Taking the road signposted to Kendro, to the east in the centre of Kambos, which will lead you up into the lower foothills of the Taygetus. Eventually after a number of steep climbs you will reach the area of Gaitses villages. This is a delightful area almost like a secret hidden valley and the soil is obviously lush with small farms dotted across the landscape. It is described by the tireless Turkish traveller Evliya Celebi who visited it in the period 1668-70. He calls it Gatsitsa village - and earlier surveys call it Gacizza or Gartizza strongly suggesting a name of Slavic origin from the time of the Melingi. He counted 100 houses and mentions the excellent climate and the fact that the village was famed throughout Mani for its olives and beautiful women whom he described as 'amorous' - possibly something has been lost in translation! There are a number of small villages in the valley:- Anataliko (from the Greek for 'east' therefore the most eastern settlement), Vorio (the northern, therefore…) Kendro, although this appears to be the name of the central Chora village and Biliova on a hill just to the north of the 'Chora Gaitson'. There are at two deserted monasteries in the valley, Profitis Ilias and Panagia of Chelmos, plus a whole host of other churches.
Vorio and the monastery of Profitis Ilias
This post Byzantine monastery is in a fantastical situation on a bluff overlooking the deep Rindomo Gorge on one side and the Gaitses Villages (Kendro) valley on the other and the Taygetus looming over all. About fifteen minutes walk from Vorio, the first of the Kendro villages you come to and which has an interesting if invariably locked church of its own which has an integral bell tower with an outside staircase leading to it. Vorio is a delightful little village with a central platea around the church and a rustic kafeneion (which in 2003 had undergone a rather radical makeover) the owner of which will sometimes, unbidden give you a photocopied sketch (I use the word loosely) map of the area highlighting the local sights and the paths and roads. The English spelling is totally understandable if a little over phonetic ('tscherch' for 'church').
In September 2003 I also discovered that the kafeneion owner had the key to the central church, Ag. Nikolaos. The church was probably built in the 18th century and one suspects on the site of an earlier church - at any rate the bottom-most stones are enormous monolithic things and the stonework gets more sophisticated the higher up the structure. Inside there is a fine 19th century carved wooden iconostasis and above the rear of the nave there is a (probably early 20th century) gynikonitis, or mezzanine floor for women worshipers. There is an outside staircase leading to this enclave. Unfortunately nearly all signs of 18th century frescos have been obliterated by modern paintwork (unimaginatively of a light blue hue with large gold stars) and boarding round the walls. In the dome there are a number paintings of palm trees which look, incongruously, like large beach towels! The keyholder was proud to show us the church but only allowed me to take one general camera shot - pity as I was keen to get the south sea beach scenes on record!
Ag. Nikolaos, the central Church in Vorio, and the view of the Rindomo Gorge looking northwards
To reach Profitis Ilias, take the road/track on the north east side of the platea (down the left hand side of the kafeneion) and keep to the upper track generally following the contour line and the edge of the gorge. You will pass various houses and walk for about 15 minutes until Profitis Ilias appears before you. You can drive the track, and I've done it quite a few times but on each occasion either my companion or myself has earnestly entreated me not to look at the view and concentrate on driving. As the 300 metre drop to the bottom of the gorge is nearly perpendicular and the road is stony I have needed no extra encouragement to do as they asked.
Monastery of Profitis Ilias Gaitses villages
The monastery is on a rocky crag and whereas a track zig zags up to the approaches the last 50 metres have to be negotiated on foot. To the north side the church fairly clings to the side of the Rindomo gorge with vertiginous views. It is, alas, always locked - as close peering through the keyhole shows that it is frescoed and Rogan reports it as having a fine 18th century iconostasis. I've tried a local farm and priests in Vorio in my search for the key but have met with no luck and to cap it all on a visit in September 2003 the gate to the monastery compound, usually with the key in the lock, was not only locked but the key had gone. From the reports of those who have got into the church the paintings would seem to fit the description of the mid to late 18th century.
Fortuitously I was contacted by Velo Mitrovich of London, who has recently bought a house in Vorio. He visited Profitis Ilias in April '04 and found the keys in both doors and the following images are those he kindly took of the church. It appears that much of the plaster, and paintings, have succumbed to damp, especially in the dome and the western end of the naos. But enough remains to date the paintings to the mid part of the 18th century - probably, from the way they painted faces and other stylistic similarities, the same group of painters who worked on any number of churches in this area in the period 1740-1780. On the north side of the nave close to the iconostasis there is a fine Archangel Michael with a pair of particularly frightening boots, underneath which writhes one of his victims. On the other side is the Prophet Ilias in his fiery chariot and in the centre Eleni and Konstantinos holding a cross and SS Peter and Paul - founders of the Christian Church.
On the south side of the church - together, rather like the Saints Theodore is a common enough depiction from this period of Saints Demetrius and George riding together (see above - usually they are on opposite sides of the nave) and St. George has his traditional pillion passenger in local costume.
Profitis Ilias at Pasca (Easter) and those boots of the Taxiarch
On hearing the church was unlocked I emailed friends in Mani who legged it off there. To their chagrin the gate to the compound was firmly locked but frustratingly they could see that whomsoever had been given the responsibility of locking up had patently failed to even shut the church door let alone lock it! As scaling ladders were not immediately available they had to retreat to the taverna in Vorio and drown their disappointment in ouzo.
A road/track traverses the right hand side of the Rindomo Gorge. I've never travelled it but it reaches an old bridge over the gorge beyond which is the now almost completely deserted village of Pigadia. This is still used in the summer and is a good starting point for exploring the forests of the high Taygetus. In the late eighteenth century it was one of the lairs of the Klephtic chieftain Zacharias. Even further up the gorge is the monastery of Panagia i Kapsadematousa. This literally means 'The Virgin Mary Hay Scorcher' and local tradition has it that in some past century the locals were too busy harvesting and threshing their wheat to bother celebrating the Festival of the Panagia. To teach the peasants a lesson the Virgin caused sparks from the hooves of their donkeys to ignite and turn the harvest into a conflagration.
A track from the base of the monastery is driveable, with care, and turning back towards the centre of the valley soon turns into an asphalt road. One can either go towards Anatoliko which means keeping a southerly track - or keep going westwards which eventually leads to the small hilltop hamlet of Biliova. On the road down there are two wayside chapels to one's left. The first is a cemetery church and from the outside looks like nothing special. Bob Barrow and I were up there in May 2003 and decided, as we'd just stopped to photograph a host of poppies in an adjacent olive grove, to give it a look. The door was falling off and we merely propped it up against the west wall to gain access. Inside we were delighted to find that, although in poor condition, there were some rather fine wall paintings.
Cemetery church above Biliova, Gaitses villages
After some discussion we came to the conclusion that they were probably 17th century or possibly older - they are certainly more skilled than most eighteenth century paintings we are used to. There is a box on the church floor which we soon realised were full of human bones - not an uncommon site in a land where bones are regularly exhumed and kept in ossuaries. As we gazed at this momento mori there was a deafening crash which made us both jump until with foolish grins we realised it was merely the door we had propped up deciding to conform with gravity.
Frescos - cemetery church above Biliova, Gaitses villages. St. Demetrios' horse is a particularly vivid - and by Mani wallpainting standards - realistic steed
Just below the cemetery church on a bend is another tiny chapel, I'm afraid I don't know the name of either though this second one has cheap mass produced icons to both the Virgin-Panagia and to Ag. Nikolaos. Here the paintings are very moth eaten and of lesser quality and belong to the latter half of the 18th century.
Chapel above Biliova, Gaitses villages
It's pointless driving into Biliova itself as the road is a dead end but there is a largish area at a crossroads where one can park and then saunter into the tiny settlement.There is a largish domed church in the centre - probably late 18th or 19th century in construction. It is locked though a sneaky photo through an open window shows it to be whitewashed inside though it does have a 19th century carved wooden iconostasis. I did ask two old ladies both the name of the village and the name of the church. The village name I've remembered but I've since mislaid the piece of paper I wrote down the name of the church on (It's the Taxiarches). Below the village where the road meets the road from Vorio to Kendro is a monument to some of the dead of the Civil War of 1945-49 and appears to blame the communist andartes (guerrilla fighters) for some atrocity.
The church of the Taxiarches in Biliova, Gaitses villages and its iconostasis
The central village, the Chora Gaitson, is to the south of the valley and one has to turn back on oneself to enter the village. Here there is cool shade next to fountain and a small kafeneion. A steep road leads eastwards to the village of Anatoliko and some 20 metres or so up it are steps leading to the large central church of Chora dedicated to the Panagia. The church is large, locked and of little architectural interest but built into the foundations on the top SE corner of the building is an ancient stone. It dates from the Roman era and is an inscription in honor of Caracalla.
Chora, Gaitses Villages, the plataea and the Roman inscription built into the church of the Panagia
Another monastery, that of the Panagia of Chelmos, is situated to the south of the central Kendro village. If driving do not go into the village but continue on the road rising to the south of the village. You first cross a bridge above a stream which is used by locals to water their animals and is a dappled cool spot to stop and gaze at dragonflies. If you continue up this road you eventually come out onto an open treeless moor covered with gorse bushes and to your right is a huge hole or sink in the ground where a vast limestone cave has collapsed. I've not ventured into it but Peter Hartleb told me he has clambered into it and on climbing out managed to end up crashing 20 feet into a thorn bush - and many of the sides are sheer cliffs - therefore approach with extreme caution. By the way the road from Gaitses to Tseria over the flank of the hill of Kastraki is now completely asphalted and has some wonderful views (the best point is, naturally, where somebody has decided is to be the last resting place for their dead refrigerator).
Approaching from the north (i.e. from Kendro) the Monastery of the Panagia of Chelmos is almost directly above you half way up the pimpled hill of Kastraki (lit. 'little castle'), which looms in front of you. Almost at the top, park your car (tho' I suspect some hardy, fit souls may have walked this far), opposite a rather ugly breezblock building which is the rural HQ for a local beekeeper, and walk up a rough track to the left up over the hillside - there is a nearby track, slightly further north and down the slope which goes down and around the contours - ignore this. You will encounter any number of crude but effective attempts at gates made up of wire-mesh and bits and pieces which block the track. Be sure to close these behind you, there are flocks a 'shoats' about, and keep an eye open for the aforementioned sheep or goats (I was warned on my first visit back in the 1990s, by the owner who was collecting wild herbs to watch out for the ram, who could be territorial - I, gratifyingly, didn't meet him*). As the track moves in a circutious way around the north east shoulder of Kastraki you will come across the monastery.
* An aside. Ever wondered why goat rams smell so awful? Over a very pleasant pre-prandial drink Bob Barrow informed a small party of us that it was because they pissed on themselves to better identify themselves, in the olfactory sense of the phrase, that is. As starters were approaching Bob was, firmly, told to desist with further elaborations on this theme.
In May 2001 I was informed by one of my local contacts that the track to the monastery had a large padlocked gate and, unusually for Greece an unfortunate sign warning off trespassers in both Greek and English. A friend of mine, Nikos, who farms the figs on Kastraki informed me that this blocking off of access to the monastery was illegal. What is, and isn't illegal in Greece, and more importantly what notice anyone takes of this, could fill a largish dissertation. Whatever, the sign and the padlock have fortuitously disappeared as of 2006, but you will still have to laboriously unpick and then re-close the gates.
Monastery of Panagia - views from east and south
Post Byzantine, the church, of an inscribed cross design, and the now deserted monastery outbuildings are in a relatively good state of repair. The site is mentioned in the survey undertaken for the Duc de Nevers in 1618 where its name is Italianised to Villa della Madona di Chelmont. The church has on both my visits, some ten years apart, been unlocked. There is a spring just down the hill below the monastery buildings for thirsty explorers.
The church is decorated with an complete, if damp attacked, set of frescoes.Some are in a reasonable condition though many are showing wear and tear. The church is dedicated to the Panagia (Virgin Mary) and this is obvious from many of the frescoes which depict her life and legend. The west wall, which often depicts the Last Judgement and/or the Crucifixion in this case shows the Virgin in majesty surrounded by saints and worthies of the church.
There are similarities in style with other eighteenth-century churches in the Exo Mani and although I can spot no obvious donor inscription which would give a certain date I think the paintings are attributable to the last quarter of the 18th century. Much of the costume worn by the figures in the frescoes is of the 18th century Ottoman Empire (men in turbaned fezzes and long moustaches - ladies in typical headgear) which would date them to that period, we know that, for example, the nearby monastery of Lykaki was decorated in the 1780s and it would make a fair guess to put these in the same period. Certainly the same physiological mistake is made with St Demetrius, who is in-observantly portayed as riding his horse as if his legs faced backwards. There are also similarities in style with the paintings in the Zoodokos Pigi church at Zarnata and the Koimisis church in Stavropigio. These were painted in the 1780s by Anagiosti Kalliergi of Proastio and Philippaki though there is no inscription at this church to confirm this supposition.
Especially notable is the vivid depiction of the wedding at Cana in the north transept and the small separate altar in the centre of the bema. An unusual four sided tapering column about a metre high with a flat stone surface. Various individual figures decorate each face. Below are depictions of Adam & Eve, the wedding feast at Cana and a Three Kings which is interesting as, unusually for 18th century and earlier Greek frescoes, it shows one of the kings as being black (for a more euro-centric interpretation see the depiction on the transept of the Zoodokos Pigi church at Zarnata).
Moni Panagia, Gaitses. Scenes from the Nativity and Genesis
The style of the paintings has little sophistication but much vigour. There is a typical Post-Byzantine depiction of the Ainoi, "The Praises" or a depiction of the last few Psalms and the Akathistos Hymn in praise of the Panagia. In these examples we get the full range of creatures and natural features as well as the hosts of dancing women and musicians.
There is a large and impressive wooden carved iconostasis which still shows signs of the original glossy and garish colours. This must be later than the paintings as it manages to cover up some of the lower detail of the paintings on the east walls of the apses and can probably be dated to the early nineteenth century.
To The Next Location - Zarnata