Every slipped step set off a landslide of stones backwards, cascading down the slope.
We were unsteadily climbing the Taygetos mountain range in the Mani. A towering inferno of rock. The bare, empty, views here – whichever way we looked – trembled in the heat. Just the one lone, loyal, tree remained on the mountain side. The mountain range, running a hundred miles down, divides the two Manis: the greener outer Mani and the hard, rock, empty inner Mani that has sat baking in the sun for a million years.
The Mani is the middle finger of the Peloponnese fist – stretching out into the Mediterranean. Reaching as far south as mainland Greece goes. Groping down towards Crete and Africa. We had travelled here from the Peloponnese’s western digit, the peninsular of Messenia. In Messenia we had seen the great castles of Pylos and Methoni. And in Pylos, modern Greece was finally set on the road to freedom.
The three Great Powers – Britain, France and Russia – had once massed their ships in the very harbour we stood looking on. In October 1827 these ships lay at anchor, facing off the Ottoman Empire’s navy. A tense game of who-blinks-first. The fate of Greece’s independence struggle was decided by one nervy, trigger-happy English sailor who accidentally set fire to his cannon and shot at an Egyptian navy boat fighting for the Turks.
Shots were returned and soon battle raged. Exactly what the British didn’t want to happen. All they had wanted was to show their power, not actually use it. Thick acrid smoke descended down to fill the whole of the harbour, where now the tavernas and cafes sit. When the smoke lifted and cleared, the Ottoman navy was revealed to be completely destroyed. Nothing but floating splinters on the sea. The end of Turkish rule over the Greeks had started.
Pylos was also the home of Nestor, Homer’s old man of endless advice during the Trojan War in the Iliad and Odyssey. His excavated palace sits in the hills above the town. We had stopped at a café. A bad-tempered game of backgammon was going on. One man was suspected of cheating. “Eh! What are you doing, PASOKy!” shouted the white haired old man at his friend. Unthinkingly substituting the name of Greece’s old corrupt political party for the word ‘cheat’.
Another Pylos man had approached us, spinning his car keys on his fingers as all Greeks do – the keys serving as a substitute koboloi: anything used to distract, to entertain, to keep the mind from dwelling on things too much. Just like his town’s forefather, the man was keen to give us unsolicited advice too.
“Koroni. You should go to Koroni.”
We had started to ask him why, but his open hand went up, his lips pursed, his eyes closed and his eyebrows rose upwards. He had said his piece. No further explanation would be needed or would be forthcoming.
So, we headed towards Koroni.
I don’t know what it is like the rest of the time, but we got there late in the day, when the town was at rest. Heaving a great sigh to itself. And at this point Koroni could be the most tranquil place on earth. On the far tip of the Messenian peninsular, time looked had swept over this town without seeming to leave a single trace. The buildings gave back the heat they’d sucked in that day. A lone man walked by the sea, past the taverns, under the late sun, carrying a long shadow behind him. And the town’s ancient fort throbbed an orange colour above.
As we had carried on driving, round the groin between two legs of the Peloponnese, from Messenia to Mani, we had passed villages with the women out on their doorsteps in the evening light. A woman peeling beans, laughing. Another singing her head off. We’d bypassed the city of Kalamata. In no mood for clogged streets now. And then we had started to climb.
The Taygetos range starts straight after Kalamata. And rises rapidly. Not waiting for any sort of invitation. 8,000 feet it soars, throwing pyramid shadows down over the Messenian Gulf. We headed up a winding track and stopped for the night in a cramped village, Kampos, with its two, squat dilapidated Byzantine churches.
Artemis, the goddess of forests and mountains – always depicted hunting with her arrows and spear and net, and her faithful antlered deer – was, unsurprisingly, worshipped round these parts. A mysterious antiquated shrine for her lays somewhere in these lands, sought out now with manic desperation by the excavators. It must lie deep in the hills, somewhere by the streams that she was always getting caught bathing naked in – inflicting horrible retribution to those poor souls who happened upon her nude ablutions.
After a quick morning scrub ourselves, Giristroula and I tried to tackle a slope of the Taygetos. It was a hard and heat-soaked ascent. Just a short climb and we were regretting our decision. Stumbling on the rock shelf. This was unforgiving terrain, not to be trifled with. We slipped and slid on the roasting ground.
And we were to go further into this hard-boiled land. There was no going back.
The Mani – slate grey and arid in the centre, sea lashed at the edges – runs for a hundred miles down to Cape Matapan.
For now we were happy to coast into the pretty town of Kardamyli. Shocked by our initial meeting with the harsh reality of the Mani, pleased for this bit of decorousness. We looked for a place to swim to cool off, away from the tourists in the town, the nice hotels, the trinket shops, the olive-oil boutiques. Down a broken track, off the coast road heading south, we clambered over a barbed wall of rocks and found an empty, small, perfect beach of smooth stones. We swam out towards a small islet and then back again.
It was only when we were back on the beach I noticed some stone steps leading up the cliff side. Wet footed, we padded up to see what was there, as the sun set and a hundred swallows appeared to dive after a thousand flying insects. At the top of the stairs we got a start to see there was a villa and grounds laid out. The first reaction was to turn quickly, apologetically, away. But something seemed wrong. It was clear nobody was at home. And in fact the house seemed wrong. We walked further in. The grounds were marked out with coloured pebbles, heavy stone tables and benches pointed towards the wide sea views. An ornate compass carved into the paving stoned pointed the direction points Βοράς… Ανατολή… Νότος… Δύση
The French windows were decaying and hung open. We walked in. There were tables, lamps, bookcases covered in dust and grit. The last of the sun flung a flowered pattern through the window onto the fireplace white wall. On the mantelpiece was a clutter of cards and notes and pictures and a black and white photo of a uniformed hero. I recognised the man.
I suddenly realised where we were. This was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house. That man again. The ‘Paddy’ we had ran into in Crete and Hydra. I’d read he’d had a house somewhere around Kardamyli. This must have been it. How long had it been deserted? How long had Leigh Fermor been dead? Why had no one wanted to take over this incredible place? Why had it been left to fall into semi-ruin?
His bedroom, stark and austere as a monk’s. The corridors laid out like a monasteries’ too. A separate writing room. Colossal kitchen. All slowly falling apart. There was absolutely nobody about. The sun had died too. And so we hunkered down on the old sofa under the dirty window of the living room, cocooned with old books like birds roosting on the shelves.
Next morning we were woken by voices. Workmen. Guiltily nervous at being caught, as the workmen started banging and sawing in another part of the house, we bundled up our clothes and stole away. Down the stone cut steps, out onto the magical beach. We said quiet thanks to Leigh Fermor for the night’s stay.
We reached Stoupa. A good-looking small town on a sandy crescent beach. A haven for British tourists though, so it seemed. Every voice on every table in every tavena was from my old country. We passed down a small alley. I looked in a dark empty bar and saw sitting on a stool a sunburnt, pleased-with-himself man. Brummie accent, Hawaiian shirt.
“You see the thing about me,” he said in a condescending loud, slow, manner to the bored Greek girl moving a dirty cloth slowly around the bar top in front of him “Is I make enough to put a roof over my head…” He mimed a little triangular roof over his head with his hands. “Food in my mouth…” He mimed his two fingers plopping food in his mouth.
“And drink in your belly?” the bored girl finished for him.
“That’s right… Er…hang on…” I heard the man’s protest floating down the alley after us.
A little further on we found Kalogria beach. I’d read this was where Nikos Kazantzakis had taken a house to live in while he worked in a lignite mine in the hills above. He later wrote about this time living here, on this beach, with his cunning, lusty, zestful engineer friend in Zorba. Zorba the Greek. I didn’t believe we would find this house, but as we tramped past the sun-soakers on the sand, there, perched on some sharp edged rocks stood a small white one-story house, all alone. The rocky shore, the sandy stretch of beach for dancing on, the hills above. It all looked exactly as I’d imagined from the Zorba book.
The door swung open.
“Eh! Ti gyrevete!” A man in his underpants and a white vest shoved his angry face out. “Were you going to open my door just then?”
I took a step back. He marched forward, grabbed me by the shirt. “Eh? Were you going to open my door?”
“No…” I said.
“I could have been naked!”
He had a big round red face, perfectly bald head, as if it had been boiled. A gold cross round his neck, glinting and winking in the sun.
“Was this Kazantzakis house?” I asked. A mistake.
“Ti? What?” he put his red face close to mine. “What did you say?”
“I thought this might have been Kazantzakis’ house?” I repeated
He pulled me into the house.
“See this stove?” he banged his hand on his old iron oven. “It’s mine. See this table?” he slapped heavily on the wooden table. “Mine.” He pulled me through the small kitchen out of the back door. “My fridge…”
“See this well? Mine…. Kazantzakis’ house?” he spat into my face. “It’s MY house!”
I made my apologies. He watched us like a hawk all the way back over the beach, glaring at us as we passed the sun-worshippers, up the gentle slope towards the main road leading away. Out south.
A market town. Streets centring round a decorated Byzantine church: carved flowers and cherubs and sun and moon faces on the buttresses. One man sat at a café table, smiling absent mindedly at a sleeping dog in the road. Quiet resting over everything in the heat.
But this is a town named after war.
Areopoli was the base of Petrobey Mavromichalis, the leader of the Maniots in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. Mavromichalis was such a great warrior that the Mani was never truly run by the Ottomans as the rest of Greece was. A precious independence, that the Maniots still cling to their psyche to this day.
In 1821 Mavromichalis marched north towards central Peloponnese. Meeting Kolokotronis, the great war leader of the Arcadian men, along the way in Kardamyli. A few days ago we had stood in the old church in Kardamyli, the scene of Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis’s great meeting, where the two men played a giant game of chess in the courtyard using their men as pieces.
Together they attacked the Turkish garrison at Kalamata. Further fierce battles. Then the destruction of the Ottoman navy in Pylos. And by 1830, Greece was an independent state.
The thin, haughty-looking Corfiot, Ioannis Kapodistrias, who I’d seen preening in a hundred portraits and statues back when we lived in Corfu – became the first head of the Greek state. This nobleman of distinguished standing, unsurprisingly, didn’t see eye to eye with the rough, moustachioed kleftis Mavromichalis, who had done so much to free Greece. Kapodistrias left nothing to chance and soon imprisoned him. The Mavromichalis’ family had their revenge of course. Kapodistrias was assassinated in cold blood on the steps of the church of Saint Spyridon that we had also seen, back in Nafplio town when we started our journey round these Peloponnese lands.
The delicate, mannered world of Kapodistrias’ Corfu that I could picture so clearly – the colonnaded Venetian galleries and lanes of the green, flowering, island – trounced by this hard world of the Mani. With its own tough codes and laws. Or its lack of them.
Everyone called us ‘koroni’. Especially Giristroula.
“Ya sou Koroni…” the old men raised a glass at her as we walked past.
“Efharisto Koroni mou…” the old ladies said as they give back her change.
“Ade Koroni…” the rough men reluctantly replied to me as I lifted a glass of ouzo in their direction in the taverna.
Koroni means crown. I didn’t understand why they kept calling us ‘crowns’. It seemed a very odd sort of greeting. The man who brought us the food at the tavern had an elaborate tattoo of a golden crown, gilded with three arches, around his forearm. And then it became clear to me… The Mani is famous for being great supporters of the old, deposed Greek royal family. Coming from after Kapodistrias’ death when a German king, Otto, was installed to rule over a Greece still taking its teetering new-born steps.
Otto attempted to modernise Greece. The great neo-classical buildings of Athens. Huge new taxations. He even brought Fix beer with him. But Otto allowed the Mani to keep its marked, singular ways of life. As long as they reined in the bloodbaths and battling. As much amongst themselves as against anyone else. Passionate pro-monarchy feeling has remained here ever since.
The Maniots were dismayed when Otto was deposed. (Otto was devastated too. Spending the rest of his days back in Bavaria pining for the country he had once ruled. He died in Germany in 1867 looking a ridiculous figure, still wearing the Greek national tsolias costume: foustanella skirt, fez, stockings, tsarouhia pom-pom slippers).
There was misery in the Mani when King Alexander of Greece died from a bite from his pet monkey. They enjoyed the reign of the right-wing dictator-supporting King George II and, after the fall of the military junta in 1974 when Greece voted in a referendum as to whether the monarchy should be abolished, the only area in the whole country to vote to keep the King was the Mani.
The man serving us with his crown tattoo around his forearm told me he still believed the old King – still living, exiled in London – was the true ruler of Greece.
“He’s not the ex-King Constantine. He is THE King Constantine….”
We left Areopoli and carried on travelling south. The road hugged the coastline on our right. I looked down along the sea edge of Mani at cape after cape after cape. On our left, grey steely mountains. A path that rose up the mountain slope, fell back down again, only to rise up the hard slope once more. A futile route. Over a devastatingly empty scene.
We were definitely now in the inner Mani.
The landscape was nothing but huge cactuses, thorns, stones.
Rocks tormented by the heat. Inedible prickly pears, a diseased-coloured pink, hanging from the huge round paddles of the cactus. It was a shattered looking land. The idea that anyone would fight over this land seemed quite ludicrous. But the Maniots did. Violently.
As we kept travelling further down into the deep Mani, the stone buildings of the villages rose up around us. Each small village had two, three, four high square stone towers dominating the neighbouring quarters. Some new builds had grown up round these hundreds of years old towers – villages that were still living. But some of the villages were deserted. Just the ends of ruined buildings standing like headstones, the rest of the house gone. Ghosts. But everywhere along the inner Mani, the towers stood.
These towers were built from the 18th century onwards. For status. To keep away unwanted visitors. To help in the battle with the Ottoman Empire. During Greece’s seemingly endless history of catastrophes, strangers often fled over the Taygetos mountains seeking refuge. These pockets of strangers appearing in the cut-off world of the Maniot villages caused disconcert, ructions. Towers would be built against the strangers. The strangers would build their own towers. Sometimes the towers would be next to each other, facing off over the thin strip of pathway in the village. Extra floors would be built in the night. Building them taller than your neighbour. Dick waving.
But when the fighting began, then there were no holds barred. Rifles and cannons firing at almost point blank range. Anyone walking in the streets when battle was called was fair game (but not priests or doctors – they were sparred to nervously dance the paths amongst these killing zones). Only the fight against the Turks would unify these warring neighbours against a bigger enemy.
And for what was all this fighting? To gain some sort of small ascendancy in this hard world. To be king of these rock fields. Ruler of this land of bare stone.
Vathia emerged in the distance, standing on its hill. The Manhattan Island of the stone flat-top towers. Spike after spike of tower reached up from the dusty village, stretching into the Mani sky. The place was crowded with these broken-down skyscrapers. We walked around, the village seemed completely deserted. I climbed into a crumbling tower, up the ladders, the decayed wooden floors creaking below my feet. I looked out of the slit windows. Across the Mani coast. I would have had a great shot at anyone down into the street below.
There was no one about. An abandoned café showed that life had been there. The collapsing roof, the Loux lemonade, dried up and black in the old dirty glass bottles showed how long ago it was. The village had a platoma – the square everywhere in Greece must have for the gossiping at night of the old woman, the parading of the younger girls. Vathia’s square was clean but dated, whitewashed. But it showed there must still have been people here. Somewhere.
We walked around the tight lanes, past the ruins. And there sat on a stool, caught in roasting beam of sun in a crumbling alleyway was a woman dressed head to toe in black. Sat, just staring at the ground.
“Everyone has gone,” she told us. “They all left for Athens. They all live in Piraeus. Oh you’ll see one or two people come back for the summer, but I’m about the only one who stays here all year… And in the winter, when the wind howls through these mountains, when the cold bites, I’m doubly cursed. The wind is worse than the heat. Xyrizi…”
Onwards. Down, down the Mani. The punishing rocks didn’t change. A thirsty landscape. The Maniots we had sat drinking ouzo with in the tavern liked to tell me the old story that when God had finished making the earth he found he still had a bag of rocks left over. Not knowing what do with it, he just dumped them all out over the Mani.
A huge bird flew soundlessly, slowly, high above us, out towards the Messenian Gulf. Like someone in a boat pulling at the oars over the blue sky.
Despite being surrounded, at times lashed, by the sea – the Maniots were feared pirates of course – there was a severe lack of water in the Mani. It used to have to be brought in tankers here. People talk endlessly about water. Think about it. Dream on it. One of the old tavern men told me that when he wanted to marry his wife, his wife’s family’s only question was did he drink a lot of water? If he was going to move in to the family home and he was one of those people who liked to drink lots of water, that was it – the marriage was off.
We passed Gerolimena. Comfortable families here, sunbathing in front of a golden sea. Clean tavernas on a road looping round the quay. Nothing to remind you of the villages in the barren mountains just above. And then we got to the tip of the very southern point of mainland Greece: Tainaron.
A long walk over sizzling red ankle-snapping rocks took us to the lighthouse at the very edge of Europe. I tried to edge out as far as I could on the rocks off the cape. The rocks submerging and reappearing under the bright turquoise sea. I perched on one rock and turned inland, thinking how, from this low point I could walk back over the whole continent. 5,500 miles to the very furthest northern point, Cape Nordkinn in Norway. I closed my eyes and pictured my walk…
Poseidon had no time for such puerile nonsense. A large darting wave slapped me on my side, knocking me off my feet, plunging me into the sea and I was buffered back and forth by other whipped-up swells, crunching me into the rocks, dragging me under the surface. I battled the waves, pulling myself up the hard shelf back onto Europe’s terra firma, and sat up on the dead-grass buff, breathing heavily, drying off in the sun.
We would have had a fine grandstand view here of the Battle of Matapan. Just off the coast in 1941, the Italian and British Navies engaged in close fought battle, littering and deranging this strip of sea. Now it seemed a motorway for great tankers steaming along the edge of Greece’s very final shoreline.
This was where the ancients had dedicated a great shrine to my vindictive adversary. The Temple of Poseidon now though nothing more than a few old stones. Historians had found the remains of human bones here left as sacrifices to the god. We saw people today had left a dedication of a few hair band, some lip balm. I’m sure Poseidon would be grateful.
Below us was also one of the openings down in to Hades. A sea cave in the threshing waters. Just like the river Giristroula and I had waded in northern Greece, the Acherondas – here was a portal to take the dead down to the underworld. It was where Hercules, in the final of his 12 Labours, brought back Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades.
We had nowhere to stay, at this far flung point. We drove down to a pretty seaside village, Porto Kagio. These was a woman eating her dinner on a table she had put in the sea, sat on a chair, up to her knees in water. Keeping cool. I guessed.
“Put your tent in my front garden, she nodded back to her little house on the waterfront. “I don’t mind. Sleep the night…”
It was kind but instead we tried retracing our steps, and found a pebbled beach, near the village Kyparissos. And a deep cave, perfect for the night. I was later told that where we had slung our sleeping bags was the very place where Petros Mavromichalis’s father, Giorgos, had met and mated with a mermaid. The remarkable conception behind the reason for his son’s later legendary actions.
Next day we travelled round the end of this point of the Peloponesse again. Over onto the eastern side of the Mani. The distance between opposite sides of the cape less than a kilometre down here. We passed large graffiti on the road leading out to Tainaron that we must have passed yesterday – “Chrysí Avgí” – the Golden Dawn fascist party. Underlining Maniot reputation for politics of a stonger flavour than mere royalism.
We travelled up the eastern flank of the Mani. With nowhere further south to go in Greece, we were now pointed north. The other side of Taygetos mountains. Just as hard. Slate grey. No shade from the punishing sun anywhere. Mile after mile. The landscape was naked rock, the buildings sculptured rock. The difference between the two almost imperceptible.
Then, at Kotronas, the Mani simply ended. Just like that. There was no warning. There was no expectation. Suddenly the mountains turned thick and green, Aeropolis must be on the other side of the Main, over on the west. 10, 15 kilometers across now.
Giristroula got nostalgic. She remembered holidays to Kotronas when she was a little girl.
“There,” she said pointing madly at a balcony as we drove along. “That’s where we stayed. I remember my mother having to fry five fish up there on a little camping gazaki stove. She looked round her at the new nice restaurants facing out on the smooth gold sand. “It seems to have changed a bit now…” she said sadly
We hit a big town. This was a shock. Gytheio lay in the hot sun. Wide seafront roads, pastel coloured buildings climbing the hills. Boats bobbing a welcome to us on the sea. Touting men were stood on the pavement in front of us, swinging their arms in the direction of the restaurant. We felt like naïve bumpkins after our time in the deep Mani and sat down at one taverna, as instructed, unthinkingly.
I watched as a young boy poked his head in an open ice box on the side of the boat-lined small harbour. A long grey-pink tentacle reached out slowly, and then with a whip lashed at the boy’s face with a loud slap. The fisherman sat on a stool next to his box continued cutting at his nets, unmoved, as the boy staggered back and forth on the quay with the octopus’ tentacle suckered to his face.
The island moored just off Gytheio was said to be the first stopping off point for Paris and Helen after he’d abducted her from Mycenae. That great coiling palace we had seen on its hill in northern Peloponnese. An odd direction for Paris to have come – he was making poor tracks towards Troy.
We rounded the curve of the Laconia Gulf ourselves. Making for the third leg along this southern coast of Peloponnese. The Cape of Moreas. The landscape here was mild, compared to all we had seen. There were even oranges hanging from the trees. A little while later we drove past a group of unhappy looking Pakistani men, trudging in the fierce open heat along the dusty road. Migrant men, employed as orange pickers, I supposed.
The landscape may be tame, but the seas around this coast are feared. It was right here, around this cape, that Odysseus’ boat was blown off course. Leaving him hobbled, careering through the Greek seas, unable to get to his home for those 10 years. Legend has also told of a dreaded spirit who lived at the tip of the cape, feasting on shipwrecks. And there was a more recent story of an old man, a hermit, who lived on these tapering final rocks. Living off the charity of the sailors as they sailed past.
We pitched up for the night here too. At the very edge of Greece once again. We watched the huge cargo ships, far too big to get through the Corinth Canal, taking the long journey round the Peloponnese, lights bright in the dark night gliding by. I called out, but no sailor stopped with any charitable offerings for us.
Next day we hitched a boatride over to Elafonissos Island – Deer Island – and its sweeping beaches. And then carried on up the eastern side of Cape Moreas, the open Aegean Sea now on our right.
Monemvasia. Like a Martian rock thrown clean out of the sky, landing on the shore of the Mirtoo Pelagos. A Medieval fort town built on its hill, cut from the mainland by an ancient earthquake. Winding alleyways and stone lanes, apricot-coloured brick Frankish homes. 40 churches. The Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Turks had all been here in their time. As we crossed the small bridge from the mainland onto the rock, we could see Monemvasia was now on her back suckling tourists and daytrippers and two huge wedding parties in her narrow streets. One from Britain, one from Sweden.
Monemvasia was busy and expensive. Not especially welcoming to the wandering chancer. Everyone was dressed in clean linen suits. We looked like tramps.
But we had somewhere to stay. Just through the huge stone gate into the town, up a flight of stone steps, Giannis Ritsos, the great poet of Greece was born and grew up. Through luck, a family connection – Giristroula’s grandfather and Ritsos fighting together in the Greek civil war, her mother later becoming firm friends with Ritsos’ daughter – we had the key to his faded pink old house. The haughty gallery owners, the disdainful restaurant owners looked appalled that we had found a right to be here. The wedding parties passed below in the lanes all through the night.
The hard southern Peloponnese land around the Maleas and the Mani affected Ritsos deeply in his poetry. He wrote much of Monemvasia, and of the Mani.
These trees are not happy with less sky
These stones are not happy under foreign boots
These faces are only happy only under the sun
These hearts are only happy when there is justice
There is no water! Only light!
I had walked to the lighthouse of Monemvasia on our final day down on the southern Peloponnese coast. Another jutting piece of Greece. I looked out over the water. Then, turning back to the lighthouse buildings, I tried a door which to my surprise opened. I went in. There was the lighthouse master, laid out on the table, surrounded by his radio equipment and his maps. He was fast asleep. A cigarette burning in his mouth. His arm hung down, a koboloi danging, suspended from his fingers in the dusty air.
I retraced my steps backwards, apologising.
He didn’t wake.