7th June 2019
The Mani peninsula is the most southerly part of mainland Greece and is famous for its wild landscape and blood feuds. A spine of mountains runs down the centre creating a jagged coast that makes the occasional concession by dropping down to a cove. We were looking forward to taking our time and absorbing the character of the place. If we had an aim at all it was to compensate for wimping on the Argolid peninsula by gettiing to the end of the Mani.
Although the road shows as a “main” road on the map, it is another of the crumbly-edge variety and at times wildflowers enthusiastically push their way through the tarmac blurring the edges between the road and the sheer drop. Then there were the places where part of the road had been removed by a land-slip and quick, worryingly amateur-looking repairs filled the gap.
The Maniots have peppered most of the road signs with bullets- some of them big enough to kill a bear – altough whether this is from boredom or not liking being told what to do, we aren’t sure.
We hugged the mountainside, occasionally dropping steeply down to a harbour-village, like pretty Kotronas where 3 motorhomes were already parked on the harbour, their occupants lying on the small curve of sandy beach to the side.
Then the laborious climb back up through villages not designed for cars and into the maquis covered hillsides where the only visible signs of livelihood were olives, honey and goats. The villages in the Mani are small and each had its contingent of old ladies in traditional black sitting outside or struggling up the hill. Donkeys shelter from the heat in bus shelters and goats lie panting under olive trees.
We drove through a landscape punctuated by towns of tower-houses, characteristic buildings of the Mani because of their blood feuds. Maniots are a tribal and fiercely independent bunch who manged to stay free of Christianity until the 9th Century. The clans clustered in their strongholds, building marble-roofed towers to protect themsleves from their neighbours. The blood feuds were conducted according to very strict rules, the aim being to destroy the other family’s tower and kill all the male members of the family you had taken exception to. Women and children couldn’t be touched and would take in food & ammo for their men to keep things going. Even more bizarrely the warring menfolk would suspend hostilities at critical times such as the olive harvest. They would work alongsde eachother then start up again when harvest was over. These feuds could last for years, although surrender was an option with the victor dictating the terms on which the defeated family could remain in the village. The things people will resort to without TV!
The hamlet of Kokkinoyia is the Mani’s most southerly point accessible by vehicle. We bravely took the turning on to the minor road and were rewarded with a succession of spectacular views and a heart-stopping moment when we had to do a 160 degree left hand turn that we were simply too big for. Ahead of us a sheer drop, behind us sheer rock. Danny stopped, went into reverse to 3-point it and for a heart-stopping moment the van went forwards rather than back up the steep slope. He slammed the brake on, pulled the handbrake on as tight as it would go and we both looked at each other. We had inches beween us and a vertiginous drop. We took a deep breath, nodded at each other and tried again. Forward! We imagined hitting the rocks below then at the last second reverse took hold and we heaved a sigh of relief and completed the manoeuvre. That was genuinely scary. (Clearly not a time for photos!!)
A couple of hundred yards further on we could see hundreds of feet down to our destination for the night, Porto Kayio,
but we ignored the turning and rattled on down the other fork to the hamlet of Kokkinoyia, ever so grateful that we hadn’t met a single vehicle for miles. So we were shocked to discover a small car-park at the end with 7 cars in it. A fellow Brit kindly moved his car so we could park more easily and then another motorhome turned up behind us! It felt positively crowded!.
We had known there was a Temple of Poseidon – it actually turned out to be a small chapel that built from the remains of the earlier Temple. We examined the small structure and looked dubiously at the walking signs that indicated a narrow track up the shoulder of the bay towards a lighthouse.
We were hot, thirsty and tired and there was a taverna with a breeze in theother directions so we opted for that. The recommendations of the “house” were a traditional salad and a smoked pork omelette. The salad turned out to be potato, onion, orange and pickled caper leaves. The caper leaves were pleaseantly edible but as a mixture it was interesting. The local smoked pork was in big chunks within the bright yellow egg and was delicious.
Restored we felt up to exploring. An American couple told us there were some Roman Mosaics along the footpath and we soon found them, amongst the ruined footings of the Roman town that grew up beside the temple.
From there we followed the narrow and rough dirt-track up the small hillside and for 40 minutes or so along the ridge to Cape Tenaro, the most southerly tip of continental Europe. All along the way, huge grasshoppers were mating like there was no tomorrow, completely unconcerned by passing humans. When we got to the Cape we found that a working lighthouse and a beautiful and much needed breeze. Out at sea yachts sailed serenely past and you could hear the engines of the distant tankers chugging east.
At tiny Porto Kayio we drove along the only road – well, the back of the pebble beach – to its end at a small car-park belonging to a canny taverna owner who touts for motorhomes to overnight there via a hand-painted sign on the road high above – eat there and park for free. What a great spot. Crystal clear waters, 3 tavernas on one side of the ‘road’ and on the other side a row of parasols interspersed with tables & chairs by the water. We joined another motorhome there then waded straight in for a paddle to cool down.
Over a cold beer in one of the tavernas we watched the small yachts coming in for the night – the more glamorous water-based version of motorhoming. At Taverna Porto that night we had 2 huge sea bream cooked on the grill with some of the now familiar Greek chips.
Our dining companions were a couple of motorhomers, 6 German guys from a yacht and 3 women and a man from the catermaran “Rum Truffle”. Interesting company – one of the things we love about travelling.
Next day we headed up the west coast of the Mani. It started very much the same and we were soon at the dramatic hilltop tower-village of Vathia which in 1805 a traveller was warned to avoid because of the 40-year old blood feud going on.
Today it is largely deserted, its empty tower-houses attracting passing tourists. Soon though the scenery became less dramatic, and rather than plunging down to the sea it approached it more gently. Tall spires of verbascum replaced the purple-flowered thyme of the maquis and the grasses were already the dry gold of summer.
Mount Tayghetos dominates the centre of the Mani but we stayed in its foothills and finally reclaimed a view of the sea and down below the small resort of Stoupa with its white-washed, red-roofed buildings. We followed the road down to it and found Camping Kalogria where we pitch in the shade of a eucalyptus. It was 35C outside – summer appears to have arrived.