Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(John Murray, 2004) 
This is the first of two volumes Fermor wrote about his travels in Greece mid-century. In this case he was exploring the Mani peninsula, the southernmost tip of Greece. The peninsula is mountainous and has historically been largely separate, culturally and politically, from the rest of the country. At the time of Fermor’s travels it was still a traditional society, with its own dialect, clothing, and culture, into which radio and tourism had yet to make inroads. His travelogue therefore provides a fascinating look at a European society in a state that could hardly be found anywhere else in the modern world.
“Go toward the Good,” one of them said, and the other, “May you have the Good Hour!”
The immobile figures of these two little Byzantines dwindled as we zigzagged downhill. Even at a distance we could sense the wide effulgent gaze which those four eyes aimed from ledge half-way to the sky. They waved when we were just about to dip out of sight. There are very few people in these surroundings, Yorgo observed. “They are wild and shy and not accustomed to talk.” He pointed straight up into the air. The canyon was closing round us. “They see nothing but God.”
Because there were no roads (today there are a few) the Maniot villages were accessible only on foot or by boat; Fermor and his wife did walk a bit, as in the passage just quoted, but for the most part their itinerary involved boating around the perimeter of the peninsula, stopping in villages along the way.
An account of their travels is interwoven with reflections on aspects of Maniot culture — or is it the other way around? We learn about the custom of the blood feud, a cause of much destruction and sorrow; we learn of the not-unrelated Maniot reputation for sung dirges, a skill taught especially to young woman and admired throughout Greece; we learn of the greatest Maniot of the modern era, Petrobey Mavromichalis, who led the war of independence which the Maniots waged against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century.
The Mani peninsula is not a hub of activity, and among the many pleasant qualities of its people is an appreciation of leisure, which Fermor summarizes thus in his marvellous prose:
One compensation of this kind of travel is the unchartable and unregimented leisure between the rigours of displacement. Letters build their vain pyramids on some table in Athens; weeks pass; their mute clamour dies down unanswered; dust and oblivion enshroud them and the flight of months makes them obsolete and strips them of all but antiquarian interest. This arduous and Olympian sloth is made more precious still by the evidence all round of arduous and boring toil. Here, too, in the absence of lofty theories about the intrinsic virtue of work regardless of results, no northern guilt comes to impair its full enjoyment. Such mephitic ideas cannot long survive the clear and decarbonizing sun.
The Maniots are Christians, but they are also Greeks, and Fermor notes that the old Greek paganism has retained a foothold in the culture, despite the efforts of the Church:
The supernatural ancien régime presented a conundrum to the Early Fathers. When the Fathers came into their own after long persecution in the name of the old gods, they adopted, as we have seen, bold and sweeping tactics. The gods and the more presentable figures were captured, baptized and camouflaged; their headquarters were either wrecked or re-garrisoned by the winners and up fluttered, as it were, the new victorious flag. Some of the dispossessed managed to keep a leg in both camps. Others–insignificant as possible leaders of counter-revolution or totally ineligible–were (as supernatural beings can only be burnt or smashed in effigy) outlawed en bloc. A banished mythology was left to skulk and roam in the mountains, eventually, it was hoped, to die of neglect. But from a mixture of ancient awe and, perhaps, Christian charity, the country people befriended them, and they are with us still.
In one of the most memorable passages, they pass a famous cave found at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, a cave which is the legendary entrance to the Underworld, through which Psyche passed in her quest for the casket which would restore her beauty, through which Orpheus passed to rescue Eurydice, and through which Herakles dragged triple-jawed Cerberus in the execution of his labours. “There is always something about these earthly identifications with Hades that fills one with awe,” he remarks.
As for Christianity among the Maniots, Fermor found it rich and integrated into the lives of the people, but focused more on practices and rituals than on doctrine. This character he attributes largely to its having passed through a long “Eastern dark ages”, covering the period from the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century until the period of Maniot independence in the 19th century. He writes rather beautifully on the theme:
Long gone were the days when the subtle Eastern theologians could with difficulty make the blunt Western prelates grasp the delicate shades of dogma; indeed the shoe was on the other foot. But the outward observances, the liturgy, some of the sacraments, prostrations, rigorous fasts, frequent signs of the cross, the great feasts of the Church — the cross thrown into the sea at Epiphany, the green branches of Palm Sunday, the candles and coloured eggs celebrating the risen Christ at Easter, the monthly censing of houses, and the devotion to ikons before which an oil-dip twinkles in every house — all this became rigid and talismanic: and so it has remained. Its scope is different from what is usually conjured up in the West by the word “Christianity”; but there is a tendency in the most peaceful nations to identify religion with the tribe and the reasons in Greece are more cogent than most. All the outward and visible signs are there and it would be a bold critic who would unburden them completely of inward and spiritual grace. There is nothing laggard or perfunctory about these signs; they are performed with reverence and love. They have the familiarity and the treasured intimacy of family passwords and countersigns. The day is punctuated by these fleeting mementoes, and pious landmarks in the calendar, usually solemnized with dance and rejoicing, space out the year; with the result that few gestures are wholly secular. They weave a continuous thread of the spiritual and supernatural through the quotidian homespun and ennoble the whole of life with a hieratic dignity.
As in Greek culture writ large, Maniot devotion is heavily invested in holy ikons, and I cannot resist quoting a passage in which Fermor tackles the daunting challenge of describing the style of Greek (well, specifically Cretan) iconography in prose. Quite apart from the interest of his argument, this is magnificent writing:
The detail is subtle and delicate: the cartographic wrinkles and circling contour-lines on the saints’ faces, the line of nose and nostril, the sweep of those hoary eyebrows over each of which beetles an outlined irascible and thought-indicating bulge; the dark and, by contrast, etiolating triangles that project point downwards from the lower lids, the bristling curl of the white locks round foreheads that catch the light like polished teak, the prescribed complexity of their beards cataracting in effulgent arcs or erupting like silver quills from swarthy physiognomies — all of this, on close inspection, proves to be built up of complementary planes of brick red and apple green applied with delicate impressionism to the black phantom of the saint or paladin beneath. The emergence of this dark background under a luminous and fragmentary carapace of skilfully superimposed light and colour…is the earmark of the Cretan mode. I am tempted to relate this very strange technique, especially in ikons of Our Lord, with reasons that are not purely plastic. It calls irresistibly to mind a characteristic passage of St Dionysios the Areopagite: “The Divine Dark,” writes this other Dionysios, “is the inaccessible Light in which God is said to dwell, and in this Dark, invisible because of its surpassing radiance and unapproachable because of the excess of the streams of supernatural light, everyone must enter who is deemed worthy to see or know God.”
Greek iconography, of all Christian art that includes the outward forms of sacred beings, seems to me to have set itself the highest and most difficult task. […] They sought ingress to the spirit, not through the easy channels of passion, but through the intellect. Religion and philosophy were as inextricably plaited as they had been in pre-Christian times and this was due to the same philosophical temper which had saved Judaic Christianity (a brief and local thing) and made it Greek, then universal. Skilled in the handling of abstractions, knowing that the representation of Christ as God was as impossible a task as uttering the ineffable, they tried to indicate the immediately assimilable incarnation of Christ in such a way that it gave wings to the mind and the spirit and sent them soaring through and beyond the symbol to its essence, the Transcendent God, with whom, as they themselves had defined, He was consubstantial. If they failed in this aspiration it was failure on a vertiginously exalted height.
And, if it isn’t already obvious, travel writing doesn’t often rise to the “vertiginously exalted heights” where Fermor dwells. He is that perfect combination: sensitive, observant, cultured, intelligent, and gifted with a golden pen. To spend time with one of his books is an almost sensual pleasure, so richly and evocatively does he write. I’m looking forward to going to Greece with him again.
I’ve just learned, from this essay, that Fermor and his wife actually bought a home and settled in Mani during their later years. It seems the journey recounted in this book made a lastingly good impression.
I cannot resist quoting one more passage, simply for its beauty. Here he writes about treading grapes in a Cretan village.
Now and then one finds oneself, in the dilettante fashion of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting, helping in some pleasant and unexacting task: gathering olives onto spread blankets in late autumn, after beating fruit from the branches with long rods of bamboo; picking grapes into baskets, shelling peas or occasionally, in late summer, helping to tread the grapes. I remember one such occasion in Crete, in a cobbled and leafy yard in the village of Vaphe at the foothills of the White Mountains. First we spread deep layers of thyme branches at the bottom of a stone vat which stood breast-high like a giant Roman sarcophagus; then a troop of girls hoisted their heavy baskets and tipped in tangled cataracts of white and black grapes. The treading itself is considered a young man’s job. The first three, of which I was one, had their long mountain boots pulled off; buckets of water were sloshed over grimy shanks and breeches rolled above the knee. “A pity to wash off the dirt,” croaked the old men that always gather on such occasions. “You’ll spoil the taste.” This chestnut–which I imagine to have existed for several millenia–evoked its ritual laughter while we climbed on the edge and jumped down on the resilient mattress of grapes. Scores of skins exploded and the juice squirted between our toes… In a minute or two a mauve-pink trickle crossed the stone lip of the spout and dripped into the waiting tub; the trickle broadened, the drops became a stream and curved into a splashing arc… We were handed glasses of the sweet juice which already–or was this imagination?–had a corrupt and ghostly tang of fermentation. When the stream slackened, the manhood of the treaders, shuffling calf-deep in a tangled slush by now and purple to the groin, was jovially impugned…. For days the sweet heady smell of the must hangs over the village. All is sticky to the touch, purple splashes and handprints on the whitewash and spilt red rivulets between the cobbles and the clouds of flies suggest a massacre. Meanwhile, in the dark crypts of the houses, in huge grooved Minoan amphorae, the must grumbles and hits out and fills the house with unnerving fumes and a bubbling noise like the rumour of plots, a dark conspiracy of whispers. For as long as this vaulted collusion lasts, a mood of swooning and Dionysiac laxity roves the air.