You are currently visiting Journeys > Europe > Greece

 

Wild country

ISSUE 6
C
H

Joanne Eede falls in love with Kardamyli, the remote village in the Peloponnese that writer Patrick Leigh Fermor made his home


We rounded a corner high in the olive hills of the southern Peloponnese. Below us lay the colours of the Mani.

 

On one side, the sea swept across the Gulf of Messinia in a block of dark blue; to the north rose the pine-green flanks of the Taygetus Mountains, their summits obscured by lilac storm clouds. On a limestone peninsula ahead lay a clutch of red roofs, rose cupolas and gold towers: Kardamyli, the ancient port of Sparta.

 

"It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece," wrote the late author and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor of the Maniot fishing village where he and his wife, Joan, made their home. "It is like one of those Elysian confines of the world, where Homer says that life is easiest for men."

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor died in the summer of 2011, at the age of 96. War hero, long-distance walker and arguably the greatest travel writer of the 20th century, he has been described as a 'scholar warrior', and a 'cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene'. In the 1950s, he hiked across the Taygetus with Joan and a goat-herder called Yorgo.  At the time, the Mani was still the most inaccessible part of Greece: a rugged land rife with vendettas and blood-feuds, with a seaboard haunted by sea-nymphs and the ghosts of Homer's heroes. They had travelled long before the asphalt road that now connects Kardamyli to the rest of the country was built; until recently, many of the villages could only be approached by footpath or sea. "It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism," wrote Leigh Fermor about Kardamyli, one of the 'seven well-clad cities' mentioned in Homer's Iliad. But despite the inevitable influx of tourists the road has since brought, I discovered that the Mani still has an unspoilt magic.

 

swim, doze, eat

 

I stayed at Elies Hotel, a group of stunning stone apartments with a taverna set in a grove of crooked olives. Here, I honed a blissfully indolent formula of eating-reading-swimming-dozing-eating to perfection in just a few days. Eating at the taverna was a delight: wooden tables and chairs painted in bright colours under the cool canopy of the olives, bordered by low stone walls crowded with geranium and lavender. I became fond of 'horiatiki' (greek salad), 'keftedes' (meat balls) or Elies' speciality: chicken slow-cooked in lemon, rosemary and olive oil.

 

Only 50 yards away, the sea murmured on hot pebbles. The beach never became over-crowded, and if you swam out a little way from the shore through crystal-clear waters, the perspective on Kardamyli, backed by the 'huge wall of the Taygetus' was breathtaking. Rising to 8,000 feet, the Taygetus range keeps Kardamyli sheltered from the cold northern winds, and the pyramid-shaped summit of its highest mountain, Profitis Ilias (Prophet Elias) is often still snow-streaked in mid-summer.

 

I visited Kardamyli in May, when swallows raced up and down the one main street and purple bougainvillaea tumbled down the walls of its honey-coloured castellated houses. The prevailing atmosphere is of a typical Greek village; men drink Ouzo and compete over backgammon in the tavernas, while children play in the church square. The tiny harbour, ballasted on one side by a spit of rock, is home to a handful of bobbing fishing caïques, while a fishermen's chapel stands on the jetty. Only the occasional coach of tourists stopping at Yiannis Dimitreas' wonderful organic herb shop - selling jars of sea-salt, wild thyme and olive oil from his own grove - reminds you that this is a holiday destination.

 

Less than a mile south of the village stands the house the Leigh Fermors built, on a beautiful promontory overlooking Kalimitsi beach; inside, the cool rooms are still lined with his books. It was left to the Bonaki Museum in Athens, to be used as a writing retreat and was recently the setting for some of the scenes in the film Before Midnight with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

 

The Mani is laced with fantastic walking trails, many of which follow the region's old mule paths (kalderimi). One winds up the mountain at the back of Kardamyli, through the Viros gorge to the church of Agia Sofia. Paved with crumbling stone slabs and lined with gorse and blue anemones, the path led me past the alleged tombs of Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twin brothers of Helen of Troy. From there, I turned seawards to take in the gorge of wild fig and prickly pear cactus that rolled away to stands of cypress trees, their arrow-heads dark against the sapphire sea. The early morning breeze was already heavy with the musky scent of wild sage. It was silent, but for the beating wings of a flock of storks, the tinkle of goats' bells and the occasional shout of a herdsman from the folds in the hills.

 

Although the Maniots were late to convert to Christianity, St. Sofia is one of hundreds of stone and cloisonné Churches - many housing ancient marbles and Byzantine frescoes - that stud the ravines and summits of Mani's mountains.

 

I drove to the village of Hora, which was deserted after World War II, when many Maniots moved to large cities. The village is now largely deserted and slightly eerie; windows are shuttered with old oak boards and the tendrils of overgrown plants thread through the cobbled paths. But the church of Agios Nikolaos, which stands in rocky fields overlooking Kardamyli bay, is memorably peaceful. The writer Bruce Chatwin loved this place, and his ashes are buried under the olives near the eastern alcove.

 

I then took the road past the fishing village of Agios Nikolaos and drove deep into Inner Mani, which is stony, desolate and magnificent. The indigenous people of the region, the Maniots, are thought to be the direct descendants of the ancient Spartans and were known to be independent and fearsome. Inner Mani retains a frontier feeling, enhanced by the tales of its lawless pirates and warlords who refused to bow down to Ottoman rule; as untameable a people as the land beneath their feet.

 

Silent citadels

 

I stopped at the deserted village of Vathia, one of Mani's many stone tower villages that rise proudly from the bleached hillsides. These silent citadels provided each family protection from invaders and the vendettas fought over the region's limited natural resources. Now, the flat roofs are crumbling; piles of rocks obscure the small windows through which rifles once were fired.

 

From there I drove across an increasingly dramatic landscape to Cape Tainaron, where the ancient Spartans once worshipped Poseidon. Below the sea-god's ruined temple, in the Bay of Asomati, lies the mythical entrance to Hades, through which a grief-stricken Orpheus descended to reclaim his bride, Eurydice.

 

I then returned to Kardamyli, to dine at Lela's, the restaurant named after Lela Giannakeas who was the Leigh Fermors' housekeeper and friend. As a child, Lela was so poor that she would collect bags of sea salt from the rocks in the harbour and cart them by donkey to be sold at neighbouring villages. She met Patrick Leigh Fermor while she was working on land neighbouring his plot. I was lucky enough to meet Lela that day, sitting in the late afternoon sun, dressed in traditional Greek widow's black. I asked her about her friendship with Patrick Leigh Fermor. "He was a very good man," she told me. "It didn't matter to him that I wasn't from the same class as him. He took my advice, and I his. We learned from each other." Then she added, "He was avretos". I asked her to explain the Greek word. "Unique," she replied, "Unfindable again." Rather like the Mani, I thought.

WAY TO GO

Sunvil

Offers a wide choice of holidays to the Peloponnese, including Kardamyli and Stoupa in Mani, as well as twin centres with the north. Prices from £606 per person for seven nights' self-catering, including flights to Kalamata and transfers. Tel. 020 8758 4758/ sunvil.co.uk.

 

For information about Greece, visit the tourist board website, visitgreece.gr.

 

The village has its own website, too; kardamili-greece.com.

Related Features…

A world apart

Becky Faulks visits the sleepy Mediterranean island of Gozo and discovers a community keen to make its mark at the same time as preserving its identity. MORE…

Splendid isolation

Aaron Miller embarks on a solo hike along Liguria's historic Old Salt Road. MORE…

Enjoyed what you've read?

Then why not subscribe today, and ensure that the latest issue of Journeys Magazine is always available to read on your favourite device. MORE…