Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor

4.5 out of 5 stars

If you were to pop the name of Roumeli into Google maps then all it would bring up is a tiny place on the island of Kriti. For Patrick Leigh Fermor though this name brought to mind an entirely different region of Greece. For him, it is the northern counterpart to the southern Mani and is the ancient name for the lands that went from the Bosphorus to the Adriatic and from Macedonia to the Gulf of Corinth.

Even though this region isn’t known by that exotic and slightly mysterious name now, the people and places that formed it are still there, and Leigh Fermor is there to tease the stories out from them. He begins in Alexandroupolis, a town that normally elicits a groan from the civil servants who have had the misfortune to be posted there, but he had grown to like it partly because it was the first Greek town that he stayed in after a few years absence. But in this town, amongst the bored civil servants, walked a man dressed mostly in black with curving shoes that had a pompom on the end. He was a Sarakatsan shepherd and he was as out of place as a wolf walking through the streets.

This nomadic style of life still existed; part of the population moved from one area to another seeks grazing for their flocks. This practice had been honed over hundreds if not thousands of years and the rituals and traditions were deeply embedded in their culture. Even though the orthodox church had a certain amount of influence over peoples lives, the pagan spirits of old inhabited the land and still need to be placated and resisted.

This book is full of stories like this, a visit to a substantial house of yellow stone to shoes of Lord Byron, rising at dawn to travel by bus to the hinterland of Aetolia, climbing up the steps to the monastery perched onto of rocks and learning that guests used to be winched up, and the rope was only changed when it broke. This is a wide-ranging series of encounters and vignettes as he travels around the region. You can tell he deeply loves this country from the evocative writing as he travels through the landscape. As I have come to expect, it is such beautiful writing from Leigh Fermor. However, I think I of the two Mani just has the edge for me. But this is still a really special book.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    I’ve somehow not read this one, not sure how, as I love his writing! I do love Mani, too.

    • Paul

      So many books, so little time.

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