Paddy Leigh Fermor’s Travels in Greece
On arriving in Sikaráyia, a little-known village in Thrace, Patrick Leigh Fermor saw dozens of huts, ‘giant beehives swelling and tapering in tiers of cropped reed which overlapped with the precision of the plating on a seven-banded armadillo’. As a description it could not be bettered. Bees, armadillos. Who would have guessed that the peerless travel writer had landed among sheep-farmers? The Sarakatsáns, a remote, mountain-loving people who called these huts home, had been busy preparing for a wedding when Leigh Fermor came. He was to be their guest.
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), Paddy to all who knew him, had an enviably keen eye for detail. Nothing escaped him, from the red velvet of the groom’s waistcoat and silk of his sash, the structure of his fustanella and colour of his tights, to the somewhat sober black and white patterned skirt and tunic of his bride. The celebrations he describes in the opening pages of Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, first published in 1966, are every bit as thrilling as the armadillo huts. Guests sing and dance and sit cross-legged on the ground to feast on spit-roasted lamb (what else?) and hefty chunks of bread. No salad here. It is, he says, as we imagine the squabbles breaking out over lamb-brain and ‘highly prized’ eyes, ‘in a way, a Stone Age banquet’.
I have always loved Leigh Fermor for being braver than me. Even when he wasn’t entirely comfortable in the company in which he found himself he remembered to ask the right questions. Recently revisiting Roumeli and Mani (his 1958 account of travels in the Southern Peloponnese), I was struck anew by the depth of his enquiries. He never simply visited a place. He tore it back to its bones (to its eyeballs, brains...). Would it ever have occurred to me to ask the guests at the Sarakatsán wedding how many words they had for sheep? Could I have remembered any of the vocabulary
they taught me for ‘tupping, lambing, weaning, shearing, carding, spinning, milking, seething, scalding, straining, basket-weaving, path-finding, tentpitching, camp-striking, trough-scooping and weather-divining’, if I tried?
Leigh Fermor had seen a lot by the time he pitched up in the curious sheep village. He served with both the Irish Guards and SOE during the Second World War, and for his successful, much-recounted SOE mission to kidnap General Heinrich Kreipe in German-occupied Crete in 1944, he earned an OBE and DSO. It topped many a tale of derring-do. In Roumeli, he takes us back there, to the island he called ‘an epitome of Greece’, for all its many idiosyncrasies.
The three years he spent in Crete, concealed within the ranges between the White Mountains and Cretan Ida, were eventful. He recalls, almost wistfully, how he avoided endangering the local people by staying not in villages but in ‘goat-folds and abandoned conical cheese-makers’ huts’ and dank caverns. Some of the caverns were so deep, he said, that you could well imagine a Cyclops and his sheep were inside. Homer is rarely far away.
The spirit of the ancient bard and the oral culture that preserved his epics were thriving when Paddy arrived in these wild mountains. As a classicist I naturally savour glimpses of ancient culture embedded in modern Greece. Many of the Cretans Leigh Fermor met were illiterate but had extraordinary memories which enabled them not only to keep calm in the face of adversity - they had survived worse - but to put thousands of lines of poetry to heart. He listened as old men, dressed in knee-high boots, baggy trousers, black shirts and silk-fringed turbans, recited - or rather, intoned - line after line of verse from heart. The poem they all knew was the Erotókritos, an early seventeenth-century saga of love and witches and mysterious forests, comparable to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. It is of a similar length to Homer’s Odyssey. And yet, there were men who could intone it all. The possibility of ancient Greeks memorising and perpetuating Homer down the ages no longer seems so remote.
In Mani, the poetry is darker. Here Leigh Fermor listens to funeral dirges known as miroloyia (words of destiny) sung at the graveside. It all feels very ancient. The continuities of ancient Greece, as he says, are often most visible in superstitions and religious customs. Antiquity haunts the landscapes of the Southern Peloponnese, a region Leigh Fermor likens to a ‘misshapen tooth fresh torn from its gum’ with its ‘three peninsulas jutting southward in jagged and carious roots’.
Leigh Fermor eventually settled in Mani, at Kardamyli, with his photographer wife Joan (née Eyres Monsell), whom he married in 1968. While she never quite emerges from the texts of Roumeli or Mani, Joan is ever-present as the hands behind the exquisite pictures which illustrate them. She captures, among much else, the Sarakatsán bride in her black and white finery and the monasteries which cling to the mountains on the northern coasts of Greece.
Six years after his death, it is extraordinary to think that Leigh Fermor’s Greece books have never been out of print. Just this year, The Folio Society reissued Roumeli and Mani - complete with Joan’s photographs - as a handsome double-edition. Young travellers continue to traipse around Greece with crumpled old reprints in their pockets. Have the books not aged? Stylistically, they are everything that modern travel writing is not. Clauses mount upon clauses, adjectives upon adjectives. There is nothing spare about their prose. If the Greece books were being reviewed for the first time today, I dare say they would be described as ‘overwrought’ and unduly verbose. But perhaps it is the fact that they break the narrow rules of what constitutes good writing in contemporary criticism that makes them so appealing. Hemingway it is not, but the travel writing of Paddy Leigh Fermor is as richly woven, textured, and dynamic as the Greece it describes.