Under the peak of Mount Taygetus, the wooded Vyros Gorge tumbles into the Gulf of Messinia at the small port of Kardamyli. Around the headland is a blue cove and the hamlet of Kalamitsi. A flock of low, white houses, their pantiled roofs the color of burnt orange, huddle under stripes of gray-green olive trees. A stony track declines sharply from the road. Then, as stones turn to sand, a narrow path forks uphill along the flank of a promontory. From the house at its summit, the olive terraces slide seawards towards a cliff.
The Mani, a rocky peninsula hanging from the southern coast of the Peloponnese, is often compared to the Highlands of Scotland. The landscape is mountainous and mottled with scrub. The people are insular and excel at the arts of feud and hospitality. Their homes are crenellated with towers and battlements, fortifications against the Franks, the Turks, and the neighbors. The exterior of this particular house is a thick-walled cross between a farmhouse and a fortress. A door of medieval solidity stands sentry at the gatehouse; a metal grille permits parley with strangers.
Passing the gatehouse, however, the lines soften and the stone curves. On the left, a Moorish colonnade marches to the sea, past a file of bedrooms and a dozing cat, the last arch framing a blue half-circle. Along the central axis are more bedrooms. In one, a weathered tweed jacket and a pair of walking boots wait in the closet; on the lavatory wall is a sun-paled genealogy of the kings and queens of England.
The right wing is a single oblong, a library-cum-sitting room. Bookcases are cut into stone recesses. A table dressed in Cycladic swirls of green and white marble carries enough booze to float a battleship or an English house party. At the shaded eastern end of the room is a cushioned divan; at the western end, a wooden, windowed balcony of Balkan provenance floats over the azure sea like the cabin of a pirate captain.
The mantelpiece is jammed with photographs, souvenirs, and scraps of paper with friends’ phone numbers. On the Cycladic table, the host’s favorites, Famous Grouse and Stolichnaya, wait among half-empty evocations of the British Empire: Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, Angostura bitters, a Greek variant of tonic water. But the bubbles in the tonic have long evanesced into the lemony Greek air: The host, the legendary soldier, traveler, and author Patrick Leigh Fermor, died in 2011; his partner, Joan Eyres Monsell, predeceased him in 2003. Their house is empty but for the cat, the orphan of Joan’s once-plural brood. The Leigh Fermors’ housekeeper, El-pi-da Bel-o-yan-nis, tends their home like a shrine. Outside, the gardener, Christos, clips and prunes beneath a straw hat.
The British are famous for removing ancient monuments from Greece, not for donating modern ones. The Leigh Fermors bequeathed their house to the Benaki Museum of Athens as a retreat for writers. But its future is not written in stone.
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, OBE, DSO—known to friends, retainers, and a global army of readers as Paddy—was the last living contender for the kingdom of literature’s Habsburg crest, the double-headed crown of man of letters and man of action. A conscientiously Byronic inheritor of the British romance with Greece, Leigh Fermor was a warrior-writer in the line of Philip Sidney and T. E. Lawrence. He was also one of the great stylists of 20th-century English prose.
Leigh Fermor’s writing, like his biography, is one of the last monuments of the imperial age, when the British were not merely worldly, but global. His tone is a late outcrop of Bloomsbury—delicate, languid, melodious, precise—but purged of provinciality. His clauses flow with a French rhythm, the décadence of Second Empire Paris, and are studded with a cosmopolitan glitter of linguistic borrowings and historical speculations. Leigh Fermor was a travel writer in the sense that Pepys was a diarist. Every turn of his road evokes reflections on history, art, religion, and language. Investigations of folk songs, dances, and cheeses lead to anecdotal hunts for a pair of slippers that might once have shod Lord Byron, or a fisherman who might be the lineal descendant of the last emperor of Byzantium.