All we wanted, really, was a pleasant place for a 10-day family gathering: my wife and me, her brother and his wife, and my 93-year-old mother-in-law — five people connected by blood, marriage and shared history, but usually separated by 10 time zones.
What we got was much more than a reunion.
Because my in-laws didn’t want to travel far from their home in Israel, we decided to gather in Greece. I pored over Web sites and found an appropriate house on the Peloponnese’s Mani Peninsula, where none of us had ever been.
According to the Web page, the house was in a non-touristy village, several miles uphill from the coast, so we’d need a car to go to the beach or a restaurant, or to find an ATM. Did we really want to do that?
My wife, Betty, had other concerns: Given Greece’s economic woes, what would it be like in a small village? Would basic services be disrupted? After some comforting input from the owners, we rented the house.
We rendezvoused with my in-laws at the Athens airport, then drove our stick-shift rental car across the Peloponnese to Kalamata (where, yes, we ate excellent olives). From there we took a winding two-lane road south, with the Messenian Gulf to the right, the Taygetus Mountains to the left. It’s a breathtaking intro to the Mani, a hardscrabble peninsula that juts downward toward the Mediterranean like a tough, scraggly witch’s finger.
An hour later, at Stoupa, a beach town awash in northern Europeans, we called Deborah, an Irishwoman who manages the rental house.
Blond, wiry Deborah arrived on a three-wheeled putt-putt vehicle. She said that she’d lived in the Mani for years and had brought up her children there. Besides managing properties, she rents horses that she brought over from Ireland (!) and offers riding lessons. She cheerily mentioned that her own house, in a nearby village, has no electricity or running water.
We followed Deborah up to Neohori. As we approached the village, instead of continuing on the zigzag road, she chose to hazard a steep uphill. Her scooter stalled, forcing me to fumble with tire-screeching, hand-brake, manual-shift maneuvers, punctuated by Betty’s gasps.
In Neohori, the alleyways were a hair wider than the car. With relieved sighs all around, we arrived unscratched.
Neohori, as far as we could see, was clean and quiet. True to the depiction on the Web site, the rental was a stone house that had been completely redone and was modern inside, with lots of labor-saving machinery and homey touches.
I asked Deborah about theft and security. “Don’t worry about that,” she winked. “A squadron of guards protects this house. You’ll see.”
After settling in, we gathered on the upper patio, which has a view of the gulf and the mountains. We sipped tea, enjoying the roosters’ crowing, the only sound in the village.
Gradually, we became aware of another sound: voices. Six women of various ages had installed themselves outside our front door and were talking loudly.
Were we being routed out of the village? Gruesome scenes from “Zorba the Greek” flashed through my mind.
As it turned out, the women gathered there every afternoon to trim vegetables and chat. The oldest, dressed in Greek-widow black, cleaned zucchini blossoms.
Ah . . . so this was the “squadron of guards”!
I wished them kalimera (good morning), then corrected myself: kalispera (good afternoon). The women, apparently wanting to connect with us, answered with smiles and a volley of questions. Unfortunately, I’d exhausted my knowledge of Greek, so I smiled stupidly and shrugged.
Before the trip, I’d read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1950s book, “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese,” a lyrical, learned, loving portrait of the Maniots, who, the author writes, have survived on courage, resourcefulness and fierce independence. They’ve repelled invaders, coaxed a living out of a harsh landscape and somehow maintained their good humor.
The next day, inspired by the intrepid Fermor, I got up at dawn and hiked alone along a “donkey trail” — a narrow path paved with flattened stones of odd sizes. Part of the trail from Neohori up to the neighboring village was weedy, thorny and overgrown. The smell of wild sage was all around, and cyclamen sprouted between the rocks. Higher up, the trail was bordered with olive groves.
All of it had a stark, sharp beauty.
It took an hour to walk to Kastania. Near the village square, a woman stood precariously on a stone wall, picking and bagging figs from a tree beside a house that looked abandoned, its harvest apparently fair game.
In the square, a cadre of men sat outdoors at two adjoining tavernas, talking and drinking retsina or coffee.
Describing a similar scene in the 1950s, Fermor wrote that taverna denizens he met “mercifully” avoided politics and instead talked about shipwrecks, Lord Byron, the fall of Byzantium, bird migration or the evils of hashish-smoking.
The men at the tavernas in Kastania — were they talking about hashish and shipwrecks? Or were they hashing out the potential sinking of Greece’s economic ship of state?
What the villagers said was Greek to me, but while in the Mani, I saw no sign of people fretting about the economy. Distant from Greece’s power centers, daily life in these villages seemed unhurried and unworried.
In every village, almost all available land was used for food production. In every back yard there were squashes or melons growing, a grapevine, fruit and olive trees, rows of vegetables; often, hens scurried around.
In subsequent days, I saw that each village in the Mani is unique, but all have at least two things in common: some agricultural self-reliance, and men — sometimes women, too — sitting at tavernas, talking, drinking and laughing.
For the five of us, most days had the same rhythm: While Betty and my in-laws were still sleeping, I’d go for my early-morning hike. Back at the house, I’d make hot cereal and coffee. At the same time, my sister-in-law would walk to the nearby bakery for a warm hearth-baked loaf.
We’d sit in the lower patio, shaded by a grapevine, feasting on tomatoes, yogurt, cheese and grapes from the clusters hanging overhead.
In the early afternoon — automobile side-mirrors tucked in — we’d carefully creep out of Neohori’s tight alleyways and then drive to the seashore. Stoupa’s sandy beaches were thick with parasols and sun worshipers; we preferred Pantazi Beach, south of Agios Nikolaos. Pantazi is pebbly and uncrowded and has a snack bar, public toilets and shady trees: It’s a perfect place to read, interrupted by an occasional dip in warm gulf waters.
By late afternoon we’d go home and sit in the upper patio, drinking homemade grape juice, watching the sunset on the gulf. In the other direction were the Taygetus Mountains — the steep spine of the Mani — occasionally capped by dark clouds.
My brother- and sister-in-law hiked in the late afternoon, before dinner. Undaunted by growing darkness, impassable gorges or exhaustion, my brother-in-law faced each walk as if it were a Himalayan test of mettle.
During one strenuous hike, expecting to find a taverna with hot food and cold drinks, they trudged on and instead found only a spout with cold mountain water and a tree full of ripe figs, which they devoured. That was much more memorable than a taverna would have been; it gave them a story worth telling, which is, after all, one of the reasons for traveling.
Almost every night we drove down to the coastal villages for dinner. At Yesterday and Today, a combination restaurant/gift shop in Stoupa, Voula Kyriakea, the gracious owner, pointed to the other side of the inlet.
“A hundred years ago, a young man came to Kalogria,” Voula said, “to do some mining. Nikos Kazantzakis.”
“Who wrote ‘Zorba the Greek,’ ” we exclaimed.
Voula nodded. “He hired a mining engineer, an older man full of life. His name? Zorbas!” Voula laughed, relishing the Mani’s past as well as its present. There was no question why she’d named her restaurant Yesterday and Today.
Later, we strolled Stoupa’s curved boardwalk — no high-rises and just the right amount of tourist shops, restaurants, small hotels and rental apartments.
Stoupa, Kalogria and Agios Nikolaos are all pleasant and unspoiled. A few miles north is beautiful Kardamili, which Fermor called “Byzantium restored.” These are all wonderful vacation spots.
But day by day, we fell under the spell of Neohori, “our” village: its churches, the bakery and its aroma, the surrounding olive groves, the painted doorways and sturdy stone houses whose roofs sported hawk-shaped weather vanes.
Most of all, we looked forward to the daily gathering outside our door. Whenever the neighbors appeared, my sister-in-law would announce: “Hear ye! Hear ye! The Neohori ladies’ parliament is now in session!”
Fermor wrote that Pyrgos Dirou — stalagmites and stalactites, otherworldly colors and shapes, the stuff of dreams or nightmares — are the caves “through which . . . famous descents into the Underworld were made.”
An hour south of Neohori, the caves, which you traverse in part by boat, are spectacular enough even without the myths. But inside, dragging your fingers in the cool water, it’s tempting to imagine Orpheus trying to lead his beloved Eurydice through the Underworld.
Farther down the Mani is the village of Vathia. Seen from sea level, Vathia looks like a collection of caramel-colored stone towers. After going up the switchback road, you find dozens of rectangular three- and four-story structures that once were family fortresses.
Now they’re deserted, empty.
Built hundreds of years ago, these blocky citadels are emblematic of both the advantages and the pitfalls of the Mani’s storied independence. They provided protection from feuding neighbors, marauders, other villages or invading armies, but no protection against economic downturns; so nowadays almost all these mini-forts, in spite of their spectacular views, are vacant and crumbling.
We left Vathia, drove to the southern tip of the peninsula and then, hours later, took a wrong turn and inadvertently ended up back in Vathia. But now something was very different. The road through the abandoned village was lined with cars from end to end, far too many for tourist traffic.
A wedding was in progress.
A wedding? In a ghost village known mainly for its vendettas? Bizarre.
But there they were: bride, groom, guests, priest, food, decorations, balloons, music — a joyous celebration in abandoned passages and balconies.
It seemed so life-affirming, like laughter in the face of misfortune — like Zorba’s dance after the mining disaster, or an immigrant woman’s cheerful boast about living in a house without utilities, or villagers at a taverna drinking retsina while the country’s economy circles the drain.
We’d gone to the Mani Peninsula purely by chance, for a family gathering. But as the days passed — much too quickly! — I realized that it’s impossible to spend any time there and not learn at least a few life lessons.
Loiederman is a freelance writer and co-author of “The Eagle Mutiny,” a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny in modern American history.
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