We live in Mani, that peninsular of southern Greece which thrusts down into the Mediterranean Sea towards Africa. Traditionally, Mani is divided into two parts: Outer Mani in the North and inner Mani, the bony tip of the peninsula.
The little coastal resorts of Kardamili and Stoupa are to be found in Outer Mani. Both places attract large numbers of English holidaymakers in the summer, mostly families, and the whole coast thereabouts boasts hundreds of holiday houses and apartments.
Inner Mani is a different place. The land of evil counsel, Kakovouvia, the bad mountains. An empty place, most of the Maniots having emigrated over the years, many of them to Australia, though I did hear of one man who fetched up in Cardiff years ago and stayed to raise a family there.
The terraced mountainsides of Inner Mani are uncultivated now and the strange villages are deserted. There is a thin veneer of development, some tourism, a bit of heritage refurbishment of fortified villages, and there are churches, hundreds of churches, many of them very old and boasting byzantine frescoes. They are to be found everywhere, in the corners of fields, by the roadside, lost among thorns and prickly pear, often in a poor state of repair, though seldom abandoned. There is usually a lamp burning inside. Someone comes.
But off the single main road that runs south to Cape Tenaron, the southernmost point of Europe, what you become aware of is the emptiness of the mountains, the melancholy of absence. It’s a three hour drive to Tenaron from where we live.
We motor up the tiny vertiginous roads to abandoned villages and poke about among the beetling ruins. We camp out sometimes, as we did last week, by the sea at Tenaron, sleeping on the rock cut shelf that was once the foundation of a building, two thousand years ago, but now long gone. A whole city once stood here, where now there is nothing except a little ruined church overlooking the sea, built partly from colossal blocks of much older masonry.
Pausanias, who travelled around Greece in the second century AD, records that a temple of Poseidon the sea god once stood here. Inside the roofless place a little altar stone is piled with votive offerings left by visitors: coins, finger rings, earrings, little posies of dead flowers, coloured hair bands, even a zip toggle.
We went to some quarries too, last week, at a remote location high in the mountains, at the top of an improbably steep road, where years ago they cut the red stone which was used to embellish the houses and palaces of the rich. They found fragments of stone from these quarries when they were excavating the palace at Mycenae which was built over three thousand years ago.