This page describes the area to the north of the main Areopoli - Githeon highway.
For a clickable sketch map relating to this page click here
After turning left just outside Areopoli the road traverses a typical piece of deep Mani countryside. There is a monument at the side of the road which I have failed to decipher and the road then sweeps round a large bend before descending into the more welcoming terrain. The area you are entering is called by Leake "Malevri" an area of river valleys flowing down to the Lakonian Gulf and relative agricultural. It's interesting to note that almost all 19th century travellers who approached Areopolis from the east (i.e. from Githion) noted this sudden change in terrain. G.A. Perdicaris took a mule on this route in 1842 and wrote,
'Beyond the little stream of Arna and the pass of Langadi, the point of contact, and the natural boundary between Eastern and Western Mane, the mild and smiling features of the country ceased and the surrounding regions assumed the most wild and forbidding aspect.'
But before this easterly natural fecundity becomes obvious there is a small turning to the north signposted to Kelefa Castle. It takes a circuitous route going through Kelefa village itself before petering out in a rough track next to the castle walls. The village is today an unprepossessing settlement which seems rather folorn and windswept. Don't let this air of backwater sleepiness fool you into thinking it was always such. In the survey undertaken by the agents of the Duc de Nevers in 1618 of all the villages in Mani only Itilo, across the ravine to the north, had a larger population than Kelefa. What is striking is not just that Kelefa approached the population of Itilo, rich on trade and especially that of slaves, but that both of them left the rest of Mani well behind. Itilo was measured as having nearly 400 'fuochi' or hearths=households, Kelefa some 300, their nearest rival Kastania only half that number and the majority of Maniate settlements in the early 17th century numbering less than 100 hearths. The obvious reason for this inordinately large population with regard to its present day obscurity was the fortress of Kelefa and the numbers of officials and workers this impressive and vital fort would need to sustain it's everyday existence.
The south wall of Kelefa and view west over Itilo Bay
The remains you can now see, to the west of the village, are those of the Turkish fortifications dating from the 17th century. Leake, who saw the place in 1805, calls them Venetian and certainly it was garrisoned by the Italians during their occupation of the Peloponnese from 1685-1715 but they merely took over the earlier Turkish fort which they captured in 1686.
Kelefa - Views from the north wall. (left) looking east (right) north to Itilo across the gorge
In fact many believe that the fort we now see is that built around 1670 by Ali Pasha the leader of the Ottoman army which entered Mani in force that year. The traveller and official Evliya Celebi accompanied the armies and according to his account it was he who decided that a fortress be built here. Even allowing for Evliya's tendency to shove himself to the centre of any action it is clear that he was put in charge of organising the rebuilding of Zarnata castle to the north and for the procurement of workmen and craftsmen to work on Kelefa and Zarnata. The main reason for building the castle was undoubtedly to curtail the customs of the inhabitants of Itilo who had grown rich on trade and especially on that in slaves. Evliya tells how just before the Ottoman army's arrival 12 Itilote frigates slipped out of the harbour filled with Muslim slaves. Equally importantly the Maniates were friends with the Venetians and the Venetian fleet was often harboured in the bay below Itilo.
Evliya reports Ali Pasha telling him "By the Grace of God it is necessary to build a castle. It is necessary for you to think and to write its size, its shape, how many guardians it will hold as well as about the provisions which will be required. By the grace of God the Sultan's fleet will anchor in the harbour of Oitylo." The people of Itilo attempted to persuade Evliya Celebi that building a castle would be a waste of time money and energy but it seems that they protested too much and the decision was taken to build a fortress dominating the bay. Evliya talks of the "entrance to the bay" but evidently the castle was built in the most dominant position both to control the bay and more obviously Itilo across the gorge.
Venetian engraving of Kelefa from the late 17th century
Evliya wrote of his commission by Ali Pasha to " communicate the conquest to the Sultan and the keys of the kastro and (gave me) firman and letters inviting the five Sancakbeys who would be encountered on my journey through Albania and all garrison commanders and officers of the Janissaries, artillery and other things and servants of the Sublime Porte, military engineers, carpenters, masons, plasterers and builders, pashas and kadis (judges) to pour to the Vilayet (province) of Mani in order to repeople the the kastro of Kelefa".
Kelefa was taken by Morosini in 1685 and became part of the Venetian chain of fortresses around the Morea during their occupation (1685-1715) but despite being defended by 62 pieces of ordinance in 1715 it fell without a fight to the invading armies the Grand Vezir Ali Pasha. The local Maniates acted as brokers between the Turks and Venetians, the latter being supplied with ships to take away the garrison.
It's easy to get to the castle these days as the track out to it has recently been asphalted and there's even a carpark - of sorts. Despite this ease of access I suspect you should have the place to yourself. I spent a happy hour walking around it in May '06 and just had the hum of bees and the odd cry of a bird to disturb me. Except that is when I sat a while on the north wall overlooking the chasm of the Milolangada gorge. Every so often I heard a conversation from Itilo a half mile away to the north, as clearly as if I were in the next garden.
The walls are now crumbling but the tops of them can, with care, be traversed on foot. In the centre it's overgrown and difficult underfoot - the western half of the castle is obviously someone's olive grove. The fort is basically rectangular and the walls are relatively low. Even so it would have given little protection from artillery and it has been pointed out that the gun platforms on the corners of the castle would have scarcely given room for the recoil. Most commentators have noted the general ineptitude of Turkish fortifications, but it must be remembered that Kelefa was primarily a frontier post to keep in check the Maniates and was not intended to withstand an assault from a western style force with siege train. Kelefa is one of the leading candidates for the site of Villehardouin's Frankish castle of Grande Magne built in the 1250s to constrain the activities of the tribe of the Melingi who dominated the Outer Mani. To read more on the location of the castle of Grand Magne click here. Certainly the view from the fort over the chasm of the Milolangada towards Itilo to the north and Itilo Bay and Limeni to the west is impressive and worth the journey.
Kelefa - the fort from the other side of the gorge above Itilo and the church of Ag. Vasilieos
There are two or three churches in the village - a cemetery church on the approaches (near a sign pointing you to the castle - which is a track but which cuts off a long circuitious route through the village) which I haven't investigated but am assured is not of interest. Of much greater interest is Ag. Vasilieos in the main platea of the village. This is a largish church - probably built in the late 17th or early 18th century and had, I knew, a fine set of frescos dating from the second half of the 18th century. The stonework is not of a particularly regular order and has been revealed in the last decade or so , as earlier photos of the church show it as plastered and painted white. Some of the windows show signs of being made from ancient 'spolia' or classical bits n' bobs re-used. There is a date carved into a stone halfway up the bell tower which probably points to the construction of this impressive succession of arches which appears to say 1856 - though the last digit is indecipherable.
The church is locked but when I drove into Kelefa on a cloudy morning in early June 2002 I wandered over to a small group of locals who were chatting in a animated fashion in the platea (there is no kafeneion or even general store in Kelefa that I could spot). I waved blithely at the church and said "Agios Vasilieos?" hoping to confirm my educated guess as to it's name (I had a blurred photocopy of a photo of it). Without a word the female member of the group stood up, took a large buch of keys out of her pinafore and walked over to the church door, opened it and switched on the lights. Eleni, that was her name, sat down and watched I didn't pinch anything (key holders can rarely be persuaded to leave one to get on with photographing) as I snapped away at the frescos.
Ag. Vasilieos Kelefa - mid 18th century frescos of the Ainoi (Last Psalms) and yet another martyr bites the dust in a violent manner
The church has obvious been extended at some date as there is a large narthex on the west end which is devoid of paintings. The main section is a more common cross in square with two vaults either side of the central section in the west of the church before the narthex. The paintings are in the main by the same group of painters who decorated Ag. Theodorii in Kambos, Moni Roussaki at Kalieneika and Ag. Georgios at Mirsini and amongst other churches in Exo Mani. This means one can date them roughly to the period 1750 - 1760. There is a faded but fine long painting in the central western vault of the Road to Golgotha underneath scenes from the Passion and a version of the Last Psalms (Ainoi) paintings in the northern side vault (above the north door) with its usual array of strange beasts and humanoids. In such a large church the artists were able to add in many of their favourite themes, there is the Garden of Eden and the Expulsion, various gory (and frankly on occasion gratuitous) martyrdoms and the usual crew of Saints George, Dimitrios, the two Theodorii and numerous prophets and elders of the church. As with most 18th century painting the level of actual artistic skill is cartoon like rather than beautiful but incidental details, presumably contemporaneous to the painters' lives are worth looking for. A good example is a small boy with drums hung off his waist in the Passion sequence whom one can imagine was a common sight in the 18th century Balkans (see below right).
Ag. Vasilieos - Kelefa - Archangel Gabriel and two scenes from the Passion of Christ
From the main platea follow the street towards the castle and you reach another smaller square. Here there is the church of Ag. Georgios - it was locked but again has ancient spolia in the stonework most noticeably an ancient gravestone in the outside wall of the apse.
Ag.Georgios - Kelefa
A few kilometres further along the main road to Githeon is another turning to the left - this time signposted to Germa. The road is narrow but tarmac'd and runs in a large loop around the mountains, skirting the village of Karea, before eventually reaching Itilo. Sometime in 2002 the northern half of this valley was devastated by a brush fire and was still blackened in May 2003, though it was consoling to see the green fighting back.
Germa is not really much more than a collection of houses but it contains one of the finest Byzantine churches in the area. The domed church Ag. Nikolaos is dated to the 11th century. Rather like the church of the Soter at Langada the early date of its construction was not realised until recently as it was firmly covered with stucco, plaster and white paint. In the last decade this has been cleaned off to reveal a fine piece of well dressed cut Byzantine stonework with cloisonné brickwork around the doorways and windows and a now defunct and filled in side entrance or window to the narthex. There are some folkloric carvings on the bell arches and below the steps to the church is a fine set of medieval carvings of birds. According to a note in Anna Avramea's book on the early Byzantine Peloponnese (1) there are pieces of early Christian sculpture in the walls of the village church of Germa - by which I presume she means Ag. Nikolaos.
Ag. Nikolaos, Germa - exterior and depiction of the Psalms (Ainoi) in the narthex
The church is locked but the keyholder (he only speaks his native tongue) is in the house just behind the south east end of the church. He will open the doors but can be circumspect about allowing photographs - managing to pull a face and shrug in a rather ambivalent manner. I managed to take eight or so before he seemed to become dreadfully twitchy, making little throat clearing noises and I felt I had to desist. Others who have visited have been refused permission to photograph point blank but then again another talks about happily running off an entire film. A pity as both the church and narthex are painted - I believe that keyholders have been told that flash photography will harm the paintings - which is arrant nonsense.
Frescoes in the naos Ag. Nikolaos - Germa
In fact I returned in June 2001 and the keyholder actually came out and offered to open the church - I tend to think visitors in Germa are few and far between and he was pleased to show people around. As I wanted to convince the Keyholder that I was no average gawping tourist I mentioned the name of the painter of the church, Klirodeti, as I was entering. He was quite surprised and asked how I knew this and I burbled some broken Greek about reading up on the church in Drandakis' book on churches in the area (Ereina stin Kato Mani. 1993). This seemed to impress him though he still gave the vague shrug when I asked about photography - but allowed me to fire away - he also repeated the plaintive throat clearing which I learned to ignore. I also found it is useful to try and point at pictures and ask who they are or name things - eventually he became quite pally and was volunteering information and we were able to get a good look at the church (though not the Bema).
Scenes from the life of Christ - narthex - Ag. Nikolaos Germa
The paintings are not medieval and are dated to 1752 and are the work of Michali Klirodeti - his name is at the end of a frieze across the top of the Templon - though the date is in somewhat more difficult to decipher as it seems not to be in arabic numerals. Michali was obviously from a family of local church painters as the patrinomic name crops up in a number of churches in this area - from various generations spanning the 18th and early nineteenth centuries. The style here is very colourful but simplistic. His figures are almost dwarfish and very naïve in execution. They are typically post-Byzantine.
Frescoes from the mid 18th century narthex - Ag. Nikolaos - Germa
The narthex contains a version of the Ainoi paintings with the signs of the zodiac which depict the last psalms and many of the figures have 'Turkish' apparell and visages. That said there are some paintings which do not look to be by the same artist and are possibly earlier. The figures on the column supports to the dome are more naturally painted and appear to be in medieval costume.
There is another church painted by a member of the Klirodeti family near Germa. The church of the Christos Zoodotis or Metamorphoses was painted in 1725 by an elder member of this wallpainting dynasty called Panagioti Klirodeti. I asked the keyholder of Ag. Nikolaos where this church was and he gave us clear directions to the location. The church is just to the south of Germa. About 700 metres down the road there is a largish bend to the west where a small ridge runs down. On the apex of the bend there is a white concrete road running up to the east along the ridge - it now has a blue and white sign pointing the way. Take this for some 250 metres (it becomes a driveable track) and the church can be seen down a sidetrack to the right. Walk down this to the single chambered barrel vaulted church. There are good views out across the valley to Vachos and the hill of Old Kariopolis.
Christos Zoodotis or Metamorphosi - near Germa and fresco of Last Supper
The church wasn't locked (June 2001) and is fully painted. The Elder Klirodeti - his name is on the donators inscription - was a better painter than the younger member of the family who painted Ag. Nikolaos half a mile north - though not much. But one learns not to expect sophistication from post-Byzantine painters and the church is filled with vivid images.
The Pantocrator from the barrel vault, Panagia and child from the Bema and a Saint (or Christ?) being menaced by devils. Metamorphoses - Germa
The Three Kings and Ag, Georgios with his "coffee bearer" - Metamorphosis - Germa.
If one drives to the north of Germa there are a number of blue signposts pointing off down dirt tracks. If you are brave enough take the one about 250 metres north of Germa pointing to, amongst others, Mon.Panagia Spiliotissia. This is a a bit of a roller coaster of a track and when I did it in early June 2002 it was obvious that I was the first to drive the last few kilometres to the monastery for many weeks. I was driving through vegetation higher than the car - if this sounds rather foolish of me then I can assure that the giant plants were no more than tall umbellifers, Daucus carota, the wild carrot or Queen Anne's Lace which thrives all over Mani in early summer and they spring up again after one's driven over them. I was wondering if I'd ever reach the monastery and it is a good four or five kilometres but as long as one doesn't give up hope you'll draw up in front of the monastery gates. You are now much closer to Kelefa than Germa but the position of the monastery shows why you've had to arrive via Germa and this god awful overgrown track.
The two churches of the Panagia Spiliotissia Monastery, left, Ag. Paraskevi - right Ag. Bima
The monastery is on a promontory with large chasms on three sides dividing it from Kelefa and any of the encircling roads save that at Germa. The monastery is mentioned by Leake, who calls it the Panagia Spilotissa and describes it in 1805 as having gardens and cultivated terraces. There is a gateway into the compound and to the east of this is a long low barrel vaulted white church - which is locked. But before ranting and raving you should go through an archway to the north down into another small enclosed space. Then go down some steps and through a small gateway with a faded niche over it which looks as if it goes into a void but a sharp right hand turn reveals a set of whitewashed steps descending steeply down the side of a deep gorge to a small similarly whitewashed chapel with a twin bell tower built into the rock face.
The climb down is vertiginous but there is some form of restraining wall and a handrail and, thankfully for one such as I who delights not in heights, it's not far. The church is in two sections. The first is a narrow east-west (ish) chamber only some 3-4 metres in length with rock face as the southern wall. As you've entered through the east end there is no bema or altar but a number of those rather tasteless modern gold painted ornate bits of church furniture try to make up for that. There is a window at the west end - there is then a sharp left hand turn up wards which leads to the tiny cave which gives the monastery it's name and is the real holy of holies of this church. It's such a confined space I couldn't stand up in it, I'm quite tall, but then I doubt if many could. You may well encounter a resident bat.
Panagia Spiliotissia Monastery - the main section and Archangel Michael from the cave section
There are wall paintings in the church but it is difficult to make much of most of them such are the ravages of damp and time and in the main section there are a large number of modern mass produced bits of religiosity hanging off the wall. There is an overall blue colouring to these frescos but in the cave part a number of images - which seem to be by another hand - are squashed into the confined space. Thus the Taxiarch (Archangel) Michail with his terrifying breast plate is a mere few feet high rather than the usual larger than life depiction you would find in a conventional church. A date for the paintings? Possibly a mixture of 17th and 18th century? However it is not for the frescoes that one should visit this site but for it's setting. By the way the monastery is clearly visible from the road from Itilo via Karea to Germa, just before the village of Krioneri and below the valley leading to Moni Tsigou. The last named monastery is up a rather nasty dirt track to the north and photos of it look interesting but not having a four wheel drive car I gave up on the steep and stony ascent.
Travelling on the main road towards Githeon you pass through some delightful wooded countryside and a number of blokes selling rather fine honey by the side of the road. This is obviously a traditional skill as Leake praised the honey in this district in 1805. On one of the last hills before Githeon is the castle of Passava which defends a narrow pass. This is now in ruins and most of those one can see are probably of Turkish origin although the site was known to have been fortified and held by the Franks for a short period at the start of their domination of the Morea in the early 13th century. The castle's name is thought to derive from the French war-cry Passe Avant! although another suggestion is that it was named after a village of Passavant in northern France where one of the Frankish knights originally came from. Whatever the truth on that question it has been put into use by whomsoever can seize it at various critical moments in Mani history. It was probably the site of the ancient city of Las, the Franks certainly were here under Jean de Nieully in the 1250s, it must have fallen to the Byzantine Greeks later that century, the Ottomans then took over in the 1460s, some Spaniards briefly seized the place in the early 17th century, the Venetians took it in 1685, but didn't use it, and the local Maniates then used it as a defense against the Albanians of Vardounia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Passava - old map and the overgrown site today
The Spanish episode happened in 1601, and is related in the account of Captain Alonso de Contreras who joined a small squadron of galleys from the main Christian fleet off Sicily in a two week long raid into the Levant. According to the most recent English translation of his picaresque memoirs…
"We assaulted a fortress in the Morea called Pasaba, and we took five hundred prisoners: men, women, and children. We captured the governor, and his wife and children, as well as horses and about thirty bronze cannons. We did this without the loss of a single man: The news of it astonished the world. However, the truth was that the garrison there had thought themselves in no danger of attack, knowing that the main Christian fleet was still at Messina"*
* The Adventures of Captain Alonso de Contreras. translated by Philip Dallas. 1989 p.25
Evliya Celebi gives a good description of the castle during its Turkish occupation in 1668, although he fails to mention its earlier occupation, possibly because the castle was reputedly dismantled by the Byzantines in the early 1400s. He says that it was built in the time of Bayezit Veli (1451-1512), most probably after the fall of Mistra in 1460. The Turkish name was Kale-i Pasova-i Hakaayides, or the Castle of Pasava of the Ruler. Even in those days the Turkish garrison, though in a situation basically impregnable from the Maniates, would not venture outside the fort unless they were in groups of at least forty or fifty strong. Evliya tells of the constant grumbling warfare which characterised this frontier area in which the Turks' great balyemezli or long distance cannons were of little use against the Maniates with their skill in guerilla fighting. Prisoners were often ransomed by both sides and Evliya describes later meeting a woman in the Deep Mani who revealed herself to be a slave of the Maniates. She was the daughter of a chieftain, called Emir Hasan Aga, from the Vardounia frontier zone and had been carried away by the Kapetani and pirate Lemperaki Gerakaris who was later appointed Bey by the Turks in 1688.
The Venetians seized Passava in 1685 after they had taken Kelefa. According to Coronelli, Morosini sent a detachment of 500 men under a Major Gregorevic to assist the Maniates who were covering the castle. The Ottomans seeing the coming Venetian flags, fled. But the Venetians decided not to garrison the place deeming it 'useless'. Coronelli points out that the gorge is so narrow thereabouts that a small detachment of soldiers could effectively block it without need of a castle. Accordingly the Ventenians pulled down the castle. So presumably it was re-built once again by the Ottomans when they returned in 1715 where it remained a border post between Vardounia and Mani. Paradissis wrote that the Maniates seized the castle of Passava from the Turks after the murder of the Bey of Mani, Grigorakis and despite the best efforts of the Turks it was never relinquished again.
Passava - west curtain wall from outside and interior view of the west and north walls
I'd driven past Passava on many occasions but had never quite got up the energy to climb up to it. In 2006 I wrote an article for Mat Dean's 'Inside the Mani' magazine on the castles of Mani and realised with horror that I was blithely telling people how to get there without actually having done it myself. Therefore this May I parked up at the bottom of the west side of the castle's hill next to the brown and yellow bilingual signpost to Passava. The sign pointed east - it's opposite a wayside restaurant and next to a modern house. However I was damned if I could see the slightest evidence of a path and as it was early May the grass in the fields all around was both lush and very, very tall - up to my chest - and I'm six foot tall. After peering and poking about with my walking pole for about five minutes I thought I perceived a tiny parting in the 1.5 metre high sedges and went for it - it was more like wading than walking - eventually ending up climbing over a low wall into olive terraces at the foot of the hill. A 'sort of' path wound its way through these until I thankfully met a rough vehicle-wide track which went diagonally up the southern side of the hill - this ended, I estimated about three quarters of the way up the slope, in a dead end with a deserted pile of drainage pipes to one side. This meant another visual search for the path which I could just make out from the red marks of soil on the rocks left by earlier climbers - though I get the impression that I was the first person to ascend the hill for many months. The word 'path' flatters the route - it goes precipitately up the hill to the north and is something of a scramble. By the time the battlements of the south wall of Passava hove into view my heart was doing an urgent military two-step against my ribs and my legs were complaining somewhat.
Passava - the west wall and view North West
I was now faced with the task of finding my way into the castle as the walls are still perfectly capable of keeping out a company of trained infantrymen let alone a wandering middle-aged Englishman and are generally in pretty good nick saying they've been deserted for nearly two hundred years. I decided to walk along the outside of the west wall and eventually found a spot where there was a major breach in the walls and clambered over the fallen stones and up onto the firing platform of the inside of the battlements. Going inside the fort itself was, I decided, impossible without a machete - the undergrowth has completely choked the interior. I mentioned this to Malcolm Wagstaff who had visited Passava in the 1960s - when he could easily discern the foundations of the Turkish mosque and various cisterns and barracks. These have been firmly overtaken by nature. So, it's not a visit for the faint hearted or the unfit and being up there on my own I was acutely aware of how easy it would be to fall or for the masonry to crumble beneath my feet. But sitting in the remains of the north-west bastion overgrown with grasses and flowers watching a buzzard floating up towards the blue foothills of the Taygetus was reward enough for the effort.
As you drive through the defile dominated by the castle of Passava there is a turning to your left, north-westward into the hills of the Malevri and slightly more distant Vardounia. This is dotted with little hill top villages in some delightful countryside rich in vines, fruit and olives. There are a goodly number of villages to explore and Drandakis' book 'Erevna stin Kato Mani' (Researches in Kato Mani) lists a whole host of (mainly) Post Byzantine churches worth finding in and around this area. We aimed for Mirsini (old Slavic name of Panitsa) where I knew there was a church with a full set of the Ainoi paintings (see the linked page for a full and some might say obsessive account of these paintings of the Last Psalms in Mani churches).
Mirsini is on top of one of the many hills in the area and was asleep when we arrived in the first of its two plateas. I found a local who gave us directions, in Greek, to Ag. Georgios, the site of the paintings. It's to the north west of the village in a small dip below the centre. It was, naturally, locked and after a few curses we retraced our steps. We met the same local who asked if we had found it. "Yes" I replied in my less than felicitous Greek "but it's locked". "Of course its locked" came the blithe reply - to which we wished we had had the ability to say "Then why didn't you say so in the first place". Our interlocutor continued "The man who has the keys lives on the other side of the main platea just the other side of the Taverna". We didn't quite get all of this and asked the slightly surprised inhabitants of the Taverna who passed us on to an equally bewildered key holder. He semed to be asking why I wanted to see the church and my Greek started to dry up. He told us to stay put and shouted down the lane for Dimitri - whoever he might be. An tiny apparition appeared in the street modelling a dazzling confection of a vivid blue check shirt, multicoloured shorts from which a pair of spindly legs disappeared into a pair of calf length wellington boots and sporting a hat which was more holes than fabric. "You never know", whispered my companion, "He might be the Emeritus Professor of Byzantine Studies at Athens University on his hols".
Dimitri, a smiling clone of Dwayne Dobermann from the Bilko Show, asked if I spoke German. I can, up to a point, and it transpired that Dimitri had worked as a lorry driver based in Stuttgart for years. He was still baffled as to why, precisely, we wanted to see inside Agios Georgios. I explained I was studying the local wallpaintings and was asked in reply if I had any papers to prove my assertion. My University visiting card is rarely of much use on vacation but I was glad of it as I presented it confident that the word University would strike a chord (even though I'm merely an academic Art Librarian and my University doesn't study anything earlier than late nineteenth century art history). It did the trick and we were lead off to Ag. Georgios. The next hurdle was to get permisson to take photographs, but by now Dimitri had convinced himself that I was an archaeologist and persuaded his friend the key holder to the same opinion thus permission was thankfully granted.
The Ainoi frescoes - Ag. Georgios - Mirsini (Panitsa) 1746 - Left the north wall showing the Judges of the earth, the musicians and dancers and the Saints with their two-edged swords. To the right the beasts of the Earth.
The church is a largish single chambered barrel vaulted building. There is a small attached but separate side chapel to the south of the bema which if my memory serves me is dedicated to Ag. Spiridon. There was, at the west end of the nave, a rickety gynaikonitis (mezzanine area for women) which had seen better days and looked to my eyes to have been constructed by one of the least competent builders in Kato Mani. Although the church has a full set of wallpaintings I knew that the Ainoi paintings I so wanted to study would be above the gynaikonitis - which was, as usual, a later addition. I couldn't see any stairs until the keyholder began turfing out a pile of rubbish and revealed perhaps the most wibbly looking set of steps in Christendom. My companion firmly refused to ascend but I launched my full frame up the complaining steps, closely followed by two burly Greeks and the sound a snapping planks and a few Greek curses. Jon firmly reiterated that he would not be adding his 15 stone to the already overloaded platform even though I thoughtfully pointed out that if it did collapse he'd be underneath it. A small dust cloud settled and I peered about in the gloom (there was a chandelier in the centre of the naos but the gynaikonitis blocked its light). I doubted if anyone had been up there for years.
Our 'translator' Dimitri and the Keyholder - Ag.Georgios Mirsini (Panitsa) and fresco of the Crucifixion - west wall
As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom it was obvious that this was a fine version of the Ainoi and by the same painter as that of the Monastery of Roussaki and Ag. Theodorii at Kambos in the north west Mani, Anagiostes of Langada. The painter had a less fulsome canvas on which to depict the literal and symbolic presentations of the Last Psalms than the aforementioned churches - which are bigger and domed affairs. But the same Pantocrator in full length surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac were in the barrel vault. On the south wall were the strange beasts, men with animals heads and an oddly trumpet trunked elephant. A pair of tiny but vividly depicted hares were being chased by two equally small but vigorous hounds - a delightful detail which is repeated at Roussaki. There was Thalassa - the sea goddess/monster and the dragons of the deep and below them all the maw of the Great Beast, Hades.
On the north wall and barrel vault were the kings and prelates, the dancing women and musicians and the fettered kings and nobles being threatened by Saints with double edged swords. In the centre of the scene is the canopy with two kings at the rear (possibly the Emperor of Constantinople and the Russian Tsar?) and in front seated are a Turkish Cadi and a Venetian nobleman. The Judges of the Earth (in Greek the words "kritoi gi" appear above them).
I had by now involved torches in my inspection and had discovered that the floor of the gynaikonitis had, in places, rather suffered from the incursions of hungry woodworm and after some speedy photography decided that discretion was the better part of valour and descended to the ground. The remainder of the paintings, dated to 1746, by the aforementioned Anagiostes of Langada are typical of mid 18th century iconography but as far as I know this is the earliest of his versions of the Ainoi including the Turkish and Venetian judges.
We persuaded our guides to allow us to photograph them and were then offered another church to see Ag. Iannis o Theologos but in their enthusiasm they had not brought along the key. We shook hands and said fairwell to Mirsini (which has at least five more interesting churches to discover and 14 in all). Other villages in the area await my attempts to pry my way into them. Higher into the Taygetus are other monasteries and villages but the roads are a bit hit and miss. Certainly after Mirsini they often tend to descend into tracks - quite driveable in the main but it all depends on how far you want to trust your ability not to rip the sump out of your hire car (and Greek hire car companies always stress that the bottom of the car is not covered by the collision waver) and one's nerves take a bit of a beating as crash barriers rarely figure on main Greek roads let alone tracks in the Taygetus foothills.
However the road up to Sidirokastro is good asphalt all the way and I went up there in May 2003. The road climbs up a long valley in a North westerly direction through the tiny village of Profitis Ilias with Ano Tombra clinging to a hillside to one's right. As the road swings to a more westerly direction the scenery becomes more rugged as you hairpin up a pass before arriving at a T junction. To the north are more valleys leading deep into the Taygetus overlooked by the peak of Zizali at nearly 1500 metres. There is a road leading up to the village of Poliaravos which has one of the relatively few Byzantine period churches in this part of Mani - the Koimisis tis Theotokou which is possibly 13th century and has late 19th century wallpaintings. However the road starts well but after less than a kilometre deteriorates rapidly into a sump-buggering track which I decided wasn't worth the toll on my nerves nor my car-hire deposit.
Sidirokastro - Ag. Kyriaki and view northwards from that church
Sidirokastro (lit. Iron Castle) is to the south of the T junction and occupies a neck of land which joins onto a sharp peak. Somewhere on this is a megalithic Byzantine church of Ag. Georgios which may be as early as 10th century - I was disinclined to climb up and try and find it, local directions being vague. At the centre of the village is the whitewashed Ag. Kyriaki which is post Byzantine and seemed to me to be of little interest although Drandakis makes comparisons of its dome with that of the monastery of the Dekoulou near Itilo. To the south of the village is a broad valley running down towards Skamnitsa a village I left for another day as I was aiming for Skifianika which is tucked into the hillside some couple of kilometres from Sidirokastro. The modern road goes close to the village of Skifianika and is fine asphalt - though it had alarmingly collapsed in places, probably due to the unusually wet winter of 2002-3.
A place like Skifianika is really the back of beyond, and then some. Many of the houses dotted over the hillside are empty and in ruins and most of today's population, from what evidence I had, which isn't much as little stirred, live at the base of the hill. Although deserted or locked up the houses with spring flowers growing over them make good subjects for arty photographs. I climbed up as far as a the whitewashed parish church of the Genethion tis Theotokou (Birth of the Virgin Mary) which had pretty views but nothing much else to recommend it.
Skifianika - ruined house and view eastwards towards distant Sidirokastro
The church I was looking for was Ag. Athanasios, which I knew had mid 18th century wallpaintings. It was, of course, right back at the bottom of the village near where I'd parked my car. I wandered beween a few houses but could see no sign of a church. A woman sitting in her garden said hello to me and I asked where the church of Ag. Athanasios was? She was surprised that anyone would want to know where it was (and I think a little surprised that anyone, let alone an Englishman, should want to visit Skifianika in the first place) but pointed out that I was standing with my back to it. It is so small and tucked between buldings and shaded by a tree that it was hardly surprising I'd missed it - the only clue that a church was there at all was a tiny cross on top of a small metal gate. The lady was delighted to show me the church and quite happily watched me photograph it and burble on in English to myself on the iconography of its wallpaintings and then put up with my execrable attempts at pronouncing their Greek names.
Ag. Athanasios, Skifianika and the Panagia from the sanctuary
The wallpaintings are dated to 1762 and 1775 and are quite typical of their period in Mani. The tiny church (a mere 1.6 metres long) is covered with cartoon like frescos though much of them is striated with damp. The painter was fond of making everyone look slightly short and dwarvish - generously one could speculate that this was so as to fit more saints and scenes into the space but one comes to conclusion that it was because he just wasn't very good at torsos. Around the base of the walls are depictions of "the damned" who are naked and being subjected to various rather painful tortures by devils.
Before reaching Mirsini it is possible to take a fork to the right north towards Konakia were I and my companion were hoping to join up with the road up the Vardounia river valley at Melissa and then drive up to the Panagia Giatrissa Monastery on the watershed of the Taygetus. We were first distracted by the small and almost perfect monastery of Ag. Georgios on the outskirts of Konakia. Set on a bend of the road to the south west below this hilltop village this is a convent inhabited by a few nuns.
The Monastery of Ag. Georgios - Konakia. View from north west and the wall facing you in the narthex
The katholikon, dedicated to the Panagia Taphou (Virgin of the Tomb), is domed and although covered in plaster and stucco is dated to the late Byzantine era. The original Byzantine cross in square church has been extended to the west at some later stage with a narthex almost as large in floor space as the main naos area. There are steps leading down into the church, which is below road level. The narthex, unusually, has the Last Judgement on the wall facing one over the doorway into the naos rather than the back wall of the west face. Otherwise the narthex is whitewashed.
Katholikon of the Monastery Konakia. The Pantocrator in the dome and Ag. Georgios
In the naos there are Post-Byzantine paintings dated to 1832 by Ilias of Koutiphari though to my eye there are various hands at work - some rather more adept than others and there are probably earlier layers of frescoes underneath. The doors to the church are, it would seem, normally left open.
Taxiarch Michail from the naos and the bottom of the river of fire - Last Judgement from the narthex. Monastery of St. George - Konakia
While we were there a Canadian-Greek couple who run a tempting sounding wine bar in Githeon appeared - this was one of their favourite churches and they often visited just to sit in its calm and beauty. According to them the Monastery is not part of the local Orthodox Bishopric or Holy Metropolis of Gytheion and Oitylo and indeed is not listed on that organisation's web site.
The road to Melissa winds across the hills and through delightful villages. We had great fun trying to overtake an ancient local in an equally ancient Ford Taunus which looked as if it had been retrieved from a scrapyard. The road was often good but equally often it deteriorated into reasonably driveable but bumpy tracks - along one such we met a Greek bus - we had to do the giving way and the consequent reversing uphill - as Greek buses take no prisoners. Signposting up here is rarely transliterated so mug up on your lower case Greek alphabet and invoke the old prayer of the lost motorist "Give us a sign Oh Lord!".
Eventually we popped out near the village of Melissa and drove up to Ag. Nikolaos where there are a number of cafés. We'll return here later for the Castle of Vardounia. From here there is now a perfectly fine asphalt road all the way up to the Panagia Giatrissa monastery which is situated on the ridge of the Taygetus. As one climbs up through the tiny village of 'Mikri' Kastania, where the ex-Klepht and hero of the Greek War of Independence Kolokotronis spent some of his youth and where his father was killed. There's an interesting looking church here just below the road and seemingly attached to the local council offices but it was locked cand the local council officers, all yelling into mobile phones, were clueless as the the location of a key. From here the temperature begins to cool and the views to the east more expansive. Right at the top the asphalt gives way to track and the rough approaches to the Monastery.
Monastery of Panagia Giatrissa (The Healing Virgin) - View looking north from the monastery gates and south at the building.
The Monastery is a rather ugly affair from afar and the closer one gets the uglier it gets. Looking rather Tibetan rather than Greek it is a large modern walled enclosure with cells and rooms around a large courtyard with the monastery church in the centre. The sludge coloured stucco and concrete covered walls only add to the rather desolate and squat air and there are a number of windswept outer buildings - one of which looks rather hopefully like it might be a snack bar. This was firmly closed but the monastery church and gates appear to be left open and a gang of workmen were doing something gnomic with a pile of rocks. Nearby a man was painting the red bits on the large red and white Telecommunications mast - a job he was welcome to. There are meant to be monks here in the summer but if they were there they were well hidden on our visit in mid June.
Panagia Giatrissa - view south east towards Cape Malea and the katholikon from the south east
The inside of the church is equally uninspiring. It is large and echoing with marble and reminded me more of a sepulchre or tomb than a vibrant place of worship - but then it was deserted. There are many modern and even catholic looking icons and other bits of religious tat such as ceremonial chairs and candlelabra. The fact that in summer it can expect crowds of worshippers is surprising - but of course the faithful come for many more reasons than the comfort or aesthetics of the architecture. The position is everything. Up here at 1000 metres (3,280 feet ) the clear mountain air and the views are the thing - so look away from the Monastery and (avoiding the telecommunications mast on the other side of the col) be prepared for some ooing and aahing. Directly below to the west like a map is the village of Milia and beyond that the Messenian Gulf and on the other side you can see the whole of the Lakonian plain with the Parnon range and Cape Malea stretching away to the south.
I have to admit I haven't revisited the monastery for about ten years, so the above, rather gloomy description, has changed according to a correspondent, Chris Xanthos, who I thank for bringing this to my attention. The whole place is much more modern and welcoming, there are two monks in permanent residence and I hope to soon update this page with more information. (4/08/09)
A road does now run from the Panagia Giatrissa along the watershed of the Taygetus towards to Vassiliki forest and then down via the monasteries of Vaidenitsa and Samouil to the Exo Mani above Exohori and Saidona. However it is still in a state of completion - is not asphalted and is recommendable only to those with nerve and a vehicle with a high wheel base. We tried to go a another kilometer along a reasonably level piece and were soon blocked by a small landslide and a herd of indolent cows and turned back but a year later I drove it in relative comfort. For more on this route see the page on Vaidenitsa.
To the north and west of Githeon is an area known as Bardounia or Vardounia (take your pick - the Greek beta is pronounced as vee but you see it spelt either way) or is sometimes (if rarely) referred to as the Ano Mani (Upper Mani). This is a pleasant area of river valleys cut into the foothills of the Taygetus and swathed in fruit and olive trees and reminds me somewhat of Tuscan and Umbrian landscapes. It is little visited by tourists and because it was never really a part of Mani proper has elicited little research. The area was the buffer between the Turkish dominated Lakonian plain and the Maniates. According to many sources the area was settled by Albanians on more than one occasion, seemingly at the behest of the Turkish government who, seeing as many Albanians were Muslims, reckoned they were unlikely to make alliances with the Maniates. Pouqueville commented in the early 19th century, "Bourdounia is an independent association composed entirely of Turks, who believe no more in the prophet than they do in Jesus Christ. They have frequent bickering with the Mainotti". Leake listed a number of villages in the district of which the majority he described as Turkish, but Arna, at the head of the Vardounia or Arna river had 5 pyrgi and 90 Turkish houses in 1805 and a smaller Greek population of one pyrgos and 30 houses.
John Bramsen, another English traveller, traversed Vardounia in the autumn of 1818 and described it thus…
'We passed many high mountains, all occupied by the Baniottes; not it is true, so independent nor so warlike as the Maniottes, but equally expert in their profession and equally prepared to annoy the peaceable teaveller. Although in revolt against the Turks, they do not choose their own Bey: at least the Turks do not recognize him as such, and consequently his power is merely nominal. Their country is fertile and tolerably well cultivated, they feed large flocks of sheep, many of which we met; the shepherds that tend them, are no less notorious robbers than their masters.'
Bramsen's party was on its guard and had to fire carbines in the passes and shout passwords. Luckily they were guided by a local ex klepht, who turned out to be something of a poacher turned gamekeeper and who managed to stave off an attempted mass mugging by the locals who Bramsem described as '…though barefooted and covered with rags, there was not one who did not carry a brace of pistols and a dagger.'
The Albanians of the Vardounia hills were dominant in the agriculturally rich plains of the Evrotas valley and their threat only ceased with the coming of the Greek War of Independence. When this broke out in the spring of 1821 the Moslems of the Peloponnese were attacked by the local Greeks and massacred in droves. The Bardouniotes retreated along with many other Moslems to Tripolitza (modern day Tripolis in central Peloponnese) where after a dreadful siege the entire population was put to the sword by Koloktronis' forces. So quick was the change that by 1829 Rufus Anderson wrote, 'the district…was formerly inhabited by a tribe of Albanians remarkable for their predatory habits. The war has swept them away, and nothing remains to tell that they have been, except the white towers of their chieftains seen here and there in the hills'.
The American Greek G.A. Perdicaris made a similar journey in 1842 and commented, 'The recollection of the Bardouniotes is still fresh in the memory of the people and the eastern sides of Mount Taygetus, especially its lower ranges are still embellished with the ruined villages and frowning towers of this fierce race.' At the village of Livetzova Perdicaris observed, '…the residence of Zalumis, the chief man amongst them. The village was all but deserted; and his tower, though in a state of ruin, formed a prominent object, and served to recall to mind the days when the dreaded Zalumis watched from its battlements over the scenes of his cruelties.' When the author neared Githion his guides pointed out one of a group of women collecting water from a well. She was the daughter of Zalumis who, twenty years previous, had been accorded a Princess.
This Castle of Vardounia is on a steep crag just to the north of the pleasant village of Ag. Nikolaos which is just the other side of the pass over the Taygetus from Milia in the Exo Mani. This pass, which is walkable from the western side by old kalderimi, goes past the Monastery of the Giatrissia Panagia. To find the castle just ask for 'To kastro' in Ag. Nikolaos' main platea. Bob Barrow did this and then asked what it was called. 'Pos legete to Kastro?'. 'To Kastro' came the reply 'Yes I know it's the castle,' Bob perservered, 'But what's it called?' - 'To Kastro' came the gnomic yet perfectly logical reply. Bob prudently stopped before this became too repetitive - the locals don't call it 'Vardounia' - just 'The Castle'.
The pleasant platea of Ag. Nikolaos is itself dominated by a machine gun tower from, I presume, the civil war years though a local dubiously claimed it dated from the earlier border wars in the Turkokratia. The older castle, to the north of and just below the village, is mentioned only briefly in the literature.
Castle of Vardounia - Agios Nikolaos, Lakonia
Paradissis puts it down to the Venetians and notes that it was used as a defense against the forays of Ibrahim Pasha during the Greek War of Independence. Leake may mention it briefly though didn't visit it. "Fort Bardhuni is reckoned three or four hours from Kurzura, and as much from Govanus a village of the Mistra Vilayete" he writes - which seems to fit the location. Dr. Peter Burridge has written the only scholarly paper on the castle which he reckons is probably of medieval origin and quite possibly Frankish. (See the page on The Location of the Castle of Grande Magne for further details). It reminds me of the medieval castle at Penne in the Tarn valley in southwestern France, perched on a rock its donjon in disrepair. The castle is now overgrown to the point of hazard as there are many uncovered cisterns within its bounds.
'To Kastro' - Vardounia - view from the south
At least that was my understanding of the story of Castle Vardounia until recently when I was given a translation of Evliya Celebi's travels through Mani. He clearly identifies and names Vardounia. "It is a small castle built on a crooked white crag in an offshoot of the mountains of Mani. To the north and in the direction of the kibla (the direction of Mecca) there are no walls as it is on a precipice and makes one dizzy to look down." Evliya reports that when he visited it (circa 1667-70) it had a garrison of 114 soldiers and was packed with buildings, the streets being so narrow that laden donkeys had problems moving about. There were few buildings outside the walls which emphasises its frontier post nature and Evliya tells how the fort was under constant threat from the Maniates. He also reports that the castle was taken by Mehmet the Conqueror which would point to there being a castle here before 1460 when Mistra, some 20 miles north, fell to the Ottomans. John Bramsem mentions visiting a village in October 1818 which may well be Ag. Nikolaos (he doesn't name it) which he described as '…pleasantly situated on the slope of a fertile hill and conspicuous for its old but strongly fortified castle, which we were informed was the residence of one of the judges'.
Further evidence of the history of the Castle of Vardounia has come to light in a fascinating academic dissertation by Diana Wright on the papers of Bartolomeo Minio who was 'rettori' (governor) of Nauplion in the late 1470s. She quotes documents which show that Vardounia castle was given to the Greek Kladas family by Mehmet the Conqueror after they had sworn alliegance to him. Little good it did him. After nominally handing it over to the Venetians the Kladas family held the fort against the Ottomans in the confused period after the conquest. Unfortunately when Venice and the Sublime Porte made peace in 1479 the Venetians handed back many of their possessions including those in Exo Mani and this included Vardounia. The Kladas clan were furious at this snub to their rights, revolted against the peace treaty and caused warfare to break out all over the Morea and especially in Mani where, led by Korkodilos Kladas, they siezed Itilo and Megali Mani (Grand Magne/Kelefa?) before being driven into exile by a superior Ottoman force. A few years later Korkodilos returned and retook Vardounia from the Ottomans.
Just to the north west of Ag. Nikolaos on the old road which connected it with the higher villages is another hint of the importance of the area in medieval times. There is a large and impressive byzantine church, domed, and showing tell tale signs of a number of variations of cloisonné brickwork which date it to the 13th or 14th century. The church is out in the countryside and may have been a monastery katholikon - there are some extant buildings - of a far later date - just beside it.
Ag Giorgos? near Ag. Nikolaos, Vardounia. The church has been well preserved at various points in the 20th century and the workmen left their mark in the cement so that we know the dates, 1936 and 1967.
It is dificult to say what precisely it is called as there is no sign near it, or pointing to it and the painting in the niche over the door has disappeared. It was locked in June 2002 but Bob Barrow visited it in the previous winter and reported it open. Most of the frescos have unfortunately been whitewashed over or the plaster lost but some fragments remain. There is a fine St. George in Byzantine armour whose horse has a sinewy medieval cast to it and probably dates from the time of construction. This and the preponderance of standard mass produced modern framed icons of Ag. Giorgos leads Bob to surmise that the church is dedicated to this military saint. Any information on this gratefully received. I've since been back and it was unlocked.
Byzantine fresco of St. George and a view from the track above the church - there is a smaller track down to the church which is driveable
To get to the church you have to find the old road leading north from Ag. Nikolaos. You can either join it by taking a left just after driving north out of the main platea in the village and following ones nose until a track follows the contour line or, if descending from the Panagia Giatrissa pass and Mikri Kastania then there is a very sharp bend near a quarry works well before one reaches the turning to the village of Selegoudi. The track is narrow but perfectly driveable and the church is about half way between the turn-offs and you'll spot it easily enough below the track.
Descending from the Vardounia hills you'll pass through a number of small villages before hitting the main road between Sparti (Sparta) and Githeon. Turn south and you'll arrive in the bustling northern part of Githeon. Alternatively it can be approached from the south via the road from Areopolis.
Githeon and Marathonisi are part of the Mani but really look out towards Lakonia and Cape Malea. Githeon (its ancient name was Gythium) was the main port of ancient Sparta and is still a busy harbour - ferries depart from here for Kythera and there are plenty of fishing boats in the harbour. The ancient town was on a hill to the north of the present harbour and flourished during the Roman period. By the way I've seen many versions of the English transliteration of Githeon - Gythio, Gythion, Gytheion, Yithio etc.etc. - there is certainly a slight 'y' sound to the initial 'G'.
Mr. Victor Spagunniac enjoys a light lunch and the view of the harbour - Githeon
The town today is colourful, vibrant, and, in my experience, very, very noisy in comparison to the relative calm of the rest of Mani. It is massed in steeply descending terraces above the sea and the main seafront to the south of the central platea is lined with rapacious fish restaurants. There are some ancient remains, primarily a small Roman theatre at the north exit of the town near the modern military barracks. Of main interest to the Mani enthusiast is the museum on the tiny offshore island of Marathonisi at the southern end of the town.
In fact Marathonisi was the name given both to the island and to the town which grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries on the steep slope opposite - the name means 'fennel island'. The ancient town of Githium obviously faded and was deserted in the dark ages and for a long while there is no record of any settlement in the vicinity. The later Scottish novelist John Galt, who passed through Marathonisi in 1810, was impressed by the upstanding nature of the Maniates - "One may admire a handy and intrepid race, who have, for so many ages, retained their national characteristics", but added the cavil, "though their habitations are calculated rather to excite the opposite feeling." This is confirmed by Leake who visited five years earlier and was similarly unimpressed by the town which he described as, "100 wretched houses of mud brick in the midst of which stands a large church, with the proud distinction of a spire and bell."*
*(interestingly an observation repeated in 1839 by the American, Rufus Anderson viz. 'A neat, pretty church with steeple and bells, proclaimed we were now among the rocks of unconquered Mane' - the Ottomans banned the building of spires and the ringing of bells)
French map of Marathonisi from the 1840s
One of the reasons for the dilapidation of Marathonisi in 1805 was that Hassan Bey the local Turkish commander had recently attacked the town. In the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars the French and the British were rivals for influence in the area. The French had landed a consignment of powder and shot from a brig of war and the Turks had bombarded Marathonisi. Leake met Antonis Grigorakis, the then Bey of Mani in a house in which, " part of the sides and roof have been torn away by the shot that were fired by Seremet and Hassan when they besieged Tzanet Bey (the previous Bey who favoured the French party) and took from him the powder which the French had landed." Leake was equally unimpressed by Anton Bey whom he described as an, " old and unhealthy looking Greek, of a weak character, easily made to change his purpose by those around him." Large parts of Mani were in open revolt against Anton Bey whom it was felt took the Turkish part on too many occasions.
The islet of Marathonisi is now attached to the coast by a long breakwater and narrow road. The island was known as Kranae and was the location of Paris' and Helen's first night of extra-marital bliss after they had fled from the palace of Menelaus. Marathonisi was also the base of the local Kapetani and during the latter part of the 18th century, when there were self ruling Beys, it was, with Kitries and Limeni, one of the centres of local power. The much restored tower on the pine wooded islet is open most days and contains an excellent exhibition (the trees are relatively recent additions). The exhibition is signed in both Greek and English and is based upon an chronological account of the many western travellers who visited Mani from the 15th to the 19th century. It's jam packed with information, repros of old prints and maps, photographs and diagrams. There's a larger separate section on the French Survey of the late 1820s and upstairs is a smaller room dedicated to an analysis of the family/clan system in Mani and some fine old black and white photographs of the Mani towers. It's inexpensive to get in and recommended - the only proviso is that it is hardly heaving with visitors (I've had two, none and three fellow visitors on my visits) and therefore the bored guardian has, in my experience, a habit of going AWOL and has to be hunted down.
John Bramsen, an English tutor on a Grand Tour with his charge, the eldest son of Sir John Maxwell, was particularly pleased to see the harbour at Marathonisi in October 1814 having been chased by a Maniate pirate schooner from Matapan on a crossing from Kythera. He and his party were given beds for the night by Tzanet Bey whom Bramsem described as being, '… about thirty, he was very pale and apparently indisposed; he was affable in his manners, and seemed to possess a good understanding. He had short dark hair and wore large black mustachios, but no whiskers. His dress was very plain, consisting of a small red berretta, or cap, a large loose gown and green velvet waistcoat; he wore yellow slippers; a dagger and a pair of pistols hung suspended at his belt'. The next morning he was able to observe the town and his view accorded with those above 'The small town…consists of a few miserably narrow streets; the only place that is paved is the market square where the church stands: it is a low building of freestone, and must not be criticised by the rules of Vitruvius.' Oddly Bramsen wrote that the church had no steeple.
After a stroll along the shore - to the site of ancient Gythium where he observed underwater remains - Bramsen returned to the town where it was obvious that Tzanet Bey was indeed suffering from some sort of unspecified malaise and wanted Bramsen to rustle up some form of potion for him from the supplies that such a party of westerners would carry around with them. Bramsen was neither doctor, nor chemist but concocted a mixture of cream of tartar and ticture of bark which, in some trepidation, he offered to the Bey. Fortunately, '… my prescriptions had so happy an effect - either upon his complaint or upon his imagination, that the following morning he sent to inform us that he was felt quite recovered'.Tzanet Bey was fondly remembered by locals and even in the 1840s locals recalled how the great bell of his castle at Mavrovouni, just down the coast from Marathonisi, would sound three times a day to call all to eat with him, '…and at such times foes and friends sat side by side'.
Marathonisi was severly threatened by Ibrahim Pasha's troops during the darkest days of the War of Independence and in the autumn of 1825 it filled up with refugees from the rest of the Morea. William Black, Surgeon on the Royal naval vessel HMS Chanticleer first visited it in August of that year when it was under the command of 'Capitano Zantacchi'. He noted that as a trading port the town was full of other Greeks and Albanians in contrast to other parts of Mani - he also noted that it had no fortifications. On his ship's return on October 8 1825 he observed a remarkable change.
'The first indication of such a change was the appearance of the little rocky island…Instead of its wildly bare look, without an arrival of any kind to be seen on it formerly, and rough though it was, it had now become a place of immediate refuge for thousands, and was covered with tents, rude huts, and was alive with women, children and their numerous domestic animals and beasts of burden; [with a] … quantity of movables piled up all around them, or scattered over the rocky surface of the place…'
The Egyptians almost reached the outskirts of Marathonisi but the narrow defile that confines access into Githeon from the north to this day bristled with muskets and Ibrahim's cavalry were sent packing. The warfare was savage. Black noted some fifty bodies in and on the banks of a small stream at Trinisi some four miles north of Marathonisi and noted in horror, '…the blood seen in streams dried or in clots all over the place, and the great number of shaven scalps…' Fortuitously the Ottoman forces were defeated in battle in the hills to the north west of Marathonisi and the threat was lifted; never to be repeated.
Black's sketch of Marathonisi in 1825
Just down the coast from Githeon is the small village of Vathi. This was the site of Anton Bey Grigorakis' fortified headquarters and the remains are still there. John Galt was invited to visit in 1810 and wrote, "The appearance of the castle is similar to that of many of our lesser old baronial mansions". Galt recorded the courtyard as, "dirty with rubbish, offal, and excrements. Hogs were confined in a corner: but the poultry and ducks enjoyed the range of its whole extent." He was taken up a winding zig zag stair and over a small drawbridge and finally into a room "hung about with arms and clothing" where he met Antonbey himself, "a strong hale carle" of about 60. Antonbey expressed his delight in meeting a British subject and it must be remembered at this time both Britain and France were vying for the attentions of the Maniates and vice versa. In fact the Maniates seemed indifferent as to which power came to their aid. As Galt observed, "all the inhabitants earnestly desired either the French or British to come among them".
This even handedness had changed with the fickle passage of time. William Black reported in 1825, when the area was under threat of being sacked that locals were exceedingly antagonistic toward the French. The reason being that the French had trained Ibrahim Pasha's Egyptian troops in the ways of western warfare and artillery techniques and some were serving with the Ottoman forces. Black and his party were closely quizzed as to their nationality and he was relieved when the Maniates, '…seemed highly pleased at finding us English, and said they could kill and cut up a Frenchman in pieces…'
On to Deep Mani
Or back to the southern Kato Mani
Bibliographic Note: Avramea, Anna. Le Peloponnese du IVe au VIII siecle: changements et persistances. Paris. Publications de la Sorbonne. Serie Byzantina Sorbonensia 15. 1997.
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