Joshua Barley, The Slow Cyclist guide in Zagori, Crete and the Mani, is an Athens-based writer, translator and one of the finest Hellenophiles of his generation. Here he recalls the profound impact of Patrick Leigh Fermor on his own life and why he’s excited to guide a new journey in the Mani following in the great travel writer’s footsteps.
It’s strange how a person you have never met can have a defining influence on your life; it’s just as strange when a book has the same effect. For me, this person was Patrick Leigh Fermor and the book was his classic work Mani. My mother gave me this book when I was twenty years old, setting off for an archaeological tour of the Peloponnese with the British School at Athens.
By the time we reached ancient Sparta, my interest in the umpteenth ruined temple was flagging (call me spoiled). My eyes, of their own accord, looked up from the stones underfoot, scanned the sea of orange groves and finally met the dazzling bulk of Mount Taygetus. I suddenly realised that the chapter of Leigh Fermor’s book that I had just begun was entitled ‘South from Sparta’. Here I was, too, looking south from Sparta.
This was my Damascene conversion: it was the realisation that the ancient country that I had been studying about in libraries for years actually exists. Leigh Fermor, through Mani, opened my eyes to the whole continuum of Greek history and culture. As well as a travel book about a stunningly beautiful place, it is a celebration of that much-ignored 2500-year gap between Classical Greece and today, which includes the New Testament, the Byzantine Empire, centuries of folklore and folk song, swashbuckling brigands and wonderful poetry.
My companions on the tour noticed a change coming over me. I was seen disappearing along the thyme-scented mountain paths, looking for Pan; or swimming with mermaids at sunrise; or trying to converse with the old boys in the village cafés. There was no doubting it: I had fallen in love with Greece, with the Mani, and with Patrick Leigh Fermor. I knew at that point, with the utmost conviction, that I would come to Greece permanently, learn to speak the modern tongue, and live in the light.
Thirteen years have passed since I first visited the Mani, eleven of which I have lived in Greece. After innumerable subsequent visits, the Mani remains as enchanting to me as ever. It is a place of wild, otherworldly beauty, but it is also a microcosm of Greece: a place where you can see all Greek history, condensed. This is why I am excited to lead our cultural tour next May: just like Leigh Fermor, we will walk the old paths of this rugged peninsula, uncovering Greek culture under every stone (unlike Leigh Fermor, we will also have electric bikes). I am delighted that we will be joined throughout by Artemis Cooper, Leigh Fermor’s biographer, as well as a whole host of other speakers and performers, from Greek folk musicians to art historians. Together we hope to bring you to the kind of revelation that I experienced, to an infatuation with all things Greek – while, in the true spirit of Leigh Fermor, having a marvellous time.
Our new journey In the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor takes place from 26 May to 1 June 2024. This one-off cultural tour offers an insight into the great travel writer’s life in the Mani and celebrates all things Greek. To find out more, enquire here or contact our team on +44 (0) 1865 410 356.