The Greek Mani Peninsula, made for wild beauty lovers – World Meanderings (n°113)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
With Greece opening its gates to foreign tourists next May 14 it’s time to think of our next holidays in this enticing country where sanitary safety is more than good. Being sparsely populated and little known by tourist the Mani Peninsula is a perfect destination to discover and enjoy a safe stay.
In ancient times Mani was the birthplace of harsh and indomitable people and a hotspot of piracy feared by travellers. These days are gone and today you will feel more than welcome to travel there. The Mani Peninsula is the southernmost part of the Peloponnese. It will take you a little bit less than 4 hours to get to Kalamata airport with a direct flight from London. But in just a few hours the change of scenery will be radical. Don’t expect typical picture-postcard Greek villages with white walls and blue domes. With its arid landscape, rocky deserted villages, virgin beaches and not a single busload of tourists Mani is a unique Greek region. This is another Greece!
Mani is a mountainous region of south Peloponnese spanned by the Taygetus Mountain range where perched villages overlook a rugged coast hiding lovely little beaches. Its highest point is Mount Helias inaccessible by road but a hikers’ paradise. There once was a time when it inspired a kind of superstitious terror and dozens of legendary beliefs. In the 19th century skippers nicknamed the southernmost cape of the peninsula the “man killer” since there had been so many shipwrecks here due to terrible storms and treacherous reef. A terrible reputation and a diver paradise!
Visiting Mani is quite easy since there is only one road going around the peninsula. This spectacular route winds along the coast and through oaks and olive groves as well as rocky slopes, covered by maquis shrubland, fragrant with sage, thyme or fennel. Wild life is everywhere to be seen and there are very few cultivated fields. On the way you will go through half sleeping villages and picturesque fishing ports where restaurants propose the catch of the day for a few Euros.
Impressive perched villages
If men of the past were fierce warriors they also had to protect themselves from foreign attacks. To do so they built countless rocky towers all over the peninsula. These towers are a living testimony of difficult times when Greece was under the domination of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century till the war of independence in the early 1830’s. During all this period Mani was a hotspot of resistance and the Maniots organised their own defence. They built these strong towers where they could seek shelter. You will see these towers and fortresses everywhere in the peninsula. Zarnata castle, close to lovely Stavropigio village, Exohori, Proastio, Kardamili are just a few examples but you will see many more along the road.
Vatheia (or Vathia) probably is the most spectacular one of them all. This ghost village exudes a very special atmosphere and would be a perfect set for a spooky movie. A good road winding in the mountain will take you up to the deserted village and each of its bends reveals spectacular views over the coast. Suddenly after a last bend you discover this amazing village that has sometimes been called “Mani’s Manhattan”! The village still looks the way it did in the 17th century with stone towers built side-by-side. Be careful when exploring that maze of tiny streets and the towers, everything is open to the public but some places might be unsteady and dangerous.
The coast is dotted with lovely ports and beaches. You’ll have to pay attention to small faded signposts along the way to find some of them but it truly is worth it. Foneas, Delphinia, Kalogrias, Stoupa, Gerolimenas are a few stops not to be missed. After your swim you will enjoy simple but tasty Greek food in small tavernas where fishermen propose their catch of the day. Sometimes happiness is a simple thing…
Faultless unfussy luxury at “Aria Estate Mani”
The opening of a luxury hotel in Mani a few years ago was very good news for those seeking authenticity and comfort when visiting this secret region. It was built as a local village respecting the natural landscape and looks like it’s always been there. Its individual villas offer the comfort of private homes to guests whether couples or families. It is a place to relax and let things go enjoying exclusive hotel amenities and service.
There are only sixteen low-rise accommodation villas that have been built on a hillside overlooking the sea and the Messinian Bay. The hotel is the new address exchanged between friends. Aria Estate has been built in total respect of the Mani architecture and under the supervision of the architect of the Historic Buildings. (He actually was the one who forbid the creation of an outdoor swimming pool, but you’ll find an indoor one in the Spa building).
Each villa offers undisturbed birds-eye sea and sunset views from the private terrace. You’ll feel at home at once in the clear and sober atmosphere of your suite. Not two are the same and they all look different with one or two bedrooms including top quality bedding, some with a kitchenette or a fireplace, Decoration is a successful blend of Mani architecture and modern style furniture with bare stone walls, raw wood, overstuffed linen sofas. Each one is a welcoming nest after a busy day visiting Mani and you will long for a drink on your terrace enjoying a spectacular sunset.
In summertime meals are served in an open-air restaurant. Same place but different atmosphere for every moment of the day. Pure fresh air for a hearty breakfast served at your table, welcome shade of a parasol for a Greek salad, a quiche or pasta for lunch, all made with fresh local products. Evenings offers beautiful sunsets over the sea and perfect moments for a drink or two. Dinner is a wonderful experience with simple but scrumptious food. Make your choice in the “Sunset Menu” and have Mani sausage with sweet chilli sauce, Pintxos of feta cheese with melon, doughnut of codfish with caper dip, kunefe cheese pie with xinomizythra and figs, Greek carbonara… Everything is home made with local fresh produce. For desert why not have baked pears in tsipouro or baklava and lokoum, halva with kaimaki ice cream, all very tempting.
“Aria Estate Suite & Spa” is now ready to welcome guests insuring all the needed sanitary measures for your safety.
More information and booking at https://aria-estate.com/en/
More about Greece reopening its gates to foreigners and safety measures in our last week article: https://b-c-ing-u.com/architecture/welcome-back-to-greece-next-may-world-meanderings-n112/
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny