Home / tainaron

 

Tainaron

map of Tainaron

The final tip of the Mani, like the Mini Circuit, requires turning off the main ‘Loop’ road – this time at Alika, some 3kms east of Gerolimenas. The predominance of churches declines in this final stretch of land. Instead, potential attractions come in the form of the most renowned tower village of the Mani, Vathia, a great sandy beach at Marmaris, lunch at Porto Kagio, a visit to ancient Tainaron and a walk out to the lighthouse right at the end of the peninsula – the southern most point of mainland Europe. If these don’t tempt or if you are pressed for time, the ‘Loop’ road continues on to Lagia.

Kiparissos

This is the modern village that was once the site of the ancient town Pausanias called “Kainopolis whose name was formerly Tainaron”, a member of the Union of Free Lakonians and the most important port south of Mezapos. It rose to prominence during the Roman Period and it was here in 468 AD that Genseric’s Vandals tried to land from North Africa in an attempt to conquer the Peloponnese. They were defeated and gave up the attempt. Pausanias recorded a sanctuary of Demeter and a shrine of Aphrodite “on the seashore with a standing stone statue”. Simple speculation leads to the conclusion that it served as a resettlement from Tainaron – hence the name is a contraction of “new town”. There is still ample evidence of ancient times and by parking the car and wandering around it is impossible not to spot ancient spoilia embedded in walls throughout the village. Kiparissos spreads along an unusually straight part of the main road – the entrance and exit to it are un-missable as the road becomes extremely narrow in both cases and extra care in driving is needed. Once in the village a brown sign on the right encouragingly declares “the archaeological site of ancient Kainopolis”. Unfortunately no museum or fenced in area awaits. Instead, a short walk along a track towards a pleasant pebbly beach begins to reveal an ancient past. Firstly, on your right, you will pass a well that can be accessed both from above ground or by dropping down a flight of steps (certainly not a modern way of drawing water). A little further on the church of Agias Paraskavi, again to your right, has marble pieces in its walls that must have been borrowed from much earlier buildings. The best ‘exhibit’ lies at the back of the beach. Hiding amongst the stone walls there is a marble statue base that has a fairly clear inscription – as with the base at Thalames, it seems that Marcus Aurelius (Emperor 121-180AD) was the subject of the missing statue. His name is mentioned twice, once as being an epimeletes (one in charge) and once probably in reference to the commissioning of the work, which came “through the ephorship (officials) of those around M Aurelios”. There are two indentations on the top of the base where the statue’s feet would have been placed.
The tower that crowns the headland has marble foundations embedded there that suggests that something much older once stood there. The climb up to it is not easy as there is no clearly defined path and the unusually high stone walls make finding a sensible route a little tricky. Looking down from the tower towards the modern village, the ruins of the basilica of St. Peter are clearly visible and more marble columns are scattered around. More inscribed statue bases can be found at the basilica, one of which is more readable than by its compatriot back on the beach. It literally translates as:
The City (honours?…..)
Julia Domna, revered wife of the emperor, Caesar Lucius SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS Pius Pertinax Augustus Arabicus Adiabenicus Parthicus, the Great and Garlanded, and mother of the emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus.
Julia Domna (170-217 A.D.) was born in Syria and was an educated, forceful woman who accompanied her husband and son (better known as Caracalla) on military campaigns. In fact she was so involved in her son’s life that she starved herself to death when Caracalla was assassinated. The text goes on to list the minor officials who were in charge of setting up the statue, ending with “the Quaestor Rufus” – presumably the highest-ranking official. Two inscribed stelai were used to make the west door. St. Peter is dated to the early 6th century and cited by some as evidence of the earliest Christian conversion of the Mani and is very close in size to the basilica on Tigani. To find the beginning of the path up to the basilica, retrace your steps about half way back to the road from the beach
Returning to the main road, evidence of antiquity continues. On your left you will pass a derelict house that has a marble Ionic capital set in the wall above the door. A little further on a concrete road runs off to the right (signed “the monastery Panagias”). Following the road/ path to its end brings you to a lovely spot – a church shaded by eucalyptus trees with views over the small harbour of Kiparissos. The small square in front of the church has several columns forming a boundary wall and more chunks of marble and more recently engraved stonework are visible in the church walls. To get to the harbour (which surprisingly has no café) return to the main road, turn right and turn right again just before the road narrows. This road curves back to the harbour. As you reach the sea, another church on your right has more marble in its walls including a block with a Latin inscription. Inside the church, a marble slab, which serves as the altar, is inscribed to the “City of Tainaron”.

Vathia

If you continue along the main road you soon pass a pebbly cove for a more private swim and after this the road starts climbing up to Vathia, which is the towered village that features in most of the travel brochures and other advertisements for the Mani. The first glimpse of the village perched high on a hill is impressive to say the least and the cluster of slender towers are reminiscent of the hill towns of Tuscany. They were certainly not built merely for show as Vathia seems to have been the scene of some of the most intense internal feuding in the area. In 1805 Colonel Leake and his party decided to give it a wide berth:
“At 8.30 the sea is near us on the right hand and the village (Vathia) half a mile on our left. We halt five minutes to allow time to Gika and Poliko to answer the inquiries of a party of armed men from Vathia, who meet us on the road. This village, my guides say, has been divided into two parties for the last forty years, in which time they reckon that about 100 men have been killed”.
In Leigh Fermor’s time of writing some of the towers were still occupied but these days Vathia has totally submitted to the trend of depopulation, ironically, without much of a fight. There have been efforts to inject life into this historic village: the Greek Ministry of Tourism, EOT, half-heartedly opened a hotel in the late 1990s where guests stayed in their own tower. But unfortunately this venture was badly run and soon closed. Instead the only sign of life you are likely to meet are the packs of dogs which hang around the entrance to the village. The net result of these factors, increased further by a fire that burnt all the surrounding hillsides in the late 1990s, is that there is a strong, eerie atmosphere about the place. Simply by wandering about the village, soaking in its architectural phenomena, it is easy to imagine the harshness of life in a tower village.

Beyond Vathia, the road meanders above the rocky coastline, passing isolated houses and towers and some wonderful scenery. After about 4 kilometres you come to a tarmac road on your left with a signpost to Lagia. This road forks within 100 metres – left and up to Lagia, the right fork takes you round the north side of the bay of Porto Kagio to a former monastery and a castle. A large church marks the site of the monastery and beyond this the road passes a fertile gully fed by a mountain spring which emerges from the rock by the roadside. This gully used to provide a dramatic splash of greenery but much of the flora was destroyed by a fire which swept the hillsides in the summer of 1997. The road follows the contour round the side of the slope until you reach the high curtain walls of the castle. There are new and restored houses here but it is still clear that the castle was a formidable bastion built by the Turks in 1570 to protect the anchorage from use by pirates and as a base for naval operations against the Venetian lines of supply to Cyprus. In succeeding years it became a focus of conflict between the Turks and Maniats. To get to the picturesque bay of Porto Kagio below, return to the main road, turn left and take the next left fork.

Porto Kagio

The road winds down to the beach of Porto Kagio. The name translates from the Italian as the Bay of Quails and in times gone by this migratory bird was caught here in great numbers. Local author Kyriakos Kassis, whose family dominate the graveyard at nearby Paliros, describes the technique employed – the birds were trapped in nets suspended between two poles or by a solo hunter holding up a large butterfly net. The birds were then salted and cured. Nowadays, though it is possible to sight the odd flock on their travels, their numbers have significantly diminished. The sound of shotguns going off during the hunting season is very common throughout the Mani and unfortunately birds fall into the category of ‘let’s shoot anything that moves’.
The bay holds obvious strategic importance for the area and has a long history. It is almost certain that Porto Kagio is ancient Psamathus which Pausanias and other writers referred to but of which there is little trace now. There are some twenty tombs cut into the rock high on a ridge to the southwest of the port. They date from the Hellenistic period and are thought to be those of mercenaries, many of whom congregated in this area in classical times and much later, to offer their services to passing ships. A short walk to the mouth of the bay brings you to a monument to Lambros Katsonis. He held a commission from the Russian Imperial Court and operated against Turkish shipping under the Russian flag. The bay saw warfare again in the Second World War when during the evacuation of Allied troops in April 1941, Porto Kagio was one of the locations where British destroyers took off stragglers. There is even an exciting story of Luftwaffe Stuka dive bombers nearly hitting an allied warship in the bay – it escaped by going full steam ahead and frantically making smoke. In modern day Porto Kagio the only sailing vessels you are likely to see are yachts, moored up in the harbour to make use of the couple of fish tavernas and cafes that front the beach which is a mixture of coarse sand and pebbles. A very pleasant setting for lunch and a swim. It is possible to extend the walk to the lighthouse by starting and finishing here. To join the main walk follow the sign in the middle of the beach to the mini-market. Pass the mini-market on your right and where the road turns into a path turn left at a rusty gate, heading towards a 2-story apartment block. The path up the hill begins behind this and will add an extra half hour or so to the main walk (each way). Once the path brings you out on tarmac (making a mental note of this spot for the return leg), turn right and follow the road to the next junction, turning left to the “Death Oracle”. The dirt road up to Mianes is on your right.
To reach Marmaris, retrace the road back to the road junction and turn left.

Marmaris

As you approach Marmaris, a road leads off to your left. This is the main route down to ancient Tainaron. Marmaris is probably ancient Achilleus, a small harbour in classical times which was mentioned by Pausanias and other historians but can have had little significance since they give no detail other than the name. The first building you reach is a taverna which has recently added rooms to let that look straight down onto the beach. The path leading down to the golden sandy beach passes by the side of the taverna. Even in the height of summer it is not too crowded. The main part of the village sits on the cliffs where it could have been more easily defended and another path leads down the steep slopes from the village to the second sandy bay where the ancient harbour used to be. An astonishing sight at Marmaris, as in many other places in the Mani, are the old terraces on the steep hillsides high above the village. The effort needed to build these for the cultivation of wheat or corn is mind-blowing and illustrates the lengths people had to go to in order to survive in this harsh environment.

To continue south, return to the junction you passed as you approached Marmaris. The road takes you past an astonishingly large, recently redecorated church to a junction. The road to the left goes to Paliros and the road to the right takes you further south, signed rather scarily to the Death Oracle.
Paliros is an old village with an amazing number of houses being restored or already completed. Continuing your journey south, you come to a track on your right with a signpost pointing to Mianes. On the other side of the road is a sensible place to park if you want to follow the track up into the hills to walk down to the lighthouse in a slightly more dramatic way than simply following the dirt path from Tainaron (see “To the End of the World“).
The road continues south and on your left you catch glimpses of secluded inlets and small bays with shingle beaches and scattered, ruined buildings. You finally reach a few scattered houses, some new buildings offering rooms and a taverna. Below you are the Bay of Asomati and the ancient city of Tainaron.

Ancient Tainaron

Parking below the taverna, 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.

Print

 
 

One Comment

  1. Katina Vaselopulos says:

    Awesome article that clarified many of my questions!
    Thank you!

     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

 

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

 
 
 

Enjoy this page? Please spread the word