Grand tours: Watch out for Artemis and her nymphs

Writers' adventures in literature: Patrick Leigh Fermor is awed by the Peloponnese mountains, where myth is never far away


In December 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor, then aged 18, set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, a 1,200-mile journey which he famously chronicled in 'A Time of Gifts'. During the Second World War, Fermor spent three years in Crete working as a British agent, and became a national hero when he captured the German General Kreipe (as immortalised by Dirk Bogarde in the film 'Ill Met by Moonlight'). Several books and journeys later he returned to Greece, producing two of the 20th century's most celebrated travel books, 'Mani', from which this extract is taken, and its companion, 'Roumeli'.

In December 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor, then aged 18, set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, a 1,200-mile journey which he famously chronicled in 'A Time of Gifts'. During the Second World War, Fermor spent three years in Crete working as a British agent, and became a national hero when he captured the German General Kreipe (as immortalised by Dirk Bogarde in the film 'Ill Met by Moonlight'). Several books and journeys later he returned to Greece, producing two of the 20th century's most celebrated travel books, 'Mani', from which this extract is taken, and its companion, 'Roumeli'.

* * *

On the map the southern part of the Peloponnese looks like a misshapen tooth, fresh torn from its gum with three peninsulas jutting southward in jagged and carious roots. The central prong is formed by the Taygetus mountains, which, from their northern foothills in the heart of the Morea to their storm-beaten southern point, Cape Matapan, are roughly a hundred miles long. About half their length - seventy-five miles on their western and forty-five on their eastern flank and measuring fifty miles across - projects tapering into the sea. This is the Mani. As the Taygetus range towers to 8,000 feet at the centre, subsiding to north and south in chasm after chasm, their distances as the crow flies can with equanimity be trebled and quadrupled and sometimes, when reckoning overland, multiplied tenfold. Just as the inland Taygetus divides the Messenian from the Laconian plain, its continuation, the sea-washed Mani, divides the Aegean from the Ionian, and its wild cape, the ancient Taenarus and the entrance to Hades, is the southernmost point of continental Greece. Nothing but the blank Mediterranean, sinking below to enormous depths, lies between this spike of rock and the African sands and from this point the huge wall of the Taygetus, whose highest peaks bar the northern marches of the Mani, rears a bare and waterless inferno of rock.

But all this, as we toiled up the north-eastern side next morning, was still a matter of conjecture and hearsay. Yorgo, trudging far above, stooped Atlas-like under our gear. The shoulder-strings of the Cretan bag in which I had stuffed the minute overflow burnt into my shoulders... The chestnut trees of Anavryti were far below, and as we climbed the steep mountainside and the sun climbed the sky, vast extents of the Morea spread below us. The going grew quickly steeper and the path corkscrewed at last into a Grimm-like and Gothic forest of conifers where we were forever slipping backwards on loose stones and pine-needles. Emerging, we could look back over range after range of the Peloponnesian mountains - Parnon, Maenalus, even a few far away and dizzy crags of Killini and Erymanthus, and, here and there, between gaps of the Spartan and Arcadian sierras, blue far-away triangles of the Aegean and the gulf of Argos. But ahead we were faced by an unattractively Alpine wall of mineral: pale grey shale and scree made yet more hideous by a scattered plague of stunted Christmas trees. These torturing hours of ascent seemed as though they could never end. A vast slag heap soon shut out the kindly lower world; the sun trampled overhead through sizzling and windless air. Feet became cannonballs, loads turned to lead, hearts pounded, hands slipped on the handles of sticks and rivers of sweat streamed over burning faces and trickled into our mouths like brine. Why, we kept wondering, though too short of breath for talk, does one ever embark on these furious wrestling matches, these rib-cracking clinches with the sublime? Felons on invisible treadmills, our labour continued through viewless infernos like the waste-shoots of lime-kilns... Finally the toy German trees petered out and the terrible slope flattened into a smooth green lawn scattered with flowers and adorned by a single cistus clump with a flower like a sweet-smelling dog rose. Yorgo was waiting in a last narrow cleft immediately above. It was the watershed of the Taygetus and so sharply defined that one could put a finger on a thin edge of rock and say, "Here it is." A last step, and we were over it into the Mani.

A wilderness of barren grey spikes shot precipitously from their winding ravines to heights that equalled or overtopped our own; tilted at insane angles, they fell so sheer that it was impossible to see what lay, a world below, at the bottom of our immediate canyon. Except where their cutting edges were blurred by landslides, the mountains looked as harsh as steel. It was a dead, planetary place, a habitat for dragons. All was motionless. There was not even a floating eagle, not a sound or a sign that human beings had ever trodden there, and immense palisades of rock seemed to bar all way of escape. The perpendicular and shadowless light reverberated from the stone with a metallic glare and the whole landscape had a slight continual shudder, trembling and wavering in the fierce blaze of noon. The only hint of salvation lay far away to the south-west. There, through a deep notch in the confining mountains, gleamed a pale and hazy vista of the Ionian with a ghost of the Messenian peninsula along its skyline. Everything, except the remote gleam, was the abomination of desolation.

On a narrow ledge that overhung this chaos we found a miraculous spring: a trickle of cold bright water husbanded in a hollow tree-trunk lined with brilliant green moss. A wild fig-tree gesticulated overhead. Here, after long draughts, we lay with our feet propped on boulders. While sweat dried in salty craters and our pulses gradually slowed down we watched the thin blue wreaths of cigarette smoke melt into the sky as speech came slowly back. These empty peaks, according to Homer, were the haunt of Artemis and of three goat-footed nymphs who would engage lonely travellers in a country dance and lead them up unsuspectingly to the precipice where they tripped them up and sent them spinning down the gulf... All at once a further wonder came to increase our well-being: a cool breath of wind. This is one of the seldom-failing blessings of midsummer in the Peloponnese. After long broiling mornings when the afternoon, one would think, can only bring fiercer refinements of torture, the static air, heated beyond endurance, rises all at once like a Mongolfier and the sudden threat of that vacuum which nature abhors, drawing cool drafts from the sea along the winding canyons, sets up a delicious atmospheric commotion: a steady cool breeze that revives the traveller at his last gasp.

'Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese', by Patrick Leigh Fermor (rrp £9.99, John Murray). 'Independent on Sunday' readers can order a copy of the book for the special price of £8.99 (including postage and packing within the UK). Call 0870 121 0009 and quote offer code BSH 034.

Follow in the footsteps

Pick your peninsula

Stretching across the southern part of the Peloponnese's three peninsulas, the Mani divides into two regions: the outer Mani, in Messenia, a coastal landscape of hills, bays and seaside villages, and the inner Mani, in Laconia, a rocky, desert-like area. Growing in popularity as a holiday destination, the Mani offers beach breaks as well as good hiking.

Marathon event

From June to September a festival of drama and music is held at the Sainopouleion amphitheatre near Sparta, in Laconia. For a programme, contact the Sainopouleion Foundation (00 30 27310 28878). Sparta also hosts an annual ultramarathon from Athens to Sparta, inspired by the Battle of Marathon of 490BC. Now in its 20th year, the event will be held on 26 and 27 September. Visit http://spartathlon.webvista.net/

Getting there

Simpson Travel (020-8392 5852; www.simpson-travel.com) offers a week in July in Villa Aris near Pylos in Messenia for £577 per person, based on four sharing, including return flights and car hire.

Anna Gueldenhaupt

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