Author Maggie Rainey-Smith meets one of her literary heroes on a trip to Greece's Mani Peninsula.
Recently, I spent two months in Greece chasing the muse, searching for clues, looking for inspiration.
The Mani Peninsula region is famous for the Maniots and their resistance of the Ottoman occupation. It is isolated by the Taygetus mountain range and enclosed by the Aegean and Ionian seas.
The Ottomans failed to infiltrate, but I have to advise that the English have. As I shopped for my Twinings tea and sat outside a cafe in the village of Kardamyli, using the free internet, I lamented the globalisation of this once-remote peninsula.
I wished, for just a moment, that I was back in time when to be a strange woman alone in this small village may have attracted disapproving stares.
In the local bookshop was the very book I'd been looking for: Mani - Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. On my terrace overlooking the sea, I opened the book and found myself mesmerised by the most exquisite, evocative travel writing I have ever read. Not only that, I discovered that Fermor is a resident of Kardamyli.
The owner of the bookshop was unimpressed when I asked where Sir Patrick lived, and his lips remained sealed, his expression disapproving. Fermor is almost a saint in Greece.
He was a resistance fighter in Crete during World War II; his exploits were the subject of a film starring Dirk Bogarde (my father was in Crete, but a more modest hero at Maleme, the point where the island was finally lost to the Germans).
At the local cafe, where I made use of the technology, the owner (who looks like a Maniot right out of Fermor's book, with her blanket of black ringlets and beautiful olive eyes), told me Paddy (as the locals call him) would celebrate his Name Day that very week and that he always opens his home to the locals on that day.
By then, and after one week's residence, I considered myself a local, and everyone agreed with me.
So with joyous disbelief at my good fortune, on Thursday, November 8, I joined the local villagers at Sir Patrick's Name Day celebration at his majestic and yet still homely yellow stone house overlooking the Messinian Gulf.
By 10.30am the service in his private chapel was over and we were seated in his lounge - books lining the walls from floor to ceiling: Nancy Mitford, Henry James, James Joyce - eating olives, meatballs, feta and drinking local wine.
On a person's Name Day you are required to take a gift, and all I had with me was a copy of my first novel About Turns, which I gave to Paddy. He signed my copy of his own book with a personal inscription and a small drawing. We talked about Crete and my dad and his book on the Mani. I gushed, he charmed.
Then the singing began and Paddy was surrounded by adoring local women who toasted him with traditional Name Day songs.
At the end of the singing, Paddy stood and pretended to fire a pistol into the air (an old tradition where real pistols were once used). He is of English and Irish descent. Although his name is Patrick, his Greek Name Day is the day of Michali. Michael is the name he assumed while fighting for the Greek resistance.
With me was an American Orthodox nun who worked in Moscow and a Danish man of the cloth who was studying Byzantine churches. We were Paddy's "non-local" guests and pinched ourselves to check we weren't imagining our good fortune.
When it was time to leave, another Michael (Michali), a neighbour of Paddy's, invited us to his home. We walked through an olive grove up the hill along the coast to another beautiful stone home.
Our new host sold Paddy the land and helped him build his house in 1964. We were feted with fresh coffee and cakes and listened to Michali's son, who told us that when he decided to leave Kardamyli some years ago to travel, Paddy told him: "You can't leave."
And when he returned years later, Paddy told him: "You know we are very fortunate, we live in Kardamyli. We are fortunate - we have the mountains. We are fortunate - we have good food. We are fortunate - we have clean air to breathe. We are fortunate - we have the beautiful sea to swim in."
"Yes, Paddy, the mountains, the food, the air and the sea," said the young man, nodding in agreement.
And then Paddy said to him: "And for all these reasons and more, we may just forget to die."
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor is 92 years old, he was wearing a double-breasted navy suit when I met him, had a full head of wavy grey-black hair and was still a handsome, charming man with just a slight deafness in one ear.
He spoke with a classical English accent which rather surprised me, considering the years he has spent in Greece.
He is still writing. If you've never heard of him, or never read his books, now is the time to start.
- Detours, HoS