly funny juxtaposition if you’ve ever come across a modern-day organized Rick Steves tour while travelling (average age seems to be mid-sixties, though that might be generous).  But maybe I am being overly censorious; perhaps the seniors are getting up to equally remarkable (and legally questionable) high jinks today.  I rather hope so, especially since they are of an age to have been some of Steves’ original clients back when he started conducting tours.

Every so often, there was an anecdote or joke that took me completely aback.  There was nothing crude or offensive, just a little racier or saltier than my PBS-sanitized mental image of Steves.  These were memorable stories (a young mid-Westerner’s encounter with a particularly enterprising female thief in Rome stands out in my mind) but left me shamefully embarrassed – for myself, not Steves.  It’s that same sort of shock as when you first hear your parents make a dirty joke.  It takes a while to recover and to realign your universe.

Amsterdam (2013)

Amsterdam (2013)

As usual, Steves make me long to go to the places he talks about in the book.  Most are old favourites – the Netherlands, the Rhine Valley, Munich, the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland, and, of course, Paris – but others I still long to visit.  His enthusiasm for Venice is infectious – even if I hadn’t already been longing to go, I’m sure reading this would have sent me running to the library for more books on that watery city.

Lauterbrunnen Valley (2014)

Lauterbrunnen Valley (2014)

Most of all, I appreciate how liberal he is with jokes about national stereotypes.  If there is one thing I love, it is sweeping generalizations about the characteristics of nations (think Letters from England or Switzerland for Beginners).  There are many particularly good zingers about Americans here (Steves is, after all, on a quest to broaden the minds of his fellow countrymen), one of my favourites being:   “Babies, ancient astronomers, and Americans think the universe revolves around them.”  But there is one joke, supposedly told to Steves by some Dutch friends, that I have joyously shared with all my friends and family and which comes at the expense of us otherwise adorable and inoffensive Canadians: “Canada could have had it all: British culture, French cuisine, American know-how…but they messed up and got British food, French know-how, and American culture.”  We are working hard on righting this, but how true!

Reading this was like, after years of admiring but never really knowing someone on the edge of your circle of friends, finally sitting down with them for a few hours and learning their life’s story.  It was an informative, fun, and more than a little surprising experience that, in this case, left me even fonder of Steves than I was before.

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The Politics of WashingMuch of my spare time – not that there is a lot of it right now – is spent thinking about Italy.  I’ve never been but I hope to remedy that next spring.  I want to see Florence and perhaps Rome and, most of all, Venice.  But, unlike Florence and Rome, there seems to be a scarce supply of books about Venice.  You can buy hundreds of memoirs of life in Tuscany but how many can you think of about Venice?  For that reason, I was so excited to come across The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles.

When Coles, an Englishwoman married to an Italian, moved to Venice with her family (she has four children), she already loved the city.  In this book, she chronicles the things she loves about Venice and also the things that bother her – which seems to be almost everything.

I can’t imagine Venice is an easy place to live, especially as an outsider.  Overwhelmed by tourists, Venetians aren’t exactly known for their warm welcomes.  And the city is a logistical nightmare to get around in when dry, nevermind when the waters rise.  But it is romantic, in its sad state of elegant decay, and Coles does do a good job of capturing that allure.  However, a true Venetian now, she is also very keen to keep that romance for the Venetians, jealous of all the tourists who she sees as destroying the city and its way of life.  Undoubtedly, modern tourism has had – and continues to have – a disastrous physical effect on Venice but Coles is equally worried about its effect on the Venetian people and their communities.  She talks about all of the native Venetians who have moved to the mainland, preferring to sell their Venetian homes or, more profitably, turn them into rentable properties for tourists.  Apartment buildings once full of families and locals are now overrun by an ever-changing array of tourists who roll in and out every week.  Coles is deeply frustrated by this and the impossibility of building a strongly knit local community under such circumstances.  It is an understandable position but a rather naively frustrating one.  Venice hasn’t exactly been a sleepy backwater for the last thousand or so years, only just discovered by modern tourists.  To hate that integral part of it seems to me to be a willful misunderstanding of its identity.

Already slightly put off by her general pessimism, Coles completely lost me – and often – when she began spouting aspiring-to-be-politically-correct, rather too deeply felt platitudes.  She becomes angst-ridden over the use of the formal pronoun “lei” rather than the familiar “tu” in her passing relationship with a young neighbourhood nanny:  “I hear the lei/tu distinction as an overt statement of hierarchy –of my elevated status in relation to Barbara.”  She treads a weird line between excessive tolerance and embarrassing romanticism when she talks about Venice’s gypsies: “These Rom children, whose language uses the same word to express both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ have a grip on time, a foothold in it, born of a social unity, and through that a historical continuity, of which I have no notion, to which I can only bear astonished witness.”  (I think we should all be deeply impressed that I made it past that passage.)  And she harbours dreams of a future tourist-free Venice “in which the city can become a place of artistic and artisanal excellence again and a cultural centre where people are able to live on a small, environmentally sustainable and creative scale”, a dream which rather ignores Venice’s history as a hub of commerce, culture, and, yes, tourism.  And do not get her started on the Italian school system and its quest to destroy her children’s spirits.  She is aghast that children are expected to be moulded by teachers rather than nurtured and indulged.

I think the most positive thing I can say about this book is that it has prepared me for the worst of Venice.  Perhaps that was the goal, to deter future tourists and promote Coles’ dream of a Venice for Venetians.  If so, it didn’t work on me and I still can’t wait to go.

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Switzerland for BeginnersIn just over a month, I will be back in Switzerland.  I’m only going to Europe for two weeks this year – fair enough after last year’s month-long vacation – but am spending the bulk of that in Switzerland and, more specifically, in the mountains.

I remember looking for books about Switzerland before I visited for the first time in 2012.  Aside from Heidi and travel guides, pickings were slim.  But I did hear about a book called, perfectly, Switzerland for Beginners by George Mikes.  I wasn’t able to track it down then but, thanks to the wonders of the inter-library loan system, I got my hands on it earlier this year and had fun giggling my way through this all too brief book.

Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders.  An early Bill Bryson, if you will.  His books are much quoted, especially his How to Be an Alien, which seeks to explain the English to foreigners: who hasn’t heard (and laughed at) “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles”?  But, until now, I had never read even one of his books.  Switzerland for Beginners was the perfect place to start.

The Swiss are not a race that excite much interest from the rest of the world.  They are not sexy or dangerous, they are not cruel or fascinating.  They are adorably, endearingly boring.  This is perhaps why there are so few books about them.  A few years ago, I read The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, a chronicle of the author’s travels to the happiest places on earth.  One of the happy places he visited was Switzerland, where the steady predictability of life was at the root of the population’s general happiness: “happiness,” Weiner concluded, “is boring.”  I kept thinking about that as I read this book.  Mikes’ book was published in 1962 and Weiner’s in 2007 but their observations are consistent.

Mikes has fun with his book.  His writings are based on his entirely subjective observations and the real charm of the book comes from how much of his personality is injected into it.  It is very much about how he feels , what he thinks, and how he experiences the country:

Whenever I go to Switzerland in the winter, my chief problem is how to avoid winter sports.  It is not an easy task.  Dangers lurk in every corner.  In November or so, the whole country is transformed into one vast – well, not so terribly vast – ski-run, and few of your kind and hospitable Swiss friends seem able to grasp that your main purpose in life is not to run down a mountain slope at fifty miles an hour as if you were a sixty-horse-power motor-car with faulty breaks.

He does not pretend any scientific approach to his observations.  Instead, he is just a man dropped into a foreign society, observing it with all the attendant prejudices (some put on for comedic effect) of the foreigner.  And one can’t argue with the amusing results:

The Swiss, indeed, are hard-working people and this devotion to work is one of their most repulsive virtues.  Altogether, it is the virtues of the Swiss which I find a bit hard to bear.  Coming from England, I regard work as some sort of nuisance you must pretend to be engaged in between cups of tea.  But the Swiss take work seriously: start early, finish late, and are even proud of it.  They are paid for it handsomely – more handsomely than the English – and their old-fashioned idea is that they ought to play fair.  The employer is not simply the chap you organize strikes against: he must pay, to be sure, and pay a lot, but he must also receive value for his money.  This attitude is, of course, quite outmoded in the second half of the twentieth century.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Oh Switzerland, I miss you.

Mikes speaks fondly of the Swiss: of their deeply ingrained but benignly-expressed regional prejudices, of their devotion to hospitality, of their careful money habits and insistence on quality…in short, of all the wonderfully undramatic things that make the Swiss so endearing.  And, as a bonus, there is a final, perfect essay – one that proved, to the author’s delight, to be controversial for a brief period after its publication – about the too-often neglected principality of Liechtenstein.  The book is all too brief – not even a hundred pages with illustrations included – but there is something to amuse on every one of those pages.  And I certainly feel more prepared for my trip back next month!

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The Seasons of RomeThere are places in the world that I have no particular longing to visit but which I love to read about.  Rome is one of those places.  For all the other cities and regions in Italy that I long to visit, Rome does not entice me.  Milan, yes.  Venice, absolutely.  Rome, not so much.  But I love reading about the city and so turned the pages of The Seasons of Rome by Paul Hofmann with delight.

Austrian by birth, Hofmann (who died in 2008) spent decades living and working in Rome.  By the time The Seasons of Rome was published in 1997, he had lived in the city for more than 30 years (including during the war) and the book reflects both his first-hand and his learned knowledge of the capital’s history.  In these short journal-style entries, he is able to examine a year in modern Rome and see in it the echoes of its classical heritage as well as the more recent past.

It is recognizably the work of a journalist.  Hofmann was chief of the New York Times bureau in Rome for many years and his writing is factual and understated.  He uses the first person but without gushing and emoting in the manner of many current columnists.  Essentially, he reports.

I was fascinated by the city’s never-ending appetite for papal gossip.  Neighbours gossip about the pope’s health constantly, with everyone seemingly having some connection, however tenuous, inside the papal state to provide private info.  In turn, the gossips then gossip about their sources.  One of Hofmann’s neighbours gets her (unerringly correct and days ahead of official new sources) updates on Pope John Paul  II’s ailments through the sister of her daughter-in-law:

She is an unmarried woman in her thirties who ten years ago was hired as a computer operator by an administrative office in the pontifical state; meanwhile she appears to have risen to a quasi-executive position under the supervision of a high prelate. ..I remember her as a chubbily attractive, fashionably dressed blonde.  Later I was told she lives in a nice apartment in a church-owned building not far from the Vatican, has a Filipina maid, and in August every year spends her vacations in Switzerland.  Inevitably there is talk that she has a clerical friend. 

Innocent that I am, I was a little shocked by the idea of a “clerical friend”.  But then I am rather surprised by the mention of modern-day mistresses in any context.  If you trust what you read by Italian and Irish authors, a mistress seems to be an absolutely essential accessory even for modest businessmen in Catholic countries.

Hofmann loves Rome and made his home there for many years but is far from blind to its faults.  What was most fascinating for me were the pieces (and they are many) which discuss the difficulties of Roman life: the mail lady who comes maybe two or three times a week (as opposed to the promised 9 times); the disruptive and never-ending strikes by unions and students; the nepotism and cronyism among politicians; the pervasive influence of the mob; the racism experienced by Asian and African immigrants…the list goes on.  But he is not negative, just truthful.  There is never any doubt that Rome is a city he loves and through his eyes even I could see its appeal.

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A Time of GiftsAfter countless starts and stops, 2013 was the year I finally read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor from start to finish.  On previous attempts, I’d made it up to PLF’s arrival in Vienna  – yes, attempts plural.  This book and I have a bizarrely long history of me starting it, loving every single word, falling completely in love with PLF, and then, for a variety of reasons, having to abandon it before reaching then end.  But not so this year!  I have triumphed and discovered that the second half of the book is just as wonderful, if not better, than the first.

In 1933, when Patrick Leigh Fermor was eighteen years old, he set off of the first of what would be a lifetime of travel adventures, wanting to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul).  The story of this journey spans three books (A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and, just published this year, The Broken Road), with the first detailing PLF’s experiences from Holland to Hungary.  For me, this book is not just a beautiful example of travel writing but also a reminder of places I know and love, though they have changed in many ways since the days when PLF saw them as a young man.

I am, I am sure it will surprise none of you to hear, a romantic at heart.  Sometimes my romanticism is cloaked in stubborn practicality but it is nonetheless there, the legacy of romantic Mitteleuropean ancestors whose most romantic exploits became family lore.  At eighteen, indeed even now at almost twenty-eight, I can think of nothing more alluring than setting out as PLF did to travel on foot across Europe.  But it is much better that he was the traveller and I merely his audience since a) he writes so beautifully about his journeys, and b) I suspect modern Europe would be significantly less hospitable to a penniless traveller, however charming a guest he/she might be.

PLF outlines his background in a delightful introductory letter but what it comes down to is this: by eighteen, he had been thrown out of schools both conventional and experimental, had toyed with joining the army, and finally had found himself living among a set of older friends in London whose means far outweighed his own.   At this point, dependent on an allowance provided by his father in India, PLF decided to begin his journey, presumably on the basis that it is less depressing to be poor and travelling than poor and staying put.

It is an overwhelming thing, to set out on foot across Europe.  For all the people PLF met along the way, a large portion of his time was spent along and I loved reading his descriptions of those periods.  I especially enjoyed the image of him entertaining himself on these solitary marches:

Song is universal in Germany; it causes no dismay; Shuffle off to Buffalo; Bye, Bye, Blackbird; or Shenandoah; or The Raggle Taggle Gypsies sung as I moved along, evoked nothing but tolerant smiles.  But verse was different.  Murmuring on the highway caused raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity.  Passages, uttered with gestures and sometimes quite loud, provoked, if one was caught in the act, stares of alarm.  Regulus brushing the delaying populace aside as he headed for the Carthaginian executioner, as though to Lacedaemonian Tarentum or the Venafrian fields, called for a fairly mild flourish; but urging the assault-party at Harfleur to close the wall up with English dead would automatically bring on a heightened pitch of voice and action and double one’s embarrassment if caught.  When this happened I would try to taper off in a cough or weave the words into a tuneless hum and reduce all gestures to a feint at hair-tidying.  But some passages demand an empty road as far as the eye can see before letting fly.  The terrible boxing-match, for instance, at the funeral games of Anchises when Entellus sends Dares reeling and spitting blood and teeth across the Sicilian shore – ‘ore ejectantem mixtosque in sanguine dentes’! – and then, with his thronged fist, scatters a steer’s brains with one blow between the horns – this needs care.  As for the sword-thrust at the bridge-head that brings the great lord of Luna crashing among the augurs like an oak-tree on Mont Alvernus – here the shouts, the walking-stick slashes, the staggering gait and the arms upflung should never be indulged if there is anyone within miles, if then.  To a strange eye, one is drunk or lunatic.

How wonderful to have had such an education and such a memory!  I will sing or recite things to myself on long walks (you can only go so many hours in silence) but my repertoire is sadly pedestrian compared to PLF’s.

As PLF journeys on, he is buoyed along by chance encounters and charmed introductions.  He finds himself holed up for a couple of nights with two teenage students, Annie and Lise, in an adult-less apartment in Stuttgart (surely every teen boy’s fantasy?) before moving on to even more enchanted digs, as letters of introduction furnished by a contact in Munich help him to find shelter along his route in charming schlosses with minor aristocrats:

The word “schloss” means any degree of variation between a fortified castle and a baroque palace.  This one was a fair sized manor-house.  I had felt shy as I ploughed through the snow of the long avenue late that afternoon; quite baselessly.  To go by the solicitude of the trio at the stove-side in the drawing room – the old Count and his wife and their daughter-in-law – I might, once again, have been a schoolboy asked out for a treat, or, better still, a polar explorer on the brink of expiring.  “You must be famished after all that walking!” the younger Gräfin said, as a huge tea appeared: she was a beautiful, dark-haired Hungarian and she spoke excellent English.  “Yes,” said the elder, with an anxious smile.  “We’ve been told to feed you up!”  Her husband radiated silent benevolence as yet another silver dish appeared.  I spread a third hot croissant with butter and honey and inwardly blessed my benefactor in Munich.

As PLF notes, “there is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster, and then back again.”  The contrast is no doubt good for the soul but it is the providers of the four-poster beds who supply PLF with a truly extraordinary education, giving him access to their libraries and engaging him in intelligent and absorbing discussions on all manner of subjects.  PLF recalls fondly the civilizing affect of one of his most extraordinary hosts:

Yet, without any effort, he exerted an emancipating and de-barbarizing influence similar to the mood that radiates from a few exceptionally gifted dons: liberators, that is, whose tact, insight, humour and originality clear the air and store it with a new oxygen.  He resembled a much-travelled Whig aristocrat – a friend of Voltaire and Diderot, perhaps – who, after enjoying and exhausting the intrigues and frivolities of half a dozen European courts, had retired to his books in some remote and well wooded shire.

Can you imagine?

It is impossible to read this book without feeling some (or, in my case, immense) nostalgia for the Europe PLF travelled in but which had vanished completely by the end of the war.  I am not sure that the loss is entirely a bad thing but I am so happy that here we have a record of what now seems like an enchanted journey through an enchanted and very long-ago land.

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