Destination: Peloponnese, Greece
Book: Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese by Patrick Leigh Fermor
“All of Greece is absorbing and rewarding. There is hardly a rock or a stream without a battle or a myth, a miracle or a peasant anecdote or a superstition; and talk and incident, nearly all of it odd or memorable, thicken round the traveller’s path at every step.” P.L.F.
I will admit that I shy away from naming things “best”, but I belatedly read a list of the 20 best books on travel in the on-line London Telegraph and found that they had left out my personal favorite–and he’s British, too. (Go ahead and read their list–then come back and see who they left out.)
Several years ago my husband and I spent a week driving the Eastern part of the Peloponnese–with the objective of seeing some of the lesser visited parts of Greece. Our reward was a stay in the damp, dark, mosquito-filled stone tower-house in the Mani peninsula. Other than the mosquitoes, the experience fit the journey perfectly.
A drive through the Mani sometimes seems a bit surreal. I am amazed that no one has filmed a medieval or apocalyptic science fiction film there. (If they have, I’m sure one of my eagle-eyed readers will let me know.) Besides the wonderfully rough landscape, with the Balkan Mountains dwindling down toward the sea, the fields are dotted with three and four story gray stone towers. It looks as though someone had subtracted the Medieval castles that should be attached, and you are confident that the buildings date back to at least 1400. But they do not.
These buildings are houses built in the 19th century, not to protect against an exterior enemy, but to protect one family from the next. What terrible times to live in, when you distrusted your neighbor so much that you were willing to wall yourself up in a tower with limited access except by ladder to the 2nd floor.
Nowadays, few people live in these towers, but they were built for the ages, so photographers can have a hey-day. Patrick Leigh Fermor, my aforementioned favorite travel writer (neglected by the Telegraph) wrote the definitive book on the Mani, which he tramped across by foot, rugged mountain man that he was. He arrived in Greece during the 2nd world war and helped the rebels in Crete make life miserable for the German occupiers. He brought with him a classical education, and a finely observant eye. Although some of the man-made buildings he talked about have changed, much of the Mani is the same place that he traveled over, and his beautifully written book serves as a decent guide today (even though he says they are not guidebooks–see quote below). Fermor lived out his long life in Greece after the war.
Fermor also wrote about Northern Greece, Europe, and even the Caribbean, and I hope to get around to talking about his other books. But in the meantime, if you see a book by Fermor, buy it, read it, and then see if you don’t want to get away, traveling in his footsteps.
“These private invasions of Greece, then, are directed at the least frequented regions, often the hardest of access and the least inviting to most travellers, for it is here that what I am in search of is to be found. This is in a way the opposite of a guide book, for many of the best-known parts of ancient Greece, many of the world’s marvels, will be perforce and most unwillingly…left out.” P.L.F.