By Alexander Billinis.
First published in The Hellenic Voice, 15 June 2011
I never had the honor of meeting Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor in person, though I know he often spent time in Hydra, my ancestral island, and I imagine that I must have raced by him some summer, a kid on the way to the rocks we called a beach there. Gone is Greece’s greatest biographer, perhaps the greatest travel writer in history, but his beautiful prose provides him with immortality.
Sir Patrick was born in 1915, in the thick of the First World War. He spent his first years in the English countryside, developing an independent, noble spirit that is the hallmark of the best of English eccentrics. Not for the structure of school, he had his own higher education on foot, traveling at 18 from the London docks via barge to the Dutch coast, and then traveling, mostly on foot, from the Netherlands to Constantinople. He stayed in haystacks, houseboats, small inns, and as his charm, good looks, exceptional facility for languages, and genuine intellect became better known, in palaces and castles.
He chronicled these travels in three books: “A Time of Gifts,” chronicles his travels from the Dutch coast to the Danubian frontiers of Slovakia and Hungary. His second, “Between the Woods and the Water,” describes his journeys and adventures through Hungary and Romania, ending, again, at the Danube bridge at Ruse, thence into Bulgaria. His third volume, about Bulgaria and Turkish Thrace, is currently in manuscript form and we can hope that it will be released as a posthumous tribute to Sir Patrick. I have had the benefit of visiting many of the places Sir Patrick describes, and his books are the perfect companion.
After successfully completing this journey to Constantinople, Sir Patrick went to Greece, the start of his lifelong association with the country. After spending some time in 1930s Greece, he went to Romania with his first great love, the Phanariot-Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene. With the coming of war in 1939, Sir Patrick returned to Britain to serve his country.
Sir Patrick’s knowledge of the Balkans resulted in a liaison posting to Greece, where he witnessed firsthand the heroism of the Greek counterattack of the Italian invasion. After the fall of Greece to the Germans, Sir Patrick worked with the Resistance in Crete, spending the greater part of two years as “one of them” and earning the lasting affection of the Cretans, which was mutual. Here “Patrick” became “Michali” as he was affectionately known thereafter in Greece.
It was in Crete that Sir Patrick/Kyrios Michalis, with the help of a small band of British and Greek commandos, and the general constant support of the heroic Cretan people that he pulled off his greatest coup – the capture of the German commandant of Crete, Gen. Kriepe. After a roadside carjacking near Iraklion, on Crete’s north shore, Sir Patrick and company hauled their quarry across Crete’s sheer and beautiful mountain spine to the southern shores where a British ship whisked him to British headquartersin Egypt. Sir Patrick recalls one morning, high in the Cretan mountains, when the general quoted passages from the Roman poet Horace, in Latin. Sir Patrick finished the verse, and the general and he, in the chaos of war, suddenly realized they once, as Sir Patrick said, drank from “the same fountains long before.” Years later, when meeting Sir Patrick again, Gen. Kriepe said that Sir Patrick treated him “wie ein Ritter– like a knight.”
Postwar, Sir Patrick knocked about in various places, including the Caribbean, but by the mid 1950s his center of gravity became Greece. He wrote two books, “Mani: Travels in Southern Greece,” and “Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece,” which are exceptional biographies of a land he came to love as his own. Many consider them the finest travel books ever written. He and his wife, Joan, an accomplished photographer, eventually chose the Mani for their home, and designed and built a house by themselves in Kardamyli.
Sir Patrick wrote prolifically in a prose from another time. His is an era outside the digital, soundbyte age – an era steeped in the Classics and elegance. It is easy to picture him as a youth in an Austrian schloss, charming his Triestine Greek hostess, dancing in a prewar club in Budapest, or composing
mantinades over raki and cracking walnuts with a pistol butt on some cliff off Mount Ida in Crete. He was at home in all these circumstances, and we have the privilege of vicarious attendance via his rich prose. He remained, as we say in Greek, a
gero potiri,a “tough glass,” and writer Anthony Lane wrote, in 2006, “If you think that you can match him ouzo for ouzo, on a back street in downtown Athens, you better think again.”
His love and knowledge of Greece was profound and profuse, and while his love did not make him blind to her darker sides, his ability to express Greece so beautifully and fundamentally, together with his plethora of friends and admirers in all places, no doubt enhanced Greece’s tourist appeal in the initial stages of the tourism boom. It is a pity that Greece of today, again in profound need, lacks such an erudite, elegant advocate. We could use one.
When writing about the passing of Georgos Katsimbalis, his dear friend, an intellectual giant, and a champion of Greek letters, Fermor wrote, “These pages are filled with landmarks that have vanished, but George, in a very special sense, is not one of them.” The same can be said for Sir Patrick.
Alexander Billinis is a Greek American writer living in Serbia. For readers unfamiliar with Sir Patrick’s writing, he recommends “Words of Mercury,” edited by Artemis Cooper.
A “tough glass” — fine phrase! — thanks for sharing.