Gone for a walk in Greece

“YOU had better look out if you are going up to Anavriti.” The familiar words sound wonderful when spoken aloud in this cavernous, haunted and as yet sunless gorge. I repeat them, savouring their powerful energy.

Suddenly, I picture the streets of “roasting Sparta” and the Greek barber who, encouraged by his colourful customers, issued the warning as he clipped the dusty hair of a man now regarded as one of the world’s finest travel writers.

The barber’s words subsequently provided the opening salvo of what many believe is the best book in English about Greece.

by Ian Robert Smith

First published in The Australian 30 July 2011

Published in 1958, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese is a dense, erudite and hugely entertaining account of the author’s peregrinations in a region that, at the time, was remote, untamed and singularly archaic. Mani is also, more broadly, an affectionate portrait of a rural Greece where centuries-old customs were fast disappearing — “hammered to powder . . . between the butt of a Coca-Cola bottle and the Iron Curtain” — and for which today’s traveller hunts in vain.

I, too, am going up to Anavriti. And like Leigh Fermor when he came this way with his partner (later wife) Joan in the mid-1950s, I intend to use the village, perched on a spur of the Taygetos range, as a stepping stone into the Mani.

A battered copy of Leigh Fermor’s book resides in the top flap of my rucksack, both talisman and inspiration. Handily within reach in the side pocket is the Anavasi map of the region. Its bundled contours, crossed by the black-dotted lines of footpaths, reflect the momentous regions that await overhead.

Rich in myth and history, the Taygetos dominates the Spartan plain over which it looms like an impenetrable barrier. The northern foothills rise in the wilds of Arcadia. They shoot upwards into a vast, serrated ridge that culminates in the peak of Mt Profitis Ilias — at 2407m, the highest point in the Peloponnese — before dropping away through the Mani Peninsula.

Foothills clad in oak, hornbeam and black pine and daubed with villages buttress the eastern slopes. But the west is wild. Ancient gorges provide means of egress into this planetary world.

Some say this gorge is where the ancient Spartans left unwanted children to die. The rumble of plunging water resounds along its length.

In a large cave, a frescoed chapel, painted ox-blood red, crouches among icons and vases of the white Madonna lilies that grow wild on the slopes. Climbing further, past a sudden and terrifying drop, a curious sound wafts towards me; incoherent initially, it develops into an ethereal chanting that, echoing off the cliffs, sounds strange and beautiful in this wilderness. Bewilderment turns to rapt appreciation as I recognise the monks at Faneromeni Monastery, high above, conducting a Sunday morning service.

Beyond the monastery and a couple of antique threshing floors, Anavriti appears. Dwarfed by the glittering and snow-streaked Taygetos, several belfries and a cluster of stone houses adorn a hillside plumed with walnut, plane and cherry trees.

Not so long ago Anavriti had a thriving tanning and leather-goods industry and a population of several thousand. Nowadays, like most mountain villages in Greece, it is barely inhabited.

I amble along the main street, seeking wide balconies reached “by boxed-in staircases on wooden stilts”. In one such edifice, Leigh Fermor and Joan spent the night. Something similar faces a solitary taverna. Light-headed at finding myself in Anavriti at last, I lunch on spaghetti with rooster and abundant rose wine and, as a jovial crowd materialises, observe clouds thickening around the mountaintops. The taverna owner shrugs when I inquire what they portend, then asks, unhelpfully, whether I have a raincoat, before advising: “Go towards the good.”

This I attempt, only to become drenched, then unpleasantly steamed when the sun reappears, conjuring wondrous aromas from the glistening earth. The experience is chastening and, toiling upwards through fir forest, I conclude that following in the footsteps of literary legends can be tricky. Writing in Mani, Leigh Fermor gives fair warning.

“Feet became cannonballs,” he recounts, “loads turned to lead, hearts pounded, hands slipped on the handles of sticks and rivers of sweat streamed over burning faces and trickled into our mouths like brine.” I arrive, similarly challenged, at the author’s “unattractively alpine wall of mineral”.

It is the flank of Spanakaki Peak and also a crossroads. Intent on the Mani, Leigh Fermor bypassed Profitis Ilias and headed off to the right. Determined to tackle the summit, I veer left, up over a spur with a derelict sheepfold and across a meadow that, as thunder rumbles and rain buckets down, tilts vertically to the watershed. I reach this, hand-over-foot, but discover the view of the Messenian Gulf beyond obscured by thick mist breaking over the ridge.

Visibility shrinks to nothing as I’m engulfed, precipitating a tedious descent, followed by a forced march to the EOS refuge, where I meet a group from Athens who provide food, wine and spirited conversation. Occasionally the talk turns to Greece’s economic troubles and, predictably, as these are young people from the capital, nearly everyone has a sobering tale. They are related simply, without rancour and often with humour; but beneath the levity, disappointment and uncertainty are palpable.

The evening proves unexpectedly affecting and our farewells the next day, when I renew my assault on the summit, are heartfelt. I ascend through meadows thick with ferns, thyme and wildflowers, which give way to barren, stratified limestone, before an opening leads over the watershed. It might well be a door into another world.

Jagged pinnacles roll away to the north. Westward, rumpled slopes sundered by ravines plunge to the shores of the Messenian gulf. Silence reigns. Nothing moves except the clouds rolling across the peaks. I climb through them, tentatively over scree, on to a desolate platform scattered with stone huts and a roofless chapel dedicated to the prophet Elijah and crammed with icons, melted candles and votive offerings left by midsummer devotees.

The moment evokes a heady elation, tempered by disbelief that I am here, alone, atop the Peloponnese. Finally the sight of Kardamyli, fathoms below, reminds me it is time to catch up with Leigh Fermor. A headlong descent begins. Nightfall finds me in the Viros gorge. It is the ancient route to the coast: a massive, 14km-long canyon enclosed by fir-tufted cliffs and paved with boulders worn smooth by winter torrents, and not particularly restful.

Escaping next morning to Exochori, I locate a small chapel with a battered turret astride cicada-haunted olive terraces looking out to sea. In this lovely place, appropriate for a man who wrote so beautifully, the ashes of author Bruce Chatwin are scattered. I pause to pay my respects.

Kardamyli appears, its blond towers jutting above the sea. A cobbled path curls below the ancient acropolis. Nearby, adjacent to the reputed tombs of Castor and Pollux, I fall into conversation with a friendly English couple. Inevitably the name of Leigh Fermor comes up. We are speaking of the blood feuds in Mani when the woman says abruptly: “We’ve heard the funeral is on Thursday.”

Seeing my uncomprehending look, she adds, “You didn’t know? Paddy died last week.”

It was the day before I set out, ostensibly in his footsteps. The news fills me with sadness coupled with bewilderment at the workings of providence. I enter Kardamyli in a valedictory mood, passing through an arched gateway into a dusty square flanked by byzantine towers and a church.

In Mani, Leigh Fermor writes that Kardamyli was “unlike any village I had seen in Greece”. He and Joan loved it so much that they returned several years later and built a house in an olive grove.

Kardamyli remains laid-back and relatively unspoilt, with a long pebble beach, pretty stone houses, a small fishing harbour and friendly people. It is popular with trekkers who tackle the hinterland trails. But my walking days are over for now and my stay is marked by restlessness and an odd nostalgia. Each morning I swim to the wooded islet with the fortified wall and ruined chapel, a few hundred metres offshore. I scribble in cafes, drink with other travellers and dine out every night, once at Lelas, the waterfront taverna owned by the woman who was Leigh Fermor’s original housekeeper. Everyone, it seems, has a Paddy story to tell.

One morning, a strange impulse takes me. Just outside town, a path leaves the road and winds downhill through olive groves throbbing with cicadas. It continues, away from recent development higher up the slope, into a wilderness of trees and yellow grain fields where I pass a whitewashed chapel and, just beyond, a long stone wall, above which a mottled tile roof protrudes. Finally I come to a beach.

It lies just over the rocks, a hermetic cove enfolded by cliffs. A shiver sweeps through me when I realise: this is the place. Pushing through a wooden gate marked Private, I climb a stone staircase that zigzags up to a sprawling garden. Olive trees bestride ancient terraces.

The aromas of rosemary and cypress mingle in the hot, pulsating air. Paths of pebble mosaic thread between judiciously placed tables and benches of slate and a rambling house, built of golden stone, empty now, yet with the accumulations of a long and abundant life in place. An air of recent abandonment prevails. Leigh Fermor died in England.

Standing on the clifftop, beside one of those tables where so many delightful moments must have unfolded, I gaze out past the island to the distant peninsula, a smudge on the horizon. An age passes before I tear myself away.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese was first published in 1958. The acclaimed war hero and travel writer died on June 10, aged 96.

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