We have long been fascinated about the Mani and that part of the Peloponnese that is their homeland. The closest we had come prior was sailing by it in 2003 as we rounded the southern coast of Greece and spending a couple of days with German sailing friends in Kalamata just to the north.
The Mani are those people who inhabit the middle of the three peninsulas which make up the bottom of the Peloponnese. The northern areas are fairly flat and fertile, but once to the south and under the dominance of the Taigetos Mountains which stretch its length, the land turns arid, barren and above all rocky. Efforts at terracing from earlier centuries are seen commonly on the mountainsides, but all that seems to grow once into the lower half of the peninsula is the inevitable olive tree.
There is a folktale among the Manis that when God finished making the world he had a whole lot of rocks left over and dumped them on the homeland of the Mani. It is not very hard to believe as one encounters whole areas where there are rock walls not just defining plots of land but just everywhere so that there is enough exposed soil for an olive tree to get a grip and survive.
The Mani are perhaps most famous for the clan-like structure of their society and the endless feuds which occupied them for centuries. Even when sharing the same villages, clans would conduct warfare on each other, sometimes from different sides of the same street, usually from the tower houses that have come to be their most famous architectural feature. Here is a sample of some tower typical tower houses.
Each is, in effect, a citadel for a clan or family. They contain no stairs; access to the upper floors, which can reach five or more stories, is on ladders which can be withdrawn to prevent enemies from reaching the people above if they are able to breech the tower itself. Given their height, they also provide the advantage of firing from above as well as the opportunity to pour boiling water or oil on those below attempting access.
We spent some time in the town of Vathia, close to the bottom of the peninsula, and a beautiful village of tower houses. Its setting is clear from the photo used at the top of this blog entry.
What is somehow hidden today under all this charm is the fact that a clan war raged in Vathia for over forty years with neighbor killing neighbor killing neighbor. The death toll was over a hundred when it finally came to an end. This same warlike quality always made the Mani nearly impossible to be ruled as well, no matter if the rulers were Byzantine, Ottoman, Venetian or for that matter, Greek. The Mani marched north from what is now Areopoli and took Kalamata from the Ottomans in the first victory of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. And in another famous battle, Mani women, alone because their men were off fighting elsewhere, repelled a troop of 1500 Egyptian Ottoman warriors in 1826 with just their sickles, sticks and stones, inflicting 1000 casualties.
More than anything, the landscape is simply sprinkled with beautiful villages and towns.
Yet almost all are wrapped in a stillness that is disorienting and even disturbing when walking the narrow streets.
This is obviously the product of the emigration of many of its citizens to other parts of Europe and even to the United States and Australia. In a land where agriculture is so difficult, this is almost an inevitability. But there is the olive, grown everywhere and ground to a mush by huge stones before being pressed for its oil, that still nourishes some of the remaining population.
There is, however, some growth in tourism over the last ten or fifteen years as others in Europe and even Greece have come to recognize and enjoy the beauty and quiet of this distant land. Here are a couple of photos of the town of Limeni that is seeing a growth in tourism.
And there are also the Diros Caves which are part of a warren of caverns stretching for literally hundreds of miles and which have revealed Neanderthal and early human habitation dating to as far back as 40,000 to 100,000 years ago. Most of what one can visit is water filled and one does most of it by boat, but it is quite spectacular.
Cape Tenaro lies at the very bottom of the peninsula and is the southernmost point in mainland Greece. It is a long way beyond much of civilization, as witnessed by this sign, reminiscent of spots in the desert of the southwestern United States.
There we found a temple to Poseidon which is also thought to be an oracle of the dead. it is also reportedly an entrance to Hades and through which Heracles dragged Cerberus , the three headed dog and guardian of the underworld.
Our ‘residence’ while in the land of the Mani was in a very pleasant campground on the edge of the town of Stoupa.
Of all the towns of the region it has probably enjoyed the most growth through tourism, and given the beauty of its beach and the quality of its restaurants it is not difficult to understand why. It is, in this sense, probably foreshadowing what will be the region’s future, as we saw evidence of new construction and restoration everywhere, usually with the traditional stone materials. It will, we think, undergo enormous growth over the next ten years–always both a blessing and a curse, particularly when its people are as reserved as the Mani.