This is a series of linked pages which will take you from the north west to the deep south of the Mani. There will be villages and sites I have missed - mainly the villages of the south-eastern 'sunward' coast of Mani. This I hope to remedy later this year. In most cases the absence of a village means not that I have spurned it but simply that I haven't yet visited it.
It takes a journey. A flight, a dark morning lightening from the east and Athens still humming with busy traffic. The sacred road to Elephsis - no more a route of pilgrimage , unless, that is, you are enamoured of iron railing stores and marble flooring emporiums, diesel fumes and hoardings. The Peloponnesian mountains rose tinted in the rising sun as one passes the Tarpeian rock. Over the slit of the Corinth canal then past the towering mass of medieval Acrocorinth and wind ever upward into the mountains of the Morea, popping out of a tunnel into Arcadia, swooping down to Tripoli, hairpinning down to Megalopoli, its baleful pyres rising heavenwards from its power station. By the time one reaches the Messenian plain the heat is building and one can dally with a coffee on the shore of the gulf on Kalamata's beach the huge rampart of Mount Kalathi looming to the east. In the past if this mountain crumbled and fell into the sea - then the locals said it foretold the fall of a great Maniate captain.
William Gell's engraving of the 'border' of Mani in 1805
Eventually you drive up to its lower flanks and trundle along the seashore. It's a road I've travelled many times in the past decade and in every case my heart lifts as the road forks and one takes the upper path. The road zigzags up the mountain and - however lovely the rest of the Morea - one feels that one is entering a hidden and secret land of enchantment. A tower house stands on a distant hill. The Taygetus effortlessly roll out their vistas. There is no sign saying 'You are entering the Mani', but in some unspoken, unsignified method I'm always aware that I'm leaving something behind and encountering something both strange yet familiar. It is no Shangri La or Brigadoon, but in its own way, in a real world way, the Mani is about to beguile and delight you with its charms.
The road passes close under the castle of the Kapetanakis family above Haravas. To visit it you have to bear off to the left and drive through the villages of Sotirianika and Haravas. There is a good asphalt road right to the base of the walls and entrance is free as the air - both times I've visited it has been deserted and there are open doors on three sides.
The Tower of the Kapetanakis Castle and view from the NE
At the entrance to the fort, on the north-east corner is a large and impressive tomb which still contains human bones (someone has shifted the lid slightly and my companion, who has a well developed taste for the macabre, peered in) which legend has it is one of the great Mani chieftains. As there's no inscription one can but guess as to the veracity of this story. It is strange to think that this castle - which wouldn't be out of place in Highland Scotland and could be dated from its architecture to a much earlier century, was actually built in the early years of the 19th century and documents in Kalamata date it to 1821 at the start of the Greek War of Independence. There is a large tower in the NE corner of the fort and what were presumably living quarters on the west and north inner walls, the postholes for the beams are still evident though all the floors have disappeared. In the SE corner is a small rough and ready church which has a small painting of Christ in Sorrow in the prothesis.
The courtyard (the small building is the church) looking SE and the view towards Kalamata from a small postern gate on the north wall
The views are stunning in all directions and it's not difficult to realise why the Maniates built the fort. From this eyrie one can clearly see Kalamata (and check what the Ottoman armies were up to) and both Zarnata and Kitries (which was Petrobey Mavromichalis' HQ during the Verga campaign of 1825-1826) are in clear line of site. Whether or not the castle would or could have sustained an attack with 19th century artillery is less certain though it personifies the martial past of the Maniates and the robber baron society which spawned it.
Returning to Sotirianika, which is as sleepy a village as you'll find - there's a signpost to a 'Church of Ag. Nikolaos' - it points to the east of the village. Follow the signpost down over a small ravine then take a track running southwards. It's perfectly driveable in good weather and undulates through olive fields until one reaches a ruined wall in the middle of a junction (you'll have driven just over a kilometre) - take the left hand fork and just below is a well and another sign saying you've reached Agios Nikolaos and the deserted hamlet of Mavrinitsa. It is mainly a monastery and probably of rather old foundation. It's location is probably due to the well which on my third visit was being used by three local women to wash their blankets in. The water is cold and sweet and the lushness of the surrounding vegetation and the plethora of butterflies in late May shows what a good site this is. According to my sources the priest/monk Christophoulos or 'Papoulakis', who headed a Maniate revolt against the Othonian state in the 1860s, was arrested at this monastery by government officials.
Monastery of Ag. Nikolaos nr. Sotirianika and the impressive kalderimi winding into the Rindomo Gorge on the route to Kambos
Although the monastery appears, nowadays, to be miles of the beaten track, this was not always so. The monastery is sited on the route between Sotirianika and Kambos. If you follow the track (it ceases to be driveable just above the well) past the monastery it soon becomes obvious one is walking on a kalderimi (or old cobbled mule track). This one is exceptionally well made and as the slope descends into the Rindomo Gorge the structural engineering becomes ever more impressive as it snakes in tens of hairpins down to an old bridge over the gorge. I've not gone down very far (it was an extremely hot day and the idea of climbing back again was not an enticing prospect) but a series of photos on another site should show you how remarkable these kalderimi are. Click here to go to the site.
To return to the Monastery of Ag. Nikolaos - one is greeted by a fair number of outbuildings built in and around (and I mean in) some large rocks. Most of the buildings are in ruins and Bob Barrow and I spent some 30 minutes or so speculating as to the original uses and dates of the structures. I came up with "That looks like Roman brickwork to me", of a strangely placed arch and Bob's contribution was "I'm sure that was another church, look there's the shape of the apse". Our speculations may well be way off beam but the place is difficult, but fascinating, to reconstruct in the minds eye.
Ag. Nikolaos driving out some spirits, view of the katholikon from SW and fresco of St. Ephraim
The church is at the top of the site and consists of what Bob and I reckon is a late Byzantine cross in square church with a later addition of an extension to the naos or if you like narthex - probably from the 18th century. There was a proper dome at one time but this has obviously succumbed to age or earthquake and has been concreted over in the last century. The paintings inside are probably of the 17th or 18th century and are patchy but in places quite fascinating.
On what would have been the west walls of the original church are, on the north wall a detailed Last Judgment with a fascinating variety of wild beasts. Opposite are scenes from the Garden of Eden - with what appears to be God (who else can it be?) His head surrounded by a bright light confronting Adam and Eve. In the north trancept there is a crucifixion with a particularly fine steed for the soldier spearing Christ and on the west wall of this are St George and St Dimitrios - George, just behind Dimitrios, is rather faded. There is what looks, from a distance, to be an impressively ornate iconostasis but on closer inspection it turns out to be painted concrete and plaster - probably of the same date as the concrete dome.
The Garden of Eden and detail from Crucifixion - Moni Ag. Nikolaos nr Sotirianika
Why do we think the original church is Byzantine? Well if one walks around the rear of the church and, fighting your way past tree branches and undergrowth, inspects the external brickwork of the apse then it shows clear signs of dogtooth and cloisonné brick and stone work which point to late medieval building techniques.
Nearby is another Byzantine church - though there are no signs to it. Leaving Ag. Nikolaos as if you were returning to Sotirianeika as one reaches the top of the first rise (a mere few minutes walk from the monastery) look for a farm track leading to your left (west). Follow this until you spot some buildings to the south. These are the remains of an old farm and next to it a large 'aloni' or threshing floor. Perched at its eastern edge is the tiny chapel of Ag. Kyriaki. There's an extremely flashy sign next it stating that it is 13th century and was restored by the 5th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities in Kalamata and these works were funded by the EU Commission. I'm all for restoration but everything the 5th bleeding Ephorate of Antiquities in Kalamata restore they lock as tightly as a very tight thing and then fail utterly and miserably to inform anyone of the means of finding a key or even giving out their 'phone number. As this church, reputedly, has interesting medieval variations on the themes of the warrior saints painted on its walls it is all the more frustrating.
A Slight Apology: - I have, since I wrote that rant, searched out the local Ephorate (now re-numbered to the 26th Ephorate) in Kalamata, walked into their offices (the door was open), and politely asked them to give me access to the church. This involved explaining who I was, why I wanted to see the church and signing a form which promised not to publish any photographs for profit (and this web site certainly doesn't afford me any monetary gain) and I have the letter duly emblazoned with a very impressive official stamp to prove this. They then gave me the phone number of a man who lived locally and had the keys who would open the doors for me at a mutually agreeable time.
Ag. Kyriaki, South of Sotirianeika
The state Ag. Kyriaki was in before the ministrations of the Ephorate and the three military Saints, Demetrius, George and Theodori
It's worth the bureaucratic effort as the paintings are of a high order. The Military Saints on the north wall of particular interest. They are all on foot. A rare thing in Mani churches where they are generally depicted on horseback. Therefore, taking into account the researches of Sharon Gerstel - who has plotted the change from foot to mounted in local frescos during the Frankish period, it is likely that they were painted either before the Frankish invasion of the Morea in 1204, or at least before the local painters began to respond to the Frankish incursion and depict the Saints as cavalrymen. This points to the frescos being from the first half of the 13th century.
The main road from Kalamata continues to travel through steep, aromatically scented, wooded country and then across a modern bridge over the chasm of the Rindomo Gorge. There are those who dislike the new bridge (only completed in 1999/2000) and it is a little unimaginative and brutal in such a wild setting. But peer down at the old bridge and you'll see the holes in its surface and its loading limit must have exceeded on many occasions. It was a bridge one was always pleased to reach the other side of, especially if you had to share it with a marble lorry or coach loads of tourists. Below this now redundant modern bridge is an even older arched 'Venetian' affair. After a steep and winding climb one reaches the small and fertile plain of Kambos.
On to Kambos