When Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British polymath-author-soldier, was knighted in 2004, the BBC described him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” On his death in 2011 at 96, The Times of London alluded to “a remarkable life.” That was an understatement.
In 1933, at 18, he decided to walk across Europe to Istanbul—with only a rucksack, mostly solo, often sleeping rough but with a handful of useful introductions that resulted in the occasional civilized stay in a castle or château. This journey was later recounted in the books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, discursive but marvelous examples of first-rate travel writing, and memorable not just for the adventures he describes but for the wistful glimpses of a world that was about to change forever.
Yes, “Paddy” Leigh Fermor could write. From A Time of Gifts: “The notion that I had walked twelve hundred miles since Rotterdam filled me with a legitimate feeling of something achieved. But why should the thought that nobody knew where I was, as though I were in flight from bloodhounds or from worshipping corybants bent on dismemberment, generate such a feeling of triumph? It always did.” And from Between the Woods and the Water: “Scattered with poppies, the golden-green waves of the cornfields faded. The red sun seemed to tip one end of a pair of scales below the horizon, and simultaneously to lift an orange moon at the other.”
(Of course, such determined evocativeness comes at a price. Here’s the satirist Craig Brown channeling Leigh Fermor: “Day 1. Yanina, 8 March. We arrive in Prevaza from Yanina with Konitsa and Kalpaki before venturing forth to Kalpaki with Prevaza and Yanina. Umbrous olives procrastinate pleadingly over the weary waters in the priest’s leafy garden overlooking a forested valley along which a repining river flows flowingly.” Etc.)
War Hero and Homemaker
A decade after his teenage trek, Leigh Fermor was a war hero. In 1944, while stationed on Crete, he ambushed and captured a German major general (with whom he then bonded over an affection for the Odes of Horace). By the 1960s, he and his wife, Joan Leigh Fermor, had settled permanently in his beloved Greece. He’d already published books on the regions of Mani and Roumeli, and it was in Mani, on the Peloponnese, that the couple built a house near the town of Kardamyli, using primarily local artisans and builders, with input from John Craxton, the painter, and the Greek artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. During their 50 years there, the Leigh Fermors entertained guests such as Bruce Chatwin, Nancy Mitford, and George Seferis. Paddy worked on his writing, Joan on her photography.
The stone villa is surrounded by olive trees and pines, a welcoming sanctuary in a beautiful secluded spot—just the sort of place, you can easily imagine, that his grimy and road-weary 18-year-old self would have happily (and predictably) fetched up at for a convivial month of conversation and ouzo in the impressive library.
And now, anyone can. The Leigh Fermor house—three buildings, including a writer’s studio—was bequeathed to the Benaki Museum of Athens. (Joan Leigh Fermor died at 91 in 2003, eight years before Paddy; the couple had no children.) Now restored, thanks in part to a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the house is open to the public for tours starting this summer. And beginning in 2020, it will be available for rental to scholars, writers, and others for three months each year, a stipulation of the Leigh Fermors’ bequest.
“These summer nights are short,” Leigh Fermor wrote in Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. “Going to bed before midnight is unthinkable and talk, wine, moonlight and the warm air are often in league to defer it one, two or three hours more.”
Really, what better environment to get some serious work done? —George Kalogerakis