Today I had the honor of visiting Patrick Leigh Fermor’s home in Kalamatsi (just around the bend from Kardamyli), author of many travel books including A Time of Gifts about his epic journey from London to Constantinople in the early 1930s. A British travel writer par excellence schooled in the classics at The King’s School in Canterbury with the likes of Alan Watts, Fermor’s interest in contemporary and ancient Greek language and literature led to his placement in British foreign service in Crete and Greece during WW II where he fell in love with the wild remote beauty of the Peloponnese.
As a young man he was relatively feral in his habits and decided at the age of 18 that walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople would suit his temperament. He set off on 8 December 1933, less than a year after Hitler had come to power in Germany, with a few clothes, several letters of introduction, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horaces’s Odes. He slept in barns and shepherds’ huts, but also was invited by landed gentry and aristocracy into the country houses of Central Europe. He experienced hospitality in many monasteries along the way. He wrote about this journey in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) while living in his home in Kardamyli. A book on the final part of his journey was unfinished at the time of Leigh Fermor’s death, but was published as The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos in September 2013 by his publisher John Murray. The book draws on Leigh Fermor’s diary at the time and on an early draft he wrote in the 1960s.
Fermor arrived in Istanbul on 1 January 1935, then continued to travel around Greece. In March, he was involved in the campaign of royalist forces in Macedonia against an attempted Republican revolt. In Athens, he met Balasha Cantacuzène (Bălaşa Cantacuzino), a Romanian Phanoriate noblewoman, with whom he fell in love. They shared an old watermill outside the city looking out towards Poros, where she painted and he wrote. They moved on to Baleni, Galati, and Cantacuzene in Moldavia, where they were living at the outbreak of the Second World War.
In later travels he hiked from Sparti over Mt. Taygetos and spied the peaceful cove of Kardamyli. It was in this cove that he decided to build a home for he and his second wife Joan in 1965 utilizing local villagers to lay stone flooring and design the garden. He employed an architect as well, though the final design was primarily his vision. He stayed at the house for 8 months every year until his death in 2011. Apparently he was able to take care of himself till the end and dined at the table the night before he died. Every winter he would go back to his home in England. We were lucky enough to have a tour of the place hosted by his cook and helper of 11 years. She told us a bit about his habits. He would rise every morning at 8, take his breakfast in his study at 8:30, and then begin his writing and reading, which would continue throughout the day into the evening. He loved to swim to the small island offshore from his seaside home, and would take lunch at 2pm and dinner at 9pm. He hosted many friends and traveling dignitaries and writers during his time here (less so in his later years), and in his will stated that his home continue to be used to house traveling scholars and writers. The Bernaki museum association (Athens) was meeting today at the house to begin discussions on repair and maintenance so that the home can be used in the near future for such purposes.
The housekeeper said that she asked him about working for a position in 2000, and for the next 11 years cooked and helped him read and respond to letters from adoring fans, as his sight was failing. According to her testimony he didn’t actually smoke the 80 – 100 cigarettes per day he was rumored to have, but rather left them half smoken and lit in ashtrays all over the house. She also knew his wife Joan who died in 2008. Apparently she had a very good heart and loved cats. The house and study were built from local materials primarily, though the floor in many rooms was of soapstone quarried from one of the islands. The living room ceiling was built of local pine from the mountain and patterned after that of homes in northern Greece. The study, living room, master bedroom, and kitchen had beautiful rounded fireplaces which reminded me of those I’d seen in the American southwest.
Today was the first time in 2015 that visitors were allowed. Apparently others have asked requested a tour but there wasn’t staff to manage it until now. I felt very lucky to be part of the 15 or so people in the tour, mostly British citizens. The house had a very peaceful and rustic sense about it. Fermor had a large vase of foreign coins and some antiquities (parts of statues, mosaic flooring, amphoras from sea wrecks amongst others) in various window sills and on the fireplace mantle. His book collection was behemoth and spanned everything from the classics to poetry (including Auden, Pound, Yeats) to history (especially of the Balkans) to art history. It reminded me of the house of a dear family friend, John Clyde Thomas, in its furniture, collected objects, books (both in number and subject), and general feel. I lived in the Thomas abode for several months after college and felt a sense of nostalgia today. The gardener and housekeeper were kept on after Fermor’s death to ensure that the house and gardens are maintained in the same condition as when Fermor was alive.
It was a happy accident that I stumbled upon his home. I arrived in Kardamyli only two days ago and happened to ask Mary, the owner of Maistros cafe, for ice for my sprained toe. I had earlier hiked up to Zarnath castle, apparently a relic from Byzantine times and later inhabited by the despotate of Morea under Frankish rule. It seems that I was the first visitor for many months, and the rusted fence was tied together with many unruly chords. I succeeded finally in untying it only to be caught by the string as I passed. I fell hard on my face and bent my toe at an unnatural angle (I’m still not sure it’s not broken).
In any case, as I iced my toe and checked email on wifi, Mary told me about Fermor’s history and life. Previously unknown to me, I sat spellbound listening to the tale. She suggested that there might be tours of his home and I found out that there were on Thursdays and Saturdays. As I said, a happy accident. Sometimes bad things (badly stubbed toes) lead to good things (getting the chance to vicariously experience the life of a person who has made history). Fermor was described by a BBC journalist as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene. Glad to know that, in some small way, my strange and unpredictable wanderings follow in the footsteps of men like Fermor. Days like today are reassuring and make me feel that I am good company, as I often wonder about the value of my travels (and my life as a whole). I downloaded the first in a sequel, A Time of Gifts, his epic recounting his travels (mostly on foot) from Holland to Budapest in 1933 – 34. An audio of this accompanied me for the rest of my travels through Greece. It would have been more appropriate to my trip to listen to his epic Mani, but I was already hooked after a few pages of his northern European adventure and needed to finish it before starting another.