Located at the southern tip of the Peloponnese, the region known as Mani is a must-see when traveling in Greece. Rugged, barren, and wild, it’s an area which boasts both incredible country and a remarkably well-preserved, traditional way of life. When I went to Mani, I found a stark landscape, wonderfully warm people, and tasty, unique local dishes.
As I did not have a car, I was only able to see Areopolis and Gerolimenas. However, these two towns were an excellent first look at Mani and everything it has to offer.
Traditional buildings in this region are made from stone. Because Mani is an area of Greece which has managed to preserve its traditional way of life, this means that every building is made from stone. With cobbled walkways and a rocky landscape, too, Mani gives the impression of being made entirely of stone. Being so far south, it can get incredibly hot; and with my fair skin, at times I had the impression of being baked on the stones! And I was only there in May. I can’t imagine what it’s like in August.
The only postcards and other touristy knickknacks are sold outside a bakery, and the town blessedly abounds with people carrying out their everyday and thoroughly Greek lives. Kids stop briefly at the threshold to shout to their taverna-owner parents that they’re off to play with Yiannis/Yiorgos/Maria/Katerina from next door. Old men sip ouzo together on porches and carry on in animated, curmudgeonly commentary about the happenings in town. Priests in their traditional garb stop to chat with shopkeepers, bakers, cafe owners, you name it: it’s easy to see that everyone knows each other in this lively little town.
Just by sitting and watching, I was given access to this totally authentic little world, and the single greatest gem of this authenticity occurred when I was sitting outside at a cafe. I had my laptop with me in order to briefly catch up with the e-world, and my friend Bennett video-chatted me all the way from Bozeman, Montana. (“How is that POSSIBLE?!” the simple humanities geek who lives in my brain wants to know. I don’t know what to tell her.) We were getting caught up when I saw three people rush by with video cameras. Just as I began to register that something was about to happen, the church bells across the way pounded out a telltale “Dum dum da dum! Dum DUM da-DUM!” to warn me that yes, an entire Greek wedding procession was about to pass before my very eyes. Indeed, it was. I turned my laptop so Bennett could see the amazing parade of fancy dresses, tuxedos, and little kids in their Sunday best. Then came the bride. She was simply stunning. I had never met her and barely even speak her language, but I totally teared up a little while watching her make her way into the church.
I sat at that cafe until the wedding was over. The church couldn’t hold all the guests, as it was quite small, so many of them waited outside during the actual ceremony. It was great fun to watch the kids excitedly clutching their sachets of rice and waiting impatiently for the big moment, when they would get to empty the rice into their hands and toss fistfuls of it at the couple as they made their married debut. As for the ceremony itself, it was broadcast through the church speakers, and I noticed three things. First, it was much longer than an American wedding ceremony. Second, it was done entirely (or almost entirely) by the priest himself–I didn’t hear any other voices, nor any pauses during which other voices would have spoken. And third, I heard quite a few “Christos Anesti”s. Some of you may remember from my Easter post that “Christos Anesti” means “Christ has risen.” I’m not sure if this is something usually said at weddings or was merely said at this one because it took place after Easter, though I’m guessing it was because of the latter.
Another lovely part of my visit to Areopolis was my hotel. It was a traditional Maniot building, and was located ten minutes’ walk from the town center. The owners personified the very best of Greek hospitality. I was the only person staying in the hotel that weekend, and they still cooked breakfast for what could have easily been a dozen people every morning I was there (and not only woke up extra early to do so on my last morning, but also drove me to the bus stop!). Interestingly, the husband had a PhD in hard sciences but still couldn’t get a job in his field, so he opened a hotel instead. If that’s not the Greek economic crisis in action, I don’t know what is.
All in all, I highly recommend Areopolis as a base for seeing Mani, especially if you don’t have a car. I was even able to get a bus all the way back to Athens on Sunday morning. It’s a charming town and a solid example of the Maniot way of life.
I had heard that Gerolimenas was a picturesque seaside village. I had also heard that one of Greece’s top chefs has a restaurant in one of the super-chic hotels in the town.
Naturally, I had to go to Gerolimenas.
I ate cheaply for days before in order to be able to afford to eat at this restaurant, and neither the food nor the village itself was a disappointment. I spent my time in Gerolimenas finishing my book, gazing at the gorgeous scenery, and indulging in shameless foodgasms.
I had a Greek coffee while I read (and what I mean by “read” is “read a few sentences, looked up at the baffling beauty of the scenery around me, read a few more sentences, looked up again…”). For those of you who have never met a Greek coffee before, it’s sort of like espresso, but the coffee grounds are still in the cup. Never–and I mean never–try to drink the sludge at the bottom of your Greek coffee! Bleh!
Finally, it was time to EAT! I was so excited as I walked into the restaurant. The hotel itself is totally honeymoon-worthy (dear future husband, whoever you may be: get excited to go to Mani!). I was absolutely in foodie heaven as I sat on the deck, looking out at the water and eating such expertly-prepared food. It was totally worth saving up for days beforehand.
I hope the other guests weren’t alarmed by the noises I was making. I just really loved this meal. It was divine. Truly. The local, seasonal ingredients spoke to the Greekness of the meal, while culinary elements from other cultures offered the perfect accompaniments to boost their flavors and textures.
I send postcards to my parents and one of my best friends from every single place I visit in Greece, and as the “Wish you were here!” thing got old, I started writing a haiku on each one instead. Here is my postcard haiku from Gerolimenas:
If I were a shrimp
And I knew I’d taste this good
I would not fear death.
Mani is certainly an area to which I feel I must return someday, with a car and my hiking gear. The extensive trail system is perfect for a backpacking trip. And the further south you go in Mani, the more remote and traditional it is. Next time, I’m going all the way to the tip.
Στην υγειά σας,
P.S. Stay tuned for a recipe for a regional specialty from Mani!