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around Oitylo

map of around Oitylo

This section is defined to the north by the county border between Messinia and Lakonia and to the south by the Areopolis/Gythio road. The dominant feature of this area is the glorious bay of Oitylo, once a harbour for shipping and piracy, now a growing resort aimed at attracting tourism. There is a pebbly beach at Neo Oitylo backed by a number of cafes and tavernas and further along the coast the smaller bay of Limeni has a couple of fish tavernas overlooking incredibly turquoise water, making a perfect place for lunch. The village of Oitylo and Kelefa Castle, opposite Oitylo across a gorge, crown the bay. Further inland there is another possible ‘mini-mini’ circuit to drive around to get off the beaten track and into the hills, starting at Kelefa and ending up at Oitylo (or the other way round).

The first hamlet in this section offers the first swim stop south of Agios Nikolaos. Hotasia is reached by turning right at the welcome to Lakonia sign once you have passed through Agios Nikon. The road winds down to the sea. Before reaching sea level the only taverna here is on your left where there is ample car parking space. Continuing down the road to the sea, a weather beaten sign indicates a left turn down a concrete road past a couple of new houses to the sea. There is no beach but rather a concrete shelf to get in and out of the water – the rest of the rocky coastline offers great snorkelling and the sheer cliffs behind give a dramatic backdrop to the setting.

Back on the main road Oitylo is another 5km. The road gently starts to drop as you near Oitylo. Just before a tight right-hand bend, up on the left is a small workshop that is keeping the stone-carving tradition going. A charming couple, Ioannis and Juliana, produce a variety of work, ranging from relief sculptures to small ashtrays and oil lamps. Visitors are more than welcome and Juliana speaks excellent English. She also weaves her own colourful rugs on an ingenious, home-made, space-saving loom.

Oitylo

To get into the heart of the village turn left onto the Gythio road, just past a large open area with cafes on your right, and take the right fork into the kentro. To explore the village it is easiest to park by the large square. The T-junction reached by walking between the square and the taverna further along offers two choices – right into the narrow lanes of the older part of the village where a fair amount of restoration work is going on or left towards the new church. Though it may not be the most interesting Mani village to wander around, Oitylo has an ancient past. Pausanias records Oitylo as one of the Free Lakonian Cities and Homer stated that Oitylo sent ships to support Agamemnon at Troy.

The sanctuary of Sarapis and the wooden idol of Karneian Apollo in the market place are worth seeing.” was the only physical reference Pausanias made. It has been suggested that at this time, the majority of the city was below the ridge on the lower slopes above the sea with only an acropolis where the modern town lies. Marble spoilia are dotted around the village, for example lying on the small square in front of the old town hall (koinotita) or in derelict buildings near the new church.

Oitylo was always an important town, strategically because it linked North and South Mani and commercially through trade, piracy and a very profitable slave trade (Jules Verne called it the ‘Great Algiers’). It was the ‘capital’ of the Mani before the rise to prominence of Tsimova (Areopolis) and Limeni, so it was a focus of attention for Turkish control of the area and Kelefa Castle, across the gorge, became a major garrison during the brief periods of occupation. The constant attacks of Turkish forces during the late 17th century and some desperate family feuds caused a mass migration from the Mani that included 1,700 people from Oitylo and Kelefa village. Patrick Leigh Fermor gives very detailed information on these migrations and the settlements the Iatrani and Stephanopoli clans established in Tuscany and Corsica respectively. Most of Oitylo’s towers have been destroyed but the strongly fortified houses illustrate the constant defence put up by the local inhabitants.

From the main square it is possible to drive right through the village to rejoin the main road – continue in the direction you entered the village past the taverna and later a plaque commemorating the migrations to which Leigh Fermor refers and out on a tarmac road. You will now get your first views of the bay below. A sharp left turn before you reach the main road leads to the Monastery of Dekoulou.

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Dekoulou Monastery

If you did not detour into Oitylo, the road soon reveals the dramatic bay of Oitylo. As you start descending with the sea to your right you’ll pass a tarmac road on your left. This is a second way into Oitylo. It is also the way, if you turn down a dirt track on your right half way along this road, to the Dekoulou Monastery. The church here is spectacular inside as the paintings have been very well preserved by the Dekoulou family and of all the churches in the Mani, perhaps this is the one to visit to get an impression of how a fully decorated post-Byzantine church interior would once have looked. The frescos date from 1765 and cover every inch of wall space with parades of saints, martyrs and pictographs showing various Old and New Testament stories. There is an excellent version of the Ainoi – including a wonderful elephant. The artist is working from hearsay and paints it with not very large, almost human ears, a long trumpet-shaped trunk, tusks growing sideways out of its mouth and almost cloven feet.

The west wall is covered with the crucifixion and below this, a large, dramatic rendition of the Last Judgement that serves as a warning to the congregation of their fate if they stray. Christ enthroned is flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist and hosts of Saints. Below this, an empty throne with the symbols of the Passion (cross, spear and sponge), flanked by Adam and Eve depicts the ‘Second Coming’. A river of fire flows down to the gaping jaws of hell – depicted as a fish-like beast. In the centre, the hand of God holds a balance on which the souls of the dead are weighed. Those that are ‘saved’ are to the left of the picture and include the ‘good thief’ crucified with Christ in fulfilment of the statement that he would go to Paradise. The Archangel Michael is prodding devils with his spear and they are in turn grabbing the condemned souls and hurling them down into the fiery pit. Adjacent to this, partially obscured and faded, is Satan himself, the Great Beast with twisted horns. Over to the right is a human depiction of the sea, a woman ‘riding side-saddle’ on one of many fish all carrying human body-parts in their mouths and holding a ship in her hand – depicting the passage ‘and the sea shall give up her dead’. The whole picture is extremely ‘busy’ and well worth taking the trouble to see. The ornate wooden iconostasis has recently returned from restoration in Crete. The key holders live in the house next door – be prepared to brave their noisy dogs and to be sure someone is in, it is best to go in the afternoon after school. The other ruined buildings by the church were once monks’ cells.

The monastery hosted an ultimately unsuccessful diplomatic meeting in 1770 when the Russian envoys, Alexis and Theodore Orlov came to Mani with a force of 1000 men to help in the struggle against the Turks. Putting aside their disappointment with such a paltry army, the Maniats strategised a campaign only for the whole thing to go wrong ending in the Mavromichalis’s and Orlovs falling out and Turks sending in a vicious Turko-Albanian army to restore supremacy in the whole of the Peloponnese.

Back on the bay of Oitylo, there are three possibilities for a drink or lunch by the sea. The first is an immediate right turn when down on sea-level, signed Karavostasi. There are a couple of tavernas here along with some new hotels. It is also possible to take a boat trip from here that explores Palaeolithic caves and gives a commentary on local history. Call Dimitris on 6932 233310/1. The second potential café stop is on the main beach of Neo Oitylo where several tavernas stretch along the water’s edge. A short cut to up to Kelefa Castle or on to Gythio (bypassing Areopolis) lies half way round the bend once you have passed the beach of Neo Oitylo – at a kind of crossroads with a stone bus shelter on your right, take the left concrete road heading up and turn left for Kelefa at the top of this road or right then left onto the main road for Gythio.

The final opportunity for lunch is further along at the bay of Limeni – a right turn takes you along a road running parallel to the main road and then rejoins it as it starts to climb up to Areopolis. There are two fish tavernas here and diners often view turtles swimming in the bay. Limeni was the harbour for Areopolis and strategically important for that reason. The Mavromichalis family grew to prominence in this area and, under their control, Areopolis and Limeni became the main town and main harbour of the Inner Mani – often in dispute with Oitylo and its harbour, Karavostasi. The harbour was protected by a round tower (disappeared), several fortified caves and defensively built houses. The tower house of the Mavromichalis family, resembling a Norman church, was intended to be a museum but a theft of exhibits brought a prompt closure. There was also a small convent here, now derelict, but some of the frescos are still visible in the chapel that has no roof. The Russian attempt to help the Greeks overcome the Turks in 1770, The Orlov Event, started with a landing here. When Leake visited as a guest of the Mavromichalis family, the convent was still in use and he commented that it had “a little garden about it”. Petrobey Mavromichalis is buried in the small church on the north shore of the harbour where there is a monument and bust over his tomb. Leake stayed as a guest of Petros Mavromichalis before he became the Bey and wrote that he was “a smart looking man of between thirty and forty, dressed in green velvet and the genteelest Maniat I have yet seen.” He told Leake the story of how, in 1792, his father rescued a British ship in distress near Pyrgos Dirou and piloted them back to Limeni with a small vessel. He then mounted a guard over the ship to prevent any attack or looting and protected the ship until it sailed again nineteen days later.

There are numerous tales of piracy from Oitylo and Limeni. One such example involved two renowned pirates and close friends, Theodoros and Anapliotis. After disagreeing on how to divide their loot, each one separately planned the kidnap of the other’s wife. Theodoros took Anapliotis’ wife to a pirate from Malta whose ship had docked at Oitylo. They were having difficulties agreeing upon the price. The pirate closely observed the woman and finally said that two hours earlier he had been brought a more beautiful woman for half the price and ordered his servant to bring that woman on the deck. When Theodoros saw her, he stayed quiet as he recognized his wife, whom his opponent had already succeeded in kidnapping and selling. Instead of trying to rescue his wife, he asked the pirate to buy her too at any price, so that they were both imprisoned – by doing this he avoided Anapliotis’ sarcasm. As soon as Anapliotis had learnt about the incident, he equipped a ship with one canon and Theodoros joined him to go and threaten the Maltese pirate, who was forced to set the women free!

Kelefa

By car there are two ways up to the Turkish castle that overlooks the bay of Oitylo. The short cut has just been mentioned (at the time of print, the promising concrete road that snakes up from the centre of Neo Oitylo runs out significantly short and so would not be advisable in a regular car). The other way is to continue on to Areopolis, turning left at the junction just before the town and then left again down a road signed Kelefa after a couple of km. As you approach the village of Kelefa turn left down a new tarmac road that passes the village cemetery.

The castle was probably built by the Turks in 1670 after they had defeated the Venetians in Crete and turned their attention on the Mani and Oitylo. It is a large rectangular enclosure with high walls and bastions on the corners and could hold a garrison of 500 men. It gave the Turks a commanding view of Oitylo while dominating the harbour on the coast below and formed part of the chain of castles from Zarnata to Porto Kayio. The castle was captured by a Maniat and Venetian force in 1685 and repulsed an attempt by the Turks to regain it during the following year. They (the Turks) finally re-captured it in 1715 and rebuilt it. Much of the thick, curtain wall survives with three round towers on the western side facing towards the sea. The southern wall still has the parapet and battlements from which the Turks kept an eye on Oitylo and from which they could bombard the town with cannon across the gorge once known as milolangado after numerous water mills it had. The interior of the castle is very overgrown in places and the undergrowth conceals the walls of various buildings within.

The mini-mini circuit can be started from Kelefa and only takes half an hour of driving. Head back to the main road, turn left and just after the beehives and honey vendor, take the left turn signed Germa and Karea. Before you come to the first village, a blue sign indicates a right turn on a sharp right-hand bend for a brief detour to an interesting church. Head up past a derelict house on your right and park on the right where a dirt track begins, just before a sharp left hairpin. Walk down the track to the church of the Metamorphosis of the Saviour (Transfiguration of Christ). Not only is this church in a lovely spot but if you didn’t visit Dekoulou, this church also gives a good idea of how a fully decorated church originally looked in terms of frescos (it is always open). They were painted in 1725 by the Klirodeti family who were also responsible for the work in Agios Nikolaos at nearby Germa. Their condition is so good that numerous scenes from the life of Christ and martyrdoms, including four martyrs boiled to death in a bronze cow, are easily discernible.

Germa is a little further on and is a very small hamlet. To get inside Agios Nikoloas, an excellent example of an 11th century church, knock on the door of the white bungalow next door to raise the key holder. The frescos inside were only recently revealed, as, as is so often the case, they had been plastered over. The frescos are not Byzantine but date from the mid 18th century and the Klirodeti signature is at the end of a frieze above the templon. There is a colourful, if rather naïve looking version of the Ainoi with the zodiac in the narthex.

Another detour to an equally extraordinary church lies down a left turn soon after Germa. The sign to the Panagia Spliliotissa (the church of the Virgin of the Caves) does not indicate at all how far away it is. It is in the middle of nowhere down a dirt track that should not really be taken in a normal hired car. If you do though, it takes around 15 minutes to get there driving at a sensibly slow speed. Ignore all turnings off it (including a sign to ‘Kelefa’) as well as some large potholes. Its location is stunning as the tiny church is cut into cliffs that drop down into the Oitylo gorge. To get to the church walk across the recently paved square (used for the annual panagiri or festival), through an archway, down some steps through another gate and then draw breath as the steps down to the church are extremely vertiginous, though a handrail and wall help to provide security. The short walk down passes a shrine full of bones of monks who once inhabited the monastery. Leake visited in 1805 and mentions cultivated terraces and gardens once tilled by the piles of bones. The cave part of the church is extremely low. It is possible to walk here up the ‘water-mill gorge’ from the coast, though it is a fairly tough hike. If the gorge still has some water, allow 2.5 hours to get there, 2 to return. If the gorge is dry, then 2 hours to get there and 1.5 to return. These timings allow for a leisurely pace with plenty of photo/flower stops. The walk starts at the small beach at Karavostasi in the north corner of Oitylo Bay. Follow the vague dirt road southwards along the edge of the beach. After 180m ignore the asphalt road on your left and continue along the pebbly beach. After 140m you will reach the riverbed of Milolangado – follow it left into the mouth of the gorge, which soon narrows. After 150m you will pass a small bridge – continue up the riverbed. At 380m you pass beneath the main road bridge and continue on up the now constantly narrowing streambed, hopping between boulders. After 40m ignore the path left to Oitylo but continue up the streambed, sometimes on the path just to the right of it and sometimes actually in it. After about 300m there is a cliff on your right hand side – if you hack through the undergrowth to reach it, you can see an ancient inscription on the stone slabs (look out for a cairn to guide you). Finally after another 2.5 km you will reach a junction with another streambed coming down from the left. Keep to the right hand streambed and follow a beautiful grassy path to the right hand side of it up and down for around 200m, and then bearing further to the right, climb steeply up the path which zig-zags up a rocky outcrop on your left. The monastery is directly above you now, though it is invisible until you reach the top. Keep your eyes peeled for way-marks as it is not very clear. You will arrive in a grassy parking area below the church and go to right-hand side of buildings to find the entrance. In a small room on the right you can sign the visitors’ book, eat some loukoumi and even make yourself a coffee! Return by retracing your steps.

After the Spiliotissa diversion, the main road passes a number of small agricultural villages clinging to the edge of the basin that drops down into the gorge. The right fork to Karea can be taken as an additional detour as it rejoins the main road later. If you didn’t go the cave church, it is visible on the crown of a small hill down in the gorge down on your left. Before reaching Oitylo, below a sharp right hand bend, is a good example of an old kalderimi bridge with the path itself meandering up the hillside. Shortly after this, a track leads off to your right and follows the eastern side of a wide gorge. It starts off paved but soon deteriorates into a track which is really only suitable for a 4×4. If you follow this track you eventually reach the Monastery of Tsigou, perched on an overhanging rock on the mountain slopes. A defensive wall with many doufekotrypes (firing loops) encloses the church and buildings and a square tower protects the eastern corner of the complex. A track takes you to the main entrance gate, which is locked, but the adjacent wall has collapsed allowing entry. A very unusual feature is the remains of a round tower that protected this gateway. The templon in the church has some damaged frescos while bits of others are visible where the plaster/whitewash covering has flaked away. The tower has been restored and looks as though it is sometimes occupied but the other monastic buildings are derelict. The view south from here is quite stunning and you can see right down the gorge and across Kelefa to the mountains above Areopolis.

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