Of the Mani, Manhattan and Alexander the Great

What kind of a book would a chain-smoking former Special Operations Executive officer write? A man who at 18 had thought he had nothing better to do but to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople with a volume of English verse and Horace’s Odes in his pocket? A man who felt equally at home in shepherds’ huts and in aristocratic palaces?…What kind of book?!

And English readers, who know exactly whom I’m talking about, here answer in unison: a travel book, of course.

A travel book, yes. Er… sort of.

Patrick Leigh Fermor is a household name in England: the man who in 1933 hiked and hitch-hiked from Holland to Constantinople and saw the Europe that was; the man who kidnapped General Kreipe, the German military commander of Crete in 1944 and successfully smuggled him off the island; the best-selling travel writer; the autodidact and the scholar of all things Greek.

The man who built himself a house on the Mani and lived there writing his books.

The Mani is a peninsula in the Southern Peloponnese: barren and wild. Or at least it was, when Patrick Leigh Fermor first went that way, for nowadays it’s becoming a tourist paradise, and the old way of life has disappeared (thankfully, from the inhabitants’ point of view).

Here’s all you need to know of the Mani, summed up by this picture in the beginning of the book:


Cacti, cypresses, towers and a gorgon (somewhat transformed from the ancient variety with the single tail and snake hair, of whom Medusa was the most famous example) holding a ship and an anchor. The Greek inscription above reads: “Where is Alexander the Great? Alexander the Great is alive and kicking (lit. lives and reigns).” It makes reference to a superstition recounted 2/3 into the book.

Alexander the Great, Long May He Reign

I need no lessons from Patrick Leigh Fermor in how to digress, so if you’re in a hurry, jump the following paragraphs because I’m absolutely determined to have my say…

According to Patrick Leigh Fermor, the gorgon surfacing in stormy weather and grabbing the prow of the caique, especially on Saturday nights, and asking the question: “Where is Alexander the Great?” is a common Greek seafaring legend. The captain of the caique, if he values his life, has to answer the question with: “Alexander lives and reigns.” Failure to give the correct answer has predictably fatal consequences. I don’t know about you but having read this, I was slightly bemused; I mean, I fail to see what Alexander the Great (long may he live and reign just in case I get caught on a caique in stormy weather off Cape Taenaron any time soon)… what Alexander the Great has got to do with it?

Now – and I’m quite pleased with this (not with having been able to read the inscription which only requires the most rudimentary Greek but with having found the answer):

Apparently, Alexander the Great asked his sages how he could live forever. They told him he needed to drink from the water of immortality – needless to say, terribly dangerous to get. But – to cut the long story short (two mountains, a dragon and Bucephalus all enter into it) – he managed to get the water of eternal life. When he got home, however, he didn’t tell his sister what was in the bottle. So, one day, cleaning around the house (the way princesses do), she poured the water away in the garden. (The plant she watered with it of course now lives forever.) Woe, lamentations, &c. – and she turned into a mermaid, gorgon, says the Modern Greek. Swimming in the sea ever since, whenever she sees a ship, she stops it to ask: “Is King Alexander alive?” If she’s told that he’s dead, in her grief she churns up the waters and drags the boat down to the bottom of the sea. But if the wary skipper replies, “He lives and reigns, and conquers the world,” she’ll be happy and the sea will be calmed…

Manhattan Skyline

So there you have it in a nutshell. As for the towers, the other prominent part of the illustration, they are not, despite of the manifest similarities, the skyscrapers of Manhattan transported into the Mani. They’ve got a gloriously bizarre history, and Patrick Leigh Fermor is your man if you want to read about them. (Not that I’m not dying to tell you myself why the Mani has a Manhattan skyline but this post is already long enough.)

Spot the difference:

Lakoniki skyline
Manhattan skyline

Incidentally, it’s not possible to do justice to Leigh Fermor’s prose and I know better than to try. So what you get is an excerpt – and what I promise is that it’s typical of this particular book:

The air in Greece is not merely a negative void between solids; the sea itself, the houses and rocks and trees, on which it presses like a jelly mould, are embedded in it; it is alive and positive and volatile and one is as aware of its contact as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it with diamond rings or be grasped in handfuls, tapped in electricity, bottled, used for blasting, set fire to, sliced into sparkling cubes and rhomboids with a pair of shears, be timed with a stop watch, strung with pearls, plucked like a lute string or tolled like a bell, swum in, be set with rungs and climbed like a rope ladder or have saints assumed through it in flaming chariots; as though it could be harangued into faction, or eavesdropped, pounded down with pestle and mortar for cocaine, drunk from a ballet shoe, or spun, woven and worn on solemn feasts; or cut into discs for lenses, minted for currency or blown, with infinite care, into globes.

And this kind of stuff comes in between passages of…

…Evocative descriptions of landscape… glasses of retsina traipsing across a hot and dusty mountains… diving into sea caves… encounters with locals… The gambolling of dolphins, long and rambling digressions on Byzantine iconography and on Maniot dirges, snatches of Greek sentences while breathing the acrid smoke of cigarettes, flights of fancy about the Varangian Guard… Family feuds, superstitions, ruined towers, speculations on the Spartan origins of the Maniots, travelling in caiques with chickens, goats and sea-sick market-goers, Byzantine frescoes… And the entire turbulent and singularly bloody history of the Mani-peninsula, blood-thirsty Greeks, Turks, Franks and Venetians. Pirates. Folk heroes and local potentates. Freedom fighters who started the war of independence in the 19th century… Not to mention the implausible tale of Gladstone‘s siesta (yes, that would be the former British Primer Minister) which bears all the hallmarks of a classic folktale.

Manic Mani

The word that came onto my tongue easiest throughout the 310 pages of Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese was – mad. Patrick Leigh Fermor was, without doubt, mad. The Maniots of old were, without doubt, maniacs. What a place! What a past! What a present (of fifty years ago)! What a… what a manic, fascinating, lost world by now, thank god. What a mad book altogether. What a mad reader I was to keep reading.

I’m not willing to recommend this book to anybody: it’s not a book for the faint-hearted. Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote books that are far easier reads (about his walk from Holland to Constantinople to begin with); get those. Unless… you’re sufficiently mad. (Eccentric, if you’re English.) Even then, don’t start with this one. Start with A Time of Gifts. (I did.)

He wrote another like this – I already flipped through the pages to confirm that it looked a similarly mad book – Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece. Despite of – or maybe because of – what I wrote above, I’m looking forward to reading it.

I’ll just take a breather first.

…the invariable spell of peace and happiness that hangs over Greek ruins came dropping all round us: a sense of shape, space, proportion, reason and ease.

More about Patrick Leigh Fermor & his travel books:
The Broken Road: retracing the steps of a wild adventure by Adrian Bridge, The Telegraph
He is English, after all by Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books




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