Our World Greek landscape of Byzantine beauty

Mani Peninsula

Relishing the majesty of the rugged Mani Peninsula in the Peloponnese.

Almost directly below me, just a few metres off the rocky foreshore, Giorgos is puttering slowly west in his tiny yellow fishing boat in search of our evening meal. To the left is Kardamyli’s compact boat harbour, 25km away on our right is the Peloponnese peninsula of Messinia, and about 400km to the south, over the horizon, is the north coast of Africa.

Our host and restaurateur is the proprietor of Lela’s, a small taverna started by the late British travel author and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor’s housekeeper Lela Giannakeos, Giorgos’ mother. 

Leigh Fermor built a house nearby at Kalamitsi in the 1960s and lived there, often entertaining the artistic elite of Europe, until his death in 2011. We have arrived here via express bus from Athens to Kalamata (2½ hours and €24.30 or $37.30 each) and rental car for the 37km of tortuous road along the coast to Kardamyli.

Kardamyli is one of the jewels in the crown of the Mani Peninsula, dominated by the rugged spine of the Taygetos mountains and ending at Akrotainaro, the southernmost point of mainland Greece. 

Long considered virtually impenetrable because of the hostility of the fierce and proudly independent inhabitants, along the Mani’s coastline are the unique tall, narrow and unadorned Maniot stone towers of medieval villages overlooking some of the least-visited yet still beguiling fishing villages in Europe. 

The Mani Peninsula, for many years somewhat of a backwater for Greek tourism, is now attracting visitors for its Byzantine churches, Frankish castles, stunning scenery and low-key waterside resorts.

“Kardamyli,” wrote Leigh Fermor when he first saw it in the 1950s, “was a castellated hamlet on the edge of the sea. Several towers and a cupola and belfry rose above the roofs and a ledge immediately above them formed a lovely cypress-covered platform. Above this the bare Taygetos piled up. It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece.”

 His conclusion that it was “too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism” has largely held up, although nowhere is immune from the reach of modern travellers.

The remains of Leigh Fermor’s friend and fellow author Bruce Chatwin are buried in the grounds of the Byzantine church of Agios Nikolaos at Exochori in the hills above Kardamyli, close to where Chatwin spent several months in 1985 working on his book The Songlines, inspired by Aboriginal culture.

Kardamyli is still pedestrian-friendly low-rise, bisected by a shop-lined main road and introduced by the beautifully restored 18th century fortified complex of the Troupakis-Mourtzinos clan with its four-storey tower on a rocky hillside in the old village at its western edge. 

Captain Troupakis played an important role during the 1821 Greek Revolution, wresting the Mani Peninsula from the Ottomans. Throughout the Mani, the Greek Ministry of Antiquities has done a superb job restoring these fortified villages without the interpretative reconstructions of last century’s British and Germans archaeologists but with an illustrated narrative in English and Greek that links the hamlets, their clans and histories.

 The now-deserted village of Vathia in the south, dating from the 16th century, is a wonderful example. 

Kardamyli is at the end of the verdant gorge of Viros, from which a network of hiking trails traverse the Taygetos mountain range. 

There are map boards, and hiking trails around the village and maps and/or walking guides are available at the bookshop. 

If you prefer more adventurous activities, there is a cycle shop in the main street which not only rents bikes but also organises tours of the Mani. 

Our double room at Lela’s (€40 a night shoulder season) was directly above the restaurant, our balcony with an uninterrupted view over the Messinian Sea. The family still work in the restaurant kitchen, with Giorgio overseeing the preparation and his children serving. 

The blackboard menu is traditional Greek home cooking — roast chicken, pork lemonato, goat and fish — delicious and filling honest food, much of it foraged from the surrounding landscape.

From Kardamyli, we drove south to Areopolis, turning east through the mountains to the port of Gythio and then north to Sparti, from where the Byzantine city of Mystras, a UNESCO World Heritage site overlooking the valley of the Eurotas River and the plain of Sparta, cascades down a steep spur of Mt Taygetos. For two centuries (1262-1460) Mystras, as the capital of the province of Morea, had direct links with Constantinople and the city’s art and architecture reflect the magnificence of the Byzantine age.

While much of Mystras is ruins, there are churches, palaces, communal areas and houses which are largely intact or have been restored. The frescoes in the Peribleptos Monastery church and the church of Agia Sophia, for example, dating between 1348 and 1380, are very rare surviving examples of late Byzantine art. 

The site is accessed from two carparks, lower and upper, which are about 3km apart so, unless you’re very fit, it is best to park in the lower one, catch a taxi to the top carpark and walk down through the ruins, which are extensive.

From Mystras, an alternative drive back to Kardamyli via Kalamata is on the winding and precipitous road over and through Mt Tagetos. This is one of the the most spectacular and interesting drives in the Peloponnese but not for the faint-hearted. 

To enjoy the romance of the journey without heart palpitations, the local bus services are cheap, prompt, safe and comfortable. 

With Greece expected to have greeted 30 million visitors this year, expected to rise to 40 million by 2022, mainly from an increase in Chinese and Russian tourists, the less-travelled roads of the Mani Peninsula are a welcome respite from the organised tours and cruise ships of the increasingly crowded islands.

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