Thursday, 29 October 2015

Mani Pleasures:

26th -28th October

Tomorrow we head to Gythion Bay campsite after two days wild camping on the Mani peninsula. Of course the Mani is not undiscovered, nor untouched by mass tourism, but it is remote, and at this time of year, off the main roads, it is empty, wild and bewitchingly beautiful. We have been so fortunate with the weather, lovely autumn days, sunny with temperatures in the mid 20 - perfect. So, coming up, a few blog posts about the highlights starting with...

1. Unforgettable Roads

The terrain is very mountainous and so the roads slither their way through, tangled like unravelling string. By Greek standards the bigger roads are reasonably wide, and better surfaced than others we have been on. However, to reach Camperstops in the villages or by a beach you have to take minor roads. These can be narrow, with crumbling edges and deep ditches and culverts at the side. Overhanging branches or balconies in narrow streets are a hazard too. You will meet coaches and trucks on single track roads and as the tourist, you will be expected to reverse. This can be hair-raising, and without a co-driver happy to get out and direct, nigh on impossible.

Thankfully in mid-October the roads were at times utterly empty, in July and August I suspect driving around the Mani is completely stressful. If you do have the confidence to bring your gleaming hulk of metal here, then you will rediscover the excitement of driving, and in those rare moments when you can glance away from the road you will glimpse scenery that has to be some of the most beautiful in the world. Gill kept snapping away as we drove along. In the best tradition of the TV chef, here are some views from the cab we took earlier.

Empty roads through the mountains

Hairpin bends to make Muriel's eyes water

OK  until you meet the Stavros the bus driver hurtling towards you...

Mountains and olive covered headlands - The Mani coastal scenery

2. Historic Villages

The hill villages, situated high above the spectacular coast line, with their fortified towered houses and tiny Byzantine chapels are what the Mani is famous for. They are severe looking places in a bare limestone landscape. The area, like Corsica, resisted the efforts of larger powers to govern it. Well into the nineteenth century it was home to warring clans who maintained vendettas over generations. It was a barbaric place ruled 'mafia-style' by feudal obligation. Before Greek independence the area made its money by selling Venetian slaves to the Turks and Turkish slaves to the Venetians. When human cargo was in short supply, they simply nipped around to the neighbours, carried off their womenfolk and sold them. Of course they've given up now on people trafficking and taken-up selling craft items to tourist who give up their money readily without even requiring a pistol to the head.

Less famous are the small fishing villages by the coast, they not quite so stony faced looking, and are as lovely as anywhere you might imagine on the Mediterranean that has not as yet been utterly changed by tourism, imagine a fishing village where men actually fish, their wives and daughters operate the small open air fish market, and there is not one swanky looking yacht to be seen. Amazing!

Agios Nikolaos - utterly gorgeous.

The fishing fleet

Illy coffee - yay!

Watching the boats come in...
The time from boat to market...

...about 45 seconds..

3. Epic Landcapes

There is not really one typical Mani landscape, but differing ones, due to the height of the mountains and the relationship between geology and moderating influence of the sea. The lower slopes mix olive groves with clusters of tall cypresses, combined with the dark blue sea it is like a crowd free Amalfi coast. A few hundred metres further up it becomes a country of deep ravines and arid limestone hills. Between these are small plateaux with the Mani tower villages overlooking their scrap of earth from a nearby crag. Above, white mountains hover, even on an otherwise cloudless day wreathed in scraps of cumulus.

In Crete, the North and South coasts, though only an hour or so drive apart have a different climate: in the north, green with patches of eucalyptus forests, to the south, barren garrigue. Something similar seems to happen on the Mani; Whereas the west facing coast is rocky, reminiscent in parts of northern Corsica, the east coast is gentler, with more pasture and a few small river valleys; it's a more forgiving looking landscape altogether. This is the Mani's charm, it is epic in scale, but subtly varied, it thrills, without being overpowering. Breathtaking is overused to the point of cliche so far as scenery is concerned, but I challenge you to drive along this peninsula without the occasional involuntary gasp.

The roads winds through limestone garrigue with cloud topped mountains above.

At times it is arid, reminiscent of  Cap Corse

Other times the shingly coves, whitewashed builsings and sage green hills ate pure tourst brochure Greece

The east coast has a gentler, wooded aspect.
4. Elemental Swimming

The stormy weather last week put paid to my penchant for jumping into the sea at every opportunity. Perhaps that's it. I thought, the end of summer warmth, it might be tri suit weather from now on. We parked for the night on the quayside at Agios Nikolaos. Towards evening we took a stroll around he village. As we passed a rocky outcrop near the harbour beacon, a man in swimming trunks holding a snorkel clambered up some old metal steps from a crystal clear rocky pool.

"Good swim,, is it warm?" Gill enquired.
"Very varm, gut, gut, 24 degrees!" Herr Snorkel enthused.
"I will jump in tomorrow." I boasted.
"Me also," Herr Snorkel informed me, "Maybe we jump in both!" (Hearty Germanic chuckle).

The clear water looked very inviting, though it's fair to say I was very sceptical concerning the alleged temperature, especially given the thundery weather on over the past week.

Next morning I did jump in, even though Herr Snorkel was nowhere to be seen. In the event he was right and I was mistaken, the sea was remarkably warm.

Beyond the harbour, up a lane of  bougainvillea... 

steps lead down to a rocky pool

Why did I leave my snorkel at home?
 Since then, I have become a fish. Yesterday lunchtime we stopped for a couple of hours by the side of an empty beach at Neo Itlo. I had lunch, then I jumped into the sea.

Lunch stop at Neo Itlion

A relaxing afternoon on the beach

followed by a swim
Later on we stopped for the night at an even more remote beach near Kamares. Since the clocks changed last weekend it's getting dark about 6pm. around the time we eat our evening meal. As I washed up, I saw out of the kitchen window a big fat full moon rising over the bay. I grabbed my camera and video and spent a few minutes failing to capture the magic. As the sky darkened to a grey gauze, one by one the stars appeared. The wind dropped and the sea became silky smooth like a lake. Staring at the glassy water had the same fascination as happening upon an untrodden field of snow. I knew I had to make my mark, so I stripped-off and jumped in - a big ripple in the small bay, a drop in the ocean, a random collection of conscious atoms among the stars. I suppose if I was religiously minded I would say that swimming through the dark water towards the full moon was a spiritual moment, but I am sceptical about the allegedly numinous. Nevertheless, it was a powerful, memorable experience, but a very humbling, human one, full moon, big sea, endless starry space, and me.

A rare experience - swimming through a ribbon of light towards the full moon.
The change of time has also made me stir irritatingly early. It was a few minutes before 6.30pm when the dawn light woke me up. I knew I was never going to get back to sleep, so I grabbed my camera and walked along the empty shoreline. Though the sky was a deep blue by now, sunrise was at least half an hour hence. In the east Mars shone brightly, there was a pale mist half hiding the far hills across the Gulf of Lakonikos; close by, a wispy fog hung above the steel-grey bay. The sea was so warm that the chill dawn air condensed above it. 

first light
dawn mist across the bay
Of course you know what I did, I went for a swim, because once we get back to staying in campsites, even those next to a beach, you don't have the freedom to simply roll out of bed and jump into the sea. To my mind, you have to grab moments of freedom when you can. Most times the world conspires to slot you into a convenient, pre-determined mould; it's difficult to grasp the authentic, or un-mediated, difficult even to define it, but you know when you have experienced it, you feel strengthened, elated and liberated.

Sent from my iPhone


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