Wednesday, 9 October 2013

no man's land

The Mani is probably the most renowned part of the Peloponnese. It's the central 'finger' pointing southwards into the Mediterranean, the tip is the most southerly point of continental Europe.  For years the Mani remained isolated and the people developed a reputation largely based around the blood feuds that ravaged their families and villages and altered their architecture.  The ridge of mountains running southwards become more barren and desolate as you go southwards and the bleak landscape creates a suitably brooding atmosphere.  As we cycle around the coast we are followed by dark clouds hanging over the mountains.  The land is covered in olive trees and maquis and the short stubby trees reflect the people, who seem small by Greek standards.  Blood feuds that lasted years led to families building protective tower houses in which the men and boys would hide.  The women and girls, who were immune from the feuds, would go out to work the land.  The nature of this kind of society can only be imagined.  The Mani was seen as a law unto itself and when the Turks were here, they left the people to themselves.  Nowadays there's nothing left from this macabre history except the tower houses.  And close on the heels of tourist development comes the building of new holiday homes - in the guise of tower houses.  The effect is quite kitsch.

We cycle through several villages, climbing ridges and then dropping to the coast.  There are a couple of little tourist resorts - quite low-key - and we find a nice olive grove to camp in, at the foot of a climb. The next day we find ourselves entering the real Mani, away from the faux tower houses.  The land seems so dry and harsh, and the olive trees look so windswept and withered that it seems remarkable that people ever lived here.  In one very pretty and unspoilt village we ask in a cafe for a water refill.  The man takes a bottle of water from the fridge - the tap water is no good, he explains, and refuses money for the bottle.  Clouds continue to menace the mountains and threaten rain, but a strong wind seems to keep them at bay and keep us blow-dried.  There is a fire burning at the end of one headland.  We swoop down into a bay looking for a place to eat lunch and start chatting to a friendly English couple cycle-touring with their credit card.  They've been coming to Greece for 20 years.  As we chat we are able to watch two aeroplanes circling into the bay to collect water from the sea and then dump it on the scrub fire on the headland.  The planes chug slowly around and down to sea-level and touch the sea before rising slowly again and arcing round to the fire.  It's an impressive sight.

Towards the tip of the Mani the road gets mean.  We stop in Vathi, perched on a ridge, for a picnic lunch in the lee of the wind that howls through the village.  There is a sense that the Mani has almost died, that it can barely support any life.  Empty houses.  Sad-looking cafes with no clientele.  All the traffic is tourists in hire cars doing the circuit.  The tower houses hint at the menace, the fear, the paranoia of olden days.  It's a strange effect.

keep 'em peeled

At the isthmus of land connecting the very tip of land at the end, we turn northwards and start a monstrous climb uphill.  We push a bit, and then some more.  On the eastern side of the Mani there are little sign of holiday homes or tourist villages.  A prickly low-level gorse now coats the land that was once cleared and terraced for crops.  Some of the villages look a bit scruffy and poor.  Plenty of olive groves for camping.  Along here we meet Paul, on a folding Brompton.  He's Austrian and would prefer to be kayaking, but his friend was bitten by a mosquito earlier this year and contracted Western Nile disease.  So the kayaking trip is on hold.  Afterwards we recall an English couple telling us they wouldn't visit Kosovo because of the chance of contracting Western Nile disease.  I wonder if you can catch it west of the Nile, and what it is.......

The ride along the coast here gives us views to the other finger of the Peloponnese in the east.  Our ride ends in Gythio where we hole up at a campsite until our ferry to Crete leaves. The weather continues to be cool and cloudy - is Autumn here?

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