On the trail in Greece of writer Patrick Leigh Fermor
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