‘They’ll have the coat off your back, they’ll skin you alive, my child!’ This was the warning Patrick Leigh Fermor was given in Sparta, when he said he was going to the Mani in the early Fifties.
Having walked across Europe at the age of 18 and kidnapped a German general on Crete from under the noses of the enemy during World War II, Fermor was not put off, although he’d heard the Maniots were a wild lot.
Poor and fiercely patriotic, they fought like tigers against the pirates and Turks who threatened their stony shores; and when the danger had passed, they returned to their own bloodthirsty feuds.
Mani-made: The quaint fishing village of Gerolimenas on the Mani peninsula where author Patrick Leigh Fermor ventured to in the early Fifties
The most familiar architectural feature of the Mani peninsula is its square towers. Nowadays, these make perfect terraces on which to enjoy an afternoon drink, but their original purpose was to provide a family with a mini-citadel from which to blaze away at their neighbours with muskets and cannon.
Leigh Fermor, known to his friends as Paddy, fell in love with this arid part of Southern Greece. The people he met tended their flocks and scraped a living from the thin soil, yet they were full of stories, jokes and generosity.
Paddy wrote a book about this strange, neglected part of the Peloponnese. And in 1964, when British visitors were few, he and his wife Joan bought a few acres near a village on the west coast called Kardamyli. It was to be their home for the rest of their lives and Paddy became something of a local celebrity.
I had known Paddy all my life; he had been a friend of the family since before I was born. But I got to know him and Joan much better in 1986, when I was writing my first book, about Cairo during World War II. A few years later, I visited them with my husband, the historian Antony Beevor.
Paddy Leigh Fermor pictured in 1946 on the Greek island of Ithaca
Magnificent: The Gulf of Messenia, as seen from the Outer Mani
Paddy used to take us for long walks through the woods and olive groves, and every morning we swam in that impossibly blue sea.
There are more visitors today, but Kardamyli remains much as it was: a main street with bougainvillea and vine-draped houses on either side, opening out into a main square with a new church at the north end, where the ground slopes down to a pebbly beach.
There’s a restaurant called Elies (olives), where you really do sit under the olive trees, and the food is simple but good. This would make a fine base if you were going to walk up the spectacularly beautiful Vyros Gorge, which winds into the Taygetos mountains.
The other place to eat in Kardamyli is Lela’s Taverna. It was started by Lela Yannakea, a superb cook who had kept house for Paddy and Joan for 20 years. I often ate here with ‘Kyrie Mihali’, as Paddy was known in Greece, in the years following Joan’s death in 2003.
The village of Kardamyli is located on the west coast of Greece
Lela, a tiny bird of a woman dressed in black and fizzing with energy, always made a great show of reluctance when Paddy asked her to sit and join him in a glass of wine. But once there, she and Paddy chattered and laughed and dug each other in the ribs till tears of mirth ran down their cheeks.
‘What was that all about?’ I’d ask Paddy when Lela finally tore herself away. ‘Oh, you know,’ he replied. ‘Village life, the new mayor, the grandchildren…’
There are several hotels and self-catering options in the village itself, but if you fancy something quieter, head south to the Kalamitsi Hotel and Bungalows. Set in their own gardens among olives and oleanders, the complex is a few hundred yards from the Leigh Fermor house. It was here that the travel writer Bruce Chatwin spent nine months writing his masterpiece The Songlines, and almost every evening he had supper with Paddy and Joan.
It’s a beautiful walk through the olive trees, silvery-green against the dusty red soil underfoot. The first thing you pass is a tiny whitewashed church, with dried-out garlands round a door so small you have to bend double to get in. Paddy’s name-day was celebrated here every year.
There was no room in the church for anyone but the priest and his assistant, who droned on for hours while the whole village gathered outside, greeting and gossiping and paying no attention to the service.
The village of Kardamyli is home to a number of charming tavernas serving up local Greek fare
When at last the priest emerged, everyone walked to Kyrie Mihali’s house for a terrific feast, organised by Lela. She and the neighbouring women had been cooking and baking for days, and the guests brought wine, sweets and sticky cakes. The band played and Paddy, handkerchief in hand, led the dancing.
The Leigh Fermors left their home to the Benaki Museum. Following a donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the house and gardens are being fully restored. It will be a writers’ retreat and a setting for conferences. But it will also be let — so some lucky souls can entertain their friends in what is unquestionably one of the most beautiful houses in all Greece.
I remember eating out on the terrace there for the first time, surrounded by happy talk, watching the sun go down and the stars come out. Joan had cooked a chicken stuffed with olives, accompanied by retsina, which I drank like lemonade. Life, I thought, doesn’t get much better. Once there, why go anywhere else?
When I was working on his biography, Paddy, who died aged 96 in 2011, was already in his 90s. He was a reluctant subject, particularly averse to talking about his romances. Once I asked him about a woman with whom I knew he’d had a long affair, and he mumbled: ‘Oh, yes, well, you know, we were terrific pals.’
He had done all his travelling by then, and an outing meant driving to Stoupa, the next village, for a drink followed by egg and chips.
Artemis Cooper (pictured) penned the biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
For modern visitors, there are several little villages in the hills that are worth an excursion, one being Kato Chora. If you can find it, there is a small church nearby dedicated to St Nicholas, on a lonely promontory with a magnificent view of the hills tumbling down to the sea.
Bruce Chatwin, who travelled more than most, thought it was one of the most magical spots on earth — and it’s here his ashes are scattered. This is the Outer Mani. But to reach the Deep Mani, you must travel south.
The journey takes you inland at first, until the broad plain shrinks to nothing and the sea and the mountains converge. The road clings to the edge of the cliffs and everything feels wilder, harsher. But here, in the sheltered bay of Gerolimenas, is the Kyrimai — the most idyllic and Instagram-able hotel in the Mani.
It looks like a little village, with individual suites linked by stone terraces and stairways, all overlooking the sea and the swimming pool. A few miles farther south lies Vatheia: a village of those tall Maniot towers, now abandoned, on a spine of rock, overlooking an expanding ripple of terraces planted with olives.
It was here, in the summer of 1951, that Paddy and Joan met a girl with a lamb over her shoulders.
It was summer. She invited them to her house and, after a glass of ouzo, her father said: ‘It’s a hot night, let’s eat in the cool.’ He took a lantern and led the way into the tower. ‘We followed him up the steep ladders,’ wrote Paddy, ‘through storey after storey until, breathless with climbing, we were on a flat roof about eight yards square.’
From the top a coil of rope, lowered into the void, brought up a tin table followed by several chairs and an enormous basket of food and wine. Paddy never forgot this dinner in the sky and I’ve often wondered, walking through Vatheia, which tower it was. Still farther south, the peninsula narrows to a point where you can see the sea on both sides.
If you follow the road east, you come to the little bay of Porto Kayio, with its tavernas at the water’s edge and barely a car in sight.
It is extraordinary that somewhere so beautiful can, even now, feel so remote — but the Mani is still something of an undiscovered secret.
But don’t stop there. Go farther south still, and from Kokinoghia the road gives way to a path. You could explore the cave which is supposed to be the entrance to Hades, but that is better done by boat.
If you’re on foot, walk on and on: through the ruins of the Roman city of Tainaron and the temple of Poseidon, following the path to the end. At this point, there is nothing but sea between you and Africa.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, is published by John Murray, at £9.99. TRAVEL FACTS
Kalamitsi Hotel is one of the closest places you can stay to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s former home on a peaceful hillside near the village of Kardamyli (kalamitsi-hotel.gr). A week’s B&B stay costs from £922 pp in May, including Gatwick flights and transfers (sunvil.co.uk, 020 8758 4758).
Alternatively, stay at the Liakoto self-catering apartments by the seafront in Kardamyli. A week’s stay is from £828pp, with Gatwick flights and transfers. Or there’s the Anniska self-catering apartments, from £864pp with Gatwick flights and transfers. Both are offered by Sunvil (as above).
Lela’s Taverna in Kardamyli serves traditional Greek dishes – open 6pm to 10pm from mid-April until November (lelastaverna.com). Simple rooms with seaview balconies from £35.
On the southernmost tip of the Mani Peninsula, the Kyrimai hotel is in a cluster of 19th-century stone buildings by the sea’s edge (kyrimai.gr). It has a first-rate seafood restaurant and a handful of tavernas at the nearby fishing village of Gerolimenas (within walking distance). B&B rooms from £81. A week’s B&B stay with flights and transfers is from £981 with Sunvil.
Flights from Gatwick to Kalamata airport, about an hour’s drive away, from £123 (easyjet.com). Further information at maniguide.info and visitgreece.gr