Gone for a walk in Greece
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s spirit survives in the southern Peloponnese
‘‘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