Rather than going to University in 1933, aspiring writer Paddy Leigh Fermor set out instead on his ‘great trudge’ to walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. In the spring of 1935 in Athens and twenty years old, he met the beautiful Princess Balasha Cantacuzène, fifteen years older than him, at a drinks party. Immediately after their meeting they set off together to Princess Balasha’s Watermill in Lemonodassos, Northern Greece. ‘Here their relationship flourished’, author Alan Ogden revealed, in a romance between a penniless young Paddy on his travels and a Romanian princess, whose illustrious antecedents could be traced back to the fourteenth century.
Princess Balasha had a charmed childhood, educated by British governesses and a finishing school in Brighton. In June 1920 she was presented at the British Royal Court by the Spanish Ambassador. Two years later she married Paco, a Spanish diplomat serving in Bucharest and travelled with him on his various postings. However, by 1932 the marriage had collapsed – Paco had fallen in love with the wife of a British diplomat. Princess Balasha’s marriage had just been annulled when she met Paddy – and her poetry and painting provided an ideal match for the ‘exuberant and youthful Paddy’. In a letter to her in 1965, Paddy said, ‘it was really the beginning of life for me and changed everything.’
After Greece, he returned with Balasha to Romania and the family estate – Baleni. For the next few years they became inseparable in the midst of her family and wider cultural circle, which included violinist George Enescu, for example, who tutored Yehudi Menuhin. It was an experience of charm, intelligence, humour and fun for the youthful Paddy, interspersed with travel with Balassa – the Danube Delta in the Spring of 1936, followed by Bessarabia in the summer – always returning to Baleni after their travels.
News of the war in September 1939 ‘scattered this little society forever’ and Paddy returned to the UK to enlist. In October 1940 the Russians invaded and there was silence for six years. In the intervening period Paddy had become a Lieut. Colonel in the Intelligence Corp with a distinguished and heroic war record. He had also met and married the second love of his life – Joan.
Balassa’s attempt to escape to Turkey with her sister resulted in arrest, followed by imprisonment. In 1949, communist activists forced a sign-over of the family estate and lands. They were given fifteen minutes to pack a suitcase each before being transported in a lorry to the railway station. Their journey in cattle trucks finished in internal exile on the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains and employment in the refuse service. Balassa continued to paint.
Paddy, undercover as a travel journalist, was re-united with Balassa and her sister in 1965 – twenty six years after they had parted. Paddy said the meeting was both ‘marvellous’ and ‘sad’. Balassa, in much reduced circumstances, had retained her joyfulness and sense of humour.
They remained in close touch until her death in March 1976 with her sister by her side. In her last letter to a friend, Balassa wrote, ‘We were coming back by moonlight to the mill. Paddy had gone on in front and I could hear him singing lustily ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies Oh!’ among the Lemon groves. I had lagged on behind and sat on a little stone. I felt at that moment that I had never been happier than before and would never be happier – bless his heart.’
Ogden illustrated this touching story of love, loss and friendship with evocative photographs of the people and places. However his talk dwelt too long on a dry exposition of Princess Balassa’s genealogy. This detracted from the more human story promised in the title of his book. ‘The Vagabond and the Princess: Patrick Leigh Fermor in Romania’ (2018) is published by Nine Elms Books.