“Exploring the Peloponnese” is Peter Sommer Travels’ second scheduled tour in Greece in 2018. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog, following last year’s precedents in Crete and the Dodecanese. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
A day of fine sunny weather and great views, as we travelled northwards along the western coast of the Mani Peninsula, leaving the region of Laconia and entering that of Messinia (Messenia), to today’s destination, the city of Kalamata, famous for the olives and oil produced by the surrounding area. The archaeological highlight was the Archaeological Museum of Messinia, a diverse collection of material from the entire region, spanning the vast range from prehistory to the Byzantine era and beyond.
Before reaching Kalamata, however, we stopped at Kardamyli, a coastal settlement of Messenian Mani. The place is an attractive and peaceful coastal resort, distinguished by a number of good sandy beaches in its surroundings and by some fine Neoclassical buildings in its centre. Kardamyli is perhaps best-known, at least in the English-speaking world, as the chosen retreat of the famous travel writer and war hero, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), who made a nearby cove his principal home from the 1960s until his death. His choice is understandable: the area is immensely beautiful.
Kardamyli is a very ancient settlement, mentioned already in Homer’s Iliad, although there is nearly nothing to see of the ancient city. Instead, our visit took us to the site known as Old Kardamyli, a small hamlet just outside the modern town. Set upon a rocky outcrop, it is a typical Mani village, constructed around the end of the 17th century. It consists of a number of defensible houses, tall stone structures with few windows, illustrating the characteristic Maniot lifestyle of the Ottoman era, when every village and every home in the area was a miniature fortification, protecting its inhabitants from enemy attack, be it by Ottoman troops trying to appease the notoriously rebellious region, or by their compatriots, since Mani was also famous for internal conflict between its various clans. In the first months of 1821, Theodoros Kolokotronis spent some time here as an honoured guest, planning and organising the rebellion that was to be remembered as the Greek War of Independence.
The Old Kardamyli complex includes a great example of the most striking architectural expression of the era, the Maniot Tower House. The Mourtzinos Tower belonged to a powerful family of that name, also called Troupakis. They were descended from the House of Palaiologos, the last imperial family of Byzantium, and members of the family still live in the area. The tower, essentially a tall house with a single entrance at first floor (for our American friends, that’s the second floor) level (now reached by a stone bridge but probably originally by a drawbridge), is a structure of simple lines and a stark modest beauty. Old Kardamyli also incorporates various ancillary buildings, such as an olive press, a smithy, storerooms and a fine – if peculiar – 17th century church dedicated to Saint Spyridon. Today, the complex houses a small exhibition dedicated to the history of the Mani Peninsula, and especially to the remnants of its traditional and fierce lifestyle that are scattered throughout the region, with an emphasis on the architecture.
Our guests certainly enjoyed the visit, not least because of the rich beauty of the surrounding landscape, with steep slopes covered in olive and cypress trees, and all manner of wild flowers lining the paths and tracks.
Tomorrow, we will explore the region of Homer’s “sandy Pylos” in southwestern Messinia.