Soon after leaving Kalamata, we entered the land of the Maniots, the traditional inhabitants of Mani, which is the centremost of the three peninsulas which make up the southern part of the Peloponnese. Mani is a mountainous, rugged, semi-arid and hard land and many of the coastal villages were only accessible by sea until relatively recently. The Maniots are a proud and independent lot and were a source of constant problems for any power that tried to subdue and control them. The Greek War of Independence (from the Ottoman Empire) originated in this area in the 1820’s and the locals swore a pact of “Victory or Death” which gives you an idea about what sort of the people they were.
Mani Flag with ‘Victory or Death’ slogan
This independence and pride appears to be exemplified in the distinctly different architecture of the building here. In most other parts of Greece we have visited so far, many of the villages look run down, dirty and unmaintained. It is as if the inhabitants have been so weighed down by the Greek economic crisis that they have given up and allowed their surroundings to reflect their economic prospects. The Maniots on the other hand, seem to have looked the crisis in the eye, like they have done to previous invaders, and said “you will not change who we are, and we will be here long after you have gone”. Sure, there were still a fair number of totally derelict buildings, but this just seems to be the norm for Greece. Rather than tear down buildings once they reach a certain state of disrepair, they just leave them and build new ones alongside. This seems a little unusual for us who are used to a throw away society but it actually makes reasonable sense here, and this very practice means there are so many ancient buildings and sites that we can visit today.
Derelict Buildings on Mani – tomorrow’s ancient sites?
There was a very obvious change in the architecture of the buildings where suddenly nearly all of the houses, businesses and hotels, both new and old were constructed from beautiful local stone, with a similar design and obviously superb craftsmanship.
Modern Hotels in the Traditional Style
Older Mani Buildings
Many of the building were tall, narrow, multi-story, rectangular and very symmetrical and some had battlements around the top edges or even small towers at the corners – almost like miniature castles. Stone of varying colour was used to create decorative effects. We soon learned that these were the ‘tower houses’, the design of which goes back to early Maniot history where every village was fortified, with every family house virtually being an individual fort. There is a strong and relatively recent history of ‘vendettas’ between Maniot families where after some real or imagined insult or incident, families would try to wipe out other families. These tower houses also gave protection and shelter in those times. The vendettas would often last until one family was either exterminated or left the area. It is certainly a different world to the one we grew up in.
We passed some very impressive buildings giving an air of prosperity to the region, which may be a little deceptive. Like many coastal Greek areas, the economy relies heavily on the seasonal tourist industry supplemented by olive oil production and some other minor agricultural produce. There seemed to be little in the way of good arable land in the way that we would define it. Instead, the olive trees had to cling onto small patches of soil that had managed to accumulate on the steep rocky mountainsides.
New ‘Tower House”
We had a pleasant night’s sleep parked by the Ionian Sea in the small seaside town of Agios Nikolaos, located just an hours drive from large town of Kalamata. Agios Nikolaus is sleepy in the wintertime but probably goes off in the high season. The people here were very friendly, as were some of the local cats. The seas were quite high from the steady on-shore wind which made for some great photos around the coast.
It always seems a little hard to get moving early in Greece. Maybe it’s just because we are on holiday or possibly we can lay blame on the overall slow pace of life so the relaxed attitude of the locals rubs off on us. Anyway, by mid-afternoon we managed to get on the road again and pointed Betsy further south. As seems to be the norm when driving from coastal town to coastal town, the route first careens inland, taking you up some serious mountains with hairpin after hairpin before heading back to sea. The road width varies from very comfortable to ‘geez I hope we don’t meet anyone coming the other way’, and the road condition goes from almost immaculate to nearly falling apart. Scraping our way through the small villages normally produced some of the most interesting moments of the day where a road originally made for single file donkeys now has to accommodate whatever modern vehicles come along. In many cases these tracks between the old houses are virtually single lane and there is absolutely no way two vehicles could pass without some serious manoeuvring. Fortunately, the locals are incredibly relaxed about this and no-one seems to get upset. I guess you just grow up here accepting that it is how it is and sometimes you have to make allowances.
Our ‘Wow Moments’
The biggest wow moments came when we were able to find somewhere to pull over and investigate a few of the many ancient Byzantine era churches dotting the landscape. We will share more about these in another post but it is fair to say that we had some seriously jaw-dropping moments.
Fish is a staple part of the diet around this region and we try to buy it fresh whenever the price is right and quality looks good. When we rolled into Neo Italio we saw what looked to be someone selling fish from outside a restaurant. Smelling a good deal for something fresh we stopped and investigated. It turned out that the fish belonged to the restaurant and we could buy what we wanted and they would cook it or they would sell it to us whole and we could take it away. That all seemed fine until the takeaway price for a modest one kg fish of 30 Euros was quoted. Too rich for our blood and the obvious lesson learned is not to expect a low price if you buy from a restaurant (obvious duh!). Never mind, we had a light dinner in the restaurant anyway and spent a quiet night parked on the road outside. Interestingly, if you were to come here in summer, the area we parked on is covered over with platforms and seating for the restaurants.