Back to the Mani, and the magic is still there

  • The church of Odigitraea – ‘Our Lady who shows the way’ – in the shadows of a Deep Mani cliff. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • The church of Odigitraea or Agritria comes more clearly into view. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • The entrance to a cave can be seen behind the church. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Fresco of the Archangel Michael. The pen and scrap of paper are for recording donations. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • A view past the church north towards Tigani and Areopolis. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

There’s a moment on the road from Kalamata to Areopolis when you drive round yet another hairpin bend after a seemingly endless climb upwards and then catch your breath at the view ahead.

Laid out before you to the left are the Taygetos mountains, stretching south as far as the eye can see. And below, on the coastal plain where a mountain gorge reaches the sea, is the village of Kardamyli where the war hero and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor made his home.

Beyond, the resort of Stoupa and fishing village of Agios Nikolaos nestle in their respective bays. Other villages cling to the mountain sides or among the olive groves of the foothills.

This is the Mani peninsula in the Greek Peloponnese and I wrote here earlier this year how the place was drawing me back after an absence of two summers. So is this still a magic place? My answer is an unequivocal yes.

The economic and political crisis in the country meant change was inevitable. But there has also been a gradual passing on of family businesses to the next generation. In Stoupa that means the ice cream at the Koumoundouros family-run Gelateria is now made by daughter Katerina in succession to her father Dimitrios. She is also selling locally made preserves and other craft foodstuffs, with an evident pride in the regional produce.

That pride is also in evidence at Elaia, a seafront café bar featuring local specialities which has replaced a jewellery shop after the succession from mother to daughter.

‘The austerity’

In what local people call ‘the austerity’ the main complaint seems, justifiably, to be about spending cuts to refuse collection. Overflowing bins were being cleared, eventually, but fly-tipping of old window frames, builder’s rubble, mattresses and more seems to be a bad habit which the situation has exacerbated. There again, it’s the same at home in Epping Forest.

One discovery of this visit was finally to find the way to a Byzantine church that captures something of the Maniot zeal for mastering the tough natural environment.

For that, thanks to this year’s edition of Inside the Mani magazine. Printed in a smaller format to cut costs and advertising rates, this edition gives directions to the Deep Mani church of Odigitraea – ‘Our Lady who shows the way’ – which is also known as Agitria, I learn from John Chapman’s invaluable web guide to Mani history.

You have to venture south of Areopolis for this trip. The well worn Taygetos range here looks like a good setting for a moussaka western. The main road continues south to Gerolimenas, worth a stop in its own, where the harbour is set against a steep cliff.

But we must turn west at the sign for Stavri and the Tsitsiris Castle hotel on a minor road that can take you on a circuit below the Cavo Grosso escarpment and a possible clifftop site for ancient Hippola. Follow the road through Stavri village and past the hotel towards the Tigani causeway. Ahead you can see and (if the day is not too hot) walk out to a frying pan shaped promontory that was fortified by Guillame de Villehardouin, prince of Achaea, and may be the site of the Castle of Maina, a possible source for the name Mani.

You can take a car much of the way towards the church on a dirt track, though we walked from a road junction closer to Stavri. Instead of heading to Tigani and the castle remnants, turn left at a broken signpost {chances are it will remain broken for now] to reach the coastal path that leads to the church.

The setting is spectacular, though the small church may be hard to spot against the similarly coloured cliff behind. It perches above a sheer drop to the sea, with the Cavo Grosso looming beyond.

The church was built in front of caves said once to have been lived in by hermit monks. I clambered up and found the ceilings of the caves blackened by age-old soot.

The church itself is unlocked and inside there are faded frescoes and the trappings of occasional worship. It’s beautiful, though clearly has been battered by the elements over the years.

The peace of this place and the warmth of the welcome in the Mani was so at odds with what has followed since with the murder in Athens of the anti-fascist hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas. Greece is being battered by events, but is still beautiful. If mainstream society is now waking up to the threat of Golden Dawn, then there is hope that it will remain so.

Footnotes

Peter Eastland is a photographer living in the Mani who has captured the land and its people in a way I cannot. His website is at www.manieye.com.

While swimming at Delfini Bay, a favourite beach outside Stoupa, there were more jellyfish than usual. They were Cotylorhiza tuberculata,whose sting, I read , is harmless to humans. Here’s a link to some video of this medusa:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/65892295 ]

 

 

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