The abduction in April 1944 by British SOE agents and Cretan partisans of the German commander in Crete, Heinrich von Kriepe, was one of the most daring feats of the Second World War. It also produced a moment in which Classical erudition reminded two combatants of their common heritage amid a conflict that was destroying civilisation.
As the kidnap party paused on the slopes of Mount Ida its leader, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), heard Kriepe mumble: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte.’ Leigh Fermor recognised the opening line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum – ‘See how Soracte stands white with snow on high.’ Having translated the ode as a schoolboy, he picked up on it at once and completed the verse. At that moment he and his enemy realised that they had, in Leigh Fermor’s words, ‘drunk at the same fountains’ in their youth and… ‘for five minutes the war had evaporated without trace’. While he was at the King’s School, Canterbury, his housemaster described Leigh Fermor as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’ and this proved to be prophetic.
The Mount Ida episode has become the most celebrated in the Leigh Fermor legend. On his death in 2011, his obituary in the Daily Telegraph cited him not just as the author of ‘some of the finest works in the canon of English travel writing’, but also ‘one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century, a man both of action and learning, a modern Philip Sidney or Lord Byron’.
The Patrick Leigh Fermor Society, founded in 2014, is dedicated to preserving Leigh Fermor’s memory. In June, I had the pleasure of leading a dozen intrepid travellers on the Society’s inaugural tour, an unforgettable and often moving journey, In Paddy’s Footsteps. As we traced the paths of Leigh Fermor’s life the paradoxical nature of his Philhellenism met us at every turn.
In 1810, when Byron swam the Hellespont in emulation of the Greek mythological hero Leander, he was 32 years old; in 1984, when Leigh Fermor swam from Europe to Asia he was 69. After a strong start, he found himself struggling against a fast current. His reflections as he swam encapsulate the historical double vision of the Philhellene who views the swirling waters of the ancient past from the promontory of English Romanticism.
‘So here I was, floundering across the wake of the Argo, a mile north of Xerxes’ and Alexander’s bridges, only a few leagues from Troy and about a mile south of the point where Leander, Lord Byron and Mr Ekenhead [his fellow-swimmer] swam across; but too concerned with the current to think of them in more than fitful snatches.’
Leander drowned after one crossing too many to visit his lover Hero, smashed on the rocks after her torch to light his way blew out. Byron made the crossing in one hour and 10 minutes; Ekenhead, a young lieutenant in the Royal Marines, was five minutes faster; Leigh Fermor took a little less than three hours. Staggering ashore, he claimed to have ‘beaten all records for slowness and length of immersion’ and to have swum like a ‘Victorian clergyman’.
In the water, he had been thinking like a Victorian too, mixing the myths of the Classical curriculum with Byron’s literary legend, whose backdrop had been the Greek War of Independence and the emergence of a modern nation state. Like Byron, Leigh Fermor recognised what he called the ‘Helleno-Romaic Dilemma’, a tension between two aspects of Greek identity.
The ‘Hellene’ is the pagan glory of Classical Greece, symbolised by the Parthenon. The ‘Romios’, the often prosaic and humiliating history of Byzantine and Ottoman-era Greece, symbolised by Hagia Sophia, before and after its conversion from a church into a mosque.
In Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966) Leigh Fermor wrote: ‘All Greeks are an amalgam, in varying degrees, of both; they contradict and complete each other.’ To demonstrate their compatibility, he listed the attributes of the two identities in parallel columns. He also allowed that, while Romiosyne, the ‘Romaic-hood’ of the ‘Roman’ Greeks, has ‘the pungency of the familiar and the immediate’, the abstract image of Hellenism has ‘the glamour of an idea’. As the imposition of the ‘pure’ spoken idiom of Katharévousa over the variants of dimotiki shows, modern Greek governments prefer the ideal to the familiar.
Robert Byron (1905-1941), the pioneering travel writer whose rucksack and ironic tone Leigh Fermor borrowed for his ‘Great Walk’ across pre-war Europe, came down on the side of Romiosyne, and idealised the familiar: Byzantium, not Periclean Athens, was the glory of Greece. But in Leigh Fermor’s calibration, the balance of Hellenes and Romios possesses the ‘curious fabricated beauty’ that he detected in the poems of Cavafy. Periclean rigour sustains Romaic flair, like ‘cunningly placed bits of whalebone in the more sinuous demotic’.
Leigh Fermor, of course, was not a Greek politician but an English writer. Distance, national and aesthetic, allowed a reconciliation of Hellenic and Romaic elements, just as it allowed him to maintain diplomatic neutrality on the question of the Elgin Marbles. His demotic was English, after all. As a teenager, he had decorated his Greek grammar with ‘scrawled and inky processions of centaurs, always bearded like Navy Cut bluejackets and often wearing bowler hats and smoking cherry-wood pipes’.
We encounter the limits of aesthetic neutrality on the first day of the tour. The new Acropolis Museum raises the Philhellene’s dilemma, the integrity of the Parthenon Marbles. Viewed from above, the museum, which opened in 2009, is grounded on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis with the grace of a beached ocean liner. Once inside, however, the visitor enters a space, carefully constructed to replicate the experience of ascending the nearby site.
By protecting the Marbles against earthquakes and atmospheric pollution, the museum has undone what used to be the best case for keeping the Elgin Marbles in London. If they are not presented, as their Roman admirers would have said, in situ, they are in the next best place. The museum’s light-filled, spacious top floor lays out the entire sequence, some of it at eye level. As we circle the Marbles, the Parthenon is a continual presence, sometimes ahead of us, sometimes over our shoulders. With the first hint of dusk, the stones of the Parthenon become blurred and suffused with a pinkish glow.
Over dinner, we soon come to the conclusion that the only good reason for keeping Elgin’s haul in London is that returning it to Athens might precipitate a host of other similar demands and cause the collapse of the world’s major museum collections. Not for the first time, we discover that while we can argue with Greeks, we cannot argue with Greece.
We leave Athens the next morning to travel across the Peloponnese. At Corinthia, we pause for coffee at Pindar’s ‘bridge of the untiring sea’, then press on backwards into the past, from Corinth to Mycenae, two sites that are half an hour and two millennia apart. Corinth is open to the sea, its baths and shopping colonnades welcoming the traffic and trade of the Roman world. Mycenae perches on its inland fastness, the rough stones of its fortifications almost seamless with those of their natural foundations. The palace is really a fort, aggressively dominating the plain of Argos, and defensive against the distant sea.
We lunch at the legendary Belle Helene in Mycenae, where our host, the splendidly named Agamemnon, informs us that he is the great-great grandson of the man who opened the business by providing bed and breakfast for Heinrich Schliemann and his aides as they dug at Mycenae in 1876. Then on we go to Epidauros, where we waddle up the steeply banked sides of the amphitheatre marvelling at its superb acoustics that can carry a whisper up to the gods and beyond.
After these Hellenistic excursions, we move on to a Romiosyne phase. Based at Nafplion, a town whose prettiness belies the exploitative nature of Venetian rule in Greece, we traverse the farm country of the Argolid, and take a taxi boat to Hydra. Our objective is to visit the ruined mansion of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, the Cubist painter who, like Leigh Fermor, reconciled ancient and medieval Greece in a Modernist style.
Leigh Fermor called Ghika’s house, a ‘tiered wonder’ high up at the back of the town with magnificent views of Spetses and the Gulf of Argos, the ‘perfect prose actory’ – for it was here that he wrote the early drafts of his 1958 travel book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. In 1939 Henry Miller, who was himself a factory that produced imperfect, but evocative, prose, drafted The Colossus of Maroussi here too.
According to local legend, it was destroyed by arson after Ghika’s housekeeper objected to the latest permutation of his employer’s love life. The arches of Ghika’s north-facing studio, against which Joan Leigh Fermor photographed her husband in the 1950s, survived the fire and are still standing.
From Nafplion, we travel to Mystras, the ruined city that Leigh Fermor took to symbolise the ultimate unity of Hellenism and Romiosyne. Tellingly, Mystras was also the last stand of a lost cause, and more memorable in letters than politics. The Council of Florence of 1439 failed to achieve the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christianity, or to slow the Turkish advance on Constantinople. But the Neoplatonic philosopher George Gemistos Plethon and his associates, who travelled to Florence with the Byzantine diplomats, passed Plato’s work (in the original Greek) to the humanists of the Medici court, so changing the course of European thought
The stones of Mystras, tumbling down the mountain beneath the Frankish fortress, are a Byzantine ghost-town. Inside the cool and broken churches of the upper town, phantom apostles fade on skims of crumbling plaster. Outside, the paths trace the streets of a city that no longer exists. In the lower town, we examine the double-headed eagle on the floor of the church of St Demetrios, marking the spot where Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last emperor of Byzantium, was crowned in 1451.
Weaving up and over the dizzy bends of the Langada Pass, we skirt Mount Taygetus, descend to Kalamata, and cut along the coast to Kardamyli which Homer lists as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offers to Achilles as an inducement to rejoin the fighting during the Trojan War. The tombs of the Dioscouri, Castor and Pollux, are located in the hills behind the medieval old town. Leigh Fermor and his wife built a house on an isolated headland overlooking a small cove, here on the Mani, in the late Sixties. According to the terms of Leigh Fermor’s bequest, the Benaki Museum is bound to open the house to the public as a writers’ retreat – at some time in the future and, in July, it received a promise of funds from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to enable it to do so.
Further south, the fortified towers of Areopoli (‘the city of Ares’) rise like cacti, testifying to the harsh terrain and brutal politics of the long centuries of Romiosyne.
In Mani, Leigh Fermor reconciles the ancient and the modern by whimsically appointing a fisherman named Strati Mourtzinos as the heir to Constantine’s defunct crown. The same tendency to ‘retrogressive hankerings’ colours his account of hiding in caves with Cretan partisans. ‘Some were too shallow to keep out the snow, others could house a Cyclops and his flocks.’
When he describes these images as romantic, he does not dismiss them. Rather, he acknowledges the plural inspiration of Philhellenism, and the paradoxical contentions of Greek history: pagan and Christian, ancient and modern. And we actually see the melding of raw materials, just as the spolia of ancient Sparta become the walls of Mystras.
One afternoon, we walk through the hill villages behind Kardamyli to the church of Agios Nikolaos, where Leigh Fermor scattered his fellow travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s ashes. The location is impossibly beautiful: amid olive groves, the placid church rises on the crest of a hill like the prow of a ship. The upper courses of the church’s walls are typically Byzantine, with patterns of tile inserted among small rough stones but the smooth rectangular blocks in the church’s lower courses tend to confirm Chatwin’s claim that Agios Nikolaos was erected on the site of an ancient temple. A fitting marriage of the Hellenic and the Romaic in which, as in Leigh Fermor’s prose, art and life imitate each other. n
• For further information on the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society visit www.patrickleighfermorsociety.org (for details of the next tour email: [email protected]).
All photographs © Dominic Green unless otherwise marked.