A typical tower house, on a mountain near Kornos
Photos by Ruti Porter
When the kids were small we’d all go island-hopping in Greece. Catching the ferry from Piraeus, we’d get off at an island. If we liked what we saw I'd look for a place maybe in a neighboring fishing village) and about 15 minutes later we’d have a room – sometimes in a fisherman's cottage. After a short stay we’d move on to another island. Sometimes we wouldn’t.
Forty years later - it is 2007 - and things have changed. Planning a holiday through the Internet is the norm. And now that the children have their own families we've been left to go off alone.
In all these years of island-hopping, Ruti and I have never travelled in mainland Greece, so we decided to give it a chance.
A friend's friend has a 3-level stone house on a mountain top in Mani, a mountainous part of the Peloponnese, and we rent it. (Mani is one of those “fingers” which points into the sea).
At 10am we arrive at Athens airport and pick up a car. We start our travels by driving along the fast toll road, but once past the Corinthian canal (which I confess I didn’t notice) we decide to see the countryside, and drive off onto the smaller coastal roads.
We don’t realize it, but this is asking for trouble. There are a lot of mountain roads to negotiate, and the upshot is that we only reach our new “home” late at night. When driving on mountain roads it’s safer to calculate twice the usual driving time.
All along the way we have to make tough decisions. Every village, town and turnoff seems to have something special to offer: beaches, scenic views, picturesque villages, Byzantine churches, castles, friendly tavernas – not to mention ruins, temples, shrines and so on. This is impossible! We'll just have to miss a lot.
Our first stop is Isthmia, a little town situated at the end of the canal. Sitting at a small café next to the turquoise-colored water we watch cars queuing up to cross the canal. The road ends at the canal, and ahead of them is a wide stretch of water. We don’t see a bridge. How on earth will they cross!
A large boat passes by on its way to the sea – then a bell starts to ring. A great wheel in some machinery near the road begins to winch up a thick cable. Gleaming metal braids slowly emerge from under the water. Still no bridge!
Another minute and the surface of the water below us heaves: a long bridge, water streaming off its boards, bursts out of the depths like some Loch Ness monster, and quietly connects to the road. In a few minutes all the cars have crossed. The bridge, its task over, returns to the depths.
We stop at Epidavros and several other interesting places on our leisurely way. Driving over this flat terrain has been the easy part of our trip. Now we start to cross to mountain passes. Wonderful views but slow driving!
We pick up the car in the morning; 13 hours later and we still have not reached “our” mountain.
Some of the roads in the mountain villages look like goat trails which have been tarred over and slightly widened. Occasionally there is a special place where two cars can pass each other. Going through villages, the roads sometimes dodge around houses, which stand facing the traffic (The houses must have been there first!). I see a man in a nightgown standing at the doorway of his house. He is inches away from the road.
An important rule to follow in this village – make sure there’s no car coming before opening the front door.
The fight with the giant centipede
At last we reach the right mountain, have a choice of turn-offs, and take the wrong one. Someone in Kotronas eventually helps us, we wind up a steep non-road and arrive in the early morning hours, quite weary. Our stone house is 350 meters above and 2 km away from the seaside town of Kotronas.
We park in the road below the house and walk up a steep path to the front gate, in the dark. Inside the house we turn on the gas lamp, light some candles, and make ourselves at home. I shake out the bed and wake up a 6-inch centipede, the biggest I have ever seen, sleeping under the blankets. After a valiant struggle we manage to get as far as the front door together, but he wriggles out of the paper towel, and I only hope he fell into the garden. What a fighter! Every night I have to throw out centipedes, but have never seen one even half this size.
The view from a window overlooking the Bay of Kotronas
Stone houses and secret passages
We are on a high point of the mountain. Across the road below us is a cluster of deserted stone homes. We see such clusters all over the mountain settlements of Mani: it seems that many people left during the 1960s in the hope of finding better jobs in Athens or overseas. Slowly however, they're coming back to renovate their ancestral homes.
There are two types of stone structures on the mountain slopes of Mani – the split-level stone houses, and the square block structures known as tower houses. The tower houses, which look like small castles, are about three-storeys high, with small high windows. We are told that they all have secret passages.
Families built their homes this way not because of the invading Turks (who never really subdued the fierce inhabitants) but as protection against their fellow villagers. Sons who inherited the houses would also inherit the blood feuds, which continued over generations. I am told of neighbors who didn’t speak to each other "for a hundred years."
The next few days we explore neighboring small towns and villages. Late on Saturday morning we catch the tail-end of market day in Areopolis, and buy fruit and vegetables from farming stalls.
On the road to Sparti
We're off to Sparta (locally known as Sparti).
The villages on the lower slopes of the many mountains are neat and orderly hives of activity. Githio is a picturesque sea town, and we stroll around white houses winding along a low mountain range around a wide bay. The promenade is backed by small buildings housing cafés and tourist shops. Its leisurely pace reminds us of the fishing villages we used to find on the islands many years ago.
As we travel inland, the road widens to normal size. The mountains, more gentle here, are thickly covered with trees and bushes. In the distance we see snow on some peaks of the gigantic Taygetos mountain range.
Sparti is a nice town, built on the site of the ancient city. It has a wide boulevard, parks and open squares - not much more, we think, but as it has started to pour with rain maybe we don’t give it a fair chance.
Just beyond the boulevard there is a no-entry sign to the park around the local acropolis. We leave the car under some trees and walk up the hill, among groves of olive trees. It is raining steadily and we share an umbrella.
The hill divides the city into two parts - the modern and the ancient. Sparti's acropolis is small, but further down the slope we see great stone seats and large chucks of fallen pillars, the remains of the ancient theater.
Mistras – ancient and modern
We take a quick look at modern Mistras, a nice little town with a pleasant cobbled square ringed with cafés, restaurants and nice buildings. Five kilometers past the town we reach what remains of the ancient town.
Ancient Mistras, built up on the sides of a mountain, was once a power in the Byzantine empire. It was here that Konstantinos Palaiologos (also known as Constantine: however, not the Constantine) was crowned emperor in the 15th century, before moving to Constantinople and his eventual forced removal by the Turks.
I read that ancient Mistras is a dead city. This is not so! The nuns living here, together with the crowds of tourists who visit this impressive site every day, make it anything but dead. The old Mistras has amazing churches and monasteries built all the way up the slopes of the steep mountain.
More than 25 churches still exist. They were built during the Byzantine period, and from what I saw this style has been copied in many of the more modern churches all over Mani. Wafer-like orange-red bricks lie in thin horizontal lines between the larger light-colored tiles, and form simple but wonderfully symmetrical patterns of color against the paler slate or stone. The domes of the buildings are of thin, curving orange tiles.
Higher up on the mountain is the church and convent of Panagia Pantanassa. Below us, in a small lane, we see a tribe of well-fed cats and kittens sunning themselves among the flower pots and exotic blooms. There are flowers here that I have never seen before.
While we are looking around the church, a group of nuns walk out of their little homes in the cobbled lane. They are followed by a procession of cats.
The surroundings are neat and clean, with well-tended squares of gardens and potted plants distributed along the lane.
We often stop on our climb to look at the view. From here we look across the great expanse of the Spartan plain, and the rooftops of the city in the distance.
The charred earth
We return home over the Taygetos mountain range. The gorge we drive through was formed by the splitting of massive mountains aeons ago. The mountains stretch above us like endless walls, thickly covered with trees and greenery wherever the rocks allow it. Our car is like a beetle, lost somewhere below in the shadows. Eventually we reach the top of the Taygetos and drive through forests of firs and maple trees. The maples are not yet showing autumn colors – the leaves are still a vivid green.
Coming down the Taygetos on the far side we see a sorry sight – tremendous areas of blackened trees and burnt earth bear witness to the disastrous fires that Greece suffered during the past summer. One vast area of mountain, from top to bottom, is covered with charred trees and earth and the twisted and blackened wreckage of some homes. The miracle is that most of the homes bordering this desolation escaped unscathed.
By nightfall I am sick of driving and not fully focussed. So we stop at the village of Areopolis for supper, a wonderful meal of lamb, salad, okra and wine. The young man, who serves us, will inherit the place from his father. The family also owns the farm which supplies a lot of the food for the restaurant – the farm has been in the family for generations, he tells us.
This was another long day of driving – 12 hours. We started out late because of the rain in the morning. By the time we reach home it is 11pm, but this time we have brought along a small torch for that last uphill walk to the front gate, and then the few steps leading to the front door.
Coming back to the house is wonderful. The luxury of being able to relax in the lounge, of sitting on the darkened balcony and watching the twinkling lights far below us, of preparing a meal in the kitchen, of being able to stretch out or wander around freely in this spaciousness, we find tremendously relaxing after a day of touring.
The nuns of Mistras go out for a walk – a queue of cats will join them shortly. The plains of Sparta are visible in the distance
The underground caverns of Diros
Yet another beautiful day! After our usual balcony stop to look at the view, followed by a breakfast of goat’s milk cheese (the best I have ever tasted) and olives, we decide that, as we are reaching the end of our stay in Mani, it’s time to see the underground caverns of Diros.
These, to my mind, are among the wonders of the world. Flowing over the floor of a cavern, more than a kilometer of which has been opened to the public, is an underground river (a 50% mix of sea and fresh water), which you can only see by boat. Vlihada is one of three such stalactite caverns in the cliffs near the sea, and is open to the public. An even bigger cave, Alepotrypa, is still being researched.
We arrive in time for the last tour – 2:30pm, and except for the man who is quietly moving us along, we are the only ones sitting in the boat. We glide through cavern after cavern under roofs covered in dripping stalactites of all shapes and colors.
Along the sides of the caverns, underwater spotlights cast a gentle glow over the immense space. The overhead shapes and colors of countless stalactites are reflected in the mirror surface of the water below us. This is a strange, hushed journey in another world.
Occasionally a drop of moisture falls on my head. In the short low passageways between the caverns we duck our heads to avoid hitting stalactites. Then the passage opens up once again into a majestic hall with a ceiling of wondrous shapes.
Stalagmites thrust from under the water. In some places these have joined with the stalactites, forming long columns, which reach from under the water to the ceiling.
We glide through the caverns for three-quarters of an hour. On the way I notice dark openings in the walls which lead off to passages still waiting to be explored.
Towards the end of the journey the floor of the cavern slants upwards, the boat docks and we complete the last 150 meters on foot. A young man with a set of keys is politely waiting for us as we come out, blinking, into the daylight. We all go out and the man locks the opening to the grotto behind us.
It is still daylight when we return home –– so we walk around the mountain, picking oregano. Back home we put them on a window ledge to dry. The next day we wrap them up and take them with us on our flight back to Israel.