hidden europe 68

A monastery built for two: The Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor House

by Duncan JD Smith

Picture above: A bust of Patrick Leigh Fermor looks towards his former home and beyond to Crete (photo © Duncan JD Smith).


When Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor settled at Kalamitsi in the Peloponnese, their home became a creative magnet as writers and artists made the journey along dusty roads to spend time with the Leigh Fermors. Duncan JD Smith reports on a recent visit to the one-time home of the couple.

Patrick Leigh Fermor rarely stayed long in one place. The fêted travel writer had no fixed abode until he turned fifty. By then an avowed philhellene, he settled with his photographer wife Joan on the edge of the Mani, the rugged middle finger of the Greek Peloponnese. There at a place called Kalamitsi they designed and built a home. Lauded as being among the most beautiful in all Greece, it serves today as a scholarly retreat and summer holiday residence.

History of adventure

By the time the Leigh Fermors moved to Kalamitsi, Patrick (known to all as Paddy) had a long history of adventure. Born in London in 1915, he was wayward during his school years in Canterbury, but showed a penchant for classical literature. At the age of 18, already sure he wanted to be a writer, he packed a rucksack and set off from London to walk to Istanbul. His experiences along the way eventually furnished the material for a trilogy of books on which his literary reputation rests.

After Istanbul, Paddy pressed on into Greece, where his affection for the country blossomed. Later, during the Second World War, his command of Greek saw him parachuted into Crete to help with the resistance. The Cretans’ love for Paddy after he helped kidnap German General Heinrich Kreipe made him a local celebrity. Thereafter he continued his peripatetic existence, accompanied this time by new love Joan Rayner (née Eyres Monsell) whom he met in Cairo.

It was only now that Paddy got down to some serious writing. Beginning in 1950 with The Traveller’s Tree, a book detailing a journey through the Caribbean, he penned a handful of eclectic titles for publisher John Murray, including a novel, a short work on monasticism, and two books on Greece. Of these, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), with photographs by Joan, clearly excited him the most. Its elaborately constructed expositions on tower houses, blood feuds, Maniot myths and funeral dirges are magical.

Olives and asphodels

By the early 1960s, and having decided to put down roots in Greece, the Leigh Fermors opted for Paddy’s beloved Mani.

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Editorial hidden europe 63

Is there not a measure of absurdity in all our lives today? We have discovered that it’s hardly possible to plan anything. And yet there is a certain liberation in simply not trying to plan, in just receiving with simplicity all that might come our way. This may of course be the secret of enjoying travel, as and when the day comes when we can start exploring Europe again.