“When God was done with the creation of the earth, he had a sack of stones left and emptied it here.” The inhabitants of the Greek peninsula Mani say this with pride – and somehow it is also true. There are lovelier corners in Greece, no question about it: lush green hilly landscapes, perfectly curved sandy bays, islands with white cube houses.
The middle finger of the Peloponnese is different – wild, tart, sometimes repulsive. But also authentic, relaxed and friendly. If you want to experience the normal everyday life in Greece, you will find fruit sellers who jingling with small trucks drive through the villages, cats dozing in the sun and sweet, hot Greek mocha, served in dented metal jugs.
Over a length of 75 kilometers there are mighty mountain ranges and dense green deciduous forests, jagged cliffs and peaceful bathing bays, almost deserted stone villages and tourist-free taverns. All of this was washed around by the Messenian and Laconian Gulf and shone on by the tireless Greek sun, which kept warm well into autumn. And the sea is still over 20 degrees in October.
The Mani Peninsula is quiet even in summer
However, the peninsula is little known as a holiday destination. Many a well-heeled Athenian has a holiday home here, and in the summer months Greeks move from the hinterland to the pebble beaches of Mani. But it never gets really full, not even in August and certainly not in this virus-ridden year.
If you come by car from Kalamata and drive south on dizzyingly narrow mountain roads, sooner or later the navigation system will be switched off. There is neither the house of the famous British author Patrick Leigh Fermor, who lived by the sea not far from Kardamili, which has been converted into a museum, nor Vivi Letsou’s beautiful “Zen Rocks” yoga retreat, which hovers high above Kardamili and also from German fans is visited.
“We send our guests precise directions,” says the boss, who has lived in California for a long time and speaks perfect English, “some people get lost anyway and then tell us about the great landscapes and tiny villages they discovered along the way.”
Dining on the beach in Kardamili
Kardamili himself can be found without any technical assistance – the way to the tip of the peninsula leads directly past the coastal town. Everything you need in everyday life is lined up on the main street: a post office, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a bank.
In addition, a few things that are fun: fashion boutiques with airy caftans and casual beach bags, the courtyard café “Androuvista”, where you can have a wonderful breakfast, and the nice shop “To Lokalee”, whose owner makes jam and fruit from the own garden and hand-cleaned sea salt sold.
On the cobblestone streets that lead to the sea and the small port, there are defiant old stone houses with terraces overgrown with bougainvilleas. In between, a handful of restaurants have established themselves. One of the best is “Tikla”, a terrace restaurant with a view of the sunset and delicious feta in filo pastry.
As an alternative, locals recommend the “Elies” garden bar right on the long Ritsa beach. Zucchini fritters, bread salad, grilled prawns and broad white beans are served under mighty olive trees. The sun loungers lined up at a comfortable distance from the beach belong to the restaurant and are rented out until late October for five euros per couple.
Towers, taverns and stalactite caves
But however seductive the loungers may be – the real charm of the peninsula cannot even be guessed from there. It only reveals itself many serpentines further, in the scruffy-barren region between Mani’s sleepy main town Areopoli and the southern coastal town of Gerolimenas, which at least has a beach and a few pleasant taverns to offer.
The first are just before Areopoli pyrgospita To see: high, square and almost without windows, the stone residential towers were designed as fortresses against bad neighbors. Because the law of blood revenge still prevailed here into the 20th century, families fought each other in endless feuds, which often ended with the extermination of entire clans.
The writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was one of the first travelers in the 1950s to venture to Areopoli with a backpack and shorts. As he tells in his travel memories (“Mani: Traveling in the southern Peloponnese”), many of the residents had never seen a foreigner at that time.
Today Areopolis attracts the atmospheric juxtaposition of towers and taverns, who indulge themselves here before or after a boat tour in the labyrinthine wonder world of the stalactite caves of Pirgos Dirou a few days of leisurely Greek everyday life.
Like a little Manhattan in the Peloponnese
On the Plateia Athanaton (Place of the Immortals) stands the statue of Petros Mavromichalis, one of the most important leaders in the battle of the Greeks against the Turks. From there, narrow streets lead to the church square with many shops and cafés – and to the massive stone houses of the local family clans.
One of these houses the Pikoulakis Tower House Museum, which tells the story of the Byzantine Christianization in Mani. “We now see more foreign holidaymakers here than before,” says Kostas, who stands behind the counter of the “Aula Cocktail Bar”, “I recognize them from a distance”.
Further south you reach Vathia, formerly a pirate’s nest and to this day one of the largest remaining collections of pyrgospita. From a distance, the ensemble looks like a small Manhattan. Unfortunately, only a few of the medieval residential towers have been renovated.
When hiking, only wild goats cross the path
If you walk past them, you come to the remains of the Temple of Poseidon, where sailors used to pray for a safe journey before the dangerous circumnavigation of Cape Tenaro, Mani’s outermost headland.
Here you can still feel the remoteness of the region sealed off by the high Taygetos Mountains. The streets are narrow and empty. In the past you could only reach mountain villages like Pyrrichos or fortresses like Keléfa on foot on old paths, past massive boulders and ancient olive trees.
They are still used by hikers, but encounters remain a rarity. Only wild goats often cross paths – the ubiquitous stones have never been a problem for them.
Tips and information for the Peloponnese
Getting there: For example with Condor non-stop from Düsseldorf, Munich or Frankfurt to Kalamata, alternatively with Edelweiss via Zurich or with Austrian Airlines via Vienna. Continue by rental car.
Accommodation: “Zen Rocks Mani Retreat”: Beautiful studios with kitchenette and private terrace in stone houses high above Kardamili. Plus: yoga classes, vegetarian restaurant, great views. Double rooms from 100 euros, zenrocksmani.com
“Hotel Anniska”: Friendly family hotel in Kardamili with bathing access to the sea. Quiet rooms and apartments with kitchenettes and balconies. Double rooms from 85 euros, anniska-liakoto.com
“Areos Polis”: Traditional stone house with tastefully furnished rooms, roof terrace. Best location to explore the Mani. Double rooms from 60 euros, areospolis.gr
“Kyrimai Hotel”: 23 rooms with natural stone walls in an old ship outfitter workshop in the picturesque harbor village of Gerolimenas. Ambitious regional cuisine, terrace with sea view, bathing jetty. Double room from 120 euros, kyrimai.gr
Corona rules: Online registration is mandatory for Greece. Holidaymakers must fill out an online form (“Passenger Locator Form”) at least 24 hours before departure. You will receive a QR code that must be shown upon entry. Individual travelers can be tested. Hygiene rules apply in the country. Info: Auswaertiges-amt.de; greecehealthfirst.gr
Further information: discovergreece.com; visitgreece.gr
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