Travel: Mani delights in Greece

One of the quiet coves in the north Mani with a view towards the Taygetos mountains. Picture: Marjory McGinn
One of the quiet coves in the north Mani with a view towards the Taygetos mountains. Picture: Marjory McGinn
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This sleepy, rural region of Greece is coming to a screen near you. Marjory McGinn suggests you beat the crowds to experience its romance

One of the memorable scenes in the new Hollywood film Before Midnight, mostly set in the Mani region of southern Greece, is a long, convivial, Mediterranean-style lunch for six friends on the stone balcony of a seafront house.

It’s the seductive image of laid-back Greek life that tourists still crave in vast numbers. But what makes this scene even more appealing is that this elegant property in the coastal village of Kardamili was the Greek retreat of the late, great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Fermor, who died in 2011, was an iconic figure, war hero and bon vivant, whose soirees on the terraces of this house attracted princes, poets, and Hollywood legend Sophia Loren on one occasion.

It was Fermor who first popularised this “wild” region of the southern Peloponnese when he wrote his seminal book Mani, charting his trailblazing adventures there in the 1950s when the area was cut off from the rest of Greece due to abysmal roads. He described the Mani as having “survived in a fierce and enchanting time warp”. In subsequent decades, however, the Mani relaxed back into a kind of blissful obscurity and Fermor’s description still seems relevant.

All that is likely to change when Before Midnight (starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), is released this weekend. Already tipped for an Oscar, the film is certain to create a buzz about the Mani again.

And the timing couldn’t be better. Although some dedicated visitors would still rather have the “time warp”, Maniots at least will relish an influx of tourists, having suffered years of economic crisis, like the rest of Greece. Many will even be hoping the film will do for this region what Captain Corelli’s Mandolin did for Kefalonia. Another boost for the area is easyJet’s launch this summer of flights to Kalamata from Gatwick.

The Mani is a vast, diverse region with many pretty coastal settlements like Kardamili, built mostly in the 17th century but dating back to the time of Homer, but it is also dominated by the Taygetos mountains with its wilderness areas and the deep ravines of Rindomo and Viros, and by its wealth of Byzantine churches and monasteries.

For me, the north Mani holds the greatest appeal. I spent the past three years there, living in a hillside village on what started out as a year’s casual adventure but quickly grew. I can vouch for the seductive charm of the place and its people and the way it can undo your best-laid plans. The village of Megali Mantineia, although just 30 minutes from Kalamata, is a world apart, where life hasn’t changed much in centuries and locals still harvest olives, though it is rare in having four lively tavernas and a kafeneion (coffee shop).

Few villagers there speak English and many are blissfully ignorant of the outside world. The joy of this part of the Mani is the wealth of old settlements tucked away in the hills and the network of cobbled donkey tracks (kalderimia) that connect these places and make it perfect for those who love walking and leisurely exploration.

Few visitors venture down to the tip of the Mani, to Cape Tainaron, and yet the drive there (two-and-a-half hours from north Mani) is the best introduction to this long peninsula with 50 miles of mountain range running down the middle of it like a spine. The road winds past some of the Mani’s best-kept secrets, such as the sandy beach of Kalogria, south of Kardamili, where the writer Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, lived in a wooden hut in the early 1900s with the mad idea of running a lignite mine in nearby Stoupa. He hired the real-life George Zorbas to oversee the venture, and he became the inspiration for the fictional character.

The road will also take you past wide Otylo Bay and Limeni Bay, with fish tavernas that hug the waterside, and the famous village of Vathia, with its rows of fortified towers, mostly in ruins, filing across the peak of a low hill. The village reflects the turbulent history of the Mani, with its clan warfare, macho revolutionaries, and its skirmishes with the Ottoman Turks.

Further south and the landscape has a sun-scorched, barren feel and the mighty Taygetos finally runs out of steam just before the end of the road at Cape Tainaron. For me, the cape has always been a ghoulish magnet, as its main “attraction” is the fabled Cave of Hades, or the entrance to the mythological Underworld, overlooking the Bay of Asomati. This was the portal through which Hercules descended for his 12th “labour” to drag up the snarling, three-headed dog Cerberus.

With the remains of an ancient temple to Poseidon, there’s a mystical quality to the Cape that attracts scores of pilgrims every summer.

The film does use other locations in the southern Peloponnese that have also been largely unknown until recently. There are scenes throughout the equally attractive Messinian peninsula, including a long segment around eerie, sprawling Methoni Castle, once a Venetian stronghold at the tip of this prong. The whole southern Peloponnese deserves more world attention and Before Midnight might just deliver that. But even if tourists mob the place, I feel sure that villages like Megali Mantineia won’t change a bit. The film will come and go like another autumn olive harvest.

• Marjory McGinn is the author of Things Can Only Get Feta (Bene Factum Publishing, £7.99), which is published on 30 July. For more info visit www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com; easyJet (www.easyjet.com) has flights twice a week from Edinburgh to Athens. One-way fares start at £25. easyJet also has flights twice a week (from July to November only) from Gatwick to Kalamata, from £37.