Welcome to my first blog post for some time. Life has been very busy with work, but mostly trying to buy a new house in Winchester which has been a very time consuming and frustrating process over the last five months or so. We may at last have found a house that might actually proceed to completion! Fingers and toes crossed.
I will also admit to having a certain degree of “blog block”, which, if you are unfamiliar with the ailment, is like writers’ block but somewhat less serious. The symptoms generally involve regular statements to my partner that ‘I must do something about the blog’ or ‘this weekend I shall really get down to writing some posts’. These can be accompanied with a feeling of guilt which soon passes as I substitute a long run on the South Downs or by the River Itchen for a session in front of the laptop. So you find me now a little slimmer, and a lot fitter, and, it would appear, to have overcome the “block” by writing this. Welcome back to me!!!
We shall start the year with a gentle warm-up post so I don’t overdo things. This is an article written by Artemis Cooper for Conde Nast Traveller and was published in January 2022.
PS – I’m off out running now I’ve done this! 🙂
Inside a restored Greek home that’s now open to visitors
By Artemis Cooper
First published in Conde Nast Traveller
The southern Peloponnese ends in three rocky peninsulas, reaching deep into the Mediterranean. The wildest and most remote of them is the middle one, known as Mani. It was the subject of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first book on Greece, and the place where he and his partner, the photographer Joan Eyres-Monsell, built one of the most beautiful houses in the world.
He and Joan had been looking for the right place on which to build for some time before they found it in mid-1962, just south of the village of Kardamyli. Set between two ravines, the headland jutted out towards the sea. In the evening you could watch the sun going down ‘until its last gasp’, as he put it, while to the east rose the great flanks of the Taygetos mountains, glowing orange and pink at sunset.
Known as Paddy to his many friends in England, he was Mihalis in Greece – his code name in the Cretan resistance, where he was celebrated for leading the team who captured a German general and whisked him off the island in 1944. After the war he became a writer, and by the early 1960s he had published four books. They were all successful, but he was so gregarious and easily distracted that writing was painfully slow. He needed not only peace in which to write, but an almost monastic seclusion.
Buying land in Greece is a complicated business, and it took two years to complete the sale; but the vendors let Paddy and Joan spend months at a time in tents on the site, poring over books on architecture, pacing out imaginary rooms and making ambitious drawings. They found a sympathetic design partner in Nicos Hadjimichalis, who had made a study of Greek vernacular architecture.
Work began in 1965, with a team of local workmen under Nikos Kolokotronis, a master mason. Stone was dynamited out of the hillside, hewn into blocks on the spot and sent down the goat track on the backs of donkeys. When the foundation stone was laid, Maniot tradition demanded a blood sacrifice. The master mason brought a black rooster, sliced off its head with his trowel and poured its blood into the footings, while a priest chanted and sprinkled holy water. There was no electricity in Mani at that time, so the house was built with traditional tools; and as the walls rose, Paddy and Joan made trips to nearby Kalamata where old houses were being pulled down to make modern apartments. They salvaged marble carvings, broken columns and fragments of stonework that lay abandoned, and set them like jewels into the fabric of their home.
I remember being rather daunted when I first came here in 1984, to interview Paddy about a book I was writing. The taxi had vanished in a cloud of dust and I was alone, in front of a forbidding pair of doors set in a long wall. I had to hammer on them for several seconds before it was opened, with profuse apologies. He walked ahead with my case, chatting amiably. I followed along a pebbled path, inhaling the scent of lavender and rosemary. We passed through another pair of doors to the left, where I stopped with a gasp.
Framed by an arch from which hung a large lantern lay the green folds of a hillside: olives and pomegranates in the foreground, rising gently to a grove of cypresses with woods of pine and ilex in the distance. It looked as if all of Greece, bathed in light, was waiting for me to step into it. That night we had dinner overlooking the silvery sea, on a terrace with a marble table. Just below, a steep flight of rough-hewn stairs led to the cove from which Paddy swam every day. Outside and inside had little meaning in this airy house. Joan’s cats (‘born down-holsterers,’ said Paddy fondly, as they dragged their claws across the furniture) drifted through open doors and windows.
The heart of the house is the library, which John Betjeman once described as ‘one of the rooms of the world’. Low divans and arm-chairs invite happy hours of reading and talking round the fire. I remember Joan here, on the sofa with a book, a cat at her feet. On her lap was another cat, occasionally used to prop up the book.
Every year, the village would celebrate with Paddy on his Greek name day: 8 November in the Orthodox Church. It began with a service at the chapel in the olive grove, a five-minute walk from the house, so small that only the priest and his altar boy could get in. We all stood outside laughing and chatting until it was over, and then everyone repaired to the house for a feast that lasted most of the day. Later Paddy, accompanied by a two-man band of fiddle and accordion, led the dancers singing and looping across the terrace.
As the Leigh Fermors grew old I came more often, and especially after Joan’s death in 2003, which left Paddy desolate. Houses by the sea always feel clean, but even this one began to show signs of age: any book picked off the shelf released a shower of silverfish and dilapidated shutters fell off hinges stiff with rust. As Paddy’s sight failed, his study sank into a jumble of papers. While I was working on his biography, we would spend long hours at the southern end of the library, in the Turkish khayati overlooking the bay. We used to talk about his life, going over his old war reports and letters until he would sit back and say, ‘I think it’s time for a drink, don’t you?
Paddy and Joan left their house to the Benaki Museum; and until this last visit, I had not been back since it was restored. I was, I admit, apprehensive; but as I walked onto the terrace and into the library, I felt moved to tears. The essential spirit of the place was vividly present – but clearer, fresher, more alive. Details I had almost forgotten, such as the colours of Paddy’s intricate pebble designs on the terrace, had been revealed in all their glowing precision.
This is thanks to the painstaking restoration made possible by a grant from the foundation set up by the late shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. New heating and cooling systems have been installed; the roof has been insulated, and old tiles carefully cleaned and replaced. The garden has been replanted, while leaving the wild myrtle, juniper and marjoram that always gave the place such a distinct smell. Discreetly set on a lower terrace is a new pool, where I swam before a lunch of local cheese, meat and dried figs.
In a house so open, the museum has understandably left little for the souvenir-hunter. But I spotted Paddy’s old chart of the kings and queens of England on the bathroom wall, exactly where I had remembered it. Paddy and Joan have been gone for many years, but the house they left has been given a vivid new lease of life.