Dry, bare and rugged. The land of the prickly pear bristles with forbidding tower houses, stone villages, Byzantine chapels, delightful coves and astonishing caves. Mani. The people here are frugal and close-knit, still adhering to centuries-old bloodlines and family ties. Barricaded behind the crags of Mt Taygetos and ready for battle, the Maniots developed a powerful sense of autonomy, answerable to no one.
What you, the visitor, see today is only what they consider permissible. But you’ll be overwhelmed with images of authentic Greece, because here in this corner of the Peloponnese, at the second-most southerly tip of continental Europe, everything is dramatic and bewitching simultaneously.
What to do in Mani
The beautifully built Maniot towers, war machines
They are the emblems of the Mani. Vigilant lookouts. You won’t find such a spectacular sight in all of Greece. Stone strongholds that thrust from the rocky land as if to attack the sky. Their height was directly related to their defensive powers, but also to the rank and social position of the family to which they belonged. Their construction was dictated by military strategy: no windows, minimal openings, battlements and multiple storeys, to give their defenders the advantage. Their spare, elegant masonry was the product of generations of local craftsmen who drew their inspiration from Byzantine fortification architecture.
Byzantine churches: perfect gems in a harsh setting
You will find this part of Greece’s history – Byzantium – throughout Mani. You’ll see Byzantine churches everywhere. Usually small and humble, they are nevertheless architectural masterpieces and monuments to unshakable faith. Their exteriors are of brick and russet stone. Many possess beautiful domes, carved marble iconostases and other relief decorations. Most of them are well worth a closer look.
Vathia and its trademark towers
The cluster of towers that forms this fortified village is among the most famous in the Mani. Hauntingly beautiful, it is now practically abandoned.
A trip to the underground lakes in the Dirou caves
The colours and shapes here are beyond description. Spelunkers consider the Dirou caves among the most important on the planet. The easiest one to visit, at Vlyhada, is 2.5km long, while the cave at Alepotrypa (‘fox hole’) was inhabited in Neolithic times.
South of Areopolis, you’ll come to the indescribably lovely, much photographed little fishing port of Limeni. It boasts a handful of superb tower houses, some exceptional boutique hotels and good fish tavernas.
Hidden gems of Mani
The lighthouse at Cape Tainaron, Land’s End
The road ends at Cape Tainaron. The sharp tip of the Laconian peninsula at Matapan pierces the Mediterranean like a warrior’s lance. At this southernmost point of Greece, the famous Tainaron lighthouse warns ships of rocky shores. This is one of the most special sights in the Peloponnese. On the way, a little before Porto Sternes, the ruins of a temple of Poseidon form the foundations for the Asomatos. Look for the ancient cisterns and a pebble mosaic. This is the secondmost southern spot in continental Europe after Gibraltar.
Porto Kayio, pirates and quail
Although this was a notorious pirates’ lair, the cape takes its name from the flocks of quail (quaglio in Italian) that pass through on their way south. In its heyday the area was a major supplier of the tasty birds to France. Don’t forget to visit the stunning circular bay and the famous castle here.
Teuthrone: Kotrona’s ancient harbour
Kotrona, up the east coast, was the site of Teuthrone, one of the most important Maniot harbours in Ancient Greece.