DURING MY FIRST trip to Greece, I visited the famed house of British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. It is located on a spit of land called Kalamitsi, near the village of Kardamyli, on the Mani Peninsula. This would have been the summer of 2012, only a year after Fermor’s death. Though undeniably grand, it was at that time still the rather disorganized home of an ambitious and deadline-phobic writer — crumbly books, precious artworks, and sentimental objects all jumbled together. In an essay on the house, Fermor quotes Nancy Mitford: “All nice rooms are a bit shabby,” going on to note that “decent proportions and rough building materials have the knack of swallowing up disorder and incongruity.”
Now it is possible to enjoy a stay on the property. Celebrated as one of the most beautiful in Greece, it was left to the Benaki Museum in Athens, with a mind to the public interest. The museum’s mandate was that the property be kept open to visitors and that it be offered as a retreat for artists and intellectuals. But the donation also allowed for the house to be operated, for 3 months a year, as a hotel by Aria Hotels. For that purpose, it has been updated and gently renovated to create distinct guest rooms.
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The structure has that aura of having been realized through force of imagination. In a letter from 1962, Fermor describes his first glimpse of the site: “a peninsula in the middle of a steep deserted bay, pointing S.E., E., S.W. and W., with a great amphitheater of mountains which turn a hectic red at sunset.” Hectic red at sunset! That’s the sort of observation that, when I am traveling, sharpens my awareness. Fermor dubbed it “Homer’s Greece,” to the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah, aka the Duchess of Devonshire, aka Debo — one of his frequent correspondents. But it was only several years later — some of those years spent wrangling complicated deeds, some spent living in tents — that Fermor and his wife Joan were able to realize what he’d initially imagined as a “rambling peasant house, with huge airy rooms, out of the local limestone, on one of those ledges of olive trees.”
Fermor was a prolific correspondent, and his letters are a kind of ideal travel read. They have that worldly zip, the kind of knowing effervescence in art that makes life seem a little fizzier and a little more real. New York Review of Books offers two volumes, as well as several of his other titles. Paddy, as he signs his letters, is liable to begin a missive to Debo: “You’ve got no idea how braced I feel!” Or to “Larry” Durrell: “I say, what is going on?” He writes of “lolling under the poplars while the wine cooled in purling brooks” on a trek through Turkey, or “a glorious hol on a yacht skillfully borrowed” in Greece. (Oh, to have such a skill.) One sign off goes like this — “A fine burly Croatian cook is approaching under the arbor with taramasaláta, glasses, ice, and ouzo-bottles, so no more for the moment” — not to make him sound too much like a sybaritic figure of the high life.
He began his career at 18 by walking from the North Sea to Istanbul. His letters make obvious his enduring interest in matters humble, mystical, and rare. In a letter to his editor, he describes with approving relish his first encounter with the Mani, the remote region that he was to make the subject of a book, and his home for the second half of his life: “Blood feuds everywhere, and the only music, rather beautiful strange poetical dirges … it gives one a hallucinating impression of village life.”
In the summer of 2012, I was tagging along with friends who were working on “Before Midnight,” the third in Richard Linklater’s romance vérité “Before” trilogy, which begins with a long drive from the airport in Athens and ends later the same day at a portside cafe in Kardamyli. A healthy percentage of the film is an alfresco dinner scene shot on a patio of the Fermors’ house, in which four men and four women riff on life’s big themes — love, time, art, sex, death — fluidly digressing from the spiritual to the profane.
Although this group philosophizing is masterfully woven into the film’s plot — which turns on fine-grain domestic revelations, subtle utterances between spouses becoming gradually explosive — I like to think that it also captures something of the house’s original occupants. In the letters, Fermor tells of the dramatic arrival of shipping billionaire Stavros Niarchos by helicopter, bearing the publisher Cass Canfield and others. Fermor and his wife were also visited by such writers as Bruce Chatwin and U.K. poet laureate John Betjeman, who declared the Fermors’ living room in Kardamyli as “one of the rooms of the world.” But it was also a place of solitary contemplation, as the letters attest, a place where Fermor immersed himself in local history and ritual and integrated himself into Greek political and intellectual life. As a British intelligence officer during World War II, Fermor was embedded in the Cretan resistance, during which time he both posed as a shepherd and orchestrated the capture of a German general. He continued to correspond with his comrades from that episode for the rest of his life.
Before I visited, the idea of Greece had not captured my interest. Once there I was smitten, of course. It is one of the mysteries of the place, that for all its stunning beauty, the quality of being there cannot be captured with visuals alone. What is it, that elusive quality? A lot like “Before Midnight,” actually — in one scene, a modern dad drags a very modern blow-up crocodile through a timeless landscape. During the summer of 2012, I followed that same steep path to the little pebble beach and, with my friends’ children, swam out into the cove. Yet that wedge of landscape looked much like Fermor described it 50 years before: “The peninsula descends like a giant, shallow staircase of olive groves to a low cliff thirty feet above a deep blue-green glittering sea, with trees and wild sweet-smelling shrubs to the very brink. Not a house in sight, nothing but the two rocky headlands, an island a quarter of a mile out to sea, and a vast expanse of glittering water, over which you see the sun setting till its last gasp.”
My friends and I talked about swimming to that island, but I don’t think anybody did, and perhaps it would have been an impossible journey. Swimming around the cove was adventure enough, after which I sat on the beach, reading Henry Miller’s Greek travel book “The Colossus of Maroussi.” (The titular “colossus,” by the way, is the Greek intellectual George Katsimbalis, who was another frequent pen pal of Fermor’s.) On a trip to Delphi, Miller takes in the “superhuman” atmosphere, and reflects: “In Greece, one is ever filled with the sense of eternality which is expressed in the here and now.” One of the wonders of “Before Midnight” is how two hours can capture the feel of a day, and a day can capture a life partnership — which is something like the experience of sitting on the stone ledge of Paddy’s house, aware of the acuteness of an instant and simultaneously the great spread of recorded time, as the sun sets to its last gasp.
Anna Godbersen Writer
Anna Godbersen is the author of several novels for young adults, including the best-selling Luxe series. She is the current Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence at NYU.
Marco Argüello Photographer
Marco Argüello was born and raised in Texas and has called Greece home for the last five years. Past clients include the New York Times, Airbnb, Wallpaper, and Monocle, among others.