Published in Wanderlust, October/November 1998
The shrieks began above us, on the hill that runs steeply down to Stoupa’s sea front. A man was yelling in a mixture of Greek and English: “Bastards! Fascists! Fascist bastard police!” Then a torrent of Greek, his voice rising to a scream. He came into view like a scene from a Greek tragedy, dragging this dead… thing, behind him, shouting, cursing, gesticulating. “My tree!” he yelled, “The fascist bastard police cut down my tree!” He shook the limp leaves of the palm. It had been carefully uprooted, probably months before, and was quite dead.
Later we passed the man sitting happily under a sign announcing that he had sun beds for rent. He was shaded by a newly planted palm, with the corpse of last year’s tree cut into neat sections beside him. He had come to terms with his loss. That’s how it is in the Mani. It is a place of extremes. The landscape and the people are both dramatic and gentle in turns.
The southern Peloponnese has three peninsulas, like roots, reaching towards Crete. Each has its own character, but it is the central one, Mani, which is both the easiest to visit and offers the most to adventurers as well as sun-and-sand seekers. The peninsula is divided into two regions: the Exo (outer) Mani and the Mesa (Inner) Mani. The former is a land of deep river gorges, forests, and the rugged Taygetus mountains which continue as a spine down to the southern tip. It is harsh, treeless place, apart from hardy olives, with the grey bones of the landscape breaking through the sparse soil.
Unique to the Mani are the Maniot towers, legacy of centuries of family feuds. To understand Mani’s unique history you must go back to the disintegration and then collapse of the Byzantine Empire. From the 11th century waves of invaders had pushed Byzantium into small, belligerent pockets of empire, including the southern Peloponnese. When Byzantium fell to the Turkish Muslims in 1453, a handful of islands and isolated areas resisted incorporation into the Ottoman Empire and remained Byzantine. Refugees flocked to these independent regions, one of which was the Mani.
There had barely been enough arable land and water for the original population, let alone for a wave of newcomers. The Maniots behaved like all creatures in overcrowded conditions — they aimed to achieve dominance, first by posturing, then by fighting. Only the aristocratic families had the power and resources to fight, so they fought each other. The posturing was achieved through the erection of ever-taller towers of obvious phallic symbolism. Within each village the feuding families worked furiously to built a tower higher than that of their neighbours, so that they could rain rocks or cannon balls on the precious marble roofs, or pour boiling oil on the people below. Boy children were highly valued: sons were guns. Women were kept busy procreating guns and singing the beautiful dirges of lament for the dead. Most building was done at night: under cover of darkness a further storey could be added so that dawn brought a triumphant shower of boulders or bullets aimed at the surprised neighbour’s roof or walls. If everything went gloriously to plan they could blow up the whole tower through judicious use of gunpowder.
One can only marvel at their endurance. These feuds went on, not just for weeks, but for years, broken by artificial periods of peace while each side turned their energies to harvesting crops and pressing olives, often in fields adjoining the families they were intending to kill once the harvest was in. The lowly serfs who had not fled to other villages could go about their day to day tasks in reasonable safety since they could be used as intermediaries.
Feuding families needed churches as well as towers. Success in battle depended on God’s help, and God was accessed through the family church; the start of a new battle was announced by the ringing of church bells. These little churches are the glory of Mani. The towers give the villages their distinctive look, but many have been turned into hotels or private homes. The hidden churches, on the other hand, are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. The well-known ones by the main road are mostly locked, but tucked away up donkey paths or overlooking the dark blue sea are these little Byzantine wonders, unmarked on any map and undescribed in any guidebook.
The first time I visited the Mani, churches were just part of conventional sightseeing, and it was only on our last day that my companion and I took a look at some well-known churches in a village called Nomitsis. We agreed that they were lovely, with classical Byzantine architecture and well-preserved frescoes. And that should have been that. However, having an hour in hand before the bus was due, we strolled up a narrow, asphalted road hoping to find an inland route to the next village. The road soon petered out into a track, and the track into a path guarded, distressingly, by a dead dog still in watchful pose, waiting for its master who never came. Beyond the dead dog the path curved round to reveal, almost hidden in the long grass and wild flowers, a tiny rough-stone church, scarcely bigger than a doll’s house. The door was open. Stooping, we entered a crumbling-walled interior which barely had room for the two of us. There were no frescoes, but the walls were freshly painted and decorated with prints of icons. What feuding family had built this little church and when? Did they win their battles or were they defeated by a wealthier neighbour with a bigger church? We will never know. What we do know is that some member of the Greek Orthodox faith still loves and cares for that church. A beeswax candle burned brightly in a tray, and the floor had been recently swept. Such care for a hallowed, but undistinguished place.
We were hooked, but finding more information on the churches of Mani was challenging. Back in England we managed to track down a copy of Deep Into Mani in a second hand book shop. Published in 1985 and long out of print, it describes most of the peninsula’s Byzantine treasures. We planned an itinerary and returned to systematically seek them out and to add some new ones of our own.
Of the many churches we sought out or stumbled across, two in particular stand out. The first is the little 11th Century church of St Michael at Glezos, hidden by a fold in the hills, almost strangled by its surrounding trees, dilapidated, unlocked, damp, but oozing spirituality. Here was God and nature more in combat than harmony, but each holding its own. We remember it because of the way its dome was echoed by the hills, and because of the once-fine frescoes now mouldy with damp, and because no one loved it or knew about it except us.
The second is the semi-ruined but utterly marvellous three-chambered church of Trissakia that dates from the 14th Century. It took a long time and the help of many local people to find it, but then it exceeded expectations. Far away from any habitation, built of mismatched, roughly cut stones, its exterior gives no clue to the treasures inside. The visitor must crawl on hands and knees through the remains of a doorway to reach the main chamber. Under gaping holes in the roof a feast of artistic achievement meets the eye. Over the altar are the remains of a huge fresco of the Virgin Mary. Only her hands, raised in benediction on each side of the collapsed wall, remain. The murals at the sides of the apse have faired better, protected by the arches which serve as a frame. One depicts Saint Theodore on horseback, his spangled cloak billowing behind him, and the hoofs of his white horse crushing the serpent of evil. This fresco is full of life and vigour but pales beside the superb Last Supper in the next arch. Among the haloed figures of Jesus and the 12 apostles, one stands out. Judas, of course, has no halo and also no table manners. He is reaching greedily across the table to the big plate of bread and fish. The others watch with disapproval or indifference. It is an extraordinarily realistic painting for its period.
Paintings are not the only treasures here. There is a beautiful marble iconostasis (separating the nave from the sanctuary) which does not quite fit the space, suggesting it may have been made by an earlier artist and transported here. Other finely carved marbles lie on the ground. Everywhere you look at Trissakia there is something of interest or beauty. Everywhere you look there are signs of decay. Tragic that such things are being lost in this forgotten part of Greece, but I must admit to a sort of smug delight that our persistence had brought us here to enjoy them as our own private piece of Byzantium.
There was one final treasure to be discovered – the most remote and forgotten of all Mani’s churches – and we stumbled across it as we attempted a trans-peninsula walk, a crossing that all the locals told us couldn’t be done. We started at Kitta, a village bristling with towers as befits its legacy of the place of the last Maniot battle. We followed a track which led us up into the hills. After an hour or so we came upon a ruined village, enclosed by a massive wall that ran up and over the ridge. There were no tower houses here, just simple small dwellings. Perhaps this village had been the retreat of peasant families escaping from their feuding overlords. There was a water supply and good pasture, and would have provided a self-sufficient living for a small community. Beyond the village the track turned south and we climbed steadily for a couple of hours past an abandoned orchard to a rocky ridge. There were further remains of houses here and one caught our eye. The shape was distinctive. Surely not a church in this high, barren location? Entering the door, as had generations of cows before us to escape the rain, we found a spacious, cruciform interior with a splendid dome, traces of paint on the walls and – amazingly – some beautifully carved marbles depicting griffins and flowers lying half buried in cow dung. It was a thrilling discovery, the most exciting of all our findings because of its unexpectedness. We learned later that this church is one of the oldest in the region, dating from the 10th century.
So, my quest for churches is incomplete. What treasures lie on other remote mountain tops in Mani? There is only one way to find out…
© Hilary Bradt