Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Greek villa prepares for its first guests

Paddy’s house is open for guests from 1 July, but the costs are high, and most “adoring fans” are unlikely to be able to afford the prices. This article sums it up  – ‘the house has been modernised to entice the kind of people wealthy enough to rent it’. It strikes me that we should suggest to the Benaki to set aside 2-4 weeks per season for lower cost rental and application by lottery for those less able to afford it. Are these prices in-line with the spirit of Paddy’s wishes? 

By Alev Scott

First published in the Financial Times 23 May 2020

It was February, and I was inching towards the waves that lap Kalamitsi beach, just south of the village of Kardamyli. The brilliant morning light — sharper than the haze of summer — fell on cliffs fringed by cypress trees; beyond them were orange and lemon groves, and the distant bleat of goats. There was no sign of human life. I am usually a fair-weather swimmer but the blue-green water was exhilarating, clear to the white sand and rocks below.

I looked back to shore; peeking out of the treetops was the honey-coloured house belonging to the English adventurer, Hellenophile and former second world war spy Patrick Leigh Fermor.

He designed and built it in the mid-1960s with his wife Joan and their architect friend Nikos Hatzimichalis. Most of the stone, prised from the foothills of the Taygetus range, was brought by mule; some large pieces were manhandled by Leigh Fermor and his team of local masons, “sweating and tottering” as they moved them into position.

About 500 metres from the beach below the house is a small, forest-covered island. Every day, until two years before he died in 2011, aged 96, Leigh Fermor would swim around the island and back, emerging “svelter and browner with every passing day”, as he wrote in a letter in 1985. I took a few, frozen strokes in its direction before swimming as fast as I could back to shore.

The house is almost as celebrated as the man himself, and there has been much excitement about its reopening. With no children to inherit it, the writer bequeathed it to the Benaki Museum, an Athens art museum founded by his friend Antonis Benaki. Leigh Fermor specified that he wanted his home used as a writers’ retreat, while acknowledging that this would be expensive, and granting permission for its rental in summer months.

After a painstaking renovation, it will finally receive its first paying guests on July 1, a fortnight after the easing of lockdown restrictions allows Greece’s seasonal hotels and villas to open up. It can be booked in its entirety, for up to 10, or as three self-contained parts: the main house, for six, and the guest house and “traditional house”, both sleeping two.

When I knocked on the imposing double gate, a smiling, middle-aged lady opened it — Elpida Belogianni, who worked as Leigh Fermor’s housekeeper in the final decade of his life. Behind her, workmen strolled around a manicured garden stretching down to the sea, and electricians checked newly installed air-conditioning units. “Come,” said Elpida, ushering me in.

I knew from photos that the house was beautiful, but I was unprepared for the way it lays itself open to the sea and sky.

Medieval arches wind around the main house, mimicking a Byzantine monastery. The walls, a metre thick to keep out the summer heat, are covered in art (the most valuable paintings by Leigh Fermor’s friends — Edward Lear, John Craxton and Nikos Ghika among them — have been replaced with facsimiles). On the terrace, the pebble mosaics reveal paw prints (cats were Joan’s favourite animal) and a winding snake (Patrick’s), while painted snakes grace almost every room of the house.

In his study, I noticed an anachronistic-looking copy of Gone Girl (second edition, 2013), presumably abandoned by a passing visitor but nevertheless duly catalogued by the Benaki Museum; Leigh Fermor’s signature in Greek characters had been stamped on its inside page.

Inevitably, the house has been modernised to entice the kind of people wealthy enough to rent it — each bedroom now has a television, and a newly built swimming pool is visible in the lower garden, just above the beach (“Paddy would have hated it,” Elpida confided). Leigh Fermor was house-proud, but also liked the shabbiness of his creation, as he explained in the 1986 anthology The Englishman’s Room: “The room and its offshoots sound grander than they are; but from the stern Mitford test — ‘All nice rooms are a bit shabby’ — the place comes out with flying colours [thanks to] time, wear, and four-footed fellow-inmates.”

When the Leigh Fermors arrived in Kardamyli in the 1960s, they had very few neighbours — the tiny chapel near their house, dedicated to the archangels Gabriel and Michali, was almost a personal one. Now, in part due to its extraordinary natural beauty and in part to his legacy, the bay has become a popular destination for both Greek and foreign tourists, especially for hikers.

The morning before my swim, I had set out on the mountain trail from Kardamyli to Sparta, a path much trodden by Leigh Fermor himself, and described in his book Mani (1958). I climbed up past medieval tower houses, surrounded by colour: almond blossom, anemones, irises and mysterious wildflowers; soon, the sea fell away behind me and ahead of me the last of the snow was visible on Mount Taygetus. For those wanting to experience the magic that kept Leigh Fermor here for nearly half a century, the view from the mountain to his house will reveal even more, perhaps, than the view from the sea to his house.

Al Hakawati الحكواتي (The Storyteller)

As ever I enjoyed the latest newsletter from the wonderful and very clever people at Eland books. They highlighted a series of readings on The HandsUp Foundation website which is a young charity raising funds and awareness for aid to Syria. They have recently launched a series of stories, read by some of the UK’s best-loved voices, including the likes of Levison Wood, Mishal Husain, Petroc Trelawny, David Dimbleby, Clare Balding (of course!) amongst others.

You might enjoy listening and perhaps contribute to their fundraising (listening is free). Start listening here.

A reading from Mani: In the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The travel firm Kudu Travel runs walking holidays, with some in the Mani. They are fans of Paddy! Here one of their guides reads from Mani after a drive to Gaitses, high on the western flank of the Taygettus range at the edge of the Koskarakas Gorge.

After a pleasant, three hour easy walk following the route taken by Paddy and Joan when they emerged from the overgrown gorge, after their momentous crossing of the mountain. They visited the ‘handsome old church’ on top of a knoll, and the neighbourhood where they sampled their first glass of Mani wine, and listened to a reading.

Kudu’s highly rated footsteps of Paddy tour to the Mani is due to run 10-20 October 2020.

Kim Wilkie chooses Two Figures and Setting Sun by John Craxton as favourite painting

‘Two Figures and Setting Sun’ by John Craxton. Copyright of the John Craxton Estate, all rights reserved, DACS 2019.

When asked to choose his favourite painting for Country Life’s ongoing series, My Favourite Painting, landscape architect Kim Wilkie chose Two Figures and Setting Sun by Paddy’s book jacket illustrator and friend, John Craxton.

Says Wilkie, ‘Landscape, for me, is more about light, sound and stories than appearance. You really can hear, smell and taste this painting. The vibrating patterns are mesmerising; they root a fleeting moment in a timeless place. The setting sun pulses, the motion in the waves and figures is slowly rhythmic and the mountains float on the horizon. I have stared at the painting for hours and it draws you in deeper. It drifts into your imagination.’

John McEwen on Two Figures and Setting Sun by John Craxton:

John Craxton first came to prominence in the early 1940s as a neo-Romantic painter in the pastoral tradition of the 19th-century Samuel Palmer. Craxton disliked being labelled, but, to his friend and collector Sir David Atten-borough, he ‘grudgingly admitted’ he would accept ‘Arcadian’ (John Craxton by Ian Collins, 2011).

John Leith Craxton was born into a musical family. His father was a pianist, musicologist and professor at the Royal College of Music and his mother, a descendant of Benjamin West, the second president of the Royal Academy, gave up a career as a violinist to mother her family of five sons (John was the fourth) and one daughter, the future oboist Janet Craxton. John was brought up in St John’s Wood, where his parents kept open house to young and old in an atmosphere of benign bohemian disorder. That spirit prevailed when, in old age, he presided over his parents’ later Hampstead home, the music room of which is still used by professional musicians.

For much of his life, Craxton lived and worked in Greece, latterly in Crete—suitably for an Arcadian, as Arcadia was originally a region of southern Greece. He was the artist counterpart of his friend, the Greek-based travel writer Patrick Leigh-Fermor, whose book jackets he illustrated.

Craxton took 15 years to paint this Arcadian homage to his adopted land, due to much revision, including the loss of a figure. A boy flings an octopus onto the quay: ‘The subject is Greek in its bones but what amuses me is the old romantic English love of mood coming out in me,’ he wrote.

Further articles about John Craxton here.

Creforce: the Anzacs and the Battle of Crete

Creforce book cover

I was recently contacted by Melbourne-based journalist Stella Tzobanakis whose parents are both from the Greek island of Crete. She has written Creforce: the Anzacs and the Battle of Crete, the release of the second edition of which coincides with Anzac Day 25 April 2020, and the 79th anniversary of the Battle of Crete 20 May 2020. Some of you may be interested in this new book written with children in mind.

Creforce: the Anzacs and the Battle of Crete is the dramatic story of the second Anzacs and their role in one of the biggest battles in the military history of Australia, New Zealand and its Allied forces during World War II.

The book is written for children 10 and up and explores the real-life `adventures’ and misadventures of more than 14,500 young Australian and New Zealand soldiers who were sent to the Greek island of Crete – famous for myths, Minotaurs and labyrinths – under the second formation of the Anzac Corps,to help defend it against Nazi Germany.

The book includes never-before told, first-hand accounts of those that lived through the battle, and reveals the author’s personal Anzac story, discovered whilst writing this book. It also weaves in the battle stories of extraordinary and real-life `characters’ including:

Roald Dahl: the famous British novelist and children’s author who was a fighter pilot.

Charles Jager: the 20-year-old amateur lightweight boxer from Richmond, Melbourne who loved the racetrack and Greek classical stories.

Charles Upham: the educated sheep farmer turned valuer from New Zealand who was single-minded, persevering, swore a lot and hated injustice. Upham is one of only three men to have won the VC twice and his obituary is here.

Reginald Saunders: the 19 year-old soldier who was the first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army.

Horrie the Wog Dog: the little terrier who became an unofficial mascot. He was smuggled into Greece, evacuated, bombed off his ship and carried messages for the Allies.

The people of Crete: who have been likened in the book to Ned Kelly for their outlaw-style tactics as part of the Cretan resistance. The most notable is The Cretan Runner, George Psychoundakis, an uneducated, poor, young Cretan shepherd who became a decorated war hero for aiding British soldiers, including author, scholar, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

You can purchase the book at https://stelitsahome.bigcartel.com . For further information on where to find the book contact info@stelitsa.com.au or try messaging Stella via Facebook Messenger

South Bank Show on Vimeo

Ever wary that material on You Tube etc may be taken down (there are too many broken links in the Video category), I’m posting this as a separate post just in case the You Tube version I published on 9 June 2019 (was it really almost one year ago?!!!!) is removed.

South Bank Show 15 minute excerpt from the 1989 show. Thank you to Freddie Gage for this.

Leigh Fermor, Southbank Show. from Freddie Gage on Vimeo.