Saturday, October 16, 2021

A Return to the Mani


Vathia, a Mani fortified settlement
Over the past two weeks, three friends separately asked me what I thought of the Mani region of Greece. Soon after that, I noticed several articles written about how desirable the area has become for tourists and those looking for a place to live the idyllic Greek life.  I mentioned that coincidence to my wife and she said, "I'd like to live there too."  Well, we're not moving any time soon, but with the apparent groundswell of attention the Mani is receiving, I decided it's time for me to repeat what I first wrote more than a decade ago about this magical region.  I'm sure the magic hasn't changed -- yet.
If Mystras (see this 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

What Mani does offer is a present day spiritual presence giving life to a history far grander than most legends.  Say “Mani” to a Greek and the usual response is “tough, proud, enduring people.”  Greece’s war of independence against the Turks began there in 1821, and though the history of the Peloponnese (and Greece as a whole) is largely one of occupation by foreign powers, the story goes that Mani was never occupied (essentially true), never paid taxes (at least not that much), was a refuge for the politically persecuted (willing to fight, I assume), and in some parts has not seen a piece of land sold to foreigners (tough to verify, though proudly claimed). 
Mesa Mani landscape

A few weeks ago [ed. note: make that eleven years] 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. 

Mani tower
The generally four to five story tall towers (each a pyrgos in Greek), offered defensive positions to families against bandits, pirates, and foreign invaders.  But far more often they served to protect families from their neighbors, for Mani was a land where the concept of family vendetta was so deeply ingrained in its culture that rules existed on how, whom, and when not to reek vengeance against an offending family.  For example, those lucky enough to be a doctor or a priest were considered too valuable to the community to serve as a permissible target for vengeance by another family.

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.

Gerolimenas harbor with Hotel Kyrimai at point

Road to spiritual experience
I stayed in Gerolimenas, a picture-postcard harbor village of less than sixty inhabitants, at a world-class inn once a seafront warehouse for agricultural commerce between Peloponnese and the outside world.  The same family that built and ran the warehouse in the early 19th Century created and now runs the inn.  On the morning of my departure to Athens, the owner suggested I travel south a bit more, toward Cape Tenaro at the very tip of the peninsula, where the Ionian and Aegean seas meet.  “It is a spiritual experience that will take you back in time,” he said.  And so I did, toward I knew not what. 


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.  

Distant Cape Tenaro where the Ionian meets the Aegean

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.


  1. We are certainly hoping that this post signifies: 1) your return to the Mani soon, 2) your eventual relocation to the Mani and 3) that Kaldis is setting forth on a new crime-solving adventure here! You are right about the Mani Magic remaining but we think you will be surprised at the upscaled version of Kalamata and surrounding areas (cruise ships and Costa Navarino can be thanked or cursed for some of this) and you will likely note the many 'Mykonos Mansions' as we call the new super structure homes that no longer sport the 'Mani look' The philoxenia remains strong, the landscape striking, and the villages mysterious and magical. And what is a comment without mention of the fact, that it was your original post that prompted me to contact you about the area. . .we planned 'a visit' here way back then. . .and look at us now! (Remember, the welcome mat is always out at The Stone House on the Hill. Hope to see you if you get this way for at least a rendezvous over food, drink and tale-telling somewhere.) xxx J and J

  2. Dear Jackie and Joel. As I wrote in response to your kind comment on my Facebook alert to this post, you both humble and honor me each time you credit me for playing even a teeny-weeny part in you finding your treasured home in Kardamyli. Yes, we shall return, for Barbara keeps saying if she had to pick one place to live in Greece it would be the Mani. How dare I argue with that? :) Sorry to hear about all the Costa Navarino influenced development, but not surprised. I long sensed that would happen, and even used it (as you know) as a premise in the plot line of my 6th Kaldis novel, SONS OF SPARTA--based in the Mani. xxJ&B