Stolen mo­ments

On the trail in Greece of writer Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - DO­MINIC GREEN

The ab­duc­tion in April, 1944 of Hein­rich Kreipe, the Ger­man com­man­der in Crete, was one of the most dar­ing feats of World War II. Pa­trick (Paddy) Leigh Fer­mor, the leader of the kid­nap­pers, went on to be­come a no less leg­endary travel writer and a fa­mous lover of Greece.

The Leigh Fer­mor So­ci­ety, formed in 2014, is ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing his mem­ory. In June this year a dozen trav­ellers converge from as far afield as Aus­tralia and the US for the so­ci­ety’s in­au­gu­ral tour, an un­for­get­table and of­ten mov­ing two-week jour­ney known as “In Paddy’s Foot­steps”. We meet in Athens, protest­ing that we are not the sort of peo­ple who go on guided tours, and find our bear­ings on the hot stones of the Acrop­o­lis.

On the south­ern slope of the an­cient hill, the Acrop­o­lis Museum is grounded with the grace of a beached ocean liner. Once in­side, vis­i­tors en­ter a space built to repli­cate the ex­pe­ri­ence of as­cend­ing the nearby site. The museum cul­mi­nates on its light-filled top floor with the en­tire se­quence of the Parthenon mar­bles. That even­ing we con­clude that the only good rea­son for keep­ing the El­gin mar­bles in Lon­don is that re­turn­ing them to Athens might pre­cip­i­tate a host of sim­i­lar de­mands, and the col­lapse of the world’s ma­jor museum col­lec­tions.

Not for the first time, we dis­cover that while you can ar­gue with Greeks, you can­not ar­gue with Greece.

The next day, after a long lunch at one of Leigh Fer­mor’s haunts in the vil­lage-like Plaka, we seek out Syn­tagma Square, the heart of mod­ern Athens, and the house-museum of his painter friend Nikos Had­jikyr­i­akos-Ghika. After that, sev­eral mem­bers of the group ab­scond, pos­si­bly in­spired by the words of Leigh Fer­mor, who died in 2011, in Roumeli, “I crossed the blaz­ing Syn­tagma to the Ho­tel Grande Bre­tagne, thirst­ing for a con­so­la­tion drink.”

We leave Athens on the morn­ing of day three for the Pelo­pon­nese. Paus­ing for cof­fee at Pin­dar’s “bridge of the un­tir­ing sea”, the Isth­mus of Corinth, we press back into the past, from Corinth to Myce­nae. St Paul preached at Ro­man Corinth, its baths and shop­ping colon­nades open to the sea. Myce­nae is a fortress on an in­land fast­ness high above the plain of Ar­gos, its rough stones al­most seam­less with those of their nat­u­ral foun­da­tions. Nearby we eat at the leg­endary Belle He­lene. Our host, the splen­didly named Agamem­non, is the great-great grand­son of the man who opened the busi­ness by pro­vid­ing bed and break­fast for pioneer ar­chae­ol­o­gist Hein­rich Sch­lie­mann and his aides as they dug at Myce­nae.

On the is­land of Hy­dra, we seek out artist Ghika’s ru­ined man­sion, a tiered won­der with views over the Gulf of Ar­gos. Leigh Fer­mor called it the “per­fect prose fac­tory”, and wrote the early drafts of his leg­endary trav­el­ogue Mani: Trav­els in the South­ern Pelo­pon­nese there. Henry Miller wrote The Colos­sus of Maroussi there too. It was de­stroyed by ar­son after Ghika’s house­keeper had taken um­brage at the lat­est per­mu­ta­tion of his love life.

We seek the ru­ined water­mill where Leigh Fer­mor and the Ro­ma­nian princess Balasha Can­tacuzene lived in 1935. Soon after leav­ing the coast road, our coach be­comes wedged be­tween two olive trees. We dis­mount, and trace a rough path through over­grown le­mon groves, fol­low­ing the sound of wa­ter. Sud­denly, we spy a ru­ined wall among the cy­press trees. Haul­ing each other up a sheer slope of crum­bling earth, we find a series of de­cayed rooms, stacked one on top of the other against a cliff.

Be­low us is a gi­ant hol­low tree trunk, gar­landed with fan­tas­ti­cal vines. Wa­ter had dropped into the tree trunk, and down on to the bro­ken mill wheel in the room be­low. Ahead, we look out over the car­pet of le­mon groves to Galatas, and then the sliver of wa­ter di­vid­ing the coast from the green hump of the is­land of Poros.

The morn­ing of day five we set off south­west across the Pelo­pon­nese to Sparta, that most mod­ern of an­cient cities, and then Mys­tras and the Mani. The stones of Mys­tras, tum­bling down the moun­tain be­neath the Frank­ish fortress, are a Byzan­tine ghost town. A dou­ble­headed ea­gle on the floor of the church of St Demetrios marks where Con­stan­tine XI Palaiol­o­gos, the last em­peror of Byzan­tium, was crowned in 1451. In­side the cool and bro­ken churches of the ru­ined up­per town, ghostly apos­tles crum­ble on skims of plas­ter.

Weav­ing up and over the bends of the Lan­gada Pass, we skirt Mount Tayge­tus, and de­scend to Kala­mata, where Leigh Fer­mor and his wife Joan built a beau­ti­ful house, now the prop­erty of the Be­naki Museum of Athens. Our three days there are the hinge of our jour­ney. For some, who knew “Paddy”, this is a re­turn to the home of a lost friend; for oth­ers, a mo­men­tous ar­rival.

Hosted by Paddy’s friends Ni­cos and Theano Ponireas, we dine at the Kalamitsi Ho­tel with Paddy’s Span­ish trans­la­tor Dolores Payas and his house­keeper, Elp­ida Beloy­anni.

Walk­ing guide Ruth Hack­ney takes us to medieval Are­opoli the fol­low­ing morn­ing. The rel­a­tive af­flu­ence of tourism can­not mask the harsh­ness of a dry re­gion where for­ti­fied tow­ers rise like cac­tuses. Then, plung­ing into the un­der­world of the caves at Pir­gos Dirou, we tip our Charon (fer­ry­man) and head south into the Deep Mani. After con­sid­er­ing the lo­ca­tion of the lost Frank­ish cas­tle of Grand Magne, we reach tiny Geroli­me­nas, in the bowl of a horse­shoe bay. In the hills be­hind Kar­damyli we walk to the church of Agios Niko­laos, where Leigh Fer­mor buried the ashes of fel­low writer Bruce Chatwin in 1989. Set in an olive grove over­look­ing the sea, the church perches on the crest of a hill shaped like a ship’s prow. The smooth rec­tan­gu­lar blocks in the church’s lower cour­ses tend to con­firm Chatwin’s claim that Agios Niko­laos was erected on the site of an an­cient tem­ple.

Later, we am­ble through the olive groves from our ho­tel to Leigh Fer­mor’s house. It is a long and poignant visit. The build­ing re­sounds with the traces of its in­hab­i­tants and guests, but it is fray­ing at the edges, and still con­tains Paddy and Joan’s pri­vate be­long­ings. Elated and re­flec­tive, we walk over to Lela’s, founded by Paddy’s ear­lier house­keeper, and run by her son and grand­son, and dine as the sun goes down on the Messinian Gulf.

After re­turn­ing to Athens, we fly to Crete and over the fol­low­ing three days, we trace the Kreipe kid­nap party’s es­cape with an ex­pert in the his­tory of the Spe­cial Opera-

Geroli­me­nas vil­lage, top left; ru­ins of old town in Mys­tras, top right; Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor’s house, above; Kreipe flanked by Fer­mor, right, and Cap­tain Stan­ley Moss after the 1944 kid­nap­ping, be­low

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