I am leisurely reading through Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful posthumously-published A Broken Road. By early autumn 1934, the nineteen-year old had hiked as far as Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where he lingered in good company. From there, he pushed north, across the “Valley of the Roses,” up into the Shipka Pass through the Stara Planina range, and down the other side to Gabrovo and then Turnovo. With a pound note in his pocket, the youth anticipated a £5 replenishment awaiting him at the post office of the latter city.
Fermor stopped at the Shipka Monastery—home to a grandiose, if a bit garish Russian-built church. He listened to the stories spun by the White Russian refugees residing there, wistfully yearning for the Romanov restoration that never was to come. A melancholy mood enveloped Paddy as he pushed on alone from Shipka. Few carts were on the road, and no farmsteads were in view. The darkening shadows of night were approaching, and a biting wind whistled through the pass. To top it all off, a nail had worked its way through the sole of his boot, bloodying his toe and making each step a painful endeavor.
A cart with two elderly men pulled alongside Fermor. He waved them to stop and explained his predicament in halting Bulgaria. The grinning driver made the universal symbol of avarice—rubbing his thumb and forefinger together—and asked him how much money he had on him. The youth, thinking this a jest, responded with an incredible figure and then made an effort to alight the cart. He was astonished when the driver prevented his entry, then cracked his whip and disappeared into the darkness ahead. A similar scenario played out with the next cart that drew alongside Fermor. The young adventurer was astonished. Never in his hike across Europe had he encountered such inhospitality.
A few miles farther on, Fermor spied a farmhouse near the road, with a small light inside. He went to the door and knocked, explaining his situation to those inside. His plea went unanswered, except for muffled whispering behind the door, followed by the blowing-out of the lamp. Dejected, Paddy limped on down the road, swearing at his fate, “blinded with tears of fury and frustration.” He wondered “what passion of xenophobia, predatoriness or timidity lurked in this horrible mountain range?” His fortunes, however, soon took a turn.
After an hour’s tormenting crawl through the windy moonlight, I spied a gleam of light in a wide hollow to the left of the road. The wind dropped as my track, sinking below the trajectory of its flight, dipped into a quiet dell full of beech trees. At the end, on the edge of the spinney, tall dark pyres smouldered and an aromatic tang of woodsmoke hung in the air. Light radiated from the doorway of a hut. It was cleverly woven of branches, a leafy cave, and inside it, three satanic figures, their rags showing a dusty black by the light of an oil dip, were sitting cross-legged on a carpet of leaves and playing cards with an upturned sieve for a table. They were charcoal burners. How different was the welcome here! All three leapt up, led me to a place in their midst, helped me off with my blood-filled boot, washed the damaged foot with slivovitz and wrapped it in a clean handkerchief, then plied me with slivo for internal use and then with bread and cheese. Finally, after commiserating over my reverses, they made me a leaf-bed of freshly cut branches and bade me goodnight, as they rolled over to sleep.
Fermor watched during the night, as his benefactors would check on their pyres, stoking and then damping down “their three great smoldering cones.” In the morning, one of the men cleverly managed to hammer down the offending nail in the boot sole. The three men quickly went about their work, cutting and trimming trees before adding them to the charcoal-producing pyres. As the charcoal burners scrambled up and down the pyres, poking the fires, Fermor noted that his “black benefactors bore the aspect of stokers in hell.” After a while, Fermor waved goodbye to his Samaritans and climbed back up to the road, “and after a long way of unwinding downhill, reached Gabrovo.”
Of these lowly charcoal burners, I would say that of such is the citizenship of Heaven.