The southernmost peninsula of Greece, the MÁNI, stretches from Yíthio in the east to Kardhamýli in the west and terminates at Cape Ténaro. It is a wild landscape, an arid Mediterranean counterpart to Cornwall or the Scottish Highlands, with a wildly idiosyncratic culture and history to match. Perhaps because of this independent spirit, the sense of hospitality is, like nearby Crete, as strong as anywhere in Greece.
The peninsula’s spine, negotiated by road at just a few points, is the vast grey mass of Mount Taïyetos and its southern extension, Sangiás. The Mésa Máni – the part of the peninsula south of a line drawn between Ítylo and Vathý bay – is classic Máni territory, its jagged coast relieved only by the occasional cove, and its land a mass of rocks. Attractions include the coastal villages, like Yeroliménas on the west coast, or Kótronas on the east, as well as the remarkable caves at Pýrgos Dhiroú, but the pleasure is mainly in exploring the region’s distinctive tower-houses and churches, and the solitude.
The Éxo Máni – the somewhat more verdant coast up from Areópoli to Kalamáta, mostly in Messinía province – sees the emphasis shift to walking and beaches. Stoúpa and Kardhamýli are both attractive resorts, developed but far from spoilt. The road itself is an experience, threading up into the foothills of Taïyetos before looping back down to the sea.
The mountains offer the key to Maniot history. Formidable natural barriers, they provided a refuge from, and bastion of resistance to, every occupying force of the last two millennia. Christianity did not take root in the interior until the ninth century (some five hundred years after the establishment of Byzantium) and the region was ruled by intense and violent internal tribalism, seen at its most extreme in the elaborate tradition of blood feuds.
The Turks, wisely, opted to control the Máni by granting a level of local autonomy, investing power in one or other clan whose leader they designated “bey” of the region. This system worked well until the nineteenth-century appointment of Petrobey Mavromihalis. With a power base at Liméni he united the clans in revolution in March 1821, and his Maniot army was to prove vital to the success of the War of Independence. Mavromihalis swiftly fell out with the first president of the nation, Kapodhistrías, and, with other members of the clan, was imprisoned by him at Náfplio – an act leading to the president’s assassination at the hands of Petrobey’s brothers. The monarchy fared little better until one of the king’s German officers was sent to the Máni to enlist soldiers in a special Maniot militia.
In the twentieth century, ignored by the powerful central government in Athens, this backwater area slipped into decline, with drastic and persistent depopulation of the villages. In places like Váthia and Kítta, which once held populations in the hundreds, the numbers are now down to single figures. Recently, there has been an influx of money, partly due to increased tourism, partly to membership in the EU. The result has been considerable refurbishment, with many postwar concrete houses acquiring “traditional” stone facings.