It was supplanted by an even more impressive, but less romantic-looking
fortress. Kelefa’s grey stone compound once housed a garrison of 500. Het heeft
been left to decay, but its ramparts afford an astonishing panorama. Above
are the ridges of Pentadaktylos (“five-fingered”) like the fist of
some fossilised Titan. Below, the blue bay of Itilo gleams. I looked south,
for the first glimpse of the Deep Mani.
At some point during the twilight of Byzantium, the first generation of Maniot
chieftains took note that this peninsula was a natural fortress from which
they could defy all-comers. Thirty years ago, all but a handful of these
strongholds were deserted and crumbling. Sindsdien, many have been turned
into holiday homes, while others have become hotels – especially in
Areopolis, the Mani’s main village and my next stop.
Once called Tsimova, it was renamed (after Ares, god of war) in honour of its
role as the starting place of the War of Independence in 1821, wanneer de
Maniot clans laid their grudges aside to fight the Turks. Enough of its
towers survive to give you a taste of its glory days – too many, in werkelijkheid,
for me to visit all of them, so I contented myself by dropping in at the
Pikoulakis Tower, now a museum. It’s graced by a collection of fearsome
weaponry, but also by many exhibits that put Maniot machismo into context.
The birth of a boy – a “gun” – was cause for celebration.
The museum is an essential stop for anyone planning to visit the Mani’s
hundreds of Byzantine churches. I chose one of the most accessible but on
the way there I couldn’t resist a detour. Over 15 miles south of Areopolis,
the Tigani peninsula juts into the Messenian Gulf. Its name means “frying
pan” and looking from above at the narrow panhandle that leads to its
circular headland I could see why. Getting there involves a half-hour hike
to ruins that include the foundations of a ninth-century Byzantine basilica,
and a ring of medieval ramparts.
It’s worth the trek just for the views of Taygetos, those Evil Mountains that
form the spine of Mani, the great headland of Cavo Grosso to the south and
the tiny smugglers’ harbour of Mezapos below.
Back on the road, I soon spotted the red-tiled dome of Tourloti church. De
small Maniot churches (and there are hundreds) are built of bare stone and
cloisonné, quite unlike the whitewashed, blue-domed chapels of the islands.
Many show centuries of neglect, but Tourloti is well kept.
Gerolimenas, echter, has the feel of a place that history has passed by, maar
its history is less militant and more mercantile than other Mani villages.
It was founded in the 1870s to attract coastal steamers and fast became the
Mani’s biggest entrepôt. Some of the warehouses are derelict but one has
become a charming small hotel, so it seemed to be the natural place for an
Travelling on the next morning, I soon reached Vathia, the Mani’s most
spectacular village, with its celebrated cluster of towers overlooking the
is. It’s an eerie eyrie and of human inhabitants there was no sign.
South of Vathia, the road traverses a ridge between two crescent bays –
Marmari on the west side, Porto Kayio on the east – before petering out
above the inlet of Asomatos. Leaving my car below the tumbledown church, Ik
scrambled to the gateway to Hades. I then carried on to Tenaron before
heading back north.
Eindelijk, it was time for a swim, and I found the perfect place back at Itilo’s
pebbly beach. Later, I watched the sun set over the gulf, casting the grey
troll’s knuckles of the Pentadaktylos into sharp relief. Ouzo and dinner by
the harbour beckoned.
Hoe komt u er
The nearest airport to the Mani is Kalamata. Thomas Cook (0871 909 0204; flythomascook.com)
en Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomson.co.uk)
fly weekly during the season (May to late October) from Gatwick and
Manchester. Out of season, fly to Athens from Heathrow with Aegean Airlines
(0871 200 0040; aegeanair.com)
or British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com);
or from Edinburgh, Manchester or Gatwick with easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com).
Aegean (zie hierboven) has daily flights from Athens to Kalamata leaving at
5.10pm. You will need a car to explore the Mani; car hire is available at
Kalamata and Athens airports. Areopolis is approximately 50 mijl (twee
uur) from Kalamata and about 200 mijl (five hours) van Athene.
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk)
has a 15-day Taygetos Circuit walking holiday (including four nights at
Gerolimenas) from £1,229 per person based on two sharing, inclusief vluchten
naar Kalamata; departures this year are on May 19, Juni 2, September 2 en 16.
The inside track
Best bets for a dip are Itilo, Porto Kayio and Kotronas.
Historic churches are usually locked. Keys for most of them are held at the
museum in Areopolis.
The Neolithic Museum, next to the Dirou Caves entrance, has an enlightening
collection of finds from deep underground, from human and animal bone
fragments to stone tools and weapons.
De Griekse Nationaal Verkeersbureau, 4 Conduit Street, Londen W1S 2DJ (020 7495
Inside Mani (insidemani.gr)
and Deep Mani (zorbas.de/maniguide)
are useful online resources, crammed with downloadable maps and essential
The best hotels
Limeni Village, Limeni Areopolis £
Has outstanding views across the Messenian Gulf and modern facilities
(including a pool) but design tips the hat to local traditions (0030 27330
doubles from €90/£79).
Kyrimai, Gerolimenas ££
A boutique hotel by the quayside, reconstructed by the Kyrimis family from
their ancestral mansion and warehouses (27330 54288; kyrimai.gr;
doubles from €100/£87).
Elixirion, Itilo £££
Just feet from a pebbly beach, this seaside village gem is the perfect
complement to the fierce desert-like landscapes of inland Mani (27330 59275; mani-elixirion.gr;
doubles from €120/£105).
The best restaurants
You don’t go to the Mani for haute cuisine but there is some excellent food to
be had. Look out for traditional grills, vegetable dips and seafood.
Timoniera, Kotronas Bay £
Celebrity chef Mary Panagakos, owner of the nearby Kotronas Bay, also presides
over this excellent quayside taverna (Kotronas harbour; 27730 21340).
To Limeni, Gerolimenas ££
The best of Gerolimenas’s handful of restaurants (Gerolimenas harbour; 27330
Black Pirate, Itilo £££
Good seafood, especially the extremely fishy psarosoupa (fish soup). Black
Pirate will also provide picnics (Neo Itilo quayside; 27330 59363).
What to avoid
Walking in the heat of the day. Temperatures can hit 100F/40C in July and
August and the treeless slopes offer no shade.
Prickly pear prickles. These near-invisible spines dig deep and easily become
Driving at night. The Mani’s winding roads, often with a sheer drop to one
side, are scary enough in daylight. After dark, they’re terrifying.