Mani Peninsula - Part V
Gytheio (Γύθειο), the ancient Gythium, is the largest and most important town in Mani. It is only 30km from Areopolis, so many people include the city as a day side-trip while Mani, or they just stop for a couple of hours on their way back from Areopolis to Athens, as it is on the route.
Sparta is only 45 km to the north and Athens about 260km away.
Of course, one needs 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) or Marathonisi (Μαραθονήσι), 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. 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.
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.
Three castles worth visiting while in the area around Gytheio. I. 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.
II. 16km south of Gytheio, on a small peninsula between the settlements of Vathi and Kamares, stands the “Castle of Grigorakis” (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.
III. Just south of Gythio, in Mavrovouni (Μαυροβούνι) village stands the Castle of Goulades (Κάστρο Γουλάδες). Access to the entrance is easy, the views are beautiful and the place is the apropriate to observe the Mani architecture. This tower house (castle house) is known as "Goulades" or "Beanika" or "Melissi", and belonged to Tzanetos Grigorakis. Main features of the castle are the arched gate, its towers and the two-storey house.
Tzanetos Grigorakis (or Tzanibeis) built the castle in 1795, when he was Bey of Mani (1782-1798). Next to the castle he built a church (Three Hierarchs - Saint John) and a family cemetery which survive to this day. A new settlement was developed around Beanika called Melissi or Tzanetoupoli. The castle did not last long. It was destroyed by the cannons of the Turkish fleet in 1803.