A history lesson on The Broken Road


Considering that my degree is in History, I have a disgraceful lack of knowledge of the history of south-eastern Europe. Worse still, I’ve only realised it in the last couple of weeks.

I’m approaching the end of The Broken Road, the final part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy of his walk across Europe to Constantinople in 1933-4. (There are previous blog entries about the first in the trilogy, A Time of Gifts.) The Broken Road covers time travelling through Bulgaria and southern Romania and follows the account of time spent in Hungary and Romania in the second book, Between the Woods and the Water.

Historians are notorious for saying that something isn’t their period, but a lesser-known fact is that Historians have their countries too. For instance, I’ve “done” northern Europe and can wax lyrical on the Swedish empire with particular reference to Gustavus Adolphus and his military campaigns in what is now Russia. I extend to Spain, through France, the Netherlands and Prussia. I’ve heard of Jan Sobieski and I can manage parts of Russian history, but this is northern Europe, not the areas further south, bordering the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

What shines through in Mr Leigh Fermor’s writing is a far more complex history than I had any idea of, with a fiendish web of ethnicities. But two points have struck me in particular.

The first is that the history I’ve been involved in had a western-European focus. At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, countries generally formed alliances with, and went to war against, their neighbours, until the mid-nineteenth century. (I know that the Crusades are an exception and the American War of Independence too, but the Crusades are indeed an exception and let’s keep colonies out of this particular equation.) South-eastern European countries weren’t neighbours of western European countries and the result seems to have been that their history fell off my map. The result is that there are all sorts of characters, issues, invasions, battles and alliances that I’d never heard of.

The second point is very closely linked to the first. For centuries, a dominating factor in south-eastern Europe was the challenge of the Ottomans. I was aware that the Ottomans had reached – and besieged – Vienna in 1683 and victory over the Ottoman army (cue reference to Jan Sobieski) had marked a turning point in the Ottoman threat. But I hadn’t realised the profound impact that Ottoman incursions and occupation had on south-eastern Europe over such a long period.

I started reading The Broken Road because I was fascinated by Mr Leigh Fermor’s journey and wanted to see how it would end. I hadn’t realised that I’d be receiving a History lesson in the process.