Mani Peninsula - Part III
(updated September 2020)
The drive from Areopoli to Kokkinogia (Κοκκινόγεια), which is the southernmost settlement of continental Europe is about one hour nonstop (via the western road). There are many important villages between these two places. When I visited the area, it was early September and still hot, so I wanted to arrive as early as possible to the tip of the Cape and its famous lighthouse. I drove all the way to Vatheia and then directly to cape Tainaro. On my way back I visited several places.
This trip is long if you want to visit as many places as possible or/and go swimming in the crystal-clear beaches, so it is better to start early.
Continuing south, the rocky peninsula starts to narrow, as its east and west coasts rush to their meeting. Vatheia (Βάθεια), perched high above the sea, shows just how extraordinary this area once was. While many villages have one or two towerhouses, Vathia sprouts a forest of them. It looks like a medieval fantasy, but clan wars were taking place here, often from one side of the windy streets to another, well into the 19th century.
Vatheia is the most photographed village in Mani and a tourist attraction during spring and summer due to the abundance of wild flowers that cover the nearby hills and its scenic views. Moreover, it serves as an iconic example of the south Maniot vernacular architecture as it developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Vatheia is first mentioned in 1571, by a Venetian diplomatic mission, as "casale di Vathia". In the 20th century, Vatheia was progressively abandoned by its residents, who emigrated either to Athens or to faraway places. In the 80s the Greek Tourist Board decided to restore the beautiful tower-houses and bring life back to the town. They restored the houses and gave them back to their owners to use them either as residences or hotels.
Unfortunately, the majority of the buildings, today, are again deserted and it is really very disappointing to see all the money that was spent to have been actually wasted away. Today, only one restaurant-café operates in the village, which offers great views. Just before arriving to Vatheia, at the Kapi settlement, there are two beautiful little bays that form two sandy beaches. Great places for a dive into the deep blue waters of the Messenian Gulf.
The coasts almost do meet a bit further down between Porto Kagio and Marmari. The former, on the east coast, is named after the quails which were caught here in outstretched nets, before being shipped out of Gerolimenas. To the west, Marmari has a couple of sandy coves, rare for this rocky coast, and above them sits the aptly named Marmari Paradise Resort offering good value stone-built rooms and a taverna.
Cape Tainaron (Ακρωτήριον Ταίναρον), also known as Cape Matapan, is the southernmost point of mainland Greece and separates the Messenian Gulf in the west from the Laconian Gulf in the east. Cape Matapan has been an important place for thousands of years. The tip of Cape Matapan was the site of the ancient town Tenarus, near which there was (and still is) a cave that Greek legends claim was the home of Hades (the Underworld), the god of the dead. The ancient Spartans built several temples there, dedicated to various gods. On the hill situated above the cave, lie the remnants of an ancient temple dedicated to the Sea God Poseidon (Νεκρομαντεῖον Ποσειδῶνος). Under the Byzantine Empire, the temple was converted into a Christian church.
At the very tip of the cape there is a lighthouse, which built by French engineers in 1882 and operated for the first time in 1887. Rrecently the lighthouse has gone through a total renovation. At Cape Matapan, the Titanic's would-be rescue ship, the SS Californian, was torpedoed and sunk by German forces on 9 November 1915. In March 1941, a major naval battle, the Battle of Cape Matapan, occurred off the coast of Cape Matapan, between the Royal Navy and the Italian Regia Marina, in which the British emerged victorious in a one-sided encounter. The encounter's main result was to drastically reduce future Italian naval activity in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Hades & the Underworld
According to the Greek mythology, this gate of Hades was guarded by Cerberus, a vicious beast that prevented the dead from escaping and the living from entering the world of the dead. According to Apollodorus, Cerberus had three heads of wild dogs, a dragon or serpent for a tail, and the heads of all sorts of snakes all over his back. In his twelfth labor, assigned to him by King Eurystheus, Heracles (Hercules) was ordered to descend to the Underworld, kidnap and bring Cerberus to the surface. He asked Hades’ permission to capture the beast.
The lord of the Underworld replied that Heracles could take Cerberus with him as long as he used no weapons and didn’t hurt him. Heracles used his bare hands and was able to overpower the beast. He dragged it out of the Underworld and brought it to Eurystheus. Orpheus also traveled down to Hades to bring back to life his beloved wife, Eurydice, through this cave. Hades himself told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice with him but under one condition; he should not look at her before coming out of the cave, because he would lose her. Unfortunately, only a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus lost his faith as he could not hear his wife’s steps, so he turned to see… Eurydice was immediately sent back to the Underworld forever.
To visit the lighthouse, you have to leave your car at the end of the road, just above the caves of Hades. Go down to the small but beautiful Tenaro Beach, where you can swim on your way back to clean away all the dust off your tired body. Pass the little beach and follow the red-colored (the soil obviously contains iron, which when is oxidized turns red) path. In about a hundred meters the path passes through a roman villa, where a floor mosaic can still be seen.
Then the road passes by another small bubble beach and continues to the lighthouse uninterrupted. It is supposed the whole path to be only 700m long. I really do not know! It seems to me much longer. Maybe, because it is much more difficult that it seems on the map. From the car to the lighthouse will take a leisurely 40 minutes. Very good trekking shoes are needed for the rocky terrain. Some water and a cap will be certainly very much appreciated by your thirsty sun-burned self!
I left the cape very tired and I drove up north (there is nothing towards the south, anyway) to the town of Porto Kagio (Πόρτο Κάγιο). Porto Kagio faces a small bay off the Laconian Gulf and is about 5km from Cape Matapan. This picturesque little town was known in the ancient times as Psamathous. The modern name comes from the Venetian Porto Quaglio and the French Port des Cailles (Quail Port).
Some 17th- and 18th-century maps called it "Maina", so some authors consider it to be a possible location for the castle of Grand Magne, but medieval portolans mention no such castle here. The Ottomans built a castle here in about 1568, to protect the port, which was used for galleys patrolling the Kythera Channel. The Venetians attacked the castle in 1570, and the Ottomans surrendered and abandoned it. In 1670, the Ottomans returned and built a new castle. They were driven out in 1770 during the Orlov Revolt.
Porto Kagio was the base of Lambros Katsonis's pirate fleet, and it was at Porto Kagio that it was finally destroyed. In World War II, Porto Kagio was a place where many British soldiers escaped to Egypt. Porto Kagio is the perfect place for quite relaxing holidays. The sea is wonderful and there are several taverns to eat and holiday rooms to let.
The very first thing I did when I arrived to the town and parked on the beach itself was to put on my swimming trunks and fall into the calm and warm waters. There were hundreds of little fish that decided to give me a full body peeling!!!
We had a beautiful lunch at the “Akrotiri” tavern. The tavern also offers rooms to let at the floor above it. We eat some excellent fried little fish “atherina” …. I believe they were the same little ones who gave me the body peeling earlier… lol. And yes: I had spaghetti meatballs, the same way my mother used to cook them for me… this is what I call “happiness”!
I left Porto Kagio and headed north east to one of the most well preserved villages of Mani: Lagia (Λάγια). Lagio is a very quiet (almost sadly empty) town with stone tower-houses, some of which have the unique shape of pyramidal frustum. I visited the town mostly to see its main attraction, which is “Bey’s Café” or “Kafeneio ton Kynigon”.
The café is located on the main road and is famous mainly of its fully decorated walls: old, colored or black and white photos hanging everywhere, old paintings showing old ladies, towers, prickly pears, knives, worry beads, walking sticks, shells, sculptures, and much more. The walls are painted with some nice looking portraits and other popular topics. The owners have two sons: a sculptor and a painter, who obviously are responsible for this awesome and bizarre “art gallery”.
Unfortunately, this famous café has been closed for the last couple of years. Only the stories narrated in it still stroll along the whirling roads and waft among the deserted towers like the sunset breeze or lost ghosts.
I went to the other (the only one left) café/restaurant of the town, which is located just opposite the metropolis of the town: the church of Dormition of Our Lady. The “Koinotikon” restaurant feels like a cool and relaxing oasis in the scorching landscape of Mani. We enjoyed our cold “frappe” coffee sitting into soft sofas and listening to beautiful music.
Back to the road heading south and then west towards Gerolimenas. From the road you have great views of Vatheia and the Messenian Gulf.
Gerolimenas (Γερολιμένας) is a picturesque small coastal village settled into a small bay, whose northern side is protected by the high bluff of Cavo Grosso. Its name, which means "Old Harbour", is thought to derive from the ancient "Ιερός Λιμήν" (Ieros Limen), meaning "Sacred Harbor". One of the remotest settlements in the Peloponnese, until the 1970s it was reached mainly by boat. In the past it was a major fishing center, and featured substantial infrastructure such as a shipyard, ice supplies, and a fish market.
The village was once well-known for its export of live quails (over 7,000 a month to France in the 1870s) and the old warehouses have been converted into the "Kyramai" hotel – a gorgeous place that pays full attention to local history and tradition, both in its buildings and food. During the ottoman era, the port was an important Maniot pirate settlement in the area. Today its sheltered pebbly beach is the perfect spot for summer holiday makers.
If you fancy your chances of locating the shrine to Athena or have a penchant for walking along very rocky paths or indeed would like to meet some local cows, then a visit up to Cavo Grosso is a must. Cavo Grosso is the plateau scattered with small villages between Gerolimenas and Mezapos. The views are fantastic – to the north Tigani, Mezapos and beyond to Areopolis, east across the plain to the mountains (and in particular the two towers of Leontaki,s nestling) and south all the way down to Tainaron. Cavo Grosso was known as the ‘Thyrides’ (windows) in ancient times due to a number of sea-caves lining its base. Nowadays, the plateau is a labyrinth of ruins and stonewalls, all partially hidden by low growing scrub. You need a good pair of shoes and strong legs if you want to explore much of this fascinating area.
To the northern part of Cavo Grosso is Tigani (Τιγάνι). Literally translated as ‘frying pan’, it is very obvious how this causeway got its name. As is typical of the Mani, it is unclear exactly what was built or by whom up on the raised escarpment at the far end. The old battlements surrounding the ‘pan’ part of the frying pan clearly suggest a defensive building was placed above, but the common assertion that it was the site of the 13th century Frankish Grand Maina castle of the Villhardouins is by no means irrefutable. Despite this uncertainty it is still worth walking to the site if only to become an expert archaeologist for an hour or so in a fantastic location. What is clear are the foundations of an early Christian basilica (6th-8th centuries). This substantial building is believed that it was the cathedral for the Byzantine bishopric of Mani recorded from the time of Emperor Leo the Wise (AD 866-912).
Leave your car (if you have one) just after the cemetery of Agia Kyriaki and a clear dirt path takes you down on to the ‘handle’. A series of cairns mark the easiest route across the pebbles and rocks up to the site. Set amongst the rocks are a series of stone salt pans. It was here that Leigh Fermor met a mother and daughter collecting sea salt on his travels in the 50s. It is incredible to think that on this stark, barren land, a meagre living was being made. Once you near the battlement walls the path veers upwards and to the right as you approach them. Watch out for a ‘hoof print’ in the steps as you enter the site – supposedly from when a defeated princess leapt on horseback into the sea to escape capture. From the car to this point will take a leisurely 40 minutes. Once up on the site, the basilica foundations are straight in front of you. The entrance to the church is at the far end as you first approach the curved wall of the apse at the altar end of the building.
Kita (Κοίτα) is on the main road to Areopoli, and is somehow the gate to Cavo Grosso. It is built on top of a hill, overlooking the sea. Partially abandoned like most places in Mani, Kita is known for its many Maniot towerhouses. It was the scene of Mani's last vendetta, in 1870 which required the intervention of the army, with artillery to halt it. Kita is among the oldest villages in Mani.
Continue north for about 3km, turn left towards Mezapos (Μεζαπός). Having passed through Agios Georgios first, the final bend leading into Mezapos sees the road forking – left takes you into the heart of the village and the deep harbour, right drops steeply down and bends round to a small pebbly cove (Kato Mezapos beach). As you face the sea at the cove, up to your left in the rocks are several graves that are probably Homeric.
Indeed, according to some studies about the route Odysseus took from Troy back to Ithaca, identify Mezapos as the possible home of the Laestrygonians, unpleasant giants who pelted Odysseus’ fleet with rocks, sinking eleven ships. It is also thought to be the location of Homer’s Messe which according to the Iliad sent ships to Troy. Here is also located the ruins of pirate’s Nikolos Sassaris towerhouse.
The deep harbor, with its vivacious yellow color, was used by pirates and the infamous Sassaris clan from Mezapos were a constant thorn in the Mavromichalis domination of the area. Later the harbor served as a weekly stopping off point for the ferry from Piraeus. To the south of the deep harbor there are two small beaches and many natural and manmade caves, where the pirates used to hide their “stock”.
Do not expect to see a picturesque village here at Mezapos. The scenery is majestic, but the village is far from what we call beautiful or cozy.
Nikolos Sassaris was one of the most famous pirates who acted in the second half of the 18th century in the Mediterranean. It has been known in history as "one-eyed", because a Turkish pirate had pinned his sword to the eye during an engagement. Sassaris was from the Felurianoi-Karloi and had links to the city of Sassari in Sardinia. So, most likely, this is how he got his family name.
In those years, living in Mani was very difficult. The ground was barren and harsh. Many inhabitants were engaged in fishing, but the quantities of fish did not reach the population of Maniat, which reached 70,000 during the Ottoman domination. Thus, Sassaris decided to become a pirate. Mezapos was Sassari’s base. From the steep rocky cliffs and caves, along with his companions, he watched for medium sized merchant ships passing through. He stormed the pirate flag and started the attack with his ship called "Zargana". After looting the ships, he then towed them and took them to the port of Oitilo to sell them. It is said that in order to hide his quarry, he had identified a cave, the so-called "pirate cave", which only he could approach. Perhaps this is the reason why until now, the legend is preserved with the unknown fate of his treasure. According to the popular tradition, the renowned pirate possessed a tower-hideaway, inside of which there were specially constructed basements and secret corridors and trails leading to the coast and the caves. It is there where his companions were hiding. A part of it, however, was destroyed because of its feud with the Mavromichals clan. At the end of the 18th century, Sassaris had occupied a French ship and headed it to Mani. At one point, he met two Turkish ships and followed a fierce struggle with cannon balls. Many of his pirates were either seriously injured or killed. It was the last naval battle of Nicolos Sassari, since he was killed by a shot at the chest. His lifeless body was never transported to the land, nor was it buried. He stayed forever in the sea, as his fate determined.
Drive north on the main road to Areopoli. As you approach the Pyrgos Dirou town, there is no way to miss the signs towards the famous Diros Caves. Drive through the town and at the Kampinares road-fork turn left. On the right the road leads to the beautiful Diros beach. Both the beach and the caves are located at the base of the Diros bay, a quiet, protected gulf.
The area around the caves has been developed to cater for the tourists who flock to visit this unique speleological miracle.
To me the whole place looked a bit dated, like coming out from a 70s Greek Tourist Board poster; the way it looked when I first visited the place back in 1983 (as a high school student). The tickets to enter the caves you have to buy some 300m before the entrance to the caves. There is a parking in front of the ticket booth, so you buy the tickets and continue with your car to the final destination, where there is also a big parking full of touristic buses.
On the small pebbled beach under the caves there are some buildings (they also look very 70s to me) which look neglected. A tourist shop and a tacky café completes the picture. I was feeling very lazy that day, so I did not enter the caves. To tell you the truth I felt a bit uneasy to the idea of getting into a small boat with other naughty tourists wearing salvation jackets. The cave network is the Mani's number one tourist attraction and rightly so. The Diros caves consist of two caves: Alepotrypa and Vlychada.
They were explored by the speleologists Ioannis and Anna Petrochilos. The Alepotrypa cavern was discovered in 1958. Archaeological research begun in 1970 under the direction of archaeologist Georgios Papathanassopoulos. In the course of the late Neolithic period (4000 - 3000 BC), the cave was extensively used as shelter, dwelling, workshop, storage place for goods, cemetery and a place of worship.
The richness and quality of the unearthed findings witness the existence of a populous society in Alepotrypa, which developed over time into an important center that engaged largely in trade, maritime travel, farming and stockbreeding. Strangely enough, human skeletons were found on the surface, meaning that entombment had not taken place.
This led archaeologist G. Papathanassopoulos to the conclusion that these Neolithic people died suddenly during a strong earthquake, which in turn generated huge rockslides from the ceiling, thus blocking the cave's entrance. The passageways of Alepotrypa, decorated with stalagmites and stalactites, measure 500 m in length. The cave covers an area of 6,500 m2. The central cave ends in a very beautiful lake attaining a maximum depth of 6 m. The cave is not open to the public, yet. The cave of Vlychada covers an area of 16,700 m2 and since 1949 it was discovered (eventhough the locals new about the cave long before) about 2,800 water passages have been explored. The exploration of Vlychada has yielded fascinating finds, including the fossil of a hippopotamus from the late Pleistocene Epoch, around 32,000 years ago, as well as evidence of panthers, lions, spotted hyenas, ferrets and seals.
A 2.5-km-long winding passageway is the main route for sightseeing. During a 40-min boat trip, the visitor comes across an intricate network of passages and galleries, decorated with gleaming stalagmites and stalactites, whose reflection in the water accentuates their natural beauty. The guided tour into the cavern of Vlychada takes place by boat and on foot - part of it is on land.
It has been a very long and tiring day. On your way back enjoy a cold coffee and an ice-cream at Areopoli. Relax and try to digest all these wonderful places you have been visited.
Gytheio (Γύθειο), the ancient Gythium, is the largest and most important town in Mani. The most convenient way to visit the city (while visiting Mani) is on your way back from Areopolis to Athens, as it is on the route. Of course, you need more than just some hours to explore and enjoy this beautiful city. But, if you have not much time to spend here, at least breath its salty breeze and absorb its aromas.
Gytheio was built on a hill called Koumaros in one of the most fertile areas in Mani, near the mouth of the Gythium River, which is usually dry and has been nicknamed Xerias "dry river"; today, most of the Xerias is covered by Ermou Avenue. Further northeast is the delta of the Evrotas River. Offshore are several small islands; the most important of these islands is Cranae (Κρανάη), which is connected to the mainland by a causeway.
Gytheio was founded jointly by Hercules and Apollo, a seemingly unlikely combination and in classical times was the seaport of Sparta, some 40 kilometres north. It used to be an important ancient city until it was destroyed by an earthquake that struck the area in 375 AD. After the earthquake Gythio was abandoned. It remained a small village throughout the Byzantine and Ottoman times. Its importance grew when Tzannetos Grigorakis built his tower at Cranae and more people came and settled at Gytheio.
But it was during the Greek War of Independence, that refugees flooded into Mani and made Gytheio a major city again. The modern Gytheio opened a port in the 1960s. From its ancient past, only a small Roman theatre was left by the earthquake that destroyed the city. The theater is located at the northern part of the city. Most of the ancient city, today, lies beneath the water of the harbor.
The town is famous for its late 19th century architecture: two- or three-storey neoclassical mansions, stuck to the steep side of "Koumaros" hill. A long sea-side promenade, the colorful fishing boats, the narrow streets and stairways produce the typical Greek environment which fascinates every visitor.
City's most known attraction is Cranae (or Marathonisi), the little pine-tree covered island located at the south of the town. On the island one can visit the History and Ethnology Museum of Mani housed in the restored Tzanetakis Tower (a Maniot fortress-residence belonging to the Tzannetakis-Grigorakis families built in 1829) and the octagonal 22m-high stone lighthouse (built in 1872).
As it is reported by Homer, the island was the first refuge of Helen and Paris on their journey to Troy. According to the myth, Paris forgot his helmet on the islet as he was leaving - hence its name, since in Greek a helmet is called "kranos". The view towards the town is panoramic.
"The face that launched a thousand ships"
"The face that launched a thousand ships" is a well-known figure of speech and a snippet of 17th-century poetry that refers to Helen of Troy. The poetry of Shakespeare’s contemporary English playwright Christopher Marlowe is responsible for what is among the most lovely and famous lines in English literature.
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss...
The line comes from Marlowe's play “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus”, published in 1604. In the play, Faustus is an ambitious man, who has decided that necromancy (speaking to the dead) is the only path to the power he seeks. The risk of communing with dead spirits, however, is that raising them can make you their master, or their slave. Faustus, conjuring on his own, makes a deal with the demon Mephistopheles, and one of the spirits Faustus raises is Helen of Troy. Because he cannot resist her, he makes her his paramour and is damned forever.
Marlowe's phrase is not to be taken literally; of course, it's an example of what English scholars call metalepsis, a stylistic flourish that skips from X to Z, bypassing Y: of course, Helen's face didn't launch any ships, Marlowe is saying she caused the Trojan War. Communications scholars have long used Marlowe's phrase to illustrate how the use of stress on a single word of a sentence can change the meaning.
Other notable and remarkable buildings in Gythio are the Town Hall (built in 1891) and the Old Girls' School or Parthenagogio (built in 1896) as works from the Bavarian architect Ernst Ziller.
There are many beaches around of Gythio and the largest one is Mavrovouni beach, 2km south of it. Because of its length of several kilometers it never gets crowded. In the afternoon, usually there is a perfect wind for wind-surfing. Mavrovouni beach is one of the favorite places for the "caretta caretta" sea turtles to lay their eggs in the sand.
The most renowned beach though, is the Valtaki beach located just 6 km east of the city. The beach is long, narrow and famous mainly because of the shipwreck “Dimitrios”, which has been stuck here for almost 40 years.
While in the city, I stayed at “Aktaion Hotel”.
This neoclassical building is listed as a building of architectural importance and beauty by the Ministry of Culture. Despite the renovations and alternations that has it gone over its 100 years existence, the building still has the elegance of old times; alas without the opulence of those days.
Two castles worth visiting while in the area around Gytheio.
Pasavas Castle (Πασαβάς) is signposted on the main road to Areopoli, about 4km after Mavrovouni beach. The castle was originally built by Jean de Neuilly, a Frankish baron, in 1254, but was soon given over to the Byzantines and later occupied by the Ottomans. In 1780, Tzannetos Grigorakis, later to be a bay of Mani, massacred the inhabitants of the castle, including civilians, in revenge of the execution of his uncle. The path to the castle is very difficult and climbing up there is not recommended.
16km south of Gytheio, on a small peninsula between the settlements of Vathi and Kamares, stands the “Castle of Grigorakides” (Κάστρο Γρηγοράκη). The complex is not a traditional tower of Mani. It is more like a small fortress, on a hill overlooking the Vathi bay. It was built by Antonis Grigorakis or "Antonbey", a bey (lord) of Mani. On the road in front of the castle, stands the beautifully restored church of Taxiarchis.
If during your visit in Mani you have some extra time, it really worth taking an extra trip to Kotronas (Κότρωνας). The village of Kotronas lies in a bay of the Laconian Gulf. From Areopoli to Kotronas is only 16 km on a good road that traverses the peninsula from west to east connecting the two towns. From Areopoli take the main road down towards Gerolimenas, and after less than 3km (at Lagokili) take the road on the left towards Kotronas. There is a clear signpost, so you will not miss the turn.
The road (13km) to Kotronas goes through beautiful landscape of green valleys and bare mountains.
Kotronas used to be a major commercial port of Mani, but later it was replaced by Gytheio. Several sandy beaches are to be found around the village, but one doesn’t have to go far to look for one, as the best one is in the village itself, next to the port. By the beach, overlooking the pier of the port, there is an elevated memorial little park.
Here stands the statue of Ioannis Demestichas, an hero of the Balkan Wars, who is praised by Penelope Delta in her book “The secrets of the marsh”. Have a stop at the shady veranda of “Akrogiali” fish tavern and watch people at the beach bellow.
Not far from the center of the village and its port, there is a small rocky peninsula called Skopa (Σκοπά). Skopa peninsula is connected to the mainland with an isthmus, which forms two little pebbled beaches at its both sides. There is not a signpost for the “double Skopa beach”: a little road starts at the west end of a playground on the main road of the village. This road is very narrow and a dead-end, so do not drive the car down to the beach. Walk the 400m or ride a bike.