14) Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Two brilliant, brilliant books of travel writing: the first describes Leigh Fermor's journey on foot through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in the winter and spring of 1933 and 1934; the second takes him on through Hungary and Romania. They were written respectively forty and fifty years after the events described; the second volume ends with the promise "to be concluded", but it seems now unlikely that Leigh Fermor himself will finalise the account of his journey to Constantinople. (He is 92.)
The two books struck me slightly differently. I know the territory of the first one much better - as a teenager I explored Cologne, had an exchange with a family near Wiesbaden, went on a student visit to Heidelberg, and worked for a few months near Heilbronn, plus occasional explorations of Austria and business visits to Vienna, Prague and Bratislava in more recent years. In the second book the only place I have in common with him is Budapest (plus the two towns of Estergom and Szentendre to its north), though he does gaze from across the Danube at the fortress of Golubac, where the photograph I use for my standard user icon was taken.
Also over the course of the narrative, the style of Leigh Fermor's journey shifts - really from about two-thirds of the way through A Time of Gifts, when he finds the knack of staying with local nobility rather than dossing down in barns or police cells, which gives him a much more diverse though frankly aristocratic insight into his surroundings. This is particularly true in the Slovakian and Transylvanian passages, where he tends to end up talking to ethnic Hungarians or members of the other formerly privileged minorities, coming to terms with the new order. Another theme is the gathering historical storm, signalled by his passage through freshly-Nazified Germany and subsequent news bulletins as the situation worsens. He describes cities like Rotterdam and Ulm which would be flattened within a decade.
But there's a sense of maturing as well: the eighteen-year-old fleeing a succession of personal failures in England becomes a keen absorber of local lore and (discreetly described) a lover of local women as he travels. The passage of decades allows Leigh Fermor to poke fun at his younger self occasionally, but also to overlay the narrative with what he has learned since, including occasional updates on what has happened to the principal characters in the story. Much, of course, has changed, and the very last chapter mourns the submerging of much of the Danube valley as a result of the building of the Iron Gates Dam.
Anyway, these are both very highly recommended.