Limeni and Areopoli

Itilo Bay looking south to Kouskouni - springtime

It is a frustrating fact that although one can clearly see the stark and brooding mountain of Kouskouni which towers over Areopoli, the entrance way to the Deep Mani and the most important town in the vicinity, it takes a good fifteen minutes to drive down to the shores of the bay - all the way round the bay then up the other side in a series of looping bends.

For a clickable map relating to this page click here

Halfway down the northern escarpment of Itilo Bay is the Monastery of the Dekoulou This has extensive late 18th century frescoes painted by Demangaleas in the 1760s and an ornate iconostasis. There is a track to this half way down the hill and the monastery is given fuller coverage in the page on Itilo. There are a number of newish hotels along the pebbly beach of Neo Itilo and towering above them to the east are the large cliffs of Kelefa Castle.

Tucked into the bottom of a steep valley some 2 kilometres further on is Limeni. This dorp doesn't look very important and it is easy to swoop past it on the new road. In fact it was the lair of the Mavromichalis family who came to dominate the west central section of Mani in the 18th and early 19th centuries. With the most famous of them being Petros Mavromichalis who became Bey of Mani in 1815 and is always refered to as 'Petrobey'. The family are in legend descended from an early 'Black Michael' (the literal translation of the name) - a shepherd who wooed and married a nymph - their offspring forming the beginnings of the Mavromichalis clan. Bob Barrow reports that he once saw, on Greek TV, an old black & white film of this legend filmed in the 'actual' locations - the nymph's home being the caves at Pyrgos Dirou. The nymph though giving birth to a son (much firing of muskets and feasting) being other-worldly sadly cannot speak. This is solved by Mavromichalis taking the infant and threatening to push the poor mite into the local bread oven. The nymph finds her voice and cries out to Mavromichalis to desist. His trick has worked (much more firing of muskets, roasting of sheep etc.)

Limeni in the 1830s

The Mavromichalis were always at odds with other Maniate leaders and there was great rivalry with the Mourtzinos clan in Kardamili. But Petrobey was a shrewd politician and leader and his prominent role in the Greek War of Independence ensured that his family prospered and gained great influence. Even the hot-headed killing of the first President of an independent Greek state, Kapodistrias, by Petrobey's sons in 1831 failed to deflate the rise of the family. Throughout the 19th and 20th century they were MPs, Ministers and Generals, usually of a right leaning, royalist persuasion and in 1910, for a few short weeks, a Mavromichalis was Prime Minister of Greece. The family are still active in local politics.

Their largish 'palace' still exists along with the remains of two pyrgi. Leake reports that in 1805 there were five or six magazines, the self same two pyrgi and to the north of Petrobey Mavromichalis' pyrgos and a monastery dedicated to the Panagia - the remains of which still exist on the seashore on the north entrance to Limeni. The whole monastery is a mess - the roof of the katholikon having fallen in and the whole site choked with weeds and brambles. It took me a good few minutes to scythe my way in using a stick and feeling like one of the knights forcing their way into Sleeping Beauty's castle. There is little to reward such foolhardy and prickly efforts as damp has done away with most of the frescos. However, from the evidence of remnants of the Ainoi (Last Psalms) paintings on the north side of the naos, it is clear these are from the middle of the 18th century and by the same painters who painted the churches of Ag. Georgios, Mirsini, Ag. Theodoroi, Kambos, Ag. Vasilieos, Kelefa and other churches in Exo and Kato Mani.

The Monastery ruins at Limeni - the sun rising over the cliffs behind the ruined church and the damp ravaged 18th century paintings of the Last Psalms

Limeni was the port of Areopolis - although for sailing vessels Limeni and the whole of Itilo Bay are not tremendously safe harbours. H.M.Denham's "The Eastern Mediterranean - a sea guide…" (1964) says of the Gulf of Messenia, "The Eastern shores are inhospitable, and though Limeni is claimed to be a port it is impossible to lie there comfortably in westerly winds". In fact there are the remains of a classical period vessel on the sea bed just off Limeni for those of an aqualung archaeological bent (n.b. use of aqualungs is strictly restricted by the Greeks). But as trade brought money and control of trade brought power the Mavromichalis family came to dominate the area. The Mavromichalis tower still remains in Limeni (lit. "port" or "harbour") - otherwise it has resorted to being a sleepy hamlet with a couple of fish tavernas - there was, reputedly, a museum in the tower but a few artefacts got nicked and it closed down. On the road up the side of the Bay is a striking tourist development clinging like a stone barnacle to the bare slope. In this empty landscape the architectural chutzpah of the 'village' actually works as its stones seem to have grown from the bedrock. Today the road swings up the slope in relatively leisurely curves. In 1805 Leake complained that the path was, "…fit only for a Maniate or his mule." (in fact, as has been pointed out to me by John Halleck, a kalderimi enthusiast from Utah, that the better route from Itilo Bay up to Areopoli is by means of a well engineered stretch of that 18th century muletrack which leaves the main road near the southern end of the Bay. This track is relatively well preserved and is part of one of Michael Cullen's recommended walks in his 'Landscapes of Southern Peloponnese' published by Sunflower books.)

Areopoli

Areopoli means 'the city of Ares' - the God of War - and the name was only adopted in the late 1830s after the Greek War of Independence in honour of the Maniates' warlike propensities. Before that it had the Slavic name Tsimova - and it is likely that some locals continue to use this appellation. From the main road it is an unprepossessing place. The road is lined with garages and farm machinery repair shops - drive into the town from the north east and one is soon in amongst narrow streets - it is best to take a later street into the large - and rather desolate - square and park there (unless it is market day!). Dominating the square is a large modern statue of Petrobey Mavromichalis. It is a rather romanticised interpretation of this great Maniat leader - showing him in over-vigorous youth in local costume and wielding a vicious looking yatagan (in more realistic contemporary sketches from the period of the War of Independence he is shown as rather stout with a receding chin under his huge white handlebar moustache - although it should be pointed out in his defense that Leake and most other commentators, who met him, were impressed by his manner and bearing). The square was tarted up in the summer of 2001 and is now less windswept in aspect to when I first visited it in 1991. For Mani enthusiasts (who speak or read Greek) it is also worth noting that on the west side there is a rather splendid bookshop which specialises in Mani related matter and is run by local enthusiast Georgios Dimakogiannis, originally from near Kotronas, who also edits and publishes a magazine on Mani (Mani: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow).

Georgios in his 'Adouloti Mani' Bookshop and the statue of Petrobey Mavromichalis - central platea - Areopolis (the flag behind him is a modern copy of the Maniates flag of the War of Independence. Most Greek flags had similar slogans such as "Freedom or Death" sewn on to them. The Maniates point out that as they perceived themselves as already free their flags just said 'Niki i Thanatos', 'Victory or Death'!)

Georgios' spoken English is not his forté, nor is my Greek, in any way, manner or form, felicitous, but once I had introduced myself I was soon posing for a photograph with him which, helas, may appear in a later issue of the magazine! (I was having a particularly bad hair day!) Bob Barrow was so taken by Georgios' penchant for having some Mani related titles bound in leather that he is now the proud possesor (and purchaser!) of his own Mani book, Morocco bound!

The way the Mavromichalis family stimulated the area is shown by a comparison with what Tsimova was like before their dominance. Evliya Celebi the Turkish travel writer described the village in 1670 as consisting of a mere 80 houses - whereas Itilo on the northern side of the bay of Limeni had a contemporaneous 1000 houses. He also points out the paucity of soil in the area and lack of gardens and vineyards. "The inhabitants get their living from cows, goats and mules. It is fed from the sea by crabs, octopus, mussels, oysters sea urchins and other crustaceans. Their bread is kalamboki. Since they drink wine, they sleep like pigs". Things had changed by the beginning of the 19th century when Leake reported that the inhabitants of Tsimova, "…with those of five villages near it, are anxious to be considered separate from the remainder of Inner Mani, which forms more particularly the Kakavulia, or land of Evil Counsel."

Below the square on the north side the town becomes more cluttered in appearance with shops bursting out of doorways and it it can be amusing to watch the snarl ups caused by the endearing Greek habit of parking or just stopping wherever one can regardless of inconvenience to others. Here is one (or rather two - they are connected) of the churches of Areopoli - the dual churches of Panagia and Ag. Charalambos. They are usually left open and although mostly whitewashed the interiors do boast some wall paintings of the 18th/19th century period.

Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Areopoli. View from west and Jonah and the Whale from the altar

If one takes the southerly road leading west from the main square things are quieter - but keep going as you eventually will reach the church of Ag. Iannis Prodromos (John the Baptist). This is an post-Byzantine edifice with mid 18th century wallpaintings - recognisably similar to many other examples of 'The School of Koutiphari' painters such as Nikolaos of Nomitisis and Anagnostes of Langada who were painting in the 1750s and 1760s.

The paintings are colourful, comic strip like and often rather niaive. I'm not the first to spot that in the above picture of Pilate washing his hands of him, Christ is floating in mid air or levitating. The other nice detail is the small drummer boy, who might well have been seen as a street musician in 18th century Mani. The church is usually unlocked.

Areopoli, carvings over the door of Taxiarches and signs of the zodiac around the apse

Further down the town is another square which holds the Mavromichalis family Church of the Taxiarches in its centre which according to Traquair was built in 1798. This has either been locked or there has been a service going on when I have visited but the relief carvings over the doors of the church are rather fine and the large church itself is an impressive demonstration of the importance of Areopoli and the Mavromichalis family. The interior is decorated with late 18th century wall paintings. Niphakos, the jaded Mani poet had this to say of the inhabitants in comparison to the majority of the deep Maniates, "The Tzimovites only are worthy men, their manners and good customs shew it in appearance merchants, but (he cannot resist the dig) secretly pirates, the blast and drought take them all."

An interesting interlude in Areopolis' history was the insertion for a period of around four years of a pair of American missionaries. For some reason, which still somewhat eludes me, in the 1830s the American Board of Missionaries decided to target Greece as a good country to convert to Christianity. As the Greek Orthodox Church was still very much in control of the

Pirgos Dirou and Glezos

The road southwards sweeps around a large bay before entering the village of Pirgos Dirou. This is a favourite tourist venue for coaches as just to the west of the village are the famous Dirou Caves - only discovered this century and only opened to the public in the 1960s. The Glifada caves are a large complex which one can be taken around on boats and wonder at the stalactites and stalagmites. Frankly I have absolutely no interest in caves and have never visited them but I am assured that these are something special. Pirgos is also worth visiting on a Wednesday when there is a local morning market. Leake was warned in 1805 that the English were not popular in Pirgos as a Captain Donnelly had seized a pirate tratta (small ship) which had had a crew of 25 from the village, pointing again to the importance piracy had in the local community.

The area from Pirgos Dirou southward to Gerolimenas is rich with Byzantine churches and it would be possible to spend days and months finding all of them and I am aware that I have only scratched the surface. Few are visible from the main road and it is necessary to take the narrow lanes which snake off into the country either side of the road. These are often extremely serpentine and high sided - and prayers are offered that one doesn't meet a vehicle coming the other way as three or even thirteen point turns are frankly out of the question.

Pirgos itself has a number of churches and just to the south of the village off the main road (some 50 metres or so) there is a turning to the east signposted to Glezos (or Glezou). A small lane wanders past a few farmhouses (take the older looking reddish route - we ended up in someone's backyard by following a better track) and turns to the south. Eventually a Byzantine domed church will be in front of you. The Church of the Taxiarches (Archangels) is dated to the 11th/12th century and is nowadays used as a cemetery church. The interior is mostly whitewashed but from the evidence of the few fragments which still stand out must have been covered in frescoes in the past. The few remnants of medieval frescos include depictions of the Archangels in Byzantine studded armour and muscular unfurled wings and a faded Pantocrator in the cupola. There is a very new and unsympathetic templon made of relief gray marble inset with modern icons which is completely out of place in such an old building but is doubtless the pride and joy of the Papas. There is a narthex. The outside is of large well cut stones interspersed with cloisonné work. There are a couple of modern buttresses on the south side of the church which include in their conglomerate a number of examples of medieval white marble carvings which probably come from the original internal templon and which match those of the internal tie beams.

Glezos, Taxiarches - view and fragment of archangel

Just further south is another small turning to the left which is signposted to Ag. Petros. You can see the dome of this Byzantine church above one on the slopes of the Sangias. A track which gets steadily worse circles up from the south of the church - eventually you find yourself driving along the contour line in a northerly direction and Ag. Petros appears below this encircled by cypress trees. For many years the church's dome was naked to the elements but in the last year or so tiles have been added to it.

Ag Petros nr. Pyrgos - views from the east

The outside of the church is in reasonable nick and has remains of medieval cloisonné work and insets for the type of ceramic bowls which decorate such churches as Ag. Varvara at Erimos. Here, unfortunately the bowls have succumbed to time or been filched. The cruciform (a surprisingly uncommon plan in Greece) church is 22 feet wide by 24 feet long. Traquair believed it later in style to Tourlotti at Kitta and Taxiarches at Charouda (see following description) which would place it to the 12th century. There are some fragmentary Byzantine period frescos still remaining inside the church as other visitors have reported. These are interesting to the specialist but somewhat time-ravaged and not much can be seen through the open top of the door (believe me, I peered) which was firmly locked in May 2003.

West face of Ag Petros and plan (from Traquair)

Continuing south on the main road it is worth a detour to the right (seawards) along a winding lane to Charouda. It is easy to ignore a church on a right hand bend of the road as you come through some houses that signify the village of Nikantri. It is quite large monochambered and undistinguished and has modern aluminium windows which had dissuaded Bob Barrow and I from giving it more than a cursory glance. How many times have we done this? Driving blithely past a church with a derisory, "Oh just some 19th century thing of no interest!", only to find later that it had exquisite wall paintings? This church, Ag. Georgios, is one of those. An email from a Dutch Mani fan who had many years ago spotted that this church had some rather fine frescos alerted me to the fact. In turn I emailed Bob who scurried down there to report that the church was locked but that the modern windows allowed one a good view of the paintings. He enquired as to the keyholder, to be informed that it was an old lady but that she was out with her goats (this narrows it down to probably 70% of the population of the village and as yet neither of us is any the wiser). I visited the church in May 2003 and it was still locked and not a goat, let alone a little old lady, in sight.

The paintings, from what one can see, mainly the north wall, are probably late medieval to 16th century. They have a size and artistic verve which post-Byzantine painting rarely, if ever, matches and I would dearly like to get a closer and more leisurely look at them. The photo below of St. George and various luminaries of the pantheon of the Orthodox church was taken through the window and is therefore somewhat burred. The size of the paintings can be judged by the stalls which are fixed in front of them.

Ag. Giorgos, Nikantri - view from SW and frescos

Continue to take the extremely narrow road in a westerly direction through Charouda until the Church of the Taxiarches appears on your right, there's a parking spot near the entrance to the walled compound.

Church of the Taxiarches - Charouda

Dated to the 11th century mid-Byzantine period it is still used as a cemetery church and is a splendid example of medieval architecture. The key holder reputedly lives nearby but on my first visit I merely had two indifferent workmen digging a grave and the door was firmly locked. A pity as the inside boasts good, if 18th century, wall paintings. The doors have since been upgraded to Fort Knox style metal things with perhaps the largest padlocks I've ever clapped eyes on and frankly a large semtex charge would be needed to even shake the things. The many arched bell tower is presumably a later 18th or 19th century addition. There is an odd building to the north of the church, presumably a chapel of rest or ossuary, but steps onto its roof allow one an excellent viewing platform from which to study the roof and cupola of the church and views over the Mesa Mani.

Taxiarches, Charouda

Back on the main road after a kilometre or so you'll notice the Monastery of the Phaneromeni in its walled compound to your right - it's in the valley which runs down to the bay of Artsi. The building looks rather uninteresting at first being long and low in structure and there is no dome, but at the west end there is, what appears to be, a truncated Mani tower and to the north are the dormitories of the resident nuns.

Phaneromeni Monastery nr Tsopakas. View from south and different layers of medieval frescos

Closer inspection shows that it has a number of cloisonnéd arches over doorways (and blocked in doorways) and there are any number of old medieval marbles either set into various walls or lying on the ground. So it's probably of the mid Byzantine period but appears to have been constructed in a number of extensions over (probably) a matter of centuries - 12th to 14th? Additionally later occupants have obviously blocked off bits, added windows, shoved up stucco and concrete and generally had fun with the building. Trying to guess the actual architectural history of the church is therefore quite puzzling and I wished I'd had an expert (or for that matter anyone) to bounce ideas off when I explored it in May 2003. There wasn't even a nun around to confuse with my dreadful Greek, though I could hear distant sounds of their presence. They'd nicely left the door open - and this, it appears, is generally the case unless there is a service going on.

Monastery of the Phaneromeni, in between Diros and Tsopakas, the tower and medieval lintel over the south door

Inside the church are a a plethora of wall paintings, all in a rather poor state and as experts have obviously been at work uncovering the different layers there are both plaster scars over many paintings and which bit belongs to which period is another fascinating mental exercise. There are three different layers - all of which, on my reckoning are old - that's to say Byzantine. Off to south of the monastery enclosure is a delightful well. I'm told it's delightful as I dutifully failed to spot this and the first thing two different people asked me when I got 'home' that evening was "Did you see the well? Isn't it delightful?". Hey Ho.

(NB I've since been back and the 'spring in a grotto' is actually rather tacky and tasteless - and Bob Barrow recently got a confession from one of the nuns that they'd knocked the place up about 15 years ago - so it doesn't even have any pedigree)

Both Tsopokas and Kafiona some two miles further south have medieval gems - near Kafiona is Ag. Theodoros which has been studied by Drandakis which has inscriptions dating the frescos to 1145 and some later to the reign of Michael VIII Paleologus (1259-1282) - I haven't visited it but have reports of difficulties in finding a keyholder. Tsopokas is easy to drive straight through and miss the narrow turning to the right off the main road. Some mile or so towards the sea is the ramshackle but splendid church called Trissakia (lit. 'three churches'). Greenhalgh and Eliopolous' "Deep Into Mani" book gives you instructions to leave your car near a huge limestone hole and walk by a small path to the church. When I first visited the spot in 1994 I religiously followed their instructions and spent a merry half hour fighting my way down an overgrown donkey track on foot. Eventually I found Trissakia but not after wishing I had brought a machete with me. It is quite possible to drive all the way (as I found out on my way back). The way past the grotto and the village soon becomes a dirt track and care - if one is concerned for one's car's sump - is required - but it is driveable. The huge hole, obviously a collapsed limestone sink, is now encircled by a stone wall and is deep enough to house a number of mature fig trees.

Trissakia, Tsopokas - View and depiction of Last Supper

Trissakia is in fields about five minutes drive to the west and is fronted by a rather scuddy pool of water - with dark red soil around its margins. The church is outwardly unimpressive. It consists of three barrel vaults - hence the name - three saints, one for each vault though Drandakis, on the evidence of the paintings in the central vault, ascribes the church as Ag. Theodoros, though this hasn't stuck with the locals. A farmer I once encountered on my way to the church clearly called it Trissakia. What the two side vaults were dedicated to is unknown - and no paintings survive to give any clues. The apse of the church has collapsed. It is a ruin. Entering through the open west end of the central and largest vault you might be forgiven for wondering if any paintings could have survived. They have but are fast fading and I have spotted deterioration between Eliopolous' photographs and mine of 18 years later as more mould and damp fades and crumbles the remaining frescoes. The paintings are large 'canvases' by local standards and the significant survivors depict the Last Supper, The Garden of Gesthemane and a superb St. Theodore Stratilates. They are obviously painted in the mid 13th century from the armour and costumes worn by the Roman soldiers - who are depicted as Franks in their distinctive chain mail, nose guard helmets and kite shaped shields. The templon of the church is decorated with medieval marble carvings and the site is still venerated. The evidence of this is the pitiful bottle of oil and wicks and matches amongst the rubble.

Trissakia - view from NE and the Garden of Gethsemane on the south wall

Greenhalgh bemoaned the state of the church when he visited in the early 1980s - nothing, sadly, changed in 20 years until recently a gargantuan shed has been erected over the church. This appears to be both unsubtle and sadly ineffective as Bob Barrow's photo of Spring 2003 shows, with half the roof missing. This sort of solution has been tried elsewhere in Greece. Hence the delightfully rusty corrugated iron roof over Nestor's Palace on the west coast near Pylos and the large futuristic 'tent' over the Temple of Apollo at Bassae in the Arcadian mountains- neither of which adds anything to the sublimity of their locations and in fact do great jobs of spoiling a rather nice view.

Again in the case of Trissakia one is glad something is being done to preserve the artistic beauties within but wish that those in charge had shown at least some sensitivities to the integrity of the surroundings.

Interior view (looking east) and Ag. Theodoros Stratelates, Trissakia

The village of Kafiona has the church of Ag. Theodori, which has garnered much interest by scholars but which I've yet to actually find (from photos it's in fields and looks like a pile of rubble) but a bit further south is the turning to Koloumi where there is the fine Byzantine church of the Taxiarches (archangels or often simply the Archangel Michael). This is quite easily seen in a dip between the main road and the small village of Koloumi on a ridge above. The church has undergone some repair in the last decade and is firmly locked. The interior appears to be whitewashed but with interesting medieval marbles in the templon though Kassis reports it has frescos from 1888 by Panagiotis Papadopoulos. The church is dated to the 11th or 12th century.

Taxiarches, Koloumi

Further south on the main road you will - if you don't drive too fast - it's easy to miss the tiny turnings on this road - look for one to the right signposted to Erimos and Ag. Varvara (Barbara).

Again the road is narrow but the church becomes visible at some distance. It is one of the few churches mentioned by Leake in his account of his 1805 journey and Megaw thought it the most perfect of the Mani churches and it is a compact and delightfully proportioned domed edifice. The church is locked - but there is little of historical interest inside, the majority of the walls being whitewashed and the remaining frescoes in the bema of the Panagia and infant Christ of (probably) the nineteenth century. The main joy of Ag. Varvara is the architecture and the wonderful cloisonné brickwork - not forgetting the lovely ceramic bowls set into the brickwork.

Ag. Varvara, Erimos

The exterior of the church has recently been restored and the environs excavated - on my second visit we were confronted by scaffolding and exhumed human skulls and it appears the area has been used as a burial ground for many centuries. I've visited the church three times. On the first I found the key under a stone - on the second we were thwarted and on the third a tiny black-clad lady bustled over from the nearest house clutching the huge key and entreated us to enter. We lit candles - my father and I - both unbelievers - lit one to the memory of my late Mother - another Barbara.

Ag. Varvara, Erimos

Below Erimos the bay of Mezapos shows itself and sticking out into it is the promontory of Tigani - which we will return to in the page on the Cavo Grosso. A turning to the right, down towards the bay, signposted to Mezapos is worth a detour as it ends in the tiny port of Mezapos home of the Sassarians a tough sun beaten tribe to whom Greenhalgh ascribes North African ancestry. The small quay used to be visited by weekly steamers but they have long ago gone to the breakers yard. There is a curious limpid blue circular cove, rather like a miniature Lulworth Cove in Dorset, though on one visit it was clouded by soil as a bulldozer had its way with the environs and a rather expensive and very basic fish restaurant (but then fish are expensive in Greece) and not much else - if you like places at the end of the world then Mezapos is for you but there are no rooms. Mezapos is probably the site of ancient Messa reported by Pausanius. Just below the turning into the main Areopoli-Gerolimenas road is a tiny chapel near a large pond. When I first visited it in 1991 it was roofless and its frescoes exposed but when I returned three years later it had been completely restored and was sadly locked.

Below Mezapos the mass of the Cavo Grosso billows out in successively higher waves of escarpments to the west and this is worth a page to itself. However to the east and parallel to the modern main road is a higher and more ramshackle route which strings together a number of villages hugging the base of the Sangias mountains. You can take this road either at its northern end or join it below Mezapos and drive north - follow signs to Vriki.

There are a number of interesting and some extremely significant churches along this road. There is a fine post-Byzantine period monastery of Ag. Triada (The Holy Trinity) on the road up to Vriki which I and Bob Barrow have independently tried to see inside. In 2002 we went together and - Yup - it was firmly locked again. The church was built as recently as 1708, but was presumably on the site of an earlier Byzantine edifice as there are lovely old 12th century marbles built into the walls and Drandakis reports that there are other old carved marbles in the templon.

Ag. Triada - Below Vriki - view and insert of Byzantine marbles just below the roof of the apse

At the top of this road where it joins the higher road are a number of churches. The domed Ag. Nikolaos, which has some interesting medieval paintings is to your left above the road but easily missed, as it is a complete ruin,, on the left hand side of the T junction is another church dedicated to St George. A scramble into the church reveals a marble beam with the signature of Nikitas the Marbler who left his signature on many a stone in 11th century Mani churches. Of the rest of the church nothing much survives save a sad faced and faded Panagia and infant Christ in the apse.

Vriki - Ag. Georgios. Virgin Mary and overall view of the ruinous state of this mid Byzantine period church

Vriki has a plethora of churches which can be explored - some are Byzantine - Ag. Leon for example is a ruined church with a unique architectural style. It looks from some viewpoints to have a dome but closer inspection shows that it has a smaller barrel vault perching on top of the barrel vault of the nave - what remains of frescoes are 14th century.

Ag. Nikolaos, Vriki and some of its frescos

Just above the road into the village is the tiny but domed church of Ag. Nikolaos (It's a mere 6.5 m by 4.95 m). This is Byzantine with tell tale pieces of cloisonné brickwork in amongst the stone. It's rather tumbledown, the dome has no roof tiles and plants are growing on the roofs and the inside is cramped (there are no columns, the dome being supported by the walls - similar to some churches at Mistra). However, the wall paintings, though much faded and damp are of the 14th or, as Drandakis feels, of the 15th century and repay close attention. There are many elders and saints of the early Orthodox church, though often their faces have been chipped away by superstitious worshipers, which is a pity as those that remain are fine examples of late Byzantine 'portraiture'. Among the more recognisable schemes there is a crucifixion above the west door which includes soldiers in contemporary costume and an interesting version of The Last Supper. The church was unlocked on both my visits, some ten years apart.

Ag. Nikolaos, Vriki. A colourful display of cheap modern icons of St. Nicholas, an unidentified Byzantine church elder and the dome of the church

Turning right at this junction takes you in the direction of Mina and eventually nearer the mountains the small village of Polemitas. Excuse me for being vague but I was being driven by Bob Barrow on this expedition who was in a "Now I think it's up this way somewhere - blast I'm sure this isn't the road [lights cigarette while driving with his knees]…ah yes it is…" mode and therefore took no real directions. Whatever - when you reach Polemitas drive up through the village as if you are going up into the Sangias Mountains and stop the car just beyond the last house. You will now do rather as I did when Bob said "Here we are." I looked around disbelievingly. The track dustily wound off up into the distance and to my left was an untidy pile of concrete and a few smelly dustbins. To the right olive trees and some piles of stones. "This is it is it?" I asked "Are you sure?". Bob smiled beatifically. He'd also stopped here in what had been a lengthy and futile search for the churches we are about to describe and while sat cursing under his breath was accosted by a little old lady in black. "Don't you want to see the churches?" she'd asked and had led a bemused Bob only a few metres to the right of the road where the piles of stones had transformed themselves into Byzantine chapels.

The churches are, I have to admit, extremely well camouflaged and little sophistication had gone into their construction (and even less into their restoration or upkeep). One could easily mistake them for sheep or goat pens. The higher of the two up the slope is dedicated to Ag. Nikolaos and dates from the late 14th century and the lower - they are only some 10-15 metres apart is Ag. Michail and is dated to the 13th century.

Ag. Nikolaos - Polemitas with late Byzantine fresco of Ag. Georgios and Ag. Kyriaki

The most striking of the frescos is a six foot high vivid St. George spearing the dragon, in this version a coiled serpent like creature. The rider is in late Byzantine costume, a quiver of arrows and his composite bow slung from the saddle and his steed's tail is either docked or tied up in best medieval cavalry tradition. Opposite this is a Christ enthroned in a similarly large niche and much of the surface of the church interior is covered with bright frescos. There is only a tiny doorway (with a few bits of wood to stop animals coming in) and no windows.

A Stylite Saint (Simeon?) flanked by Agia Nona and Agia Barbara - all from the sides of the large niches in the naos of Ag. Nikolaos Polemitas

Just down the slope and similarly difficult to spot in the undergrowth is St. Michael's. This church has such a low doorway (no door again) that one has to limbo dance (or in our middle aged cases an undignified semblance of limbo dancing) into it. This church is special in that it has one of the very few donor inscriptions which includes the painter's name that survive from the Byzantine era - in the whole of the Orthodox world let alone Mani. The date of the paintings is 1278. The Byzantine paintings are pretty faded and the plaster has fallen away, or in the case of some eyes and faces, been picked away by supersticious locals over the years.

St Michael's Polemitas

Nevertheless what one can ascertain shows an artist who was a master of movement and grace which is most obvious in the acutely and sensuously observed folds of the robes of the saints and holies who populate the walls. By the way the large depiction of the Archangel Michael, after whom the church is named, is a late 18th century paint-over job.

Below the village to the SW is a church dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian or the Anagyri (those without silver - they were doctors to the poor and needy and took no payment) which, perhaps because of its size and location has been well restored externally in recent times and is obviously used regularly.

Ag. Anagyri - Polemitas - view from SW and a detail of Joseph

It is crude architecturally being made of megalithic stones, probably just hauled out of the local fields, and the inside, mostly medieval, must have, at one time been a joy to behold but most has sadly faded and the themes are difficult to read. It was unlocked in June 2002.

Vamvaka, a few kilometres or so further north back through Vriki, overlooks the Bay of Mezapos and the Tigani promontory. The road runs through the village along the contour line but if one turns up towards the mountains in the middle of Vamvaka you'll eventually come to Ag. Theodoros.

Ag. Theodoros, Vamvaka and the domed Ag. Nikolaos at Briki

This domed Byzantine church can be dated to the 11th century and is made of carefully cut stone and has some decorative cloisonné work. It can in fact be dated even more accurately than that. Unusually for a church so old it bears the signature of one of its builders. The marble carver Nikitas decided to leave his mark for posterity and, felicitously, the date, August 6583 - that's Byzantine dating - or 1075 in modern reckoning.

Ag. Theodoros - Vamvaka from the west

By the way don't expect enormous success in attempts to decipher any of the inscriptions and carved writing you may find in churches - unless that is you are fluent in arcane forms of Greek language and letter forms. Nikitas' fortuitous chiseling has formed the basis of most of the dating of Byzantine churches in Mani by experts in the twentieth century. From the architectural form of Ag. Theodoros Megaw, in particular, drew up a table of dates for church building in Mani. This may seem a rather slender thread of evidence on which to balance an entire chronology (if you'll forgive my mixed metaphors) and most other churches in the vicinity are bereft of handy bits of medieval graffiti to help one date them. Scholars therefore use churches such as Ag. Theodoros to benchmark certain types of decoration and building patterns.

Nikitas' carvings - Vamvaka, Ag. Theodoros

Nikitas' carvings which occur throughout Ag. Theodoros on tie beams and templon are very fine examples of the marbler's art - there is another one of his lintels, graced again by his signature at the ruined Ag. Georgios just down the road at Briki - and are worth a tour around the interior of Ag. Theodoros. The church is unlocked and most of the interior is whitewashed and devoid of painted decoration. Incidentally the tie beams at the Taxiarches church in Glezos may well also be the work of Nikitas - a man with a busy order book in the 11th century as there are many other churches, both in the Mesa and Exo Mani which may well be blessed with work by Nikitas or his workshop.

Continuing north along this road are the villages of Nakia, Paleochora, Drialos and Fragoulias some of which may have made up a group of five villages along this slope which Leake was told were called the Pendadha. They all have churches to discover the most striking of which is the twin undomed churches of Ag. Georgios and Ag. Katerina in Drialos. Ag Katerina sports 13th century Byzantine cloisonné work and a unique doorway which forms a double arch with a column in the middle underneath a single arched belfry. Ag Georgios is much later and has some rather stilted 19th century frescoes. What is interesting here is that the later church is in the usual east/west orientation - the earlier medieval church is almost north/south. This, and the column, may point to it being an ancient temple site re-used by the Byzantines.

Drialos - Ag. Katerina and Ag Georgios. Ag. Katerina in the foreground in both shots

Further up in the village (up and to the north) is the post-Byzantine church of the Taxiarches with a, by Mesa Mani standards, quite impressive bell tower into which are set some medieval marble carved lintels (there's another built into the fabric of one of the internal walls of the church).

Taxiarches (Archangels) Drialos, tower and detail of medieval marbles set into it

The paintings are either late 18th or 19th century affairs. Quite bold if rather niave in execution. Those that remain are mainly at standing height around the walls. A fine SS.Eleni and Konstantinos and two of the church's namesakes, the Archangels, are joined by other elders of the Orthodox church. There is a St. Demetrios which has lost everything save the lower half of his rearing chestnut horse - and the moustachioed (Turkish?) victim of the saint's spear trodden below the horse's hooves.

Drialos, Taxiarches - frescos of the Archangels and the victim of St. Demetrios' spear

To continue with our southerly progress on the main road. Soon after the turning to Mezapos you'll pass the signposts to Gardenitsa to the right - which we'll return to later and as one approaches Kitta one should spot on the slope to your left the compact domed form of Tourlotti. This church is approachable by car from a track descending obliquely southwards up the lower slopes of the Sangias which passes just above Tourlotti - you may have just whizzed past the turning.

Tourlotti, nr. Kitta

Tourlotti means 'the domed one' in local dialect and is actually the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus - military saints from Asia Minor and rarely included in the Mani pantheon, although it is also, confusingly, sometimes called Ag. Georgios. It is a compact jewel of mid Byzantine architecture and has been sympathetically restored to what must be close to its original glory. There is a lower section of dressed stone but above that is a delightful layer of dog-toothed cloisonné work which in turn is surmounted by a layer of diamond shaped tiles. Above that are expertly cut blocks interspersed with single cloisonné. The external windows are dressed with cloisonné. Almost square the church vies with Ag. Varvara at Erimos as the best example of Byzantine architecture in Mani.

The church is locked , keys are kept by Dimitris Kolokouris. To know how to find him click here. However there is not much of interest inside the church. Most of the interior walls are bare stone and what remains of medieval frescos are fragmentary. There is a partial Pantocrator in the bema and other bits and pieces but most of the marble tie beams are missing though there are decorated marble surrounds to parts of the walls. There are other churches in the vicinity of Tourlotti. Give yourself time to look at the surroundings and they will appear out of the landscape although most are crumbling back into it.

There is another church just up the track and down the hill about 100 metres to the south west is a small barrel vaulted affair which is locked . When we visited it a bat could be seen flitting around energetically inside. The frescoes on the north wall were visible through a window and are of the Byzantine period. Ag. Georgios mounted on his charger is dressed in 12th century armour with the typical Frankish knee length quilted and studded leggings and the typical 'kite' shaped shield of the period. To his side is a white haired and bearded Saint with a rope around his neck and on the west wall a vast wheel is being turned with a Saint strapped to its apex. I have only a faint idea what this church is called - from the position of St George next to the templon - possibly Ag. Georgios and from the mounted nature of that saint I would guess that the painting was mid 13th century.

Ag. Georgios (?) nr. Tourlotti Kitta

On the other side of the main road is the village of Gardenitsa. Like many Mani villages it straggles somewhat and in fact the best turning to take is an unprepossessing track off the side of a gravel store to the south of the village. This wibbles through the countryside until Ag. Soter (the Saviour) appears before you. This is another fine mid Byzantine church and like Ag. Stratigos at Ano Boulari it has an original feature in a domed exo narthex - or rather in this case a sort of porch supported by columns.

Church of the Soter, Gardenitsa

I first visited the place on a lowering early May day when the clouds that often hang ominously over the Sangias seemed to be even more threatening than normal and didn't hang around to search for a key holder who I am reliably informed inhabits a nearby white concrete house opposite the church and is willing to give one the keys. The architecture is good - again pointing both to the skill of the architects and builders (quite likely one and the same person) of the 11th and 12th centuries and to the relative wealth and stability in which they were able to function. There are some frescos in a poor state but much of the interior has been whitewashed.

If you drive from the church of the Soter at Gardenitsa up the road to the west climbing a small ridge and then turning left (south) along the ridge and continuing until the road runs out near a large walled compound you will see in the distance to the south the low roof of Ag. Petros.

Ag. Petros - Gardenitsa - view from South and the rare dual conched apse

This is reached by foot along a deserted and very overgrown kalderimi which continues along the ridgeway in the same southward direction . It's only about 500 metres but the September day we tried it there was a gale blowing and driving rain and the thorny desiccated plants made the going more than enough for my companion in her shorts who retired to the comfort of the car (The path was little better in May 2005 and was still capable of a nasty scratch though this time the sun shone). You have to scramble over a couple of walls to reach the door of the church. The architectural style is unsophisticated and is merely a barrel vault topped with a tikles roof. The vicinity is deserted and the door, on both occasions I've visited was unlocked. On my first visit I disturbed a large owl who had been hiding from the storm in the south niche. Inside the church has a fine set of mid-Byzantine frescoes, possibly from the 11th century.

The Raising of Lazarus and detail of Taxiarch

The church is a rare example of a bi-conched apse. These are uncommon in the whole of Europe let alone Greece - though there are a number of similar examples in Mesa Mani. All quite old dating from the 11th century. Ag. Pantelemeion in Ano Boulari is a good example.

An early version of the Nativity - Ag. Petros Gardenitsa

The Entry into Jerusalem and Satan bound in the "Harrowing of Hell" - Ag. Petros Gardenitsa

Kitta

Kitta (or Kita) just to the south of Gardenitsa and Tourlotti is a strange place. The new main road whips past its western end but straggling up the hill to the east is one of the major villages of the Mesa Mani and one of the past strongholds of the Nikliani - the overlayer or 'aristocracy' which dominated Mesa Mani society. Kitta was one of the last bastions of the old Mani ways, piracy, internecine conflict and vicious vendettas - the last canon blast between towers was stopped by force in 1871. The remains of its war towers, of which Leake in 1805 counted "no less than twenty two", now like the few remaining stumps in an old crone's mouth, point to its importance and the dreadful infighting which used to reign. The Earl of Carnarvon reported a thirty year quarrel which had started for the banal reason that someone had hung onto anothers' scarf for a few seconds more than was necessary in a village dance. Montagu and Capulet without the Shakespeare or Prokoviev.

Kita - Tower and Concrete New Church in construction late 1990s

It is now a forlorn place with few attractions and much desolation. In the centre of the village is a vast half built new church. It is a empty hearted simulacra of a Byzantine church - overlarge and grandiose - built of crude re-inforced concrete and utterly soulless. It is completely out of place in this village of ghosts. There are two explanations for this empty edifice. One story says that Kato and Ano Kitta still don't talk to one another and this church is an attempt to re-knit the community or alternatively I have heard that any Papas who wishes to hang on to his parish must prove himself by building a new church - if this is so then the money would be better spent restoring some of the multitude of crumbling ecclesiastical ruins in the vicinity than shoving up insensitive crud like this.

Patrick Leigh Fermor writes of arriving at sunset in the 'rougia' ('central meeting place' is a poor translation) of Kitta and being welcomed and fed and watered by the locals. I may be wrong, but those days have long gone - it's as if the effort of three centuries of vicious and fanatical infighting have drained the village of energy and once the financial raison d'être of the village had gone - and tourists go to more softer coastal locations and many locals have left for brighter lights - the village has turned like its outside features - to petrifaction.

The road runs on towards the open sea and the road eventually swings south-eastwards to Vathia, Porto Kaiyo and Matapan. Below the main road at the head of a sharp cliffed inlet is the tiny fishing port of Gerolimenas. It is a place of somnolence and torpor. Although it has two or three tavernas, an hotel and a post office Gerolimenas has the feeling of somewhere forgotten at the edge of the world. It is really a relatively recent village being developed from nothing to a thriving steamer port in the 1870s by a local entrepreneur called Michael Katsimankis of Kipoula. The steamers stopped calling nearly 50 years ago and it has nothing of earlier historical interest to detain one. It merely offers its refreshment amenities and a few friendly (if sometimes hideous) dogs and cats who ingratiate for titbits from your table. Though recently Gerolimenas has got the 'boutique hotel' makeover and has become one of those little hideaways beloved of the monied classes. The Kyrimai hotel, which has been created out of derelict warehouses, is a spot of luxury in an otherwise God forsaken spot and seems to have given a little spurt of modern life-style to the village - but one suspects it'll be a while before it rivals St. Tropez.

To the east up the mountain is Ano Boulari to the west the Cavo Grosso and to the south east is the final snout of Mani.