The Inner Mani presents a desolate aspect to the traveller who has come down the western side of the Taygetus and one might think it covers the whole of the southern end of the peninsular. But travel east towards Githeon the self styled 'capital' of the Mani (tell that to someone from Areopoli or well anywhere else in Mani) and the landscape soon moderates and then becomes positively lush and smiling - this is often called Lower or Kato Mani - although the northern section is also known as Malevri. The area, although fertile, was sparsley populated until the 18th century, probably due to the frontier nature of this buffer zone between Ottoman dominated Lakonia and Vardounia and the relatively independent deep Mani. Eventually settlements, normally perched on hill tops for defense were established throughout the area. For an 'interactive' sketch map of the general area click here
View over the entrance to the Malevri - the area between Kelefa and Passavas - looking SW from near Germa
The route from Githeon and in turn the Lakonian plain takes on a dark terra-cotta hue from the earth, maize and fruit trees appear and small turnings into the southern foothills of the Taygetus and northern Sangias entice one to stray off the main road. To make some sense of the area I have divided it up into those villages to the south of the main Areopoli-Githeon road (in which case stay with this page) and north of the same thoroughfare - in which case click here.
For a clickable sketch map relating to this page click here
Just as the road enters the open part of the pass through to Githeon there is a turning to the south to Skala Vachos. You can bomb up here if you wish but it finishes in a dead end though the village has two churches dedicated to the Koimisis tis Theotokou one of which has wallpaintings dated to 1642 the other 18th century frescoes. A bit further on, almost opposite the nothwards turning to Kelefa, the road to the south, signposted to Vachos, is a better route to take and squirms up the hills to the village of that name. Leake is rather disparaging of the village in 1805 describing it as a collection, "of about thirty miserable huts". It was, at the time, the lair of Tzanet Bey who was the Francophile ex Bey of Mani and the leading opponent of the Turcophile Andon Bey in 1805. However nowadays it is relatively prosperous and hugging the mountain slopes it is a fair sized place with a large modernish church in a platea. We arrived on a Sunday just after service and I hoped the Papas, who had just finished his post-sermonising drink, would be able to assist us in finding a number of Post- Byzantine churches in the village. The Papas reminded me forcibly of a younger version of Father Jack from the British TV comedy series "Father Ted". He was about as communicative as that fictitious character (for those who are oblivious of 'Father Ted" this is not a positive endorsement) and like some other Papas I have met slightly antagonistic and unhelpful - apart from telling us that all the churches we enquired after were locked. One was open. The cemetery church on the eastern edge of the village. It's called Ag.Kyriaki and is unexceptional with partial wallpaintings from 1746.
Driving on eastwards towards Drosopigi - you'll drive around the western and southern slopes of a large but not dreadfully high hill. It would be easy to ignore it as just another wooded outcrop but this is the site of a Byzantine fortified citadel called Palaia (Old) Kariopolis - the name is of Greek origin and means City of Nuts. On the summit are two old Byzantine churches and a Byzantine Tower plus the remains - walls and suchlike of a now deserted village. Before you all start putting this on your list of Chapman's recommended sites to visit I shall relate a small story.
The hill of Old Kariopolis from the south east (picture taken from the outskirts of Drosopigi)
The site has eluded other people. There are absolutely no signs to it and local villagers are allegedly apt to look blank or re-direct you to Nea Kariopolis, which is some 7 kilometres to the east. Kassis, confusingly, calls it Old Tserova (or Drosopigi) which it isn't. I had researched it and all the plans showed a path running up the eastern flank of the hill from south to north. A metalled track led off the 'main' road between Vachos and Drosopigi down this eastern side of the hill so we drove down it and stopped outside a small house to ask an old couple the way. In my execrable Greek I asked after Palaia Kariopolis. Thinking that the old gent had mistaken my question I asked if he knew of Old Kariopoli. His answer went along the lines of, "I bloody well ought to, I've lived here all my life and it's up the top of the hill we're standing at the bottom of". but he patiently gave us instructions to return to the junction of the road and take the dirt track up the hill on foot. Which we did. The track starts broad and clear, even with tractor tracks but within five minutes we were confused by a bifurcations in its direction each of which bifurcated further and then petered out into small indiscernable pleats through the waist high undergrowth which made one feel that they had been forged by nothing larger than a rather stunted ferret. We were lost. One of us was in shorts, both in sandals, no water. We retreated to the car intent on returning another day in walking boots and tooled up with all the necessary gear.
And thus we did. Perhaps we should have brought machetes, flamethrowers or just have hired a helicopter for the day. Two Englishmen wandered around in a maze of Olive terraces, very prickly bushes and extremely unforgiving grass up to our armpits. My companion revealed a state of arachnophobia I had previously not suspected he owned when he walked into an extremely large spider's web - including a very large, and slightly miffed, spider. We lost a few minutes while they both had a small tantrum, I studiously ignored a large discarded snake skin. Holm oak trees - we found - were designed by nature to stop goats eating them - and seekers of deserted Byzantine villages from walking through them - or for that matter just edging past them. We became very cross, very hot and covered with grass seeds and bits of resistant insect life - and - OK we may have been rather stupid - but we could not, try as we might, find a path up to the summit of the hill. Two hours of zig-zagging, swearing and sweating and frustratingly getting to within 50 metres of the top and I'm afraid we gave up. We are not proud of this - we are rather twisted and bitter and we will return.
The author - hot, lost and puzzling over notes and map of Old Kariopolis
So dear reader stand at the bottom of the hill or better still drive on up the the top of the hill to just outside Drosopigi and gaze back upon Old Karioipolis. Imagine if you will a Byzantine tower (actually you can see it) and the picturesquely ruined Byzantine church of Ag. Nikolaos, Its dome and and lozenge shaped cloisonné work crumbling into the undergrowth and the fragments of Paleologian period frescoes on its ancient plaster. Of Ag. Georgios - slightly larger than Ag. Nikolaos but basically still a domed late Byzantine building of the 14th century with full 18th century frescoes donated by the Kontoslavloi family from nearby Itilo. Picture the scene in the years after the Frankish invasions when this hill was the site of a flourishing Byzantine outpost. In residence would have been a Bishop (founded between 1340 and 1426) and a Stratopedarch or local Byzantine Governor. It even may have been the site of Constantine Porphyrogenitus' (905 - 959) much earlier 'Kastro Mainis' mentioned in that Emperor's De Administrando Imperio, and indeed Kariopolis is first mentioned in "The Life of Saint Philarete the Misericordieux" by Niketas the Monk in 821 AD.
Kariopolis was obviously important from an early stage and although its hill is neither very high nor very precipitous it does dominate the western end of the pass between Githeon and the Bay of Itilo. We hear of it again in the mid 15th century when Cyriaco of Ancona, the intrepid Renaissance traveler and scholar was welcomed to Kariopolis in 1447, '…by Solianos, son of George the Stratopedarches, administrator for the despot Constantine, who received me quite properly and led me the next day to the ruined city of Asine on the shore of the Laconic Gulf.' Cyriaco called Kariopolis 'Caropolim' (he wrote in Latin) - Asine is thought to have been at Skutari sort of 'over the hill' from Old Kariopolis. Cyriaco then travelled to Githion and on to Mistra where he met up with his old friend Gemistos Plethon, a noted Greek writer and thinker of the time.
Kariopolis survived the fall of Mistra to the Ottomans in 1460 and is mentioned a number of times in the next few years as a Venetian outpost in their struggle with the Turks for Mani. In 1480 it is named in the treaty between the Mahomet II and the Serene Republic as 'il Carchiopoli'. At the time the Duc de Nevers was sending his surveyors to assess the Mani in early 17th century the village was still the home to a Bishop and 20 families, the descendants of whom were signatories to a letter to the Venetian general Morosini in 1684. At the start of the Orlov Rebellion in 1770s the Bishop of Kariopolis incited the faithfull to support the Russians in their abortive rebellion against the Turks. The village seems to have faded around this time. Leake mentions Nea Kariopolis but fails to refer to this older site and the slightly earlier critical Maniate poet Niketas Nifakos, who enjoyed slagging off most of the villages in Mani fails to give it a name check by its new name but does mention Miniakova the older Slavic name of the new village.
It is speculated that the inhabitants joined the Itiliotes who emigrated to Corsica in the 1670s. The Bishopric is mentioned throughout the 18th century and was once held by the celebrated Ananias Lambardis of Dimitsana who became Metropolitan of Lakedomena in 1750 and was beheaded by the Turks at Mistra in 1767. In 1833 the Bishopric, which Leake has covering most of North Eastern Mani and now probably located elsewhere was subsumed into that of Githeon although Bishop Cyril Germos who had the seat of Kariopolis in 1819 was a major local player in the Greek War of Independence. It's been deserted since and one tends to believe that, apart from the researchers Iannis Saitas and Rodoniki Etzeoglou who have written about it - no-one has been there since. To myself and Jon Everitt it is, "that bastard hill". If anyone does manage to force their way up it and awaken Sleeping Beauty please leave directions.
(Someone has! Julien Harneis from Amsterdam and his family climbed Old Kariopolis in the summer of 2003 and sent me photographs. The site looks very overgrown and the churches are not in a good condition though some paintings survive and look to be typical mid 18th century - there's a good St. George, in Ag. Georgios with his 'coffee bearer' riding pillion and - interestingly - as she is often absent - what looks like a figure of the princess he was saving from the dragon. I really must try again soon!)
Julien Harneis' photographs of Old Kariopolis
Drosopigi (old name of Tserova)
Sitting in the platea of this hilltop village nursing a welcome beer after our epic if futile struggle with the vegetation of Old Kariopolis I asked after the location of the church of the Koimisis tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Virgin). I was directed back out of the village and with our last experience in mind was darkly imagining locks, bolts and padlocks. In fact we had inadvertently driven straight past the church which is on the North Western entrance to Drosopigi. It stands in its own grounds just to the north of the road shaded by a large full pine tree and when I arrived the key was in the lock.
Koimisis tis Theotokou - Drosopigi
It is unprepossessing from outside - but one learns to ignore the exterior of Mani churches. The most magnificent are often disappointingly bare inside and small modest affairs often have full frescoes.
Drosopigi - Koimisis church. The Crucifixion is interesting as it is much more spohisticated that those normal for the 18th century. It shows distinct signs of western influence. The other shows the Virgin with the Zoodokos Pigi or Life giving Spring
This church is no exeption and has within its barrel vaulted interior a full set of 18th century paintings dated to 1768 - possibly by a member of the Klirodeti family who were an active tribe of church painters in the area. Germa which has two churches painted by different generations of Klirodeti is a mere few miles to the north west and Drandakis mentions other churches in the vicinity having their imprimator. The paintings, unsurprisingly - mainly concern the life and legends of the Virgin. Also of note are the frieze of paintings of 'the damned' being taunted and tortured by devils which are found around the rear walls of the naos at floor level.
The Damned friezes just above floor level in the Koimisis church Drosopigi
The views from the edge of the main platea of Drosopigi over the eastern coast of Mani and the bay of Skoutari are all encompassing and stunning.
The road then descends by a variety of bends to the small villages of Elaia and Neochorio. About 500 metres before the road reaches Elaia there is a dirt track leading off to the north which leads along the contour line until it comes out on the hills above the main road between Areopoli and Githeon. Round a spur and high up in its own valley is the ruined monastery of the Koimisis tis Theotokou (Dormition of the Virgin Mary). You can approach this from the main road though the turning is difficult to find, but is near a bend with some houses just before the main 'gorge' feature of that road. Drive to underneath the monastery and skirting through a house's garden follow a small track up to the buildings. The entrance, through an arched gate is to the NW of the walled compound. The niche above the gateway has a depiction of the Koimisis - probably from the 18th century. The church is large with an octagonal cupola. There is some decorative dog-tooth brickwork around the windows and round the whole building - not enough to suspect a late medieval foundation date - the rest of the stonework is relatively rough and read. Either the foundations were unsound or the building has been hit by an earthquake as there are a number of huge cracks down the west face of the church and around the edge of the cupola. I must admit to entering the church with some trepidation and leaving hastily! There are the remains of various lecterns and benching, a decrepid but at one time fine carved wooden iconostasis and much rubbish and rubble on the floor. There are no wallpaintings. The size of the church and the outbuildings points to the importance of this establishment.
The ruined monastery of the Koimisis tis Theotokou nr. Elaia. The Katholikon, Niche above the gateway to the compound and interior of the church
Neochorio has a delighfully extravagant modern version of the classic Maniate Pyrgos dwelling. Only here the owner and his architect have allowed their imagination to run riot and add crenellations and extra towers which are not normally found in their more practical if sombre predecessors. It is rather as if mad King Ludwig of Bavaria (of course there are Greek connections as the first Kings of Greece came from that land's royal family) had rebuilt the crazy fantasies of Neuschwanstein in a Maniate vernacular.
View of New Kariopolis (from west) and a new version of the Maniate Pyrgos
I was amused to note that Bob Barrow had made almost the self same allusion in his book on Mani (perhaps I unconsciously copied him) and it's an amusing, if sadly all too frequent, pastime of looking for other examples of these modern day faux follies de grandeur.
This village was the 18th century seat of a local family or clan and it is likely that their ancestors moved from the fading village of Old Kariopolis to this hill closer to the main pass between east and west Mani. There is a small whitewashed chapel at the bottom of the hill beside the road dedicated to Ag. Paraskevi and with some remaining 18th c. frescos on and around the templon but the more impressive buildings are on top of the hill. There's a sharp turning up to the village which is annoyingly not signposted and easy to miss.
The impressive pyrgos at Nea-Kariopolis and the church of the Theotokou
This dominant Kapetani family was named Kavaleraki and Gioraki or Tsigourio Kavalieri is mentioned as being the head honcho at the start of the Greek War of Independence. There has obviously been a settlement here for some time - it has an old Slavic name (Miniakova) and the main church in the tiny platea (which was being confusedly dug up when we appeared) dedicated to the Eisodia tis Theotokou is probably of late Byzantine progeny though other sources date it to the 18th century. It has been decidedly tarted up and restored as Drandakes' photos from the '80s show the entire structure covered with stucco. Both doors were firmly locked on two separate occasions and the locals unforthcoming with keys. One window on the north side was open and overlooking the eastern end of the naos and the iconostasis. Neither that nor the visible wallpainting were anything other than twentieth century, which is surprising as Drandakes mentions some mid 18th century frescoes. Perhaps these are in what I suspect is a Narthex (although the two doors and their arched entrances are both, unusually, on the south facade of the domed church.
To the south of the church is the tall and glowering Tower of the Foka-Kavalieraki family and to the west of the hilltop village is the vast walled complex of the Kavalieraki. There is an impressive gateway (with a less impressive flaky, if photogenic, gate) and inside one can see the extent of the fortified compound. There is another church in the complex - if you walk down between two buildings to the west of the Eisodia tis Theotokou you come out onto a rocky shelf and there is the smaller single barrel vaulted Ag. Petros. It isn't locked but only has frescoes on the Templon of no great interest which are probably 19th century. There is another church in Nea Kariopolis called Ag. Georgios which we failed to find which has frescoes by Michail Klirodetou (one of the Klirodeti family) dated to 1803.
The eastern coast
The Mani is often divided into two regions. The Sunny, facing the rising sun or the Shaded to the west. - The eastern coast which runs from Githeon down to Taenaron is in the north divided into bays. Those of Vathi and Giorganis then enclosed to the north by Cape Pagania is that of Skoutari then another even higher cape blocks off the bay of Kotronas. The nothermost have small but hilly peninsulas dividing their small and extremely fertile inland plains. The villages are usually set back from the waterfront.
Ageranos, fortified complex of Antonbey Grigorakis and church of Taxiarches
At Ageranos the cape is dominated by the towers and fortress of the Grigorakis family and in particular the fifth Bey Antonobey - these consolidated the Grigorakis hold on the NE Mani which they had seized after the withdrawal of the Turks from Passavas in 1780s after a decade of fighting. Built then in the late 18th century this large complex is fenced off but it's easy to get closer by dint of easy trespass, though the compound itself is locked. Next to it on the road is the large church of the Taxiarches (Archangels) - this was similarly locked. Other towers and churches of the complex straggle up the hill to the north west.
Ruined Pyrgi (towers - obviously) in the centre of Skoutari
Skoutari, the next major village going south is set on a low but steep hill above the sandy inlet of its bay flanked by Cape Pagania (or as it has it on other maps Strogili) to the north and the much more massive Cape Mountes to the south. The village's name is thought by some to have been brought by refugees from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 who named it after the Skutari (present day Üsküdar) on the asiatic shore opposite the Great City. In the 17th and 18th centuries it rivalled Itilo as a pirate hangout and the number of churches in and around the village (Drandakis lists 18 and Kassis 22) point to its prosperous past. Leake visited in 1805 (it was the furthest he went down the east coast) and stayed in the Pyrgos of Katzano, a local kapetani and part of the Grigorakis clan, with his family of 25. The endemic warfare in the area, and presumably Turkish bombardment from sea, meant that Leake reported Skoutari full of the ruins of towers either destroyed in the fighting or pulled down by the victors - it's very much the same today with the top of the hill crowned by a rotting molar of a pyrgos and the village oddly lacking any coherent focus - houses and churches being scattered across the hill.
William Black, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, observed Skoutari in 1825 and admired its, '…compact situation, the nice sweep of its level beach, and the well cultivated appearance of the district.' He also confirmed that it was well known, '… to all Greek islanders, the Maltese, and others, as the retreat of numerous pirates; and many robberies and plunderings are, I dare say, with a great deal of justice, alleged against its inhabitants; for all their movements and appearances as seen cursorily by the passing voyager, throw a shade of suspicion around them.' As Black witnessed, the Skoutariotes tended to rush out en masse, fully armed at the slightest alarum and the inhabitants of Marathonisi (Githion), though not openly condeming them, hinted strongly at the lawlesness of Skoutari.
Peter S. Allen, a Professor at Rhode Island College, did detailed anthropological research in Skoutari in the early 1970s and paints a vivid picture of the village 35 or so years ago. He then gave it a pseudonym, 'Aspida' (the name means 'shield'). In the early '70s it had no cars, one telephone and only half the villagers had television, electricity having been only been introduced in November 1969. The society was based on self-help and a sense of community, even though most young people wanted to leave for the cities. Few taxes were gathered, or even, due to the self-suffiency of most families, had to be avoided, and the olive tree was the main source of income. The village had little social differentiation, the teacher, the priest and few retired souls being the only ones with a salaried income, though, reportedly, those families descended from the Grigorakis clan tended to remind the other villagers of this distant superiority when the situation demanded. There were still distinct family based 'mahales' or districts. The last vendetta had been settled, in blood, in 1931, though most 1970s inhabitants could name the perpetrators and victims of even older 'honour' (vendetta) system killings, and certain inter-familial antagonisms still prevailed. Allen returned some twenty-five years later to find that much had changed - some for the better, others for the worse. His account of his 1970s research is in Vol.268 of The New York Academy of Science. 1976 (see my bibliography page for more details) and his later, 1997, musings are at this site.
Ag. Iannis o Chrisostomos, Skutari and a version of Noah's Flood in which the ark seems to have got muddled with the Tower of Babel (?)
There are a number of churches in Skoutari which boast 18th century frescoes, Ag Iannis o Chrisostomos (St John Chrisostomos - one of the leading early theologians and writers of the Orthodox Liturgy) with paintings by Anagnostes of Langada and Nikolaos of Nomitsis dated 1750, is a long barrel vaulted church on the northern entrance to the village. It is attached on its north side to another small chapel, Ag. Paraskevi, but the entrance to the main church is on the south side. The key is kept under a stone on the lintel of the window to your left. The church is cavernous inside and covered on all walls by the mid 18th century paintings of this team of painters who also worked on other churches in Kato and Exo Mani (Ag. Georgios in Mirsini (1746) just to the north and the katholikon of Profitis Ilias near Kalianeika in NW Mani (1752) and Ag. Theodori at Kambos (1760) are other fine examples). There are a multitude of schemes and themes to look at. The crucifixion and the Last Judgment on the west wall which has suffered badly from damp, then there is the Ainoi or Last Psalms in the western barrel vault and a whole host of martyrdoms, saints and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The condition of the paintings is variable.
Chrisostomos, Skutari - The beasts of the earth giving praise to the Lord including an odd alligator and the Dedicatory inscription which dates the paintings to 1750
However, they should actually be in quite good state - as the painters left instructions on the dedicatory inscription to the sexton on how to clean the paintings! As with many of the paintings associated with the so called 'Koutiphari School' of painters active in the second half of the 18th century the style is slightly cartoon like in execution and has little grace or beauty but makes up for it with colour and many fascinating incidental details which give a glimpse of what the painters must have seen around them and city scapes which were probably copied from western Renaissance paintings which the painters presumably saw in the form of prints.
Skutari - Koimisis tis Theotokou - west view - frescos showing the 'new' west wall and the vision of Peter of Alexandria with the righteous Melchizedek between him and Christ
Just over the brow of the hill towards the sea are two churches dedicated to the Koimisis tis Theotokou. The main, parish, church was locked, though has reportedly has some columns from Asia Minor - either brought here by piracy or the legendary associations with Constantinople. but below it to the east is a smaller edifice with the same name. This largish barrel vaulted church obviously lost a large section of its western end at some time in the past as the paintings end abruptly and the west wall is bare stone that has never been plastered. The somewhat damp ravaged paintings, are mid to late 18th century and have some similarities in style to those in Ag. Iannis O Chrisostomos nearby.
Skutari - Ag. Triada and its less felicitous concrete neighbour
On the south western edge of the village is the small whitewashed chapel of Ag. Triada (The Holy Trinity). This has fragments of 18th century wall paintings and has been done up in the 90s as evidenced by the plaques naming the benefactors. Nearby is an fine example of a pre-fabricated late twentieth century church building which has all the features of the classic Greek church but sadly none of the charms! From the open space in front of Ag. Triada one can see on the foothills to the SW a monastery. It's called Ag. Georgios and we'll return to it after nipping down to the beach below for a refreshing swim!
Skoutari beach with Ag. Varvara - late Byzantine church
About a kilometre below Skoutari on the beach, its apse pointing out to sea, is the church of Ag. Varvara (St. Barbara). The beach, when first visited in mid June 2001 was completely deserted and a year later it was similarly empty of humans, if you want a pretty much unspoilt two kilometre stretch of fine white sand then here's your spot. (It was also devoid of crowds - unless you count two sunbathing Englishwomen - in September 2003 and a the owner of the local shack/bar, after taking the few cents for our cokes, gave us a large helping of the huge pile of dried figs he was working on).
Ag. Varvara is covered in later plaster but is a domed 15th century Byzantine church with a narthex. Inside - it isn't locked, there are some undistinguished wallpaintings mainly from the 1880s.
Skoutari - Ag. Varvara on the beach - and drying figs
I mentioned the monastery of Ag. Georgios earlier. To reach this follow the small road south signposted to Kotronas. This eventually turns into a superb stretch of wide asphalt swinging round Cape Mountes. Just before this odd piece of highway begins there's a turning to the right which is also being improved and follow your nose up to the Monastery. Bob Barrow had told of arriving below the Monastery and hearing a dog barking furiously. But as he approached the buildings the dog oddly became quiet and by the time he actually entered the courtyard through the arched gateway there was no dog nor human to be seen. An attached house was obviously lived in but no calling could rouse either the owner or his, or her, formerly vociferous canine. And on my visit - guess what happened? Yup - the same sequence of events. I'm sure I caught a glimpse of someone at a window but they are obviously shy and retiring and have a very biddable dog. The Monastery church is locked and the buildings are mostly in a state of disrepair, built around a small courtyard - presumably as a defensive measure.
Above Skoutari to the north on the road to Kalivia on Cape Pagania is the small post-Byzantine monastery of the Zoodokos Pigi.
Monastery of Zoodokos Pigi nr. Kalivia - katholikon and view to the south west over Skoutari Bay
The katholikon is a domed building next to the ruined monastery outbuildings and is listed as having 18th century frescoes but was locked on my visit. There is also meant to be a cemetery church in the monastery dedicated to the Panagia Phaneromeni but I'm damned if I could spot it. It has wallpaintings of possibly 17th century progeny. On a further visit in May 2005 I was both horrified (and partially wryfully amused) to find that whomsoever owns this church had thought fit to re-furbish the mortar between the stones and scrub off the flaking whitewash on the exterior walls. And then paint all the mortar a particularly tasteless, red colour - oh, and, to compound this aberration, still leave the damn place locked.
On to the northern Kato Mani and Vardounia
Or go south to the sunward coast