Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1958 book on the Mani region of southern Greece helped put Mani on the map. Today it pulls the tourist crowds, yet it still retains a raw appeal. Guest contributor Duncan JD Smith dives deep into Mani to explore the otherworldly landscapes of this arid peninsula.

article summary —

If the Peloponnese region of southern Greece is like the palm of a hand then the Mani Peninsula is the middle finger. Pointing southwards into the Mediterranean, it is a bony extension of the Taiyetos Massif, which prises Messenia apart from Laconia. At the northern edge of the region are two towns of note: Kalamáta lies to the west of the Taiyetos, at the head of the Gulf of Messenia; on the east side lies the inland city of Sparta.

Although the mountains have always kept Mani remote, outsiders have long coveted the place. For centuries it attracted refugees from elsewhere in Greece, as well as foreign interlopers drawn by its strategic location on the trade routes to North Africa, Italy and the Levant. Despite this, the Maniátes themselves have always gone their own way, creating a cultural landscape that is today unique in Greece.

Until recently visitors to Mani faced a long overland journey from Athens or Patras. Nowadays, however, they can arrive by plane in Kalamáta. It’s still an adventure though as the runway is barely a quarter the length of those elsewhere, and instead of a sleek terminal there are dense reed beds alive with birds and butterflies.

One might easily be waylaid by Kalamáta’s renowned olives and oil, its silk kerchiefs and the joyous Kalamatianós folk dance — but the road beckons. Geographically the city lies at the edge of Exo (Outer) Mani, which faces westwards into the Gulf of Messenia and reaches as far south as Ítilon Bay. The coastal plain is rich and fertile here, and capable of supporting a significant population. Many live just thirty-five kilometres away in the welcoming seaside town of Kardamíli.

There’s long been a cosmopolitan air about Kardamíli despite electricity having only arrived in 1969. Handsome houses line the main street, their living rooms adorned with foreign antiques brought up from the town’s harbour, much prized since the time of the ancient Spartans. The newsagent’s shop is piled high with literature and the kafenia buzz with thoughtful conversation. It's little wonder that twentieth-century Kardamíli became a magnet for artists, most famously the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915– 2011). A mix of Graham Greene, James Bond and Indiana Jones, Leigh Fermor built a home for himself here in the 1960s, on the foreshore just south of the harbour. With its library, cloister-like veranda and garden tumbling down to the beach it remains the quintessential writer’s abode.

Of the many luminaries to visit Leigh Fermor the most colourful was fellow travel writer Bruce Chatwin. He lodged in a guest house on the roadside (now the Hotel Kalamítsi) where proprietors Nikos and Thea Ponireas still recall him asking for bean soup as sustenance whilst writing The Songlines. When not writing he was striding out across the Taiyetos along ancient mule tracks known as kalderímia. It seems entirely fitting that, after Chatwin succumbed to AIDS in 1989, Leigh Fermor spread his ashes outside the tiny Chapel of St. Nicholas in Chóra in the foothills above Kardamíli.

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Having worked for many years in the publishing industry selling other travel writers’ books, Duncan J. D. Smith decided in 2003 to start writing and illustrating his own. As a self-styled ‘Urban Explorer’, travel writer, historian and photographer he has embarked on a lifetime’s adventure, travelling off the beaten track in search of the world’s unique, hidden and unusual locations. He has so far traversed four continents in search of curious places and people, from the wartime bunkers of Berlin and the baroque gardens of Prague to the souks of Damascus and the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia. His European findings are being published in a ground breaking series of guidebooks – the Only In Guides – which have been designed specifically for the purpose. Volumes on Berlin, Boston, Budapest, Cologne, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London, Munich, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Zurich have been published, with Krakow in preparation.

Duncan divides his time between England and Central Europe, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Find out more about Duncan and his work at www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 42.