Artemis Cooper calls it, 'A Monastery built for two'. To me, Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor's house in Kardamyli, Greece is also perfection. Five years on from Paddy's death, the house is gathering funding to make repairs and run the writer's retreat that he and Joan intended it to become when they left it to the Benaki museum in Athens. For the time being, the Leigh Fermor's kind and devoted housekeeper Elpida Beloyannis opens the house to visitors. Suspended in time and awaiting for life to return and blow through it, it is still the embodiment of lives well lived, and a place of magic and great beauty.
Last December, my Greek husband and I and our two young daughters anchored our trip to Mani in the Southern Peloponnese around a visit to the house. We arrived late on the afternoon of the 23rd December, and thanks to Elpida's generosity, were able to take as much in as the light would allow.
Paddy and Joan had searched South West Greece for a piece of land on which to set down, work, entertain and end their nomadic lifestyle. Here, under the great hulk of the Taygetus mountain that for centuries kept Mani isolated and remote from the rest of Greece, they found it. Paddy, describing it to Debo Devonshire wrote, 'Not a house in sight, nothing but the two rocky headlands, an island a quarter of a mile out to sea with a ruined chapel, and a vast expanse of glittering water, over which you see the sun setting till its last gasp. Homer's Greece, in fact.'
Taking the coastal road from Kalamata that runs to Aeropolis in the inner Mani, you reach Kardamyli and then drive out of it again onto Kalamitsi, before dropping down onto a dirt road that leads to the house. Paddy is responsible for the confusion- he didn't like the sound of Kalamitsi (meaning place of the reeds) in English, so always referred to their location as the larger village next door. Following the Benaki's instructions, we arrived at those unprepossessing double grey doors at the appointed time. My husband had stood there once before, then aged 18.
Elpida met and led us into this place of remarkably natural, simple beauty. One where every detail is the result of two creative, kind, erudite, urbane, exacting minds.
The garden is generously layered; it leads you places and then brings you out somewhere new to sit in wonder at the immensity of nature before you. The paths and verandas are all laid with patterns of smooth pebbles, many designed by Paddy, and the steps and ledges are made with off cuts of marble that he brought back from a nearby quarry in the truck loads. Encircling it all are the olive groves and cypresses.
Evidence of friends and their personal journey are built into the fabric of the house which was designed together with the architect Nikos Hatzimichalis. The main artery of the house is a cloister-like gallery of carved stone arches that leads onto the main rooms of the house, and the eye out to the cypress rimmed cove where they would swim. It is reminiscent of a Byzantine monastery, perhaps because Paddy was fortified by his periodic writing stays in monasteries across Europe, and they provided him with pause from the great speed and exuberance with which he led his life. In this open gallery, a faded mural of a cat is set in an alcove, (stray cats were always welcome), drawn by their friend Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, as were others about the house.
The bedrooms are simply decorated with beds and two-tiered side tables all made out of wicker, the best and most elegant of materials in my opinion, and I hope that they remain during the house's next incarnation. Joan's corner bedroom is particularly wonderful as the windows look out onto the cove, and it is light and airy. The back of her bathroom door is pasted with postcards and other scraps of inspiration.
The idea of visiting the house derived from my desire to see for myself the central room of the house - what John Betjeman called, 'one of the rooms of the world' - a sitting room/library/dining room. I was especially interested in the sunken turkish seating area that forms a part of it. The interior designer, Jaime Parlardé (he and his wife were great friends of the Leigh Fermors), whom I had long admired, used this part of the room as inspiration for his own house in Marbella. The room within a room, flanked on three sides by square framed windows, overhangs the garden and gives you the illusion that you are perched above the sea. It invites conversation, reading, drinking, and to simply lie there floating. It also seems to me that this 'hanging glass box' was built perhaps with the memory of the room he slept in during his memorable stay in Plovdiv recounted in The Broken Road. There he describes, 'a low wide divan reached by a shallow step', 'bright squares split up into many panes through which the sun streamed', 'a cigar-box lid ceiling', and 'a secret, calm, airy world'.
The rest of that luminous and remarkable room extends up and out from this cosy area. It seemed to me that the room takes much of its energy from the outside that flows in through the long tall windows, and that it was as elemental as its setting. There are great long bookshelves set into the wall either side of the windows, a white divan covered with cushions in Ikat and Suzani fabrics running the length of the far side of the room under windows and books, and another cigar box ceiling. The armchairs are loosely covered in pale blue ticking fabric, the lampshades brown paper or pale yellow card. The stone fireplace with its rounded plaster chimney, like the one in his study, is modelled on the ones Paddy saw at Baleni in Transylvania.
The room also served as a dining room, with a heavy circular table beautifully inlaid with coloured marble in the form of a sun. One of my favourite details is that the books nearest it are all reference books, to support theories and discussions and settle disagreements over the table.
Leaving the serenity of this setting and the well-being that overcomes you here was challenging, and next morning we returned via the path that links the house to the Kalamitsi Hotel and on to the village of Kardamyli. The hotel is still run by Paddy and Joans' friends Theano & Nikos, the kindest and warmest people imaginable, who opened up our room for us and put on a fire when we arrived a day earlier than I had reserved in my broken Greek a few weeks before. Over a breakfast she sat and told us about her friends, the immense fun they had had, and what lay before us in the inner Mani, (Kardamyli is considered outer Mani).
Out of the hotel garden, we took a small grassy path bordering the sea and cypresses and shaded from the winter sun by olive trees. We crunched enormous shiny acorns underfoot and just before reaching the house, come across the fortuitously consecrated chapel of 'Aghios Michalis' (Paddy was known as Michalis in Greece). Here, the saint and Paddy's name-day always were celebrated.
The house and garden inspired me like no other. Possibly because Paddy does too, but either way it is masterpiece, and rightly considered the most beautiful house in Greece. Before leaving for Gerolimenas my husband took a walk on the little private beach, and brought back for me a beautiful, smooth, pale grey stone. It now sits on my desk as a talisman.