3rd June 2015 Athens, Greece
From Mystras to Kardamyli: A hike in honour of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor
“On the map, the southern part of the Peloponnese looks like a misshapen tooth fresh torn from its gum with three peninsulas jutting southward in jagged and carious roots. The central prong is formed by the Taygetus mountains…”
This morning, thanks to the Benaki Museum, I was standing in the study of the great man – war hero, romantic, philhellene – who wrote these words. Scanning the bookshelves of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose love of Greece was nurtured by wartime experience, by a lifetime of conversation and friendship with Greek people, and by deep reading and learning, I felt an inestimable sense of good fortune, veneration and humility. I fell in love with Greece because of Greece. But every would-be lover needs friends who encourage and nurture the love affair. For me, my teacher Gerald Thompson, about whom I wrote (in Greek) in February, and the travel-writer Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, whom I never met, were those such friends. In the past five days, I repaid through imitation the great debt I owe to Sir Patrick.
On Saturday morning, in the company of the Danish Ambassador, Mette Knudsen, and three friends, I set off from the wonderful city of Mystras in Laconia. Our destination was Kardamyli in the Outer Mani, where Sir Patrick and his wife Joan had made their home. To get there, we would have to cross Mt Taygetos by foot – a journey of four days, carrying our necessities with us. I had longed to make this journey since, as an undergraduate, I first read Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese.
In the first three chapters of Mani, Sir Paddy describes his own route across Taygetos into the Mani. He took a jeep from Sparta to Anavryti, in the foothills of the mountain. From there, he and his party walked, without mules or other baggage carriers, to the watershed at Portes and then over the mountain into the Mani. In their descent, they followed the Rintomos Gorge, and emerged after great efforts to reach civilisation at Kampos.
In his great description, Sir Paddy writes of “the huge wall of the Taygetus, whose highest peaks bar the northern marches of the Mani, rear[ing] a bare and waterless inferno of rock”. In emulating his walk, I wanted to avoid slavish imitation and to experience the mountain in a comparable but different way. So we started at Mystras and walked to Anavryti. The next day, we hiked to the EOS Sparta refuge that lies in the shadow of the highest peak of Prophet Elijah, a towering 7887 ft. The path to the refuge takes you through shady deciduous woods, fragrant pine forest, upland meadows carpeted with flowers and busy with bees. Springs cascade in surprising abundance out of the mountainside. Your sense of smell becomes intoxicated. The beauty of nature makes you giddy.
The following day we climbed Prophet Elijah itself. Without our backpacks, the ascent was still arduous but we were able to force the pace. From the summit, all the southern Peloponnese was laid out before us in a pellucid and majestic vista. Spinning around, we saw the castle of the Villehardouins on its rock of Mystras, Sparta in the fertile Evrotas plain, Mt Parnon, Elafonissos, Gytheio, Kalamata and the Messenian Gulf. And to the south the fractured spine of the mountain range limped towards Cape Tainaron. Unforgettable.
After conquering the summit, we hiked to Agios Dimitrios, where we pitched camp. The following day, we toiled along the arduous and dramatic Gorge of Viros. Nine and a half hours of unaccommodating stones, rocks and boulders. Painful going. Ascending by foot to the towering heights of Exochori, we then completed the last couple of miles of our journey by car to Kardamyli.
The four days of walking fitted me, or so I thought, to encounter at last the great house that Sir Patrick and Joan built at Kalamitsi. I had known about the house for years, had seen photographs of it in Artemis Cooper’s biography of Paddy, and had enjoyed Richard Linklater’s film Before Midnight, which is set there. But in fact I was quite unprepared to enter the private space of this great man. Its location, its design, its beauty, its homeliness, its intelligence – everything about it moved me deeply.
After Sir Patrick’s death in 2011, the house was inherited by the Benaki Museum. So the home of one of England’s greatest philhellenes is now owned by one of Greece’s greatest institutions. The Benaki has great plans to restore and conserve the house, as a haven for writers. The Patrick Leigh Fermor Society is helping to raise funds. Please join up. You can find details at www.patrickleighfermorsociety.org. Alternatively, become a Friend of the Benaki itself. Details at http://www.benaki.gr/index.asp?lang=en&id=705.
But the greatest tribute of all that you can pay to this great man remains simple: read Sir Patrick’s books (start with Mani) and, like him, fall in love with Greece.