Book Review: Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese by Patrick Leigh-Fermor

Leigh Fermor, photographed by Dimitri Papadimos
Δημήτρης Παπαδήμος, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is no secret that I absolutely love the writing of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, a man whose life would have been wonderfully interesting even if he had never published a word. I sketched out something of his life in my review of his ‘A Time of Gifts’ trilogy about his walk through Europe to Constantinople in 1933 and 1934, and do not propose to repeat myself for this article.  This review is about the first book I read by him in the mid-1980s – ‘Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’.  I was about to embark on a back packing tour of Southern Greece, pretty much on my own and very naïve, as part of my degree and thought I’d read a few books in preparation.  PLF’s ‘Mani’ was by far the best of them.

Published in 1958, it covers his experiences and impressions of his walk, with his later to be wife Joan, through what was still then one of the most idiosyncratic and remote fastnesses of the old Greece – the central, mountain-spined and most southerly peninsular of the Peloponnese – the Mani.  Dry, hot, sea girt, it is where Mount Taygetos runs into the Mediterranean, the Mount Taygetos on which the Spartans used to abandon their infants judged not suitable to grow up as Spartans, the Taygetos that divides Messenia to the West from Spartan Laconia to the East.  The late Byzantine capital Mistra perches on its Eastern flank overlooking Sparta itself – well worth visiting for its extraordinary murals showing how vibrant a culture Byzantium remained even to the very end.

It’s a smallish peninsula divided into two areas – the ‘Outer Mani’ which is the northern half and projects north to Kardamyli, where PMF made hisohome for much of his life, and is not a real peninsular at all because the Laconian Eurotas river valley lies to its East while the Mediterranean fringes its Western shores.  The real ‘Inner Mani’ is about 20 miles north to south and is a proper peninsular which tapers down to Cape Matapan, and is rarely much more than half a dozen miles wide.

So, a small place, but one that even today which preserves an air of mystery, of other worldliness, not just stemming from the cave at Cape Matapan being regarded in the ancient world as an entrance to Hades.  Historically part of Laconia, even today, it was always a little different, but it was only with the collapse of the ancient world along with the Roman Empire that it began to acquire a very different reputation.  While Byzantium/Constantinople endured beyond the collapse of the Western Empire, it lost control of most of its Balkan provinces for generations, centuries, at a time, times in which mainland Greece was invaded and plundered by successful waves of barbarians, with many Slavs in particular settling there.  Successively recovered and reChristianised, and then lost again, it took the Emperor Basil the ‘Bulgar Slaver’ to utterly crush the last of these tribes in three decades of relentless and pitiless warfare to recover these provinces.  Even then they were lost to the Papacy, Venetians and Franks in perhaps the greatest and most suicidal act of treachery of all time – the Fourth Crusade’s capture of Constantinople.

The Mani however was never really subdued by these invaders.  Some of the ancient Spartans fled and settled there during one invasion, even the Franks struggled to hold it down despite building some imposing castles, and the Ottoman Turks tended to leave it well alone.  Repeated invasions never subdued the inhabitants, and it was acceded a sort of de facto independence interrupted by Turkish expeditions seeking to punish Maniot piracy, something at which they were proficient.

By now the inhabitants were composed of warlike vendetta pursuing clans who bred profusely such that they fought amongst themselves as well as robbing passing Turkish shipping and enlisting as soldiers of fortune abroad.  Devoutly Orthodox, it was in the Mani that the Greek War of Independence was hatched and Maniots played a key role in its conduct, and afterwards they were a mainstay of the palaeo-conservative Greek Royalist movement until modern times.  The Mani was a redoubt of the turbulent old Greece, ferociously independent minded and separate, the Corsica of Greece one might say.  Just the sort of Greece to capture PLF’s love and imagination when he decided to walk around and through it in the late 1950s when it was still largely isolated except by boat or foot.

The Book

The book starts in Sparta with the author having his har cut by a barber who warns him that, “You better look out if you are going up to Anavryti,” {a village at the northern edge of the Mani) they area queer lot.”  A policeman then tells him they will have the shirt from his back, while another customer says, “They’ll skin you alive my child.”

Such was the reputation of the Maniots even among their fellow Laconians and served as a warning to PLF as he began his trip with a steep climb into the Taygetos mountain range overlooking Sparta below, driven by a bank manager in his wartime jeep who was crossing the mountain before descending to Messenia on the other side.  Getting out at Anavryti where they are given a bed for the night and a guide to lead them through the upper slopes of Taygetus.  Sleeping out the following night in a high Alpine flower meadow the following morning they awake to one of the first of a series of magically described encounters with the Mani and its inhabitants – a pair of sisters, twelve and ten in age, goatherds living with their family in the high places, almost totally isolated from the world below.  Dressed in rags, PLF describes their incredible beauty, “Delicate, fine boned and solemn, they could have been nothing but Greek; not so much the Greeks of the pagan world as the spiritual etiolation that gazes from the walls of St Sophia and Ravenna; the bewildering combination of aloofness and devouring intensity that radiates from the eye-sockets of Eastern Madonnas and empresses…”

Once again, as with his trilogy, you get the sense of a traveller-poet who went looking for the Classical world and fell deeply in love with the Greece of Byzantium.  Going their different ways their Greek guide observed, “They are wild and shy and not accustomed to talk.”  He pointed straight up into the air. “They see nothing but God.”

It’s a magical first encounter with the Mani, representative of a whole series of different ones to come with a people he found welcoming.  Part descriptive travelogue, but mainly a series of impressions of a special place and its people which aims to get into their soul, its history, what made it tick before modernisation tarnished it.

It’s a journey from the outer to the inner Mani, often called the Deep Mani, a journey into a still extant past which lies heavy in layers upon the people of the day, the Christian Byzantine culture reconciled and united with the ancient Greek pagan past such that both live on in symbiosis.

There’s just one more scene I wish to mention as a sample of the delights in store in this book.  In Areopolis, sometimes called the capital of the Mani, expressing a wish to hear the characteristic song form of the Mani – the miroloyia – he is taken to the house of the one of the leading bards of the genre, a young woman named Eleni.  She is finally coaxed into singing for him a lament composed in the war by the Maniots for a British airman shot down over the peninsular (the Maniots regarded the Germans as they had done the Ottoman Turks of course).  To quote just a snatch,

“He shone among thousands like the Sun,
He was a moon among a hundred thousand,
He was the bravest of all the officers,
Such a bright star should never have fallen to the ground,
It was more fitting for him to dine at a king’s table,
To eat and drink with the company of a hundred,
To be singled out from three hundred men…

Let us pray to the Almighty One and the All-Holy Virgin
That a bomb may fall into the camp of the Germans
And blow their fortress to broken pebbles.
But let us not be touched or harmed
And let the English fly home again.”

I hope that gives you just a taste of what awaits you if you read this book.  Homeric epic and ancient Spartan memorial verse re-emerging and melding with Orthodox piety to remember and lament an anonymous English pilot who died overhead fighting for them.  He may be forgotten back home, but not in the Mani.

Every time I read the book it moves me deeply, it’s even better than the walking trilogy, as if the very best of that wonderful series has been concentrated and distilled into one book, occasioned because the place and people about which he was writing brought out the very best in a man perfectly suited to understand and appreciate the unique nature of the place, and, as arguably the finest English written stylist of the century, to capture the essence of the people and place of the Mani. There’s just a sadness that it finishes so quickly.  It’s at bottom a love song to the land in which he made his home.

Amazon book link: Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

© JD de Pavilly 2021

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