Travelling in the Mani

When in October 2016 Folio Society commissioned me to produce new covers and illustrations for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books on Greece – Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) – I decided to embark on an observational drawing trip to the Mani, Greece’s southern-most peninsula. Arriving in Kalamata, the gateway to the region, during a storm, I passed a fitful night’s sleep before catching the early-morning bus to Kardamyli, the stone hamlet which Leigh Fermor had made his home from the 1960’s until his death in 2011.  As daylight broke, I could see the orderly rows of olive trees stretching away from the road as we wound our way into the village. The bus dropped me off in the small town square. After a warming cup of tea in a kafeneio, I reread the section from Mani where Leigh Fermor describes his first arrival there:  “Most unexpectedly, we discovered a little hotel consisting of a few rooms over a grocer’s shop owned by Socrates Phalireas”. I thought how much I’d like to find that grocer’s shop. But what were the chances? Hungry and tired from travelling, I went to seek lunch.

I walked along the main street, full of tourist shops with English signs and even English proprietors. Eventually, I found a small taverna with old fashioned tiles. I ordered an omelette and sat in the pebble courtyard outside, beneath a vine, looking up at the first floor windows with their wooden shutters flung open. I wondered who lived there. A lady came out with my omelette. Chatting in Greek, she asked how it was I spoke the language and what I was doing here. I told her my family had lived in Greece since the 1930’s and still have a home on the isle of Hydra (where Leigh Fermor had written Mani in the ’50s). I explained my commission and she said: “You know, when Leigh Fermor first came to Kardamyli, he stayed here, upstairs, when it was a grocer’s shop.” Well, no I didn’t. But what a good start.

In the last hour before sunset, I climbed up the hill, to look down into Kardamyli. I sat on a low wall, sketching the horizon, the wide band of the darkening sea, the little bay to the right, the terracotta rooftops, cupolas and the odd tower, the rows of olive trees, with their twisting figure trunks, like dancing ladies, and the feathery dry grass in the foreground.

Eager to continue south, into the heart of the Mani, I boarded a pre-dawn bus for Areopolis. Named after Ares, the God of War, it was where the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans began. It was raining hard when I arrived at the bleak bus depot and I felt disheartened at the prospect of trudging around trying to draw. In a lull from the rain, I walked down damp cobbled streets. The clouds were grey and hung heavy overhead. Moist moss clung to stone walls. The white-gold stone blood-feud towers of the town – which distinguish this part of Greece – shone luminously against the forbidding sky. Fig leaves hung like large, desperate hands of souls in limbo over tall walls. Back at the station, I asked for a ticket south to Yerolimenas. “Then fovase moni sou?” said the man behind the counter. “Are you not afraid to go by yourself?”

In Yerolimenas, a pretty, coastal town, the temperamental clouds were swept aside: the sky was blue, the green sea calm and welcoming. But I wasn’t prepared for quite how remote the deep Mani was. I took a short walk around the village. Houses were largely abandoned or half-renovated, roofless, high stone walls had crumbled, and telephone wires hung crisscrossed and tangled above my head. 

The next day I walked to the neighbouring villages of Kitta and Nomia, a 5 mile round-trip from Yerolimenas. Walking inland, I sketched two silver eucalyptus trees with dark emerald leaves framing a dry-docked little boat. But the billowing gun-metal clouds caught up with me again and together with the Taygetus mountains, looming purple to my right, I felt small and insignificant walking along the empty road. Leigh Fermor often refers to this mountain range. But it’s only when you are on foot, that you realise how great their presence is, stretching along the spine of the narrow peninsula. Above the wild thorny bushes and the blue-grey sea, there was a thin streak of white-yellow on the horizon beneath the clouds. Cypress trees rose sporadically. What a perfect landscape it was for the vengeful, vendetta-mad Maniot generations who had lived here in their towers and from where they launched cannonades on their enemies. 

The road turned into a footpath, and the footpath soon disappeared, so that I was left winding my way across country, over rocks and red earth. Two towers suddenly appeared like sentries, beyond the cactus ahead: I had found Nomia. I walked down the path into the empty village and settled down to draw a church, but the changeable wind whipped up harder and I heard a voice call out in Greek: “O kairos halaii.” A man was walking towards me, “The weather’s turning. Come inside” he said. Any reservations I may have had at the prospect of entering a stranger’s blood-feud tower, in the middle of nowhere, were over-shadowed by the excitement of entering a blood feud tower at all. He unlocked a small door and ushered me in. 

This was his grandfather’s tower, he explained, and he led me through dark, densely packed rooms, full of boxes and baskets that looked like they had been there for centuries. However, amongst all this, there was a crate of fresh oranges glowing in the darkness. At the top of the tower I looked quickly around, taking in the panoramic view and the nearby towers of Kitta through gusts of wind. Retreating down the rickety wooden stairs, he then offered me some lamb stew. I declined, so he handed me two oranges from the crate instead. I put one in each pocket. Extraordinarily, when I emerged from the tower, the weather had changed dramatically and I found myself blinking in blistering sunshine.

Katyuli Lloyd read Russian and Modern Greek at Clare College, Cambridge (2004-8) and completed a Masters in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art (2014-16).

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