on 30 July 2012
I knew about this book for years, but was only prompted to read it when we went on holiday to the Mani last year, staying in one of the fabled tower-houses which Leigh Fermor writes about with such gusto. His visit to the region was in the early 50s, before there was a road down the peninsular. The Mani is the central rocky spine of the three great fingers which reach down towards Crete from the near-island of the Peloponese in western Greece.
Its terrifying mountain remoteness and harsh landscape meant that throughout history, this part of Greece was almost completely undeveloped. From ancient times, the Cretans, Hellenes, Romans, Turks, Venetians, Greeks, French, British, Germans, etc all just went round it, and it became a haven for runaways, bandits, pirates, ruffians, warlords and fighting men. It was never really conquered, being too difficult and 'not worth it'.
The resulting breed of truculence and resourcefulness, violence and pride was remarkable.
One outcome of this was the construction of houses in which families sought to out-do each other by routinely smashing their neighbours' dwellings in any way they could. Apart from periods of truce, such as harvest-time or weddings, and safe passage for doctors, women and children, any man seen out of doors at any time of day was fair game to be shot at, stoned or otherwise violently attacked.
It was always an advantage to have your house taller than your neighbours, so you could rain rocks down onto their rooftops. No-one would have an ordinary door into their house - rather, the entrance would be a tiny hidden ingress, giving into a narrow or low space, so that enemies could not storm in. Getting upstairs to the sleeping quarters or cool rooftops would be by rope ladders, which could be drawn up for safety.
These houses look like pretty English church towers from a distance, but were in fact hornets' nests of extreme personal violence, so that the little villages clustered on the dry rocky mountain sides were solidified personal warzones. Leigh Fermor found that the hostility and suspicion of one village for its near neighbour was of almost mythic proportion, and this within living memory.
The book is brilliantly written, by an Englishman who loved the Greeks, spoke their language and dialects fluently, took a heroic part in their resistance to German occupation in the last World War, and chose to live there once the war was over. His recent death led to an announcement that his house will become a cultural shrine and museum.
This is a truly marvellous book, written at the last moments when this ancient and remarkable way of life was just coming to an end. His visits along the inhospitable and rugged coast, with his wife, by rowing boat along the sea and on foot or by donkey up into the ravines and cliffs, gave him the chance to report on an astonishingly other-worldly way of life right on the edge of Europe.
Now, of course, there is a road which leads all the way south from Calamata down to the tip of the Mani, with some of the consequent trappings of hotels, tavernas, buses, tourists, art galleries, etc etc.
But you can still wander round the villages with their brutal tower houses - now often left in ruinous condition and uninhabited except for very old ladies who glare at you as you go by. And you can see where some of the old gods and goddesses held court - deep caves, hidden springs, desolate temples. And you can go freely into literally dozens of crumbling orthodox churches with astonishing frescoes of Christian divines. And you can try walking up the steep mountain paths among the olive groves, and imagine what it was like for farmers trying to screw a living out of the rocks when your neighbours were intent on shooting you at any hour of day. And you can see the tiny beautiful springs with their little grottoes of rocks and basins, now all too often dried up because of the scale of modern water-extraction from the mountains.
Do go to the Mani if you can. But if you can't, then read this terrific book. Then go.