Greece: Mani peninsula-
bandits and the Gate to Hades.

What?
A rugged and deserted region of medieval towers and mountain villages.

Why visit?
What's not to like? Stunning scenery, peaceful walks, historical buildings, and a complete lack of package tourists. The Mani is where bandits holed up in towers to avoid capture. Its forbidding villages retain a sense of lawlessness and secrecy. 

To top it all off, at the southernmost tip you will find the mythical Gate to Hades, the entrance to the underworld according to the ancient Greeks. How's that for an off-the-beaten-track destination? 

Where?
At the southernmost tip of the Balkan peninsula. Map.

SO GREECE IS all islands, beach, and financial deprivation? Not quite. The Greek mainland offers plenty of attractions that offer both man-made and natural beauty in a handy package.

The Mani peninsula sticks out at the bottom of the Peloponnese. It's mostly mountainous and inaccessible. It's one of these areas that according to history books has been fought over by centuries by Byzantines, Venetians, Frankish crusaders, and Ottoman Turks.
Byzantine churches dot the landscape. For a people preoccupied with robbery and blood feuds, the Maniots were surprisingly religious. 
The reality is probably more that as soon as somebody nominally conquered it, they had a quick look and decided not to bother any further. What good is a rocky peninsula with hostile locals and few natural resources to anybody with imperial ambitions?

In the 19th century the fiercely independent people (otherwise known as 'bandits') that controlled Mani were seen as heroes resisting Ottoman overlords in a struggle for independence- but as soon as the Greeks had kicked out the Ottomans the Mani folk started to assert their independence from the newly declared Greek state. In the end this is a ruggedly independent area with tough mountain folk who couldn't care less about plans and laws made in far-away capitals.

And so the Mani remains, mostly empty except for some ridiculously picturesque mountain villages, a few ruined medieval churches, fortified houses and towers, and lots of green space to exercise your calf muscles. Just what we need, right? Although some of the coastal villages attract tourists in Summer, if you come outside of the high season you'll have the Mani practically to yourself.

Mani is, almost literally, the end of the world. Or at least the end of Europe. If you look at a map you'll notice that the Mani is the southernmost bit of European mainland east of Gibraltar. Which is perhaps why the ancient Greeks thought that Mani offered instant access to the Underworld- about which more later. 
The End of the World: bring some gas for your return journey. 
An easy way to get a feel for the Mani is to stop at the Tigani peninsula. Surrounded on three sides by the sea, you will find a ruined medieval castle, about which nobody seems to know much. except for that whomever chose the location had a great eye for both security and scenic panoramas.   
Tigani peninsula
The people of the Mani were not very trusting of each other. Perhaps with good reason:  banditry seems to have been the preferred occupation around here. Blood feuds were popular pastimes and in order to sleep safe and sound, houses were fortified or turned into towers. You will see them all around the peninsula. It looks like somebody transferred bits of the Tuscan town of San Gimignano to a desert mountain top. 

These feuds were often driven by control for whatever arable land there was available (not that much- competition was fierce!) Blood feuds could mean years of fighting between the various clans- but then, there wasn't much else to do in this barren land. Men would hole up in high towers and shoot the enemy/neighbour, who would try to do the same. All in all a friendly bunch. 

After Greek independence the army was brought in and finally feuds died a slow death. Having had their main form of entertainment taken away, many Maniots emigrated, leaving many of the towers and houses empty. (If you fancy one, speak to a local real estate agent...) 
The most ridiculously photogenic village is probably Vathia.

Mani is the end of the line. And so it was for the ancient Greeks: the southern tip of the Mani, Cape Tainaron, also known as Cape Matapan, was were the land of the living ended, and Hades, the Underworld, started. Entry was through a cave, which is still there, but the entrance is now shut and nobody seems to have the key... There was also a temple to Poseidon referred to as the 'Poseidon Death Oracle' (how's that for a cheerful name?). 
The end of the line- the Cave of Hades and Poseidon's Death Oracle. 
Although much of it is now in ruins, ever since the Pagan gods dropped out of fashion this has been a site of Christian worship- and two and a half thousand years later, people still come to this 'End of the World' to worship and pray. 
Spirituality at the end of the world- modern day Greeks still pray and leave offerings here.
Cape Tainaron- there used to be a sizable town here but not anymore. 
Getting there:
As you will have figured, this is not a region that sports world-class public transport. There are simply not enough people here. You will need to bring your own car, and don't forget to fill up at that Last Gas Station!

Useful links:
Inside the Mani- a guide. An excellent reference. 

7 comments:

  1. Wow, it looks like a stunning destination! I love Byzantine churches!
    You take lovely photos, mate! If you like photography, we would like to invite you to participate in the next edition of our Travel Photography Competition. Every week we publish 3 winning shots on our website and write a nice bio with a link to the photographers' websites/FB/G+/Flickr pages etc.
    Find more details here: http://hitchhikershandbook.com/your-contributions/travel-photography/
    Take care & enjoy your weekend!

    ReplyDelete
  2. But that's not the cave by Pyrgos Dirou or? It would be to bad if that closed down.

    ReplyDelete
  3. No, it's not at Pirgou Dirou. It's further south. Also, I meant the entrance to Hades is shut- not the cave ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Always wanted to visit ever since reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his travels in Mani

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope you'll get a chance to do so Steven! It's a wonderful place.

      Delete
  5. Since I come from Mani and I visit it each year, I could inform you that if you are interested to visit the place, the area of mani covers practicaly, all middle Peninsula of Southern peloponese, the biggest village is named Areopolis and it's around 300km South of Athens. From the you can visit the Diros caves, which are 10km South of Areopolis and 50km South of Areopolis is the Oracle and the entrance of Hades. As for gas don't be very worried since there are a lot of gas stations before the last one and you won't have any problem refueling. The article is accurate and if you visit be ready to see a very wild scenery with few trees and a lot of rock that will most certainly will get to you. Something last historical about the place. In ancient residents there were part of the spartan Kingdom and fought with them and in more recent times, the Greek revolution for independence started from there since it was the only place in Greece that turk had. No soldiers there and because they could occupy gave it's people a form of autonomy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks for the additional information, Anon!

      Delete

Have you been here? Or are you planning to go? Either way, we would love to hear about it.

 

Find Minor Sights on a map

What is this site all about?