Exploring Mani

I planned on leaving Kardamylli after touring the Fermor abode, but the weather had other plans.  Normally summer rains in this part of Greece are light and infrequent.  Not so that Thursday night.  I had a feeling something wasn’t right as I headed south around 8pm.  The deluge got worse, and my car’s windshield wipers couldn’t move fast enough.  Normally I continue even though driving is tough, but something told me to turn around and go back to Kardamylli.  Which I did.  I holed up in front of the computer at Hotel Liakoto, where I’d thought about staying.  For such a nice place, it was reasonably priced at 120 USD/night, but they didn’t have any rooms available, or so I thought.  I assumed the rain would abate after a few hours, so I sat down to their computer to work on my blog, but 2 hours passed and it was still coming down hard.  I asked a very kind young man, who was working at the hotel, whether he recommended another place to stay in town.  He checked with another hotel and they said I could stay there, provided that I arrive by 10:30pm.  I got distracted by talking with hotel guests, and when I finally pulled myself away it was 11pm.

I drove to the hotel in question and found no one in reception.  I rang the bell and called the posted number, but still no answer.  Frantic, I sped back to Liakoto, hoping my new friend was still there.  I waved him down as he was pulling away, explaining my predicament.  He tried to find another hotel where I could stay, but was unsuccessful.  He suggested that I sleep in my car, which I decided was the best option.  As I was walking out the door, he hailed me, saying that he had decided to stay overnight at the hotel, as the inclement weather prevented him from returning to his father’s home 40 minutes away, and that I could share the room. We sat on the terrace overlooking the sea and talked for several hours about life in Mani, tending olive trees, and the difficulty of living in Athens.  After 2am, I collapsed into bed, which was made up of two twins easily shared, and awoke with difficulty at 9am.  We had coffee at a beachside taverna and then bid one another farewell.  I hope that one day I will be able to repay his kindness.

For the last time (I thought) I headed south through the foothills below the central part of Mt. Taygetus towards Milia, passing the small villages I’d visited during the past few days.  These villages are not well known to tourists as they are isolated from the coast, and villagers treat you as a guest rather than a tourist. Most had been densely populated with over 1000 people per village, but since WW II have come close to extinction and even today are made up mostly of people over fifty.  I drove down the steep valley through the tiny villages of Kariovouni and Arakhova, then up the other side to a broad green vale leading toward the heart of the mountain.  Most villages in Greece have an upper and lower part.  Milia is made up of three levels:  Kato Chora (lower-place) in the north which runs steeply down to the river bed below, Phagrianika (the beginning of the upper area), and Xanthianika.

Traditionally decorated houses stand next to several exceptional churches, in particular Metamorfosi Church with its grandiose campanile.  The monastery of Panagia – Theotokou, built on a narrow passage between mountains, overlooks Milia.  Worshippers from all over Greece gather here for the annual fair. It has a Venetian style campanile and a tall cylindrical cupola.  The monastery church has an impressive carved wooden iconostasis, and its ceiling are painted with gold stars.  Some decorative friezes probably hide earlier scenes.  Milia is the birthplace of the poet Niketas Niphakos, whose book History of the Whole Mani, its Customs, Villages and Produce, written in 1780 is more of a scurrilous popular ballad than an objective tome.

It is thought to have been written in honour of Zanetbey Grigorakis (Bey from 1782-1788) and it contains some particularly damning verses about Milia. Captain William Martin Leake came across a copy in Mistra in 1805 and wrote in his Travels, “Milea falls also under his lash, particularly its chief place Kastania, which having mentioned he desires to fly from immediately. Arakhova he calls the ‘renowned’ and describes as hidden in a bewitched valley – and then adds “From hence let us proceed, by the wolf path to the robbers of kids and goats, the walkers at night, and record the name of the town of the kid-eating rogues, the mule stealers, the goat slayers, the thrice apostate Milea…”.

After exploring the numerous chapels and churches of Milia, I drove the windy road toward the coast, arriving at Platsa around 12:30pm.  I continued to have pain and swelling in my 2nd toe on the left foot, and the owner of a cafe in Kardamylli had suggested that I see a doctor and get a proper X-ray.  This could only be done in Kalamata, and so I decided to go to the hospital and get checked out.  I stopped in Agios Nicholas, a lovely coastal town, smaller and more quaint than neighboring Stoupa with the long sandy beach, relishing the fresh air and sea breeze.  Then I drove the 1 1/2 hour winding road to Kalamata, arriving at the hospital about 3pm.  I walked into the emergency room, aided by a few people who gave me directions.  I expected a long wait, but was pleasantly surprised by the short line.  Between 2pm and 5pm is rest time, so most people were at home.  I was seen in 15 minutes.  I explained my injury to the doctor, who looked at it and then sent me for X-rays.  He spoke English well and had a sense of humor and a sunny disposition.  Several times he asked me why I like to walk in a tone of voice that implied that I was crazy.  Perhaps I am I thought.  I was relieved that the X-ray did not reveal a broken bone.  He said it was possible that I had a hairline fracture.  I wasn’t worried about that.  So he gave me some gauze, tape, and sent me on my way after buddy taping the toe with those on either side.  I was ordered to wear tennis shoes for the next 3 weeks and keep the toes taped, no topical creams, ice okay.  I limped off, happy with the diagnosis, and decided to head over Mt. Taygetos to Mystras, the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Little did I know that I was driving into a huge storm front.  The clouds gray exterior looked foreboding, but I was oblivious, happy as I was with the good news about my toe.  I drove through beautiful pine forests and winding mountain passes, then hit a tremendous thunderstorm which stopped me in my tracks.  It was raining so hard that I couldn’t see through the windshield, even with the wipers set to their fastest speed.  I finally pulled over into a turnout and watched as several cars did the same.  It seemed to continue at the same pace for 20 minutes or so, and I decided to push on, as I wouldn’t have much time to explore the site.  A bit reluctantly, I continued on, driving as conservatively as possible, and finally arrived at my destination.  The rain had mostly abated by this time, and I got out at the base of the fortified town of Mystras, which had been built on a spur of Mt. Taygetos near Ancient Sparta.  It was abandoned in the 1830s and the new town of Sparti was built, a few miles east.  I loved exploring the ruins of this Byzantine town.  Occasionally, information signs were posted about topics like urban planning in medieval towns; daily life in the lower city, middle city, upper city, and Villehardouin castle; pedestrian and horse traffic; and religion and customs.  There was a museum exhibit in a building next to the Church of Saint Theodores.

Now for a bit of history about Mystras.  In 1248, William II of Villehardouin, ruler of the Frankish Principality of Achaea, captured Monemvasia (which I would visit later), the last remaining Byzantine outpost on the Morea. This success was soon followed by the submission of the Tsakones on Mount Parnon, the Slavic Melingoi tribe of Mt. Taygetos, and the inhabitants of the Mani peninsula, thereby extending his sway over all of Laconia and completing the conquest of the peninsula, which had begun in 1205, in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade.  Laconia was incorporated into the princely domain, and the young prince passed the winter of 1248–49 there, touring the country and selecting sites for new fortifications; finally, near his residence of Lacedaemon (ancient Sparta), on a spur of Mount Taygetos, he built the fortress that came to be known as Mystras.  From 1348 until its surrender to the Ottoman Turks on 31 May 1460, Mystras was the residence of a Despot who ruled over the Byzantine Morea, known as the Despotate of Morea.  This was the city’s golden age; Mystras witnessed a remarkable cultural renaissance, and attracted artists and architects of the highest quality.  Mystras was also the last center of Byzantine scholarship; the Neoplatonist philosopher George Gemistos Plethon lived there until his death in 1452. He and other scholars based in Mystras influenced the Italian Renaissance, especially after he accompanied Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to Florence in 1439.

I found Mystras enchanting.  The palace, which was built over the course of several centuries, was particularly interesting.  My favorite was the old Gothic section.  I tramped to the top where the fortress lay, but was too late to enter.  I then tramped to the Peribleptos Monastery, but just as I climbed the hill to the entrance, a monk closed the gate.  Apparently the 14th century frescos in the church are a very rare example of the late Byzantine cycle, and are important for the understanding of Byzantine art.  It was a beautiful experience, one which I’d like to repeat.  As I left Mystras, light from the setting sun was playing on the peaks above the medieval town, giving it an even more fantastical air.  I drove up to the mountain to see the town from a different angle, then headed toward modern Sparti.  I wish I’d taken my time to explore the nearby town of Mystras, a quaint village of ancient buildings and narrow streets.  But I was paranoid about finding a camping place before dark, and planned to continue on to Gythio, the eastern gateway to the Mani peninsula.

After fighting crowds in Sparti, a metropolitan city replete with modern convenience but lacking the character of more charming Greek towns, I arrived at Gythio around 9pm, and as usual, wanted chicken souvlaki.  I walked along the promenade, admiring the port and colorful Neoclassical residences.  Historically, Gythio was Sparta’s main port, and played an important role until the port was destroyed in 4th century AD, possibly by an earthquake.  In the Roman era there was an agora, Acropolis, island of Cranae (Marathonisi) where Paris celebrated his nuptials with Helen of Troy, Migonium or precinct of Aphrodite Migonitis (now the modern town), and hill Larysium rising above it. The remains of all these places exist, but the theatre and buildings partially submerged in the sea are the most noteworthy.  I spied a good camping place on the former island of Cranae, now connected to the mainland by a causeway.  After walking along the seaside and enjoying the tavernas and people (it was a Friday night), I made my way to Cranae and put up my tent.  There is a lighthouse on the open sea side of the island, and a beautiful stone villa which used to house a museum about life on the Mani peninsula, but now appears to be closed.

In the morning I packed up and headed to the center of town, where I discovered a former girl’s school, now community center which houses an exhibit on traditional life in Mani, including bee keeping, wood carving, and olive oil and wheat flour production.  It was the best exhibit I was to see on life in Mani, one that I will definitely revisit when I am back in the area.  I then headed toward Areopolis, 12 miles west of Gythio on the other side of the peninsula.  Since I wanted to tour Diros Cave, I drove past Aeropolis a few miles toward the sea.  It is a magnificent underwater freshwater cave which is viewed from a 6-person rowboat (unfortunately I was in the back).  The tour guide said nothing, just oared through the caves like a kind of gondolist.  We glided silently for 30 minutes through the preternaturally blue water, admiring the artificially illuminated formations.  The archaeological museum near the cave was unfortunately closed.  I loved the beautiful cave.

I drove back to Areopolis and explored the traditional village.  Its tower houses, constructed with field stones, are distinct from the blue and white buildings that characterize many Greek villages, particularly the islands of the Aegean.  Areopolis means city of Ares, the ancient Greek god of war.  Petros Pierrakos (Mavromichalis), the last bey of Mani, started the Greek War of Independence from Areopolis on March 17, 1821.  The Historical and Ethnological Museum of Mani presents an exhibit of the role of the church in Mani and is located in a three-story stone tower belonging to the Tzanetakis family, one of the wealthiest in Mani.  I planned to return to Areopolis the next day to see the museum, as it was closed by the time I got back from cave exploration.

My day pack was a bit threadbare and I wanted to fix the buckle and drawstring. I decided to return to Kardamylli to find someone to fix it as I was familiar with the town and not so with Areopolis. I arrived at 7pm, and headed to the mountain bike store, as I thought they might have some ideas.  The young man introduced me to a seamstress in their building, and she said she could fix ithe drawstring but not the buckle. A friend of the mountain bike guy who was sitting outside the store rigged up a temporary fix in place of the buckle.  While waiting for the seamstress to finish, I walked to the sea and watched the sun set, then went to my new friend Mary’s taverna for something to eat.  It was comfortable being back, and I regreted saying goodbye as I headed back toward Areopolis.  At this time it was dark, but I wasn’t deterred from exploring several churches along the road.  One had a particularly beautiful interior, and I vowed to come back in the morning light to explore further.  I found a nice cove in the obscurity of night, and drove through a narrow street which was filled with taverna tables (they hailed me through, then moved the tables back).  I put up my tent near the end of the road, and fell asleep.  Next morning I was awoke to scuba divers swimming in the bay and a woman walking her dog.  I packed and returned to the dimly lit chapel I’d seen the night before, and explored other chapels and towns along the way.  After an hour or two, I headed back to Areopolis and toured the Historical and Ethnological Museum of Mani.  The exhibit of ecclesiastic items was small but beautifully laid out, and I found the information about differences between clans in south and north Mani particularly interesting.  There I met Kevin, an Indian man from Goa traveling through the Balkans for a few weeks.  I thought it would be nice to have company for the afternoon and suggested that he join me as I drove the Mani peninsula back to Gythio.  He didn’t have to catch a bus till 7pm that evening, so we headed out for a pleasant few hours together.

Since Kevin hadn’t yet seen the beautiful waters of Mani’s coast, I drove to a small village further south, and we had a delicious lunch of Greek salad and eggplant.  We drove further south to Vathia, a traditional tower house village, and wandered around.  It felt like a ghost town, and I was sad to see so many half-ruined olive oil presses and mills.  Walking around these villages, I really got a sense of the large numbers of people that till recently made Mani their home.  World War II, the civil war in Greece from 1946-9, and the difficulty of life in this part of the world succeeded in reducing the population to a handful in every village I’ve explored.  It’s a real loss on the level of global cultural diversity, as the people of Mani had a unique way of life unknown to the rest of the world.  I had hoped to drive to the southernmost point of Greece and Europe on Mani, but I missed the turn and we were running short of time.  The scenery all along the road was stunning, and more than once I felt like I was back on Kefalonia driving on a one lane road thousands of feet above the sea.

We made it to Gythio with 20 minutes to spare, and had a coffee together.  Then I bid Kevin farewell, and hoped that we would meet again, perhaps to travel together.  I enjoyed his easy manner and shared interest in exploring culture and history.  I generally don’t find people with similar traveling styles.  I had 2 hours of sunlight left, as it was only a week after summer solstice, and headed toward Neapoli Vion and the island of Elafonisos, my next destination.  I was leaving Mani and heading to the east coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula and a new chapter.

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