|Vathia, a Mani fortified settlement|
If Mystras (see last Saturday’s post) was the heart of Peloponnese history, Mani was its fist. It is the mountain-spine middle peninsula on the trident tip of Greece’s most southern mainland part, on the same latitude as Sicily and pointing across the Mediterranean at Libya. It is where ancient Spartans are said to have settled, and if you’re wise, do not quarrel with a Maniot who makes that claim.
Unlike much of the Peloponnese, Mani has no grand, established sites such as Mystras or Epidauros, but nor did ancient Sparta, whose inhabitants lived a warrior life disinterested in the great edifices so important to their northern neighbors and Athenians. Besides, much of what Spartans built disappeared amid the region’s earthquakes and millennia of scavengers for building materials.
|A Maniot fighter|
|Mesa Mani landscape|
A few weeks ago I was in the southwestern part of Mani, called Mesa (inner) Mani doing “inspirational” research for a new book. Mesa Mani runs inland from the Ionian Sea, across arid, rugged land, onto the majestic, north-south Taygetos mountain range. This is where ancient stone towers loom practically everywhere above the land, an ever-present reminder of a violent past.
There are said to be 800 ancient towers still standing in Mani, some with roots back to the 13th Century. That might explain why many find Maniots among the friendliest and most courteous people in Greece. It’s probably a serendipitous, positive result of living in a society where to offend likely led to something far worse than a nasty letter to your boss.
|Road to spiritual experience|
The photograph at the top of this post is not a painting, nor is the one to the left. They are of the hillside village of Vathia. It exists exactly as you see it. As I stood there, contemplating a Harry Potter scenic against the region’s Mad Max-like history, a funeral procession passed out of Vathia directly behind me. Mani has mesmerizing landscapes, charming places, and friendly people, yet I could not help but wonder if that funeral bore some relation to its fierce history. I’m just cursed with such thoughts: I think murder is everywhere.
Pause for groaning to subside.
|A final resting place|
I never made it to the southern tip, for on the way there I passed the funeral procession. Cars were parked along the side of the road, at the top of a steep, rocky incline. Men below were carrying the coffin toward a mountain church along the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. I saw no cemetery, just the church. The only other visible sign of life was up ahead, an isolated, distant taverna on a tiny beach. I stopped there, but didn’t get out, just sat for a while. I turned around and drove back toward Athens. I had no need to go further, I’d found my inspiration. Besides, I’d be back; there were too many mysteries here to ignore—past, present, and future.
If you’re interested in more about this fascinating part of the world, I came across Mani: A Guide and History, on a website created by John Chapman. He seems to have spent a large part of his life immersed in Mani’s history and ways. Though I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his observations, nor do I dare challenge them, for in describing how vendetta vengeance could be taken against any family member of the perpetrator, he writes, “The only exception to this 'collective' form of vengeance was in the case of slander where vengeance had to be meted out on the perpetrator.”
I’d prefer not to test that sort of thinking.
Jeff — Saturday