The Mani Peninsula is a land of rugged mountains, beautiful seascape views, and villages with names that appear in the oldest annals of Greek mythology. It is a land where the past intersects with modern life but retains a certain feel of mystery and doubt. It is the type of “off the beaten path” destination many dream of and a place to really get to know some people who in recent times have been struck with economic austerity and hardship.
The gateway to the Mani peninsula is Kalamata, an unremarkable city but one that has modern highway access and an airport that can be reached from most major European hubs. It does not take long as you stray from the city to begin climbing mountains on winding rural roads with hairpin turns. On these roads you are just as likely to be behind another car as you are to be behind small trucks overloaded with straw or produce. If you are in a hurry to get anywhere, expect to miss your appointment. Fortunately, time somehow seems less important and to slow down while you are on the Mani Peninsula.
Driving through the mountains the clouds became increasingly dark and ominous. It was suddenly very easy to see why it was here that Hercules was often sent to perform his greatest feats of strength and heroics. I found my mind lost, dreaming of ancient mythical creatures, as my eyes drifted further and further along the foreboding road ahead. A light rain washing over us brought me back to reality.
If you are looking for the famous ancient sites from Greek guide books, you will not find them here, nor will you find big beach resorts, even though you are never too far from the beach. The Mani is more the type of place where if you wish to hike a mountain and see the remains of a medieval walled village that time has forgotten, you can do so in solitude. You can also find yourself along a stretch of completely deserted beach and ponder why it is that the places, as travellers we so cherish, tend to be the places that locals are abandoning for what they deem is prosperity elsewhere.
In the family run restaurants, catering mostly to locals, particularly if you visit in shoulder season as we did, you will be told what you are eating, not choose what you are eating. You will dine on local, seasonal dishes prepared in the traditional ways. Fresh grilled fish, homemade wine, tangy Greek yogurt, and remarkable local honey are all prevalent. Hotels too are run by families, not corporations. Where we stayed, the owner sat with us at breakfast and shared stories of her children with a gleam in her eye while she watched our kids cover themselves in yogurt without being judgemental, then instinctively would gently wipe their faces clean.
The Mani Peninsula is the type of place you experience. One could not necessarily call it a holiday or vacation, simply an experience. If you visit the Mani, you too will become immersed in a culture which at times is modern yet ancient, comfortable yet challenging, and relaxing yet with a sense of mystery about it, and ultimately unforgettable.
Safe and happy travels.