Proastio is a delightful Mani village on the top of the escarpment above the bay of Kalamitsi although the inhabitants of Kardamili and surrounding villages all talk darkly of the allegedly gloomy and sullen Proastiotes - indeed one described it as, "the devil's village" and another came out with the clichéd "If you've got a friend from Proastio you'll never need for an enemy"!. The Turkish writer and civil servant Evliya Celebi who visited in 1670 just after the Turkish expedition against the Mani in that year tends to confirm the longevity of this opinion saying, of what he calls Prasteio, "Its inhabitants are always found in opposition to the inhabitants of other villages. They are worse than pigs." He goes on to describe the Proastiotes habit of "spreading fear by land and sea", and of particular affront to Evliya, as the Proastiotes were, "completely infidels", making slaves of Muslim girls whom,"they disguise well." Evliya also mentions that the village was founded when the Turks from Koroni devastated the settlement on the island of Meropi (which he calls the Island of Prasteio), off Kardamili, and the survivors moved inland for safety.
The name Proastio seems to be derived from the phrase 'pros to asti' - something akin to 'outside yet near the city' or a suburb. It's a not uncommon place-name in Greek speaking lands. In the most recent Laconia Survey by the British School at Athens (undertaken in the 1980s and the findings published in 2000) Pamela Armstrong equates the term 'proastion' with the Turkish 'çiftlik' or 'villa or estate' - The term obviously means somewhere outlying a larger community but which this was in the case of the exo-Mani Proastio is difficult to ascertain. It could be Androuvitsa (Exohori) or less probably Kardamili - and the suggestion that the Byzantine church of Ag. Nikoloas (see below) was orginally a Monastery katholikon may or may not be of significance. On old maps of Mani Proastio is nearly always indicated (and remarkably in a consistently relatively accurate position on the maps) though spelt in various variations on the theme of Prestea or Prastio.
View from above Proastio looking north west
The village contains over 30 churches and family chapels which are dotted around its winding streets and alleyways. This boasts of a prosperous past and indeed the town used to be much more affluent than its present sleepy appearance might suggest. Its wealth and power during the Turkokratia meant it was a centre for Maniate resistance to the Turks and a target for their reprisals. Proastio was burned by the Turks both in 1615 and 1670, when the Ottomans initiated a concerted and extremely punitive invasion of Mani. As a result a large proportion of the population decamped to Italy in 1674 but it seems to have had an enduring population of at least 100 families and Evliya Celebi describes it as having 300 tiled and castle-like houses. Its position some distance away from and 250 metres above the coastline and the small harbours of Kalamitsi and Delphinia meant that it was was relatively immune from piratical raids which seem to have been endemic in the region until the 19th century. This is a common feature in many Greek locations where it is only in the 20th century that low lying large settlements around ports have developed to any great degree. However in Proastio's case it is more likely that the locals were themselves pirates and feared government naval retribution for their own iniquities.
The bell tower of the Eisodia tis Theotokou church and a redundant aloni (threshing floor) in upper Proastio
Kalamitsi is one of the ports of Proastio and is now the site of an hotel and, tucked away and totally sympathetic with the landscape, is the house of Paddy Leigh Fermor. I was told an allegedly true story of the early days of this fine edifice when Paddy found the local habit of constructing and inhabiting small ramshackle shelters on the beach during the summer months rather intrusive of his Grecian Idyll. There are old black and white photos of Kalamitsi in the 60s showing just Leigh Fermor's splendid house - no hotels or the other extraneous bungalows which now infest the bay and, as clear as day, the driftwood and packing case shacks of the locals on the beach. Paddy complained, cajoled and harangued, but the locals' saw no reason to terminate the tradition of generations and their direct response was to blow up Paddy's car (empty I'm glad to report). Fermor quickly got the message and having a well nourished understanding of the Greek temperament made the swift and generous action of supplying the shelter dwellers with piped water - something they had lacked previously. All reigned peacefully again.
Old Shop sign, Proastio
Proastio's dominance of the area declined during the 19th century and although it and Kardamili shared a district in 1840 in 1914 the two villages went their separate ways. During the Greek Civil War the coastal towns and villages were the only safe areas and Proastio further lost out to Stoupa and Kardamili - something which the introduction of tourism has done little to reverse. There is now the small settlement on the road near the Delphinia campsite called Nea-Proastio (although you won't find it marked as such on many maps) which was settled by inhabitants of the original village in order to be closer to the tourists.
The main church in Proastio, dedicated to the Eisodia tis Theotokou (The Presentation of the Virgin Mary), is early twentieth century, Ramsay Traquair, who travelled the area in 1906 and 1909 for the British School in Athens comments. " a church is at present being built on a scale which shows that the building traditions of the country are not yet dead ", and although large by Mani standards it is tucked away from the main road in a square. It does have a Venetian style tower or campanile - which looks to be from an earlier church. As a pointer to this the tower is decorated with rare external frescos of the Taxiarches (Archangels) and has a date carved onto its surface, 1800.
Of more historical interest is the church of Ag. Nikolaos which on the looping course the main road takes through the village is immediately in front of you on the second bend as you drive through the village. It is a largish church which would accord with the fact that Proastio was once a bishopric - We know it was one in 1621 and this description is repeated in 1743 though by 1821 this honour had disappeared.
Ag. Nikolaos before the stucco and concrete was cleared
Hetherington describes the church as Byzantine but I've always had my doubts that this was completely correct. While studying a photograph at my leisure I was intrigued to see a faint shadow - and a change in the roof level of the naos about a third of the way along its length (see photo above). It always gives one a nice warm glow when ones amateur speculations are confirmed by experts. According to Palantzas the cross in square section may well be Byzantine although the rather small scraps of cloisonné that showed themselves were mostly covered by various additions of stucco, whitewash and concrete buttressing making it hard to date with any accuracy.
In the summer of 2000 this accumulated surface was removed revealing that the educated supposition is quite correct and that the eastern end of the church, rather like others at Langada and Germa, has revealed its mid-Byzantine cloisonné brickwork. This work has been supervised by the local Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities based in Kalamata, partly because the first contractor, in his blissful ignorance of the seriousness of the restoration task, had been replacing original medieval tiles with modern equivalents. He soon had his marching orders and a new crew are painstakingly uncovering the church - both inside and out. I followed the sound of furious drilling in June 2002 to find the workmen inside uncovering the original columns which had been covered in concrete (fluted to look if not fool one into thinking they were ancient) some time in the 20th century. The wall paintings have been patched with gauze bandages in places and there is scaffolding throughout the interior.
The first uncoverings of the Byzantine cloisonné work September 2000
I talked briefly with a female archaeologist supervising the work. According to this conversation it is thought the frescoes are 17th century - I disagree, as do a number of other experts, they are mid 18th century. She claimed the church is post-Byzantine. I disagree, it seems to clearly demonstrate 13th century cloisonné features. And finally she asserted that the cupola or dome may be of a later date than the building. On this last observation I will concede, reluctantly, that I haven't the expertise to demur, nor have I climbed up onto the roof to inspect the join. But the cupola has got similarities to those at Ag. Sofia just to the north of Proastio at Gournitsa and Ag. Charalambos near Kato Doli - both of which are thought to date from the 16th century.
Work continuing in June 2001 - The less than sympathetic modern tiles have been used around the upper arched window
And continuing a year later - June 2002 - Both outside and inside the church
The extension of the church to the west - with what started out as a narthex is probably of the 16th century although it really just extends the naos - pointing towards a time when congregations were large. The stonework here is regular and dressed showing that some care and money was lavished on the extension. Interestingly Palantzas also reckons that the original church was probably the katholikon of a monastery and was changed to a parish church later when the town of Proastio grew in the affluent centuries of the kapetani.
There is a later Venetian inspired campanile at the west end which is probably of the 18th century - there is an inscription which gives the date of a repair of this tower in June 1789 by a Ioannis K. Like similar bell towers in many of the local villages of Exo Mani the Proastio tower has folkloric carvings. Inside the frescoes are full (if a little frayed at the edges) but likely to be from a later date, almost certainly from the 18th century. A now disappeared inscription reported the painter's name as a certain Anagnostes Selemperdakis of Koutiphari (a part of present day Thalames some ten kilometres south), one of the painters of the local, so called, 'Koutiphari School' who is recorded as painting some of the wall paintings in Ag. Triada, just up the hill in Proastio, in 1745 (see below for details). There are the usual additions of a set of zodiac signs in the ceiling of the naos as part of the depiction of the last Psalms and a good Last Judgment on the west wall and there are similarities with a number of other mid to late 18th century painted churches of the vicinity.
The church is kept locked but the keys are held at the small kafeneion opposite the north west corner of the more modern church (take the broad alleyway opposite the south face of Ag. Nikolaos which leads after 30 metres or so to the modern church square) although when I was last there in September '03 I was told to ask for the Papas' house - again in the same square - above the council offices. The scaffolding, Albanian workers and archaeologists have now gone and the church is again at peace though I haven't yet been inside to look at the 'improvements' therein.
The countryside to the north-east of Proastio and the church of Ag. Nikolaos after restoration, 2003
The rest of the village is a lovely place to get lost in as alleyways snake through its densely packed dwellings built of local stone from the quarries which remain to the east of the town. This stone as Traquair noted lends a, " solidity of construction [which] gives it a very different appearance from the usual ramshackle Greek village". However those who live there comment that this allows few breezes to penetrate the village thus adding to the summer heat - I suggest an evening stroll in Proastio when the sun is setting over the Messenian Gulf and the stones radiate warmth and colour. There are churches or chapels at almost every turn. Most are unlocked and each has a distinctive character. The following map and list is from Peter Hartleb's book but lack of knowledge of names shouldn't deter you from a serendipitous stroll through Proastio. The churches described below are just a selection.
Churches in Proastio
1 Ag. Theodoros, 2 Ag.Pantes, 3 Evangelistra, 4 Ag. Georgios, 5 Ag Dimitris, 6 Ag. Sotiras, 7 Ag. Panagia, 8 Ag. Sostes, 9 Ag. Nikolaos, 10 Ag. Paraskevi, 11 Ag. Basilios and Ag, Spiridon, 12 Eisodia tis Theotokou, 13 Genesis tou Christou, 14 Ag. Dimitris, 15, Ag. Sotiras, 16, Ag. Triada, 17 Ag. Charalambos, 18 Evangelismos, 19 Ag. Pantes, 20 Archangel Michail, 21 Ag. Andreas, 22 - ?- , 23 Ag Pantelimonas, 24 Ag Pantelimonas, 25 Ag Georgios, 26 Ag. Kyriaki, 27 Ag. Panagitsa, 28 Ag. Panagia, 29 Ag. Sarantes, 30 Ag. Iannis, 31 Ag Pantelimonas, 32 Ag. Spridonas, 33 Ag. Nektarios, 34, Ag. Konstantinos
The churches are often tiny and in some cases little more than a niche with a door - most are probably family owned and some such as the ruined Ag. Sarantes (No.29 on the map) is firmly part of someone's vegetable plot. Of interest to the Church Detective should be Ag. Konstantinos (No.34). This is a barrel vaulted church which has a two stepped tiled roof.
Ag. Konstantinos - view and that intriguing window (see below)
The outside has unfortunately been whitewashed but under this are obvious cloisonné courses and the original building is possibly Byzantine - the present roof an afterthought. Inside there are two radically differing styles of wall painting.
Ag. Konstantinos - Ag. Georgios and the dedicatory inscription
An earlier more artistic (and faded) style showing Ag. Georgios in a niche on the south wall of the naos and some very damaged frescoes in the barrel vault of the bema, and a later cruder, more colourful and more rigid style. There is an inscription dated 1691 but what this refers to is difficult to assess. A north side window also shows signs of two periods of building neither quite matching the other - and, unusually for a Greek church, the external shape is a pointed gothic style arch. Possibly of Frankish influence?
Ag Triada - Proastio. The church has been restored somewhat in the last decade as earlier photos don't show the tiled roof halfway up the walls. The Crucifixion is above the west door.
Ag. Konstantinos is sometimes linked to Ag. Triada (no. 16 on the map) as the two are similar in appearance - but I have my doubts as Ag. Triada lacks the dogtooth work of Ag. Konstantinos. Ag. Triada (The Holy Trinity) is some 250 metres to the east of the large central church of the Eisodia tis Theotokou. You'll come across a large walled open space with fruit trees. There is a large arched gateway and a long path running up a small valley. Ag. Triada is at the end of this. It's a whitewashed building, no dome and single chambered and from outside it has no particularly distinguished features. Inside it is decorated throughout with frescoes from 1745 by Anagnostes Selemperdakis and Nikolaos of Nomitsis. The former is believed to have painted the church of Ag. Nikolaos in the centre of Proastio
The Inscription is still quite legible - if rather difficult to decipher if you don't read Greek and recognise the sometimes arcane letterforms used in such writings. Professor Günter Prinzing of Mainz University has studied the inscriptions in the church and is writing a scholarly article about it for publication. The church was founded in the early 1740s by a number of prestigious locals including the local Bishop Gerasimos Papaliakakis Purgalis and members of the powerful Troupakis (Mourtzinos) family of Androuvitsa (present day Kardamili and Exohori), namely Panagiotis, Dimitrakis and Tzanetos Troupakis. The inscription exhorts them and their descendants to take good care of the building and threatens dire consequences if these duties are ignored. There are a number of other smaller dedicatory inscriptions dotted around the walls of the church.
Ag. Triada - Proastio. Corner of the Pantocrator and the inscription naming the painters as Anagnostes Selemperdakis and Nikolaos of Nomitsis.
The church has a fine crucifixion and a large Pantocrator in the barrel vault which interestingly has at the four corners symbolic representations of the four Gospel writers. In the photo above you can see Mark - represented as a lion - as in the Lion of St. Mark of Venice. The church was open in June 2001 and a year later when a friendly local was tarting the place up for the festival of the Holy Trinity and again in 2003 when another local insisted on airing his fine tenor voice to us with a rendition of an Orthodox hymn.
Ag. Pantes (above) is typical of the small and outwardly indistinguished chapels dotted around Proastio. Inside much of the 18th century painting has succumbed to damp or whitewash but there is a fine Ag. Georgios which is, in my eyes, by the same artist who painted this saint in the Monastery of St. George just to the north of Proastio.
There is a much faded Jonah and the Whale below the altar (you can only just make out the monster swallowing the unfortunate Jonah) but the three masted ship in full sail is a delight, as is the detail of Joppa - which is more than likely based on a western print of a mid European city. The surface of the altar is interesting and in my experience rare. There is, in outline, the figure of Christ in the tomb.
Ag. Basilios & Spiridon - view and detail of mid 18th century fresco in Ag. Vasilios by Demangelakis of Koutiphari
Also of note on the top eastern edge of the village is the twin aisled church building which is in fact two churches: one of Ag. Spiridon to the south and the other Ag. Basilios to the north (No. 11). Georgia Tzavaras in her article points out that the south vault has fallen in at some time, due to inept building practices, and replaced by a wooden roof. The building was raised in 1754 by Anagnostes Dimitroulakis Papaliakakis Pourgalis (the then Bishop of Proastio and founder of Ag. Triada) and was painted by Anagnostes Demangelakis of Koutiphari - who painted many churches in the Exo Mani most notably that of the monastery of Dekoulou below Itilo.
Proastio also has some vestiges of the old tower dwellings and many of the secular buildings have interesting details. At the bottom of the village is an old washing place or fountain from which water still pours and although the water is nowadays not fit for drinking it is useful to pour over ones neck and face in summer heat.
Monastery of Ag. Theodoroi
Ag. Theodoros and the ruined Ag.Nikolaos, Moni Theodorii, Proastio
To the east of and just above Proastio is the monastery of Ag. Theodorii. Evliya Celebi described it in 1670 as, " large and famous with its hundred priests and innumerable votive offerings". The main church is dedicated to the Koimisis Theotokou and was built in the early 17th century. It is locked and I can report nothing of its interior although it is recorded by Traquair, who provided one black and white photograph of a painting from the templon, to have good, if late, frescoes. Just a few metres to the west of this largish church is the tiny and fast collapsing katholikon of the original monastery dating from the 13th century, which Hetherington calls Ag. Nikolaos. This is an evocative ruin if only able to offer the merest fragments of the original Byzantine frescoes.
Fragments of a Bishop's vestments and cloisonné work - Byzantine church Monastery of Ag. Theodoroi
As an added frisson to those who derive pleasure from the macabre there is a box of ex-monks' bones in the corner of this church which has been thoughtfully inscribed in Greek "This is the ossuary of the monks" - just in case you couldn't guess. In the summer of 2001 this small church had been roped off in a vain attempt to stop adventurous visitors being hit by bits of crumbling masonry and work was still proceeding in 2002. The main church is still firmly locked.
Though not always! Bob Barrow emailed me in April 2002 to say that workmen, presumably under the instruction of the local Ephorate of Antiquities, are starting to restore the tumbledown Ag. Nikolaos and are using Ag. Theodorii as a storage for some of the fragments. Bob nipped in and photographed the church. He reports that the condition of the paintings is poor but that the style is a fair bit more sophisticated than the norm for post-Byzantine frescos in the area. There is an obvious Ainoi (Praises or Last Psalms) section in the bema but in poor repair but on the spanning arches there are fine depictions of The Ladder of St. John Climacus which is repeated at Moni Ag. Nikitas at Doli, and is a warning to monks what happens if one strays from the 30 steps of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. On the opposite arch is Jacob's Ladder another variation on the ladder theme - actually Climacus is derived from the Greek word for ladder. Bob also reports an interesting ancient tombstone which is part of the floor of the church.
The Ladders at Ag. Theodorii, Proastio
I got to see the inside of the church myself in late May 2002 hoping that the Ephorate were still working on the church. They are , but are dividing their time between Ag. Nikolaos in the centre of Proastio and this site and I always managed to miss them at Ag. Theodorii. But one morning I noted the door to the church was ajar. Luckily for me the owner was down from Athens and he and his sister were lighting lamps and giving the church the once-over. They allowed me in and I had a few minutes looking around and photographing. The paintings which remain are quite freely executed with an elan and flair rarely seen in 18th century Mani frescos but are clearly of a post-Byzantine period. I'd guess at 17th century.
John the Baptist, the Saints Theodorii and a Monk (whom I can't identify) Ag. Theodorii Monastery Proastio
To get to the monastery drive almost through Proastio, take the road to Kastania/Saidona (to the right) past the quarry and just above the village you'll see a signposted turning to the left up into the fields - follow this for about 500 metres - it used to end in a dirt track but as of 2001 it is concrete all the way to the monastery. If you continue on the road out of Proastio you drop into the Vathi Langada gorge which comes down from Vaidenitsa and enters the sea at Phoneas Cove. There is a fine stone arched bridge over the gorge and the road continues over to Nea Proastio and up to Saidona and Kastania.
View of the gorge and bridge below Ag. Theodoros Monastery - Proastio
It soon becomes a track but if you have reasonable ground clearance on your vehicle it is quite driveable.
Monastery of Ag.Georgios.
If one continues on the road through Proastio towards Lakkos and Exohori you will notice as you depart the village a walled and cypress tree'd enclosure on the ridge to your left (north). This is the monastery of Ag. Georgios and it is an easy walk from the main road. Post Byzantine the monastery has fantastic views in all directions and is a beautiful if windswept spot. It is part of the line of churches and monasteries which dot the line of the escarpment running north-south from the line of the Viros gorge. Each bluff has a church and not far away to the north are the monasteries of Karaveli and Phaneromeni at Petrovouni. To reach it walk from a 'carpark' opposite the school - the stone quarries, some minute, dot the landscape as does wild thyme. A Little Owl has this as his hunting territory and squawks peremptorily at human intruders from his favoured perch on a electricity post.
Moni Ag. Georgios, Proastio, view and the outline Adam & Eve
The church has never, in my experience, been locked and has a number of features which make it worth visiting. The roof is of modern varnished wood and it is clear from the remains of a cross arching feature that the old ceiling fell in some years ago. Perhaps, rather like another wooden roofed churches in the area, such as the village church in Ano Doli, Ag. Georgios may have been hit by an earthquake. What the original roofing was it is difficult to say - certainly a barrel vault and possibly a cross vault. Walk round to the rear of the church and try and figure out what was built when and the architectural clues become more perplexing - I think one can spot a bit of cloisonné in the apse - which might point to an originally medieval building.
The paintings are certainly not complete and near to the tops of the walls and the ceiling there is just bare rubble. Of particular interest is a depiction on the south wall of the Naos of Adam & Eve being tempted by the serpent. This has not been completed and is merely an outline sketch in black on top of whitewash. Presumably it was going to be completed when something stopped the process. Interestingly an expert on Greek painting reckons that this is probably based on a western depiction of Adam & Eve - possibly that of Dürer or Cranach.
Moni Ag. Georgios Proastio, St. George and Abraham just about to sacrifice Isaac but forestalled by an Angel of the Lord
It is worth comparing the similarity in style and yet distinct difference in artistic competence to the paintings of Moni Lykaki in the nearby Viros Gorge. The painting on the west wall of Ag. Georgios of the crucifixion with two mounted Roman soldiers, one spearing the crucified Christ, the other offering him a sponge, is also present at Lykaki (but on the eastern transept in that location). Neither Lykaki nor Ag.Georgios show any great sophistication in painting style but the artist of Ag. Georgios is a fair bit more competent than that of Lykaki. At least his horses don't look as if they would collapse under their wobbly legs. They seem to date, like many frescoes in the district, from the middle to second half of the 18th century
Lakkos - Ag. Theodorii from the south east
Lakkos (the word means 'hole' in Greek and refers to a limestone chasm) is about a mile or so further up the road towards Exohori. No more than a hamlet of six or seven houses it has two churches. The larger of two, Ag. Theodori is a pitched roofed affair with quite extensive late 18th frescoes on the walls and templon.
Ag. Theodorii - Lakkos - interior
It is locked but the windows give a reasonable view of the north wall and apse and I have heard that a local lady, Evangelia, who lives in a house just to the south of the church (you need to take an alleyway to reach it) is the key holder but she's always been out or asleep when I've called.
On to Exohori