I’ve been reading the book ‘Mani’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor (affectionately known as Paddy) in order to prepare for visiting this region of the Peloponnese. Paddy was a nomad, like me. He left home aged 18 and walked through Europe to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then onto Greece. In 1958, he visited the Mani, travelling by bus, boat and on foot, while I am making my journey in a motorhome. In 1958 the region was still remote and cut off from modern life but now there are good roads around the coast and through the mountains as well as down to the tip of Cape Tenaro, the most southerly point in Greece.
Contrary to everyone else and also Paddy, I am travelling around the Peloponnese in a clockwise direction which means I start my tour of the Mani in Gythio where Paddy ended his. He described it as having Victorian charm and as being full of life with wirelesses, motorcars, law courts, schools and greengrocer scales. He stayed at the Actaeon Hotel, which still exists today and overlooks the small island of Marathonisi (Fennel Island). It is believed to be Kranae, where Paris took Helen after abducting her and they spent their first night together. Today the island is accessed by a narrow harbour wall which is barely wide enough for Trixie.
In the centre is an 18th century tower house, surrounded by pine trees, which was formally the home of the Grigorakis family and more recently a museum of the Mani. However, the museum has now been relocated to the former girls’ school at the other end of town. It’s a very educational place, with interesting exhibits about the traditional Mani way of life, a lifestyle that still existed 60 years ago when Paddy first arrived.
As I leave Gythio it starts to rain and sets in for the afternoon, so I drive to the small port of Kotronas to wait out the bad weather. Paddy was also left waiting in Kotronas, though he needed to shelter under a fig tree from the hot summer sun until the steamer to Gythio arrived. He noted the fishermen making nets along the shore and I also find piles of netting on the dock but it’s the commercial plastic kind. He also found a fierce bandit-like kapheneion keeper who has luckily been replaced by a charming lady who now runs the bizarrely plush bar overlooking the harbour.
The new road takes me south and across the saddle of the mountain ridge to the village of Vathia, sitting proudly on a hilltop overlooking the west coast. Paddy met a young girl called Vasilio, carrying a lamb around her neck, who came from the village and invited him to stay in her home. Her family owned one of the tallest tower houses and they dined on the roof in the cool breeze, hauling up chairs and food by rope, and Paddy even slept there overnight. From his eagle’s nest he observed Vasilio’s sister threshing on a sledge pulled by a horse, a mule and a cow, circling a stone disc, while their mother sat weaving. It’s hard to imagine such activities taking place in the 21st century when we can buy bags of flour at the supermarket and ready-made clothes from the shopping mall.
Today Vathia has sadly been abandoned and most of the towers are in a perilous state of semi-collapse, though it is possible to wander around them and even inside them without any difficulty.
I leave the village of ghosts and drive south to Cape Tenaro which Paddy rounded in the caique ‘St Nicholas’ (a Greek sailing boat). I’d barely seen another car on the roads for the last two days so imagine my surprise when I get to the end of the Mani and find another British motorhome. Michael and Judith were rather shocked too.
Paddy had sought out the entrance to Hades, where Orpheus had searched for Eurydice, using his lyre to put Cerberus to sleep, and Hercules had dragged the hell dog out of the underworld. There are other entrances to Hades, such as the Nekromanteion of Ephyra. He swam from the boat to a cave that could have been the spot. Given the strong winds blowing across the cape there wasn’t much chance of me following him, but the three of us seek out the ruined church built on the Temple of Poseidon and the beautiful mosaic floor of a Roman villa, part of a larger Roman settlement, before walking out to the lighthouse. We are rather surprised to find a lone Navy guardian posted there as I had believed it to be unmanned. He is equally surprised by the arrival of three British tourists but doesn’t seem to mind us sitting there, enjoying the views and watching the ferries and cargo ships pass around the point.
It is a bit too windy to stay at the cape so I drive down to Geromelinas where Paddy also spent a night. He dined at a local house where some sailors were also eating. When the hostess gave him some water with his coffee (as is the Greek custom), he noted that it had a slight taste of wine. Apparently a barrel had split above the cistern and the wine had slowly leaked into the water. When Paddy asked to pay for his meal he discovered that the sailors had already settled the bill. Such was Greek hospitality in those times before the commercialism of tourism took hold. I enjoy a ¼ litre carafe of rose in the local hotel where the four members of staff are clearly excited about having an off-season client. Unlike Paddy, I have to pay for my wine and the manager even short-changes me. It’s still ridiculously cheap so I ignore what I hope is just an error on his part.
The next day I drive up to Areopoli, the capital of the Deep Mani and still the largest town in the region. The main road is lined with ugly garages and supermarkets but I strike off into the old cobbled streets trying to imagine how it was 60 years ago. Paddy describes the small cathedral as being surrounded by mulberry trees with a whitewashed cupola and a tapering belfry. I locate it in a small square but the mulberry trees have been replaced by cars and the church is no longer white.
There is one tale in ‘Mani’ that has gripped me more than any other and I stop at the tiny coastal resort of Limeni to try and verify the story. When Paddy was there, he was researching the miroloyia (funeral dirges), created and sung at the graveside by Maniot women. He is introduced to Eleni who sings a miroloy about an English airman who was shot down at Limeni during WWII and was buried by the local villagers. It mentions the Church of Saint Saviour, amongst the olive trees.
I find three small churches in the village of Limeni. The first is close to the main road and in ruins and the second is next to the restored tower house of the Mavromichalis clan, and appears to be a family chapel. The last is out beyond the port at the point and is the only one to have a cemetery but there are no more than half a dozen graves and none belong to an English airman. Unhelpfully, none of the churches are named and my scant knowledge of iconography means I am unable to identify them from the icons inside.
I stop for a drink in the nearby village of Nea Itilo and ask the friendly taverna owner, who speaks very good English, about the story of the airman. Eva goes to get her brother Ilias, who then goes to get Ioannis, an 86 year-old resident who may know about the tale. The old man speaks no English but Ilias translates for me. Ioannis was small boy, tending goats in the hills, when the British fighter plane dived at a German boat. It struggled to pull up, having been damaged by return fire and crashed into the bay. The pilot washed ashore in pieces but the navigator / gunner survived for 3 days before succumbing to his wounds. They were buried at the small church at the point but later removed by the British and returned to the UK, which explains why there are no gravestones in the cemetery.
It’s incredible to find someone who still has first-hand knowledge of this event and I am humbled to meet Ioannis and hear his story. Later, I meet Panayotti fishing next to Trixie. He happens to be the President of the village and invites me for a drink later at the taverna. There, I get to experience the same Mani hospitality as Paddy and I’m not allowed to pay for anything.
The last town on my tour of the Mani is Kardamili, one of the first places that Paddy experienced after travelling over the Taygetus Mountains from Mystras. He describes it as a castellated hamlet of the Mourtzinos clan, possibly direct descendants of the Palaeolgi, the reigning dynasty during the Ottoman Empire. I find the fortified settlement beyond the old town, recently restored and now opened as a museum of Maniot life. The bargain €1 entry fee gives me access to the tower with its ladder-like steps and I finally get to experience tower living as Paddy did all those years ago. Sadly, I’m unable to access the roof.
Following a cobbled footpath beyond the Mourtzinos tower, towards Agia Sophia, I also find the tombs of Castor and Pollux (the Gemini twins), as Paddy did before me. Though, as he said, they seem a bit short for such heroes!
Paddy described Kardamili as,
…….too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously damaged by tourism.
Sadly, that no longer is the case for the town has become quite the tourist resort with everyone advertising rooms and the supermarket shelves filled with overpriced ‘local’ products. It can only get worse since they filmed ‘Before Midnight’ here in 2012, the last part of the Sunrise/Sunset trilogy, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I wonder if Paddy is turning over in his grave at the thought of his primitive and hospitable Mani becoming just like any other seasonal tourist region.