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A trip to the tip of the Mani peninsula is well worth it and takes about 2.5 hours from Stoupa/Kardamyli. The southern most point of mainland Europe has a distinct atmosphere- barren, desolate and yet was once home to a large Roman town. The short (50 minute) walk out to the lighthouse is rewarding in terms of the views en route and the vantage point the location gives you for gazing south towards Crete and Africa beyond….

Parking below the taverna which lies at the very end of the road south, it is hard to believe that all around was once a thriving ancient town well recorded by Pausanias. The barren hills and isolated buildings give no hint that the bay was ever inhabited on a large scale. But a closer inspection starts to reveal enough to allow the imagination to start putting the site together – and whatever work is put in to exploring it there are 3 pebbly coves to cool down in after your efforts exploring. The first clue lies directly in front. Standing on the small promontory which juts out into the sea between two small coves is the ruined church of Asomati, from which the bay is named, and which may have been the site of the Temple of Poseidon. This has never been proved, but a temple to Poseidon stood here for over a thousand years and was known throughout the ancient world as a sanctuary. Parts of this ruined church are constructed with massive stone blocks that could be ancient masonry. Col. Leake visited this site and, examining the outside of the building, he noted
“This altar end is formed in part of Hellenic masonry, not quite regular; the stones, though very large, being not all quadrangular. At the end of this piece of Hellenic wall, near the altar, a narrow ancient door remains, which is not apparent from within, having been immured in converting the temple into a church. Several other parts of the church walls are formed of ancient wrought blocks, but that which is to the right of the altar only is original in its construction and site.”

He also noted that the church was not aligned to the east. His description is still valid today and the point he was making is that the church was built using parts of the temple, or of another ancient building which was still in situ and not just by using blocks that were scattered around the general area. The doorway he refers to is still visible on the outside of the church but, exactly as he noted, it does not give access to the inside.
The entrance to hell or Hades was also reputed to be at this ancient site. However, if you are hoping to find a cave system to parallel those at Pyrgos Dirou, you are going to be disappointed, as indeed Pausanias was;
“Some of the Greek poets have written that at this place Herakles brought up the hound of Hades, yet no road leads underground through the cave nor is it credible that the gods should have an underground house where they collected the souls of the dead.”
Maybe he had taken Strabo a little too seriously before arriving there, as he previously had written,
“In the bend of the seaboard one comes, first, to a headland that projects into the sea, Taenarum, with its temple of Poseidon situated in a grove; and secondly, near by, to the cavern through which, according to the myth-writers, Cerberus was brought up from Hades by Herakles.”
The cave itself is situated at the back of the cove to the left of the church as you face the sea, screened by shrubs and trees and used now to store the paraphernalia of the local fishing boats. Just beyond it are the oblong foundations of a building that could be another contender for the location of the temple.
Pausanias also mentions “…on the cape itself a shrine, shaped like a cave, with a statue of Poseidon in front of it.” This shrine was probably the site of the Death Oracle. Peter Levi suggests that the ‘cutting’ in the rock on the other side of the promontory is all that is left of the “cave-like” shrine and records that in 1856, seventy bronze statuettes were found here. Pausanias also referred to other aspects of the site he found interesting;
“Among other dedications at Tainaron is Arion the musician in bronze on a dolphin. Herodotus told the story of Arion and the dolphin from hearsay in his records of Lydia; and I have seen the dolphin at Poroselene showing its gratitude to a boy who cured it when it was wounded by fishermen; I saw it come when he called it and carry him when he wanted to ride on it. There was also a water spring at Tainaron which works no miracles these days, but once (so they say) if you looked into the water it would show you the harbours and ships. A woman stopped the water from ever showing such sights again by washing dirty clothes in it.”
Herodotus tells the story of how, on his way back to Corinth, Arion’s life was saved by a friendly dolphin after scheming sailors had forced him overboard. Herodotus suggests it was Arion himself who commissioned the statue at Tainaron.
With further exploration it is not difficult to discern the outlines of the foundations of what must have been a substantial town at Tainaron along with numerous cisterns for collecting water. These are clearly visible both north and south of the promontory of the church and it is possible to make out small streets, houses and steps cut into the rocks and some large, rectangular blocks of masonry.

Among the jumble of foundations on the other side of the promontory from the cave, a clearly worn path heads off to the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. Just beyond the first small cove lies the remains of a mosaic floor, exposed to the elements, whose wave pattern helps confirm the existence of the sanctuary to Poseidon. The growth of the town was not solely due to the religious sanctity and refuge offered but also due to its strategic location in terms of both war and commerce. It was here that in the 3rd century B.C the Greeks from Tarentum, a well established satellite city on the heel of mainland Italy, came to buy 5000 mercenaries to help in their ultimately futile attempt to defeat the emerging power of the Romans. Soon after it must have become the unofficial centre of the anti-Spartan Union of Free Laconians – an organisation not officially recognised until 21BC by the emperor Augustus. Kainopolis further north eventually succeeded Tainaron as head of this fiercely defended union and once the Romans had ‘liberated’ Sparta in 67BC, it must have reverted to a place of pilgrimage and peace.
The walk out to the lighthouse from the taverna takes a leisurely 50 minutes one way and the path gets a little rocky in places. It is well worth the effort as it is a wonderfully tranquil spot and a great place to do some serious ‘ship spotting’. In 1941 the British fleet would have been visible attacking the Italian navy in the Battle of Matapan as part of the Allied retreat from Greece. It was such an overwhelming victory that the Italian fleet never showed its face again. Today you can see all kinds of ships plying a route to other Mediterranean ports.

Cape Tainaron
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Once a thriving town in ancient times, Tainaron is well worth a visit. The walk to the lighthouse only takes 45 minutes and is a wonderfully peaceful place. There are a couple of small, pebbly coves to have a swim.

WHAT DO YOU SAY? 1 Leave your rating
Absolutely wonderful
Been there many times...always the same enchantment. Wish the taverna were less an eyesore...
July 9, 2016, 10:56 am
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  1. Pingback: Stoupa casts a lasting spell for this visitor to Greece | Paul Nettleton

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