In the hills above Kardamyli, on the edge of the village of Exochori, stands the tiny Byzantine chapel of Agios Nikolaos. With no signposts marking the way, it’s not altogether easy to find, but the rewards are manifold when you do. This was the chosen final resting place of the celebrated novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who fell in love with the spot during his time spent in the area writing The Songlines. The Greek Orthodox Church forbids the scattering of ashes, so Chatwin’s were buried – no one knows exactly where – in the small garden surrounding the chapel. On the early-March afternoon that I visit, after a two-hour tramp up from the coast, it is a riot of spring flowers emerging full throttle from the depths of an unusually long, wet Peloponnesian winter.
It’s remarkable that the frescoes inside the chapel, though patchy and faded, are in existence at all some 600 years after they were daubed on the walls. But the view is really the show-stealer here – a 360-degree panorama of high, snow-capped peaks, deep gorges, ripples of silvery olive trees and the sparkling spread of the Gulf of Messenia, into which a lukewarm sun is sinking fast. Chatwin was wise in loving this part of Greece, as, of course, was his friend and fellow writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who famously put both Kardamyli and the Mani peninsula on the map.
My guide, however, is another British author and historian, James Heneage, who, together with his wife Charlotte, has recently been bitten by the Kardamyli bug and set up home here, fully intending to spend the bulk of his time in Greece in between short bursts back in the UK. “It was an impulse buy,” says Charlotte of the five-acre plot 20 minutes’ drive north of Kardamyli that she and James bought on a weekend trip back in 2013. The fortress town of Monemvasia, on the neighbouring – and right hand – peninsula of the three-pronged Peloponnese, had been their original lure to the area, but the prospect of a simple shepherd’s hut on the Mani (the middle prong) seemed a tempting proposition too. Six years on, said shepherd’s hut has morphed into a small estate, called Mani HNG, comprising five standalone buildings situated on a high, picturesque ridge with views not unlike those from Chatwin’s chapel.
In the cavernous, double-height drawing room of the main house, a distinct air of Englishness pervades: books abound, Heneage family portraits line the walls, an open log fire staves off the evening chill and white lilies spill from vases. But it’s a summer room too, with a cool stone floor and doors and windows opening on all sides to shady verandas and alfresco dining areas that capture the breeze blowing up from the sea. The property sleeps up to 20 in total, divided among the main house, the guest house, the girls’ house, the boys’ house, a wildly romantic yurt and, of course, the shepherd’s hut, in between which weave terraced meadows of olives and wildflowers and more selectively planted and landscaped spaces – the vision of English garden designer Tania Compton.
While the estate, beautifully designed from top to toe, cries out for multigenerational get-togethers or private parties for significant birthdays, James and Charlotte have other ideas too, among which are walking and yoga holidays, history tours and the development of a series of residential symposia – the first of which, called A Journey Through Greek History, is planned for early October.
Down the road at Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor’s house in Kalamitsi – the tiny hamlet a fraction beyond Kardamyli – this thread of academia will likewise be stitched into the future offering. Since the writer’s death in 2011, the Benaki Museum, to which the heirless Leigh Fermors bequeathed their house, has been painstakingly repairing the property. Completion is imminent. Indeed, on the day I visit, all that remains to be done is the reinstatement of books, furniture and art (much of it original to the house; some of it – the more valuable pieces – copied). The plans are twofold: for nine months of the year, beginning this autumn, the house will offer residency programmes for researchers and scholars whose work tallies with the Benaki’s core tenets of art, philosophy and culture in the Greek and Islamic worlds. For the remaining three months (starting in summer 2020), the house will be available to rent either on an exclusive-use basis or in three parts. On top of this, a variety of lectures, seminars and guided tours of the house will be held all year round. Sitting on a stone bench in the garden, surrounded by tall cypresses and overlooking the tiny islet round which Patrick loved to swim, it is hard not to be drawn in by the magic of this place, to be touched by a palpable sense of a new chapter in a famous literary life.
Heneage may not have quite the literary‑giant status of Leigh Fermor, but his enthusiasm for the Mani and the history of Greece is unquestionably comparable. We go together one morning to Mystras, a couple of hours’ drive away over a high, snow-covered pass in the Taygetos Mountains towards the plain of Sparta beyond. This is home turf for Heneage, who, in between selling his hugely successful chain of bookshops (Ottakar’s) in 2006 and founding the Chalke Valley History Festival in Wiltshire eight years ago, has turned his hand to writing – his most significant work to date being the Rise of Empires series, four historical novels set predominantly in the Despotate of Mystras, the great late‑Byzantine seat of power and centre of intellectual and cultural pre-eminence. We have the ruined fortress city almost to ourselves and, over the course of two hours, as we walk from the crusader castle crowning its peak to the palaces, churches and monasteries of its lower levels, Mystras’ history is gently unravelled to me through the eyes of an expert.
Similarly, two days later we leap centuries and miles to Areopoli, capital of and gateway to the southern reaches of the peninsula, beguilingly known as the Deep Mani. My history lesson – again delivered without a trace of pedantry – reveals it was here, outside the impressive 18th-century Church of Taxiarches, that Maniot hero Petrobey Mavromichalis plunged his revolutionary flag into the ground in March 1821 and with a cry of “victory or death” effectively signalled the start of the Greek war of independence, and thus the emergence of modern-day Greece.
Residents of the Deep Mani claim to be the only true Maniots, pooh-poohing those of the Outer Mani (the northwestern reaches of the peninsula) and the Lower Mani (the northeastern reaches) as false descendants of those ancient Spartan warriors who famously ensured that the Mani was never truly conquered. The barren, rugged nature of the landscape, well-documented by Leigh Fermor in his book Mani, proves every bit as forbidding, but the wildness of its untamed beauty sucks you in.
I base myself at Citta dei Nicliani, a tiny outpost of character and comfort in the heart of Kitta, a typical Maniot village of cheek-by-jowl stone towers – the legacy of feuding families who, in a classic tale of oneupmanship, built sturdy, square strongholds, each higher than the next, from which to rain down boulders and bullets on their neighbours. Vathia, a short drive on from Kitta, has picture-postcard status when it comes to towers, but it is haunting and deserted. Kitta, on the other hand, has a full-time resident population of roughly 20 – or perhaps it’s now 19, as I wake one morning to the repetitive tolling of a single church bell, the sign that someone has passed on.
Much of the Deep Mani I explore by car, but it’s a walkers’, and cyclists’, paradise too. Gradients are less steep than the Taygetos of the Outer Mani, where the Heneages in previous days had put me through my paces, but the scenery is equally majestic. Panos Sepsas, one of Greece’s youngest connoisseurs and collectors of fine wine, who is gradually taking over the reins from his parents at Citta dei Nicliani, is my guide as we set out to walk the narrow path leading to the lighthouse at Cape Matapan. Here the Mani Peninsula, in a last gasp of rocky desolation, falls into the sea at the so-called most southerly tip of mainland Europe (a claim dependent on whether you count the lower extent of Andalucia on the Atlantic side of the Pillars of Hercules). Down to one side, accessible only by boat, is the cave that marks the entrance to Hades, guarded by fearsome Cerberus – unimpressive, I’m told (mercifully, as I have no intention of finding out for real). Anyway, I have paid my respects at the heaped ruins of the Death Oracle of Poseidon at the start of the walk, and feel quietly confident to be safe from damnation.
I am drawn back from Ancient Greece to Byzantine Greece by another chapel that rivals even Chatwin’s for its breathtaking location. This one, Panagia Odigitria, clings fast to a sheer cliff face near the village of Stavri and is reached by a precipitous path through knee-deep undergrowth. Inside, the walls of its tiny antechamber are painted with ghoulish faces from hell. Outside, its weary, weather-beaten façade faces the sunset and Tigani, the pan-shaped spit of land on which stand the ruins of the 13th-century Castle of Maini that gives the peninsula its name.
Back in Kardamyli, spring has properly sprung. The village is a hive of activity, as bars and restaurants knock themselves into shape for the season; jumpers are off and sunglasses on. Lela’s, made famous as the taverna gifted by Patrick Leigh Fermor to his former housekeeper, is yet to open, but Aquarella – just next door and similarly overlooking the harbour – is as busy as a summer’s afternoon. We eat cheese pie and Greek salad in the soft March sunshine, and Leigh Fermor’s description of the “leisurely spell [that] pervades the whole of this far-away little town” rings perfectly true.