Life had been a grand adventure for Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated travel writers. So what was it about a remote Greek village that made him stop traveling?
In the early 1930s, an 18-year-old British aristocrat left the conveniences of a comfortable life to journey from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul—on foot and horseback, by train and automobile.
He captured the sights, smells and sounds of a Europe the Nazis were casting to oblivion. And when World War II engulfed the continent, this daredevil didn’t just watch Hitler torture it from the sidelines; he enlisted in the British army, landed on the Greek island of Crete as an anti-Nazi secret agent, and disguised himself as a shepherd under the name Kyr (Mr) Michalis to help locals kidnap a German general. This episode even inspired a Hollywood movie, Ill Met By Moonlight (renamed Night Ambush).
This restless romantic was Patrick Leigh Fermor. Described by one journalist as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” he is, for many—myself included—the 20th century’s most distinct travel writing voice. And the place he eventually called home until his death in 2011 is even more special for it.
Despite his cinematic life, countless journeys, and penchant for serpentine prose, it was much later in life that ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor decided to document his treasure trove of experiences. And it was in the early 1960s on his travels around Greece’s southern Peloponnese that he stumbled upon the Mani peninsula and found a place to put his life into words.
“We saw a peninsula ending in crescent-shaped beaches … We walked down into a gently sloping world of the utmost magical beauty.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Separated from the rest of Greece by the towering Taygetus mountains, the Mani feels like another world, a reclusive patch of land where fortified medieval towers and a craggy coastline mix with Christian Orthodox churches and the fruity smell of Mediterranean olives.
It was here he wrote about his travels in 1930s Europe; books such as A Time of Gifts—On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube and The Broken Road. He also penned Abducting a General—The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete recounting his secret agent days.
I’ve long known about the Mani’s dramatic beauty and history. The Maniots, the peninsula’s native inhabitants, are said to be descended from Spartans, the legendary warriors of ancient Greece; some of my own ancestry hails from here.
But before I spiral into thoughts of times past, I’m reminded why Leigh Fermor picked this spot. Standing on a jagged, rocky cliff jutting from the peninsula, it feels the landscape is heaving and billowing, like ocean waves; as if all the victories, failed invasions and clan rivalries are deflected onto its raw nature: Come—but don’t stay, it seems to say.
But Leigh Fermor stayed. In fact, when he laid eyes on Kalamitsi, a village outside the seaside town of Kardamyli, 35 kilometers southeast of the region’s capital Kalamata, he instantly ‘knew.’
That’s what Sir Michael Llewellyn Smith says in his chapter ‘Kardamyli: The Perfect Refuge’ in the book Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece which celebrates the friendship and shared love of Greece between Leigh Fermor and his two artist friends. The book, by curator and art historian Evita Arapoglou, accompanied the 2017 exhibition of the same name, which first opened at the A.G. Leventis Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus, before moving to Athens’ Benaki Museum.
For Leigh Fermor, the Mani was love at first sight. In a letter to renowned photographer and wife-to-be Joan, he wrote: “We saw a peninsula ending in crescent-shaped beaches … We walked down into a gently sloping world of the utmost magical beauty … thick with magnificent olive trees and lots of other trees … Behind, the peninsula melted into a great conch of grey and orange rock.”
It wasn’t long after that the couple dived headlong into their labor of love, having their own Elysian Fields—the final resting place in Greek mythology—built on a Maniot cliff top surrounded by olive groves. “Through high clefts, one got glimmering grey glimpses of the highest Taygetus,” he continued in his letter, “But nothing overpowered or impeded. There was not a house in sight. Nothing, but rocks, mountains, and sea.”
Everywhere I look around, there are books. It’s intoxicating. Even the four bathrooms have bookshelves.
Locals even gave the couple peach and russet-colored limestones to build their house, at no cost. While their home, a hybrid between a mansion and a Maniot Byzantine settlement, was being built (everything had to be brought to the site by mule) the couple lodged in the village.
As I explore the area, I meet locals who knew and remember him. “We often went to Kalamitsi for a swim when we were kids,” Antonia Perdikea, a local woman from Kardamyli, tells me. “The road back to our village was steep so Kyr Michalis always invited us to drink some water before climbing up the hill.”
It was a new era in the life of Paddy; now, the world came to him. In its glory days, the house welcomed the Prince and Princess of Belgium, Lord and Lady Norwich, Nobel prize-winning Greek writer Giorgos Seferis, and many others—all the while, he remained Kyr Michalis to the locals.
Illustrious guests were only part of his life. In the shadow of Mount Taygetus, Leigh Fermor spent many a day and night wandering through the olive groves in the ethereal Greek light. His surroundings inspired him to write one of his most famous works, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, a book that can inspire you to book a flight immediately.
Even posthumously, his legacy was too big to leave Hollywood untouched: the house was the backdrop for romantic drama ‘Before Midnight’ with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
“These summer nights are short,” he wrote. “Going to bed before midnight is unthinkable, and talk, wine, moonlight and the warm air are often in league to defer it one, two or three hours more.”
The change in pace suited him. “The afternoon is the time for real sleep: Into the abyss one goes to emerge when the colors begin to revive and the world to breathe again about five o’clock, ready once more for the rigors and pleasures of late afternoon, the evening, and the night.”
Leigh Fermor was the consummate wordsmith. “His favorite activity was forming phrases and cutting them into pieces, a process lasting for hours,” recalls Elpida Belogianni, Leigh Fermor’s long-standing housekeeper.
Belogianni is showing me around, six years after the author left his beloved home for the last time. I imagine him as a tall, dapper gentleman, seeking inspiration gazing at the Ionian waters, chatting with Joan over tea, mingling with socialite guests, or even dancing ‘zeibekiko’ [Greek folk dance] with local builders on the terrace.
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Some areas now belong to the Benaki Museum and are undergoing restoration, with plans for an educational and cultural visitors center, but the main hall exudes tranquility and warmth, fitting for a home that hosted so many. Stone floors are paved with sea pebbles, and there are many many books. Everywhere I look around, books. It’s intoxicating.
“There are almost 5,000 books,” Belogianni tells me. Dictionaries, lexicons, encyclopedias, special editions, Oxford Companions. Anthologies based on birds, beasts, fishes, stars, are shelved in the immense libraries of the house. Even the four bathrooms have bookshelves.
In the garden, I’m hit by the scent of oregano and pine needles, and the piercing sound of cicadas. Gargantuan cypress trees loom over me and nearby, a cylindrical staircase drops down to a private beach. From here, Belogianni recalls, Kyr Michalis swam every day to the nearest islet, Meropi, hundreds of meters away.
“He swam every day, even when he suffered from pharynx cancer and was well into his 90s,” she remembers. “He felt insulted if people saw him suffer or infirm. He was a breed of ineffable dignity and pride.”
In 2011, 96-year-old Leigh Fermor was indeed diagnosed with cancer, for the third time. He had already mourned the death of Joan, who died in 2003 aged 91 after a fall. “He understood the end was approaching this time,” says Belogianni.
Leigh Fermor decided to go to the UK, to his Gloucestershire home, and bid farewell to friends and relatives. He would then return to Kardamyli and take his last breath in the glorious Greek sun. But he didn’t make it back. He died in the village of Dumbleton where he is buried next to his beloved Joan.
To say his spirit lives on in the Mani is no understatement. Even posthumously, his legacy was too big to leave Hollywood untouched: the house was the backdrop for romantic drama Before Midnight with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
His well-tracked presence in Kardamyli, and the people whose lives he touched through his books and thrilling life, continue to attract visitors here, where one of the greatest literary travel writers found his very own Elysian Fields. And having set foot there now, I now understand how he felt when he wrote in Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese: “I felt like staying there forever.”
Read about this part of Greece in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s own words: Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese.