Into the wilds

We’ve been in the Deep Mani, the southernmost part of the Peloponnese, discovering stories of warrior women and relics of the one of the oldest known civilisations in all of Greece.

Our way led over winding mountain coastal roads into the wildest, most barren landscape we’ve yet seen. Clinging to folds in the stony hills and to occasional sheltered bays are villages featuring Mani tower houses – tiny square-built fort-like dwellings. The late Patrick Leigh Fermor says they were constructed that way so that the residents could throw rocks down on their feuding neighbours. More likely they were in readiness for the next wave of marauding invaders.


Areopoli, the main town of the area, was so renamed for the god of war Ares after the Greek independence struggle of the 1820s. Its square, where we stopped for coffee and a visit to the local bookshop, is dominated by the statue of Petros Mavromichaelis. This commanding figure raised an army of 3,000 hardened Maniots to join Kolokotronis and begin the revolutionary war by marching on Kalamata. His dress looks more Turkish than Greek, which is not surprising as he was governor under the Ottomans until he rose against them. He is still universally referred to as Petrobey.

The most striking story from those times, though, concerns the Maniot women. In 1826, when the menfolk were still away at war, the Egyptian Ibrahim Pasha attempted to re-occupy the coast in alliance with the Ottomans. A band of tough old men halted his troops on the slopes below Areopoli, and then the women, armed only with scythes, drove the invaders into the sea at Diros. A statue of one of these amazons stands there today.


Diros is reputed to have one of the world’s most spectacular marine cave systems. We were in two minds whether to join the trail of tourists there, but very glad in the end that we decided to go.

For the price of 12 euros skilled boatmen steered our canoe through the longest complex system of narrow tunnels and caverns dripping with the finest stalactites. In half an hour you see only part of the system. There could be no better hiding place for smugglers, rebels or fugitives. The caves, which have a supply of fresh water, have been home to them all over the centuries.

But the most staggering discovery came in the little museum outside the cave entrance, ignored by most tour buses. It houses finds from Alepotrypa, the deepest cave, uncovered only in 1958. They tell the story of a Neolithic people who lived there between about 5400 and 3200 BCE, until a devastating earthquake buried them.

There’s a persistent stereotype of cave-dwellers as some kind of primitive knuckle-draggers. This excavation gives the lie to that. Here are advanced tools, some made with obsidian traded from distant Melos; remnants of work in textiles; evidence of animal husbandry; relics from burial chambers, including poignant, lovingly fashioned children’s tombs; fine silver jewellery – and some wonderful pots, painted, burnished, glazed, bichromed or earthenware.

An arresting moment: among the shards are fragments of terracotta pots in exactly the same ribbed pattern as my favourite Mani jars of today. The guide pamphlet says they were fashioned in the same way, too. So those pots have been made around here for more than 5,000 years.


Many people think of Paris or Milan as having the archetypal café culture; Sydney’s Darlinghurst thinks it has too. They’ve all got it wrong. It’s Greece. The whole of Greece. The smallest village in the remotest province has its kafeneion where the locals gather. Towns have them by the dozen. Remarkably, most appear to survive by serving almost nothing but coffee and the occasional glass of ouzo.

An espresso-size strong Greek coffee is the classic, and still the favourite among the groups of old men who seem to spend their days in these establishments, talking to each other and to passersby. But the summer drink of choice among younger customers is the frappé – the iced version. Not polluted by globs of American-style whipped cream, just good coffee, frothed and poured over ice in tall glasses.  It’s quite expected that you sit for hours with only one order, which always comes accompanied by unlimited glasses of cold water. That’s civilised.


In Athens the coalition government has only managed to agree half of the 11.5 bn euro cuts demanded by the EU-IMG-Central bank troika, due here tomorrow to review progress. In Madrid on Thursday 800,000, backed by more across Spain, turned out to protest against austerity measures. In Italy the latest disaster is the imminent bankruptcy of Sicily. In Paris the Hollande government is busy back-pedalling on its election promises in the face of the financial institutions. And in Britain, where the IMF has called on the government to take urgent measures to stimulate the economy, Prime Minister David Cameron is forecasting many more years of austerity to reduce the $156 bn deficit (and they talk about Greece??).

Predatory bankers, restive populations, vacillating governments: it’s a deeply unstable situation. Meanwhile the human costs of austerity continue to mount. Alex’s story of one doctor’s tragedy speaks volumes.

Oh for some latter-day Maniot women to deal with those marauding bankers!

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