The south eastern coast of the Deep Mani is relatively isolated from the rest of the peninsular, There used to be two ways of getting in (if you ignore boats) - either from the pass over the Sangias just south of Areopolis or over the winding road from Alika in the deep south and over a high col to Lagia. Doubtless there were other tracks but until recently Skoutari and Kotronas, although only a few kilometres apart as the crow flies, were unconnected by any reasonable road. But this has recently changed
View northwards of the 'Sunward Coast' - in the distance the Cape of Kotronas
If you follow signs southwards to Kotronas from the beach at Skoutari you'll follow a narrow road through olive groves. On my first traverse of this, our car followed a pig, in the back of an agricultural truck, who rather spectacularly defecated in our direction, one of the more authentically rustic sights of rural Greece. But after a rather dodgy surfaced start you hit a new road which has been constructed around the cape to Kotronas. It could host a small Grand Prix such is the width and quality of the asphalt. As there was not a single car on the entire 8 kilometres or so length of this magnificent road we had great fun pushing our tiny but willing Fiat Seicento to its limits and taking a racing line on the sweeping curves. It turns the point into Kotronas Bay before suddenly descending into a another tiny road with barely room for two cars to pass. No doubt this road is part of the EU largesse to Greece and certainly cuts out the drag of squirming up dirt tracks over the mountain between Skoutari and Kotronas (or even more tedious and much safer going all the way to Areopoli to come back through the pass through the Sangias) and we enjoyed it greatly but it did seem to be rather anomolous in a district of dusty lanes rather than three lane highways. Some five years later I drove round from the Kotronas end. Again it was refreshingly bereft of traffic but near Skoutari this magnificent highway had spectacturaly collapsed along a fault line and we had to manouevre between the slipped road and huge diggers attempting to rectify the gaping void on one side oof the road.
At Kotronas the landscape becomes more dessicated and elemental the line of the mountains dipping into the sea of the sunward coast steepling away towards Matapan and the African sea. Again we didn't linger in Kotronas which although it has a seafront of sorts is mainly inland hugging a ridge running inland. The day we arrived the clouds were lowering over the coast and the quay and coastline took on a slightly threatening steel grey aspect. Overlooking the harbour there's a lacklustre kafeneion and a statue to Nikiforos Demestihas, a local hero of the Macedonian wars (what everyone else calls the Balkan Wars but which also included a fair amount of irregular incursions into Ottoman territory during peace time). For a web site giving fulsome pictures (but not much written information) of Kotronas compiled by a local click here.
The remoteness of this coast is demonstrated by a tale of Kotronas in 1854 as reported in the London Times. That year was a particularly fractious period in Greek history. The tensions between the king Otto and the various factions in parliament and court, dubbed English, French and Russian had reached, if not quite boiling point then a steady simmer. Additionally the Crimean War had concentrated the attention of the allied powers, Britain, France, Piedmont and Turkey, onto the eastern Mediterranean. On 27th of July of that year a French brig, The Olivier, was patrolling in the gulf of Lakonia looking for pirates. The captain sent the longboat with 18 matelots under the command of a Lieutenant. de Forge to patrol down the eastern coast of Mani. They were to rendezvous with The Olivier at Porto Kayio on the 28th.
The longboat and it's crew landed at five in the morning on the beach below Kotronas and brewed up coffee and breakfast. During this time a local Papas wandered up and scrounged some tobacco and chatted to the French sailors. All seemed quiet enough and around seven in the morning the Lieutenant gave his men permission to smoke and himself wandered off to explore the vicinity, he at least had the foresight to take a gun. A Sergeant and the boatswain wandered off, unarmed, towards a house some 500 metres from the beach where a Greek rushed out and attacked them with a stick. Hastliy withdrawing the couple came across some more of the crew and re-inforced they returned towards the house only this time to be greeted by a hail of stones. The boatswain restrained the sailors from drawing their cutlasses and awaited the return of the officer.
Lieutenant de Forge turned to the Papas, who was still hanging about and asked him in Italian (a language the Papas seemed to have some words of) why they had been victims of such an unprovoked attack. The Papas merely laughed and then when Lt. de Forge decided to take him hostage started to yell at the top of his voice for help. From out of the landscape appeared around sixty armed Maniates. The better shots of the French placed themselves behind the cover of a terraced garden while the others got the longboat afloat. The Papas, now at the head of the armed locals insisted on throwing stones at the defending party and soon gunfire broke out from both sides. The Papas was wounded by Lt. de Forge who then led a swift retreat to the safety of the longboat. The lieutenant in his turn was hit by two musket balls as he manouvered the longboat's gun to rake the beach. Another seaman was also wounded in the fracas. The longboat duly rendezvoued that afternoon with the Olivier which smartly returned to the scene of the skirmish, but when they reached Kotronas it was clear that the miscreants had flown and the French were not foolish enough to advance into unknown territory, studded with war towers full of locals with the reputation of being the most savage in the whole of Greece. The Olivier sailed on to Marathonisi (Githeon).
Marathonisi was the seat of the local Eparch (a government official) and the first Lieutenant of the Olivier, M. Riviere with a local agent of a French steamboat company M. Caputi called on the Eparch and insisted him accompany them to Kotronas and investigate the affair. The Eparch was at first reluctant to join the expedition but was at last persuaded on board along with some of his own officials. At Kotronas it became clear that the whole affair had been instigated and orchestrated by the Papas, a certain Mentouris, and two other locals, Constantinos Nicolaos and Charalambos Sctiracos had beaten the botswain and started the stone throwing. The locals at first claimed that one of the sailors had tried to assault a local girl, but this falsehood was soon dismissed and the Eparch attempted, fruitlessly, to get the three ringleaders to accompany him. The locals had already boasted to the Greek gendarmerie that, 'If the French come we will make them eat the fish, and for us, we shall be eaten by vultures'.
The affair then escalated to a national level. The commander of the Olivier returned to Marathonisi and insisted that the Eparch arrested the men. The Eparch replied that, 'he would do his best, but had no power over the savage inhabitants'.The Olivier sailed to Piraeus and insisted that a Greek naval vessel was sent to apprehend the miscreants. The 'Otho' was sent with 60 men was despatched, but it, a Royal Procurator and the Governor of Sparta at the head of 20 Gendarmes had no effect as the entire area was up in arms. As The Times correspondent (anonymous but quite possibly the great philhellene and historian George Finlay) mused on Mani, '…neither Greeks nor Romans or Turks ever quite subdued it. Of course there is even less chance for an Hellenic Government.'
The Papas, Mentouris, it appeared, had been highly active in the troubles of a few years ealier, when the monk Papulakis had incited the whole of Mani into open rebellion to the Greek governmment. This in it's turn was part of the machinations of the 'Russian Party' in Greek politics who found it extremely useful to foment revolt in Mani. The 'Russian' party was a reactionary movement, deeply suspicious of westerners and the westernisation of Greek society and (both naively and optimistically) claiming that the Russians, with their deeply ingrained Orthodox faith were the best major power to ally Greece to. The Kotronas affair of 1854 appears to have had its roots in Athens. The attack was pre-meditated and the uproar it brought in train an orchestrated distraction from the need to modernise Greek politics and institutions. It also proved that, even in the 1850s, deep Mani was both susceptible to reactionary rabble rousing and impervious to governmental attempts at control.
Above the village of Gonea to the north of Kotronas, (which, reputedly, has a number of churches supposedly worth investigating though we failed to find any of great merit), on the ridge of the rocky peninsular is the eyrie like monastery of Ag. Sotiras with its domed katholikon. We tried getting there with Bob "Let's Off Road' Barrow at the steering wheel - but decided half way up an almost vertical swine of a track that even his rattly ex-hire Corsa wasn't worth sacrificing to the urge to see yet another church. To the south of Kotronas is the fascinating island of Skopa. This is joined to the mainland by a spit of land. There are medieval and ancient remains on the rocky islet - which a local has unsportingly fenced off. The French scholar of the Frankish Morea, Antoine Bon, believed there may have been a Frankish castle here and reputedly there are some Roman mosaics which are now below sea level. Kotronas is believed to have been the site of ancient Teuthrone.
Views on the sunward coast and view from Gonea of the 'island' of Skopa near Kotronas
Inland from from Kotronas the road either goes west through the Sangias to Areopoli via the pass at Pirichos. There was an ancient city in this valley with the same name and it is a relatively fertile part of Mesa Mani though the fields which Malcolm Wagstaff whilst doing fieldwork for his PhD. noted were growing wheat 40 years ago are now mostly gone to wrack and ruin.
Or the road or darts south past the large inland and towered village of Flomochori. Now the Sangias mountains drop steeply into the sea, riven with precipitous ravines and the villages have little or no hinterland and cling to the sides of the mountains as barnacles to a rock. The road winds its way along the coast in a type of corniche, ducking into small fishing villages then swooping up into defiles. It's one of those rollercoaster roads where every turn brings new vistas and where one wonders how the stones were hauled up to some of the eyries where the old tower dwellings are perched and who would ever have wanted to have lived there.
Its a part of Mani I have only touched on in two long drives around the peninsular and an area which would take days to explore properly. I'm usually based in the NW Mani and this remote corner is one I shall have to return to while based closer to its precipitous slopes and tower encrusted villages.
Lagia is the last village on the road before one crosses the Sangias and the only one I've had time to give more than passing notice to. Spread over a number of hillsides it has numerous towers and stumps of towers including some versions which taper upwards - presumably the methods of construction of these war-towers was not sophisticated enough for plumb line uprights or as suggested by Saitas, the lack of wood for scaffolding. What is interesting is that many of the dates carved into stones on the towers show that even after the end of the War of Independence the deep Maniates were continuing to put up war towers despite official strictures from the Greek government.
When we visited, on a scorching midday in late June, there was not a soul to be seen in the baking village streets of Lagia. A dog lay asleep in the middle of the road, or appeared to until on closer inspection it was clear the poor mutt had been recently hit by a passing vehicle and was stone dead. This sad sight somehow seemed to sum up the mood of Lagia though up the hill a local sculptor was obviously getting inspiration from the location. The churches of the eastern coast are no less numerous and Lagia had three or four which we rootled about in - though there are more than 20 listed in the village and suurounds.
Views of Lagia looking southwards and to the west - and including the obligatory power cables - try photographing, almost anything, in Greece without these twentieth century intrusions!
On the northern approaches just above the road to is the small monochambered church of the Phaneromeni. The paintings are dated by an inscription over the door which appears to suggest that it was built in the early 1850s and painted in June of 1859. The paintings are simplistic and childlike in execution, if colourful.
Church of Phaneromeni - Lagia and the Panagia and infant Jesus from the apse. 1850s.
In the central platea of the village there is a large twentieth century church with a dome which is of liitle interest but below this to the right is an older church down a small footpath dedicated to Ag. Konstantinos and Eleni which has an ancient column built into its north side next to the only door. The church may be older than post-Byzantine as some distinctly medieval marbles form the lintel of the door but here - again - the frescos are of relatively recent date - either 18th or more likely mid 19th century progeny and of a similar simple naive artistic style to those in the Phaneromeni church nearby. They could even be by the same artist. An interesting detail is that St. Dimitrios has a small papas pillion passenger - either a monk or priest. St George often has his 'coffee bearer' sitting behind him but this is the only passenger I've seen cadging a lift off Ag. Dimitrios on his chestnut horse.
Lagia - Ag. Konstantinos and Eleni - view from the south - 19th century (?) Paintings of Ag. Petros, Ag. Dimitrios and Agia Paraskevi
On the lower parts of the wall of the naos are crude and frankly rather cruel depictions of what happens to those who transgress the moral and sexual norms and end up in Hell. These crop up in a number of 18th century (and later) churches in Mani and are presumably put at ground level to catch the attention of the poor congregation as their eyes were lowered in prayer. This censorious and prurient frieze is repeated in a third church on the southern edge of Lagia where everyday human error or sexual dalliance or proclivity is graphically shown to lead to extremely unpleasant tortures at the hands (or hooves) of horned and tailed demons of Hades.
The tortures of Hell - Lagia . Presumably an adulteress from Ag. Spiridon and what appears to be two chaps in bed getting the flames of hell from church of Ag. Konstantinos and Eleni
The church (it looks to be dedicated to Ag. Nikolaos from the modern day mass produced icons but I am assured that it is called Ag. Spiridon) of is just off the road - and up a short track. It doesn't actually look much like a church from the outside and is of crude megalithic masonry. As it is built into the hillside the bema or sanctuary is lower than the floor of the nave and extremely claustrophobic. The paintings are fulsome, with yellows and reds surviving best on the walls, but again of a rather naive and late style common in the area.
Ag. Nikolaos, on the southern side of Lagia and Christ Pantocrator from the roof of the barrel vault.
After Lagia the road climbs to a col before dropping by a serpentine route via Tsikkalia to the Deep Mani coast near Alika. I've begun to run out of clichés for views but this one is big. The day we crossed the clouds were banking up over the tops of the Sangias and a wind heavy with salt was whistling in the heather and gorse mingling with the smell of the garrigue vegetation. It was a bit like standing in a warm, saline and herby wind tunnel with the miniature Manhattan of Vathia a tiny dot below.
Vathia seen from the pass over from the Sunward Coast
What is interesting about the landscape as one descends to the Mesa Mani is the terracing of the landscpe. These high hills are scoured by the wind and every crumb of earth used to be precious for the cereal harvests which sustained the hardy inhabitants. The painstaking way in which almost every and any slope no matter how perpendicular has been shaped to eke out the available workable tilth, often yielding tiny flat areas, is quite mind boggling.
On to Deep Mani - Boulari to Taenaron