Stoupa with the Taygetos mountains behind. The new church is next to its predecessor. Photograph: Paul Nettleton
The small fishing harbour at Agios Nikolaos. Picturesque in summer, it provides little shelter in bad weather. Photograph: Paul Nettleton
Roadside reading in Kardamyli. But the peace can be broken when coaches and trucks carrying quarried stone try to pass through the main street. Photogrpah: Paul Nettleton
The mountain road across the Taygetos looking back to the highest peak, Profitis Ilias. The surface is not always so smooth. Photograph: Paul Nettleton
Limeni boasts a locally famous fish taverna. It was the home of the Mavromichalis clan, who helped Greece win independence. Photograph: Paul Nettleton
Behind the blue door in Areopoli, capital of the Mani, is a hotel in a restored tower house. Photograph: Paul Nettleton
Sunset over the Bay of Kalamata at Stoupa. Photograph: Paul Nettleton
For a gallery of images please click on the photograph above
The pull of the place has proved too much. Rival places in the summer sun have been considered and cast aside. Two years is too long to have stayed away from this Greek gem. Stoupa it is, then, for the holidays.
Kardamyli, a few kilometres to the north on the west coast of the Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese, may have more cachet. Stephen Fry was tweeting from there last month, at the house of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor. It is to be converted to a writer’s retreat after being left to the Benaki Museum. Though budget cuts have reportedly delayed this prospect, Before Midnight, the recent film by Richard Linklater, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, was shot there.
The ashes of an earlier literary pilgrim to the house, Bruce Chatwin, were scattered near a tiny church in the foothills of the Taygetos mountain ridge that rises behind the town, at a spot that will be blanketed in wild flowers about now. Mountain roads lead up into the Vassiliki forest and across the spine of the peninsula. A trek by 4×4 is worth the early start to make a late lunch in the port of Gythio, though when I made the journey I passed a British couple making the trip by mountain bike.
Perhaps trendier is Itilo Bay, to the south below Areopoli, the capital of the Mani. Its boutique hotels pop up regularly in the travel pages of the “better” newspapers and magazines. Here the mountain backdrop is more lunar, a stony hint of the stark rocky landscape further to the south. Last time we passed through there was fresh growth poking through the ashes of brush fires that had threatened to jump the coast road and reach a popular fish taverna at Limeni.
The Rough Guide has always been dismissive of Stoupa, deemed too touristy by half since the village was discovered by package holiday companies. And today there are many more lights at night in the hinterland among the olive groves after a house-building boom – perhaps not a property bubble, but the collapse of the Greek economy means there are bargains to be had on the site of house-hunters such as Susan Shimmin.
‘ On the house’
Still, it remains a place where it is possible to instantly relax, where the setting sun plays across a bay fringed by a sandy town beach, tiny harbour and a variety of tavernas competing, but not too intrusively, for your trade. Here, previous visitors are welcomed back with a glance of recognition, a few warm words and sometimes a little something “on the house”. Get to know the owner and there is catching up to be done since last time you talked.
Or stroll around the headland to Kalogria Bay, even quieter at night despite bustling during the day with beach volleyball and bat and ball games and Greek family groups occupying rows of sun loungers arranged under ranks of matching parasols.
At both beaches the sand slopes gently enough into the sea for young children to splash about during the day and into the evening, when the sometimes fierce sun mellows. Just occasionally there’ll be a few breakers to bring some added excitement. Swim out or take a snorkel tube to explore the rocks, and there are the swirls of the icy cold springs that one day the engineers hope to tap for fresh water.
Look back to the land as you swim and the ring of mountains beyond the village, where the tallest building is a new church built alongside its predecessor, adds a dramatic backdrop to the scene.
If those clouds billowing up stay over the mountains, local weather lore has it, the rain will stay away. Over the sea the clouds can herald a short, sharp thunderstorm that cools the air, washes away the dust and brings out the wild tortoises for a stroll.
A mile or two south is Agios Nikolaos, a picture postcard Greek fishing village where the catch is sold from a slab each day. The harbour wall here offers little protection from winter storms and most of the boats are removed when the summer is over.
There’s history to be explored in and around the Mani – Byzantine churches of all sizes, caves at Diros where the boatmen on the underground river have a firm way with tourists. Investigation of the Neolithic settlements here continues. The ruins of Mystras and Ancient Messine are within driving distance. And the landscape of the inner or deep Mani towards Cape Matapan or Tainaron, the southernmost point of mainland Greece, can take your breath away.
Here there are tower houses in largely deserted villages such as Vathia where rival clans fought their battles in quite recent history. These are being aped by builders further north who use the abundant local stone to construct holiday homes with fake crumbling battlements, which does Greek architecture a disservice.
The fortunes of Stoupa have doubtless taken a knock as Greece hit the rocks but over the years changes have often been dictated by corporate whim in London. The stickers of holiday brands long since swallowed by Thomson or Thomas Cook can still be seen outside travel agencies, shops or tavernas.
Fashion in the tourist trade has moved towards no-frills airlines and self-booked hotels. Since the collapse of the British charter airline XL, independent tour operators have resorted to obscure airlines that have not lasted more than a season or two.
EasyJet launched a service to Kalamata from London Gatwick this year, promptly to have Thomas Cook buy up many of the seats for the summer. Olympic Holidays, with whom w’re travelling, are using the little known Germania as well as EasyJet. Ryanair last year flew to Araxos, near Patras, but has cancelled the route. A recently completed motorway from Athens now reaches Kalamata for those willing to drive or take the coach from the capital.
The hardworking local families are changing with the times as is Stoupa. Where once there were a few phone kiosks, mobile phones are ubiquitous and broadband service with attendant wi-fi has arrived. Websites are springing up to advertise individual apartments and hotels. But the number of ATMs has taken a tumble along with the economy.
Inside the Mani, a guidebook to the Mani by Matthew Dean and Bob Barrow, British writers and long-term residents, sprang out of an annual magazine and website for visitors that showcases the work of artists inspired by the region, explores its history and promotes local businesses.
Stephan Bartholomä, who runs Zorbas.de travel agency, hosts four webcams and a bulletin board on his website, which can be a fount of information to newcomers.
When specialist UK travel firm Greek Options ceased trading after 17 years, their agents in Stoupa set up a new company, Greek Options – Stoupa, knowing that much of their trade came from repeat business. They cannot yet offer flights but are trying to fill the gap in the market serving those who return year after year.
The spell cast by Stoupa is strong, and it’s pulling me back this year. Yammas!