I spent much more time in Kardamyli that planned. Four days to be exact. And given that I only had the rental car for 19 days and had to travel all the way to Lake Prespa on the Albanian border, that was a lot of time. The main reason was my desire to tour Fermor’s home in the village of Kalamitsi. Fermor was made an honorary citizen of the village for his participation in the Greek resistance against Nazi occupation in WW II, especially in Crete. He died in the hospital in 2011 the day after returning to his other home in Dumbleton, England. While waiting for the appointed Thursday evening tour, I busied myself exploring Old Kardamyli, also known as Pano Kardamyli or Upper Kardamyli, which features a mix of Greek and Venetian design. The walled town was built by descendants of Constantine Palaiologos, the last Byzantine emperor who moved from Mystra in the 13th century after the fall of the Byzantine empire. Dimitri Palaiologos’ family was not well liked by Maniotes, perhaps because they were wealthy and isolationist. In any case, they built a fortified town for their defense and protection. When under attack, they would retreat to the walled fortification and tower, and pour lead or boiling water over anyone who dared penetrate the walls. Most of the people living in Kardamyli are either descendants of the Nikliani clan, the mediaeval aristocracy of the Mani who built the distinctive towers on Mt. Taygetos, or of Dimitris Palaiologos, the latter typically having the last same Dimitreas, son of Dimitri.
While wandering around the reconstructed walled town, I met Dmitris, the site curator and former documentary film producer. He explained that the tower and walled fortress played a role in the beginning of Greek resistance to Turkish occupation in 1821.The church inside the walls, St. Spyridon, was built in the 13th century and served as a gathering place in 1821 for the Maniote bey and 500 men. He had been appointed by the Ottomans to govern Mani but ended up leading his fellow Maniotes to arms. The war of independence lasted 9 years.
Dmitris exhorted me to visit Exochori (no pun intended), where his mother lives now. He returned from Athens five years ago due to his parents’ ill health. His mother, 87, lives in Exochori, a small village about 5 km up the mountain as the crow flies. She has Alzheimer’s and Dmitris has relocated here to take care of her. She was a nurse for 36 years and currently survives (just) on a pension of 500 Euro per month. Starvation wages. He explained the importance of the villages of Exochori, Kastanea, and Mileas, amongst others, and how hard life was as recently as 40 years ago. Located further up the mountain Taygetos, all these villages functioned without electricity, running water, or roads into the 1970s. I decided to try to get a sense of life in these villages. In Mani they say it takes 3 days to get to know the area by car, 3 months to get to know it by foot, and a lifetime to really get to know its character. I’d walked up to Agia Sofia, a small village above Kardamyli, but decided that the car was a better vehicle to explore those farther afield.
I took several day trips in the villages surrounding Kardamyli, including Exochori, Kastanea, and Mileas. Towns in this part of Mani are distinctive for having numerous chapels with domed walls filled with Byzantine frescoes from the 1200s. Many families had their own chapels, while only the wealthiest and most powerful families had towers. The towers were used as strategic look outs and as a place to hide when a blood feud would arise between clans. In such instances, only the men of the clan were targeted. Sometimes the feuds would go on for years, with the men hiding in the tower while the women would bring them food and other necessities. The feud would end either when all males of a clan were killed or when a clan surrendered, which involved their coming down from the tower, kissing the hands of their enemies, and accepting the the terms of surrender as established by the other clan (shades of The Godfather). In northern Mani (meaning north of Aeropolis), clans were headed by one man who made all the decisions. In the southern portion (more arid and difficult to live), everyone in the clan, including women, partook in decision making. Apparently the latter group were “soil stealers” per one Turkish traveler, because they had to take soil from other parts and terrace them with stones to keep the land from eroding. These towers remind me completely of those in Svaneti, Georgia, as do their culture of inter-tribal warfare and feuds. In Svaneti there was one judge that was chosen for each town. Usually a male, he would arbiter all disputes, including blood feuds. Thank god for prehistoric lawyers!
I enjoyed poking around the sinuous paths around Exochori, which is actually made up of 4 villages. I had gotten used to traversing steep, cobble stone and bramble filled terrain. More than once, I tripped and had to focus on putting one foot in front of another. I found many chapels with beautiful frescoes, often half obliterated by time and the elements. Some appeared to have been touched up, and apparently a number were redone (poorly) after WW II. Those that got extra attention from the EU have been expertly restored. But only .5 percent if that of the monuments in Greece have received attention. The government doesn’t have the money nor prioritizes their importance.
Kastanea, a lovely town of winding streets and canals, is the site of the very significant Byzantine church of St. Peter, which has been renovated due to its UNESCO heritage site status. I wandered through its narrow lanes filled with fruit-laden mulberry trees and seemingly forgotten stone carvings. I entered every chapel I could, admiring the various states of frescoes on walls and ceiling. The musty smell of mold mixing with incense and burning beeswax filled every one, and I loved the small brooms used by the volunteer who tended each chapel (usually an older woman). I’m not sure that they are still in the perview of the family or clan that originally built them. Upon climbing to the top of a particular hill, I was greeted by an old man whose body language said what are you doing here (apparently Kastanea is not a tourist town). I motioned to my camera (which has since broken), and he smiled and beckoned me to observe his wall of photos. His inn was covered with images, probably mostly locals, and I was touched that he wished to share them with me. I took a few snaps and thanked him. Then a taxi sped up the hill and an older woman and her grandson alighted. Apparently this taxi drives to Athens daily, and they had just returned from a shopping extravaganza. Athens is more than 3 hours away – I can’t imagine how expensive it must be. Hopefully he gives special rates to locals. Three people walked up the hill, whom I assumed were tourists. I asked them what brought them here, and they said they were visiting their friend. For a sleepy town, there was a lot going.