Every slipped step set off a landslide of stones backwards, cascading down the slope behind us as we unsteadily climbed up the Taygetos mountain range in the Mani. The bare, empty, views here – whichever way we looked – trembled in the heat. Just the one lone, loyal, tree remained on the mountain side.
This mountain range helps divides the two areas of the Mani down in southern Greece: the greener, easygoing, outer Mani, and the hard, rocky, empty inner Mani that has sat resentfully 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. Finally able to carry on travelling after our lengthy lay-off in Giristroula’s hometown, we had reached the Mani first coming round the Peloponnese’s western digit: the peninsular of Messenia.
In Messenia we had seen the great castles of Pylos and Methoni. It was in Pylos that 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 had stood looking at. In October 1827, as these ships lay at anchor, facing off the Ottoman Empire’s navy, playing 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. It was 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, and when the smoke lifted and cleared, the Ottoman navy was revealed to be completely destroyed. Nothing but floating splinters left 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 below. 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 that can be used to distract, to entertain, to keep the mind from dwelling on life’s problems 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 had got there late in the day, when the town was at rest – heaving a great sigh to itself – and right then Koroni could have been the most tranquil place on earth. On the far tip of the Messenian peninsular, the sea lapping round its edges, the buildings giving back all the heat they’d sucked in that day. A lone man walked past the taverns, under the late sun, carrying a long shadow behind him. And the town’s ancient fort throbbed an orange colour high above. We had carried on driving through this south western land, round the groin between two legs of the Peloponnese, from Messenia to Mani. We had passed villages with women out on their doorsteps in the evening light: one 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 back 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 lies 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 stumbling 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 now.
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 just to coast down 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. In fact the whole 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 stones pointed the direction points Βοράς… Ανατολή… Νότος… Δύση
The French windows were decaying and hung open and we walked into the house. 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… and 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 was stark and austere as a monk’s, the corridors all laid out like a monasteries’ too. A separate writing room, a 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. The next town we reached was 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 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 lots of drink in your belly?” the bored girl finished for him.
“That’s right… Er, no…Hang on…” I heard the man’s protesting note 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 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. Surprised. 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 big 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 and 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 again towards the main road leading away. Out south.
Areopoli. 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 rested 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, that 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. Then further fierce battles ad then the destruction of the Ottoman navy in Pylos and then, 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 Mavromichalis. The Mavromichalis’ family had their revenge though, 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 the 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 couldn’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 as I stared at this it became clear to me… The Mani is of course famous for being great supporters of the old deposed Greek royal family. Coming from the time after Kapodistrias’ death when a German king, Otto, was installed to rule over a Greece still taking its first 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. So 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 and 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 mountains and 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. Inedible prickly pears, a diseased-coloured pink, hung 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 all 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 lived in – but many of the villages were deserted. Just the ends of ruined buildings standing like headstones but the rest of the house gone, ghosts. Everywhere along the inner Mani route, 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 and these pockets of strangers appearing in the cut-off world of the Maniot villages caused great consternation amongst the old Maniots. Towers would be built against the strangers, and the strangers themselves would also then build their own towers. Sometimes the towers would be right 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 village, stretching into the Mani sky. The place was crowded with these broken-down skyscrapers. We walked around, the place 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 lying around showed how long ago it was. The village had a platoma – the square every village or town in Greece must have for the gossiping at night of the old woman and the parading of the youn 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. She was 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 a few 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. It shaves you to the bone. Xyrizi…”
Onwards. Downwards. Down through the Mani. The punishing rock landscape didn’t change. It’s 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 they say 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 by the sea – the Maniots were feared pirates of course – there was a severe lack of water inside 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 had one question: 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 then 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 waves, crunching me into the rocks, dragging me under the surface. I battled to get back to shore, 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 also where the ancients had dedicated a great shrine to my vindictive adversary – the Temple of Poseidon now though was nothing more than a few old stones. Historians had found the remains of human bones here left as sacrifices to the god, but we saw people today had left a dedication of a few hair band, an empty bottle of water, 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, and 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 deserted 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 Peloponnese 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, but I hadn’t seen. “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, and no shade from the punishing sun anywhere. For mile after mile the landscape was naked rock and 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 now…” she said with a note of sorrow.
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 and 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 pretty 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 guessed.
The landscape may have been 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 back to his home for those long 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. Then we came across Monemvasia. Like a Martian rock thrown clean out of the sky, landing on the shore. Monemvasia is 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 moved around 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 walked to the lighthouse of Monemvasia on our final day down on the southern Peloponnese coast – another jutting piece of Greece – and 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 and a koboloi danging, suspended from his fingers, still in the dusty air.
I retraced my steps backwards and shut the door. He didn’t wake.