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.Read More
Hiking the Výros Gorge
Hiking the Výros Gorge
The giant Výros Gorge plunges down from the summit ridge of Taïyetos to meet the sea just north of Kardhamýli. Tracks penetrate the gorge from various directions and are well worth a day or two’s exploration. From Kardhamýli, the kalderími from the citadel continues to the church and village of Ayía Sofía, and then proceeds on a mixture of tracks and lanes either across the plateau up to the hamlet of Exohóri, or down into the gorge, where monasteries nestle deep at the base of dramatic cliffs. An hour or so inland along the canyon, more cobbled ways lead up to either Tséria on the north bank (there’s a taverna, but no accommodation) or back towards Exohóri on the south flank, about 10km from Kardhamýli. Linking any or all of these points is a reasonable day’s hiking at most; forays further upstream require full hiking gear and detailed topographical maps. One bus a day runs to Exohóri from Kardhamýli (25min), or you can take a taxi, for about €10.
Blood feuds in the Máni
Blood feuds in the Máni
Blood feuds were the result of an intricate feudal society that seems to have developed across the Máni in the fourteenth century. After the arrival of refugee Byzantine families the various clans developed strongholds in the tightly clustered villages. From these local forts, often marble-roofed towers, the clans conducted vendettas according to strict rules. The object was to destroy the tower and kill the male members of the opposing clan. The favoured method of attack was to smash the prestigious tower roofs; the forts consequently rose to four and five storeys.
Feuds would customarily be signalled by the ringing of church bells, and from this moment the adversaries would confine themselves to their towers, firing at each other with all available weaponry. The battles could last for years, even decades, with women (who were safe from attack) shuttling in food, ammunition and supplies. Truces were declared at harvest times; then, with business completed, the battle would recommence. The feuds lasted until either one side was annihilated or through ritual surrender whereby a whole clan would file out to kiss the hands of enemy parents who had lost children in the feud; the victors would then dictate strict terms by which the vanquished could remain in the village.