Exohori (literally "the outer place") is part of the larger grouping of villages, sometimes including Kardamili, called Androuvitsa (or Ardouvitsa), although you won't find that name on modern maps. That name goes back to medieval times and is of Slavic origin. Indeed a man called Spanis is reported by the Venetians of the time as being 'Captain of Arduvista' and there is evidence that the Spanos family were leaders of the originally Slavic tribe of Melingi during the late medieval period. It is likely that the Androuvitsa area was one of the centres of this tribe's power in the Outer Mani, though by the 14th century we can assume that they were Greek speaking and of the Orthodox faith. Although the Melingi were an independent lot and there is evidence that they played off the Franks against the Byzantines in Mistra they seem to have had much more in common with their Greek neighbours than the Franks.
Exohori - as seen from the northern rim of the Viros Gorge
The name is repeated in many a later census and surveys of the area by the Venetians and by the agents of the Duc de Nevers in the early 17th century. In the 1700 Venetian records there are a number of settlements which are given the suffix 'di Ardouvitsa'. Some of these are identifiable today such as Nixovo di Ardouvista (Nikovo) although others such as Crimignmo di Ardouvista remain to be correlated with present day settlements. It's difficult to define what is included in the overall scope of Androuvitsa - Tseria - on the other side of the profound Viros Gorge, for example is sometimes included in the reckoning. Others still reckon that the original Androuvitsa was even larger still and point to, albeit, vague remnants of dwellings further down the escarpment than the extent of the present villages.
View of Profitis Ilias from Exohori and folkloric etching of a sailing barque on the tower of the Metamorphosis (Sotiros) church in Chora
Evliya Celebi, the Turkish traveller gives a picture of Androuvista in the early 1670s. He describes a thousand tile roofed houses which resembled castles with loop-holes for windows and 1500 armed soldiers under the kapetani, "Parakadis, Mikhelakis, Kyriakes, Leuterakis and Dimitrakis, who menace the Mediterranean with their frigates and spread fear in the vilayet (district) of Mani." Evliya mentions that the inhabitants had sold all their ships in Malta (then, under the Knights of St. John a good place to trade loot and slaves) along with all the Muslims they had seized as slaves. Some had been retained by the villagers, " who they do not allow to go out onto the road. God preserve them from these devils." Evliya also stated that the other Christians of Mani feared the inhabitants of Androuvista, "as they are very gallant warriors and insurgents, with them however they are very friendly and united."
Folkloric carvings on the left in Pripitsa (campanile of church of the Sotira) and right , the outside of the apse of the large central church in Chora - Exohori
Today Exohori is a loose grouping of a number of villages high up (600 metres or so)on the plateau just under the foothills of the Taygetus and on its northern edge skirting the lip of the Viros Gorge. The constituent villages are Chora (on a ridge to the north bounding the Viros), Nikovo (the lowest - to the west), Exohori (in the centre), Pripitsa (highest and to the east) and Kolibetseika (above Chora and literally on the lip of the Viros Gorge) and it is well worth exploring their streets and alleyways for both churches and tiny family chapels (Kasses lists a round 100 of them, many of which he cannot name) and its lay buildings which often sport local folkloric carvings.
The Sotiros (Saviour or Metamorphosis) church - Chora, Exohori - 18th century frescos and the bell tower
This church - just above the small carpark on the southern side of the ridge of Chora is probably of the early 18th century. It has a campanile which looks to have lost its highest storey but which is covered with fascinating folkloric etched stones. Inside the church has obviously lost it's ceiling at some stage and the frescos are patchy but there is enough to recognise that it was painted during the middle of the 18th century - possibly by Anagiosti of Langada who painted a number of churches in Mani in that time frame. There is a date on one of the frescos of 1736 - which is somewhat earlier than most 18th century frescos. There are two other inscriptions in the church which have defied my attempts to decipher them. One has no date on it and the other has succumbed to age. The church is locked but the keyholder is, how should one say, rather adjacent.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries Exohori was famous for its carpenters, making a speciality, so I am assured, of washboards. The forests of the high Taygetus are relatively close by and it explains the steep but straight lanes and kalderimi of the area so that timber could be brought down on donkeys. One can come across old, and now rusting, band saws in the alleyways of the villages.
The small chapel of Ag. Dimitris just above the old school in Exohori and its striking altarpiece of Jonah and the Whale (18th c.)
Exohori is at the epicentre of tracks, hiking routes and kalderimia. One goes from the south western edge of Nikovo down to Ag.Sofia at Gournitsa and then on to Kardamili. Another drops down into the Viros Gorge. Another snakes up to Saidona, another climbs up the south side of the Viros before switching back to Tseria whilst another - now a road leads up to the monasteries of Vaidenitsa and Samouil and the high Taygetus.
September sunsets from Pripitsa, Exohori
The views from many locations in Exohori over towards the gulf of Messenia are breathtaking - go at sunset to really appreciate them. I was having a broken conversation with an elderly inhabitant of Exohori one Easter and expressing my admiration of the view - she smiled in pleasure but touched her eyes - tragically she could no longer see it clearly.
Exohori: fresco of SS Michael, Cosmas & Damian and folkloric carving on house
A few years ago I became aware of a small local folklore museum in Exohori. At first the evidence of its existence was merely a few scanned photos on a website which swiftly disappeared but then wayside signs began to appear on the roads around Exohori. They are, unfortunately, solely in Greek, which is hardly likely to attract the non-Greek speaking tourist (the majority in the area). However I can report that it is housed in the old school and it is opened in the summer months by Maria Patriachea who we bumped into one day whilst wandering around Chora, where she lives.
A scene in Chora and the collection of local embroidery in the Folklore Museum
Maria was born and bred in Exohori but moved to Melbourne at the age of eight where she was a teacher. Naturally she speaks fluent English and her main passion (amongst many) is recording the history of her native village and she proudly showed us the photographs, household and agricultural implements and weavings and textiles collected in the museum. There are a number of publications on sale - including an album of old photographs - from whence I scanned the picture of the school below - which shows scenes of everyday life in Exohori throughout the 20th century.
Photo' of Exohori Junior School in the 1960s and the flag of the school from the Museum now housed in the old classrooms
Looking north across from the main part of the village towards the Chora on its ridge you can see a small domed church on a bluff surrounded by trees. This is reached by going up into Chora (driveable with a parking spot on the edge of the village) and walking down the main spinal path in a westerly direction. After 20 metres or so the cobbled path narrows and starts to descend steeply to the north west. At about this point there is a much smaller path leading up between stone walls towards the west along the top of the ridge. Follow this for about 60 metres and you will reach Ag. Nikolaos (or Nikos). It is perched at the end of the ridge overlooking clouds of olive trees - the sea deep azure in the distance. It is an enchanted spot. According to local tradition it was built in the 11th century in memory of Osios (Holy) Nikon the Metaniote - the ferocious old ninth century monk who's life's work was to go round converting the heathen Maniates to Christianity.
There are traces of rough cloisonné work in the apse and some ancient gravestones set into the walls, but otherwise it is unexceptional architecturally and whereas it is of the medieval period I'm unsure if it is as early as the 10th century, as claimed by some commentators. The paintings which survive inside are of much later progeny but there are some identifiably medieval carved marble tie beams. I was told lately that the owners had noticed that some ancient marbles had been stolen from the church walls and they have therefore removed the ancient inscribed stone which formed the altar from the church and donated it to Kalamata Museum. Also the door was locked in June 2001 (and remains so to this day) - a change from the previous five years when it has been open.
View west over the Messenian Gulf from the west front of Ag. Nikolaos in Chora and view of church from Exohori
Bruce Chatwin, the mercurially brilliant and self absorbed English travel writer often visited Mani during the late seventies and early eighties and wrote "The Songlines" in Kardamili where he stayed near Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor at Kalamitsis. St. Nikolaos in the Chora was a favourite location of his - for walks or al fresco picnics. When he died of AIDS in 1989 one of his wishes was to have his ashes scattered near this church. He had, late on, converted to Orthodoxy and was of the opinion that the Greeks chose the sites of their places of worship with care for the sublimity of their locations. This is probably a left over from the siting of ancient shrines and temples and the area around Ag. Nikolaos is reputedly, and if you look carefully, observably, rich in marble and stone fragments of the ancient period.
Ag. Nikolaos, Chora, Exohori - taken five weeks apart late May and late June 2002
Chatwin's wife Elizabeth brought his ashes to Kardamili in March 1989 and they were taken by Patrick Leigh Fermor and others to just below the church and scattered, with a generous libation of retsina, in the olive groves Bruce so loved. As Elizabeth related, "It was a picnic", something Chatwin would have loved. This is related in Nicholas Shakespeare's splendid biography of Chatwin (Bruce Chatwin. Cape. 1999 and later paperback versions) and Paddy Leigh Fermor was seen in Shakespeare's BBC documentary "In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin" (broadcast 3/4 April 1999). As Paddy makes clear he's not quite certain exactly where they buried the ashes - but if any Chatwin fans do make the pelegrinage don't search - just stop and stare at the view and take in the silence.
When we first visited the church in 1995, and before we knew of the Chatwin connection, the path was blocked with cut branches and we wandered totally lost in the olive groves knowing the damn thing was close by but not able to spot it. Olive groves are notoriously difficult to see out of or in to. When we at last scrambled up to the church we discovered three YKK fly zips on the ground outside the door. Why they were there we'll never know but ever since then we have named it "The Church of the Three Zips". Somehow, knowing of Chatwin's sometimes indulgent, Mapplethorpe charged personal sexual life, I can't help feeling this is an accidentally apposite title - I hope his shade is wearing a sardonic grin below those glacial blue eyes.
Further down the kalderimi passes the side of the Viros gorge and drops down to a neck of land before descending even more precipitously toward the monastery of the Metamorphosis at Pogonitsa. This neck of land ends in a high peak above the gorge - perching on top of it is the church of Ag. Georgios. The church has little of intrinsic interest but the views are marvellously spirit lifting and if you choose the time of day right (i.e. the evening) then the light plays dramatic effects with the gorge hundreds of metres below, beside and above you.
Ag. Georgios on its peak above the Viros gorge and a ruined church (I don't know its name) further up the gorge-side towards Exohori - looking N.E. towards Tseria
On to the Monasteries of Vaidenitsa and Samouil