Areopolis, Greece

Feature by Dalia R. Miller

---It is a picture of beauty and chaos. From all sides of Cape Táinaron, scorched, barren rocks rise up in incredible shapes and unusual colors. Beyond the stones and pebbles, the shimmering sea flows into a dark cave yawning in the Bay of Asómati, legendary entrance to the underworld. Deep within its submerged mouth, the water gleams phosphorescent blue. It was here that Orpheus made the dread journey into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice, lulling Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of hell, to sleep with his lyre.

It is dusk. We are gazing at the terminus of Inner Mani, the southern middle finger of the Peloponnese. Fierce winds sweep over this eerie landscape in winter and late summer, carrying sea salt which burns vegetation and dries skin to leather. Far in the horizon, capricious waves and currents arise where the Aegean and Ionian Seas commingle. An ancient sanctuary of Poseidon dedicated to the oracle of death can be found among these rocks and, at one tip, a stone lighthouse built by the French in 1882 and restored in 2008 to utilize solar power.

View of Vatheia, the most photographed community in Mani.

The sun plunges into the Aegean, melding with the underworld. We observe the spectacle in stunned silence. Two African vultures circle above, eyeing a decaying rodent enveloped in a buzz of flies. Unnerved, we turn from the sea, speeding under a darkening sky to the comfort and luxury of our hotel in Geroliménas.

Why are we here? Mani's isolation and desolation are strangely magnetic. The peninsula draws a growing number of tourists who want to escape the overcrowded islands and enjoy the slower pace of the region. To accommodate them, a nascent hotel-building and restoration effort is underway. Mani has new condominiums (particularly in Outer Mani near Kalamáta and Kardamyli) built in regional style, some exemplary restored tower hotels, a good number of restaurants and tavernas, a few pebbly beaches, and the Aegean at its most pristine. The spectacular sea caves at Pírgos Dhírou, ranked among the best in Europe, lure visitors from all over the world.

Mani also attracts the curious who have heard about its blood-soaked past. For 1100 years, the peninsula was home to ferocious rival clans-many pirates and brigands-who battled over every scrap of fertile soil and every tree and goat that could survive the howling winds and scant rainfall. At its peak, Mani supported 125 gray stone villages built in distinct labyrinth style and surveilled by three and four-storied crenellated war towers strikingly reminiscent of centuries-old towers in the hill town of San Gimignano, Italy.

My husband and I and our niece are among the curious. It is two days earlier. We cross into Mani from the north, through dwindling patches of fig and olive trees, past the ruins of a Turkish castle, into this southernmost prong of Mediterranean Europe, to Areópolis, capitol of Maniot Laconia and hub of the region. Ares, god of war, is its namesake, belligerent soldiers its patron saints, yet this pleasant little town is relatively peaceful. Dominating the central square is a bronze statue of native son Petrobey Mavromihális whom the Turks empowered to control the unruly Maniots. Instead, he sparked the rebellion that led to the War of Independence in 1821, emboldening insurrections elsewhere in the Peloponnese.

We stand in the shadow of Mavromihális, seeking cover from the noonday sun. Restaurants and shops on opposite sides of the square are crawling with townspeople. A noisy grocer hawks jars of tiny Maniot olives (elítses), consistent winners at international olive competitions. In a land with such miserable soil, these delectable morsels are a tribute to the tenacity of both stunted trees and determined people Not to be outdone, a small truck blares explosively: "karpóuzi, karpóuzi" (watermelon) as it commandeers a side street with waiting customers. We escape the tumult.

A leisurely exploration of the cobbled old town of Areópolis-currently under restoration and bustling with new sweet shops and tavernas-leads us to the Pikoulákis Museum. Part of a new network of Mani Museums being built in the region under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Culture, its focus is on the role of religion. On display are unusual icons and manuscripts accented with primitive folk art, evidence that the isolated Maniots had not adopted Christianity until the ninth century. Throughout the peninsula, numerous historic churches feature unique architectural elements not found elsewhere in Greece. Near the museum, the white-washed Cathedral of Taxiárhis, the pride of old town, is adorned with primitive bas-reliefs of a double-headed eagle, emblem of Byzantium. A plaque in front of another small church, announces that it was operated by descendants of the Marvromihális family.

Peering into Artos, a miniscule bakery, the heady scent of ouzo and mahlépi--a spice made from the pits of Persian cherries--whets our appetite. Stacks of pastries and small breads, just plucked from an aged wood-burning oven, beg to be sampled. Areopolis is known for its creative baking, so we indulge in sweet bread chased by a sip of ouzo. "How do we get to Kapetanákos Tower?" I ask our server. Overhearing me, a plump widow in black blurts out: "Tha sas déixo" (I will show you). Placing two round loaves under her arm, she waddles in front of us leading the way. The tower is a historic family residence converted to a comfortable guesthouse. Stone walkways are lined with painted olive tins bursting with sweet basil and jasmine. Inside, we are welcomed by an impressive, large reception area filled with overstuffed chairs and flokáti rugs covering the flagstone floor. A circular staircase winds up to spacious guest rooms where flashes of light beam laser-like from tiny windows. Almost on cue, a church bell chimes from afar, luring us to the main road where Barba Petros Taverna beckons with a large selection of Maniot specialties, including delectable mezédes (appetizers).

From Areópolis, we trace the descending spine of TaÏgetos, a mountain range originating in Sparta and terminating in the rock-strewn Inner Mani. Here, the landscape is stark, nearly devoid of life, save for scraggly cacti and outcroppings of limestone shielding villages in various stages of decay. Everywhere, war towers spike pencil-like.

The mystery of these omnipresent towers is rooted in the history of the Maniot people. Originally Spartans who fled marauders from the north during the second century BC, the Maniots endured continuous onslaught by savage strangers: Visigoths, Slavs, and Bulgars, followed by Franks, Venetians, Turks and ultimately, a heavy influx of Cretans who founded villages with Cretan names, injecting their idioms and vocabulary into the already complex Maniot dialect. The steady intrusion of outsiders and the struggle for survival among the rocks and cacti launched seemingly interminable blood feuds between rival families, clans and villages. Some of these vendettas grew to small wars that kept the region embroiled in violence for centuries. It was a tribal system not unlike that of the Scottish Highlands.

The Maniot war tower was the functional and symbolic center of life and guarantor of survival. Neighborhood enclaves were built around one or more towers, connected by narrow alleyways to other tower clusters. Accordingly, Maniot men were called "rifles," placing high stakes on pride and honor. Women, however, had no status, save for the arena of death over which they maintained full control, singing poignant funeral dirges (mirológies) that to this day have no equal in Greece.

In Flomohóri, I maneuver over thorny scrub and stone walls to get a closer look at one such tower. It is square, tapering slightly as it rises up four-stories. Toward the top, barred windows are pitted with narrow gun slits. Some have drainage holes and I can envision its defenders pouring boiling water or hot oil on top of enemies. Inside, cell-like rooms once served as storage bins for gunpowder or as prisons, more recently for pigs and goats. In the old days the top of the tower could only reached by a retractable rope ladder. Here, rickety stairs end my journey. "Koitáxete" (look), says a swarthy old man sitting under a solitary mulberry tree by the tower, as he tries to engage me in conversation. My Greek being somewhat limited, I gather he wants to boast about the Maniots' military prowess.

An obstinate Maniatissa giving directions.

Villages fly past our windows-Kókola, Koíta, Nómia-dotting the arid folds of TaÏgetos in a now familiar architectural pattern. At Boularaioí, one of the most accessible villages in Mani, several impressive towers retain a "lived in" air and 20 churches dating from as far back as the 10th century punctuate both upper and lower parts of the village. We approach two shawled griés (old crones) for directions.

"Which way to Vátheia?" we ask.

"This way," says the first crone, motioning to the south. "No, no, that way," shouts the other, pointing in the opposite direction, assuredly an obstinate descendant of a rival clan.

We choose the first road and are soon rewarded with a sweeping panorama of the village, perched other-worldly on a pile of boulders with the blue Aegean beyond. Vátheia is Mani's most photographed community and, like many of its sister villages, officially declared a national historic site. Wandering through a maze of narrow lanes, past dilapidated buildings, some houses appear more recently renovated but abandoned anew. We wonder if tourists will ever want to stay in this village, away from the beach. It would take years, if ever, to restore Vátheia to its former grandeur, but we hope that somehow it can be reborn as a living museum of Mani's vernacular architecture.

A few miles north and hugging the Messenian Gulf is the quaint village of Geroliménas, our chosen home for two nights. Its name means old port, and up until the 1970s its entire livelihood was based on fishing, shipping and packing with access only by sea. Today tourism is its driving force and Geroliménas boasts one of the finest small hotels in Greece, the 23-room Kyrimai. Opened in 2004 and listed in "Historic Hotels of Europe," this boutique property was originally a complex of shops, warehouses and the mansion of mayor Theodore Kyrimis, scion of an enterprising local family. Arched buildings and courtyards have been imaginatively transformed to accommodate visitors yet still maintain their architectural integrity. Guests can sample nouvelle cuisine by resident chef Yiannis Baxevanis on a sweeping terrace overlooking the bay. For us, Kyrimai is a true oasis and we lounge by the pool, refreshed by cool breezes blowing gently from the sea Minutes away, the harbor area is dotted with several fish tavernas and a tiny mezedopoléion (appetizer restaurant) where we feast on octopus fritters, fresh prawns and syglino (local sausage flavored with orange rind and thyme). The moon is nearly full and we linger at our table, mesmerized by small caiques bobbing rhythmically at the quay.

The village of Stávri lies north of Geroliménas, and beyond it, Pírgos Dhírou, a town geared for the "cave trade," with numerous restaurants, hotels and handicraft stores on both sides of the road. We turn toward the sea and the cliffs of Dhírou where signs point to parking areas and the entrance to the caves. Several boisterous Athenian families are already waiting in line as we take our place behind three French girls with backpacks and an English couple at the tail end of an archaeological exploration of Mani. During high season the wait can take one or two hours, and we are glad to arrive before the crowd.

Twenty-five "miraculously short" minutes go by, and suddenly it is now our turn to climb onto flatboats expertly paddled by Greek-speaking guides. The half hour tour skims the waters of an underground lake through the illuminated caverns of Alepótripa and Glifádha where colorful limestone formations have grown into surreal shapes throughout the millennia.

View of Cape Tainaron at dusk.
The caves were first discovered in the late 1950s and developed for tourism by the Greek National Tourist Organization in 1967. In Alepótripa, we are spellbound by delicate stalactites hanging down by the thousands like elongated raindrops frozen in mid-air, counterbalanced by huge alabaster stalagmites rising from the floor. Glifadha's "Lake Hall" garners the biggest "wow" with its huge canopy of tiny macaroni-shaped stalactites, each with a drop of water quivering at the tip.

Our college-age guide is informative and enthusiastic. "The caves are so vast that many speculate they continue all the way to Sparta under the Taïgetos mountains," he explains. My imagination is afire: Can the sea caves also flow all the way to Táinaron like the River Styx? In the dank of the caverns, the flickering lights and strange shapes evoke untold mythical monsters-could they be the giant eels that are rumored to live underneath? Shivering, we carefully vault up steep stairs for a quick exit.

Outside, the intense Laconian sun warms our cold bones within seconds. A small museum near the cave ticket booth displays relics of Neolithic habitation found inside the caves and is worth a visit. For a longer stay in the Dhíros area, the award winning Castelo di Haria Hotel, honored for its traditional architecture and décor, provides a grand escape from the unforgiving landscape.

Presiding over the tiny seaside community of Liméni, just north of Areópolis, the restored tower residence of Petrobey Mavromihális is popular with visitors, resembling an English parish church. We swim in limpid waters and then doze briefly on a small stony beach near the port. The aroma of freshly grilled fish wafts from several small tavernas crowded with a large contingent of German tourists, among the first to have discovered Mani. At a family-run pension-restaurant, a huge barbóuni (red mullet) arrives at our table redolent with herbs and garlic. We savor both the fish and the curious magic of Mani.

Climbing the steep coastal road to Kalamáta, I steal one last glance at this once untamable land and its forest of towers. In years to come, as more of these crumbling structures are transformed into modern luxury hotels and new tourist villages dot the coastline, there will surely be fighting again in Inner Mani-but this time over reservations!