The Patrick Leigh Fermor house in Kardamyli is an unexpected treasure waiting to be discovered when visiting the Mani peninsular in Greece. Here's why.
Visiting the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor House
During our recent road trip around the Mani area of Greece, we were among some of the first visitors welcomed into the stunning Patrick Leigh Fermor House.
We absolutely loved it, and consider it a must-see if you visit the Peloponnese. Not only is the house itself amazing, but the backstory surrounding both it and Patrick ‘Paddy' Leigh Fermor gives it near mythological status.
As the Patrick Leigh Fermor House is something of a new attraction, only opening to the public in August of 2019, we stumbled upon it more or less by accident. After leaving Areopolis in the Peloponnese to head north to Kalamata, the Mrs suggested we drop by to check it out.
I have to admit that at the time, I had no idea who Patrick Leigh Fermor was, or why we should visit his house, but it sounded like a plan!
Who was Patrick Leigh Fermor?
As I found out more about Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, I became somewhat embarrassed I hadn't heard about him before. But that's ok, you can't know everything, and one of the reasons I like to travel is to discover new things!
Adventurer, war hero, and writer are some ways to describe Patrick Leigh Fermor. They probably do little justice to who he was though.
He was certainly quite a character. Born in London in 1915, Paddy spent a significant part of his childhood in the village of Weedon in Northamptonshire, England. This is a village I know well, coming from Northampton myself, and I can fully understand why he developed an interest in travelling at a very young age!
While at school, Fermor was probably not the most obedient of students. Apparently he was expelled at least once, and it sounds like he had troubles fitting in a strict scholar or academic environment. At the same time, he was interested in history, literature, Greek and Latin, and it seems that he aspired to be an author from a very young age.
Patrick Leigh Fermor travels through Europe
In 1933, at age 18, he set off to travel throughout Europe. As you can imagine, his journey was quite an adventurous one. A solo traveller is rarely lonely, and he was invited to stay with people from all walks of life. From shepherds and monks to the rich and the aristocracy, people who met this young, ambitious guy were interested in spending time with him.
After passing by Istanbul in early 1935, Fermor decided to explore Greece. Like travellers do, he met a Romanian woman with whom he fell in love. They lived in Greece before they moved to Romania together, and during that time he picked up the Greek language. I’ve got great respect for this guy, as I still find Greek extremely difficult!
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s involvement in WWII
In 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, Paddy Fermor returned home to be enlisted in the army. Becoming an SOE agent, he spent leave and off-operation time in the infamous Tara mansion in Cairo. The more you read about what went on there, the more you realise that the Rolling Stones were just amateurs when it came to house parties and general debauchery!
His most well-known war time exploits however, were from his time in Crete. Pretending to be a shepherd, he was also a part of the Cretan resistance He even initiated and managed the famous kidnapping of the German Major General, Heinrich Kreipe in 1944. For his contribution during the war, he was awarded the OBE and DSO.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s literary work
After the WWII, Patrick Leigh Fermor got more involved in travelling and writing. In the late 1940s, he travelled to the Caribbean along with his future wife, Joan Elizabeth Rayner.
In his first book, the Traveller's Tree (1950), he wrote about those little visited places. His realistic descriptions of island life and unique style of writing earned him the Heinemman Foundation Prize, and helped him become an established author.
Naturally, many of his later books were about Greece. He wrote books about several parts of the country, like Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966). Some of his best known books, including A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), describing his first ever journey, at the age of 18.
Patrick Leigh Fermor continued writing for several years. His book about General Kreipe’s arrest was only published in 2014, three years after his death. He also contributed to a book on the same topic written by Bill Stanley Moss, his second in command during the War.
During his lifetime, Paddy Fermor was often quoted as the UK’s greatest living travel writer. His books were digging deep into the cultures of the countries he visited, offering a unique perspective on places little discovered at the time.
In 1958, Paddy wrote about the Mani, and the little town of Kardamyli. He was happy that this area was so little known, and he suggested that “It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.”
Although things have changed since the 1960s, the area is still fairly undeveloped, compared to many other areas of Greece. For sure, Stoupa and Kardamyli attract many visitors, but beyond those two resort towns you can find peace and quiet, especially if you visit during the off-season.
Ironically, part of the reason that the Mani became known, is Fermor’s book itself. Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) describes a beautiful, unspoilt country that seems to emerge from an era long gone.
Patrick Leigh Fermor house in the Mani
This was the area that he chose to make his home for the rest of his life. In 1964, he bought a plot of land, and built his beautiful villa where he lived with his partner and later wife, Joan. At the time, not much else was around – but even today, the area is still very quiet.
This private residence is more accurately known as the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor House. It is a really amazing villa in Kardamyli, about an hour south of Kalamata in the Peloponnese. It is built right next to beautiful Kalamitsi beach, and has some out of this world views.
Before his death, Patrick Leigh Fermor bequeathed the estate to the Benaki Foundation. The house has been renovated with substantial aid from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and was opened to the public in 2019. As of June 2020, it will also be available for short-term lets.
Touring the Leigh Fermor House
Overlooking the beautiful beach of Kalamitsi, Paddy Fermor’s house is really beyond description. The three separate buildings in the estate were designed by architect Nikos Hatzimichalis, who worked closely with Patrick and Joan to create this amazing property.
Apparently, Patrick studied classics like Vitruvius in order to understand a bit more about architecture, proportions and light. He designed many things himself, like the wooden lamps and the table shown below.
We were guided around the house by his former housekeeper, which gave us an opportunity to find out more about. According to her, Patrick Leigh Fermor was an extremely nice, well-mannered and generous person. He was very outgoing, and loved having people around. He and his wife often organized gatherings and parties, though Patrick could always retire to one of the private rooms if he wanted to work.
Several important Greek people have passed by Leigh Fermor’s house during his time there. One of the most famous people was Tzannis Tzannetakis, a Greek politician and Prime Minister for a brief period. Tzannetakis, who was from nearby Gythion, translated Fermor’s book on the Mani. This was the only translation of any of his books that the author fully accepted.
Preparing a Legacy
In fact, it was Tzannetakis who gave Fermor the idea of donating his residence to the Benaki Museum. As Fermor was also a personal friend of Antonis Benakis, the founder of the Museum, the idea was well received.
Patrick and Joan lived in the villa until Joan’s death, in 2003. From time to time they spent a few weeks in the UK – apparently, the Greek summer was often too much for them!
After Joan’s death, Patrick continued spending time in both countries. Patrick Leigh Fermor died in the UK in 2011, at the age of 96, and was buried in Gloucestershire, next to his wife Joan.
Donation of the Patrick Leigh Fermor House
Ownership of the estate passed on to the Benaki Foundation after Fermor’s death in 2011. The house has been renovated and restored with generous funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
Restoration works were undertaken by established architects, in collaboration with Mr Tzannetakis’ children. A lot of attention was paid to detail, and efforts were made to preserve the original character of the house. At the same time, access to all mod cons such as heating, cooling, wi-fi etc was made available.
Paddy Fermor had a huge collection of 6,000 books, and cataloging the library was not an easy task. You can see many of the original books and works of art in the house, and some of the books are truly fascinating. The most valuable ones have been moved to the Benaki Museum in Athens, to undergo conservation work.
There is even a pool currently being built. We thought this was a bit unfitting, given that the house is just two minutes from the lovely Kalamitsi beach. I’m sure that Paddy Fermor wouldn’t approve of having a pool installed. He was an avid swimmer and had even crossed the Dardanelles in 1984, at age 69! Oh well…
Another thing that will strike you about the Patrick Leigh Fermor house is the courtyard, overlooking Kalamitsi bay. A lot of work went into repairing the beautiful mosaics and pebbled floors. The local olive and cypress trees and wild flowers make it a fantastic environment to work.
Staying at the Patrick Leigh Fermor House
In accordance with Leigh Fermor’s vision, the house will primarily be used to accommodate scholars who have been carefully selected from a pool of applicants. Researchers, writers, poets and artists will be able to benefit from this amazing, inspirational environment with the spectacular views.
The idea is for the Patrick Leigh Fermor house to become an important cultural centre in the area. Students and researchers will be able to liaise with each other and be inspired. Scholars from Princeton University have already been hosted here – some people are really lucky!
There are five separate residences, each with a bedroom and working space. The common spaces in the estate can be used for relaxation and interaction with the other residents.
In order to help cover the running costs, the Benaki Foundation is allowed to rent out some of the rooms for three months per year. People who are interested in spending a few summer days in one of the most special houses in Greece will need to book well in advance. We looked at the prices, and they are pretty crazy – well out of the reach of mere mortals such as us!
Plan your visit to the Patrick Leigh Fermor House
The Patrick Leigh Fermor House was opened to the public in July 2019. It can be visited on short guided tours, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11:00. Booking is essential, and can be done through email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the time we visited, in September 2019, entrance tickets were 10 euro.
During our visit, we were shown around parts of the main house, as well as Paddy’s office. Apart from the hundreds of books, you will be impressed by the furniture and several objects that Patrick brought from his travels around the world.
No photos can do justice to this amazing residence, and nothing you read or hear about it will prepare you for how beautiful it is. You need to visit and see it with your own eyes!