Mani: Rugged land of towering spirits

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Mani, the district in the middle of the southern Peloponnese — and mainland Europe’s southernmost promontory — is one of Greece’s wildest and most distinct areas. 

Arid mountain slopes, rocky shrubland strewn with tower houses, gray stone chapels and a rough coastline mark tåe landscape of southern — or “inner” — Mani, giving it a distinct, austere feel. 

The rugged and infertile yet captivating terrain, formed by the southern extension of Mt Taygetos into the sea, is often linked with the local people’s turbulent social history and fiercely independent spirit, to which the ubiquitous fortified family towers bear testimony. 

It is argued that economic need fostered social antagonisms, producing frequent armed clashes between families, placing high stakes on the notions of pride and honor and giving rise to the custom of blood feuds in a strictly male-dominated society. 

It was for such characteristics that Mani, although without much in the way of archaeological interest, became a favorite subject for inclusion in foreign travel writings in the early 19th century. Yet Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his 1958 book “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese,” wrote about “the green and gold and gentle shades” of the rustic landscape, where the dominant olive tree apparently had no influence on peace, often leading people to resort to piracy or emigration to survive. 

Mani includes includes some 110 villages — 98 of which are listed traditional settlements — more than 1,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches, seven castles and a plethora of other attractions that leave no room for boredom. Spring, especially, is a time when the austerity of the landscape is mellowed by wild flower beds and the air is filled with the scent of sage and daisies. But the mildness of the climate has given rise to the exaggerated claim that Mani has, in fact, four springs. 

Areopoli, named after Ares, the ancient Greek god of war, is the usual entry point to inner Mani. It lies on a rocky plateau at 250 meters, with a superb view to the Messeniakos Gulf to the west. It retains a strong traditional character, with narrow alleyways and several historic tower manors and churches, including the Cathedral of Taxiarches, where some claim the first flag of the revolution against the Turks was raised on March 17, 1821. 

The next attraction, on the road along the western coast south of Areopoli, is the impressive Diros Caves. Gerolimenas, a picturesque village on the water, is ideal for a stop at one of the fish tavernas. From here, it is worth going for an afternoon hike on the nearby Tigani peninsula with its magnificent lunar terrain, abundant natural salt ponds and ruins of medieval fortifications. 

Next is Vathia, Mani’s best-known and postcard-pretty settlement on the top of a hill, consisting mainly of tower houses — some restored but now decaying again — and offering breathtaking views. 

At the end of the road south, via the peaceful fishing village of Porto Kagio, there is a beautiful cove, with the ruins of the Church of Aghioi Asomatoi and the ancient Temple of Poseidon. On the other side of the cove, there is a sea cave from where souls in antiquity were believed to descend into Hades. 

A path from here will lead you in less than 40 minutes to Cape Tainaron, mainland Europe’s southernmost point, with a lighthouse built in 1887. The view is magnificent, giving one the feeling of standing on the edge of the world. 

The eastern coast of Mani, south of the town of Gytheio, also has picturesque villages and some excellent beaches. 

Kotronas, in a secluded bay, is one of the most attractive settlements. 

The area of the historic town of Oitylo, around the protected bay of Limeni north of Areopoli, has been described as an “open museum,” featuring some of Mani’s best sights, such as the Kelefas castle. 

Unlike inner Mani, the lush area of what is known as outer Mani stretches further up along the Messeniakos Gulf, with rich flora and fauna and lends itself to some excellent country walks.  

Author: Haris Argyropoulos | Source: ekathimerini [April 18, 2011]

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