We drew up to the fork in the road to check the signs. It had been a long drive through the increasingly desolate landscape of southern Greece’s Mani peninsula, and we hadn’t seen any signs since the one a few miles back that read “Last Gas Station”. “Sanctuary and Death Oracle of Poseidon of Tainaro,” one sign proclaimed. A short way up the road an arrow pointing the same way read, “Pili tou Adi (Gate of Hades).”
After driving the Mani’s narrow roads along the sides of mountains and around hairpin turns without guardrails, encountering fewer and fewer cars or other signs of life, I thought it a fitting climax to our visit. The landscape had become so much more, well, godforsaken, as we neared the southern tip of the peninsula that the signs seemed especially appropriate.
My wife Celeste and I had decided to drive the length of the Mani as part of our trip around southern Greece’s Peloponnese. We had read that the Mani stands apart even in Greece for its rugged terrain, its distinctive architecture, and the political and social structure that evolved during the almost 400 years of Ottoman rule in Greece.
In the southern part of the peninsula, a system of governance based on kinship and clan membership developed, while in the north local warlords held sway over areas of varying size. Because the meager land offered limited support for agriculture, the men often turned to brigandage and piracy.
Maniot Traditions on Display
Our first stop in the Mani was Kardamyli, 15 miles (24 km.) southeast of Kalamata. Now a quiet resort town on the Mani’s west coast, the town formerly served as the seat of the Mourtzinos-Troupakis clan, one of the most powerful groups of the northern Mani. Their fortified complex at Old Kardamyli, on a hill at the northern edge of town, has been reconstructed and turned into a museum, part of a planned network of museums showcasing Mani culture.
The Old Kardamyli museum emphasizes the distinctive Maniot architecture, represented by the defensive design of the compound itself. A tall stone tower with a square floor plan provided fighting positions and a last refuge for the defenders. Nearby stands the three-story stone tower house with living quarters and storage areas, which with the tower and a few other buildings formed an inner defensive perimeter. Outer walls enclose the church and support buildings. Displays inside the tower house illustrate the styles of architecture and ornamentation in the Mani and the stages of development of the complex over the centuries.
We went to the church and found the door locked. I climbed up on the ledge running along its side wall and tried unsuccessfully to get a glimpse through the broken window, protected by metal bars. Walking over to the admission booth to see if the keys were available, I found the single docent on duty, a mid-thirtyish woman, to be unusually helpful and talkative for Greek museum staff.
“No, we do not have the keys to the church. The priest in the town has the keys, but he only opens the church when there is a wedding.”
Empty Land, Empty Towers
When I asked how often that might be, she said with a wry smile, “Not very often. There aren’t many people left here to get married nowadays. The population in the Mani has dropped in the past 150 years. When these towers were lived in, the Mani had the highest number of people per hectare in Greece, now–well, you’ll see.”
“Why have so many people left, and where did they go?” I asked. <
“Well, you can see the soil here is not good for farming, so people went where they could find work–to Gytheio, Kalamata, Athens, the United States . . . . That’s why you’ll find so many towers and houses empty.”
We found these square “feud towers” to be a common sight throughout the Mani, but especially in the south, overlooking the road from near and distant slopes, sometimes appearing in front of us as we would come around a bend in the road. Families and clans built these towers as protection against both foreign marauders and rival clans. Since the early 19th century many, as our docent had told us, have fallen into disuse; some, though, especially in the larger towns, have been refurbished and serve as guesthouses.
Some Traditions Continue
Much new construction in the Mani uses traditional patterns and building material, the plentiful local limestone, as we learned from our stay at the Karamitsi Hotel and Bungalows just south of Kardamyli. Our room’s balcony, paved in gray flagstones, looked out over the garden and the sea through two stone arches. I felt like we were occupying a bedchamber in a castle. Members of the Ponireas family, the owners, built all the buildings by hand, stone by stone, in the traditional style.
After the homecooked breakfast on the large patio that serves as a breakfast area, Celeste and I went exploring the grounds, following the stone paths leading through the garden past olive trees, hydrangeas, rosebushes, wisteria, quince and orange trees on several levels, then wound our way down the stone stairs to the hotel’s black sand beach. We decided to spend an extra night there.
Deeper into the Mani
From Kardamyli we headed south along the peninsula’s west coast toward Cape Tainaro, also known as Cape Matapan. The southern end of the Taigetos mountain range divides the Mani Peninsula into two almost to its tip. A sparse road network roughly follows the jagged coastline around the peninsula, only in a few places allowing east-west movement.
A feeling of mystery, of otherworldliness, intensified as we made our way southward. As we were driving along the side of a mountain between Tsikala and Sykhalasmata, a cloud wafted ghostlike across the valley below us, then, following the contour of the terrain, streamed up the hill and across the road in front of us, as if setting the scene for the unexpected.
Some spots on the Mani have the look of a science fiction movie set. Close to the tip of the peninsula, after numerous hairpin turns high over the sea, we saw, miles away and high above us, a foreshortened clump of stone houses and towers straddling a spur. These stacks of monotone Lego blocks set against the dried vegetation and stone of the hills looked like the eyrie of some warrior race from “Lord of the Rings” or perhaps “Star Wars.” Surely we weren’t headed up there; we were driving the coast road. But after many more twists and turns, we found ourselves driving along the side of this settlement, named Vathia, and doing an S-curve into one side and quickly out the other. Soon we were driving along the spur opposite the town, passing a basketball court on a flat area above the road.
Arrival at the “Gate of Hades”
Suitably prepared for Poseidon’s sanctuary and the death oracle, we found ourselves at Cape Tainaro. The ancient Greeks, with their genius for placing sanctuaries in dramatic locations, could not have found a more fitting place for the portal to their dreary Underworld. Following the signs, we worked our way down the single road running the length of this southernmost tip of the Mani peninsula. We came over a rise, and before us stretched a panorama of austere beauty. Beyond the closed “Akron Tainaron” barbecue restaurant, the road came to an end at a gravel parking lot. A long, grim headland thrust into the sea to our right. A hundred yards in front of us, the ruins of a tiny ancient temple, Poseidon’s sanctuary, broke the monotony of a field mottled with gray rock and soil that ran down to the sea and spread out on both sides of us like a sub-arctic moraine on which nothing grew but a few dried weeds, and here and there a wildflower.
It was as if proceeding down the Peloponnese through the Mani the land became more elemental until at Tainaro it was stripped down to its bare essence.
As in life, so in death, the Maniots seem to prefer their dwellings built in the traditional local style. In a cemetery by the side of the road to Gytheio we found rows of mausoleums, miniature tower houses made in the same style as the homes the Maniots occupied in life, a silent village built on successive terraces joined by stone stairs and walkways.
We bid a lingering farewell to the Mani at Gytheio, a port city on the northeast coast of the peninsula, in ancient times the port of Sparta, 26 miles (42 km.) to the north. Our room two flights up at the Xenia Karlaftis Rooms looked out over Gytheio’s harbor. A 1903 panoramic photo of the Gytheio waterfront hung on the wall.
“Things have improved quite a bit here in the Mani since that picture was taken,” Voula, Xenia’s daughter, who had dropped by to deliver towels, said, noticing my interest. “When I was 8 or 9, in the late ’fifties, there was no street out front, only a dirt road that came to an end a little past here. Nobody here had cars then, and only rich people had bicycles. Many people in the Mani had donkeys, sometimes horses. And electricity came in not so long ago.”
Just opposite our balcony lay Marathonisi Island with its picture-perfect little church, white with red-tiled dome, popular for weddings, owing to the island’s mythical fame as the place where Paris and Helen stayed before sailing off to Troy.
We walked across the concrete causeway to the island and found, hidden from the mainland by a stand of pine trees, the Tzannetakis Tower, once the headquarters of the local warlord and now the Historical-Ethnological Museum of the Mani. As the museum at Old Kardamyli had prepared us for our trip through the Mani, this one helped us sum up our stay there.
Smaller rooms in the tower display genealogical charts of the clan leaders and plans of other Maniot walled complexes. The main exhibition hall presents eyewitness accounts of travelers to the Mani throughout history, with whom we could now compare notes.
Gytheio today is a typical Greek port, welcoming ferries and cruise vessels. Its lively atmosphere poses a contrast to the introspective mountains, once filled with their own kind of vigor, that we had driven through. After our peek at the Mani, we met our reintroduction to the modern world with some regret, but, like Odysseus, we emerged from our encounter with the Underworld better prepared to continue exploring the bright colors of Greece.