‘My darling wretch, you are as nearly perfect as can be’

It’s a long time since we had a Daily Mail article on here to raise the tone, so I thought I’d correct that (!!!) and the lack of features about Simon Fenwick’s book about Joan.

Which rather lucky woman managed to catch and keep hold of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the dashing travel writer who, while in Crete during World War II, famously managed to kidnap a Nazi general and was awarded an OBE for his heroism?
It was a woman called Joan. Not the most exotic of first names, but Joan Eyres Monsell, born in 1912, the daughter of Sir Bolton and Lady Eyres Monsell of Dumbleton Hall, Worcestershire, was not only stunningly pretty — ‘a beautiful ideal, with the perfect bathing dress, the most lovely face, the most elaborate evening dress’, as one suitor described her — she also stood out from the upper-class beauties of her day in that she supplemented her mean rich father’s allowance by earning her living.

She, like Leigh Fermor, was a roaming spirit, and the two beautiful people were, this book shows us, made for each other.

Read more here.

Buy Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick

Advertisements

Work in progress at Kalimitsi

My thanks to John Burkitt for sending in these photographs. I have only just got round to opening his email.

He reports:

some photos attached of work on the house taken in late September/early October……from the sea off Kalimitsi beach and from paths going past the house. looked reasonably busy.

The must-see art museums of Athens

23-hamish-bowles-guide-to-art-in-athens-greeceVogue’s Hamish Bowles visits the Must-See art museums of Athens.

This year I sandwiched a blissful break on a remote Greek island in between trips to Athens—a city that, although beleaguered by the country’s economic travails, remains a hotbed of creative activity and cultural excitement.

As ever, it is the pluperfect place in which to explore millennia of creative achievement. My first stop was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and its embarrassment of treasures, along with the Acropolis Museum (with a surprising and stirring exhibition, “εmotions”). I also explored the fascinating Byzantine and Christian Museum for the first time—and found it to be still further testament to Greece’s many layerings of cultural influences.

Hidden away in the basement galleries, I might almost have missed the Techni Group exhibition, a tribute to the centenary of the group show of artists led by Nikolaos Lytras and his friends (among whom I particularly admired the work of Pavlos Mathiopoulos, Konstantinos Parthenis, and Lykourgos Kogevinas) that established modernism in Greece under the patronage of the visionary prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Thank goodness I managed to see it, because the work of the artists—evoking by turns the fashionable swagger portraits of Boldini and Sargent, the theatrical drama of Bakst, and the charm of the plein air painters of late-19th-century France—comes together as a powerful statement for a new national identity through art.

Onward to the Benaki Museum—one of my favorite museums not only in Athens but in the world. After my first visit a decade or so ago, I was so inspired by its beautifully displayed collections of vernacular Greek costumes (among many other treasures that span the millennia) that I raced to Paris to tell John Galliano about it. He sent a posse from his design team to research—and subsequently based one of his eponymous collections on the pieces (think: stiff wool dirndl skirts and rich embroideries). The museum has recently expanded its displays, so there are even more treasures to admire in its intimate rooms, and on this latest visit I was also lucky to catch the exhibition “Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece,” which is centered around the friendship of the artists John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, whose spiky, highly colored works exemplify mid-century style, and the brilliant travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who met one another in the 1940s after the war and were drawn together not least by their love of Greece.

The show, elegantly curated by Evita Arapoglou, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, Ian Collins, and Ioanna Moraiti (and in collaboration with the Leventis Gallery and the Craxton Estate), brings together not only their work but also images of the remarkable houses that they created: Nikos and Barbara Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s Baroque colonial finca on Corfu and Neoclassical mansion on Hydra; the ineffably stylish stone house that Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor built above the craggy coastline of Kardamyli in their beloved Mani region of mainland Greece; and Craxton’s modest fisherman’s house on the Venetian harbor of Chania in Crete. Video—along with still images of these enduringly inspiring places and interviews with friends of the late artists—brought their worlds of fecund imagination brilliantly to life and created a moving tribute.

Thence to the truly astonishing Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the inspiring new home to the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. Difficult as it is to imagine without the photographic evidence, the original site was apparently grim—a flat expanse of wasteland and concrete latterly used as parking for several of the stadiums built for the 2004 Athens Olympics and hemmed in by motorways that blocked the view of the Bay of Phalerum and the sea beyond. With a flourish of his pen and a giant bound of his imagination, master architect Renzo Piano envisaged the plot as a verdantly planted hill rising in a gentle slope the length of the site, and at its 33-meter peak it now soars far above the choking Athenian traffic below and offers heart-stopping views not only of the Aegean waters but a panorama of the city itself, along with its famed hills and the Parthenon. Beneath the slope, Piano placed the National Library of Greece and a sprawling, soaring cultural complex of performance and concert, dance, and operatic rehearsal spaces to house the Greek National Opera. (The ensemble that Piano has planned is meant to evoke the cultural meeting place of an ancient Greek agora.) The heart of the opera house is the 1,400-seat Stavros Niarchos Hall. The theater’s cherrywood and its scarlet fabrics evoke a classic 19th-century theater, but its state-of-the-art acoustics and Platinum LEED rating, along with Susumu Shingu’s mobile (which rises before performances much like the Swarovski Sputnik chandeliers at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera), place it firmly in the 21st century.

Social spaces and terraces on the upper floors, meanwhile, provide breathtaking panoramic views of the sprawling city itself and of the newly created park, the work of landscape architect Deborah Nevins, whose spectacular plantings of Mediterranean cypress, olive, almond, and pomegranate trees and stalwart maquis vegetation—including the sage, laurel, and rosemary that give the Greek islands and mainland landscapes their unique fragrance—have created a throbbing green heart in the city. I cannot wait to see a performance here.

Read the full article and look at the lovely images here.

Floral tourism: on the trail of Transylvania’s elusive crocus

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

In idyllic east European sunshine, I have been focusing on a crocus. It is not a purple or yellow-flowered hybrid, one of those Dutch fatties that city dwellers admire in spring. It is a lilac-flowered wild beauty, at home in Transylvania. Even in Romania, few realise the rare charm of its autumn flowers. It avoids main roads and towns, so I have had to ride to find it.

By Robin Lane Fox
First published in The Financial Times 17 October 2017

I recommend this sort of floral tourism. Mine was aimed at crocus banaticus, the iris-flowered crocus which has three big outer petals. I first discovered its distinctive beauty in the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, that seminal influence on the prose-style of the great travel writer Norman Lewis, as he once told me in his sitting room in Essex. About 40 years later, the same crocus was discovered in the same bulletin by Harriet Rix in Devon, my indomitable companion on our ride last year into the high floral meadows of Kyrgyzstan. While we put brave faces on the mountain storms, we discovered a shared love of this crocus and pledged in mares’ milk to find it in its Romanian home. She, not I, realised that it overlaps there with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, the immortal tale of his walk from London to Istanbul. In summer 1934, the 19-year-old Leigh Fermor trod above our crocus, dormant in the Transylvanian grass, while he eloped with high-spirited Angéla, one of those “times when hours are more precious than diamonds”. Between the woods and the meadows we might find gems which flowered in their wake.

The crocus is named “banaticus” from early finds in the Banat, territory that became a bitter triangular contest between Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, until the Treaty of Versailles divided it between the latter two in 1919. The most recent reports of the flower are further east, so we began our hunt in the Transylvanian villages founded by German-speaking Saxons. In the 12th century, the offer of land and a tax-free life lured thousands of Saxons to migrate from the area of modern Luxembourg and settle in Transylvania. They strengthened the land’s defences and vitalised its crafts and crops, terracing the hillsides and growing apples and productive vines. Between 1980 and 1990, many migrated in reverse. They were sold by Ceausescu, no friend of village life, to the Kohl government in Germany who saw them as loyal voters. Before Ceausescu’s fall, up to 250,000 Saxons returned to take up German citizenship, leaving only a rump to maintain churches, crafts and houses.

The base-camps for our adventures were Saxon houses restored since 1995 by the celebrated Mihai Eminescu trust. Its rentable properties range from double-fronted village houses to two fine manors at Richis and Malancrav with tempting libraries and rooms for up to nine guests.

We began in the Saxon heartland of Viscri whose fortified church gives a special sense of orderly Saxon life. Social ranks and the sexes were segregated in the congregation. Unmarried young men were sent up to the gallery from where they could look down on the plaited hair and hollow black headdresses of the unmarried Saxon girls. Only outside the church was contact possible, on a grassy circle that served as a dance floor. Inside, painted panels show sunflowers and lilies of the valley, “ladders to heaven” in German tradition, among roses and reflexed lilies. I thought of the red roses and “tiger lilies” that Leigh Fermor’s beloved Angéla pushed into his buttonhole at the train station as they took their sad farewell. Of crocus banaticus, there was no sign.

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Evidence soon emerged. The main churches of the Saxon villages are Lutheran and in Brasov’s Black Cathedral, their choirs were to assemble and mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As a noted soprano, Harriet was invited to join them and help with the higher notes. As a spectator with no religion, I was tagged with a wristband and allowed to watch from a front seat. While the choirs rehearsed, I researched the flower stalls of Brasov market and found two bunches of crocus banaticus on a flower-lady’s stall. She had no idea where they had been growing.

After Luther’s setting of Psalm 118, it was time to find out. Tagged by evangelicals, I set off for Copsa Mare where I met my Nemesis and fell in love. Nemesis is a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood mare, 17 hands 3, with a Czech passport. She is stabled nightly beside the tall dark Romulus who was once a gallop-on star in the film Prince Caspian. James and Rachel de Candole offer trips for up to four riders on their beautifully schooled horses, with picnics and overnight stays. Nemesis carried me smoothly past gardens of zinnias, cosmos and calendulas, flowers that I often recommend to readers here. White-flowered wild asters, another favourite, marked our ascent into beechwoods of exceptional beauty but as they also contain wild bears, we had to travel noisily. In Britain it is 12 years since I last halloaed legally for fox hounds. In Transylvania I have been halloaing to keep bears away.

In the crocus’s absence, nearby back gardens offered a big surprise instead — crops of exotic tuberose. An expert grower, Elisabeth, showed us the last tall stems of her crop before she sheltered their roots under winter covers. Tuberose is native to Mexico but it won favour with Maria Theresa, the Habsburg sovereign, and travelled east to the scent-loving Romanians. In rich acid soil, village growers water the plants that departing Saxons left in their care. They will either be gold or earth, they told Elisabeth, but she learnt the golden touch. Of the Banat crocus, however, she knew nothing.

In eastern Transylvania sightings of it are reported near villages of Hungarians, so we headed for a final hunt in Korospatak. There, horses are offered by Count Kalnoky, descendant of a great medieval line, but a sign saying “Shagya Club” marks his driveway, and at first we took it in an English sense. We reversed in haste, not realising it refers to crosses between Arab and thoroughbred horses. After an hour’s climb on brisk brown Rudi, I finally sighted our prey, lilac-blue crocus banaticus flowering leaflessly beneath beech trees.

The further we rode, the more it multiplied, always in damp semi-shade, never in open meadows. In the valley of Zalanpatak we found even thicker masses, including a rare white form, seldom in stock in any bulb-grower’s list. Spreading on the hillsides, were these crocuses natural escapees from gardens? Surely not: they have lived here for millennia, untroubled by Romans, Tatars and Turks who sacked the villages beyond.

In her superb book Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan describes how the Banat, a “bucolic backwater”, was split between Romania and Yugoslavia in 1919. She warns that it may yet prove contentious territory. In antiquity, Philip, father of Alexander, won a great victory on what was called the Crocus Field in northern Greece. If fighting breaks out in the Banat, I now know my role. Mounted on Nemesis, I will guard the priceless crocuses in its hills.

A word about boots

 

My Zamberlan 309 New Trail Lite GTX Walking Boots after walking 140 miles from Winchester to Exeter, October 2017

For those of us who walk, selecting good boots is probably the most difficult decision that we make. Whilst all other kit is binary – it either works or it doesn’t, like a stove or a waterproof – we never know about our boots until we have actually tried them in anger on an actual walk. Even then they may seem fine for the first few miles, or for a day walk. But how will they hold up to many days over varied terrain?

The choice is so very personal. Do we have wide feet, or balletically narrow? Are the toes on our right foot longer than those on the left? What about those seemingly large ankle bones that always rub? Of course we may also need to select boots for differing conditions such as the ability to take crampons.

I have struggled most of my life to find the right boots. The DMS boots issued to me in the Army were killers. The “improved’ version, the Combat High, was only marginally better. I had some fair success with a stout pair of Meindl boots which were much better suited to mountain walking than long trails. I used them on my 2013 walk to Santiago de Compostela, but I suffered various pains and blisters after a while. Eventually things settled, feet hardened and I wore them again (after a period in sandals and socks!!).

After the Camino, I searched for a replacement, seeking something lightweight and unsuccessfully tried some Scarpa boots which just didn’t size up correctly and caused problems after some miles, and another expensive pair of newer Meindl’s which again were not right and I gave them away.

Both my daughters successfully achieved Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards and as they got older and their feet stopped growing I gave them each a pair of Zamberlan boots. My eldest still has hers. Ten or more years on and after many, many miles, they have never given her any reason to complain. I thought maybe I should try Zamberlan next, but they are difficult to find. Last year I invested in a pair of Zamberlan 309 New Trail Lite GTX Walking Boots from Uttings Outdoors which is where I had bought the boots for my daughters. Since then I have walked over 500 miles in them, often day after day, carrying weight, and have never suffered from any pain or blisters. My lifelong search is over! Having said that, selecting good socks is also very important, but don’t worry I shan’t be showing you pictures of mine.

I thought that I would share this with you, as many of you will be walkers, and may experience the same problems that I have had. These boots are Italian and are therefore made on a small last. I am normally a size UK 11-11.5 (with narrow-ish feet) but I bought a size “Euro 48 – UK 12.75”. Size charts (and conversion charts) vary enormously so in essence I bought a pair at least one full size larger than normal. They are made from one piece of leather which means no seams to rub you, and the Gore-Tex lining works very well keeping my feet dry. Zamberlan make many other styles of boots (and Uttings appear to have the best range in the UK), but for support, comfort, and confidence, I cannot recommend my boots too much. So, if you are thinking about buying a new pair of boots consider these. But remember, we are all different, and what works for one may not work for another.

It would be great if you could join the debate and comment, telling us about your boot experiences!

The Benaki comes out fighting – progress at Paddy’s house

In late September the Benaki museum carried out an extraordinary publicity drive in London in an attempt to counter the ongoing criticism of its tenure of the house and progress with renovations. On 26 September I attended an event at the Hellenic Centre which was, I am told, similar in content to an exclusive evening held the night before at the Traveller’s Club.

by Tom Sawford

After an extraordinary period of silence, like an old boxer absorbing the body-blows of criticism for many rounds, the Benaki came out with all guns blazing in an attempt to explain how things were now really moving with the house project. No less than two of Her Majesty’s former Ambassadors to the Hellenic Republic were on the five person panel to ensure that we agreed it must be so.

To make sure we were in the right mood, we were first treated to the Benaki promotional video which portrays the museum as one of the most important cultural institutions in Greece, and indeed it certainly has a fine collection and many responsibilities including looking after the house of Nikos Ghika, which must be where Paddy and Joan got the idea in the first place. I encourage you to watch it here.

Irini Geroulanou, a member of the Executive Board of the Benaki, explained the details of the bequest and ran us through the events that have taken place since Paddy’s death six years ago. We do have to appreciate the serious financial circumstances that have existed in Greece and some of the tortuously slow bureaucratic steps that needed to be taken to secure permission to work on the house. Key events were the 2015 business plan for the house produced by AEA Consulting which outlined how the Benaki could make it self-funding, and the 2016 donation by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation which at last made money available to commence the works.

Ms Geroulanou went on to show glimpses of plans but, curiously, only a very few photographs of work on the house. The intention is to create five independent “units” including a work area and en-suite facilities to foster privacy, focus and creativity. A Common area will be centred on the “world’s room”. Winter will be a maintenance period; in the spring there will follow two months of academic residence; there will be two periods in the late spring and early autumn for “Honorary fellows” to use the house as the writers’ retreat that Paddy foresaw; in the summer, three months will be set-aside for holiday rentals, this forming the main part of the annual income. The house will become known as The Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Centre, and the Benaki plans to start a charity in the UK to create a dedicated endowment fund.

This was all very encouraging. But, as I say there were very few pictures showing actual progress at the house. Apparently the roof is being replaced but workers were reluctant to be photographed. The museum would do itself a lot of favours if it were to publish regular updates, with a few photographs on the House section of its website.

Ms Geroulanou also made time to counter the criticism made against the Benaki. She was passionate and very detailed in her rebuttal – countering the reports that had apparently appeared in newspapers (so not this blog then!) that donations had been turned down – giving us a detailed breakdown of all three or so donations which seemed to add up to the value of a good night out at a taverna in Kardamyli. There were other mentions of criticisms on “websites and blogs” (OK – guilty) which seemed to have struck hard at the Benaki, leading to “an unpleasant climate of suspicion”. I stand by the criticism I made a year ago about a lack of care of many of the smaller items in the house, but that is all now in the past.

It is encouraging to report that things are now happening. It is also good to know that the Benaki is a distinctly reputable and experienced organisation, and now with the funding it has, Paddy and Joan’s vision may be achieved within 18 months or so. I look forward to updating you on progress, as I also look forward to the Benaki sharing plans, reports, updates and photographs on its website so that the nasty “unpleasant climate of suspicion” does not return.

PS – apologies for the delay in posting this update. I have been working very hard, and away for a time on a personal pilgrimage on foot from Winchester to Exeter via Salisbury, Wells and Glastonbury. I encourage others to go! I can supply my route information.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques Is a Lush Portrait of a Lost World

Click to purchase

It’s not often that we get to see anything about Paddy’s one and only novel so I thought that you might like to see this recent review by Joe Blessing. Why not take some time to take a look at some of the interesting stuff on the blog about The Violins of Saint-Jacques?

“A ball is almost a short lifetime in itself… the ball goes on and on and the incidents stand out in retrospect like a life’s milestones against a flux of time whose miniature years are measured out in dance tunes.”—Berthe de Rennes

Most parties sadly cannot live up to those words, but the tragic Mardi Gras ball in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, spoken by protagonist Berthe de Rennes, truly contains multitudes. The extravagant soiree acts as a glittering prism, reflecting all facets of the culture and curiosities of the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques (modeled on Martinique) before the island’s daunting volcano erupts and erases the island forever.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a slim novel of beguiling contradictions. Though taking place largely over the course of one night, it still feels broad in scope, as the reverberations of that night ring out across the length of a well-traveled life. Another contradiction is that the accomplished novel, first published in 1953 and now reissued by New York Review Books, is the only work of fiction produced in a long life of writing by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor, who died in 2011, lived larger than life in a manner rarely practiced anymore. Compared by some to his friend Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, James Bond, his wartime kidnapping of a German general on Crete was so adventuresome that the great British directors Powell and Pressburger made a film of it, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor.

But Fermor is best remembered for an even more youthful endeavor, his 1933 journey by foot across an entire continent, from Belgium to Constantinople, which he began when he was just 18 and documented decades later in a trilogy of modern classics of travel writing, beginning with A Time of Gifts in 1977. His literary reputation rests largely on those books, which both channel his youthful exuberance and also overlay it with a lifetime of erudition, allowing him to expertly pick apart the varying threads of culture he found interwoven as he traversed Europe. Readers of those books will find that the same excellent eye for detail and deep curiosity about local customs in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which gives a truly staggering amount of cultural detail in just 140 pages.

A brief frame story set on an Aegean island (the area where Fermor lived most of his life) finds a Fermor-like Englishman meeting the mysterious but well-loved Berthe de Rennes in her twilight years. When her painting of Saint-Jacques catches his eye, he entices her to tell its story, the story of her wondrously happy childhood on the colonial outpost, and the fateful Mardi Gras night in 1902 when it all was lost.

Berthe moved from France to Saint-Jacques after losing her parents as a teen, taken in by her distant cousin, the Count de Serindan, and his family. Berthe is soon a cherished member of the family and a confidant of the witty Count. The Count is the kind of splendid character little seen outside of books, a patriarch who uses his wealth and power solely for the pleasure and amusement of those around him. On occasions like Mardi Gras, this largesse extends to the entire island and he spares no expense in hosting lavish parties the entire population looks forward to.

Berthe begins her narration on the day preceding such a ball, leading the reader through the elaborate preparations and the fierce anticipation felt by the young Serindans, especially Berthe’s closest companion, Josephine. A ball might seem a flimsy subject to some, but Fermor’s accomplishment is to see in the ball an embodiment of the island’s society and to organically provide details that cohere into a surprisingly complex portrait. Fermor gives readers the provenance of the songs played, the steps of dances, the length of the swizzle sticks, the scents of the floral decorations, the ingredients of certain drinks, and perhaps most fun, the colors and creatures on the elaborate costumes the black islanders wear as they dance through the streets.

Nor does Fermor withhold human detail, expertly sketching the prejudices and tensions between the proudly Royalist and conservative Creole aristocracy and the new governor just arrived from France with modern ideas. Berthe must leave the party when she learns her beloved Josephine is eloping with the governor’s rakish (and already married) son, leading her to a ship off the island’s coast that saves her from, but allows her to witness, the biblical destruction that wipes the site of her happy childhood off the map.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is so engrossing and brief that its flaws are easily overlooked. Fermor’s portrayal of any colonial life as idyllic might prove offensive to some, although he takes pains to distinguish the relatively peaceful race relations on Saint-Jacques from the brutal regimes on other nearby islands. The novel has a rather 19th century, predetermined approach to character and never takes the time to delve into any complex interiority or psychology. However, this approach is perhaps fitting in a story that’s not about human agency, but rather about the futility of it in the face of inhuman, impossibly powerful forces.

Fermor was an excellent student of culture, but his own wartime experiences gave him no illusions about their fragility. Despite all readers knowing the eruption is coming (it’s on the back of the book and heavily foreshadowed), it’s still a shock at how brutally and completely it destroys everything that Fermor has just taken such care in describing. The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a charming portrait of a lost world and a potent reminder of just how quickly a culture can disappear.