John Kittmer

John Kittmer

Former UK ambassador to the Hellenic Republic

Part of Greek Blogyssey

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…”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

11 comments on “From Mystras to Kardamyli: A hike in honour of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

  1. I am planning to emulate your inspirational walk in June 2016. I hope that the weather gods are kind.

  2. Geia sas
    First thanks for sharing
    since I read Mani in French,my native language I want to make this crossing , last year from manganari on June 2 I ascent profiti Illias alone with many wind , we love kardamimi since 2009 and we make many trips in the Viros and Kosgaregas “faragi
    This year in kardamili the weather was not optimal , may be next year we go up the vyros fron Exohori or we go t-o dumbitsa

    Kalo sabbatokyriaki

  3. Well done!

    My wife and I spent a very enjoyable couple of weeks walking in the surrounds of Kardamyli (including a look around Paddy’s garden) last year and this year we retraced some of Paddy’s (and those of Xan Fielding) footsteps in western Crete. We have a small rock taken from Paddy’s beach here on our patio in southern New South Wales.

  4. Last Autumn, with a friend, we did the Anavryti to Kambos part of Paddy’s walk. I had been similarly inspired by Paddy’s books with their un-entanglable mix of fact and fiction, erudition and wonder. I think he did the walk but not as described eg At one point in the journey, where there is now a series of mini via ferrata, he is using a mule! I do not feel mislead by Paddy’s mythologising but grateful to him for stimulating my dreams as to how a life could be lived.
    We started below Anavryti and unlike Paddy we did not have a local to carry our bags to the top of the pass, where we spent the night in a roofless refuge! The next day was down, down, down then up out of the gorge. We also took a car, for the last 4km to Kambos.
    Two wonderful days in the mountains with Paddy’s voice in our ears.

  5. Congratulations! Only last week with my son and two friends we hiked from the refugee to the top then down to Agios Dimitrios where a fox stole our cheese and back to the refugee (from the east side) A full and very beautiful day! Hope some day I’ll be able to visit PLF’s beautiful house in Kardamyli as my father did back in the 1970s!

  6. A fine blog and an impressive hike. This encourages me to try to retrace some of the (many) footsteps covered by Sir Paddy across Romania, though I think I’ll need to start with a flatter bit…

  7. Having recently crossed the Taygetus mountains by car en route from Pylos to Monemvassia, I am very impressed that you chose to do the route on foot.
    I wonder if the refuges in Greece are akin to those in the French Alps where, after climbing/walking for several hours you are rewarded by a 3 course meal with wine and cheese!

    1. It depends on the refuge. At EOS Sparta, Vangelis and Dimitra – the two volunteers manning the station on those days – cooked a great meal of bean stew, sausages and Greek pasta. We were all very grateful!

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About John Kittmer

John Kittmer was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic from 2013 to 2016.