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Photo Essay: “A Day Trip into The Mani,” by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsPhoto Essay: “A Day Trip into The Mani,” by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

A couple of autumns ago, my Greek friend, Maria Loumou, and I set out from Athens by cranky, ancient car on a three-day trip to Messenia and Laconia, the “middle finger” of The Mani. We did a lot of hard driving, and had very little time to savor the sites, but we were determined to get down to Gerolimenas, and we succeeded.

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

We made our home base Kalamata’s deluxe Filoxenia Hotel, right on the beach, and if either of us had remembered to pack a bathing suit, we could have swum, comfortably, in late October.

As it was, we spent most of our time on the road, driving from Kalamata down the length of Laconia Province to the little port village of Gerolimenas. En route, we had lunch at the Taverna Barba Petros “Xanthi,” in Areopolis (Tel: 27330 51205); hot chocolate at Kardamyli’s Kafe Androuvista (Tel: 27210 73788); bought designer olive oils and honey in Thalamai (from Mr. Heinz Neth); spent over an hour fearfully ogling stalactites and stalagmites from a pole-proprelled skiff skimming along in the water-filled Vlihada Cave (below Pirgos Diros, on the sea: June through September, 8:30 a.m. till 6 p.m; October through May, 8:30 a.m. till 3 p.m.; 12 euros entrance). This unimaginably enormous cave was inhabited by humans from 4000 till 3000 BC, when an earthquake blocked its entrance. In Diros, a small Neolithic Museum documents life at the site.

At Gerolimenas—quiet and starkly beautiful in the autumn—Maria and I stayed at one of Greece’s loveliest small hotels, the Kyrimai, which I nicknamed “Fort Paradise at the Foot of Europe.” We had a fabulous dinner on the waterfront at the Epiplefton Café/Mezedopoleion: heavenly eggplant salad, house-labeled red wine, and grilled chops (Tel: 2733 054227). We gave the happy family dog, “Osama,” the bones.

The next day, before returning to Kalamata, we walked through the dramatic and largely abandoned hamlet of Vathia, famous for its photogenic tower-houses, reminders of Mani’s bellicose past when intra-village feuds had neighbors raining down bullets and hot oil on their enemies (shades of the Greek Hatfields and McCoys).

Today, Northern European homesteaders, primarily Germans, are buying up the towers to use as summer homes, and the arid Mani is no more a fearful destination for travelers.

Required reading for visitors: Ur-Travel-Writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s  Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese; an architectural study of the region, Mani: Greek Traditional Architecture (Melissa Publishing House), an excellent pictorial guide; Bob Barrow’s The Mani: A Guide to the Villages, Towers and Churches of the Mani Peninsula (a local publication; e-mail anthom@otenet.gr); and Michael Cullen’s Southern Peloponnese (Sunflower Books; www.sunflowerbooks.co.uk).

Abeach of our own, The Filoxenia, Kalamata

The Manis "Middle Finger," Laconia Province

Roadside shrine marks a traffic fatality

Kardamyli, the village that travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor put on the map

Fresh fish and song much later on Kardamyli

Café regular, Kardamyli

17th-century Turkish Kelefa Castle, beyond Itilo Village

Another view of pentagonal KelefaNeoItilo Village's port and beach

Hearty fare, with bells on, Areopolis ("To Steki tou Nikola Taverna")

Maniot church interior, Areopolis

Café beneath the Plane Tree, Thalamai Village

Culinary memories of The Mani

Organic specialties of The Mani, Thalamai

Vlychada's "water-cave," ghostly stalagmites

Fiery stalagmites, Vlychadas Diros Cave

Vlychada, walking out towards sunlight

Late & Final Neolithic Era finds, Neolithic Museum

Memorial to The Mani's fierce Women-Warriors

Vathia's tower-homes at dusk

Vathia against The Mani's stark hills