The Mani, Greece – The National


On travelling through the land of The Iliad and The Odyssey

2009

Near a tiny Byzantine chapel high on the hills, above a village called Kardamyli in Greece, there is a spot where the ashes of the writer Bruce Chatwin have been scattered. It is a beautiful place. The scent of wild herbs wafts in the breeze, olive trees lend dappled shade and cicadas rattle-chatter rhythmically. That Chatwin, a famously restless writer who forged a career out of wandering the world, chose this location for his final resting place says a lot.

He was drawn to the Mani - the middle finger of land extending out from the Peloponnese - by Patrick Leigh Fermor, an equally adventurous writer and traveller. In his youth, Leigh Fermor walked across Europe to Istanbul and during the Second World War he led the daring kidnap of a German general in Crete. He has lived in Kardamyli since the 1960s and still lives there on and off today. The tiny fishing village has grown a lot in nearly 50 years, swollen by Athenians willing to endure the five-hour drive south from the capital and by cheap charter flights to Kalamata, an hour’s drive up the coast. But it remains unspoilt. Its setting - tucked between the rugged Taÿgetos Mountains and the deep blue Mediterranean water - is spectacular. Days spent diving into the sea off rocks, walking in the hills and sipping frappé as the waves lap over the pebbles bring to mind a modern version of Elysium, the paradise for the fallen heros of Greek mythology. Indeed, the region is littered with classical associations. To the north lies the pastoral idyll of Arcadia and dotted along the coast are the settings for various episodes from The Iliad and The Odyssey.

From Kardamyli we drive down the west coast. The peninsula is divided into the Outer Mani, the fertile yet rugged part nearest to the mainland, and the Inner Mani, a treeless landscape of scorched rock to the south, which leads down to the tip of Cape Matapan, the southernmost point in mainland Europe after Punta de Tarifa in Spain. Kardamyli is on the cusp of these two areas. The drive to the end and back can be done in a day, but it is better to spend a few days exploring the area with Leigh Fermor’s classic book Mani in your lap.

Down the coast, we arrive at Areopoli, the capital of the Inner Mani. Its name comes from Ares, the Greek god of war. It is appropriate. Maniots consider themselves to be descendants of the ancient Spartans. Their history is turbulent and violent. Franks, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottoman Turks all found them ungovernable and preferred to leave them to fight among themselves. Over the centuries, families have waged feuds, often lasting decades, from tall stone towers built in proximity. Many of Areopoli’s tower houses have been converted into hotels, their owners thrust into a new battle for the money of tourists.

We fill up with petrol at a station reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. Looking up the coast, the bays stack up hazily, fusing with the sky in the distance. As we drive away from the town, I find myself thinking how much the region feels like an island, despite being connected to the mainland. Many of the villages were only accessible by sea or steep tracks until the 1970s when a series of skinny, winding roads were laid. The area retains a sense of isolation and otherness.

South of Areopoli, more tower houses jut up from the horizon. This is the country of the Niklians, the true heart of the Mani. Feudal and fierce, the Niklians settled in the area after being forced out of their homes further north in the 13th century. Kita, 25km south of Areopoli, was once a centre of Niklian power and was the scene of the last great Maniot feud in 1870. The place is desolate and sad. Bleached grass pokes up through ruined buildings and wrecked cars. In the centre of the town, an ugly new church sits unused. Centuries of bitter fighting have reached their logical conclusion: depopulation. People leave for a new life free from the deadly baggage of inherited wars.

It’s gone three by the time we reach Gerolimenas, a fishing village that makes Kardamyli look like Monte Carlo. The bay is sheltered and serene. It is one of those places that feel totally out of step with the rest of the world: tiny fishing boats bobbing in the harbour give the impression of a zone untroubled by modernity and development. Of course, this primitivist romanticisation is pleasantly shattered by an ice-cold can of Coke plucked from the fridge of one of the small hotels. We eat freshly caught fish, grilled whole over embers with plenty of salt, and spend the night in a tiny room with the sound of waves breaking on the shingle beach.

In the morning we visit Váthia. The road climbs up to a view of a cluster of tower houses crammed onto a promontory. Like Shibam in Yemen or San Gimignano in Italy, Váthia’s lithe and picturesque towers almost inevitably draw comparisons as the Manhattan of their day. Almost all are empty. Váthia was the scene of a feud that lasted 40 years. As I climb the worn and overgrown steps up to what is an undeniably beautiful view, I cannot help thinking that with the heat and the tightly-packed buildings, long-term strife was inevitable.

The land shrinks as we drive down to the cape. Beautiful secluded bays cut in on either side of the road. There is a feeling of space running out. As with many journeys to the ends of the Earth, the end point is surprising: a taverna with garish neon signs and cheap, shabbily constructed rooms overlooking the bay. The dry stone walling, the hue of the grass, the wooden poles for telephone lines: the bay looks and feels a lot like Scotland. Going for a swim, the water is startlingly cold. To the north, there is a cave said to be one of the most important entrances to Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology. Overlooking the bay, a mound of stones with a small, arched entrance was once a temple dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea.

Later in the evening, I look out into the blackness and see a series of lights blinking in the distance. A busy shipping lane passes close to the cape. Like seeing a vapour trail carved across an empty desert sky, this sign of life impinges on this isolated spot for a moment before flickering behind the headland leaving darkness once again.

This article appeared in The National.