Today’s program was an adventure in Mani, the one part of Greece that no one ever successfully conquered (the Ottomans tried for a bit, but it didn’t take). This area has a reputation for hot-blooded, firey-tempered people, and it’s easy to see why: the landscape is the most barren, dry and rocky I’ve seen, with tall brown mountains plunging down into stunning beaches. The people of Mani were faced with scarce resources, so they spent their time building big, blocky towers to protect their dominions. In their spare time, they engaged in blood feuds. Rumor has it the last one took place in the 1970s.
George was my tour guide today. Our first stop was Gythio, the largest city in Mani. I’d already been to the town several times for the market and ATM, but George showed me a new area: the port, where fishermen were setting up their morning spots and a young boy was carrying a live octopus.
Our next stop was the Diros caves, a series of underground caves that can be reached in most places only by boat (or swimming, I suppose, but that wasn’t presented as an option. If it had been, I would’ve taken it. They’ve enlarged the caves in places so that a rowboat loaded with seven or eight people can go through with much head-ducking and leaning. Then you get out of the boat and walk the last two hundred meters, through caves so high and tall that they might have inspired legends of the kingdoms of dwarves. Going through the caves was a truly amazing experience – one of those places that reminds you where the term “jaw-dropping” originated, because you realize you’ve had your mouth hanging open most of the time. I thought I’d be claustrophobic, but I could’ve gone through again and again. And Prescott might ask, “how many pictures of stalactites do we really need?” The answer, if you look at my full camera roll, is: a lot.
I had a brief thought in the caves: “we’re in trouble if there’s an earthquake.” When we emerged, George wisely suggested that I stop in a small Cave Museum (which I would’ve skipped had I been on my own). In this tiny, one-room museum, I learned that the caves were occupied until 3200 BC – there are freshwater lakes in the middle of the caves that were a life-saver for these people (I have no idea how anyone found these freshwater lakes in the dark, but that question wasn’t answered in the museum). Then there was a huge earthquake, and the entrance to the caves was sealed up, and all the people inside perished … Not a happy ending to a lengthy civilization.
We then continued through several small villages. Mani is more populated than I might have expected, but I gather it’s because wealthy Athenians have been building beach and summer houses there (these houses almost always look like traditional Mani towers, which is an interesting choice). Our next stop was Vathia, a hill town filled with towers and old houses (apparently, the residents of the town grew so upset with each other that the north and south parts of the town did battle with each other for years).
Unlike other hilltop fortresses we’ve visited, there are still people living in some of these houses. (Pres, I thought you’d like the building strategy: put big rocks on the roof tiles so they don’t blow away).
Other buildings appear to have been occupied until very recently; we found a building that had been used for olive oil pressing, complete with millstones and a harness for a donkey, that had old ledgers lying on the floor from 1997.
And George found fresh figs in the village — there’s nothing like a warm fig fresh from the tree!
I’ll have to finish this later – it’s getting late. Goodnight!