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Pyrgos Dirou

Pyrgos Dirou is 10 km south on the main road from Areopolis. The modern village is spread out along the main road and you turn right in the middle of the village to get to the famous Vlyhada Caves. This junction is well signed – 5km to the caves. The small market square on the right before this turn has a statue of ‘The Amazon of Pyrgos’ commemorating the women who repulsed a large force of Turkish troops using only knives, rocks and sickles. The battle took place in June 1826 against the forces of Ibrahim Pasha. The Maniat men had left to defend the wall at Verga (outside Kalamata) where the Pasha’s main army, having swept across the Peloponnese after the fall of Mesalongi, was attacking the Maniat defences. A force of 1,500 Egyptian soldiers landed in the bay at Pyrgos Dirou with the objective of seizing Tsimova (Areopolis), trapping the main Maniat forces to the north and opening the road to Gythio. Ibrahim Pasha was an extremely able general and this would have been a brilliant tactic to outflank and entrap the Maniat force but he underestimated the Maniat women. When the alarm was raised, they were harvesting their crops and attacked the force in fierce ‘hand to hand’ combat. They were armed only with their sickles, sticks and stones but forced the Ottomans into a defensive position until reinforcements of men and more women arrived to drive them out. Only one third of the landing force escaped to their ships and the rest were destroyed.

The road to the caves takes you past the old village. After the supermarket and bakery, a sign on the left indicates a “Fortified Settlement” Follow this road to a large church, fork left and you soon come to the 25m high tower and buildings of the Sklavounakos clan, which is an impressive example of a fortified stronghold.

Back on the main road, you pass a couple of tavernas on your way to the caves and on a sweeping left bend a concrete road drops down to the beach of Pyrgos Dirou. If you go to the beach, don’t be tempted to take the dirt road back to Areopolis as a short cut – it won’t save any time at all.

The Vlyhada Caves are the area’s number one tourist attraction. A large network of hugely impressive stalactite-infested caves can be viewed from a punt with the final few hundred metres now done on foot. The opening times are JUN-SEP: 8.30-17.30 and OCT-MAY: 8.30-15.00 (closed Mondays) and admission is 12 euros (7 for children). Tel: 27330 52222.

The caves were discovered in 1895 and full exploration began in 1949. They were finally open to the public in the 1960s. The museum exhibits bones, pottery fragments, amphorae, needles etc dating from the Bronze Age families who lived there before the entrance was blocked by an earthquake around 3000 BC. It is cool inside even in summer and in places the passages get quite narrow. The caves are well lit and when you exit you will be given the chance to buy a photo of your party in the punt. If possible, it is advisable to get there early to avoid the tourist buses arriving from mid-morning onwards. There is another Amazon of Pyrgos statue before the entrance and below there is a small pebbly beach for a swim. A short 5-minute walk, over the small headland, to the main beach of Pyrgos Dirou starts at the first bend in the road on leaving the caves. Up to your left is a rusty gate with a couple of concrete steps. The path starts here.

South of Pyrgos Dirou the road takes you deep into Kakavoulia where the plain is littered with numerous tower villages. Equal in significance to the area’s history of feuding to gain control of limited resources, resulting in the phenomenon of the tower house, is the prolific and sustained programme of church building (which still continues today). Even if churches are not your thing, they are an intrinsic part of Deep Mani and their tiled domed roofs appear at every twist and turn. They vary greatly in age and due to the threat of theft are often, frustratingly, kept locked. But taking the time to visit one or two, referring to the section on church frescos when access inside is possible, should be part of any day out in the area. Heading south from Pyrgos Dirou along the main road, here is a summary of where to find the most interesting examples.

Just as you leave Pirgos Dirou an unsigned concrete road takes you to Glezos. Wiggle your way through the village and at the T-junction at the top end, turn right. After 250m you’ll come to the Church of the Taxiarches (the Warrior Angels) on the right. This 11th century cruciform church has stone buttresses and a few re-used bits of marble to support the walls. Inside there are only fragments of frescos left exposed and one of these appears to be the Archangel Michael after whom the church is named. New aluminium doors and windows show that after 1000 years the church is still being used because of the neighbouring graveyard (the key to the church is usually in the door). Returning to the main road and after 2km there is a right turn signed to Triandafilia and Harouda. Pass through Triandafilia and Nikandrio. Keep right at a junction with the locked, barrel vaulted church of St Michael and carry on to Harouda. Ignore the first right turn as you enter the village and as you drive through you’ll see one or two ruined megalithic houses and, on a bend, a ruined megalithic church. Continue to the outskirts of the village and you will reach the beautiful 11th century church, dedicated again to St. Michael, partially hidden behind a high wall with a gate that gives access to the courtyard. The church has a tall, marble campanile, which contains several pieces of old marble, but like most of the churches, this is a more recent addition. The octagonal dome has arched facets with intricate brickwork decorations. The door of the church has a wonderful carved lintel. Walking round the outside of the church, you cannot fail to notice the massive rectangular blocks of marble, interspersed with sandstone blocks, with which the walls have been constructed. The intricate cloisonné brickwork decorations are also exceptional. On the north side of the church is what appears to be the square base of a tower on top of which is an unusually large bell. The church contains some wonderful frescos but many have been damaged by smoke and by water seepage. The whole of the narthex has been whitewashed and the key holder explains that this was because it made the women who stood there uncomfortable to turn their backs on the saints who adorned the rear walls! The marble tie beams and decorations on the templon are fantastic but most remarkable of all is the ring of decorated marble which runs round the base of the dome. The demand to see this church is very high and the key holder keeps a low profile in summer or else she would spend all her time unlocking and locking the church. The best time to catch her is in the late afternoon or early evening when she goes to the church to clean it, light candles etc. In fact, in looking at the high security front door, she should really be called the ‘keys’ holder. Returning to the main road it is quicker to take the right fork at the barrel vaulted St Michael you passed earlier.

A short distance further south (approx 2 kilometres) on the main road, there is a road that goes off to your left that connects a series of villages that run parallel to the main road. Refer to the map to decide where you want to turn up. Again, in a southerly direction, the villages run as follows:

Fragoulias – a tiny hamlet of no particular note – nor is there a signpost there telling you its name.

Next is Dryalos (again, no signpost) but there is a fine tower on your right as you enter the village, which will help you identify it. Most of the village is above the road to the east so take the first turn on your left and drive up the hill. It is an old village with many old houses, some of which have been restored, and some old towers that are mainly derelict. Another road leads off to your right and takes you into a small square where there is a large church with a very impressive bell tower built alongside it. The icons inside indicate that the church is dedicated once again to Agioi Taxiarchis, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, and there is also a fine fresco of this pair just to the left of the iconostasis. St Michael is carrying his sword and wearing armour decorated with fierce faces on his breastplate, epaulettes and greaves. There are no frescos on the ceiling, just faded powder-blue paint, but both sides have frescos as you near the plain, modern iconostasis. These include Agios Konstantinos and Agia Eleni, (both wearing the crowns and the rich robes of Byzantine Emperors), Agios Petros, Agios Andreas. The road turns to the right and brings you back to the main road at the far end of the village and the twin chapel church dedicated to St. George.

Paleochora – one of many such named villages in Greece (‘old village’). To the right is a fine tower house that has been restored and appears to be lived in. As you leave the hamlet, on your right you will see a graveyard and then a concrete road that leads down to it. Go down here and stop at the graveyard where an old kalderimi leads down from the hamlet. A gate in the modern wall leads you to a derelict church, Agios Petros, on your left with a second, older, derelict megalithic church alongside it to the south, both with single apses. There is not much left of either church but Agios Petros still has some faint frescos even though it has no roof. Two marble columns support a crude lintel in the doorway of the templon but the remains of arches on either side of the church show that there was an older templon here at one time. Below the conch of the sanctuary is a fresco of St John Chrysostomos – the best-preserved fresco in the church.

Driving through the village of Vamvaka, you’ll come to a crossroads where right takes you down to the main road. Left will take you in a matter of metres to Agios Theodoros, a beautiful yet decaying 11th century church. The key holder lives close by – down from the church and to the right are a cluster of houses. Locate a grey gate and shout “kleethee parakalo” (a hard ‘th’ as in that). There is a striking fresco of the Virgin Mary behind the templon in the conch of the apse but this is the only fresco that has survived and is said to be post-Byzantine. However, on this occasion wall paintings bow in importance to some of the stonework inside. One of the marble tie beams below the dome has an inscription that reads as

Remember, O Lord, Thy servant Leo and his wife and children. His great devotion having provided these adornments, let those who sing here pray for him. Amen. They were accomplished by the hand of Nikitas the Marbler, August 6583.”

This not only tells us a precise date for the church (the Byzantine calendar date of 6583 translates into 1075 AD) but given the lack of other examples of craftsmen dating their work, Theodoros’ example has been used as a useful yardstick for experts to date other churches in the area. Nikitas’ work is also visible on the templon and his workshop seems to have had a number of clients commissioning work in other nearby projects. Even if you fail to get inside the church, it is still worth a visit. There are ancient marble grave slabs embedded in the walls (one has an inscription that reads “Farewell Diophantes, Farewell Dawn, Farewell Fortuna”) and obvious comparisons in cloisonné work to the similarly dated Taxiarches churches at Glezos and Charouda, though sadly, Theodoros has not aged as well as the former.

The next village on is Briki. Briki has a number of churches. As you approach the village you will see a large derelict tower dwelling and a tower beyond it. When you are about 50 metres from the tower dwelling, there is a sign nailed to an olive tree on the left side of the road. Stop here and if you look through the trees to the left you will see the pile of stones that is the ruin of the church of Agios Leos. The age of this church is uncertain but it is thought to have been built in the late 10th century. A tiny door in the south wall gives you access to the church, the most noticeable feature of which is the gaping hole in the middle where the roof used to be. This is, however, of special interest to students of Byzantine architecture because it is the only church in Mani and one of the very few in Greece that had a ‘tetraconch’. After passing a handsome tower on the left you will come to the 13th century church of Agios Nikolaos on your left with its cupola sitting elegantly on top of the solid block of the church. Inside the church, the frescos are mostly faded and damaged and many are covered by a greenish mould. This is both sad and frustrating because Rogan points out that there are variations in some of the frescos that represent a Maniat break with traditional classic Byzantine iconography. For example, the crucifixion shows Christ with his eyes open – a feature rejected by Byzantine artists in the 11th century. Similarly, the depiction of one of the Magi turning back while the other two continue their journey. Rogan also says that Salome is depicted wearing earrings and the apron of a Maniat peasant girl and that “The impact made by this ‘contradiction’ is tremendous.” Unfortunately, these references are now difficult to see well because of damage. There is, however, evidence of one blatant break with tradition still visible above the conch of the apse. The ‘Holy Veil’ of Christ is displayed being held in the hands of St Veronica whereas Byzantine tradition demanded that the Holy Veil and the Holy Tile be depicted on their own, which Rogan describes as “a highly dogmatic character and demanding the maximum of abstract rendering.” The photographs in Nikolaos Drandakis’s book were only taken a few years ago but the state of the frescos today shows a serious and rapid deterioration. A little further on a road leads down to the main road and on this corner is the ruined Byzantine Church of Agios Georgios. It was a single-apse, vaulted church but the roof has completely fallen in, now offering a much easier way in (the door is very low and overgrown). A massive marble lintel, which once ran the width of the church on top of the templon, is lying on the ground. It is blackened and stained by the elements but beautifully carved and an inscription on it once again proves it to be the work of Nikitas. Here and there are the faded remnants of frescos but in the conch of the apse, you can still see the Virgin Mary with a truly remarkable face – but you’ll have to fight your way through the undergrowth to get a glimpse.

Mina has many fine old towers and defensive houses, as well as a number of new buildings. But to keep going for a little while longer on the ‘church trail’, the following hamlet of Polemitas has more to offer. If approaching Mina from Briki, take the first turn on the left through the village and straight across at the crossroads. Ignore the next left turn and on the far side of the tiny hamlet of Polemitas, park on a bend by a small breeze block water cistern. On the other side of the road a worn path leads to the Church of Archangel Michael, looking more like a goat pen than a church – once you realise that it is not just a pile of stones! The door in the north wall is tiny and it is pitch black inside so if you visit this church remember to take a torch. Above the door on the inside is a lengthy inscription that Drandakis has translated and it confirms the church dedication and dates the frescos to 1278. It also names the painter as Giorgos Konstantinianos from an unidentified village called Agia Thekla. The frescos are patchy to say the least. A few metres further up the road another path leads to Agios Nikolaos, a single-apse, barrel-vaulted church. The low doorway at the west end is set in walls about four feet thick but once inside, you will be surprised by how tall the church is. On either side of the naos there are three arches set in the walls and at the east end, these are plastered and painted with some very fine frescos. There is also an arch spanning the middle of the naos and the whole effect is wonderful. The frescos, according to Nikolaos Drandakis, are from the second half of the 14th century but no date is given for the church. The frescos are mostly in very good condition and feature many female saints, including Sts Barbara, Nonna, Kyriaki, Kalliniki, Thekla and Anastasia. The portraits of saints Barbara and Kyriaki are almost identical, right down to their earrings and headdress, and the only difference being the patterns of their clothing. On the south wall in the arch nearest the templon is a fresco known as the “Deisis” or ‘entreaty’. It is a set piece which always shows Christ ‘Pantocrator’ with Mary on his right and John the Baptist on his left, both in attitudes of supplication. The Virgin stands on Christ’s right in keeping with the words of Psalm 45:9, “upon thy right hand did stand the queen”. On the opposite wall are St George and St Kyriaki.

If you choose not to take the diversion to these villages and instead continue on the main Areopolis road, about 200 metres after the turn to Dryalos you will pass a modern building on your right with a sign indicating this is the Monastery of Phaneromeni. There is a high wall at the far end of which you can park and follow the steps down into a large courtyard where an inscription on a piece of carved marble dates this church to 1079. The church is usually open and the remaining frescos are badly damaged by chipping which was done to apply another coat of plaster before repainting. There is a very crude Deisis’ which probably dates to the building of the church. The monastery is still used by nuns. A little further south on the main road you will see a small sign on your right which points to Tsopakas and St. Barbara. Turn here and follow the road into the village. By a modern church on the right stop the car and approach the low stone wall. What it encloses will take your breath away…..

A sadly unfruitful attempt to preserve one of the many decaying churches in the Mani lies beyond the village. Keep straight, passing Agios Varvara on the right as the road bends and continue on to ‘Trissakia’ (a contraction of 3 small churches in Greek – tria eklesakia). The dirt road is fine to drive on carefully. The real name of the church is Agios Theodoros and is actually three barrel-vaulted churches lying side by side. From the outside it does not compare to Glezos or Harouda and presumably this church qualified for help as there are two large holes in the roof of the larger, central vault but unfortunately the steel structure built to give protection from the elements has itself fallen prey to strong winds and the corrugated roof panels now lie all around. Though now even more unimpressive from the outside, surprising treasures lie within. Inside the main vault is a wonderful, carved marble templon. It is still intact and close examination shows that the marble has been worked by exceptional craftsmen. The fate of what is left of the frescos is inevitable given their exposure to sun and rain. The main body of the church was once covered in frescos but among the only really discernible ones remaining are of the ‘Mesopentikosto’, the Last Supper and the seizing of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is easy to identify Judas at the Last Supper because he has been painted smaller than the rest and without a halo and looks like a naughty boy, while the disciples appear to regard him with contempt. The large crack running through this fresco heralds its ultimate fate. The scene in Gethsemane shows Christ with a rope around his neck and the soldiers in Frankish rather than Byzantine uniform. The depiction of a rope in this picture is unique but intended by the artist to remind you that this betrayal was followed by Christ before Pilate and of Christ ‘Elkomenos’ – ‘being dragged’. In the bottom left corner is Peter cutting off the ear of one of the attendants. Nikolaos Drandakis doesn’t give a date for the church but suggests the frescos are late 13th century while Rogan states they are 14th century. Return to the main road by the same route.

If you feel a little downhearted about the plight of Trissakia, better news awaits further south where three churches have enjoyed having their exteriors restored, ensuring a prolonged life. Pass the KMOIL garage back on the main road and opposite a left turn up to Vamvaka turn right down an unsigned, narrow concrete road into Kouloumi. You quickly come to a right-hand bend with a dirt road off to the left and the church lies a few hundred metres down this lane. Drandakis calls this Church Asomati (All Saints) and Rogan calls it Taxiarchis while Greenhalgh calls it St. Michael’s! It seems also that All Saints and Archangel Michael are closely tied so all three names are probably applicable. To add to the confusion, Drandakis dates the church to the late 12th century while Rogan lists it as Post-Byzantine. Greenhalgh agrees with Drandakis. The church recently underwent a massive restoration and is looking very pristine is its attractive setting with a backdrop of Cypress trees and towers on the ridge behind it. It has three semi-circular apses and an octagonal drum. All in all, very photogenic though unfortunately there is no sign of a keyholder.

Travelling on the main road south from here, you will pass through Lakkos and a small church on the left houses two marble panels in its wall that are thought again to be the work of Nikitas. 400m further on, a sign on the right directs you to Erimos and Agia Barbara down a road to your right. Follow this road down through the olives and you pass a ruined megalithic church with a single marble column still visible inside among the jumble of stones. Continuing along the road you reach Erimos and on the other side of the village you come to the 12th century church of St. Barbara, circa 1150 according to Rogan. It is a beautifully proportioned, triple-apse church with an octagonal dome and some wonderful cloisonné decoration that has been restored to its former glory with the original decorative ceramic bowls set into the brickwork. The marble arches on the drum are new and shiny but will look better once they have weathered, as will the water spouts with gargoyle faces, which are also new and very bright. The marble panels set in the windows are mostly original and finely carved. The interior of the church is disappointing. There are a few bits of frescos and lots of little squares cut in the new plaster – presumably to see if there are any frescos underneath. The templon is new and partially covers a fresco of John the Baptist and another unidentified Saint and the conch of the apse has a Virgin ‘Platytera’ plus saints etc but is not remarkable. It is usually locked but if you are determined to get in, hang around for a while and if you are lucky, the key holder will spot you and come to let you in. But again it is worth visiting just to appreciate the restoration.

The final restored church to consider visiting is on an unsigned left turn just before a sign on the right advertising the ‘SUPERMARKET NIARXOS’. The beautiful l2th century church of Tourloti is on your right along a paved road. It is actually the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus as inscribed above the door – military saints from Asia Minor and rarely included in the Mani pantheon – but is usually referred to by the local name of the ‘domed one’. The church is locked, the key holder once again being Dimitris Kolokouris. However there is not much of interest inside the church as most of the interior walls are bare and remaining frescos badly faded or damaged.

The detour to the Mini Circuit starts with the right turn to Mezapos.

Kita and Kaloni

Back on the main road, the next village is Kita, once the most powerful village in the Niklianiko and the site of the last great inter-family feud in 1870 that was eventually suppressed by a battalion of 400 regular soldiers with artillery support. The Earl of Carnarvon recorded a feud that had raged in the town prior to his arrival.

“For thirty years previously to 1839, the best blood of Kita had been drained in a deadly and embittered strife which arose out of an imaginary insult to a young girl whose scarf was held too long by her partner in the dance of some village festival. For thirty years the two factions exterminated each other; murder was not disguised, it was the avowed profession of every clansman and the recognised mode of warfare.”

The towers and fortified houses of Kita are fascinating and worth a wander round. Many of the windows and walls of the buildings have relief carvings on them so keep a watch for these as you make your way round. In modern times, local rivalry is limited to the competition for business between the two mini-markets on the main road.

A narrow road leads from behind Kita to the village of Kaloni, higher up the mountain slope, where there are more towers and fortified houses.

Nomia

Opposite Kita, on the other side of the road, is Nomia. Inevitably a rival village to Kita, this too is a fascinating village to walk round. Normally, tower houses were built with the house and tower as separate components alongside each other but in Nomia there is a good example of a tower house built as a single unit by the powerful Messisklis family. The tower is five stories high and dominates the eastern side of the village, although the crack in the stonework suggests that it might not do so for much longer. The family could man the tower from within the house while a second entrance allowed clan members access from outside. The house was originally two stories high with a marble roof. In the yard of a small derelict house nearby is a rusty, six-foot cannon cemented into the floor. If you follow the road that takes you right behind the village you will see a large, ugly, unfinished church at the end of a short road. There are several old marble columns lying around outside and above the west door is a rather crude old tombstone embedded in the wall on its side. Next to this is a beautiful fragment of carved marble, presumably from another church. It is quite badly damaged and shows a Griffin attacking what looks like a cow or bull as well as some other intricate designs. Damaged though it is, it shows how skilful some of the stonemasons were in days gone by.

Boulari – Lower and Upper

Driving south from Kita for about 5 kilometres, shortly before you reach Gerolimenas, there are two turnings on your left to Boulari, neither of which are signposted. There are effectively two villages, Kato & Ano or Upper and Lower Boulari and the upper village in particular is an interesting place to wander around and from where you can take a circular walk up into the hills to the remote villages of Pepo and Leontaki. The main street of the upper village, below the large modern church, is dominated by a tower once defended by the mighty Mantouvalos clan in direct opposition to the Mavromichalis’. A little further on is the much older Anemodouras Tower that may be early 17th century, when the village was recorded as having a population of 40 families (compared to nowadays when you will be aware of only a handful of houses still being inhabited). This tower was built with huge stones without mortar and rises from walls two metres thick at the base tapering to 80 cms thick at the top. Access to the tower was from the house that ‘leans’ on one of the outer walls and both the house and tower originally had marble roof tiles. A second house has been added to the first at a later date. Agios Panteleimon is one of the earliest surviving churches in Mani with some frescos over 1,000 years old. To reach it, drive past the large modern church of ‘The Dormition’ and take the next left turn; (on some maps this area is marked as Diporo).You pass some houses and derelict houses and towers and the road turns to track. Approximately 100 metres further on, you will see a man-hole cover protruding from the dirt road. Directly below this you will see the slate roof of the church. It is an easy scramble down to the church, which is not locked. The frescos are dated by an inscription to 991 and although somewhat crude, are very striking – especially the portraits of the martyrs Panteleimon and Niketas in the double conch set in the apse behind the strangely shaped templon. The whole effect gives the sanctuary a cave-like quality. Other images include the Ascension, Baptism, washing of the new-born Christ, various Saints and a later (possibly 13th century) portrait of Agia Kyriaki.

At the top end of the village, where the road effectively finishes, a short walk continuing upwards brings you to the beautiful 11th century church of Agios Stratigos. It is famous for the frescos inside but unfortunately, like Episcopi, contacting the key holder in Pyrgos Dirou is necessary to get inside- as with Episcopi, Dimitris Kolokouris holds the key and so needs to be contacted in advance to arrange a viewing (phone 27330 52953). The graveyard has some old graves covered with “tikles”(slate tiles). It used to be customary to use the tikles from church rooves to cover graves and this accounts for the damage and destruction of many frescos which then suffered from rain seeping through the damaged roofs. If you do get hold of the key, the effort will soon be rewarded as the church hosts very fine 12th– 14th century paintings in good condition (be sure to have a strong torch with you). Greenhalgh provides a very detailed plan in his book that identifies each scene, saint and martyr. With the two towers of Leontaki perched on the hill behind, this is a very photogenic spot and encapsulates the history of medieval Mesa Mani. In getting to the church you will have passed the beginning of the walk up to Leontaki on your right- waymarks clearly reveal the beginning of this walk.

If you have visited just a few of the churches mentioned in the last few pages and possibly detoured into the Mini Circuit, then you are probably in need of refuelling. The picturesque seaside village of Gerolimenas awaits with several cafes and tavernas overlooking the sea. There are three roads entering the village so if you miss the first, don’t worry.

Gerolimenas

The tiny harbour at Gerolimenas was only established in the 1870s. An outsider from Syros brought his mercantile wealth here to establish a jetty and warehousing and so the village was born. Prior to this period a smaller cove was used a little further to the south of Gerolimenas at Giali. An insight into how the village was fifty years ago is given by Kevin Andrews, an American archaeologist, who spent four years in Greece right in the middle of the vicious civil war and wrote up his experiences in “The Flight of Ikaros”. He came to Mani from his studies in Athens by ship (in those days this would have been the quickest way down from the capital), docking at Gerolimenas and was clearly affected by his initial impressions;

“Someone helped me out on to the pebbly beach of a port just big enough for a few fishing boats. People thronged around me in total silence, with swarthy faces close to mine, faces the colour of earth with eye-sockets like black holes under the vertical sun. Here there was no gabble of tongues, none of the glistening, mercurial web of glances avid of perception: all eyes looked straight ahead. Everybody was armed; round the port and up and down the street shot-guns and rifles pointed behind each man’s back, with cartridge-belts slung one upon the other across chests and shoulders, holsters sticking out of trouser pockets, while the swarm of intent and speechless men moved like troops in a village behind the lines.”

Nowadays, the village is much more welcoming and indeed is experiencing something of a boom relative to the rest of Mesa Mani. The quality of the accommodation has been improved dramatically, spurred on by the conversion of one of the original warehouses into the Kyrimai Hotel, thus enticing Athenians down for a weekend break. There are a number of tavernas and cafes on the water’s edge with fresh fish inevitably available. As Andrews stated, the beach is pebbly, flanked on one side by sheer dramatic cliffs- so it is a great stopping off point for a quick swim and a bite to eat before heading off elsewhere or to use as a base for more detailed exploration. In the main square there is a bust to Major Panayiotis Mantouvalos of nearby Boulari, who was a hero of the victorious Albanian campaign of 1940-41 against the Italians.

From Gerolimenas the road continues south towards Alika on a flat, coastal road. On your right you will see the ruins of a couple of windmills and a tower which used to protect the small anchorage of Giali. This was the harbour controlled by the Mantouvali clan of Boulari before the development of Gerolimenas as a port. The clan offended the Mavromichalis clan by boarding one of their ships and removing part of the cargo as ‘harbour dues’ and they retaliated with an attack on the Mantouvali tower at Boulari. The dispute ended when one of the Mavromichalis men fell for the charms of one of the Mantavouli women who had been ferrying powder and shot to her brothers defending the tower. A truce was called, a marriage arranged and the dispute settled by a wedding feast of legendary duration and magnificence. The anchorage looks very insignificant from the main road but if you walk to the large tower by the waters edge, you will see that it is quite large and well sheltered and that the tower affords good protection to any ship moored here. It was for the protection of shipping from pirates and Turks that the “harbour dues” were charged. There is about 6 square metres of sandy beach at the harbour so it would not be too difficult to make it exclusively yours. A concrete road runs down the side of an old house to the windmills and harbour.

From here you will reach Alika after 2km and this is where you fork left to stay on the Mani Loop or turn right down to Tainaron. Before deciding which way to turn, Alika is worth wandering around to get an idea of how building methods developed as the village has examples of older ‘megalithic’ houses, characterised by their massive stone foundations and walls, as well as a good example of an older war tower, the Philipakos Tower up to your left as well as several more recent tower houses and tower dwellings.

Continuing on the Loop the left turn is actually a fork – the left branch takes you up into the village, the right fork is a continuation of the main road that now starts to loop across to the east coast, often referred to as the ‘sunny’ side of the Mani (though this is hardly true in the late afternoon when the sinking sun casts the whole area into shadow).

map of east coast

The road starts to climb and great views open up down to Kyparissos and Vathia. If you enjoy narrow roads with vertiginous sheer drops, the first turning you come to is a must. By a large eucalyptus tree on your right, a sharp left turn is signed to Mountanistika. The 4km road was mercifully asphalted in 2002 and it really is quite a driving experience. Ignore the turnings to Marathos and then Kotrafi and keep climbing up, hoping that you don’t meet another vehicle coming the other way (which, when you get to the village and see how depopulated it is, you’ll realise is very unlikely). As you ascend you (not the driver) will notice an astonishing level of terracing formed into the side of the hills – every inch of land was used to feed a much larger population.

After the dramatic approach, to wander around the village, park to the right of the road by the church. The village runs in a line along the ridge and most of the houses and towers were built surprisingly late, between 1880 and 1910. The views to the south are stunning as you are at an altitude of 600m. The road continues through the village and on to Leontaki with an even greater abundance of terracing all around. You will pass a plaque on the wall that declares a community-spirited gesture;

“In memory of Glykeria Dritsakou. Family and friends contributed money instead of a wreath in order to cement the section of the pathway from Kampitiko to Trikaino. Ever in the thoughts of her husband and children.”

Leontaki has a resident population of three at the time of going to print and it is not difficult to understand why most have left. The same is true of Pepo, hidden in the valley beneath, whose outskirts are dominated by prickly pear trees. A stone path runs along the dry riverbed from Pepo back down to Boulari, so to embark on any journey in the old days would first have required this longish walk. Quite an effort if you have run out of sugar. The detour to Mountanistika, Leontaki and Pepo is an incredible experience.

Back on the main road the next village you pass through is Tsikkalia where a cannon pointing directly at you greets your arrival. Like Mountanistika, Tsikkalia is also set along a ridge. More marble spoilia is visible in the church – possibly from Kyparissos below? Above the main door of the church and below the campanile there is a curious piece of marble embedded in the wall. It appears to be part of an ancient marble carving and depicts a bull’s head, yoked with a garland of fruit and flowers to another bull’s head, most of which is missing. Above the garland is what appears to be a pair of ‘flip-flop’ style sandals. A short distance beyond Tsikkalia as you continue your journey eastwards, you look down on the legendary village of Vathia with its many towers crowded on the peak of a hill. The road now takes you across to the eastern side of the mountains and you start to travel north again. On your right you will see a roadside shrine and a gravel road leading off to your right. If you follow this you will see a village on your left, which is Korogonianika and then the road climbs higher until you reach another village which is Kainourgia. It is possible to get down to Porto Kaiyo from here though the road down is not completely asphalted.Just before the road gets to Lagia, a right turn goes down to Piontes and its tower complex.

Lagia

Lagia is 5 or 6 kilometres from Tsikkalia and in a way deserves a greater reputation than Vathia as a feuding tower village, where four families lived in independently sited settlements, each with its own church. Many of the towers here were built in the older style of sloping, tapering walls while elsewhere, towers were being built with vertical walls and could consequently be built much higher. Some reached up to 20 metres with 7 floors. One of the towers in Lagia (it is claimed locally) was built overnight by 400 men of one clan to gain an advantage by sunrise. Lagia was the home of the Mani’s famous doctor, Papadakis, who kept records of all the casualties of war and feuds that he treated in the middle 18th century. He travelled throughout the region and his records include many priests that he treated for bullet, knife, sword and rock wounds. He drew crude illustrations in the margin of his records showing the people he treated and the location and type of wound that he treated them for. Altogether he lists 700 wounded patients from 42 villages during the 53 years from 1715 to 1768. In some disputes there were more than 50 wounded in each village.

As you enter the village you first pass a smart new café on the left and then comes the old village Kafenion – the walls of which are a hotchpotch of murals and photographs with bits of sculpture and bric-a-brac lying around on shelves, fridges etc. According to one old newspaper cutting on the wall, it was a rendezvous for local artists and it is an interesting place to stop for a cold drink or a coffee. The centre is a little further on where a large new church dominates the square. There is a full taverna too if you are hungry. The statue is another commemoration of Maniat military service. He was a helicopter pilot who was killed in a helicopter crash in 1996 in the confrontation with Turkey over the rock island of Imia, between Kos and the Turkish mainland. The square is the obvious place to park if you want to explore.

The first of a number of fairly secluded pebbly coves lies at the end of a right turn after Lagia. Another fairly vertiginous road (asphalt) snakes down to the coastal village of Agios Kiprianos. On entering the village turn left to the village beach or right along a dirt road to the even more isolated Abelo Beach, which has plenty of natural shade but no café or taverna. There is another road to these beaches further along, after Dimaristika that has a much gentler gradient, following the coast.

Shortly after Lagia, across a small gorge around which the road follows the contours, you will see Dimaristika perched among the rocks, scrub-bushes and cacti. A sturdy tower and integrated houses dominate the craggy hilltop with defensive houses scattered below. Kokkala is 9 kilometres from Lagia and also has a small harbour with cafes and a burst of greenery, compared to the barren, baked rock and prickly pear cacti that characterise the ‘sunny’ side of Mesa Mani. There is a small beach and many new houses and tavernas here and it no longer has the characteristics of a typical Mani village. It probably developed after the War of Independence because its location would have made it very vulnerable to attack from the sea. Just after Kokkola there is a KMOIL garage if you are running low. Before reaching Nyfi, there is a left turn signed ‘Ancient Site of Kournos’.

Kournos

The road winds up into the hills, touches on Upper Nyfi and another sign rather ambiguously tells you to take a sharp right and then immediate left. Park where the road ends and continue on foot on a way marked path. The walk to Kournos takes an hour and a half each way along a reasonable path and being so remote up in the hills, there is a lot of evidence left of where two Doric temples once stood. The foundations are still in situ, revealing that the more northerly temple was the larger, the smaller having two columns set in antis rather than a full colonnade. There is no recorded detail of the site – not even Pausanias mentions it – and the lack of any inscriptions make the site a bit of a mystery. Only a full excavation might accurately date the buildings. At 550m above sea-level the site offers glorious views over the Lakonian Gulf to the Malea promontory. The path is not way-marked all the way but is easy enough to follow. Initially a large water pipe runs alongside the path and after 20 minutes it starts to zigzag up to a saddle, passing between two large boulders with a shrine on the right and a chapel 30m higher. When you reach a rocky outcrop where a makeshift gate will probably still be blocking the path you can see how it continues to a monastery below. After the 17th century monastery of ‘The Dormition of the Virgin’, another saddle is reached and the path passes between two ruined huts. Continue on, descending gently to the site which will now be visible ahead, set between a trig point to the right and another outcrop the left.

Nymfio (Nymfi or Nyfi on some maps) is about 7 kilometres beyond Kokkala and was yet another village with six different clan/family strongholds in their own areas and which dominated this part of Sunny Mani. There was inter-clan warfare reported here as late as 1862 between the Bourikos and Ventikos families. The buildings higher up are older than the comparatively newer houses closer to the road and there is a wonderful collection of towers of various shapes and sizes, including the relatively new Ventikos Tower which stands out from the rest for its imposing height and unusual number of windows. There are roads leading up to these towers from both ends of the village but you cannot drive through the upper section so you have to return by whichever route you take. If you walk around this area you will see many towers and several megalithic houses. Modern Nyfi is to the east of the main road and two turns down narrow concrete roads converge at the signed ‘Beach Taverna’. The cove is very small with high cliffs on either side.

Continuing north, you will see two villages perched high above the main road. The first is Dryali (Drimos on some maps) and the second is Agrilia but to reach them you must travel further north until you see a road off to your left that doubles back and gradually climbs up to these villages. The road is not too good in some places, so be warned if you decide to drive there. Some 7 kilometres or so from Kokkala, Flomochori obviously benefits from a reasonable water supply in the narrow coastal strip on which it lies. There are several impressive war towers in the village and again it is worth wandering round the village on foot to have a closer look at them. The close proximity of some of these towers suggests a history of rivalry and feuding.

Shortly after leaving the village you come to a junction. To reach Kotronas turn right at a sign indicating a ‘fish taverna’, or you can go straight on to get back to Areopolis. If you go to Kotronas (page ??), only 3 kilometres away, you will double back to this junction to get back to Areopolis. The fish taverna lies on a wide pebbly beach called Chalikia. Before getting to Areopolis there is one more point of interest- the ancient site of Pyrrichos. A brown archaeological sign to the left of the main road in the modern day village that has kept its ancient name leads you down a dirt track. Frustratingly, the kilometre or so of track is badly rutted in just a couple of places, making it impassable for an ordinary car. The sensible solution is to park off the main road and walk. Ancient Pyrrichos was an important member of the Union of Free Laconians and gets a mention by Pausanias who commented on the importance of the well he saw in the market place. The well is still there but the remains of the sanctuaries to Apollo and Artemis also mentioned are not. The walk there is worth it just to get an idea of its wonderful location, set in a natural bowl shape, opening to views out across the plateau of Pyrrichos.

 
 

One Comment

  1. Very interesting and informative

     

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