Mani Peninsula - Part IV
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 south all the way down to Tainaron.
Cavo Grosso was known as the ‘Thyrides’ (windows) in ancient times due to several sea-caves lining its base. Nowadays, the plateau is a labyrinth of ruins and stonewalls, 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.
The plateau on the map looks more or less flat compared to the rest of the peninsula, which is raged by bare mountains. Actually, though, it roughly consists of three altitudinal levels. The lower level lies on the east, the middle one is a bit higher, and the third and highest level occupies a long strip of land on the west. The third level, the most interesting for me, is not accessible by car, but only by a footpath well hidden away. This naturally fortified level, deserted today, has been inhabited since prehistoric times and is known as the place where Ancient Ippola was lying.
One should spend a full day here, or even more, to discover the beauty of Cavo Grosso. I describe some of the places I have visited during a day trip, which I believe are the most interesting. Certainly, I have more to discover, so that I will go back for sure.
The better point to start the exploration of the peninsula is the village of Mezapos at the northern end of it, and from there, to visit the northern part of Cavo Grosso.
Mezapos (Μεζαπός) is about 20km south of Areopoli and only 1km from the main road Areopolis-Gerolimenas. The road entering Mezapos forms a fork just outside the village – the left leg takes you into the heart of the village and the deep harbor, the right leads to a small pebbly cove and Kato Mezapos beach. Facing the sea at the cove, on your left hand up to the rocks, lie several graves that probably belong to the Homeric times.
According to some studies about the route Odysseus took from Troy back to Ithaca, identify Mezapos as the possible home of the Laestrygonians (Λαιστρυγόνες), unpleasant man-eating giants who pelted Odysseus’ fleet with rocks, sinking all eleven ships, but his. It is also thought to be Homer’s Messe town, which according to the Iliad, sent ships to Troy. Here is also located the ruins of pirate’s Nikolos Sassaris tower-house.
The deep harbor of Mezapos, with its vivacious yellow color, was used by pirates and the infamous Sassaris local clan, a constant thorn in the Mavromichalis domination the area. Later the harbor served as a weekly stopping-off point for the ferry from Piraeus. There are two small beaches and many natural and humanmade caves to the south of the deep harbor, where the pirates 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 clan had links to the city of Sassari in Sardinia, and 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 Maniot population, which reached 70,000 during the Ottoman domination. Thus, Sassaris decided to become a pirate. Mezapos was Sassari’s base. Along with his companions, he watched for medium-sized merchant ships passing through from the steep rocky cliffs and caves. 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 Oitylo to sell them. It is said that to hide his quarry, he had identified a cave, the so-called "pirate cave," which only he could approach. Perhaps this is why the legend is preserved with the unknown fate of his treasure until now. According to the popular tradition, the renowned pirate possessed a tower-hideaway. 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 it feuded 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 cannonballs. Many of his pirates were either seriously injured or killed. It was the last naval battle of Nicolos Sassaris since a shot at the chest killed him. His lifeless body was never transported to the land, nor was it buried. He stayed forever in the sea, as his fate determined.
Сhurch of Vlacherna
Continue the road out of Mezapos to the south and after about 1 km, turn right for 200m on a dirt road (I recommend to leave the car and walk on the dirt road instead) that ends at a beautiful little church and a wrecked stone tower-house. This is the church of Vlacherna (Παναγία Βλαχέρνα), a beautiful 12th-century Byzantine church. The church was looted in the 50th by Italian smugglers, and only a couple of the frescoes survive today. Unfortunately, the church is almost ready to collapse if restorations will not start soon.
A bit hidden are two well-preserved ancient cisterns. Also, the tower, just before the church, is worth seeing. The view of the sea and the coastal strip over Mezapos and Tigani is simply amazing!
Сhurch of Episkopi
Close to the village of Agios Georgios Kitas, not far away from Vlacherna, at a rocky inclination, stands a small settlement (Episkopi). A short path, not more than 150m, leads to one of the most important Byzantine monuments of Mani, the church of Episkopi (Επισκοπή), dedicated probably to Agios Georgios initially, and to Virgin Mary nowadays.
The church of Episkopi dates from the end of the 12th century. Initially, it was private and belonged to the ruler of the area, Georgios Daimonogiannis. He was related to the church that was mentioned in a letter of the archbishop of Ochrid Demetrios Chomatianos in 1222, and it is considered that probably for some time it was the cathedral church of the bishopric of Mani.
It is a small cross-in-square church with a dome supported by two columns and a narthex on the west. The care in their construction and the decoration of the external surfaces are impressive. For its construction, ancient building material was used, carved members made of limestone and stone bricks made of crimson marble of Tainaro. Similes also decorate the dome and its arms, adding color and elegance to the monument. The octagonal dome is of the “Athenian type,” with marble columns on the corners and waterspouts.
At the church's interior, its sculpted decoration survives almost intact, which is of great importance because of the variety of its subject matters. The screen was initially made of marble, and its architectural members have been incorporated in the present-day, built screen. The horseshow arch of the Holy Gate stands out since it is unique in Greece. Important is the wall painting decoration of the church, which dates from around 1200. This is an exceptional example of this art, the most important in the area because its style is related to the art of Constantinople. Later wall paintings at the apse's conch and the built screen can be dated from the 18th century.
Stavri is a small and quiet village, which from a long distance, it looks like a small medieval castle town hidden among hills and trees. When approached, it turns out to be just a neighborhood of a few stone tower houses built in characteristic Maniot style. The houses are narrow and tall like towers, rectangular in shape, with small windows and doors -almost like fortresses. Although small, Stavri is well maintained. There are signposts, the alleys are paved with stone, and most of the houses are either repaired or completely renovated. Some of the towers are used as summer holiday homes, where others are rented out. The most famous building in the village is the Tsitsiris Castle complex, one of the most famous hotels in the rea.
From Stavri, drive north to Agia Kyriaki settlement and from there continue to the northernmost tip of Cavo Grosso, Tigani (Τιγάνι) cape. Literally translated as ‘frying pan,’ it is pronounced how this causeway got its name.
As is typical of the Mani, exactly what was built, when or by whom up on the raised escarpment at the far end is unclear. The old battlements surrounding the frying pan's ‘pan’ part clearly suggest a defensive building was placed above. Still, 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 Emperor Leo the Wise (AD 866-912).
I recommend you leave the car at the cemetery of Agia Kyriaki and continue further the road on foot. Theoretically, one can drive for another kilometer, but your car is not gonna like this last kilometer... believe me. From there, a clear dirt path takes you down onto 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 Patrick Leigh Fermor met a mother and daughter collecting sea salt on his travels in the 50s, as described in his book "MANI: Travels in the Southern Peloponesse". It is incredible to think that a meager living was being made on this stark, barren land.
Once you near the battlement walls, the path veers upwards and to the right as you approach them. Watch out for a ‘hoofprint’ in the steps as you enter the site – supposedly from when a defeated princess leaped on horseback into the sea to escape capture. From the car to this point will take a leisurely 40 minutes. Once upon the site, the basilica foundations are straight in front of you. The church entrance was at the far end as you first approached the apse's curved wall at the building's altar end.
Panagia Odigitria (Παναγία η Οδηγήτρια), also known as Agitria (Αγήτρια) to the locals, is one of the most beautiful chapels in Mani. The temple is built on a steep slope on the cliffs of Mezalimon (Μεζαλίμονας), the first bay west of Tigani, and stands almost always in the shade, invisible, surrounded by Pistacia (σχίνοι) and mullein (φλόμος) shrubs.
It is not difficult to visit the chapel: leave the car on the road some meters before Agia Kyriaki cemetery (there is a road sign to the chapel) and then walk on an easy road for about 500m, till the cliff edge. From there, you can see the chapel built against the steep rocky cliffs of Cavo Grosso and next to a cave, which has remnants of human activities. The chapel from here looks like a bird’s nest built in the rock.
A steep but easy path starts from here to the chapel. Panagia Odigitria is a byzantine cruciform church with a dome (dates back to the 12th century) with beautiful marble reliefs, columns, and carved bird motifs on the floor. The two doors to the chapel are unlocked so the visitor can admire the hagiographies (frescos), which are faded, but of exceptional beauty and high artistic value. There are also newer hagiographies dated to 1808.
From inside the church, you can hear the roar of the water, and from its courtyard, the view of Cape Tigani is unique. The scenery is one of the best I have ever visited, so try to stay here for a while to absorb as much as possible of this earthly paradise.
Kippoula (Κιππούλα) is a village at the edge of the second level (as I mentioned earlier) and just under the third and higher level of Cavo Grosso. It is incorrectly referred to as Κηπούλα (Kipoula) in Greek, which erroneously may lead to the conclusion that it derives from the Greek word "Κήπος," which means garden. The name, though, most probably comes from the paraphrase of the name of the ancient city Ippola-Αρχαία Ιππόλα (Ippola-Hippoula-Kippoula), which was located in Ano Poula- Άνω Πούλα (only some ruins survive today) and was dedicated to its patroness, Athena Ippolaitida-Ιππολαΐτιδα Αθηνά (hence her name).
The castle of Makryna or the Castle of Ano Poula, which was the citadel of ancient Ippola, is located at the area's highest plateau. Ippola was one of the cities of 'The League of Free Laconians (Eleutherolakones-Ελευθερολάκωνες))'. Pausanias (Παυσανίας) does not mention it, probably because during the years of his tour (the third quarter of the 2nd century AD), the city was destroyed. However, an inscription found in Lefktro (Messinian Mani) in 1904 shows that Ippola existed in Roman times and was one of the cities that belonged to Eleutherolakones. The excerpt of the inscription is the following (in Ancient Greek):
«…Επειδή παραγενόμενοι. δικασταί…τάς πόλιος των Ιππολαίων…Γράψαι δε και αντίγραφον τας προξενίας και αποστείλαι γράμματα ποτί ταν πόλιν των Ιππολαίων και τους εφόρους όπως αναγραφήι εις το …Ποσιδάνος…»
The League of Free Laconians
The League of Free Laconians (Eleutherolakones) was established in southern Peloponnese in 21 BC by Emperor Augustus, giving formal structure to a group of cities associated for almost two centuries. The 'Free Laconians' are first mentioned in 195 BC, after Sparta's defeat in the Roman-Spartan War. The Roman general Titus Quinctius Flamininus placed several coastal cities, inhabited by perioikoi, under the protection of the Achaean League, separating them from the rump Spartan state. The most important of its cities was Gythium. A few years later, in 192 BC, Gythium was recaptured by Nabis of Sparta, but the Achean League immediately attacked the city.
The city of Las was attacked and captured by the Spartans. The Achaean League retaliated and attacked Las and Sparta. Following the Achaean League's dissolution in 146 BC, the Free Laconians joined the Lacedaemonian League until Emperor Augustus re-established the League of Free Laconians in 21 BC.
During the Frankish era, some additions were made by the Franks to the pre-existing fortifications of the Castle of Ano Poula, and they used it as a control center of the area. Later the castle passed into the hands of the Niklians (Νικλιάνοι) faction and became their personal base. During the Kapodistrian period, pirates from Kippoula had a rich activity in the area of Cavo Grosso.
Remains of a jar have been discovered in Ano Poula, dating back to the Middle Helladic period (2000-1600 BC).
The easiest, if not the only way to climb up to the archaeological site of Ancient Poula (Castle of Ano Poula) is to start your trip from Kippoula (Κηπούλα) village.
Entering the village of Kippoula, the visitor is impressed by the unfinished church of Agios Dimitrios (end of the 19th century). Inside the church, a second one is preserved, the church of Agia Paraskevi. It is said that the owner of the place wanted to build a majestic family church on the site of the humble Agia Paraskevi, which he intended to demolish when the temple roof was completed. But shortly before the roof was installed, he died.
In this interesting complex, one can admire the old marble members in Agia Paraskevi and the marble members of the new church, which is the work of the famous Maniot stonecutter Vougiouklakis who had copied the motives from the Metropolis of Athens. Inside the unfinished church of Agios Dimitrios, there is actually a second half-ruined Byzantine church, besides Agia Paraskevi (10th - 12th century), the church of Agios Vassilios. The marble reliefs inside of the two small churches were transferred from the castle of Ano Poula.
Drive through the village and continue south, always keeping on the right. After driving 1 kilometer or so among olive trees, you arrive at an open space (a neglected playground).
Leave your car here and start walking towards the castle on an easy dirt road that passes by the Chartous (Κοιμητηριο Χαρτούς) cemetery.
Some meters further, you see the chapel dedicated to Agios Nikitas (Αγιος Νικήτας ή Αϊ. Γκίτας). The chapel, which measures only 7.45 x 3.18m, is built with boulders in the 10th-11th century. The thickness of the walls is 0.90m. The church preserves frescoes from two eras. The altar is made out of a marble pillar with a capital on its top. The capital, which functions as the “table” (rectangular on its upper side), is carved with a cross inscribed in a square frame. On the west side of the frame exists a memorial inscription in two rows, referred to the owner of the chapel (called Mamas): Μνή(σ)θητη Κ(νρι)ε τον δούλου σον Μάμα• άμα σηβήου κ(αι) τέχνης αντον τοϋ πόθον κτήσαντος τον άλο ναό τοντο άμή.
Continue going up. The road is excellent till you reach a second chapel, κnown as Panagitsa (Παναγίτσα). At the courtyard stands a big cross with the crucified Christ on it… very kitsch, I have to admit. From here onwards, the path is steep and full of rocks. The path stops at a low enclosure wall made of stones. Overcome this “obstacle” with caution. Now, you find yourselves inside the Ancient Ippola plateau (Ano Poula). The area is scattered with low-enclosure walls and ruins of buildings from several eras. It is not easy to wander inside the archaeological site covered with structural stones and hard shrubs.
There is a path that follows the eastern edge of the plateau. The path is not signposted, and one has to follow the direction north among sharp stones. It is a tiring path to follow, but only 600m long. One can reach the most interesting part of it with some caution: a complex of two Byzantine churches (Agios Georgios and Agioi Theodoroi) and an ancient Greek temple's ruins or a big house. On the way to this complex, the path basses by the ruined chapel of Agios Nikolaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος).
The two churches of the complex stand one next to the other near the plateau's northwestern entrance, as guardians of the secrets of the enigmatic Ano Poula. Agios Georgios (Άγιος Γεωργιος) is the smaller of the two, and Agioi Theodoroi (Άγιοι Θεόδωροι) the larger one. They were built in the 11th-12th centuries, and their hagiographies belong to different periods between the 11th and the 14th century. The churches are unfortunately completely abandoned and half-destroyed. Still, when you get inside them (with much caution, as rocks may fall at any moment), you feel awe and the strong vibes of these sacred buildings, which curry memories of thousands of years.
The churches have used stones and marble of older buildings to stand here, mainly from ancient Greek temples.
Even though the condition of the two churches is a stage before the collapse, they are preserved in a better condition than the rest of the churches in Ano Poula because they are located in the main residential area of the settlement next to the north gate of the Castle and because next to them there was a monastery until the beginning of the last century. Opposite the two churches stand the ruins of a big house or an ancient temple.
From the end of August until the middle of September, or even later but mainly in the middle of September, Ano Poula is full of hunters, as begins the autumn passage of the quails and the turtle doves.
One of the most interesting features of your trip to Ano Poula is the excellent views on all sides, especially to the east, where small villages are scattered all over Cavo Grosso and the mountains further away.
The day trip to Cavo Grosso finishes in Gerolimenas, the seaside town just south of the cape. It is time for some rest over good local food or coffee.
If you have some time, though, make a stop at Ochia (Οχιά) village to visit the fully restored church of Agios Nikolaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος). Agios Nikolaos is one of the oldest churches in Mani (12th century). In the SW corner of the church has been added in later years a four-story, tower-shaped bell tower with a four-sided, pyramidal roof, built of marble and poros. The bell tower partly sits on the SW corner of the temple. The addition was made in 1861, a date engraved on a stone on the north side of the bell tower, near the SW corner.
Ochia is the southernmost village on Cavo Grosso, and the church of Agios Nikolaos stands on the eastern exit-road of the village by the cemetery. From here it is easy to go down to Gerolimenas directly by following the road in front of the cemetery.
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 Harbor", 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 only by boat. In the past, it was a major fishing center and featured substantial infrastructures 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 were exported to France in the 1870s). The old quail 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. Today its sheltered pebbly beach is the perfect spot for summer holidaymakers.
There are several places to eat at Gerolimenas, and they all serve good food, more or less of the same variety and quality. For coffee and dessert, though, sit at the Gerogrosso Cafe on the harbor and relax, listening to the waves break on the rocks just in front of you.
From the center square of the town, just behind Katagounas Restaurant (Κατάγκουνας) starts a path that goes all the way up to the village of Ochia (Οχιά) at the southernmost tip of Cavo Grosso. The path is easy to follow but very steep as the altitude difference from the sea level to Ochia is quite big.
A visit to Cavo Grosso would not be complete without visiting Kita (Κοίτα). Kita is on the main road to Areopoli and is somehow the eastern 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 tower-houses. It was the scene of Mani's last vendetta in 1870, which required the army's intervention, with artillery to halt it. Kita is among the oldest villages in Mani.