The Mani is the long peninsula, like the middle prong of the Peloponnese trident, stretching down into the Mediterranean between the Aegean and Ionian seas. We’ve parked ourselves like true Australians on its coastal fringe, at the northern, most accessible end, and are only just beginning to explore it.
One who knew the area intimately was Patrick Leigh Fermor, the adventurer and travel writer. I must confess that I knew nothing about him until Alex told me he wanted to find his house at Kardamilyi.
Seeing the place, a writer’s paradise with its study, terrace and gardens overlooking the sea, I was moved to get hold of his first book on Greece, the 1958 Mani.
In it he describes his initial encounter with the region some years before. It’s an extraordinary story. He and Joan Rayner, the aristocratic Englishwoman who was to become his wife, came from Sparta and crossed those forbidding Taygetos mountains on foot in the scorching midsummer heat we are sheltering from by the beach today. After his wartime experience he was used to roughing it, but that was still some trek.
No wonder he fell in love with the sea breezes of Kardamilyi, which they reached on their second night. He describes the Mani then as “the remotest, the wildest and the most isolated area of Greece”, and found strange customs, their origins buried in time, in the southern part of the peninsula known as the Deep Mani.
Much has changed in 60 years. The ancient superstitions he encountered in far-flung villages have faded, modern communications reach down into the south and tourists have discovered the coastal rim, but the barren stones, the olive trees and the Norman and Byzantine churches remain. As does the tradition of hospitality to strangers.
Even if you never see the Mani, the book is worth reading as a great piece of travel writing, discursive, imaginative and often wildly entertaining.
One story he tells of an early trip to Kalamata with Joan and Xan Fielding is worth repeating. The three of them sat down to dinner at the water’s edge in baking temperatures. On an impulse, they picked up their neatly laid table and chairs and sat themselves in the water. The waiter bringing out their food didn’t miss a beat – he stepped into the water up to his waist, and announcing “Dinner time” placed their grilled fish before them. “The diners on the quay sent us can upon can of retsina until the table was crowded” – and the fishermen in their boats came round to help drink it.
We haven’t done anything quite so crowd-pleasing. But the other night, after a swim, we dined at a taverna in the little fishing village of Kitries where we watched the sun go down beyond the gulf of Messinia. After our simple meal – grilled octopus, chicken, eggplant with lemon and garlic and the addictive salad – Alex began eyeing the cool waters longingly. Strolling down the quay, he peeled off down to his togs and slipped over the side to the mild amusement of the other patrons and the local cats. The taverna owner, stepping down to his fishing boat as Alex clambered up over the rocks, gave him a high five.
I told you he doesn’t need Greek to communicate.
IN THE MARKET
Yesterday being Saturday, we ventured into Kalamata to the farmer’s market. We have one of those in Murwillumbah. But this one is about 100 times bigger. The many dozens of stall holders are all small producers, their tables piled high with the region’s superb tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis with their flowers still intact, garlic, capsicum, melons and peaches – you name it.
In the middle of the market are the permanent shops – a fishmonger, cheese specialists, butchers and bakers. Fish is expensive here, the result of overfishing in the Mediterranean. But we found some salted sardines and anchovies, and took away piles of them in screws of paper for a couple of euros. We ate the sardines today, delicious with the ripest tomatoes, feta and slices of melt-in-your-mouth honeydew melon. And of course a dressing of local olive oil, lemon and oregano.
A BOOKLOVER’S TOWN
Kalamata is not a big town. It was hit hard by the 1986 earthquake which made half the population homeless. But while much of it has been rebuilt it still retains its ancient character, with a history going back at least 3,000 years. It has an Old Town, centred on the 12th century Church of the Apostles and the March 23 Square, named for the start of the Greek revolution in 1821; and many beautiful buildings remain. The shopping area has many trendy stores but there are still plenty of traditional specialist shops – including the bookshops. We haven’t finished counting but saw half a dozen yesterday in just a couple of streets. One has lots of foreign papers and the English-language Athens News, which you can also get online. It’s very useful for reports from the capital and also has a reasonable arts section.
In the Aristomenos shopping precinct we browsed through another bookshop that had only Greek titles but the indefinable air that such places have when they’re run by people who really care about books. We greeted the owner, a large benevolent figure sitting at a table facing the door, and on learning we were from Australia he invited us to come back for a chat over coffee. We shall.