Mani has something that reminds of Far West. The sign outside the gas station on the exit of Gerolimenas writes “Last gas station” and you can almost imagine the wandering straw balls that slowly roll to the next turn, swept away by the desert wind, as one typical Western scene. The difference is that here the desert consists of stones, not of sand, and it reaches a sea that shines till the horizon.
It comes as no surprise that the legend has it that people of Mani are the last descendants of the ancient Spartans. Who else could have tamed this harsh, dry land, then make out of stone entire perfect cities and make this part of earth into a symbol of freedom- and with a somewhat idiosyncratic temperament?
To walk it you need three months. And to understand it you need three lives. One life for the land, one for the sea and one for its people. Maybe it needs more.
This village has taken its name by Aris, the god of war. The ancient god would be proud that the flag of the Greek Revolution was first risen here on March 17th1821.
Areopolis today is a beautiful village, probably the most beautiful in Mani, filled with cobbled alleys zig zagging among stone tower houses with flowery yards and colorful café as well as atmospheric taverns that spread their tables on the cobbled streets. In the central square, that of course is called March 17th square, there is the church of Taxiarchon with its impressive wood carved icon screen and its gigantic bell tower that can help you find your way back if you are lost in the labyrinthine alleys, as it is visible from everywhere.
As you walk down from the square the stone-built alleys are narrowing, the towers are getting higher and the fortified architecture of the settlement is visible. Stone houses with their heraldry on the front, small churches that sprout here and there and tall, stone mounds that protect the heart of the settlement compose the neighborhoods that you can’t get enough of walking around- even though it has steep uphill and downhills. In the sights are included the church of St. John of the Mavromichalion, in the so called square, with its amazing frescoes that date back in 1746, and the exquisite Pikoulakis Tower that today hosts the Byzantine Museum of Mani.
A small sea of stone houses covered in red tiled roofs, nestled on the side of the mountain. This is Itilo, the biggest and most important of the towns in Mani during the Middle Ages that today is a secret, sweet mountainous village. Two important sights in the village is the historical Dekoulou Monastery, in which in 1770 the leaders of Mani signed an agreement with T. Orlof to revolt against the Turks, but is mostly known for its frescoes of the zodiac circle, and the Ottoman Castle of Kelefas that was built in 1670 and from which are saved the outer walls, four towers and some abandoned buildings on the inside.
Some researchers suggest that this might be the legendary Maine Castle that was built by the Franks in 1250. The dust of History covered at some point the tracks of its greatness and as a result its search gave trouble to experts and researchers. Three more castles of Mani, Orias Castle, Tigani and Porto Kagio Castle, claim the title of this legendary, vanquished castle.
Nestled in a blue watered bay, New Itilo gathers the lion’s share of food and accommodation recommendations in the region. Here begins- or ends, depending on how you see it- the Myllagados Gorge, which hiking trail is perfect for new hikers: It is easy and gorgeous as it passes by lush vegetation and by abandoned watermills.
A bit further south, Limeni is a picturesque coastal village with stone towers that reach an out of this world turquoise sea. It is famous for the taverns that serve fresh fish by the sea and it is filled with towers and captain houses, one of which stands out, the four story Tower of Mavromichalion (of the famous family of Petrobey) with its arched windows and the line of battlements. In the sights of the village it is also included the church of Panagia Vrettis with the impressive bell tower.
The first time you see it, it reminds you of an illustration in a medieval fairytale: A castle town that could have as dwellers knights and fairies. Its tall towers hang at the top of the hill, surrounded by short, stone- built houses that have as a view on the one side the vastness of the glittering till the horizon sea, and on the other side the bare summits of Mani. Strolling around its stone built alleys, among tower houses, steps that lead at the threshold of old mansions, small churches and past century oil presses makes it look like a trip through time.
Vatheia is almost abandoned (the 2011 inventory counted 6 residents), but it has a strange feeling of continuity: it’s like the people have gone somewhere, left their house for a while and they’ll be back in a minute. Whenever you come, make sure to stay till sundown, so that you can enjoy from a stone plateau the amazing view of the sun diving in the sea and bathing with golden lights its stone walls, making the landscape even more otherworldly.
Whatever you knew about caves… it’s time to forget it. The caves of Diros are by far the most impressive ones you’ve ever seen- they are also the biggest in size in Greece. Legend has it that the underground passageways reach Sparta- what we do know is that the speleologists have explored a total length of 12 kilometers, from which only the one and a half is open to visit.
The first half of the visit is a truly exciting boat ride, which passes under thrilling stalactite and stalagmites formations and through otherworldly tunnels, sailing on almost still waters that mirror the illuminated stalactites to create a magical image. The depth of the waters, which are partly from the sea and partly from an underground river, reaches at some points the 30 meters, while the stalactite formations- many of which are of billion years- are so peculiar that have been given names such as “the horse’s head”, “the flying disc”, “the bridge of sighs” and “Hercules columns”. The caves include “the big ocean”, “the dragon’s den”, “the pink apartments”, “the fairies lake” and more like these with magical names.
The second half of the visit is 400 meters of land route, in which you cross an atmospherically lit path, gazing at some more impressive stalactites and stalagmites, till you come out of the exit next to Diros beach. In total, the visit to the Cave of Vlichada, as it is the official name, takes about half an hour.
A few meters outside the cave’s exit there is the Neolithic Cave of Diros that hosts Neolithic tools, marble figurines and urns that were brought to light during the excavations in the caves of Vlichada and Alepotrypa- the second cave is not open to visit for now. Even if the term “Neolithic” doesn’t bring anything in mind, we should inform you that in recent studies these two caves were inhabited by people who used to build tools and trade, in 6.000 B.C. approximately- which is four thousand years before Agamemnon starts for Troy.
Here was the place where the inconsolable Orpheus descended to Hades to bring back Eurydice. Here was also where Hercules brought to the world of living Cerberus in his twelfth and last labour. In this place, the southern tip of the continental Greece, there is a storm tossed, magical place, where our ancestors believed that leads to Hades.
Cars can go till the archaeological site, where in ancient times there was the temple of Poseidon Tainarios, from the materials of which they built the chapel of Agioi Asomatoi that you can see today. By far the most interesting monument of the place is the Star of Aria (Astro tis Arias), an amazing decorative mosaic from a Roman mansion that was here from the 1st century A.C.
From the archaeological site starts a path that brings you, after 40 minutes of walking, to the southern tip of the Balkan Peninsula, to Cavo Matapas, where its famous light house from 1882 continues to lighten two seas and hundreds of ships that daily pass by there. The route is fantastic, as the sea never leaves your eyes, although the extremely rocky and bare landscape of Mani makes it rather prohibitive during the summer afternoons.
There is a “pocket” sized village, called Korogianika that overlooks from an altitude of 360 meters, the sea and Cape Tainaro. A little further north, the beautiful Lagia is famous for its Byzantine churches, as well as the mountainous Akrogiali next to it. There is also the tiny Speira, with its impressive towers hanging from the summit, the Kokkala and Alypa, which are built side by side with the sea, and the small Agrilia that overlooks from up there the Laconian Gulf. Of course, there is also the Kotronas, the biggest of the villages in Eastern Mani.