This area is so peaceful today that it’s hard to realise it’s been a theatre of wars and conflict for millennia. But a chance encounter on a sleepy day brings it home.
In search of a sandy beach we set off for Stoupa, some 40kms to the south. The trip through the mountains is hair-raising – a narrow winding two-way road with a steep drop to the right – but absolutely spectacular, with views of the Taygetos mountains, hilltop villages and the coast.
Stoupa is a pretty seaside village, in ancient times the seat of the kingdom of Dheuktros. It has the best beach we’ve found on this coast, with lovely old houses bedecked by rock gardens coming right down to the water’s edge. In recent years it’s become something of a mecca for older British and German tourists, but so far this year they’re a bit thin on the ground and on the morning we spend swimming there we see more Greeks than foreigners. Still, we decide we’ll head back before stopping for lunch.
We park in the shady village square at Kardamilyi, a little further up the coast, where Alex is on a quest he’ll tell you about. And there under the trees is a statue of Theodoros Kolokotronis, a hero of the Greek wars of independence from the Ottoman empire. From his base here in the port of Kardamilyi he organised an army from the surrounding area of the Mani. On March 23, 1821, they seized Kalamata and founded the Messinian Senate, the first independent government in Greece in the modern era. It was the start of the six-year war.
It seems to be no accident that the campaign for independence began here. In ancient times neighbouring Sparta had so much trouble controlling Messinia that they named its inhabitants the “Helots”.
Kolokotronis had a history of combatting the Turks. His father had died fighting against them with the Russians in 1780, and Theodoros was captain of a Peloponnesian resistance group by the time he was 15. In 1805 he served with the Russian fleet in the Russo-Turkish war. He then joined a corps of Greek infantry attached to the British infantry on Zakynthos, fighting the French. For his service the British made him a brigadier, but he soon found that his sympathies lay elsewhere.
“According to my judgement,” he wrote, “the French Revolution and the doings of Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. The nations knew nothing before and the people thought that kings were gods upon the earth.”
And we’ve just come from Paris. Once again I’m struck by how great ideas resonate across borders.
Kolokotronis became embroiled in factional conflict within the independence movement in the later 1820s, and was imprisoned for a while on Hydra. But he is still remembered here as the hero of March 23.
MORE FROM THE LOTUS EATERS
There are some historic sites just a few hours drive away – ancient Messene, built in the fourth century BCE, and Pylos, referred to in Homer’s Odyssey, to name just two.
We’ll be making expeditions into the relics of early Greece in between reading and writing. All part of a therapy to recharge the batteries.
We’re eating at home a lot. Alex has become a dab hand at the Greek salad, with tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, red onions and garlic and oregano even more aromatic than we grow in Eviron. And of course the best Kalamata olive oil. The local feta is excellent, and we add side dishes of dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves), local broad beans or lentils, yoghurt and organic eggs.
It continues to amaze me that this arid landscape yields such wonderful produce. But the Greeks became masters of both agriculture and water management centuries ago, and great reservoirs in the hills ensure that the area is never short of water through the long dry season. There’s a lesson there for Australia.