We bypassed the city of Kalamata, known by all for its famous olives, and drove down the Mani to Kardamili, a very popular tourist destination. As we road through town, I realized this had been the small quiet village we had stopped in on September 13 1986, the evening a devastating earthquake struck Kalamata. It was around 9 pm and everyone was sitting on the street in small cafes when the lights went out, tables shook, the earth moved, and the elderly Greek women started to moan.
When we drove though Kalamata a few days later, half of the buildings were destroyed and people were living in tents in the streets.
Returning to present day, except for the main road that passed through the town, I never would have recognized Kardamili, now Iined with apartments, hotels, restaurants and shops, built up into the hills and down to the sea. As we drove south toward Areopolis, our next hotel destination,I hoped we were leaving mass tourism behind us. The sky was a clear deep blue and the sun was bright when we arrived at Athea village, a modern motel hotel off the main highway with flags of all nations blowing in the wind. A forgettable place, an unforgettable bad mattress and a memorable delicious dinner in an old taverna in the village of Pyrgos Dirou by the sea.
As we made our way south towards the tip of the Mani, we saw stone villages high up on the mountains and deserted ones along the road. One of the loveliest places we visited was Gerolimenas, a tiny village on the sea, lined with old stone houses converted into small hotels and new hotels built to look old buildings. Until the 1970’s this town was reached mainly by boat and was a fishing center. It has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mani. There is a five star hotel sitting on the edge of the sea, with a swimming pool surrounded by white bodies , some in better shape than others. It almost seemed like a picture postcard, no conversation or groups of people chatting with each other, everyone lying in the warm sun on beach lounges,I suppose hoping for a darker skin color.
Enchanted by the village, we stumbled onto a lovely 8 room bed and breakfast for $70 euro a night, a patio overlooking the sea, and a charming owner. She, like many in the tourist business, spent 8 months in the village and 4 winter months In Athens. As we wandered away from the tourist area, I noticed a street of rundown and abandoned houses These were homes of Albanians, many who came in the 90’s to Greece without much education, looked down on by the Greeks and worked menial jobs.
Eating at one of the tavernas near the beach, the owner, a short, chubby, nervous young guy, who was the waiter as well, told us he just had taken over the restaurant in April. A very sweet, attentive person, he came over several times to talk to us, make sure we loved our food and share some stories. He explained he had been a weight lifter, traveling with and training the Greek Special Olympics team. .Now he felt he had to become more responsible, build a more stable career and eventually find a wife and have children. We wished him luck and headed down to the bottom of the Mani.
As we drove down toward the sea, leaving Gerolimanas, a magical beach appeared at the bottom of a ravine. We parked and climbed down a rock path to a pebbled beach and the turquoise blue sea. The only other people on the beach was a young German couple we had met earlier. Not expecting to swim that day, we disrobed and ran into the clear, cool water.
Continuing down the deep Mani, where many tourists never go, from the road, the medieval village of Vathi with its watchtowers, looked out over the Aegean. But what I remember about this town was the $3 Coca Cola I drank and the indifference of the taverna owner to feed a hungry kitten who had lost its way.
Almost reaching the southern tip of mainland eastern Europe, we checked out Porto Kagio, a tiny fishing village on the east side of the Mani, which had turned itself into a moderate priced tourist vacation spot. Reminiscent of 1980’s Greece, umbrellas, plastic chaise lounges and tavernas lined the beach front; rooms to let, small hotels and a mini mobile home park were set back from the water.. A bit too remote and not much of a swimming beach, with fishing boats and sail boats hanging out in the water, this was not enticing me to return. But driving to the other side of the mountain, we found the Marmari Paradise Hotel resort, built into the side of a mountain with a private beach below it. The name sounds pretentious and expensive but it is neither. Owned by a friendly Greek family, the rooms are reasonable at 60 euro. Hopefully it doesn’t change.
Our final foray exploring, we drove up the east coast of the Mani. Rural villages sitting on mountain tops, simple stone houses and a barren landscape. Surviving here is difficult, raising sheep and goats seems to be one of few occupations in this arid landscape. Curiosity would be the main reason to drive this coast. It is hard to believe the two drastically different coasts are on the same peninsula.
Driving back to Athens, we drove small curvy roads, saw wonderful lush green landscapes and turned a 3 hour drive into a 7 hour marathon. Back in Athens, we flew out the next day to the remote island of Astypalea. To be continued.