If it weren’t for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’ we’d never have come so far south. This soaring compendium of travel notes and occasionally obscurantist interpretations of local, Byzantine and Greek history is not easy reading – but it is essential reading, densely populating the Mani’s stark landscape with stories and observations that bear endless scrutiny.
True to the spirit of philoxenia*, Leigh Fermor’s own house in Kardamyli on Mani’s west coast was kept famously and generously open to friends during his lifetime. Following his death in 2011, it was bequeathed to the Benaki Museum in Athens and is, I was informed, currently undergoing renovation. Thus denied ingress, I turned to the footsteps of another landmark British travel writer Bruce Chatwin. Inspired by Leigh Fermor’s knowledgeable enthusiasm for all things Maniate, Chatwin visited more than once, latterly in the mid 1980s to work on The Songlines.
Such was the Mani’s lure that Chatwin, sickening of AIDS, left instructions to have his ashes scattered close to a church in Chora, a small village in the hills above Kardamyli. Chatwin died, aged 48, in January 1989. A couple of months later, hither to Mani came his widow Elizabeth with his ashes. Led by Leigh Fermor, a cohort of friends and mourners traveled uphill to Agios Nikolaos in Chora to celebrate Chatwin’s life between olive groves and soothing views of the Messenian Gulf. And hither we now came, to see all this for ourselves.
We’d stayed overnight in the neighbouring village of Exohori. Over a lovingly prepared breakfast we discussed the morning’s itinerary with our hostess Eleni. Yes, she said, of course they’d heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor. The “church of his friend’s ashes” was just down the road in a generally leftward direction, followed by a sharp right at the end of the village.
Bearing this in mind, we set off, soon finding ourselves in several picturesque dead-ends. Startled from mid-morning ablutions, long-tailed cats moved indignantly into shadowed courtyards. The clatter of pans heralded the preparation of Sunday lunch. Curious faces peered over crumbling walls. One of these was in the process of being repaired by a cheerful gentleman: Stavros, or Steve as he introduced himself. Steve spoke excellent English—he’d spent long years in the US and Canada with the National Bank of Greece—and was repairing the wall in anticipation of his mother’s visit.
Could he tell us how to find Agios Nikolaos, where the ashes of …
yes, some British writer …
Down the alley, said Steve, stay left and then right.
Ten minutes later, still no wiser, I asked another friendly gentleman for help. Peering into the shuttered kitchen he consulted with his wife, foretelling our arrival at the end of the left-bearing lane in a few minutes. Then: turn right down an overgrown path – “careful please” – and immediately left along a path, and there it would be.
We found the house. And the stonewalled path. And at the end of it appeared, through a gap in the wall, a small Byzantine church. Agios Nikolaos – now also known as “the church of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s friend’s scattered ashes”. It was locked, but the view was open. We sat, stunned into anoesis** and contemplated the end that Bruce Chatwin chose for his life’s narrative. A good choice.
But this is only half the story.
Returning through the hole in the wall I meet Adonis, whose English is as limited as my Greek. He is feeding his chickens and invites me into the coop to inspect the well-soaked bread and vegetable leftovers on offer. He spreads his hands in question: what am I doing here? Helplessly, I point to the church and make a writing gesture.
He understands and nods. Trick Leak Fema …?
he says. He makes a scattering motion, dispersing ashes. His chickens bustle up around him, anticipating food. As I leave, Adonis presses a gift of two freshly laid eggs into my hands. It’s 30 degrees in the shade and we’ll soon be driving south but his smile is irresistible.
A little later, I pass Steve again, pottering around with his wall. Would he mind .. a photo …with the eggs, so that I can operate the camera?
At the hotel, Eleni cooks the eggs and packs them, with freshly baked bread, into a brown bag. Finally we leave, entranced.
“The recognition over, the rest seemed like a dream.”
*Philoxenia: Greek hospitality/love of strangers; **Anoesis: a state of mind consisting of sensation.