There's been a settlement at Kardamili since ancient times and it's easy to see why. Even taking into account the historical change in our perception of mountains from something terrible to something sublime (thank you, Romantic Movement) the location of Kardamili is nigh on scenically perfect. Charles Cockerell an English visitor in 1812 described it as, "indescribably picturesque", which with a pinch of English irony one could construe as 'English understatement'. Burdened with flowers, lapped by the sea, surrounded by olive groves and clumps of cypress trees, overhung by cliffs and escarpments on which perch tiny domed chapels and above those the dramatic sweep of the bare slopes of the high Taygetus reaching up to the lofty summit of Profitis Ilias at over 2000 metres. Throw in a number of more than pleasant eating and drinking places, a welcome lack of discos and Club 18-30 facilities and if you want a reasonably genteel Greek experience in Elysian surroundings this is the place.
Kardamili in the late 1820s - the visit of a French military detachment after the War of Independence
The pyramidal summit of Profitis Ilias (Prophet Elias or Elijah although often used as a name for a summit in Greece and undoubtedly derived from Ilios, the sun god) is clearly visible from Kardamili. The pyramidal shape has given rise to a rather specious speculation that the summit was faced by human tools and was the prototype for the Egyptian pyramids (shades of Eric von Daniken and in case you think I'm joking - I've been shown the local history journal article which expounded this daft theory and there is web site which repeats these intellectually lazy speculations). Often holding snow until June there is a legend that there is treasure buried beneath the summit. The inhabitants of Kardamili, the only village in the area that can actually see the summit*, claim that the treasure is Kardamili itself. Who am I to disagree?
*Actually you can see the summit of Profitis Ilias from parts of Chora in Exohori, he added pedantically…
As Kardamili is so lovely and has one of my favourite bars in the whole world (or rather did. The excellent Café Aman as run by Alexis Nikolopoulos is alas no more as of 2008) I thought I'd better throw in a handful of cavils (in the hope that some will be put off) Click here if you wish to read further.
Old Kardamili in late spring
Kardamili is a good base for exploring the Mani. Although the Inner or Mesa (Lakonian) Mani looks a long way away (and by car it's about an hour's drive) the journey is scenically stunning, the driving not too fraught and Kardamili has that lush greenness which the deep Mani lacks and is such a joy to return 'home' to after a long day in the heat. As for the Outer (Messenian) Mani - all locations are in easy reach of the traveller with a vehicle. Kardamili is also a good base for walking. There used to be photocopied maps available from various locations (they may still be available though I haven't spotted any for a few years - whatever- make certain you don't end up paying for one of these - they should be free) and a group of enthusiastic locals have ensured that the walks are relatively clearly marked by different coloured splashes of paint at irregular intervals. As of 2002 these details have been incorporated into a professionaly produced Anavasi Topo hiking map of the Kardamili Stoupa region (contours, roads etc on one side hiking routes on the other). This is by far the most accurate map of the district and well worth the circa €7 asking price.
For a map of the Kardamili area click here
Don't rely on buses or taxis. Neither goes when you want them to (the local taxi drivers are alleged to refuse small local voyages in case the trip to Kalamata or further afield crops up - and who shall blame them?) and the buses are infrequent and mostly only traverse the main road. KTEL, the Greek bus company (and not the enormously crap record company beloved of those Brits with memories of the 1970s) have a site which gives bus timetables.
Modern Kardamili itself is a little lacking in sites of historical interest although the older 19th and early 20th century buildings have a solid charm as do the ornate cast iron balconies these more venerable houses sport. The modern church has well, er, modern frescoes, although if someone were to make something imaginative of the old Olive Oil and Soap factory we could be talking Industrial Heritage.
The Olive oil factory Kardamili -June 2002
In fact there was a proposition to do just that. An Englishman, John Midgley, who has a wealth of experience in heritage and urban renewal projects put forward a proposal to restore the late 19th century factory and its engines and convert part of the complex into a small conference centre and museum. John, who had been visiting the area for years contacted locals and the family who own the complex and enlisted the help of Dr. Iannis Saitas, an architect, expert on Mani and industrial archaeology. The proposal was shown to Greek Cultural officials who were highly impressed by John's ideas. All that needed to be done was to raise the estimated 1.6 Million Euros costs and, more problematically, persuade the various parts of the owning family to agree.
I've looked around the old factory and the place is a complete mess - though doubtless an industrial archaeologist could make more of it than I. On last asking about the progress of the project in May '05 it appeared that whereas everyone thinks it's a great idea the usual legal and familial problems have log-jammed things somewhat…and I learned in 2008 that John has, reluctantly, put the project on indefinite 'ice'. A great pity.
If you want more details on John's proposals interested parties can contact John Midgley directly by email by clicking on the highlighted text.
The factory was founded, so it appears, by the Palmolive Company and was reputedly both one of the first and largest olive soap factories in the Mediterannean. The machinery is much rusted, some has obviously disappeared for scrap and the walls are perilously thin. It is also the home of many pigeons, cats, beech martens and, doubtless, rats. If you do venture in then be very careful as it really is hard hat territory and large rusty lumps of metal hang precariously from rickety cross beams - in September 2003 I noted that one of the rusting boilers had been decorated with a rather nice piece of graffiti (see below) - nothing else had altered!
The old olive oil factory and the old customs house with its adjacent chapel of Ag Iannakis in Kardamili harbour
Of the ancient city of Kardamyle little remains save the records of the name in Homer and other chronicles and the odd broken shards of pottery. It is situated on the hill above Old Kardamili and is best approached from Ag. Sofia (Gournitsa) above Kardamili. British archaeolgists from the Lakonia Survey over the other side of the mountains such a R. Hope Simpson in the 1950s and '60s took time off to look around Mani - mainly armed, one suspects with Pausanius and notes from Leake. There appears to have been little systematic or large scale excavation of ancient remains in Mani and ancient Kardamyle is no exception.
Pano - Upper - Kardamili is the interesting bit which is just above and to the north-east of the modern village. This is undoubtedly the site of previous fortified settlements and just up the hill to the east of the castle are two ancient graves which local legend ascribes to the Dioskuri or twins Castor and Pollox.
Pano Kardamili from the river bed of the Viros and the lookout tower of the village, 'vardia', above the hotel of the same name
The ancient city of Kardamyle was in this area with the acropolis above and the name has continued in various spellings, although surveys and sources of the 18th century and some western travellers from the early 19th century refer to the town as Skardamoula - or similar sounding variations. Interestingly census surveys of Mani in the 17th century don't mention Kardamili or any other version of the name and it would appear that the dominant settlements until the beginning of the 18th century were Proastio and Androuvitsa (present day Exohori) Kardamili presumably being a mere skala (landing beach or quay, though the word means 'step') for these prosperous and populous settlements. Indeed one scholar identifies it as Mila Limani the description given by Evliya Celebi the Turkish traveller in 1670. The phrase means 'port of Milia' and it interesting that in 1798 the local poet Nifakos calls the place Skardamoula Kapetania Milias suggesting that it was the port of Milia, which I find odd as the nearest large settlements were Androuvitsa or Proastio. Then again in Nifakos' poem we find Proastio assigned to Milia, Nifakos' home village. As his poem is, in general, a good slagging off of every other village in Mani one can speculate that his intention was to insult the Troupakis-Mourtzinos clan by implying that their harbour wasn't actually theirs. A German scholar Ulrich Wolfart wrote a thesis on Evliya's travels in the Morea in the 1960s, and he also reckons, as I do, that this is a mishearing or misunderstanding of the toponym Skardamula into Skala Milia.
The view from the top of the Mourtzinos tower and panorama of Old Kardamili
The buildings you now see (some still used to this day, others in ruin and still others in a state of conversion) were the dwellings of the Troupiani or Troupakis-Mourtzinos clan who dominated the area of Androuvitsa (or Ardouvista - the old name for the whole of the Kardamili-Exohori area) from the early 18th century. It is thought that Troupakis is derived from the word 'troupa' or hole or cave and the Mourtzinos part is a nickname added later meaning, in one interpretation I've read, 'Bulldog'. However the more widely held belief is that it means 'dark faced' (Mourgos) and is to do with the early members of the clan hiding in caves and getting wood smoke smudges on their faces. The clan claim descent from the Byzantine imperial family of the Paleologi, one of whom, it is told, escaped from Mistra over the Taygetus to Kardamili when threatened by the Ottoman conquerors in 1460. This is re-inforced by the plethora of carvings of double headed eagles (the Byzantine and Paleologus family emblem) which one can spot on walls of churches and houses in the district and by some words carved above the old well in Pano Kardamili. These are almost definitely of 18th and 19th century origin and probably only appeared after the clan made their extravagant claim.
The well, just to the north of Old Kardamili, underneath the Vardia, with its inscription from 1734, which has led many to claim that the Mourtzinos-Troupaki tribe were descendants of the Paleologi family, the last Emperors of Byzantium.
In his classic book 'Mani' Patrick Leigh Fermor describes asking after the Mourtzinos clan in mid 1950s Kardamili and being directed to and meeting Stratis Mourtzinos, a fisherman and storekeeper in Kardamili (the actual house is, I think, now the pharmacy and a kafeneion opposite the Post Office). When Fermor is told of the Paleologi connection, and by his own admission under the benign influence of early morning ouzo, he imagines this humble Kardamiliote becoming Emperor of a renascent Byzantine Empire.
The Imperial connection story is promulgated by many local historians and enthusiastic amateurs but one suspects that it has more wishful thinking than veracity in its origin and was merely a rather good propaganda ploy of the early Mourtzinos-Troupakis clan to give legitimacy and lustre to their robber baron proclivities. Just recently an article* in a journal from Rethimno in Crete by Marcos Mourtzanakis has pointed out that the name may have a very different origin. His researches into his family name have shown that the appellation is still prevalent in Crete especially around the village of Mourtzana and could easily be related to the word for Moor. The Moors were driven from Crete in the 10th century but the name hung on and there is evidence that Cretan noble families, presumably to avoid infighting on that island, emigrated to Mani via the island of Kithera. Certainly there are many families in the Mesa, or Deep Mani who have the -akis ending to their names - a typical Cretan name ending. It is therefore possible, if less romantic, that the Kardamili Mourtzinos were some offshoot of the Cretan connection who rose to power in Kardamili during the period after the expulsion of the Venetians in 1715.
*I Archontoromaiiki Oikogeneia "Mourtzanos". Kritologika Grammata. Rethimnon. 17. 2001.pp 303-321
The Mourtzinos line had actually died out in the area years before Leigh Fermor arrived in the 1950s (in fact in in the 1840s) though the Dimitreas family (the proper surname of Fermor's fisherman) are their most direct descendants (by the way -'eas' is a common Exo Mani name-ending meaning 'son of'). The family who run Kiki's Taverna on the seafront are called Troupakis and still live in one of the lower town tower houses, and they are related to the Dimitreas. Though I have to admit I have never failed to be fascinated by the connections; blood, familial, or otherwise, in a small Greek village.
Sunset over Kardamili and Kalamitsi from the road to Proastio
From Pano Kardamili the head of the family held court - feeding many of his family and subjects. In 1805 Panagiotis Troupakis ruled over more than 700 houses. John Morritt of Rokeby, who visited what he called Cardamyle in 1795 on his Grand Tour was impressed both by the Maniates whom he compared to the Ancient Spartans and the countryside around Kardamili, "Everything we see reminds us of Switzerland, the same cultivation in a most barren country, the same freedom of mind, the same simplicity of manners." Morritt described it as, " a small village, in which [there are] three or four towers, the property of the chieftains who possessed the country round it." He was also shown, " the spot where the children of the village are taught the use of the rifle, and found they practised it at ten and even eight years of age. A groupe of girls and women on the village green were slinging stones and bullets at the mark, and seemed very expert". Morritt's view on the accuracy of the Maniate's skills at shooting was, however, not completely complimentary. On leaving Kardamili he was escorted by Kardamiliotes as far as the next Kapetani's territory (that of Christeas at Platsa). Here
"We took leave of our friends of Cardamyle, who paid us a compliment at parting, not unusual in this country, by firing all their rifles over our heads. As this was not very carefully or regularly performed, and the pieces were always loaded with ball, the ceremony was not altogether agreeable."
Remarkably, considering Morrit's claims that many Maniates had never seen a western European before, only a day later (Morritt left Kardamili by boat on the 14th of April 1795) , the eminent Oxford Botanist John Sibthorp visited what he called Cardamoula or Moolo-Scallo. He and his companion John Hawkins, a landed gentleman with diverse scientific interests, were collecting plant samples which would eventually go to create the "Flora Graeca' one of the greatest illustrated guides to Balkan flowers the world has ever seen. Their stay in Kardamili was short - they landed by boat from Kalamata on 15 April 1795 and 3 days later left for Mistra. Their host was Panayotti Mourtzinos who showed a keen interest in the Englishmen's botanic studies and after showing them into his tower house demonstrated his knowledge of the local flora. As Sibthorp commented,
"Panayotti was acquanted with the vulgar names and supplied medicinal virtues, and economical uses, of a great number of plants "
and showed Sibthorp a root which it was claimed the top was an emetic and the bottom a cathartic which the Englishman identified as Euphorbia apios. Sibthorp and Hawkins were interested in the plants of the high Taygetus and the next day set off with Panayotti, and no less than 50 of his pallikares, to climb Profitis Ilias. The April weather defeated them and after six hours climbing Sibthorp was disappointed to only reach the level of the Silver Fir. The botanists were more concerned with the local saxifrages, violets and hyacinths though Sibthorp noted the difference between the Maniates and the Greeks under direct Ottoman rule, " the nature of man seemed here to recover its erect form: we no longer observed the servility of mind and body which distinguishes the Greeks subjugated by the Turks."
Vistas of Profitis Ilias, the highest peak in the Peloponnese
Hawkin's servant, James Thoburn, kept his diary of the journey (now in Cornwall Records Office in Truro), which is fortuitous as Hawkins' journals were destroyed in the late 19th century. In a somewhat idiosyncratic written English (one suspects the 'Moolo Scallo' was his attempt at the name of the village and I keep his spelling), Thoburn commented,
" the Turk's has no comand over them and are a set of people which lives entirely on plunder, altho in general behaves tollerable well to Franks [Western Europeans] , in there rough way as to cleanlyness they do nothing about it there habitations, is rocky, and well fortified by nature which makes them the more savage".
In 1812, Charles Cockerell, later one of the greatest British exponents of neo-classical architecture, was invited to stay by a 'Captain Murgino' His travelling companion, the Estonian painter Otto Magnus von Stackelberg who painted a number of scenes in the vicinity, referred to him as Mutzino. As Cockerell reported, Mourtzinos had an army of 1,000 men and the power of life and death over his subjects - one winter this army brought back £50-80 per day from raids and he took great delight in showing the Englishman the well into which those who preferred not to pay were flung.
Cockerell gives a good impression of the sway Mourtzinos had over the local population, and also the vicious fighting necessary to keep his grip on Kardamili. Given a letter of introduction to Mourtzinos Cockerell and his travelling companions were greeted by the kapetani, "a fat handsome old man". Cockerell observed him sitting on a stone bench at the door to his tower, "surrounded by his vassals and his relations who all stand unless invited to sit. The village people bring him presents, tribute as it were of fruit and fowls etc. On a lofty rock close by is a watch-tower, where watch is kept night and day. The whole gave us a picture of feudal life new and hardly credible to a nineteenth century Englishman".
Cockerell was taken under the wing of Panayotis Mourtzinos who called him "my little Englishman" and explained that his father had been driven from Kardamili by the Turks whose frigates would regularly lay siege to the village. His father, Michalis Troupakis, had been the second Bey of Mani and, by indulging in piracy, incited the ire of the Ottomans. He was lured onto a Turkish frigate, ostensibly for talks, and was summarily garrotted by the Turks. Panayotis himself had escaped imprisonment in Koroni and had joined a French privateer before returning to Kardamili and taking possession of his father's castle. The Turks had re-appeared and he had had to cut his way out and retire to the island of Zante (Zakinthos). On his next return he discovered that one of his neighbours had seized the place. Mourtzinos collected his friends and laid siege to the fortified village. The rival was, unfortunately for him but opportunely for Mourtzinos, "killed by a stroke of lightning during the siege". The Turks then besieged Kardamili again and Mourtzinos and 60 or so other Greeks barricaded themselves inside swearing to die rather than yield and for 40 days held out against the Turkish artillery fire. Eventually they ran out of powder, the towers in ruins. Mourtzinos taunted the Turks that had he had 2 cannon he'd have held them off for a year. He then by cover of darkness sent the women into the hills and himself slipped of to the relative safety of Zante.
The site is now normally quiet and evocative well above the bustle of the new village though now the whole site is overlooked by a rather intrusive new development on the bluff to the south east.
Ag. Spiridon, Kardamili
The main square (nowadays an open grassy area) of the Old town has the impressive church of Ag. Spiridon (an unusual name in these parts - St. Spiridon is the patron saint of Corfu - although he started off in Cyprus, was transferred - long dead mind you - to Constantinople and after 1453 was transported, eventually, to Corfu. His arm, allegedly, is in Rome). The church of Ag. Spiridon was built in the early 18th century - no dedicatory inscription has been found to accurately pinpoint this date but it conforms to a pattern of building in this period (either during or just after the Venetian occupation of the Peloponnese 1685 - 1715). The large (12.6m x 4.5m interior dimensions) church is built into the walls of the fortified site and the building, rather than conform to a traditional architectural format has been adapted to the local topography and the defensive needs of the village.
Pen and Ink sketches of Ag. Spiridon by my talented friend Linda
Ag. Spiridon sports a 'Venetian' style campanile which has been decorated by many carvings typical of local folklore. I've only once managed to find the church unlocked when an uncommunicative Sexton was fiddling with the lamps. The interior is disappointing, mainly being whitewashed with some light blue additions. It is tall, thin and austere - almost Presbyterian in aspect. The bema is divided from the naos by a built iconostasis the top of which is surmounted by some naive paintings. Those with relatively long memories remember Ag. Spiridon having a full set of frescos. One story relates that two sisters used to keep their goats in the church and that the unfortunate whitewashing was to cover up the capricious desecrations of those smelly ruminants.
The south and west facing exterior walls of Ag. Spiridon are the most impressive - the marble decorations around the windows and doorways being particularly fine - and one of the windows is unusually a gothic arch - obviously a western influenced feature. There are some interesting old carved stones, probably from an earlier period and possibly an earlier church, set into the walls of the church.
The main tower or 'pyrgos' of Upper Kardamili is the Mourtzinos Tower built (or rather re-built) in 1808. There is a nice, if probably apocryphal, story of the heroes of the Greek War of Independence, Kolokotronis (to be viewed on the now defunct 5000 Drachmae note) and Petrobey Mavromichalis playing chess from the top of the tower with their own pallikares (soldiers or warriors) as human chessmen in the square below. I have since ben assured by a locals that this version of the tale has caused much agitation in the local kafeneion as Mourtzinos and Mavromichalis were sworn enemies! If there was a chess game it was between Mourtzinos and Kolokotronis and the chess board actually exists in the local museum and Kardamiliote children used to use it imagining they were the heroes of the war of independence. In fact it has also been made clear (this by descendants of Mourtzinos) that a famous painting of Mavromichalis impetuously attacking the Ottoman/Egyptian forces at the Lines of Verga during the Greek War of Independence has been falsely ascribed in some sources as Mavromichalis. In fact the bearded Maniate is none other that Mourtzinos. Looking at other portraits of the two it strikes me the picture indeed portrays Mourtzinos, not only are there other portraits of Mourtzinos, but at the time Mavromichalis was rather too old, too fat and too prudent to lead his troops into battle!
The Painting of Mourtzinos at the Lines of Verga. Often falaciously described as Mavromichalis at Verga. The portrait to the right is of a rather more portly Petrobey Mavromichalis. Whatever the reason for this change of identity, the painting is doubtless a romantic rather than veracious record of the event, rather like many battle paintings throughout the centuries!
Kardamili was one of the main sites where troops from the Mani gathered in 1821 before attacking the Turkish garrisons further north in the Peloponnese. Even during the War of Independence the Maniates dabbled in piracy, though they would have it as privateering and there was much argument between the Greeks and the western powers as to the legality of much Greek seizure of foreign ships. The piracy invoked the ire of neutral, if sympathetic powers, as the following story will unfold.
On the 3 January 1827 the pinnace and cutter of the 18 gun British sloop H.M.S. Pelican, which was patrolling Greek waters, captured the schooner of the Genoese pirate Nicolo Siutto, the Aphrodite, off Kardamili. The schooner had on board much plunder but the English Captain Irby became convinced that the Maniates were in cahoots with the pirate leaders, whom they steadfastly refused to hand over to the British. Letters flew between Capt. Irby and Iannis Mavromichalis, the local governor in his brother Petros' absence. Irby's letters become ever more terse as Mavromichalis tries every trick and excuse in the book to prevaricate and obstruct the British officer. Eventually Irby managed to come to some agreement with Iannis Mavromichalis, both to return two Ionian ships (the Ionian islands were under British protectorate at the time) that had been seized off Cape Taenaron and that he, Mavromichalis, would personally accompany these back to Zante, the British base, in his galley. Overnight, during poor weather, in the passage between the tip of the Messenian peninsula, Cape Akritas and the island of Venetikos, Mavromichalis gave Irby and HMS Pelican the slip and returned to Mani.
Kardamili in the distance. The view over Kalamitsi Bay with Meropi Island looking towards Cape Kitries to the north west.
Pelican continued to Zante where they met with the newly arrived vessel, HMS Zebra and her Captain, Edward Williams. Williams agreed to go after Mavromichalis and after a few adventures enroute reached the coastline off Kardamili on the 8th February 1827. Here they spotted Mavromichalis' galley which gained port. Williams sent his lieutenants in small boats to demand Mavromichalis' surrender and the Greek Kapetani agreed to accompany HMS Zebra on the morrow. Capt. Williams comes across as a rather tetchy and pedantic Englishman and he was less than pleased when sending a further messenger to Mavromichalis' vessel they were met by raised firearms and no message was delivered. Williams wrote "For this insult, offered as I thought so unwarrantably, I was induced to have taken instant possession, or to have destroyed her, but the swell was so great, the brig rolling deeply, and the vessel being moored close to exceeding high land was scarcely a discernible target for our guns."
However the next morning it was immediately obvious to the British (who had spent an uncomfortable night as Kardamili is not a good harbour to lay off) that the shore was lined with Maniates armed to the teeth and a first boat sent over to the galley was met by a strangely amnesiac Mavromichalis, who had clean forgotten his promise of the day before, and a horde of gun toting Greeks. Williams then sent the proverbial shot, not across the bows of Mavromichalis' vessel but actually through the bow, taking with it a cannon on the Maniat's ship. The efficacy of the British fire from their 32 pounder carronade made Mavromichalis see sense. Both vessels arrived in Zante on the 11th of February.
The trouble continued and in June of the same year HMS Pelican returned to Kardamili (or Scardamoula as it was called in despatches) to demand the return of goods taken by the pirate Siutto from an Austrian ship off Paxos. After spotting a suspicious vessel in Kardamili harbour Pelican called in at Kitries where Commander Irby discovered from the Vice Consul there, a certain Signor Pasqualigio, that Suitto had not just looted an Austrian ship but also a British vessel off Paxos. HMS Pelican, accompanied significantly by a Greek naval schooner and the Vice Consul, returned to Scardamoula. Mourtzinos (sometimes called called Murzino in the accounts) claimed that the Genoese had already dispersed his plunder but Capt. Irby discovered that the wily Kapetani actually had some of the loot in one of his tower houses. By now British patience with the Maniates had been stretched too far and Irby sent Pasqualigio ashore demanding the return of the loot or else the British ship would open fire on the village.
At first it was reported back that Mourtzinos was up in the mountains and no one knew when he would be back. Irby fretted in the harbour overnight. The same demand was made the next morning, coupled with an instruction from the British to ensure that all women and children in the village were sent into the countryside, and was again ignored. Irby gave the order for his carronades to bombard Kardamili. As he reported " I opened fire on the houses and had scarcely discharged six shot and the Greek schooner one, when a party came running down the beach with a white flag which I answered and ceased firing". The Maniates claimed that Mourtzinos still hadn't re-appeared and letters had been sent to him. Irby restrained himself for an hour before hauling down the white flag and opening fire again. A number of houses were damaged and a small child injured in the bombardment. This brought forth a letter from Dionysios Murtzino which reiterated his claim that the booty had gone from the village. Irby knew otherwise and what was more, the exact location of the stolen goods. A 32 pound carronade shot from the Pelican was sent through the very room in one of Mourtzinos' towers and bales of Manchester cotton were retrieved from the doubtless aggrieved Kapetani.
Interestingly I came across another similar story in a report held in the Dutch archives and dating from ten or so years earlier than this British account. In this story a French frigate, l'Athant, went in search of Michali Troupakis' pirate barque which had seized a brace of Venetian cargo ships. Here again the French man of war tried to get close in to Kardamili but found that a reef prevented them getting in very close. The French rained shot into the village for a number of hours and were met with hundreds of Maniates sniping at them from the shore. After the captain had been wounded and the author had received a musket ball through his hat they decided that discretion was the better part of valour and withdrew to Methoni.
The harbour at Kardamili with its old Customs House and adjacent chapel - Meropi island behind - and sunset over Meropi from Kalamitsi
In 2000 the Mourtzinos Tower and surrounding buildings were restored with the aid of a Heritage grant of 199,420,000 Drachmae (about 40,000 pounds sterling). A stonemason was in situ and the floors and roofs of the ruined buildings were sympathetically put back to their original state. This had the effect of turning the area into something of a building site - and according to the locals - who could think of better uses for the money - the builders were being rather slow. They were; the scheme ran out of money before there was time to complete the Mourtzinos Tower which is still in a dangerously dilapidated state, though internal scaffolding and wooden steps means one can ascend to the top of the tower where there is a corrugated iron roof which creaks alarmingly in the wind. There were large multi-language signs telling one not to enter but the stonemason was a friendly chap was indulgent of people wandering about and now he's gone no one much bothers where one roams. Many of the walls sported plastic tubes sticking out of the mortar. These, and you'll see them on other old stone buildings, it was explained, are to pump cement into the wall cavities - they will be cut off and covered over when the job is complete.
As of 2002 the money has run out, the plastic tubes smoothed over and the Stonemason has departed. The building was restored - but not, alas, the Mourtzinos Tower. The building below the tower was meant to be turned into a small local history museum but my attempts to get hold of the keykeeper were frustratingly futile. In 2003 I tried again only to be told that the keyholder, and reputedly a great fund of stories of local history, had unfortunately died over the winter. At last in 2005 it appears that a nascent museum, with even more EU funding, has opened.
There are nicely designed bilingual (Greek/English) signs around the complex telling you what you're looking at (olive press etc.) some porta-loos and a small wooden shed for the attendant to swelter in. The bottom of one of the buildings is the museum which due to to one reason or other I failed to get into - though it appears to be open around midday and entrance is free. There is a planned network of Mani museums which will include the Dourakis Tower in Kastania and the Mavromichalis complex at Limeni.
The Gateway to Pano Kardamili and the display of old roof tiles in the new Museum
Well maybe… the Dourakis Tower is still in a high state of disrepair (May 08) but there are working Museums at Kardamili and Areopolis. The one at Kardamili is really quite lovely and informative, not too much information and not too little. In other words I'd personally have liked more info, but then I'm an obsessive, and most punters will find it just right. It's extremely tastefully laid out and presented in both Greek and English. A couple of very pleasant young ladies run the office (OK it's a shed) There's no charge to go round and there are two rather nice volumes of publications on Mani settlements on sale in from their hut. They got rather used to see me popping in for another look on our pre-prandial stroll of an evening.
By the bye, when I visited Kardamili in May 2008 the hut and the museum were firmly closed. Reports I've had since from Kardamili in summer 08 tend to suggest that the museum is open but the shed is locked up and its friendly occupants gone. I suspect a lack of funding.
For a full description of the vernacular architecture of Old Kardamili (and of the Mani as a whole) I thoroughly recommend obtaining a copy of Yiannis Saitas' book "Greek Traditional Architecture:Mani", Melissa Publishing House, Athens. 1990. It's usually available from the local bookshop in Greek and English editions and is a mine of information about the whole Mani.
Kardamili main street views
In 1941 the village was one of the points from which British and Allied troops evacuated from Greece in their retreat from advancing German forces. Stories are still told of troops who tried to enlist the help of local fishermen to take them out to the British Destroyers offshore. Various erroneous rumours were circulated that the British would sink any Greek boat and some fishermen understandably refused to help. Others offered their vessels. Robert Liddell reports a conversation he had with the Mayor of Kardamili in 1956 overlooking the small port. The Mayor commented, "Here we laughed and wept with the English, when they went away in 1941". One Englishman returned in the 1950s to thank his helper only to find that, sadly, in the intervening years, the fisherman had died.
Kardamili was visited in the late 1950s by two British writers. Robert Liddell, a novelist and lecturer in Athens in the 50s and 60s, spent an Easter there and describes the adolescents letting of very loud bangers at the rear of the procession that loops its way around the village on Good Friday, a pyrotechnic tradition that continues to this day if our Pasca sojourn in 2000 is anything to go by. (In fact the 'bangers' are often military style 'thunderflashes' and on occasion dynamite!) Patrick Leigh Fermor, who's book 'Mani' is the reason most foreigners first come to the area, was so captivated by the place that in the 1960s he designed and built, with his wife Joan, a delightful house at Kalamitsi just to the south of Kardamili. He still lives there now in his 90s, and is, understandably, given the prevalence of fans of his writing who wish to press the flesh, a rather private person. He is still working on his own memoirs which are eagerly anticipated by many, including myself. Therefore please don't disturb him. I rather guiltily got myself invited to tea chez Paddy a year or so ago; he is a delight, as is his house, but I did feel I was intruding. A biography, long resisted by Paddy, is being written by the distinguished biographer Artemis Cooper, daughter of John Julius Norwich and wife of Antony Beevor, who wrote a very fine account of the war in Crete, in which Paddy took a rather famous role. (Joan Fermor sadly died in 2003. She was, by all accounts, a wonderful person).
Leigh Fermor's account of Kardamili and Mani is of a past age and the photographs, taken by the then Joan Eyres Monsell (Joan and Paddy only married in the 1960s, years after they had first met, in Eygpt, during the war) have a resonance that talks of an age of hotter sunnier days with the smell of melting tar and flaking paint. I spotted the photograph of the fisherman Strati Mourtzinos, who Fermor was so taken by, on a Kardamili friend's table. "That's from Paddy Leigh's book" I observed. Yianni replied "Yeah, that's my Dad, that's Ma behind him - and the small boy, that's me." Tragically, in the interim of Fermor's first visit and his return a year or so later, Stratis Dimitreas (aka Mourtzinos) had died at the untimely age of 38.
Kardamili harbour with its watchtower and white customs building and the island of Meropi with its church and castellated walls
On the small offshore island of Meropi just to the south west of the harbour there are the clear remains of a medieval castle (Frankish, Byzantine or Venetian? - you hear and read different accounts) and the ruins of a church dedicated to the Koimisis tis Theotokou. Evliya Celebi, the Turkish traveller and civil servant, who visited Mani in 1670 described Meropi which he called 'The Island of Prasteio', that village being, at the time, much more important than Kardamili. He described it as, "A rocky and dry island, its Kastro is found on the north coast and in its interior are three churches and other buildings. There are many cisterns which provide water for the sheep and goats of villages opposite which graze the island."
Evliya tells how"The Gazis (Turkish soldiers) of Koroni attacked and destroyed the island with their frigates, transferring its inhabitants to the mountains opposite where they created the village of Prasteio." Unfortunately he doesn't date this episode. A Venetian map of 1707 has the island named 'La Mad', presumably an abbreviation of 'La Madonna' which ties in with the Greek name of the church. Koimisis tis Theotokou meaning literally the 'Going to sleep' of the Maker of Christ or in plain English The Death (& Assumption) of the Virgin Mary). The name 'Meropi' I can't find a meaning for, but it is common enough throughout Greece as a placename and female forename. Leake who passed by in a boat in 1805, being unable to traverse the Troupakis territory, described it as being a monastery.
Getting to Meropi, it has been reported to me, is difficult as the owners have blocked off the main landing point and reputedly dislike trespassers. Locals also talk darkly about the islet being thick with snakes, but then Greeks always do, in my experience, with little justification. I have seen people landing on the island and the owners are often absent in Athens. It is swimmable from Kardamili - a number of friends have done it recently - but the rocks on the foreshore are, they report, extremely sharp and after an uncomfortable rest all have swum straight back. One plucky British couple emailed me to say that they had also swum to Meropi from near Kalamitsi. They had waded into the sea carrying a rucksack containing their footwear and bottles of drinking water observed curiously by some basking German sunbathers ("Ach, guck mal, die verrückten Engländer tchh tchh"). The rucksack, not unnaturally, got very waterlogged and almost drowned the male member of the party who had to be hauled out by his partner. Although the wet shoes came in useful for their brief perambulation around the island the combination of swimsuits and the waist high and prickly vegetation was reportedly not recommended!
During the extremely wet winter of 2002-2003 the cliff face under the apse of the Koimisis church on Meropi collapsed. This not only wiped out some of the steps which lead up the church but the apse or bema of the church also disappeared. The owners have in the interim re-inforced the slope with a series of stone walls to prevent further slippage, for which I commend them.
A recent report from a lone swimmer is that it's easy enough to get up onto the island from the jetty. The church is open but completely whitewashed inside.
Need a sketch map of the Kardamili area? Click here.
Up the Viros Gorge
Reasons not to go to Kardamili
Please do not take these too seriously!
a) The Road runs through it.
Although traffic isn't frequent it can be extremely noisy (either engine wise or horn wise) and sitting at some of the roadside caffs can be a treat for Carbon Monoxide addicts. As the road has been relatively windy for a few kilometres either side of Kardamili and the road through the village is mainly straight most drivers actually speed up and any pedestrians, old gents on bikes or meandering cats should be on their guard. Those who don't speed up usually wobble about a lot and stop to chat to an acquaintance (they are locals, they have many acquaintances and, being Greek, recognise no parking conventions). This inevitably incurs the wrath of the driver stuck behind the eager interlocutor, who is oblivious both of his blocking of the main arterial route down the Mani and of his smothering at least three cafés in a pall of exhaust fumes from assorted concrete mixers on the way to despoil more virgin olive groves, a small convoy of German Hymer campervans and a twenty year old Opel with no exhaust filled to bursting with eight Albanian workers all furiously smoking. Heated hooting and yelling can occur. It has to be admitted that this can make for an amusing spectator sport.
b) It's full of a certain type of English Tourist
Well yes there are numerous couples of a certain age and upper middle class (and doubtless not infrequently straying into the realms of Brett's Peerage). They all like to give the air of people who know Patrick Leigh Fermor personally, speak ancient and demotic Greek fluently and still mention "the Colonial Office" in conversation. The men wear white slacks, blue and white striped shirts and if they are feeling particularly raffish a vaguely nautical neckerchief - headgear naturally is a Panama Hat - the badge of the English Middle Classes everywhere - Oh all right - I had one too, though it has, thankfully, fallen to bits. The ladies are usually faded English roses with piercing Rodean accents wearing floaty things. They all hang out at lunchtime and dinner at Lela's Taverna and if they can't get in there then Kiki's. The rest of the time they seem to disappear - what I want to know is - Where?
I have to confess that a fair number of people have complained that this clichéd tourist description failed to match their experience of Kardamili. Indeed my older stereotypes seem to be dying out and are visibly (and audibly) being replaced by a new generation of Sunday Supplement reading media people (or if they aren't they'd like you to believe they were). These announce loudly in tavernas that they are vegetarians, talk enthusiastically about their visit to Tracey Emin's newest installation, the latest Laurie Anderson concert at the Barbican and animatedly discuss the relative merits of London's designer restaurants and the shortlists for The Booker and Turner Prizes.
It's true, I tell you. Many thanks to the person I met in Kardamili in May 2006 who admitted that he is in the media, actually knows Tracey Emin - and told me a rather nice anecdote about her at his own expense!
There are, of course many other nationalities of tourist "of a certain type" in Kardamili, - but I shall leave their descriptions to their compatriots.
The unspoilt view from Old Kardamili (if one ignores the telephone wires!) towards the old acropolis and Mavrovouni
c) There are some "unfortunate" developments
Take Old Kardamili - unchanged for decades, a site of historical importance in terms of its architecture and its role in the nascent struggles of the Greek Nation. From its walls you can see a landscape which although it wasn't painted by Edward Lear should have been. Then those who shall remain nameless build a modern tourist appartment block on the bluff overlooking Old Kardamili - it is meant to follow traditional building styles but instead looks rather like an over the top set for a production of Verdi's "Aida" - and one prays fervently that it will eventually merge into the landscape - the steps have been landscape gardened at great expense so there is some hope that this will happen (OK it is, sort of…). Lovely views from there - mainly because presumably you can't see the damn building itself. This is now advertised by a holiday companies as 'Vardia Appts' - Vardia being the word for 'lookout post' of which there is one just above. One often wonders what precisely Greek planning permission laws consist of, but it should be pointed out that this (and other developments) are the stuff a great debate and rifts amongst the locals and brings into sharp focus the balance between making money in a remote region of Greece and preserving the traditional ambience.
The above development is mentioned in Patricia Storace's book "Dinner with Persephone" (Granta. 1996. page 268). A fascinating description of a New York writer's year in Greece - though it will probably gain her few Greek admirers as, although keen self critics, Greeks rarely enjoy foreign attempts to "explain" their psyche and boy, does Patricia try and explain it!
When I first visited Kardamili in 1991 the area between the main road and the olive oil factory was a quiet oasis of calm dotted with picturesquely wrecked boats and those vast coiled ceramic olive oil containers romantically merging into the undergrowth. Now the remaining olive trees are bisected by asphalt roads and the area is host to parked cars and most of the jars have been removed to decorate more formal gardens. The local council also have an annoying habit of concreting over good dirt paths which have been perfectly adequate for decades and had wild flowers growing along their edges in spring. This means that if it does rain, and when it does it 'rains chairs' as the Greeks put it, then the paths become dangerous run-offs. Equally baffling is the trend for sticking up street lights in the middle of olive groves (alright one occasionally tripped over an olive root in the dark whilst slightly the worse for krassi ) which gives the groves the look of an odd Mediterannean set for a version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Pity - but that's someone's idea progress.
The Harbour is likewise an unpretentious spot and the jetty running out from the small automatic lighthouse to the north of the harbour area is a good place to swim off. In summer a few tourists use the tiny pebbly coves to bask in and kingfishers dart squeaking across the water. The locals come down here at weekends and holidays, women gossip, men smoke countless cigarettes and discuss politics, young things flirt and young boys "bomb" one another. It's a local amenity. So why, oh why, build a tourist apartment block overlooking this? (all right I know the answer). It's been in a partial state of construction for the past five years so maybe peace will reign a wee bit longer. As of the last two summers (2001 and 02) this is now reaching completion. The building directly above the quay is now a restaurant which could do with a bit of softening with plants etc as as it stands it's a wee bit unsubtle both of form and lighting and plays non-stop bloody bouzouki music. The appartments are complete and follow the usual 'faux' Maniate architectural format and at least there are some (small) lemon trees in front of them (which is more than can be said for the dreadful white house which has arisen inexorably behind Café Aman - the owners obviously being rich and very, very tasteless).
NB Those of you looking for Café Aman, a great summertime instutution, it is, as of 2008, sadly no more.
Another less than felicitous development has taken shape just to the south of Kiki's Taverna. A three storey high tourist appartment block/hotel has been shoved up overlooking the sea. Again one despairs of local planning officials who have allowed this monstrosity to take shape and I wish I could meet the architect in a dark alleyway whilst armed with a metaphorical cricket bat. I was told it would combine traditional Maniate building features (i.e. it will merely be clad in local stone and look nothing like a traditional pyrgos) and also some neo-classical features - which was enough to make one shudder. Now almost complete and with paying guests it is a bizarre mixture of faux traditional Maniate architecture and bog standard Mediterranean hotel balconies. It is still far too big and far too insensitive for the setting. Just down the road is a tatty tumbledown local dwelling unchanged for decades - one hopes fervently that the owners have long and happy lives cocking a snook at the brash development above them! - (horribly, I have the recent suspicion that they have either shuffled off this mortal coil, or just shuffled off…)
Finally I have been told that someone wants to create a fish farm offshore of Kardamili. To be sure the Mediterranean is sadly lacking in gilled fauna (just try snorkeling and then play 'spot the fish' or just pay the bill for fish in a taverna, and wince…) but one doubts that a large structure a mile or so off in the sea will do much for Kardamili's charms and most of the produce would probably end up in some trendy fish taverna in Athens rather than locally. Then again I have found a reference to this dating back to 1993 so time seems hardly to be of the essence. Another one one hopes is kept on the back burner.
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on to Viros Gorge