No one could possibly describe the Mesa Mani (Deep Mani) as ‘chi chi’. And it will be a long time — hopefully never — before the southernmost tip of this middle section of the Peloponnese and the word ‘twee’ will be mentioned in the same breath.
Barren, arid, rocky. And the farther south you go the more austere it becomes but, strangely, more captivating, too.
When we arrived at the little village of Gerolimenas (not that we knew for certain we’d got there, as all signs are in Greek only and few locals speak English), I thought we had stumbled on a secret society. We were pioneers. Which was clearly nonsense but throughout our short trip I kept thinking to myself: why would anyone want to go to Mykonos and pay €200 for a sunbed when you can have a whole beach to yourself in the Deep Mani and the people are far more friendly?
Mark Palmer explored the Deep Mani in Greece by car, stopping off at Kardamyli (pictured), where the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor made his home in the 1960s
Travel writer Leigh Fermor (pictured above in Ithaca in 1946) was once described as ‘a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene’, Mark reveals
Getting here is no longer an issue, either, with both BA and easyJet flying into Kalamata (yes, as in Kalamata olives) from around April to October.
Kalamata airport is not a thing of beauty but it reminded me of a ramshackle Caribbean equivalent; a two-storey building, with arrivals at one end, departures at the other and well-stocked bar in between.
We had arranged car hire with a small local company, rather than one of the big boys with a kiosk in the terminal. This meant being greeted by a man from My Car holding up a sign with our names on it, with the vehicle parked directly outside the terminal. A striking woman in a long, flowing dress and expensive sunglasses was waiting to hand over the keys.
‘Any problems, call. My Car is my company,’ she said. When I asked if she had a map of the Mani, she apologised and said, ‘follow me’. Which we did, all the way into the historic centre of the city, where she bought a map and asked us to leave it in the glove compartment for future customers.
But she wasn’t done yet. ‘Before you head down the coast, you must see this,’ she said, crossing the road and walking into the square, which has the gorgeous little 11th-century Church of The Holy Apostles standing in its centre. The earthquake of 1986 knocked it down but it has been rebuilt and reinforced, with stellar results.
We were pleased about this unplanned excursion, not least after learning that the first shots of the civil war in 1821— which led eventually to the liberation of the country from the Ottoman Turks — were fired in Kalamata.
Mark checked into the ‘gorgeous’ Hotel Kyrimai in Gerolimenas, which has creaking floorboards, stone terraces, a pool (above) and jetty with steps leading down into the sea
‘Throughout our short trip I kept thinking to myself: why would anyone want to go to Mykonos and pay €200 for a sunbed when you can have a whole beach to yourself in the Deep Mani and the people are far more friendly?’ says Mark
‘See you back at the airport in three days’ time and don’t forget to fill the car with petrol,’ said Mrs My Car. But before heading south, we stopped for an early lunch at a restaurant called Ego on the seafront, where the homemade tzatziki was in a different league to the stuff you get in a plastic tub from British supermarkets. A superb Greek salad followed.
We felt embedded — and now the Mani was all ours, with the Taygetos Mountains running down its spine on our left and the dark blue, inviting water of the Messenian Gulf on our right.
Hardly anyone was on the road and after less than an hour of driving, we resisted the temptation to stop at Kardamyli, where Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor built their magnificent villa in a prime spot in the 1960s, because we had planned to spend time there on the way back.
Instead, we kept going until the landscape became increasingly moon-like — hardly any trees, giant boulders, spiky shrubs —before arriving at Gerolimenas.
In the 1870s, this was a thriving port. Today, it is an unpretentious village with a few bobbing boats, an immaculate pebbly beach (with pebbles the size of ostrich eggs), two or three tavernas, a grocery store and, crucially, Hotel Kyrimai on its southern tip, fashioned from an old shipping warehouse where the family used to live above the shop.
It’s a gorgeous place to stay: creaking floorboards and double doors, stone terraces (some private, some shared), a pool and jetty with steps leading down into the sea. The all-day restaurant, perched on rocks, looks back to the village in one direction, farther along the coast in the other — and the whole confection fits effortlessly into the surrounding landscape.
Rugged charm: Above is the ‘eerie’ Vatheia village, a largely abandoned collection of towers once fought over by feuding clans
We ate famously and slept soundly. On our first morning, we walked into the village and booked our table at Mani Mani taverna.
‘It is Sunday, so if you want fish it is best to order now,’ said the patron. What he really meant was: ‘It is Sunday and I still have loads of fish to get rid of, so do me a favour.’ We chose a huge grouper enough for at least three people — but he said we needed one each. That was a favour too far.
Then we headed off into the deep, Deep Mani and still no one else seemed to be around. It was blissfully eerie, even more so when we reached Vatheia, a largely abandoned collection of towers once fought over by feuding clans. An account from 1805 has it that a sectarian war raged in the village for 40 years and cost 100 lives.
We noticed that a couple of the towers showed signs of habitation. This got my wife going. ‘We wouldn’t have to pay much. It would be the ultimate doer-upper,’ she said.
I quickly moved the conversation on, then we headed towards Cape Tenaro, the southernmost point of mainland Greece and reputedly an entrance to the Kingdom of Hades, through which Heracles dragged Cerberus, the three-headed canine guardian of the Underworld. It can only be reached on foot and, fittingly, is both beautiful and brutal.
Elegance: Inside the ‘magnificent’ villa owned by Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor. ‘We chatted to various Paddy pilgrims as we wandered from room to room,’ Mark reveals
The Leigh Fermors’ villa can be rented in summer but is also open to the public on certain days of the week
There is nothing brutal about Kardamyli, where we stopped on our return. It’s enchanting — although it helps if you are enthralled by Paddy Leigh Fermor, once described as ‘a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene’.
What a life! What a writer! Devilishly good-looking and outlandishly charming, Paddy bunked out of further education at the age of 18 and opted into derring-do adventure, first walking — in 1934 — from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, sleeping variously in haystacks and castles, and falling in love with a Romanian princess along the way.
What makes his trilogy of books about this trek so extraordinary is that they were written through the prism of adulthood, as the first one, A Time Of Gifts, was not published until the 1970s.
The discreet sign by the main road simply points towards the coast and says: ‘Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor’s House’. But even then, it is not easy to find.
Paddy, who died aged 96 in 2011, bequeathed the house to the Benaki Museum. It can be rented in summer but is also open to the public on certain days of the week.
Mark enjoyed lunch at Lela’s Taverna (pictured), the restaurant owned by the Leigh Fermors’ housekeeper and now run by her son and grandsons in Kardamyli
We chatted to various Paddy pilgrims as we wandered from room to room and sat on the terrace in something of a trance, before eventually adjourning for lunch at Lela’s, the restaurant owned by the Leigh Fermors’ housekeeper and now run by her son and grandsons.
Just to the north of the village is a glorious stretch of shingle beach. Wading into the sea felt like shuffling into a different era — as did our last stop in the tiny hilltop village of Megali Mantineia, about 20 minutes from Kalamata, where we had booked a B&B called Villa Vager Mani. Our room was on the top floor, with a huge terrace looking down across rooftops towards the sea.
Before supper, we drove to the coast and swam, after which we stopped again… and again, each dip more melancholic than the last as the tide went out on our life-affirming trip.
How a little village like this can support three tavernas is beyond me. We chose the one closest to the church, ordering what was called ‘local rabbit’. Delicious, but the mosquitoes were out in force.
‘Do you have any insect repellent?’ I asked the friendly woman in charge, who had little English. She shrugged. So I itched some more. Then, two minutes later, she arrived with a tumbler filled with vinegar and gesticulated. It was clear I should splash the stuff all over my bare legs and ankles.
Which I did — and no mosquito came near me for the rest of the evening. If only everything in life were this simple.