Two British journalists decide to leave Scotland for Greece, with dog in tow. Just as the economic crisis hits hard. The challenging first year of the adventure, living in a remote hillside village, became a highly entertaining book, Things Can Only Get Feta (Bene Factum Publishing), where the dog’s adaptation to Greek life looms large. Author Marjory McGinn tells why the southern region of Mani is so special to visit.
Crisis, what crisis?
When my partner and I decided to pack in our jobs and leave our sleepy village in Scotland for a big fat mid-life adventure we had only one place in mind – the Mani region of Greece. The timing was bad, with Greece in 2010 facing its worst economic meltdown in many decades. Jim and I thought the rural Mani in particular would be remote enough to offer some authenticity. If the famously tough Maniots with their turbulent history could survive the crisis, then so could we. Whether they would survive Wallace, our manic nine-year-old Jack Russell, was another matter.
The Mani is a ruggedly romantic region of the middle peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. It’s a place of mountains, remote hill villages and the distinctive stone towers built from the 16th century onwards by warring clan chiefs. It also has a dazzling coastline dotted with deserted pebbled coves and olive groves skirting the sea. There is something there that will appeal to most people.
Life in a small Greek village
With the kind of serendipity that the best adventures are made of, we found the hill village of Megali Mantineia at the last minute on the recommendation of a British real estate friend in Kalamata, the capital of this region. While we had rented a holiday house in the Mani near the sea for the first few weeks, we were desperately looking for a more permanent house in this kind of hillside location. In the end we were lucky to find a small stone house in the centre of Megali Mantineia days before a swift return to Scotland seemed imminent. In this instance, the landlord was happy to accept the dog. In a country like Greece with a low tolerance for domestic animals, it can prove hard to find good rental accommodation if you take a dog with you.
The village was an inspired choice and our experiences of living there for a year became the subject for my non-fiction book, Things Can Only Get Feta. The village setting was outstanding, built down the saddle of a hill with the deep Rindomo Gorge on one side of it and the rugged peaks of the Taygetos Mountains looming behind. Surrounding the village were olive and orange orchards, carob trees and small goat farms.
On our first day in the village we also met one its great characters, the inimitable goat farmer Foteini, a tough Maniatissa who still rode about on a small donkey despite being in her late sixties and we became good friends. She initiated us into many village customs and we even helped her with a back-breaking olive harvest in this region famous for its black Kalamata olives.
The village was also an ideal base to explore nearby settlements. On cobbled kalderimia (donkey tracks) we meandered between old and near-deserted villages, which are hard to reach by car. In the Taygetos foothills we found remnants of stone towers, olive mills, secluded Byzantine churches which abound in the Mani, many with well preserved frescos. Further up in the Taygetos, but preferably with the use of a 4WD you can find villages straight from another era, such as lofty Altomira and Pigadia, from which some of Megali Mantineia’s current residents are descended.
More of the Mani
There’s also much more to see of the Mani apart from the hill villages of the north. The main road from Kalamata skirts close to Megali Mantineia and winds on through the mountains with spectacular views of the sea and takes you close to the famous Viros Gorge and down to popular Kardamili which was one of the star locations in the Hollywood movie Beyond Midnight with Ethan Hawke, and also the seaside town of Stoupa for those who want a bit more tourist infrastructure.
But these two places are as tourist-driven as you get in the Mani. The rest is pretty rugged. The further south you go in the Mani the more rugged and far-flung it seems. From Kalamata it’s about a 3 hour drive to the tip of the Mani peninsula where the road stops at Cape Tainaron, famous for being the most southerly part of mainland Europe and for its fabled Cave of Hades.
- Walking: The Mani is an excellent location for walking mainly because of its mountainous terrain and its network of donkey tracks, mentioned above. There are walks to suit all levels of fitness and one of the best books for directions and advice is Inside the Mani by Matthew Dean, available on Amazon, or visit www.insidemani.gr
- Best beaches: In the north Mani, the coast road south of Kalamata has a string of lovely quiet coves, with a taverna or two nearby. Check out Almira, Mikra Mantineia, Paleohora and the long sandy Santova beach. Kardamili has several excellent beaches including Ritsa and the rocky cove at Kardamili old harbour is also lovely for swimming with several very good tavernas nearby. The superb Kalogria Beach near Stoupa, further south, has natural springs coming up from the sea bed and is famous for having inspired some of the book Zorba the Greek after its author Nikos Kazantzakis spent time here in the early 20th century.
- Food heaven: Not generally thought of as a foodie paradise, the Mani now has many tavernas promoting good local produce: Virgin olive oil, the famous black olives, local meat, fish and wine. Try the Dioskouri Restaurant and the Harilaos Taverna in Kardamili, both with views of the sea. In the village of Megali Mantineia itself there are three good family run restaurants and also for something a little more sophisticated, try the Lofos Santovas on the road up from the sea which has a stunning terrace overlooking the Messinian Gulf. Further south from Santova beach is the fishing village of Kitries with two good fish restaurants here, the Gaitanaros and Mimi’s, both perched right on the water’s edge for a Shirley Valentine moment.
- Kalamata: Although the city, at the head of the Messinian Gulf, is world famous for its juicy black olives, it’s more than a rural capital. Kalamata is friendly and hospitable with a thriving café society along its main sea-facing road, Odos Navarinou. The old part of the city, the Historic Centre has a castle, and winding back streets with tavernas, cafes, bars, and old-style shops selling everything imaginable. It also has a lovely cathedral, the Ipapanti, in the old sector and an oasis of calm at the Monastery of Konstantina and Eleni nearby.
- More info about the Mani and southern Greece visit www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com
- Also visit the excellent Greek government site www.mythicalpeloponnese.gr
Marjory has an author page on Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta and can be followed on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey
Things Can Only Get Feta giveaway
Simply leave a comment on the post or on my Facebook page.
On August 15 (the festival of the Panayiri in Greece)
I will drop all the names
into a sunhat and pick one at random.
Update: Congratulations to Nikki Cowdy Richard living in the UK who left a comment on Taste for Travel’s Facebook page. She’s won the copy of Things Can Only Get Feta. Thanks for all the lovely comments on the blog, and for your interest. Another fine book giveaway is coming up very soon!