When you will visit Mani in the south of Peloponnese in Greece you will be impressed by the medieval villages perched on the mountain tops and by the wild, rocky scenery. You can see the famous Diros and Alepotripa caves, the rugged beauty of Cape Tainaron and the Viros gorge at Kardamyli before staying at one of the extraordinary and well-preserved tower-guest houses.
Mani is the name of the middle prong of the southern Peloponnese, extending to the slopes of Mt Taygetos and forming a notional triangle from Kalamata to Cape Tainaron and Gytheion. The peninsula is about 72 km long and no wider than 28 km. The inhabitants, numbering 30,000, engage in farming, fishing, commerce and catering to tourists. The climate is dry in the uplands, hot and humid on the coast. There are 250 villages and hamlets in Mani, 800 towers and six castles. The predominant impression is of a landscape extraordinarily grim, stony, waterless and barren, consisting of stark jagged mountains plunging precipitously to the sea and countless stone tower dwellings and Byzantine churches. Maniots have always been fired by a strong sense of independence and profound patriarchal family ties. If any member of a family were to suffer an insult, it resulted in a feud, a “vendetta” – frequently bloody – involving the entire family of the offended (and offending) party. The idiosyncrasies of Mani’s past history and the severity of its bizarre customs forced almost every family to have its own defensive tower to live in, its own chapel and cemetery. Poverty and the consequences of such rifts among the great and powerful families forced many to emigrate to other parts of Greece and abroad — some to Corsica, whose descendants constituted Napoleon’s bodyguard – and quite a few became pirates.
If you go to Mani, be aware that you have chosen a peaceful holiday — though you’ll be constantly on the go — on the search for and discovery of history and heritage. If you haven’t much time, keep to the sights between Kardamyli and Vathia. If you do, a tour of Mani is very much worthwhile, particularly because it includes the Laconian Gulf’s remarkable beaches of Scoutari and Mavrovouni.
In the Dorian era (11th c. BC), the Spartans, not wishing to be absorbed into the local population, differentiated among their subjects, segregating them into the “provincials”, enjoying civil but not political liberty, and the “helots” or serfs. The region fell to the Romans in the 2nd c. BC, and then in the days of Byzantium endured a number of barbarian incursions, the worst of them Alaric’s in 395 AD. On these occasions the Maniots took refuge on Mt Taygetos, whence they always ferociously fought every conqueror. The Franks dominated the region in the 13th c., but they were soon ousted by the Byzantines. After two centuries of warfare, the Turks overran the Peloponnese, but Mani retained its autonomy and was among the first to go to battle for the liberation of Greece.
Coming from Kalamata you will be met by a splendid first sight of medieval Mani, with a view to the sea over the tiled roofs of the stone Maniot mansions of Kardamyli. If you are lucky, the sun will be setting and the palette of colours will enchant you.
It was once the harbour for ancient Sparta with which it communicated by the Viros gorge. Kardamyli is one of the better-preserved villages in the traditional style of Mani, sufficiently geared for tourism, and has tavernas and shops. Wander around Old Kardamyli to see some of the fine towers, ancient and medieval ruins, the church of Agios Spyridon, the graves of the Dioscuri and the Mourtzinos tower. Next to the village there is also a nice beach, Ritsa. If you want to go for a hike through the remarkable Viros gorge, to experience its fierce magnificence closely, be properly clad and shod, and walk to the sources of the Viros river (2 1/2-3 hrs).
The route is of particular interest with much to see. The main coastal road takes you to the foothills of Mt Taygetos toward striking Proastio with fine churches an d sea view, then to picturesque Stoupa, which is where Nikos Kazantzakis met Alexis Zorbas. On the hill nearby there are the ruins of the Frankish castle of Lefktron or Beaufort. The way continues on to Agios Nikolaos, a pretty harbour with stone houses, some tavernas and the beach of Agios Dimitrios 3km to the south. You then go through Platsa, where there is the splendid 10th c. church of Agios Nikolaos, and Nomitsi, a little farther south of Platsa on a hill with a vista to the sea, where you can see the Byzantine church of the Metamorphossis (11th c) with its notable and well-preserved frescoes. Not far from there, the village of Thalames with its small Ethnological & Historical museum, and Langada, a hamlet of stone houses, are worth taking a look. Shortly before Areopolis, you will come to Itilo, the regional capital, a village of 700 inhabitants in the traditional style, on the ruins of the ancient city of the same name mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. As in several other Greek cities, in Itilo too, the locals maintain that the great poet of antiquity was born there. Take the path which will lead you in about half an hour to the fort of Kelefa. It was built by the Ottomans to keep the district under control. It is an imposing sight from afar, but little has survived other than a few towers and the contour of the rampart. Continue on to Limeni, a small bay, harbour for Areopolis, and worth a visit. It is a scenic spot of the Mani, a charming fishing village.
Leaving Areopolis, you go to Pirgos Dirou, a cluster of small hamlets with many well preserved towers but also a lot in ruins. See there the Sklavounakos tower and the churches of the Taxiarchon and of Agia Marina. You can pop into the Museum with neolithic finds discovered in the district. Some of the little villages are built above the subterranean, and as yet largely unexplored, galleries of the famous Diros caves.
Duration of tour 30min, waiting time max. 30min. The biggest is the navigable lake-cavern Glyphada or Vlyhada with 2.5 km of galleries, chambers with stalactites and stalagmites and an underground river flowing among them. It’s an extraordinary experience to tour it, on foot and by boat. In the great chamber Oceanos, the water can be as deep as 30 metres! It’s one of the world’s largest and most noteworthy caves. Exploration has not yet been completed as new sections are constantly being discovered. East of Vlyhada is the Alepotrypa, which had been lived in by prehistoric man as evidenced by the number of finds made by speleologists. There is a 450 m-long gallery with a central lake-cave. For information call T. 0030 2733052222
Going in a southerly direction, on the right you will come to the village of Harouda with its admirable 11th c. church of the Taxiarchon. Further on is the bay of Mezapos with an attractive village of the same name, while on cape Tigani you ’ll see the ruins of the Frankish castle of Great Maina (13th c.). Stavri village is reached through a stunning mountain landscape dotted with crumbling towers and ruins. See the church of Episkopi (12th c) with interesting frescoes, and then on to Kita, an especially striking village full of historic towers and old churches. A must for a visit. See the stone Maniot mansions and the domed Byzantine church of Agion Sergiou ke Bacchus (12th c.). On the Kita-Gerolimenas road, be sure to stop at Ano Boularii with a lovely view, well-preserved tower-dwellings (Pyrgos Anemodoura) and the churches of Agios Stratigos (11th c.) and Agios Panteleimon (10th c.) Gerolimenas is a little port with a waterfront hamlet, on the peninsula near the ruins of the ancient city of Ippola.
A superb monument of a town with traditional old stone towers and houses. Vathia is under preservation, with a church, a square, fortified dwellings and a small war museum. Some of its larger houses have been converted into guest-houses.
If you head toward Marmari and Porto Kagio, you must see Cape Tainaron or Kavo Matapa. At its edge, you will find the little harbour Porto Sternes where you can visit the sanctuary of Poseidon Tainarios. There, next to the dilapidated chapel of the Asomatos you’ll see the cave of Hades, one of the entrances to the underworld, according to the ancient Greeks. You then go through Porto Kagio, a fishermans’ village where the sole worthwhile sight is its vast enclosed bay. Continue to Lagia, a village sprawled on a hill, in competition with Kita for its well-preserved towers. Have a stroll through the pleasant alleys.
Situated at the foot of Mt Koumaros, it has been inhabited since prehistory. It was once a Phoenician colony, the navy yard of ancient Sparta (destroyed by the Athenians in 455 BC) and a major commercial port for the Romans. It is today an attractive, lively, tourist-oriented seaside town combining traditional architecture with many neo-classical buildings. Visit the Tzanetakis tower, now the Mani Historical and Ethnological Museum, on the little pine-covered island Kranae or Marathonissi.
The well-known European foot-path E4 crosses the region. From Gythion, it’s a 7hr hike to the Taygetos refuge via Kastania and the monastery of Panagia Giatrissa.
Three sandy beaches with unpolluted seas. The middle and northern are the best.
A large resort village and one of the best beaches of Mani. It is organized, with water sports.
In southern Mani, before reaching Cape Tainaron you will come across three consecutive beaches on a big enclosed bay. Choose the third, divided by two small spits of land. Sandy in and out of the sea, it is considered the best in the area.
Two exceptional beaches with fine sand, Stoupa and, even better, Kalogria, white sands, shady trees, small and quiet tavernas and a few rooms for rent. In high season parking is a problem.
A small shingle beach near Stoupa.
By car in 5 hrs from Athens, via Kalamata. By air from Athens to Kalamata. By intercity bus (KTEL), from Kifissou Station, Athens, Tel. 0030 2105124913 0030 2105124911. If you don’t have your own transport, you can hire a car in Kalamata to continue to Mani.
Definitely by your own transport or with an organized tour.
The best time of year for Mani is spring or autumn. But it’s a good place for a trip all year round.
Olive oil, olives, sausages and honey.
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