A rugged and deserted region of medieval towers and mountain villages.
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?
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.|
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.|
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.|
|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.|
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!
Inside the Mani- a guide. An excellent reference.