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In the last decade Areopolis has seen something of a boom. The central square, dominated by a statue of Petrobey Mavromichalis, has been repaved, a new police station and town hall built, a number of new bars and cafes have opened along with hotels to accommodate visitors and on the outskirts of the town are a number of recently built, huge stone shops and supply yards. However it has by no means lost its quality of an atmospheric gateway into Mesa Mani and no tour of Mani is complete without stopping here. At the very least it warrants a coffee stop or lunch. The main square is the centre of life in the town and is a great place to ‘people watch’. There is a market every Saturday, mainly selling fruit and vegetables, turning the square into a hive of activity. However, Areopolis deserves a little more time. Its narrow alleys and cobbled streets are a photographer’s dream and, being a historic town, there are a number of places worth visiting. There is a great bookshop on the square, next to the cake shop. Its owner, Georgios, is a real Mani enthusiast and has a good stock of maps, books and recently a DVD as well as his own Mani magazine (in Greek). A Byzantine museum is located in the restored tower next to the church of Ioannis O Prodromos. It promises to ensure that local treasures housed in locked churches will now be on permanent display beyond the grasp of unscrupulous thieves.

To the west of the main square lies the old town with its narrow, winding alleys, fortified houses and smattering of churches set amongst which is the 17th March Square flanked by old houses and overlooked by the tall bell tower of the Taxiarchis Church. The marble relief on one of the walls of the square commemorates the time and place where “Petrobey” plunged the Greek flag into the ground (a hole in the centre of the square represents the actual spot) with the cry of “Victory or Death”. The rest of the country’s war cry was “Freedom or Death”- the Maniats considered themselves to be free anyway. Petrobey’s full name was Petros Mavromichalis and he came from the most dominant family in the area. The suffix ‘Bey’ meant local ruler – a system imposed late on during the Turkish rule in an attempt to control the area. The appointed Bey, who was always from a powerful Maniat family, was in theory subject to the Ottomans. However, in reality the Beys were working towards the common goal of liberating Greece. The Mavromichalis family had steadily gained control over the region. In 1690 they were listed among the “notable” families based at Kelefa, near the fortress across the gorge from Oitylo and from here moved to Areopolis, which grew into a powerful base fortified by various towers and financed by trade and piracy. They also annexed the small harbour just below Areopolis at Limeni to challenge the supremacy of Oitylo. Petrobey’s palatial tower house still dominates the harbour.

The family distinguished itself in the battles that marked the long War of Independence. However, once victory was achieved they soon became disenchanted with the new state. They, like many of those who fought, expected their contribution to be recognised and to be rewarded by political power and position. This was given mainly to intellectuals and others returning from exile who had played no part in the war. Furthermore, the idea of central government and taxation didn’t sit well with the Maniats who valued their freedom and independence. Revolt fermented in Mani and the first president of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias, held Petrobey under house arrest as a hostage in Nafplio. He managed to evade the guards once but was retaken before reaching Mani. Had he reached Areopolis, there is a strong possibility that an uprising would have ensued. The situation though continued to be insufferable to the clan and on 9th October 1831, Georgos and Konstantinos Mavromichalis took matters into their own hands and assassinated Kapodistrias outside a church in Nafplio. Petrobey was not implicated in the killing and was eventually released.

The Taxiarchis Church on the March 17th Square was built in 1798 and dedicated to St. Michael and all the “warrior” saints. It is often locked and the frescos inside are modern. Externally, at the top of the curved apse are carvings of the Zodiac and there are more above the main door.

Next to the church is the restored tower of the Hotel Tsimova. A real character, Georgios, runs it and on the ground floor he has assembled his own collection of weapons. Displayed in 2 cabinets the museum includes guns from the War of Independence and from both world wars and some replicas. There used to be an unexploded bomb outside the door but this has been removed. There is no entrance fee but a donation is always welcome.

If you visit one church in Areopolis, Agios Ioannis O Prodromos (John the Baptist) is probably the one as the frescos are still in good condition, making their content easily decipherable. Painted in 1859 by Papa- Ioannis Fragakis from nearby Pyrgos Dirou, the frescos to the right of the altar are a kind of picture book story for the illiterate, showing in sequence the Last Supper, the Betrayal, Jesus before Kaiafas and then Pilate ‘washing his hands’ followed by Jesus mocked and then scourged. Beneath this sequence, by the altar is the image of John the Baptist, depicted in the usual way of appearing scruffy and dishevelled, with wings. Around the entrance door is another standard in Byzantine painting – at the top is the Crucifixion and under is The Last Judgment, with unfortunate souls plunging down into hell.

Fragakis died before the paintings were finished but one wonders if it was he who got the proportions slightly wrong in the image of Christ in the fresco showing Pilate washing his hands, as by shortening his torso, his feet appear to be off the ground. In fact the figure seems to be floating like a helium-filled balloon anchored only by the rope in the hands of one of the soldiers.

Areopolis has a number of towers, most of which were built by the Mavromichalis clan. The Kyriakoulis tower has smaller dwellings around it that formed a small, fortified settlement. The Kapetanakos tower has been converted into an hotel where as a guest, you could wage war with the neighbouring Londas tower hotel. The original tower built by Stylianos Mavromichalis in 1760 was added to in the 19th century when the tower was raised and the house converted to what amounted to a mansion. It has an extremely high curtain wall and again the objective was to impress.


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