The ancient Greeks believed the Mani — the central of the three Peloponnese peninsulas — was the southernmost point in the world. They were, of course, wrong — although it can lay claim to one geographical superlative: Cape Matapan, the tip of the Mani, is the southernmost point of mainland Greece. Being an extreme tip of land, it’s perhaps understandable that its inhabitants imbued it with legend. Take, for example, the yawning, sapphire mouth of the Caves of Diros; the ancient Greeks believed it to be the entrance to Hades, the underworld guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound.
The Mani has inspired many storytellers since, among them the great British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who picked the Mani to be his home from home for almost half a century. In a short, dense account, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, published in 1958, Fermor insisted Maniot life had changed little since the days of Byzantine rule. I wanted to see if his account held water.
As I headed down the peninsula, the roads narrowed from three lanes to two, then from two to one. By the time I reached the partially abandoned hamlet of Kitta, the path was edging between stone buildings like a spring through a newly formed fissure.
There isn’t an obvious reason to come to Kitta rather than any of the other similarly pretty villages. Fermor found himself here by accident, having got lost while swimming down the coast. He ambled into the settlement, tired and more than a little fed up, but his florid description of the place could easily be describing my own experience here: ‘The canyons of lane that twisted through the towers were empty and silent as though the inhabitants had fled an aeon ago.’
The author chose not to make this his home, instead building a house an hour to the north, just outside the scenic seaside town of Kardamyli, where he lived until his death, aged 96, in 2011. By then, his fame had rendered one of his book’s assertions untrue. Of Kardamyli, he wrote: ‘It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.’ Ironically, many foreign visitors now arrive specifically to pay homage to Fermor.
But even for those with no interest in the writer, the Mani is a remarkable place to visit. The peninsula is sculpted by the Taygetus Mountains, which unfurl like a dragon spine all the way to its southern extremity. It’s their presence that keeps the roads from being too wide or too straight. Again and again, I found myself thinking how fun it was to drive along them and how little it mattered which of the odd, time-capsule towns and villages I stopped at along the serpentine route.
Fringing the roads, rheumatic olive trees thrive despite the lack of soil in which to take root. The dryness of the Mani creates small olives whose petiteness belies their superior flavour — Maniots will quickly tell you they make the best olive oil in all of Greece. Perhaps this is another of the region’s legends, but chasing it around plate after plate with fresh bread, I never found myself in a mood to argue.
How to do it
Citta dei Nicliani has rooms from €120 (£105).
Responsible Travel has eight days exploring Laconia and the Mani Peninsula from €1,490 (£1,300) per person.
Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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