There are many villages in Greece called Kastania - in fact on the eastern side of the Taygetus, probably less than ten kilometres as the crow flies, is another Kastania - sometimes called Kastanista or Mikri Kastania. The literal translation is Sweet Chestnut - 'castagne' in French, 'castagna' in Italian etc.etc. The Outer Mani Kastania is a village which in earlier days (and the first mention of it in that name is from 1278) was one of the most important in the area. This was probably due to its easily defensible position and possibly its proximity to Byzantine Mistra across the mountains. At the top of the plateau that runs from Kalyves to Pirgos the village is tucked into a blind valley under the lower slopes of the Taygetus and is invisible from the coast. The Turkish traveller Evliya Celebi visited Kastania circa 1670 and reported it as having three hundred tile roofed houses built in the midst of olive trees, figs and gardens. "There are many sources of water", he wrote, "as well as a charming people. The village provides four hundred armed infidels. The people of Kastania belong to the inhabitants of Prasteio." Leake didn't visit Kastania in 1805 as the local kapetani, Konstantino Nikoraki was one of those opposed to the then Bey Antonis Grigorakis who Leake relied on for safe travel. Leake however described the village as one of the largest in Mani.

Nowadays a sleepy backwater, mainly populated by senior citizens, it was once the refuge of heroes (yes Kolokotrones again - is there anywhere where he didn't narrowly escape a treacherous death?) of the Greek War of Independence and the Dourakis tower in the centre still points to its elevated position in the hierarchy of the region, its families squabbling with the Troupakis-Mourtzinos clan to the north and those of Milia to the south. There are hints that the Dourakis tower, named after the clan which dominated Kastania in the 18th and early 19th centuries, which looms over the central plataea of Kastania, is going to become part of a set of Mani Museums. As of September 2006 nothing very much has happened and the tower is still an imposing shell, with a number of rickety wooden stairs which, frankly, I wouldn't touch with the proverbial barge-pole.

Dourakis Tower and Door to naos - Ag. Petros - Kastania

It is a place I have revisited many times and each visit uncovers fresh finds and the delightful ambience of a cool mountain village far from sweaty suntan lotioned air of the touristy coast. The locals here are bound to greet you with a "Yassas" seeing few tourists and a cold beer costs about half what you'd pay in Stoupa. By the way - it is pointless trying to drive into the village as its streets are narrow, precipitous and labyrinthine - park just above Ag. Iannis - there used to be a hopeful rather than descriptive "carpark" sign and the same defunct VW Golf had been rusting gently for at least five years - (I have to report that it has finally gone circa 2005) and walk in. It's steep uphill, but rather nice to come down again.

There a number of churches well worth visiting - most from the Byzantine period.

 

Ag. Iannis Prodromos

Ag. Iannis, Kastania - exterior and Baptism in the River Jordan

This almost miniature gem of a chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist (Prodromos means 'forerunner') is situated on the approaches to the village. It has undergone some restoration recently and although I have found it locked in the past in the last few years the door is merely held in place by two padlocks looped over bent nails - you hardly need to be Raffles to gain entrance. The outside is delightful with mid-Byzantine cloisonné work between the extremely regular building blocks of the walls. There are decorative bands of dogtooth brickwork and and a diamond tile frieze rather like that at Tourlotti in the Deep Mani. This sort of detail would point to the church being of the 11th or 12th century.

The inside is not in a particularly good shape despite the best efforts of the restorers. The floor is beaten earth but the frescoes which remain are very good. There is a preponderance of blue in the colour scheme which is unusual. A bright sky blue which almost glows complemented by gorgeous pinks. The painter, though no Giotto, had some idea of grace and beauty, the faces have real expressions and some of the border designs between the iconography have lovely intricate medieval plant motifs. The depiction of a naked Christ in the river Jordan in the left hand niche is the only one I have seen in the Mani (later versions usually have him in a colourful pair of "boxer shorts") and the scene of the nativity with a central seated figure of the Virgin on the south western ceiling of the naos has great charm.

Ag. Iannis - Kastania frescoes of the Virgin and The Birth of Christ

The church is so small that there is no bema and no columns - just an apse and no iconostasis and in fact it is difficult to imagine there was ever any division in such a small space. In large sections the frescoes have disappeared altogether - unfortunately on a crucifixion scene on the west wall above the door large parts of the image have gone. These have often been removed by the local antiquities people - I hope to a safer place - and replaced by necessary modern plaster and the Pantocrator in the cupola is no more.

There is long and complex paper on Ag. Iannis written by Fanis Drosogianni (Scholia stis toichographies tis ekklisias tou Agiou Ioannou tou Prodromo sti Megali Kastania Manis. Vivlioteki tis en Athinais archaiologikis etaireias. Athens 1982) which includes an equally complex summary in English. From this it can be deduced that the church is probably early 13th century - and Drosogianni speculates that it was constructed in a time when the Kastaniotes were under some sort of external threat - this is based on a founders inscription which appears to have been removed. Whether this threat was the Melingi (a theory I find unlikely as by then the Melingi surely would have been well integrated into the Greek population) or the Franks it isn't known. If the latter then there is a vague possibly the church was built during the short lived Frankish occupation of Mani (1248 - 1262).

Until recently I'd never managed to find the church in the main platea unlocked and whereas it has a few examples of what appear to be medieval marble carvings inset as lintels around the western doorway, for a while I doubted if it was much earlier than the 18th century - though the use of unsympathetic concrete on the exterior allowed few clues. The church of the Koimisis Theotokou, as it is called (The Dormition of the Virgin Mary), was reported by Bob Barrow to have a gynaikonitis (ladies viewing platform) similar to that at Ano Doli but he had suspicions that parts of the church were much earlier. In September 2000 I was wandering into Kastania and was accosted, in a friendly manner, by an old gent with white hair, a goitre and a stick. He soon made it clear to me that Bob's surmise was true.

The recently restored facade of the medieval Koimisis church - Kastania

The church - the old gent almost miraculously had the key in his pocket - has few clues either inside or outside. Those outside are the aforementioned medieval marbles around the west door (which is actually not in the old section and may well be the remains of the Byzantine templon) and (what I'd missed before) the medieval gargoyles around the dome. Inside - someone has thoughtfully painted the entire church ceiling sky blue with a motif of stars - there are definite Byzantine carved marble capitals which are similar to those at Nomitsis and Ag. Petros just above in Kastania.

Koimisis Theotokou - Kastania - over-painted early medieval capitals

These again have been the subject of someone's paintbrush and lumpen imagination - the creatures and motifs being picked out in white gloss over a maroon background. Like Ag. Nikolaos in Proastio and Soter in Milia, what had started as a cross in square Byzantine church has been extended to the west in the 19th century. Bob Barrow reports that the locals were stopped from heaving even more concrete onto the surface so maybe it will be further restored at some later date. - Well they have, and in fact the whole surface of this church is now restored to something like its former glory. 12th-13th century cloissonée work and some rather nice panels on the north side.

Ag. Petros, Kastania - view of tikles (slate) roof and fresco of two saints (The Theodorii?)

Another Byzantine jewel of Kastania is further up the steep alleyways of the village to the east and high above the centre of the village. Ag. Petros (or Petrus and Pavlus) is a stunning example of Byzantine architecture and decoration. Its exterior has well laid stonework and cloisonné work which dates it with Ag. Iannis to the 11th or 12th century. It is, for its age, a largish church with a narthex in which the builders have tried a continuation of the cloisonné work from the main building - however on close examination the narthex would seem to be a later, though probably still medieval afterthought. There is a large Venetian style bell tower of a much later date - the stone is completely different - a grey rather than yellow hue - at the west end. The roof is tiled in places (probably from some 1980s restoration) but round the east side one can see that this is only partial - and the original roof is formed by large crudely shaped grey "tikles" style slates. There is a fair accretion of valerian plants growing from the roof's surface. The church is eminently photogenic.

The door is locked and although on our first visit wistful eyes were raised to the high windows of the narthex and the naos, both of which were uncommonly open to the winds (the window in the naos has now been framed and glazed), we had neither courage to either clamber so high or to risk the approbation of the local populace. In the end a friendly passing gentleman showed us where the key was hidden (it's tucked into a small niche in the tower wall to your left when facing the door) and we gained entry into Ag. Petros. In fact as we were wandering past on our way back to the car another aged but friendly gentleman insisted on showing us the hiding place for a second time and lacking the necessary Greek to explain we dutifully ooed and aaahed at the interior twice in the space of an hour.

Ag. Petros - carved medieval capitals and Byzantine Archangel Michael - the halo is bas relief plaster

The Narthex is small and if there were paintings, which I suspect, then they have long since faded, rotted and disintegrated along with any plaster. The roof to the Narthex is domed - something not immediately noticeable from the outside. Bob Barrow speculates that this is contemporaneous with those at the Taxiarches church in Charouda and Ag. Stratigos at Ano Boulari both in the Deep Mani. However these are both external arched entrance ways which are narrower than the church itself. That of Ag. Petros is part of the internal structure with two barrel vaults either side of the dome. The doorway to the naos of the church has a fine carved marble surround with a dominant chequer-board motif. Above the doorway is a small marble carved tympanum depicting a stag being attacked by what appears to be a Griffon - or some such similar mythical beast - surrounded by large Ibis like birds.

Ag. Petros - 18th century fresco in the Prothesis - and two saints (Nicephoros and Nikolaos?) from the Byzantine era

Through the door into the four columned naos and one finds a wonderful mixture of medieval frescoes and an eighteenth century iconostasis on top of a medieval carved templon with vividly painted wooden swing doors to the Bema - as if an orthodox monk had decided to jazz up a western saloon bar - in fact the painter has left a dedication on the rear of the left hand door - it was donated on 16 December 1854 by Stavroulas Plakoudias and the Papas at the time was called Petros. The inside of the church is unusually well lit with a large south west facing window in the naos which shows off the fine inlaid marble stone floor.

Ag. Petros - animation and character in the 13th century paintings

The Byzantine frescoes have faded and flaked and are in places only just discernible but the quality is extremely high with animation in the figures and a fine sense of radiant colour. The painter was skillful and rather than the normal cartoon characters his individuals are recognisable as real personalities. Most of the frescoes appear to be medieval although in places a later and far less sensitive painter has re-touched the pictures and in the left hand apse or Prothesis there is a good example of a mid to late 18th century painting style.

Church of Ag. Petros - faded Byzantine fresco with retouched impression of Ag. Spiridon

Of equal importance are the marble carvings to the templon-iconostasis (it's a bit of both) and the capitals of the columns supporting the dome. These have already been suggested by the carved door frame and pediment of the doorway to the naos where there is a relief of a stag and ibis. On the capitals it is hard to identify the exact species but the carvings are quite exceptional in their depiction of birds with decoratively carved wings and may well date from an earlier period (rather like the capitals of similarly dated churches in the Platsa/Nomitsis area and those in the Koimisis church in the main platea).

There are a number more old churches in Kastania. On the southern slopes above the village square is the small church of Ag. Nikolaos - there are signs pointing the way from the platea. There are three churches called St. Nicholas in Kastania - two of which are called "Nikolakis" (little St. Nicholas) - this may or may not be one of these. It is described by Drandakis as being Ag. Nikolaos "stis Maroilainas" - whatever that may portend (I think it's the area of Kastania it resides in). The church is almost square with a cross vault which seems to cover most of the structure and is similar to other late Byzantine churches in the area. (Ag. Nikolaos nr. Doli, Ag. Iannakis at Kambos and Ag. Paraskevi Platsa) - interestingly this church does not follow the usual east -west axis but appears to be (I've never actually had a compass with me) on a north south axis.

Ag. Nikolaos, Kastania - exterior and fresco of Agios Mamas

The stonework of the walls is crude with no attempt at decoration save around the niche over the door. Grass is growing from the mortar in the walls and roofs. The size of the church is so small that the naos is tiny and not much larger than the bema. There is painted templon with one doorway and although some of the paintings in the naos are faded there are frescoes in the cross vaulting depicting the life of St. Nicholas of Myra (Father Christmas) in a predominance of reds and ochres and a series of other fine 13th or 14th century frescos including a vivid Metamorphosis and a crucifixion over the doorway.

Ag. Nikolaos - scenes from the Life of St. Nicholas and saints with an archangel

Amongst the depictions are; The Birth of St. Nicholas, The schooling of St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas is consecrated bishop, St. Nicholas fells the cypress of Plakoma, A sea story and from the Praxis of Stratelates sequence; Three Generals in prison and St. Nicholas appealing to Emperor Constantine. These are all noted in Nancy P.Sevcenko's book 'The Life of St. Nicholas in Byzantine Art'. Bottega D'Erasmo. Torino. 1983.

I have to admit that all of these internal observations were originally taken without actually entering the church. When I visited in June 1999 the solid steel door was firmly locked. However by dint of sticking my camera through the gap under the door and guessing the angle I got a reasonable picture of the layout and frescoes from the resulting photos. In May and September 2000 the church was unlocked - and revealed much more of its character - but in June 2001 it was locked again and in May/June 2002 the locked/unlocked scenario changed from week to week (and it's worth noting that the door needs a good shove, with one's shoulder).

Frescoes Ag. Nikolaos - Kastania - the Metamorphosis and detail of centurion from the Crucifixion

There is one church in Kastania which until June 2002 had defied all my attempts to even approach its door let alone see if it was locked. To the right above Ag. Petros is another small domed church - but finding a passable path to it is difficult - locals have repeatedly failed to comprehend my frenzied pointings and fractured Greek and likely routes seemed to end up in a dead end alleyway in a bramble bush. The church is actually, as I discovered in June 2002, in a local family's 'garden'. The route up was by taking a series of paths through some houses to the left of Ag. Petros and fighting through some recalcitrant undergrowth and then through a wicker gate. The church is Ag. Nikolaos 'Trikambanos' the second name meaning 'three bells' or 'belltowers' - though there is no evidence of this campanological triumvirate today. The outside is made of rather crude masonry, none of the sophistication of Ag. Petros or Ag. Iannis below. In fact it looks rather like the rough dry stone walling of the area.

Ag. Nikolaos Trikambanos - exterier view and detail of fresco of St Nicholas

There is a small circular dome and an obvious narthex possibly of a later but still medieval date. The outside gives little clues as to its date but the paintings that remain inside are of the 13th-14th century. There are two doors, to the west and to the south and though both look firmly locked both were unlocked when I visited.

The paintings are fragmentary and the church is in a bit of a state and there were cobwebs, bats flitting about and rats scurrying behind the altar. The fragments of frescos in the narthex are difficult to spot until one gets one's eyes in. In the main naos the paintings are again patchy with age and damp but a fine series of Byzantine angels and a large St Nicholas reward one's scrambling to reach the church.

Details of saints and angels Ag. Nikolaos Trikambanos

As I said the church is on a family's land and they appeared slightly surprised but not disapproving to find me there (though a young woman checked to make sure that I hadn't tampered with the oil lamp) and helpfully showed me out through their yard and front gate. I'd actually asked them the way to the church a week or so earlier but had got nowhere and had gathered that they spoke little or no English.

Mentioned in an scholarly paper and worthy of a recent Greek Heritage sign is Ag. Procopius. It's behind the Koimisis church in the main square. It looks like an outbuilding of the next door house, the entrance to it is blocked by rubbish and a rusting, wheeless bike and it is firmly locked. It could be, I mused, an early jewel of Byzantine Art - then again it might not be. When I gained entrance in September 2000 it proved to be a barrel vaulted church of no distinction - what remains of the medieval frescoes are so ravaged by mould and damp as to be indecipherable. The junk that was outside is now inside, making ingress almost impossible if it wasn't already locked , which it is.

Of much more satisfaction is Ag. Nikolaos just below Ag. Petros. This long and largish church has its entrance on the western side and consists of a large naos with a narthex to the west. There is a double arched belfry over the main door. Inside (the door is secured solely by a wooden wedge) there are extensive late 18th century frescoes. There is a carving on the south wall dated 1778 - whether or not this refers to the date of the church is debatable - there are meant to be early medieval architraves built into the walls which are from the atelier of Nikitas the Marbler who was active in the 11th century but these are undoubtedly from a much earlier building. The frescoes are extremely naive in conception and the painter had little grasp of the human form - though what they lack in skill they compensate for in charm. If my eyes don't deceive me the artist of this Ag. Nikolaos is the same as that of the Evangelistria church in Zarnata. Of immediate attention is the huge Archangel Michael on the north east wall. This is nearly two metres by 3 metres in size and the breastplate is decorated by a particularly evil looking beast.

Ag. Nikolaos, Kastania. St. Michael the Archangel and view from the south.

The paintings of the Ainoi (the Praises - Psalms 147-150) dominate the west end of the long naos. These are slightly different to other versions in the area in that it reverses the usual sequence. In this church the north wall depicts the weird animals and beasts and the south wall the Judges, musicians and dancing women. Of the other frescoes in the the naos - the bema only has paintings in the single apse - a fine Last Judgement topped by a crucifixion fills the far wall and the eastern end shows scenes from the life of St. Nikolaos The themes are similar to those in the smaller Ag. Nikolaos in the southern part of the village. Here the artistic skill is far less realistic and is wooden and very simplistic - exemplifying the difference between Byzantine and post-Byzantine style. As there is no dome to the church there are two Pantocrators in the naos. The baroque carved iconostasis is in a poor shape but was once an intricately carved and brightly coloured affair. The bema is bare of paintings save in the central apse.

Ag. Nikolaos, Kastania. Iconostasis (detail) and scenes from the life of St. Nicholas.

Just below this Ag. Nikolaos is the Church of the Panagia which is a tiny structure about 2 metres by 3 metres in floor plan. Although of very rough construction it looks to have been restored lately.

Church of the Panagia - Kastania

It is unlocked and has a fine array of what look to be late Byzantine paintings although most have suffered from damp and time and man's inability to not etch into paint with the nearest sharp implement.

St. George - Panagia church - Kastania

Ag. Georgios with his coffee bearer on the north wall and Ag. Dimitrios opposite him on his chestnut horse on the south wall have a martial vigour about them and their horses match this, their teeth bared. It is the costumes and the execution of the these by the painter which lead me to suggest a 15th century date for the frescoes though Drandakis puts them in the 17th century. The military Saints' equipment and armour and the accuracy with which these details are portrayed, points to this period (they both have small composite bows and Dimitrios has a Byzantine eagle on the hilt of his curved sword). The other figures are equally of the period - there is a fragment of an inscription to the left above the inside of the door but it means little to me. There is much late 18th century graffiti on the wall beside Ag Georgios which refer to a famine in the middle of that century and the movements of the planets.

 

St. Demetrius - Panagia church - Kastania

If you drive (or walk) up the left hand side of the village you eventually reach a well by the side of a taverna shaded by large chestnut trees. There is a church opposite the well which is uninteresting but by doubling back up a track to the south one reaches the cemetery church of Kastania. This is of little intrinsic interest, unless you are fascinated (as some of my more ghoulish travelling companions are!) by the Greek tradition of keeping the bones of their families in ossuary trunks and boxes. But continue past this church and follow a very rough goat track diagonally up the hill to the south west. You'll pass some wonderfully glittering schist and crystalline rock formations and will eventually come to what appears at a distance to be the roof of a sheep or goat pen. In fact this is a tiny, crude barrel vaulted Byzantine church dedicated to Ag. Giorgos. I managed to disturb a whole score or so of bats on entering, in a stooped position, the low south wall doorway and proved imperically to myself the fact that bats really don't bump into you or fly into one's hair as I was soon surrounded by a swarm of them in an alarmed state.

Ag. Giorgos (George) on the west slope above Kastania and the 13th century painting of the Panagia of Victory in the niche

There is little left in the way of paintings though they are of the same period as the other Byzantine churches below. Of the identifiable frescos the Panagia Nike (Virgin of the Victory) in the tiny apse niche is very fine as are the remnants of a St George on the north wall. If this isn't enough to temp you into the steepish climb then an excellent view down over Kastania enfolds below you. From this position it is easy to spot most of the village's churches.

Above the well to the north of the village the road soon turns to a dirt track snaking in a number of hairpins up towards the pass over into the valleys of Samouil and Vaidenitsa monasteries. It is not recommended for ordinary cars and should be approached with care and a 4 wheel drive. Near the top of the pass (1000 metres) is the small monastery of Ag. Konstantinos in a sylvan hollow below the track. It is swathed in trees and is based around a spring which was welling up finely in early June giving a cool green feeling to the site. Bob Barrow remembers the monastery having a nun in residence who scuttled for cover on his approach - but in 2002 when I and Peter and Rosa Hartleb visited it had obviously been deserted for some time. The monastery buildings look folorn and on the steps are rusting discarded cooking utensils possibly scrubbed clean for an annual panegyria or fesival of the saint. The long, low, whitewashed church is at the bottom of the monastery through what Bob described as a vegetable garden, now retaken by nature. The church has been plastered over so it is difficult to assess its date though it has a cross barrel vault halfway down its length - a style usually associated with late medieval building period though there are later examples in Mani (the Zoodokos Pigi church at Zarnata was built in 1780). There are few enough churches of this design in Greece (under 200) and only 9 in Mani. The consensus is that this building is probably late 17th century.

Monastery of Ag. Konstantinos high above Kastania. The katholikon from the west and the Panagia Platitera in the bema

The door was unlocked and there are a fullish set of frescos - divided into sections by bold red and white borders and from the two large (modern mass produced) icons the church dedicated to Saints Konstantinos and Eleni. The style is not very sophisticated and detail has often faded. I can find only two sources on this monastery and can only, as they do, take an educated guess at a date for the frescos - late 17th/early 18th century? It is stygian black inside with only one small window and I managed to crash my head against one of the hanging oil lamps. I felt a damp sticky sensation down my hair and neck which brought the query if I had cut myself. It was nothing worse than an annointment with rancid olive oil - unpleasant but not life threatening!

If you take the road to Saidona from Kastania which hugs the edge of the mass of the Kastro mountain you will soon spot a large domed church just below the road. This is the church of the Panagia or Phaneromeni (The Apparition of the Virgin) and is probably 18th century. When we visited it in 1995 the front door was locked but the side (west) door was unlocked - in 2000 the order was reversed.

Monastery of the Phaneromeni - view from East and detail from iconostasis

To reach it you need to take a rough but driveable track which dives of to the left soon after leaving Kastania. The church is large and has fragmentary 18th century frescoes. Below it is what appears to be an earlier church in ruins. In June 2001 it was obviously being restored along with the roof of the main church but this is taking some time and work was still in progress a year later.

Above the Phaneromeni church is a house on a wooded spur and below that one of the most fascinating and perplexing Byzantine buildings in Mani. It was so well hidden in a small grove of trees that I and Bob Barrow only learned of its existence this year (2002) although it had been written up by Prof. Drandakis 30 years ago and is well known to locals. The trees that shrouded it have been recently felled and you can now see the building clearly from track almost due north north east from Phaneromeni. From a distance you can clearly see a quartet of cloissonéd arches but no roof to speak of. To reach the building take the footpath to the right next to the breeze block and corrugated iron barn/stables on the opposite side of the track from the Phaneromeni. This rocky path (some local wag has carved the words Odos Petros - Pete's Street - on a large stone) between two dry stone walls runs for about 25 metres before meeting a T junction where you turn left. Follow the path along the contour line before it turns sharply up the spine of the ridge and you'll reach the building.

Ag. Stratigos on the ridge above Phaneromeni and the south facade

You'll note that I have been using the word 'building' rather than church - though it is a church. This is because it conforms to no other form of church building in Mani - or in the rest of Greece for all I know. The south face has three large lower cloisonnéd arches topped by a further layer of four smaller and more sophisticated windowarches with central columns. In all cases the arch spaces and windows have been infilled with much more crude masonry. The roof appears flat or at least cannot be seen from the ground level and is overgrown by plants. Move further up the track and the east wall shows the same arches - just two this time, (which are repeated on the west wall) again the original stonework is quite well dressed and regular except in the infills. If this is a church, and Drandakis calls it the church of the Taxiarches, then where is the apse? Further confusion follows as it becomes clear that there is a church behind the main building obvious tacked on at some stage though now in a roofless and ruinous state.

Climb up the side of the footpath and start exploring and the mystery deepens. The second church gives us few clues and is nameless but enter the main building through a low doorway in the north wall and you are in the first of two interconnected domed chambers. The cupolas are very shallow and don't show on the exterior. There are gaps in the infilled arches so that light gets in and there are no signs of a door so seeing is easy. The second chamber is similar and again there are no signs of an interior apse on the east wall and what looks like it may be used as an altar is obviously not an original feature. There are some much faded frescos. In the cupola of the second (eastern) chamber is Christ and another male figure, not the usual Christ Pantocrator, and on the north wall is a large Taxiarch (archangel) Michael with a halo made of embossed plaster (?) or stone. This is what gives the church its name though locals (and I met one at the bottom of the hill who confirmed this) call the church Ag. Stratigos - it comes to the same thing. There is a doorway in the north wall which links the second chamber to the ruined smaller church above.

Ag. Stratigos - detail of the Archangel Michael and interior view looking west

But was this clearly Byzantine cloisonnéd building originally a church? I have my doubts. If anything it looks from the outside like a miniature version of the 13th century Blachernae Palace in Constantinople and has few similarities with other Byzantine churches in nearby Kastania and follows none of the accepted models of mid to late Byzantine church building styles. Why is there no apse or altar and why open arched windows on at least three of the walls? It is obvious that Kastania was a wealthy settlement in the 13th century and this extravagant building would fit within the same time frame (Drandakis compares the paintings to some in Cyprus dated to the 1270s) and the same amount of skill in its construction and decoration as such gems as Ag. Petros. The paintings, what remains of them, also show a level of sophistication which whereas not as assured as those over the Taygetus in Mistra are certainly of a high order of skill. But it is somewhat remote from Kastania and today, at least, stands in isolation on its ridge amongst the olive groves. Perhaps it was a summer residence of some rich local or part of the outbuildings of an earlier iteration of the monastery of the Phaneromeni. Yet it is surely too small to be a comfortable palace or even a country residence of a local governor or Bishop. The change to church, if there was one, must have taken place at an early period in its existence as the paintings look 13th or 14th century.

The dirt track below can be followed further - if your car is high enough off the ground. I've managed in a Fiat Seicento on a number of occasions but the grass in the centre of the track gave the underneath a good sweeping. The track winds down hill through olive groves for a number of kilometres with various bends and you'll come to a T junction. To the left (SW) it will take you down to the coastal road above Stoupa. To the right (N) it will take you over the stone single arched bridge over the Vathi Langadi gorge and up the ridge to Proastio. The bridge looks like a great location for one of those clichéd WWII commando movies (plucky English chaps gripping the plunger of the dynamite charge - "You go on Skip I'll be OK - see you in Blighty etc. etc.). Above the gorge is the monastery of Ag. Theodori (see the Proastio page) and in the gorge are the usual dead fridges left there by thoughtful local fly tippers who realise that a sylvan scene such as this wouldn't be quite the same quintessential Greek experience without the requisite bits of rubbish lobbed over the edge of the chasm.

Returning to the road from Kastania to Saidona. If one takes the metalled road above the Phaneromeni monastery and drives as far as Saidona you are rewarded by this tiny village hugging a spur of the Kastro mountain. It overlooks the deeply riven valley of the Vathi Langadi which runs down from Vaidenitsa and Samouil monasteries to the little cove of Phoneas below Proastio. The village tumbles over this spur. There is a small square at the top of the spur in which there is a small single cell church which has some delightfully naive paintings from the mid nineteenth century.

In this period any traditions of wall painting had obviously reached a nadir of skill but make up with charm what they lack in technique. There are other churches dotted about the alleyways not all of which I have found.

The village was burned by the Italians in March 1942 in an attempt to smoke out the allied troops still being hidden in the mountains months after their defeat in 1941.

The memorial to those killed by the Italians in 1942

There is a tiny museum in Saidona which records the the history of the village. It's at the bottom of the village as one takes the lower road in. It was closed in June 2001 and enquiries in the next door taverna seem to suggest it only opens in July and August when its owner returns to the village from Athens. I glued myself to the glass in the door and peered at the old photographs on the wall and it looks worth investigating. As of 2002 I've heard that the key has been left with the Taverna owners but have yet to test out this knowledge.

Saidona, on the fringes of the mountains suffered during the Greek Civil War as it was betwixt the Communist andartes in the hills and the right wing government troops on the plains and had distinct sympathies with the former - I've heard Saidona described as "The Stalingrad of Mani"!. The dead of the years of the war and its even more bitter successor, the civil conflict of 1945-50 are commemorated on marble plaques at a large shrine just above the road on the entrance to Saidona.

It is a sign of the healing of some of the wounds inflicted during this dreadful period in recent Greek history that this impressive and sobering memorial could have been built. Each village in the area has its stone and the long lists of names, well over 300, and all too often women and children of the same family, from the mountain villages is shocking reminder of the savagery of those sad years.

On to Milia