The Deep Mani

I was somewhere north of Sparta when the Monster began to let go of my jaw. As the awful infusion of caffeine and chemicals faded, it was replaced by an enormous fatigue, so as soon as possible I pulled over in the rental car and slept at the dusty roadside. My flight from Edinburgh to Athens had been as convenient in its directness as it was awkward in its scheduling – taking off just before midnight it landed in the Greek capital just four hours later. The Mani Peninsula, my final destination, was another four hours’ drive from there, and even with the strange energy drink, to attempt the entire journey without a meaningful break had been, in hindsight, quite stupid.

The ancient Greeks erroneously believed that the Mani was the southernmost point in the world. They were at least correct that Cape Matapan, the tip of the Mani, is the southernmost point of mainland Greece. As with any extreme point of land, it seems natural that they would ascribe legends to it. For example, the yawning sapphire mouth of the Caves of Diros were believed to be the entrance to Hades, the underworld guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound. 

It can be tricky to read these tall tales without smiling, but in the Mani minds are often reaching for something larger. The great British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor certainly felt its immoral pull – with the whole world to choose from, the Englishman picked the Mani as his home away from home for almost half a century. His “private invasions” began in the 1950s and were detailed in his marvellous travelogue Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

In that short but dense account, he insisted that Maniot life had changed little since the days of Byzantine rule – and perhaps not for centuries before that. Six decades later, I wanted to see if that was still true and rather than buy a modern guidebook, I decided to use Fermor’s book to direct my days in the deep Mani.

But first I had to get there. Over the first couple of hours heading southwest from Athens, the heavily tolled roads were gloriously smooth, languid things, winding around and through mountains like great rivers. My energy seemed to flatten with the landscape on the other side and soon the nap was inevitable. 

A little under an hour later, sweating in the late morning sun, I awoke feeling – if not smelling – refreshed. Having reset the sat-nav, I decided to get back on the road, heading ever south, through modern Sparta. The one-time home of King Leonidas’s legendary 300 warriors, its modern incarnation was something of a disappointment: there was no giant hole into which a king may kick a Persian emissary while roaring the town’s name; there was, however, a Lidl. While the town’s semi-mythic history is only semi-verifiable, I was hoping the Mani would be a little more trustworthy. 

As I approached, the roads narrowed from three lanes to two, from two to one, then became just single tracks with passing places. By the time I reached the partially abandoned hamlet of Citta, the road felt like a capillary running through the muscular countryside. 

There isn’t an obvious reason to come to Citta, no particular motivation to hit the brakes here rather than any of the other similarly pretty villages on the road to the Matapan. It’s not on the coast, nor up a mountain, yet this is where the gregarious Sepsas family have decided to spend their semi-retirement with Citta dei Nicliani, a farmhouse property they opened in 2011. 

While a lot of the town has been left to the elements, they have created an excellent little hotel inside their mediaeval lot. Where others have been driven away by the relentlessness of time, the Sepsas family have made a virtue of it – the techniques used for the stonework inside the tower house (a former olive press) are thought to be 1,000 years old. The main building is known to have been built at least three centuries ago. 

I spent three nights at that quirky little property, feasting on a sprawling Maniot breakfast (heavy on cheese, carob-flour bread, and honey from the village) before setting out to explore more of the peninsula. I was always looking for ways in which what I was experiencing tallied with Fermor’s prose and it was perhaps never more more identical than in Citta itself. 

The writer found himself there by accident, having got lost while swimming down the coast. He shambled into the settlement tired and more than a little fed up, but his florid descriptions could have easily been of my own Sunday morning spent strolling around the village: “The canyons of lane that twisted through the towers were empty and silent as though the inhabitants had fled an aeon ago or a plague had reaped them all in an afternoon,” he wrote. “The town was empty or locked in catalepsy, paralysed in a spell of sleep which seemed unbreakable… The heat and stagnation, the heavy breathlessness of the air and the warm smell of the dust cast a mantle of utter strangeness over this town.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 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. That construction happened a decade after his travelogue was published, but Fermor lived here until his death, at the remarkable age of 96, in 2011. By then, his fame had rendered one of his book’s assertions untrue. In describing 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 because of Fermor’s fondness for it. 

It’s impossible to say exactly how much the town has evolved since or because of his time there, but there are more cafes and hotels than before; when I had a quick scan on my phone, it picked up a dozen different wi-fi signals, too. And yet I found myself wanting to believe that even here, one foot was still resolutely in the past. It was strangely satisfying to see a fat man pull up in a pickup truck, and begin loudly hawking crates of cherries, selling plump handfuls to a thin line of expectant locals.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup was on during my visit and that night I decided to go out and catch a game. Panos Sepsas had told me of a tiny traditional bar that would have a match on – their grill would be going too. This sounded just about perfect, but when I arrived there were only three pensioners and an open bottle of wine on hand. The television, if there was one, wasn’t visible and there was no sign of food. Their conversation looked as though it had been going on for several decades and so rather than interrupt this brotherhood of the grape, I decided to jump back in the car and drive towards the livelier town of Areopoli. 

In the end, I didn’t get that far. Seeing the blue-white glow of a screen shining out of a restaurant, I stopped just 10 minutes up the dark road and was waved in by a family rapt by the Brazil vs Switzerland game. Greece hadn’t qualified for the tournament, but right now that didn’t matter. Without taking an order, the family brought me a plate of moussaka and then held out beer and ouzo, seemingly asking me to choose. I opted for the former and settled down to watch the match. We didn’t speak each other’s tongues but we knew this language, gesturing at the television, tutting at the referee, sarcastically laughing when a Brazilian player was caught diving.

I wanted to believe that it was this kind of hospitality that kept Patrick Leigh Fermor here for so many years. As prolific a smoker as he was a traveller, perhaps he felt something of the immortality of the region over the decades. On some level, he never wanted to leave – when he finally did die, he betrothed his home to the Athens-based Benaki Museum. As per the author’s wishes, once it has undergone refurbishment, it will be used as a retreat for artists, writers and students for nine months of the year; the other three it will be rentable as a lavish five-bedroom holiday home. The work was delayed by a lack of funding following Greece’s extended austerity measures, but it’s now scheduled to welcome its first guests next year. Located on a hilltop, overlooking a yawning turquoise bay, it’s the sort of idyllic spot a person could write a masterpiece – or at least be happy waiting until they felt inspired to try.

As the sunny days rolled past, I found myself increasingly fixated on this writer, addicted to his marvellous turn of phrase (“wine-heavy sleep soon smoothed out these wrinkles of perplexity”) but even if with no interest in Fermor or his work, the Mani is a remarkable place to visit. The peninsula is sculpted by the Taygetus Mountains, which provide 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 of how much fun it was to drive there, and how little it mattered in which of the odd time-capsule towns and villages I stopped along the serpentine route. 

At the very tip, the Matapan is a craggy outcrop surrounded by cyan water, punctuated by a long-since automated lighthouse. Nearby, the fishing village of Porto Cayo looked idyllic too, but forces loyal to the 18th century revolutionary leader Petrobey used to throw dissenters from the low cliffs there. They were chosen because their height broke as much of the victims’ bodies as possible without killing them; they were chosen to create maximum agony. Watching a small boat serenely bob out to sea on another sunny afternoon, that kind of viciousness seemed like an utter impossibility.

Fringing the roads, rheumatic olive trees proliferated, despite the lack of soil in which to take root. The dryness of the Mani creates small olives, far smaller than the famous Kalamata version originating in that city two hours to the north, but in their petiteness they are superior in flavour and make – so Maniots will quickly tell you – the best olive oil in all of Greece. “You can taste that, of course,” said Panos Sepsas with a friendly earnestness as a I chased a small pool around my plate with some bread. 

The classic Mani salad comprises of no lettuce or tomatoes, nor any feta but rather a combination of everything at hand on the peninsula: oranges, capers, olives and a healthy glug of the magnificent oil. As it sang in my mouth I wanted to believe that there was something in its rich flavours that had been divined by the Ancients, or perhaps one of their bombastic gods.

In this land of immortals, time passed strangely – I felt like I recognised it before I arrived and had left with an odd certainty that I would return. Fermor was attuned to this same feeling better than most, maybe better than anyone. He was certainly keen to try and articulate it. 

Some of his descriptions of what was ultimately his homeland can seem overly floral, and certainly verbose, but they never sound insincere. If I had wanted an answer as to why this man of the world had chosen this obscure part of Greece to live out his days, I inevitably found the unapologetically loquacious answer in his book. 

It was my last morning in the Mani, and before the final, long drive back to Athens, I decided to grab lunch in the scenic port town of Gythio. From here Spartan forces once launched war ships, but these days the stone jetties are home to peacenik fishing boats and a small fleet of tiny yachts. 

As I loudly pulled a heavy wooden chair across the stone floor at Palyria, the waiter nodded at me in acknowledgement or approval for having picked his restaurant over rivals’ on either side. I ordered octopus, a salad, and a glass of wine, then spread open Fermor’s book once more. The waiter nodded at this, too, and dropped of a hunk of tough bread and a bowl of Maniot olive oil on the table. Nearby I could hear the waves of the Aegean lapping against the rocky shore. “As the traveller leans back among the fallen capitals and allows the hours to pass, it empties the mind of troubling thoughts and anxieties and slowly refills it… with a quiet ecstasy,” wrote my guide.

I picked up another piece of bread, drenched it in the gold-green oil and let it fill my cheeks as my eyes fell back on the page. A strange feeling of absolute contentment came over me. It might have been the simple perfection of the setting, or the mouthful of food, but most likely it was the writer, whose words stayed with me all the way home: “Nearly all that has happened fades to a limbo of shadows and insignificance and is painlessly replaced by an intimation of radiance, simplicity and calm which unties all knots and solves all riddles and seems to murmur a benevolent and unimperious suggestion that the whole of life, if it were allowed to unfold without hindrance or compulsion or search for alien solutions, might be limitlessly happy.”

Written in 2018, this piece is unpublished elsewhere.

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