The left turn just after the acropolis leads to Neohori, Pyrgos, Kastania, Saidona and Milea. A few hundred metres along this road, hidden in the undergrowth, is a tiny Byzantine church, Agios Vasilios. It is very easy not to notice it and its state of decay gives a clear example of the plight of so many churches in the Mani. To be sure of finding it, identify the holiday accommodation on the right which has a lawn and three pine trees – the church is opposite. Higher up the road, the large, whitish building you pass is a modern olive oil bottling plant for the local co-operative. When you get to Neohori you cannot drive very far into the village because the streets are narrow, so park and walk round, either in the parking area by the mini market and kafenion at the bottom of the village, or by driving further on to where the road bends left and turning left into one of two turnings that both lead to the main square and another kafenion. It is a charming village to wander around: narrow lanes and old houses, some of which are derelict, and one or two with small towers.
Further up the road Pyrgos is similar in character and has narrow lanes painted with white-wash in swirling, floral designs towards the east. There is a kafenion in the small square if you take the first entrance in (it is prudent again to leave your car on the main road) and a sitting area gives tremendous views to the coast. Next to the kafenion is a private museum in a ground floor, vaulted room packed with a mish-mash of past paraphernalia. A sign in the olive tree outside proclaims that it is 500 years old (the tree, not the museum). Further along the main church has bits of marble (including a couple of capitals) in its grounds. These look like ancient relics, but are in fact modern follies, as can be deduced from the Christian crosses that decorate them, The second entrance into the village is further along the main road, where again, the car should be left. Continuing on, you soon pass another olive oil factory on the right, where visitors are welcome to have a look around and buy direct. Beyond this is a right turn by a concrete bus shelter, signed to Milea. Keeping straight takes you to Kastania and Saidona.
As you approach the village, the initial impression is “Where is it?”. It is only when you have passed the final bend that it comes into view, set in a small valley. The defensive implications for this location are obvious. It is a beautiful village and it’s worth taking the time to explore its narrow lanes and old churches (refer to the map). At approximately 600m altitude, it is noticeably cooler than on the coast, especially in the height of summer in the evening. The road leading to the top end of the village is fine, though a bit steep in places, so the car could be left at the top or at the bottom. There is a taverna at the top which has parking space by it.
Theodoros Kolokotronis took refuge here during the persecution of the Klephts in 1803, hoping for help from the local chieftan: “to my old friend Captain Konstantes Douraki, whom I trusted greatly because I had taken care of his family in former times, and because he was, as it were, my co-father-in-law, for I had betrothed my daughter to his son.“
In spite of this his friend planned to betray him for ‘grosia‘ (money): “Douraki, when he looked upon the grosia, determined to betray me, for the Maniats will do anything for grosia.” Dourakis put opium in his wine, but Kolokotronis was warned and knocked it over. He then announced his intention to leave: “He tried to persuade me to go into his house and take wine with him before I left and went in to prepare it and at the same time he ordered some men to fall upon me and secure me whilst we were drinking together, but his brother prevented me from going in and he also kept the dogs from barking whilst we got away.” He then escaped, aided by Dourakis’s brother, and fled to a village on the other side of the mountains, also called Kastania (the word means ‘chestnut tree’).
The five-story Dourakis tower house dominates the whole village and is located on the square where there is a kafenion and a taverna. Opposite the tower is the church of the “Koimesis tis Theotokou”. Before reaching the square you will have passed the small, cruciform church of Agios Ioannis (St. John), on the left as you enter the village. It has some beautiful cloisonné decorations on the outside and is probably early Byzantine. At the top end of the village is the church of Agios Petros with more wonderful cloisonné brickwork decoration and old stone roof-tiles. Unlike Agios Ioannis, it is possible to get into the church. If it is not open the key is left in a niche by the front door. It is worth bringing a torch as although there is a electric light inside its operation is a mystery. The original building probably dates from the 11th century, after which the narthex and bell tower were added. There is a lot of carved marble to admire on the templon, the supporting columns and around the base of the cupola. The naos has a great mix of medieval frescos and an 18th century iconostasis. Just a stone’s throw below Agios Petros is Agios Nikolaos. This unusually long, vaulted church is made up of a large naos with a narthex tagged on to the west. It is not locked and inside there are extensive 18th century, rather naïve frescos. The Ainoi are depicted on the ceiling with the zodiac surrounding the Pantocrator, the mythical beasts on the north wall, and the real animals and the judges on the south wall. Just below is the tiny Church of the Panagia, no bigger than 2 metres by 3 metres internally. It is not locked and the late Byzantine paintings have suffered from damp, although St George and St Dimitrios are discernable enough on opposite walls. Another Agios Nikolaos exists just off the main square – a church not much bigger than the Panagia. Signs point the way but it is potluck whether it is open or not. Inside are various depictions of the life of St Nicholas.
The next village is 4km further on. En route you will see the Monastery of the Phaneromeni (the apparition of the Virgin) nestling amongst the cypresses beneath you. Saidona is the village you can see perched high in the mountains north of Stoupa, and at night the lights from here seem to be suspended in the sky. Before entering the village there is a war memorial on the right opposite a parking area on the left. There are compelling reasons for choosing Saidona as the site of this memorial: it was the centre of the resistance fighters during the Second World War and of Communist resistance in the civil war which followed. It is extremely poignant to compare the number of people from the village who died in the former with the number who lost their lives in the succeeding political struggle. The memorial also lists those who died in other villages during this turbulent time – and each year in August a roll-call for all the villages is held there to honour their dead.
The road forks as you enter the village. The lower road takes you to a sensible place to park to explore – there is a taverna here too. The right fork leads to the Exohori road. If you park along here and walk down some fairly uneven stone steps, there is another taverna on your left with a small terrace under a vine where you can enjoy simple, tasty food in total tranquillity, even in August.
Saidona to Exohori
Most maps mark the road on to Exohori as dirt. In fact it is a good tarmac road. There are two opportunities to stop and stretch your legs. Both are fortified monasteries and both are set in wonderful locations, one being near the dramatic ruin of the Kitriniaris tower house. The first, the totally hidden Moni Samouil (named after the prophet Samuel), is reached by parking in a small lay-by on the first left bend after the turning up to the Vasiliki Forest. Head up a wide track leading up a gully and after 100m take a narrow dirt path heading steeply up the right bank. Samouil is a short walk away. The church was protected by a defensive wall and a tower and is open, though the paintings are badly faded. The second is a little further on where signs declare that you are leaving the Municipality of Saidona. Park on the left just before the Kitriniaris tower and walk back to the bend. Hop over the crash barrier and follow the path that leads up the left side of the valley- the Monastery of Vaidenitsa is visible ahead of you. A perfect spot, especially in spring when wild flowers and the gurgling stream put the icing on the cake. The church is kept closed by a removable rusty nail but is totally white washed inside,
Kolokotronis was involved in a feud at the Kitriniaris tower, in support of the Dourakis family from Kastania: “Kaptain Konstantine Douraki, who had been a friend of my father, had begun a feud about this time with Kitriniari, and we sent him reinforcements. The Maniotes had caused him (Kitriniaris) to be in great straits, and he therefore desired to deliver the place up, and asked for me. His design, however, was not to surrender, but to kill me if possible by an act of treachery. He came himself outside the gate of the tower in order to surrender it, but he had placed some men inside, and these men discharged six guns full at me. I was struck, but not hurt; I fell down under the roof of the tower gate, and my own men thinking that they had killed me, wanted to slay the relations of Kitriniares; others however called out, ‘No, let us look after Theodoros.’ The brother of Kitriniares came up, and I took him by the shoulder and protected him, and at night I threw fire into the tower, and it was then delivered up.” Kolokotronis was then asked if he intended to kill those who had betrayed him and he replied, “God has preserved me, so I grant them their lives.” This incident makes the subsequent betrayal of Kolokotronis by Dourakis at Kastania even more incomprehensible.
From the concrete bus stop junction to Milea (or Milia) the road continues for 11km along a road that skirts around a deep valley, passing through Kariovouni (once known as Arachova) en route. The village you can see beneath you, perched on an outcrop is Eliohori. Milea is an old village split into three sections – a lower section below the road, a middle section slightly further on and an upper section on a hill above. This village “and its dependencies containing 200 houses” was listed by Col. Leake as being governed by Kapetanios Kyvelaki and he also quotes the poet, Nikitas Nifakos as describing Milea in this way: “From hence (Arachova) let us proceed, by the wolf-path, to the robbers of kids and goats, the walkers at night, and record the name of the town of the kid-eating rogues, the mule-stealers, the goat-slayers, the thrice-apostate Milia, from which Garbelea is one quarter of an hour distant.”
Clearly, the poet was not too enamoured, which is surprising as it was his home village!
The Koimisis tis Theotokou church in the small square in the lower section, Kato Hora, has a bell tower dated 1776, decorated with carvings, and with a wonderful device of connecting metal rods for ringing the church bells. You will see a sign for Kato Hora on your right and this narrow road takes you down to the square and the church. Looking from here due east into the mountains you can see a large building high on a ridge. This is the monastery of Panagia Giatrissa. Inside the church has a wonderful Pantocrator, and many other paintings, including a picture of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. The key can sometimes be found at the nearby kafenion.
Going east from this square is a narrow road and if you follow it on foot, you come to a small plain-looking church named after Agios Nikolaos. Local enquiries might produce a keyholder and it is worth the effort because the entire surface of the interior walls and arched ceiling are covered with frescos. Some are slightly damaged or faded but the majority are glowing with vibrant colours and those on the templon seem to have escaped the usual damage from smoke from oil lamps. There are scenes from the life of Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection and the usual collection of saints and martyrs.
If you take the main road on from the square you come to an old school on your right just below the road. Park here and follow the broken kalderimi which passes to the left of the old school and leads down to a small rather scruffy-looking church with a derelict building on the left. This is Agios Ioannis Prodromos, or John the Baptist, and appears to have been the katholikon of a small monastery. The church is flanked by stone walls with firing loops forming a grassy courtyard with the monastery building forming the northern boundary. The church is small with a disproportionately tall, octagonal dome. The tiles of the roofs have been laid on top of the original stone roof. The walls are covered in rough cement, which covers any clues there might have been as to the date of the church. The interior has been fully painted and the last line of an inscription over the door shows the artists to be Christodoulos Kalergis from the island of Mykonos. Most of the depictions in the paintings are standard themes but to the right of the door on the back wall is something a little unusual. It shows a monk, Zosimos, giving the Eucharist to a wild and emaciated “Osia” (Holy) Mary. She was a prostitute who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she was prevented from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by a supernatural force. She heard a voice tell her to go into the desert and repent and so she lived a hermitic life in the desert to atone for her sins. Zosimos gave her Holy Communion, but when he returned a while later he found her dead. Two lions helped him to dig her grave and are sometimes shown in paintings of her, although they are absent in this example. The church should not be locked.
Just past the school, a narrow paved road takes you up to the upper, third section of the village and a small square with kafenia, shady trees and another large church. At first glance, this is modern, but the on-going removal of exterior cement has revealed another Byzantine church with a later exonarthex. The frescos are later and many are damaged but include that enigmatic character, Simon the Stylite, who spent forty years perched on a classical pillar in Syria preaching to the masses who flocked there to see him (the church keyholder is in the small kafenion in the square).