The sand-colored stones that were used to build the house, come from the nearby Taygetos Mountains. The Cycladic island of Paros was the supplier of the white marble elements. The rough gray stones on the floor were transported from the Pelion peninsula in the north of Greece. Wooden shutters that protect the windows from heavy storms and burning sun, are painted light blue; the same soft matte color that you often see in the French Provence. The huge, multi-level terrace consists of red-brown terracotta tiles. The olive trees that have been planted there, are surrounded by rings of pebbles, carefully arranged in beautiful mosaïc patterns. Stone benches and tables are covered with pillows; shadow is provided by wooden ceilings. The view from the terraces is phenomenal; one can see the blue-green sea, deep down in the bay, the small island off the coast and far away the contours of the western part of the Messinian peninsula.
I am in one of the most beautiful, perhaps thé most beautiful, houses in Greece, the home of the late British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and his wife Joan. The house is built in an olive grove in the foothills of the Taygetos in the south of the Peloponnese. The hills form a natural amfitheater that surrounds the house.
The couple searched the ideal spot in the beginning of the sixties. Already completely in love with Greece and the Greek people, they decided that the Mani, the southern and most remote part of the Peloponnese, was the ultimate location. In March 1964 they signed for the purchase of the property, not more than an olive grove with distels and an occasional land tortoise. Back then, Fermor wrote in an article for the magazine Architectural Digest, years later in november 1986: “It was possible to build a house for very little. But it was a challenge.” For two years, the couple lived in a tent, in the meantime thinking and discussing where exactly and how the house should be built. Nikos Hatzimichalis, an architect from Athens, was of great help, as well as the master mansion from a nearby village, Nikos Kolokotrones.
For many years I have followed Patrick Leigh Fermor from a distance. It started in the mid-nineties with reading his book Mani. Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. This book is a kaleidoscope of travel stories, observations and thoughts about the Mani. I read the book during a hiking trip across the Peloponnese. We had crossed the Helmos, Menalon, Erimanthos and Parnon Mountains successively, within a month. The sting of this fantastic but tough walking adventure was in its tail: the wild Taygetos Mountains, which stretch over a length of 120 kilometers over the middle finger of the Peloponnese. At the same time, this was the most spectacular part of the route. The tops of these mountains reach above 2000 meters, the Profitis Ilias even measures 2407 meters.
After an unexpected snowstorm drove us off the ridge one morning, bringing our hike to an abrupt end, we decided to rest for a few days down by the sea. We might still be able to continue our journey, further south, once the snow had receded, we thought.
In Kardamyli, I found out that the writer of this book lived there, in that beautiful village. I tried to get some information in the small bookshop on the main street of the village, where I bought one of his other books: Roumeli, Travels in Northern Greece. The shop owner told me that Fermor was in England at that time, and therefore not available for me to visit.
A year later I returned to this region. Not because I was planning to visit him, but because I fell in love with the Mani and the mountain ranges of Taygetos and Parnon, just like the Fermors. Again I ended up in the village of Kardamyli for two days. It was 1997. Patrick’s wife Joan had fallen and broken a rib, the villagers said. I walked to their house in the bay of Kalamitsi, stood at the light blue painted entrance gate, but was afraid to knock. What would I say to him, and why on earth should he open for a stranger from the Netherlands? Somewhat embarrassed about myself, I left.
That evening I went to dinner at Lela’s, a wonderful little restaurant right on the sea, in the middle of the village, run by Lela, Fermor’s former housekeeper. In her kitchen I found pictures of O Michalis, as he is called in Greece. I chatted for a while in Greek with the widowed, black dressed Lela. She embraced me, called me koukla (sweety) when we left that night. I didn’t get any closer to the writer.
And now, 25 years later, I am standing in front of his bookcase in the beautiful large living room of his house. Books on history, mythology, architecture, flowers, trees, poetry and so much more. The walls are decorated with paintings and prints by Edward Lear, Nico Ghika and Lucian Freud. Pots and vases from different places in Greece decorate the shelves and tables.
The fabulous house is a mix of southern French, Italian, Turkish and Greek elements. You can feel that a lot of effort and thinking has gone into every detail of the design and construction of this house. And it’s obvious that the owners have traveled a lot and brought items from many different places.
Unfortunately, the author himself is no longer with us. He passed away on June 10, 2011, at the age of 96. His wife Joan died eight years earlier, on June 4, 2003.
The married couple had already decided in May 1996 to bequeath the house to the Greek Benaki Museum. They wished the house to become a haven for writers, artists and researchers, who can stay there for a while.
When Fermor passed away, Greece was in the middle of the economic crisis. Benaki had little financial means, so nothing happened for a while and the house fell into disrepair. During that period, I was visiting Kardamyli once more. I went to the house, and was a bit saddened by the state it was in. The blue paint of the shutters was peeling and the garden was overgrown. I peeked through the front door and saw a simple linen bag hanging on the rack, a wooden broom standing next to it.
Fortunately, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation stepped in a few years later and funded the restoration of the property. The entire house and surrounding gardens were renovated, 6,000 books were cleaned and cataloged. On October 19, in 2019, the house was officialy opened by then-President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
The result is fabulous. A bust of Fermor, made by the artist Praxitelis Tzanoulinos, is placed in the garden, overlooking the terraces and the deep blue bay. I can imagine the great writer would be proud…
You can visit the house from October to May, on Mondays and Thursdays at 11 am. In the summer months on Mondays at 12 noon. For more information: www.benaki.org
You can also book the house, or a part of it, for your holiday. See: www.ariahotels.gr