Gone for a walk in Greece

Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor’s spirit sur­vives in the south­ern Pelo­pon­nese

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - I AN ROBERT SMITH

‘‘YOU had bet­ter look out if you are go­ing up to Anavriti.’’ The fa­mil­iar words sound won­der­ful when spo­ken aloud in this cav­ernous, haunted and as yet sun­less gorge. I re­peat them, savour­ing their pow­er­ful en­ergy.

Sud­denly, I pic­ture the streets of ‘‘roast­ing Sparta’’ and the Greek bar­ber who, en­cour­aged by his colour­ful cus­tomers, is­sued the warn­ing as he clipped the dusty hair of a man now re­garded as one of the world’s finest travel writers.

The bar­ber’s words sub­se­quently pro­vided the open­ing salvo of what many be­lieve is the best book in English about Greece.

Pub­lished in 1958, Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor’s Mani: Trav­els in the South­ern Pelo­pon­nese is a dense, eru­dite and hugely en­ter­tain­ing ac­count of the au­thor’s pere­gri­na­tions in a re­gion that, at the time, was re­mote, un­tamed and sin­gu­larly ar­chaic. Mani is also, more broadly, an af­fec­tion­ate por­trait of a ru­ral Greece where cen­turies-old cus­toms were fast dis­ap­pear­ing — ‘‘ham­mered to powder . . . be­tween the butt of a Coca-Cola bot­tle and the Iron Cur­tain’’ — and for which to­day’s trav­eller hunts in vain.

I, too, am go­ing up to Anavriti. And like Leigh Fer­mor when he came this way with his part­ner (later wife) Joan in the mid-1950s, I in­tend to use the vil­lage, perched on a spur of the Tayge­tos range, as a step­ping stone into the Mani.

A bat­tered copy of Leigh Fer­mor’s book re­sides in the top flap of my ruck­sack, both tal­is­man and inspiration. Hand­ily within reach in the side pocket is the Anavasi map of the re­gion. Its bun­dled con­tours, crossed by the black-dot­ted lines of foot­paths, re­flect the mo­men­tous re­gions that await over­head.

Rich in myth and his­tory, the Tayge­tos dom­i­nates the Spartan plain over which it looms like an im­pen­e­tra­ble bar­rier. The north­ern foothills rise in the wilds of Ar­ca­dia. They shoot up­wards into a vast, ser­rated ridge that cul­mi­nates in the peak of Mt Profi­tis Ilias — at 2407m, the high­est point in the Pelo­pon­nese — be­fore drop­ping away through the Mani Penin­sula.

Foothills clad in oak, horn­beam and black pine and daubed with vil­lages but­tress the east­ern slopes. But the west is wild. An­cient gorges pro­vide means of egress into this plan­e­tary world.

Some say this gorge is where the an­cient Spar­tans left un­wanted chil­dren to die. The rum­ble of plung­ing wa­ter re­sounds along its length.

In a large cave, a fres­coed chapel, painted ox-blood red, crouches among icons and vases of the white Madonna lilies that grow wild on the slopes. Climb­ing fur­ther, past a sud­den and ter­ri­fy­ing drop, a cu­ri­ous sound wafts to­wards me; in­co­her­ent ini­tially, it de­vel­ops into an ethe­real chant­ing that, echo­ing off the cliffs, sounds strange and beau­ti­ful in this wilder­ness. Be­wil­der­ment turns to rapt ap­pre­ci­a­tion as I recog­nise the monks at Faneromeni Monastery, high above, con­duct­ing a Sun­day morn­ing ser­vice.

Be­yond the monastery and a cou­ple of an­tique thresh­ing floors, Anavriti ap­pears. Dwarfed by the glit­ter­ing and snow-streaked Tayge­tos, sev­eral bel­fries and a clus­ter of stone houses adorn a hill­side plumed with wal­nut, plane and cherry trees.

Not so long ago Anavriti had a thriv­ing tan­ning and leather­goods in­dus­try and a pop­u­la­tion of sev­eral thou­sand. Nowa­days, like most moun­tain vil­lages in Greece, it is barely in­hab­ited.

I am­ble along the main street, seek­ing wide bal­conies reached ‘‘by boxed-in stair­cases on wooden stilts’’. In one such ed­i­fice, Leigh Fer­mor and Joan spent the night. Some­thing sim­i­lar faces a soli­tary tav­erna. Light-headed at find­ing my­self in Anavriti at last, I lunch on spaghetti with rooster and abun­dant rose wine and, as a jovial crowd ma­te­ri­alises, ob­serve clouds thick­en­ing around the moun­tain­tops. The tav­erna owner shrugs when I in­quire what they por­tend, then asks, un­help­fully, whether I have a rain­coat, be­fore ad­vis­ing: ‘‘Go to­wards the good.’’

This I at­tempt, only to be­come drenched, then un­pleas­antly steamed when the sun reap­pears, con­jur­ing won­drous aro­mas from the glis­ten­ing earth. The ex­pe­ri­ence is chas­ten­ing and, toil­ing up­wards through fir for­est, I con­clude that fol­low­ing in the In­evitably the name of Leigh Fer­mor comes up. We are speak­ing of the blood feuds in Mani when the woman says abruptly: ‘ ‘ We’ve heard the fu­neral is on Thurs­day.’’

See­ing my un­com­pre­hend­ing look, she adds, ‘‘You didn’t know? Paddy died last week.’’

It was the day be­fore I set out, os­ten­si­bly in his foot­steps. The news fills me with sad­ness cou­pled with be­wil­der­ment at the work­ings of prov­i­dence. I en­ter Kar­damyli in a vale­dic­tory mood, pass­ing through an arched gateway into a dusty square flanked by byzan­tine tow­ers and a church.

In Mani, Leigh Fer­mor writes that Kar­damyli was ‘‘un­like any vil­lage I had seen in Greece’’. He and Joan loved it so much that they re­turned sev­eral years later and built a house in an olive grove.

Kar­damyli re­mains laid-back and rel­a­tively un­spoilt, with a long peb­ble beach, pretty stone houses, a small fish­ing har­bour and friendly peo­ple. It is pop­u­lar with trekkers who tackle the hin­ter­land trails. But my walk­ing days are

over for now and my stay is marked by rest­less­ness and an odd nos­tal­gia. Each morn­ing I swim to the wooded islet with the for­ti­fied wall and ru­ined chapel, a few hun­dred me­tres off­shore. I scrib­ble in cafes, drink with other trav­ellers and dine out ev­ery night, once at Le­las, the water­front tav­erna owned by the woman who was Leigh Fer­mor’s orig­i­nal house­keeper. Ev­ery­one, it seems, has a Paddy story to tell.

One morn­ing, a strange im­pulse takes me. Just out­side town, a path leaves the road and winds down­hill through olive groves throb­bing with ci­cadas. It con­tin­ues, away from re­cent de­vel­op­ment higher up the slope, into a wilder­ness of trees and yel­low grain fields where I pass a white­washed chapel and, j ust be­yond, a long stone wall, above which a mot­tled tile roof pro- trudes. Fi­nally I come to a beach.

It lies j ust over the rocks, a her­metic cove en­folded by cliffs. A shiver sweeps through me when I re­alise: this is the place. Push­ing through a wooden gate marked Pri­vate, I climb a stone stair­case that zigzags up to a sprawl­ing gar­den. Olive trees be­stride an­cient ter­races.

The aro­mas of rose­mary and cy­press min­gle in the hot, pul­sat­ing air. Paths of peb­ble mo­saic thread be­tween ju­di­ciously placed ta­bles and benches of slate and a ram­bling house, built of golden stone, empty now, yet with the ac­cu­mu­la­tions of a long and abun­dant life in place. An air of re­cent aban­don­ment pre­vails. Leigh Fer­mor died in Eng­land.

Stand­ing on the clifftop, be­side one of those ta­bles where so many de­light­ful mo­ments must have un­folded, I gaze out past the is­land to the dis­tant penin­sula, a smudge on the hori­zon. An age passes be­fore I tear my­self away. Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor’s Mani: Trav­els in the South­ern Pelo­pon­nese was first pub­lished in 1958. The ac­claimed war hero and travel writer died on June 10, aged 96.


The sea­side vil­lage of Kar­damyli in south­ern Greece and, left, Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor at his Kar­damyli home in 2001

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