We're in the Mani! A Journey to Greece's Deep South

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A Greek friend responded to my dismay at not being able to find the right words to introduce Mani without doing it some descriptive injustice by instructing that I should say, “it’s the opposite of Florida.” When I asked her what she had against Florida, she said: “Nothing, but it’s flat. Mani is mountains — and you did just drive through them.”




That is true, so allow me then to put the pedal to the metal: On the way to the moody tip of Mani, I spotted two unicorns — well, for sure one — ran over a serpent of indeterminate length and found myself shepherding about a hundred or so goats to safety to make to it my brooding clifftop tower in time for sunset cocktail hour.

Mani feels like the beginning of Europe and also the end of it, and in some respects, it is both. Its slender main section forms the middle peninsula of the three that extend south from the larger Peloponnesian peninsula. At Cape Tainaron, the Greek mainland bottoms out; only Spain’s Punta de Tarifa is more southerly in all of Europe. 




Mani, though, has a lock on otherworldly: The landscapes oscillate between serene and severe, at one glance windswept and stark and then suddenly sylvan. If Mani inspires all sorts of feelings, warm and fuzzy cannot be counted among them. The place has complex contours and a hard character; even the attempts of one its more touristy villages, Limeni, falls a little flat: too much stone, not enough flowers. It’s floral niceties you want? There’s Holland for that, or maybe Tuscany, but Mani does not do quaint.



Historically, Sparta held sway in this remote region, not distant Athens, which is a good three- or four-hour drive away, depending on how much of a hurry you are in. As in Sparta itself, the ruins are few and far between here, which is almost fitting for an area that is embedded in the larger Laconia region — but in austerity there is beauty. There are almost no sights to see and yet every Greek knows this place because it is where the spark of the Greek Revolution crackled into a flame. Centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination of Greece were not easily shaken off, but then the Sublime Porte never had a very firm grasp over this unruly stretch of the Peloponnese.




The big town is called Areopoli. Most of its buildings are fashioned out of stone burnished blond by the sun, making for an aesthetic that stands in complete contrast to what the traveler will find in many Greek islands of, say, the Cycladic archipelago. You get a sense that the mostly low, square houses here, like the Byzantine watchtowers that dominate the Mani hill towns for miles around, were meant to withstand more than just the weather. 




My Maniot perch was an ancient watchtower converted by the architect-hotelier Kostas Zouvelos into a seaside aerie the likes of which, jaded traveler though I am, I had not seen before. Called Tainaron Blue, it has just three rooms in the tower and a couple outside it. Mine was up top, and the only way to reach it was by a short but very steep staircase that is essentially a ladder. It is above a small kitchen that turns out delicious food that draws almost exclusively on local ingredients. 


 


Source: Pam Price

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