Tag Archives: Stoupa

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 ]

 

 

Stoupa casts a lasting spell for this visitor to Greece

  • Stoupa

    Stoupa with the Taygetos mountains behind. The new church is next to its predecessor. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Agios

    The small fishing harbour at Agios Nikolaos. Picturesque in summer, it provides little shelter in bad weather. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Kardamyli

    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

  • Taygetos

    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

    Limeni boasts a locally famous fish taverna. It was the home of the Mavromichalis clan, who helped Greece win independence. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Areopoli

    Behind the blue door in Areopoli, capital of the Mani, is a hotel in a restored tower house. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Stoupa sunset

    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.

 Wild tortoises

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!