Friday, July 5, 2019

Life In the Peloponnese ~ Our Story

Marti, my friend from Kirkland, Washington in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and I regularly meet for morning coffee in the village, Agios Nikolaos in The Mani. It's the place the two of us and our husbands call home these days.


I walk into town for these get-togethers from our Stone House on the Hill. My route leads through the olive groves and along the sea. Seldom am I passed by more than two or three cars or motorcyclists, maybe a fellow walker or someone on a bicycle.

Prior to one of our get-togethers I varied my route following the backroad (there's only one) through the town, meeting up with the village's main road (also only one) along the harbor as I made my way to our appointed meeting place: Hades Taverna.




My circuitous route was so that I could take photos to illustrate an article I was writing for an on line magazine about our life here. Along the way I waved to Freda who, with her son Gregg, run the café that also serves as our post office. I then paused near the harbor at the kafenion where a group of village gents were gathered -- most likely just as village gents had been that first day The Scout and I happened upon this place, now more than six years ago.  I'd almost bet some of them were seated in the same chair they've sat in for years.



I chuckled as they bantered with the fellow selling the day's fresh catch. It was Saturday morning - a gloriously beautiful day. Summer's heat hadn't yet ratcheted up into high gear as it has now. I moved on and passed Sofia who runs the village's only clothing store - which is only open in the summer. We hugged and kissed a greeting as one does routinely in European countries and discussed the weather and fashion before proceeding on our ways.



Once settled in with our double cappuccino's (which are served in ceramic cups here with cookies on the saucer)  Marti and I began our debrief of the week's activities and absurdities. My neighbors drove past and waved and called out greeting.  Adam, the plumber from two villages away, stopped in for a coffee and chatted for a bit. We called out greetings and waved to others we knew. We watched the passenger bus that comes through twice a day make the tight corner turn, speculating on whether this would be the day it didn't work.


The editor for whom I was writing the article and taking the pictures had asked me to tell her readers what had brought The Scout and I here and what life in rural Greece was like.  This Saturday was a good example of both what brought us here and what keeps us here:  It was an ordinary Saturday morning in this part of Greece.  Yet, it was extraordinary. 

My article was published this week.  I posted it on FB so many of you have already read it, but I know a number of you are not FB fans so I am sharing it on the blog as well.  The publication, Travel with a Challenge, is published in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and is now in its 19th year. With an annual world-wide readership of 1.24 million, its articles are written for mature travelers and profile a number of alternative travel experiences. You travel enthusiasts out there might want to check it out!

In the meantime, hope you enjoy my article, which can be read by clicking on the link below: 
Moving to the Stone House on the Hill



All the photos used in this post and in the article were taken in our village.

Until next week, safe travels to you and yours ~ and thanks to those who've written on Messenger and sent emails this week about this article and the last blog post.  As always, it means a lot to hear from you. To those who've shared my writings, my deepest thanks! And to all who've reached this point in this post - thanks for the time you spent with us today!

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Friday, June 28, 2019

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Visiting 'Paddy's' Place


For years we've been waiting to visit 'that' house
 Paddy's House, . . .it's just up the road in Kalamitsi. 

We'd heard and read so much about him

And, after all. . .he's the one who got us here.



Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor's home near Kardamyli July 2018


Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, war hero and adventurer, considered by some to be the most notable travel writer of the 20th century, is known simply as Paddy or Michalis around here.  The Englishman and his wife, Joan, were early-on expats, having lived for decades in the home they designed and built in the early 1960's just outside the village of Kardamyli. 

Sir Patrick was Knighted in 2004 for his services to literature and to Greek-British relationships. In 2007 the Greek government named him a Knight of the Order of the Phoenix, its highest honor. Around here the titles don't matter; Paddy is remembered for being Paddy.

We think of him as the guy who introduced us to The Mani. . .

The 'highway' we first traveled into the Inner Mani 

The Back Story. . .

Paddy and Joan's lives have been chronicled by many a writer and the two are immensely well-known on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps our favorite tales were written in, News from the Village, Aegean friends, a memoir by American poet David Mason, who for a time in the 1980's lived next-door to the Fermor's compound. His book brought to life the area's villages while recounting his life-long friendship with the couple.


Stoupa as it was when Fermor arrived in the 1950's and as it looks today.


It was a well more than a half dozen years ago that we read David's book and subsequently Paddy's, Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, (published in 1958). Paddy's book chronicles his first trip to the Mani, back when it was a decidedly undeveloped and remote place (just check that 1955 photo of our present-day tourist magnet, Stoupa). He came to the Mani on foot, having climbed up and over the Taygetos Mountain range to get here. 

The two books were all it took to convince us that we needed to visit this still unspoiled and rugged place on the Greek Peloponnese ourselves.


Patio at the Fermor house

Our first visit  to the Mani - Kardamyli, Stoupa, Agios Nikolaos -- in 2012 was a year after Paddy's death in England at the age of 96. Joan had predeceased him in 2003 at age 91. The two had met in wartime Cairo in the 1950's, then traveled together, and finally made their home in a picturesque seaside setting in an area called Kalamitsi, just outside Kardamyli. 

Our slice of The Mani-- The mountains Fermor crossed


Back when we first visited The Mani the idea to live in Greece wasn't a serious consideration of ours. But we were soon caught up in the area's spell. We just kept coming back. And, the fact that we ended up living so close to where they both lived, is one of those goosepimple-kind-of-coincidences that life randomly tosses at you.

Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Center


Hallway at the Fermor house.


The Fermor's bequeathed their home to the Benaki Museum in Athens with a stipulation that it be used as a retreat center for scholars and intellectuals, (loosely defined as writers, researchers, artists, poets, etc.).  


A place to curl up with a good book off the house's great room


When it opens this fall it will  be known as the Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Center. Although I suspect with so many in the village who still remember the unassuming couple, that around here it will continue to be thought of as 'the place Paddy and Joan lived'.


Garden restoration underway

The Center will serve as a retreat, be the site of events and also welcome the public in set tours. In order to generate funds for on-going maintenance and upkeep, the museum will rent the house for three months each year. A partnership with Aria Hotels will make that happen.


Main floor bedroom lit with morning sun



Beginning June 1, 2020 the three-bedroom house with a separate studio (once Paddy's writing studio) and another one-bedroom cottage (once occupied by his housekeeper, Lela, and her family) will be available for rent. Guests can rent the entire complex or just a room.

I did a quick check for a one-night stay for two persons next summer and found prices were 280-, 400- and 480- euro for a room, depending on the date selected. I didn't find the cost of renting the entire complex. (Several weeks are already booked.)

Visiting Paddy's House


Entryway at the Fermor house


I've been monitoring the process of turning the house into a retreat center for at least two years. Each time I'd think I could visit some rehabilitation project was slated and the house closed up again.

It appeared earlier this year that the house would be finished and open for tours in mid-June. Again that official opening has been delayed but is far enough along that the Museum is honoring requests for public tours. (Limited times and days because it is still under construction and empty.) 

Entry way and art work

Admittedly from the stories we've heard about their hospitality, it would have been far more fun to have been a dinner or lunch guest of Paddy and Joan's but visiting Paddy's house last week was a pretty special experience.  I had goosepimples walking through the massive entry.


Workers completing The Great Room renovations


While a backhoe clattered away in the lower gardens, a woman mopped the kitchen floor and workers concentrated on completing the living room - the small group of about a dozen of us were set loose to explore the house.


Gardens filled with herbs, oleander, cypress (kiparrisi) and fir trees


It was a perfect time to imagine how it must have been back in the day that these two opened their doors and welcomed guests.  One account reported that this twosome would plan their discussion topics for the evening in advance, so that there would never be a lull in the conversation.



Can you imagine sitting around this table with Paddy and Joan?


Writer Artemis Cooper, a frequent guest, and author of the 2012 book, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, recalled her first visit as being on a calm night with a million stars and six people at the table:


'What did we discuss that night?' she says. 
'I don't remember anything but the velvet night, the sound of the sea, the faces 
in the candlelight, the laughter and the voices - 
and the thought that nothing could be better than that moment.'
.

One of many patio seating areas at Paddy's house



And in Fermor also wrote of those gatherings that stretched long into the night:

'These summer nights are short,' he  wrote.
 'Going to bed before midnight is unthinkable and talk, wine, moonlight and the warm air 
are often in league to defer it one, two or three hours more.'


Open corridor between rooms had garden and sea views


The Fermor's L-shaped  main house is built on two-levels. Bedrooms, a kitchen and the grand room all open off an open stone corridor. Another bedroom is on the lower level. I could imagine houseguests waking  to morning sunlight streaming through the windows, later sipping coffee in the patio, perhaps taking a dip in the water just a stairway away.


Fermor's stairway to the sea



Many of those guests recall with amazement the many books in the home. One writer who toured the home estimated some 5,000 books were tucked away on built in book shelves.


'. . .dictionaries, lexicons, encyclopedias, special editions, Oxford companions, anthologies based on birds, beasts, fishes and stars in the immense libraries -- 
even the bathrooms had bookshelves. . .' he wrote.  

Cartons of books waiting to be re-shelved 


So, even though the bookshelves were bare when we toured, the mountains of boxes stacked in each room led us to speculate the books would soon be back on the shelves.  



Paddy's writing studio 



We followed our tour guide -- a woman who had worked for the Fermor's -- through the sprawling gardens and to his writing studio. It was here he wrote several of his books. His desk  to the right of the group in the photo above, seemed a shrine to the great man. The guide asked that no photos be taken of it (although all of us had photographed the room with it in it). 



The writing studio 

Our tour ended at Lela's House, at the back of the main house. Lela was a long-time housekeeper and cook.  We did have the good fortune to see her before she passed away. She opened Lela's Restaurant on the waterfront in Kardamyli after leaving the Fermor house. Even when she became too old to work in it, she sat 'guard-like' outside her eatery keeping an eye on all preparations and the comings and goings of customers.



Kalamitsi, lower right, and Kardamyli, upper right



After our tour we joined our friends for coffee in Kardamyli, I couldn't help but think of a passage Fermor wrote about the village in his Mani book:



'The Guide Bleu only spares it a half a line, 
mentioning little beyond the existence of its four hundred and ninety inhabitants.  
It is better so. It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, 
for it ever to be endangered by tourism.'

The village was packed with people that morning, we had to search for parking.  Tourist season has begun.  And I chuckled wondering if Paddy ever imagined as he left his home to the Museum that his place would one day bring even more tourists to the village.

For those coming this way and who want to take part in a tour,contact:  leighfermorhouse@benaki.gr

If you want to book a hotel stay there: 

Thanks for joining us on a trip just down the road and back in time today. As always, we appreciate the time you spend with us.  Wishing safe travels to you and yours until we are together again next week.  A special thanks to those of you who've been sharing our posts with friends ~ it is the best compliment a writer can get!

Sorry about the type size changes throughout the text. Google Blogger is about to drive me to drink. . .or find a new blog platform. . .changes are coming!

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Costa Navarino~ A Road Trip Out of Greece

We've just returned to Greece. . .or at least it feels that way. 

Pylos town - Greek Peloponnese

You see we took a road trip to a luxury resort not far from our house. A sprawling oasis of pure bling with two five-star hotels, an enormous spa and so many top-notch restaurants that you could lose count of them all. It is the type of place you'd find in Hawaii and Arizona; similar to posh places in France and Italy . . . for that matter, on our glitzy islands, Santorini or Mykonos. But, Messinia?!



Sailboats docked at Pylos harbor - Peloponnese

We'd driven northwest from our home in The Mani, past Kalamata and then across Pylia, the most western Peloponnese 'finger'. Like most road trips in this area we'd slowed for farmers on tractors and had passed a dozen or so mom-and-pop fruit stands that line the narrow two-lane road that serves as a 'highway' here.  Our route took us through villages so small that a mere blink and you'd miss them; each with some distinctly Greek name,like, Neromylos, water mills.

A common sight on the roads of Pylia this time of year

Eventually signs directed us to an even more narrow road that wound through an ancient olive grove, and then another turn and we were on way to the resort's security gate at the end of a landscaped drive. A gate we wouldn't have gotten past without reservations, I might add.

Fruit stands line the highway - it is orange season


Two hours after leaving home, we'd arrived at Costa Navarino, the 321-acre resort featuring side-by-side hotels --The Westin and Romanos Luxury Collection -- two golf courses, an enormous spa, conference facilities to serve 1,700 and so many swimming pools and high end restaurants that we lost count of them all.

From Agios Nikolaos on the right to Romanos on the left

The lobby of the small  Kalamata Airport, some 40 minutes away from the resort, is a showroom for the resort. Enormous photos, maps and information - you can't miss the hype for the ultra luxury experience to be had at this place. Each time we saw the display, we'd say we should check it out. Finally, we did!

The resort opened in May 2010, a few years before we happened upon the Messinian region of the Peloponnese. At the time of its opening, it featured The Dunes 18-hole golf course. A second course, The Bay, opened the following year. (Two more courses are being developed in the area of Navarino Hills.)

A view of The Dunes golf course - Costa Navarino

Since we can't yet travel outside Greece (still waiting for those residence permits), this seemed a perfect destination for last week's road trip. While the valet parked our car, we were greeted by a charming receptionist from Venice and we were settled in our room shortly after 1 p.m.

Center of The Westin Lobby - Costa Navarino

The common area décor was simply understated elegance.  The guest suites posh and amenities luxurious.  We felt as if we'd left the Greek world we know and entered a different one.  There was at ubiquitous resort feel ~ it could have been a resort anywhere in the world.

'Agora's' restaurants and big screen - Costa Navarino

At times when strolling its grounds, with no sign of the Mediterranean Sea, (it is set back from the beach for environmental reasons) we'd comment that it felt like we were in Scottsdale, Arizona. And there's nothing wrong with that!

Our 'family suite' had two full bathrooms and large deck

For those of us who live in Greece and who would like a change of scenery and tastes, it was perfect option. We were upgraded -- thanks to the Marriott/Starwood Bonvoy hotel loyalty program -- to what is called a 'family suite' - a room large enough that we could have lived in the place. It was difficult to pull ourselves away from our room.

One Man's Dream

A bit of Navarino Bay
Captain Vassilis Constantakopulos from Diavolitsi, a small village with 854 residents, about 39 km from Kalamata, had the vision for putting his Messinian homeland on the tourist map. After a few decades at sea, he founded a successful shipping company, expanded into other businesses and by 1980 had conceived the vision of Costa Navarino. While he retired in 2005 and turned the business over to family, he lived to see the resort open. He died in 2011.

He'd likely be quite proud of the award-winning resort these days as  among its accolades are: National Georgraphic Travel Editors named it one of the 20 Best Destinations in the World, it was named the European Golf Resort of the Year in 2017 by the Golf Tourism Association and The Westin has been voted the "Best Family Destination' in The Mediterranean. 


A Sustainable Destination

The resort's web site proudly claims to be 'the prime sustainable destination in the Mediterranean.' After seeing first-hand the environmental and socio-economic efforts going on here, they certainly have a right to such a boast.
Beach café has limited operation in deference to the turtles

Let's start at the beach:  The restaurant, with the most beautiful undulating canvas roof I've ever seen, operates only in the daytime. At sundown the beach belongs to the turtles as explained in the sign in the photo.


A Blue Flag beach - Costa Navarino
The beach is also one of only a few hundred in all of Greece to be awarded the Blue Flag designation. Criteria for the flag recognition include: cleanliness, water quality, organization, swimmer safety, and environmental protection.


How old is this tree?!?!? we exclaimed.

 The development also has the Navarino Pet Community animal adoption center, a place that is open to guests to visit and adopt previously unwanted animals who are cared for by a team of volunteers. Forty animals have found new 'fur-ever' homes thanks to those volunteers.

A decade ago the founders of Costa Navarino formed a partnership with the academic community and created the Navarino Environmental Observatory that operates with a focus on research and educational programs on climate change and the environment.

Keeping locals employed and able to live in Messinia was part of the founder's original vision. Producing Navarino Icons, the private resort label of products including wine, olives and olive oil is one way of doing that. (You can find these at Dean and Deluca and Whole Foods in the US and Marks and Spencer in the UK).

Security guard at work - Costa Navarino

Perhaps the favorite part of our stay was the morning breakfast buffet, which was included in the room rate.  Food displays filled two interior  rooms of a large restaurant and guests sat in an open air covered terrace area.  Aside from the food, what made breakfast a treat was 'the security guard' who roamed (with his handler) through the restaurant.  

Being open air, we learned the sparrows that swoop, dive and entertain throughout the grounds had been little pests: dive-bombing tables and making away with food. With a hawk keeping watch they haven't had that problem. And as the handler said with a smile, "The sparrows don't know he is tethered to me!" They keep their distance now!

On that note it is time to thank you for the time you've spent with us at Costa Navarino and we hope you'll be back next week when we take a look at the realities of road trips and driving in Greece!  Hope to see you again soon! Safe travels to you and yours ~

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