In the strange, bleak Mani country of the Peloponnese, time is irrelevant to all but the traveler. I believe this area is one of Greece’s best-kept secrets, and time should not be an issue when discovering it. The Lakonian Mani country, barren, gray and somber, is certainly gloomy but intriguing, a place of secrets, of early blood feuds and fierce independence.
Maniots, descended from the Spartans, defended their territory through the centuries from invasions by Romans, and Byzantine Turks. Continually warring with their neighbors, mainly over possession of the few fertile pieces of land, the Maniots built their distinctive tower houses in fortress-like towns, and from these strongholds kept watch for marauding clans. The whole area of the Mani is scattered with these gray stone towns complete with towers, many in total ruin, but many still alive, and much the same as they were three hundred years ago.
The Mani is still a part of the Peloponnese mercifully under-patronized by tourists and therefore highly desirable to those seeking locations where the very essence is authentic and free-spirited, and where tourist buses don’t fill up the parking lots. It’s the lower section of the middle finger of land – the very southerly part of the Peloponnese. Contrary winds moan through mountains of gray rock, which in turn fold down to hills dotted with wild thyme, which then tumble to narrow plains of inhospitable stony fields, to eventually fall into a restless turbulent sea – here is solitude in isolation. It’s difficult getting around the Mani by public transport. Buses are scarce and don’t service the really interesting spots – the secluded bays, the hidden ruins, the rocky valleys, the isolated fishing villages, the somber deserted tower towns. The clever way to do it is to be footloose and fancy-free with a car, to stop, ponder and potter, not whiz past in a bus.
One of the most fascinating of the old ruined tower towns is Vathia. Spread in a jumble across a bald hill, its square austere towers stick up like giant broken teeth from its rocky vantage point. This amazing place is a gaunt reminder of the past. Tall turrets like mini-castles complete with slits for windows and with crazy stone steps leading up to nothing, crumble into piles of bleached stone. Figs, prickly-pear and weeds encroach where mamas originally tended their small vegetable plots and their pots of geraniums. An effort has been made to restore a few of them, but most are left to endure the dry sharp winds and the ravages of time. The view from Vathia is breathtaking – scattered tiny farmlets, rugged coastline, hidden bays encircled with fishermen’s cottages, brown fields and the endless backdrop of gray stony mountains.
The pristine fishing village of Porto Kagio, right at the bottom of the middle finger of the Peloponnese, is a tiny gem – about twenty buildings nestling together on a windswept horseshoe bay. It’s about as remote as you can get, yet often visited. There’s a path up along its rocky headland to a point where one can see out across the Lakonian Gulf to the Mediterranean itself. Right there is the tiny white-painted stone church of Agios Nikolaos, complete with a large iron bell hanging from a rusty iron rail attached to the austere building, a little incongruous under the circumstances, considering the church’s isolation. Travelling north one comes to Gerolimenos – another tranquil seaside village, perfect for R&R.
The Mani capital is Areopoli – named after Ares the god of war. The guesthouse where I stayed was one of the old towers – the walls of my room were three feet thick, the tiny window a gun slit, and the ceiling cylindrical, an authentic tower room. An afternoon spent walking the flagstone streets of Areopoli revealed an austere town of gray stone dwellings, hiding behind ancient gray stone walls. The late summer sun beat relentlessly on silent tower houses, many in sad decline, others restored in a sort of converted pseudo authenticity. But as dusk enveloped Areopoli, lights came on, and the blank, austere buildings opened out like flowers. Tables and chairs emerged and tavernas sprouted. Children yelled, motor cycles farted, cars revved, dogs barked, cats fought. Areopoli rocked.
From Areopoli it’s best to continue along the west coast. One gem along here is Limani, a tiny seaside hamlet of spectacular stone houses, and towers, with the bald barren backdrop of hills looming above it. A few small boats lie on a tiny pebble beach like toys. Nearby are the Diros Caves, worth a visit. The village of O-Itilo is a backwater worth exploring and further along one begins to experience the perfect seaside holiday spots of Agios Nikolaos, Stoupa, and Kardamyli. I love the latter and have stayed there several times – its Old Town of typical stone towers is worth a visit. Hiking is really good here – the mountain village of Exohorio is a challenge, also the nearby Vyros gorge. Eventually, all roads lead to Kalamata, the second-largest city in the Peloponnese.
Wandering around the Mani in a little red car at the end of summer, when the grass is dried to the color of sand and the stone ruins blended into the bald hills, is one of life’s enchanting experiences. Nobody emerges to challenge you as you clamber among the deserted stone towers and piles of crumbling masonry, among the rampant prickly-pear plants, the stunted figs and contorted olives. There are no signs saying “Keep out”, in Greek or English. Where have all those independent, proud people gone? Athens? Melbourne?
More pictures in the gallery. Enjoy!