Not mad about Mani

Wednesday 31 July 2013

We have spent a few days driving around Mani - the middle peninsula of the Peloponnese and the second most southerly point in mainland Europe (after Tarifa in Spain). We’re not sure what to make of it really. It is quite barren and isolated in parts and we didn’t find the same welcome we have found in most other areas of Greece.

Gytheio - gateway to Mani from the east

Limenas beach with barren backdrop
Sunrise on the hillside near Kotronas

Famous for its tower houses, Frankish castles, Byzantine churches and fortified dwellings the architecture is quite distinct to this area, but sadly many of the houses are abandoned and derelict.
Tall tower houses - tiny villages
Just one of many derelict and abandoned houses

The scenery is certainly stunning. Along the spine of the peninsula runs the Taygetos mountain range and until the 70’s when the new roads were built some villages were only accessible by sea. Most of the narrow winding roads hug the coastline or follow the valleys and gorges and there has been little investment in signposting. A few nights before we even arrived at Mani I had a dream that I took a ‘short-cut’ and drove straight down a mountainside track rather than take the normal zig-zag route. Thankfully Dave stuck to the main road and we survived the trip – albeit with a few scary moments! 

Looking south towards the headland
Single lane - for miles, with steep drops and no Armco in sight!
Arriving at the most southerly point of Inner Mani we watched the large shipping containers rounding the headland. There was a weird sanctuary which Gareth and I went to investigate. Inside was an odd collection of offerings from todays ‘pilgrims’ – broken flippers, coins, packets of condoms, toys, jewellery, cigarettes, pebbles and shells together with a book full of multi-lingual messages. Quite a contrast to the beautiful votive offerings of carved models, miniature vases and weapons left in ancient times that we have seen on display in museums on our trip through Greece.

Today's offerings to the Oracle!

The area has a long and chequered history. Neolithic remains were found in coastal caves and artifacts from the Mycenaean period (1900 BC - 1100 BC) have been found here. It was occupied by Dorians in 1200 BC and became a dependency of Sparta.  Over the subsequent centuries, the peninsula was fought over by the Byzantines, the Franks (Italian and French knights), and the Saracens. In 1460, after the fall of Constantinople, local chiefs, wanting to retain their own internal self-government in Mani, arranged to pay an an annual tribute to the Ottomans – although it is reported they actually only paid it once! Even after the Greek War of Independence they wanted to retain local autonomy and violently resisted outside interference. Ultimately the area became a backwater and many locals moved to the cities or abroad in search of a better lifestyle. They certainly came across to us as a feisty bunch! A guy ‘parked’ his car in the middle of the small road running through Gerolimenas, and staggered into the mini-market. He returned about 5 minutes later with a can of beer in one hand, cigarette in another and swore at all the, now very impatient, drivers stuck behind him.

Main road through Gerolimenas - gridlocked!

Apparently the name Mani originates from the Greek word "Manîa" (Μανία), meaning "crazed" or "wild"  and the English word "mania" is said to have derived from this. In all honesty we weren’t crazy about Mani but it was an interesting drive out to this remote area of Greece.

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