I thought I'd do a brief report of our latest Greek trip - much briefer anyway than my lengthy ramblings from Evia earlier this year!
We spent a week in Agios Nikolaos, a small fishing village in the Exo (Outer) Mani. We first went there in 1992 and I can report it has changed very little. It’s still small, quiet, traditional and very picturesque. The tiny harbour is still full of fishing boats and the fishermen still sell their catch early each morning at the old stone slab with what look like the same set of weighing scales. At night when the tavernas along the harbour front are lit up and reflected in the water it’s almost impossibly pretty. Last year we visited for a week in September and loved it so much that we came back this year too.
We stayed at the Petrino Villas which are perfect – traditional stone houses surrounded by oleanders, bouganvillea, jasmine, roses, orange, lemon, pomegranate, fig and almond trees and grape vines. The location is peaceful but only 5 minutes walk from the harbour front with its small shops and tavernas. Pantazi beach is 1km away and undeveloped apart from a shady taverna that has a handful of sunbeds on the grey sand and shingle below. Almost in the village itself is the bathing place called Gnospi, a spacious paved area with a small blue and white chapel and several caves in the cliffs. Local lads climb up the cliffs and leap off, apparently dicing with death but they have been doing it all their lives, and their fathers before them, so they know the water is deep enough.
The delightful Stavroula from the villas told us that this area is surviving the crisis quite well. Tourism has been up this year (maybe because of the new Easyjet flights to Kalamata) and the locals are making enough from tourism, plus their fishing and farming. Of course she was worried about the situation in Athens and the political problems, but on the whole this little area seems, thankfully, to be getting by ok.
On a cloudy, windy day we drove south and then east to Gythion with its elegant classical style mansions and the little islet where, according to Homer, Paris and Helen of Troy spent their first night together after eloping. Gythion was looking a bit tired, its long seafront lined with tavernas that were almost entirely empty even at lunchtime. Maybe the wind was keeping people away or maybe the economic crisis is being felt more here, or a combination of both. There was a market on, but the goods on sale were mostly cheap tat and there were a number of vans parked nearby which seemed to have entire families living in them, with women cooking on camping stoves and children playing on rugs spread beside them. Hard to tell if this was their permanent living arrangement or if they were just there for the market.
Next we headed down the east coast of the Mani to the tiny beach at Skoutari, a magical place that we stumbled on last year. On the small, sandy beach is the church of Agia Varvara, possibly 13th century, or earlier or later according to who you ask. Last year we were sad to see this ancient church in such poor condition, and as the door was off its hinges we were able to go inside and take photos of the beautiful, crumbling frescoes – one of which, a horse, is my icon on the TA forum. This year, hooray, we found it swathed in green plastic, fenced off and surrounded by portakabins – it’s being restored by the Hellenic Byzantine Organisation (or some such name – anyway they are experts!). As last year we had the most delicious late lunch in one of the two fish tavernas - fresh fish, Greek salad with the creamiest feta ever and a big plate of freshly cooked chips. Afterwards, a nap in the sun on the beach and a swim in the warm bath-like water of the little bay, surrounded by mountains. We chatted with George, who lives in Athens and must be at least in his eighties or older, and spends his summers in a tiny cottage above the beach. We asked him if he goes swimming every day and he replied “I’m sick of swimming! I’ve been swimming since March!”.
One late afternoon we walked along the coastal path for about 45 minutes to the small resort of Stoupa. I have said slightly unkind things about Stoupa on this forum in the past, but I have to admit I was a bit better disposed to it this time. There are attractive, traditional old stone buildings along the sea front and the beach was more appealing late in the day when the many sunbeds were mostly empty and being packed away. Still, we couldn’t find anywhere for a drink that did NOT have loud music blaring out which is an absolute no-no for us, so I haven’t completely revised my opinion!
Another day, we drove up into the mountains to explore the mountain villages. From Pyrgos we had staggering views down to Ag. Nik. and Stoupa below. We fell in love with two black kittens and I had to be torn away from them. Wandering around the old stone alleyways there was nothing to indicate we were in the 21st century, it was all white painted stonework, blue painted doors, old ladies clad in black. At a sudden clattering on the cobblestones behind us, we turned round just in time to get out of the way of a man trotting along on a large horse – with his wide brimmed cowboy-style hat, it did look a bit as if Clint Eastwood had got very lost...
Further up into the mountains at Kastania, we had lunch at a tiny taverna with just 3 or 4 tables. The owner spoke very little English so I was able to practise my bit of Greek, and when an American couple arrived I was flattered when she asked me to translate. The couple, who were from Oregon which must be quite spectacular itself, were bowled over by the Peloponnese and said how envious they were of us, being able to ‘hop over’ to Greece so easily. Yes, we are lucky! After lunch we walked up a steep path to the one thousand year old church of Agios Petros. This too was swathed in plastic sheeting and being restored. The restorers were high up on the scaffolding and we crept inside, stepping over bags of plaster and piles of tools. We managed a quick look at the beautiful medieval frescoes and carvings before being spotted and kindly but firmly ushered outside by a man in a hard hat! Heading back towards the coast we got utterly lost among country lanes but eventually emerged at Kardamyli for a late afternoon swim.
On our last day, a Saturday, we went down to the bathing place at Gnospi for a last swim. The stone steps down the cliff had been decorated with white ribbons, and the little chapel was filled with burning candles – there was going to be a wedding later. It was almost a Mama Mia moment, and a lovely end to our trip.