October 17, 2010, Category: Greece, Travel

Day 9: The Mani Peninsula

If you didn’t start reading on Day 1, you might want to start from the beginning …

IMG_1297 Today was devoted to exploring the Mani Peninsula. It’s rugged landscape and brutal mountain ranges kept it inaccessible for thousands of years. It was these very traits that brought refugees, desperate to escape the invading Ottomans, to settle in the difficult terrain. The narrow and winding road down the coast connects coastal towns that for hundreds of years had only been reachable by ship. The area is remote and has a slower pace. In addition to a break from the heavy tourism of other areas, it offers Frankish castles, spectacular beaches, and majestic mountains.

IMG_1249 The fast winding roads had me wishing for my motorcycle. Occasionally bikers would fly around the corner tucked forward and leaning so low their knees almost touched the ground like they were on a racing circuit. Someday it would be fun to come to Greece with my motorcycle pals and cover the country on two wheels.

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IMG_1284We stopped for breakfast at the devil’s bakery. Only Hades could come up with so many tempting, delicious treats that could seduce a person and trap them forever, similar to those who fell prey to the sirens in Homer’s tales. We were very lucky to escape, especially considering we stopped to sample several of the seductive pastries.

IMG_1305 Our first adventure was at the Diros Caves, a massive limestone cave that is believed to extend all the way north to Sparta. I’ve been in limestone caves before, dripping with giant colorful stalactites from the ceiling and stalagmites poking up through the floor, but this one sounded unique in two aspects. First, I read claims that it was the most impressive cave in all Europe. And second, it is set in a giant lake and the tour through the caverns is on small boats.

IMG_1310Mikayla scored, because the tour guide placed her in the very front of the boat. I wasn’t so lucky, he put me in the very back. The frustration of my obstructed view was eased by the experience I imagined Mikayla must be having; floating silently across the glass-like water through magical caverns that seemed to come right from a fantasy book (like this one Winking smile). The tour lasted about 45 minutes and I found myself wide eyed and fascinated throughout.

IMG_1389 Our next stop was Vathia, most of which is a ghost town of a castle-like fortresses leftover from the 1500’s. To escape the Ottoman empire, establishments like this were formed in the rugged terrain of the Mani peninsula. Neighborhoods worked together to build a garrison for protection against invaders (which most of the time, was other similar establishments). The most important part of the defense was a tower from which they could hurl rocks at their enemies. The larger the tower, the greater the power (some things never change).

IMG_1385Vathia is unique because, as I understand, a quibble erupted within the group and two groups formed. Another tower was built as the disagreements often turned violent. Talk about bad neighbors! They hurled rocks at each other and fought until almost no one was left. Today most of the structures are either empty, or full of smelly rotting garbage. Mikayla and I walked through the dead quiet ruins and she said “Dad, I really think this place is haunted.”

IMG_1365 We were unsure when we first arrived if it was safe. Although very few people still live in Vathia, we didn’t want to intrude because anyone living in this forlorn, desolate place must certainly value solitude. Some of the structures looked like they could collapse at any given moment. But we didn’t let our concerns hinder our curiosity and we hiked through the overgrown paths, climbed over the piles of rubble, and toured several of the empty buildings.

IMG_1399 We continued our drive south, to the most southern tip of Western Europe and what Greek Mythology considered the end of the world and the entrance to Hades lair, the Underworld. The landscape was vastly different than the trees of other mountains we had seen. It was hot, dry, and felt like the deserts of Southern Utah (minus the dark blue ocean far below us). The scenery was gorgeous but we drove for many hours and by the time we got back to our room, I was exhausted.

DSCN0755 We took a break and then decided to take a walk before dinner. We ended up at the Kardamyli Citadel (their own tower, church, and fortress from hundreds of years ago). It has been partially restored and turned into a museum assessable for a couple Euros. We explored the buildings and looked at the various displays that had great information on the history of the town and the by-gone era.

We followed the nearby wash to the ocean and enjoyed an hour or so sitting, tossing rocks into the water, and watching the sun rays shine through the clouds. Just before dusk, we walked back to town. Mikayla didn’t want to go eat, IMG_1408so she sat on the balcony with the laptop and I went back to the tavern for that follow-up sandwich from yesterday. We’d made a friend the day before (he says hi and waves to us on the street like we are old friends) and I chatted some more with him and the owner of the tavern. She grew up in a very rural town in the mountains herding goats and living a rustic lifestyle. It would have been cool had we been able to meet her family and spend several days with them.

The sandwich, again, was excellent, and after an hour or so I took the short walk back and turned in for the night.

Continue to Day 10…

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