Seasonal stories by five celebrated travellers
PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR, 1933, Germany

In the year Hitler came to power, Patrick Leigh Fermor walked through Germany on his way to Constantinople. He spent Christmas at Bingen in the Rhineland

The only customer, I unslung my rucksack in a little Gasthof. Standing on chairs, the innkeeper's pretty daughters, who were aged from five to 15, were helping their father decorate a Christmas tree; hanging witch balls, looping tinsel, fixing candles to the branches, and crowning the tip with a wonderful star. They asked me to help and when it was almost done, their father, a tall, thoughtful looking man, uncorked a slim bottle from the Rudesheim vineyard just over the river. We drank it together and had nearly finished a second by the time the last touches to the tree were complete. Then the family assembled round it and sang. The candles were the only light and the solemn and charming ceremony was made memorable by the candlelit faces of the girls and by their beautiful and clear voices. I was rather surprised that they didn't sing "Stille Nacht": it had been much in the air the last few days; but it is a Lutheran hymn and I think this bank of the Rhine was mostly Catholic. Two of the carols they sang have stuck in my memory: "O Du Heilige" and "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen": both were entrancing, and especially the second, which, they told me, was very old. In the end I went to church with them and stayed the night. When all the inhabitants of Bingen were exchanging greetings with each other outside the church in the small hours, a few flakes began falling. Next morning the household embraced each other, shook hands again and wished everyone a happy Christmas. The smallest of the daughters gave me a tangerine and a packet of cigarettes wrapped beautifully in tinsel and silver paper. I wished I'd had something to hand her, neatly done up in a hollypatterned ribbon - I thought later of my aluminium pencil case containing a new Venus or Royal Sovereign wound in tissue paper, but too late.

From `A Time of Gifts' by Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Murray

LAURIE LEE,1953, Spain

Laurie Lee lived in Spain during the Civil War. He returned 15 years later and spent the winter travelling through Andalusia, with Christmas in Granada.

Christmas morning; the streets empty, chastened and full of crumpled cymbals. So we went up into the Palace of the Alhambra, into the fresh gold air under the crimson roofs, to walk among the courts and fountains, to stroke the plump lemons and watch the fish. This was the first time we had been into the Palace, and one's immediate impression was surprise at its smallness. Here was none of the official bombast of Versailles and Blenheim, designed to impress by sheer weight of masonry. Instead a series of perfect little rooms, like tiny pavilions, draped themselves on slender pillars round courts of orange trees and water. Everything was open to the air, with fretted windows and pierced, arcaded walls framing green gardens and the distant hills. All was tender, feminine and intimately sensual. For the men who built the Alhambra were supreme miniaturists, scaling their work to set off a handsome, small boned people, and preferring the epigram and the lyric poem to all forms of rhetoric and inflation.

It was a new dimension in architecture - or rather an old forgotten one. It grew like a flower on its many levelled hill. The delicate pillars, reflected in the pools, shivered like the stalks of lilies; the cloistered fountains trickled on leaves and lions; and the small gold rooms gathered across their walls a quivering light of snow and water, asking only for a group of cloaked ambassadors or trousered girls to furnish them completely. This was the home of pastoral kings, of poet shepherds raised to glory, and looking upon its ornate surfaces one found no fault in it - only a profusion of exotic fancy controlled by absolute self confidence and taste.

ln the Palace gardens we ate a Christmas lunch of bread and raisins, and then, in the afternoon, followed a great crowd under a threatening sky to see another bull fight. This was a special show designed to celebrate the first day of the Pascua. Six young Granadinos, nominated by their various supporters, had been voted into the ring to fight six young bulls as green in years and mixed in courage as they were.

We climbed to the wide concrete seats high above the arena and shared a cask of wine with a family from Alpujarra. The bull ring was crowded to the sky, the black clouds rolled down from the mountains, the air darkened, and the young toreros, in their tight suits, looked waxen and frightened.

The spectacle that now began was in many ways a repetition of the one we had seen in Seville. There was the same drawn intensity on the faces of the boys, the same brash courage alternating with bouts of hysterical panic, the same uneven, confused and often vicious bulls. It was their very youth that made them so dangerous. They came trotting in, their tasselled tails held high, cast puzzled eyes around the crowd, caught sight of some wavering challenge in the ring and charged or retreated according to their mettle. Then, with as much grace and style as the boy could muster, he would step forward and run the bull close to his body. Often, at this early stage, the bull's innocence made him charge the cape every time, and if the boy was lucky the passes were straight and clean, the bull's rushes shorter and tighter. This, like a successful dribble at football, was what the crowd had come to see, and its effect on them was like a shared orgasm, so that they shouted together "Ole!" in one great voice, a loud excited noise to be heard all over the city.

It was in the later stages of the combat that the boys showed their inexperience, when the bull grew more difficult to handle, when the barbs of the bandilleros had torn his shoulders and he had grown angry and dismayed. Then he would stand alone in the middle of the ring, bellowing and dripping blood, or would wander miserably into a corner trying to escape. Only the best of bull fighters could make anything of that situation, could lead the bull back into the fight and finish him cleanly. A less assured torero - like most of those we saw that afternoon - would run after the retreating bull with a kind of bitter sickness on his face, hating the whole thing; would wave his arms, and shout and caper, and sooner or later, in his frantic misery, get well tossed for his pains.

Everybody got tossed that afternoon, and some several times. There was one poor fellow named Angelito, a blond boy with large ears, who soon lost all control of his bull and was thrown round the ring like a shuttlecock. The crowd was much amused by this, especially our neighbour from Alpujarra, who rolled in the aisles with delight.

From `A Rose for Winter' by Laurie Lee, Hogarth Press

P J O'ROURKE, 1985, El Salvador

As a foreign correspondent P J O'Rourke found himself in El Salvador over Christmas. He had arrived full of preconceptions

On Christmas Eve, real havoc broke loose. From the balcony of my room at the Sheraton, I could see the entire city. There were powder flashes and staccato bursts in every neighbourhood. Rockets whistled. Huge explosions illuminated the surrounding hills. A dozen blasts came inside the hotel compound itself. Bits of debris flew past my head. The brazen face of war? No, firecrackers.

Everybody in Latin America likes to set off firecrackers on Christmas Eve, but nobody likes it more than the Salvadorans. They have everything - cherry bombs, M80s, defingering little strings of one-inchers and items of ordnance that can turn a 55-gallon oil drum into a steel hula skirt. The largest have a warning printed on them, that they shouldn't be lit by drunks. I am no stranger to loud noise. I've been to a Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels concert. I once dated a woman with two kids. But at midnight on Christmas Eve - with the windows shut, the air conditioner on, the TV turned up and the bathroom door closed - I couldn't hear myself sing "Wild Colonial Boy" in the shower. On Christmas Day I saw people raking their yards, gathering mounds of spent grey firecrackers as large as autumn leaf piles.

You'd think after six years of civil war and 464 years of civil unrest, more explosions would be the last thing the Salvadorans would want. Or, maybe, the thing they want most.

From `Holidays in Hell' by P J O'Rourke Picador (pounds 5.99)

ERIC NEWBY, 1963, India

With his wife Wanda, Eric Newby followed the Ganges from Hardwar to the Bay of Bengal. Christmas was at Kanpur in Orissa

In contrast to the chilliness displayed by our compatriots was Christmas dinner with Mr William, his wife Mary and the rest of the Noronha family. It was preceded by quantities of drink to which we had grown unaccustomed. Afterwards we lay about listlessly among stuffed tigers and other trophies of the chase shot by Mr William who, in spite of advancing years and increasing deafness, was a noted and passionate hunter, ourselves feeling rather like things that had just been returned from the taxidermist.

Later we attempted to telephone our children in England. As a conversation it was not a success. Neither of the parties could hear a word that the other was saying, but the operator at Kanpur who had been roused by our bellowings came to our aid and passed on small snippets of information.

"Now they are saying that it is snowing... Now that they are receiving many letters but they are not reading them because they are not able to do so. Please write more distinctly..." and so on.

In the evening we went to the cinema. The film was a gruesome musical comedy set amongst almond blossom in Kashmir. Soon we were fast asleep. It had been a long day.

It had begun at midnight on Christmas Eve with Mass at the Roman Catholic Church in the Cantonment. When we arrived the service had already been in full blast for half an hour and when we left at one in the morning the congregation, which by this time was asleep on its feet, was still being harangued by the Indian priest who showed no signs of coming to an end of his peroration. Even Wanda was impressed. "They would not stand for that in my country," she said. "Many would not stand at all."

"Why?" I said. I was not really interested. By this time I was a bit fed up with her church. Everything in it seemed to go on for such a long time, and here both the preliminary addresses and the sermon had been given in Hindi and English.

"They would not be able to. They would be drunk."

At 11 o'clock on Christmas Day we went to "my" church. I had insisted on Wanda coming too, principally to have my own back on her for what she had inflicted on me.

The Memorial Church at Kanpur was nothing like the Memorial Church at Fatehgarh. There was nothing dilapidated about it. Everything had the appearance of being constantly polished and burnished, from the varnished pews to the brass plaque in memory of General Sir Mowbray Thompson, KCIE, late of the 53rd Native Infantry, the last survivor of the Massacre, who died in 1917.

The congregation consisted of some 20 of the British Colony and a number of Anglo Indians who made brave efforts to look their best; but although we sang lustily and smiled benignly when we thought anyone was looking in our direction, it was no passport to the British colony and although, as the bank official had told Wanda previously when he cashed her cheque, everyone knew who we were and where we had come from, we walked out of the church without anyone saying a word to us.

"If they behaved like this with the Indians, then they deserved to be massacred," Wanda said.

From `Slowly down the Ganges' by Eric Newby HarperCollins

Sheila Paine, 1990, Pakistan Sheila Paine travelled through the Hindu Kush in search of an embroidered amulet. Initially denied access to the closed-off Makran territory, she joined an Italian Archeological Mission that had been granted permission to study there over the winter

No chance of any wine, I suppose, JM?" "Wine? No. No wine. Whisky. Black Dog."

"Not for Christmas. What about cognac?"

"What's that?"

"Brandy."

"Write it down."

I wrote "Cognac Grande Fine Napoleon" and drew a few stars.

JM returned, flushed with success, a newspaper packet under his arm. "Cognac Napoleon. Made in France," the label said and the screw top didn't appear to have been tampered with, though the cognac didn't taste quite right. We had it with almonds the boys had cracked with stones on the verandah of Circuit House.

Rashly I had offered to produce a Christmas dinner and ferreted around the bazaar to see what there was to buy. It wasn't promising. Some fruit and a few vegetables and nuts were available but the grocers had only tea, sugar, baby milk, washing powder, eggs, rice, flour lentils, spices, coconut oil, small cartons of milk, tinned peas, biscuits and absolutely nothing else. Gul Mohammed could produce a chicken. There were the dates that Ugo had left behind and Zobaida had given us one of the cherry cakes from Karachi. I whipped round to see what the others had brought with them from home, what they had thought essential in this wild outpost. Sheila contributed Marmite and a tape of carols; the boys had celery salt, Sasso olive oil, black cherry jam, Elli coffee and some spaghetti they wouldn't part with. Kholiq had procured a packet of Kraft processed cheese. "And" said Sheila "you have to be very careful. Even with the rubbish they have to put up with here these Italians can be very fussy when it comes to something European. They won't eat things like ready-grated Parmesan. You should have heard Ugo. Parmeggiano? Gia preparato? Impossible. Non mangio."

We hung tinsel stars bought at the marriage shop on a branch of tamarisk, so that we had a Christmas tree, and made little trees to eat, cut out of green halwa. In honour of the Italians we ate on Christmas Eve.

The boys had kept their spaghetti to serve us for Christmas Day lunch. Enough for five, they said, but there were to be 10 of us. Genoveffa had invited sone Gichkis and hadn't told Gianni, who was having a fit in the kitchen when Captain Khalid arrived with three bottles of Smugglers. "This is our national dish," said Genoveffa proudly, indicating the spaghetti. She had not only omitted to tell anybody about the extra guests she had invited but had also done nothing about the meal.

From `The Afghan Amulet' by Sheila Paine Penguin (pounds 6.99)

Comments