Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Towering Tales ~ Feuding, Fighting and Families

The road clinging to the cliff side had become so narrow that I shut my eyes and gripped the door handle to the side of my seat. . .all the while praying that we wouldn’t meet an on-coming car. The Scout, behind the wheel, was navigating our ascent up the mountain on a roadway, barely wide enough for our small SUV.

We’d set off last spring to find a village that had been recommended as a ‘must see’  in a region of the Peloponnese known as the Mesa or Inner Mani. The higher we went, the more narrow the road became, offering no pull out or turn-around on its winding ascent.

The Mesa Mani, that begins about an hour’s drive to the south of our Greek Stone House on the Hill, is a wild, wondrous area that overwhelms the senses. Such a rugged, vast area -  in places so remote - that it can put your nerves on edge. . .

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Wide open spaces of the Mesa Mani - Peloponnese
We were traveling through one of those nerve-jangling areas that provided us with magnificent sweeping views of this storied land  (when I had the courage to open my eyes, that is).

“Gripping that door won’t save you,” The Scout, in his matter-of-fact way observed aloud, never taking his eyes of the narrow strip of pavement or his hands off the wheel.

I wondered if we’d mentioned to anyone we might be coming this way, just in case we were to end up somewhere in the bottom of the ravine our route was rimming. . .

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The road quite literally less-traveled  Mesa Mani Peloponnese
“Let’s get a coffee” when we get there, I suggested through gritted teeth, my eyes still shut.
Now had we read the guidebook before setting out I would have never made such a ridiculous suggestion, but then had we read the book, we likely wouldn’t have been on this road to Mountanistiki either:

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Just us and the wind in this hilltop town - Peloponnese
The road, was just as the book described it: ‘really quite a driving experience with vertiginous drops’ [that] . . .leads to a depopulated ghost town set on a mountainous ridgeline at 600 meter (1,950 feet) elevation’. Yes, it described it all to a tee!

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No coffee to be found in this town - Peloponnese
With the wind as our tour guide, we followed the town’s narrow walkways past crumbling structures and fences. ‘Why had it been built and why had it been abandoned?’ we pondered. ‘And who might still be living among the ruins?’ 

The town, its houses and towers built between 1880 – 1910, was definitely a ghost town with perhaps evidence of one or two places still being occupied. 

I suspect its towers, pyrgos, as they are called in Greek, could have answered our questions. They are among some 800 towers that remain scattered about the Mani; towers that have played a major part in its history.

Oh, the tales they could tell about the feuding, fighting and families . . .

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The tales these towers could tell - Peloponnese

Towering Tales

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Limestone rocks - Mesa Mani, Peloponnese
Let’s begin at the beginning: A popular local story about the Mesa or Inner Mani, is that when God created the earth he was left with a pile of rocks and he put them in this expansive arid area. Its early settlers, the Maniots, used those rocks to build homes, fences – and towers.  The competition for its scant resources, necessary to sustain life and livelihood, led to feuds and that’s where those towers come into importance in this area’s history.

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Every village still has a tower or two in the Mesa Mani - Peloponnese

Families built tower houses – ‘mini castles’, as they are often described – some five stories high, and accessed upper levels with ladders that could be pulled up behind them. Holes were built in the walls from which they could shoot a gun or dump boiling water or oil on unwanted arrivals.  While this may sound like a medieval tale, this was the way of life going on well into the 19th Century in this part of Greece.

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Towers, towers everywhere - Mesa Mani, Peloponnese
Unlike the Outer or Exo Mani to the north where a village was ruled by a single captain of a family, this area often had several feuding clans residing in a single village.

“Sons were called ‘guns’ as wielding one was their main virtue,”
explains Andrew Bostock in his book, Greece: The Peloponnese.

I should note that the towers also came in handy to ward off a variety of foreign invaders and pirates who played a significant role in the area’s history as well. 

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Postcard pretty Vathia in the southern Peloponnese

Unlike the ghost town we visited, there are some pretty spectacular tower towns that are easily reached. One is Vathia, a post-card-picture-perfect town; home to a few permanent residents. It is said to have once sported a ‘forest’ of towers. One account from 1805 tells of a war in the village that lasted 40 years and cost 100 lives. 

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Vathia - Mesa Mani, Peloponnese
There were three types of towers and they were indications of a clan’s strength and unity: the war tower, the tower house and the tower dwelling. They dot the Mani-scape. Many have fallen to ruin; some are being or have been restored. Some modern homes are built in the tower home design or have incorporated a tower into their design. Many towers these days are downright charming.

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Today's tower is most inviting - Peloponnese
Yet, they are a testament to the times when the area was definitely a rough, tough place. You are wrapped in history everywhere you travel in this area. And sometimes, when you least expect it, you come across some rather ominous reminders of the not-so-long-ago past like this sign we saw mounted on the side of a building in a village called Dry:

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If only we could read a bit more Greek. . .

Armed (pun intended) with just a bit of folklore and history, a trip through this part of Greece can stimulate the senses and the imagination. While locals could probably tell you the exact history of each tower we are content in conjuring up possible storylines while speculating about. . .who carried those stones, how long did it take and how did they do it and when?

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Can you see it there on the Cliffside?
We aren’t the only ones who come up with storylines about this place. Jeffrey Siger, our friend who spends his time on the island of Mykonos writing crime novels set in various Greek locales, visited the Mani and has penned both interesting blog posts about his research trips to this area: http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/2010/11/mani-get-your-gun.html and conjured up a very good story in his sixth book in the Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series. Well worth a read if you are visiting the area, and like us, love reading novels set in areas you are visiting.




If You Visit:

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As vast and deserted parts of the Mani may seem, it is home to 98 of the 118 listed traditional settlements of the Peloponnese. And within many of those villages you will find tourist accommodations, tavernas and eateries.

We stayed at the family-owned and operated Citta dei Niccliani. It is just outside the village of Gerolimenas during this trip.  It provided affordable luxury accommodations which were most welcome after a day’s explorations in the area.

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Table tops at this Aeropoli restaurant are tributes to the towers
A recommended route links Aeropoli on the west to Gythio on the east with a stop at to Tenaro at the tip of the point in the south.  Allow plenty of time though to explore villages and soak up the views along the route. It can be done in a day, but is a far richer experience if done a bit more slowly.

The ‘highway’ is a well-maintained two-lane road. Invest in a road map, sold at larger grocery stores and tourist shops, that is printed both in Greek and English. Some road signs are in Greek and a bilingual map is the key to deciphering them. The road I described in the opening is not ‘the highway’.

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That’s it for this week.  Thanks for the time you’ve spent with us ~ as always, we appreciate it! And thanks to those who’ve shared these posts on FB with friends and family. If this is your first visit to TravelnWrite, use the sign up button on the right hand column to receive these weekly  in your inbox! Safe travels to you and yours ~

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday – 
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

19 comments:

  1. I went down as far as Gythio but never had the chance to explore the area. Back then we had four small kids in a small car. It was quite an adventure. i'll looking forward to exploring this area later on in life.

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    1. Mary, you would so enjoy that journey from Gythio to Aereopoli - hopefully we can rendezvous or you come by when you do make the trip!

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  2. That is a very small road. I've been on similar in the hills of Liguria in Italy. At least there aren't many cars to contend with. We did come across teams of bicycles hurtling around the corners toward us though. A heart in the mouth experience. The drop down the sides is what makes these roads so terrifying!

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    1. That was definitely the good news Jan - no other cars. I honestly don't know how far one of us would have had to have backed up to make it around each other.

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  3. Your husband sounds like mine. I get scared on high places and look down or close my eyes. He says that if we are going down, the closed eyes are not going to help. Anyway, these towns are so pretty and interesting. I imagine how difficult it was to reach those places in ancient times (but they were ready for invaders). #TPThursday

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    1. It probably took days, on the back of a burro to reach them and again it makes me want to know why were they built. . .

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  4. This is the off-the-beaten-path kind of travel we love where you never quite know what's around the bend but the "vertiginous drops" get me every time. I've actually had my left leg ache the next day from jamming the imaginary brake to the floor! There must be more myths and legends than stones in the Mani and I loved you photo of Vathia with the stone houses fading into and camouflaged by the background of the hills. Your part of Greece must feel like you could travel back centuries at just the blink of an eye as change seems to come very slowly to this area. So lovely, Jackie!

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    1. We are eager to show you two these kinds of places after we get back and settled in. . .the welcome mat will be out!

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  5. Thx for taking us on this hike thru the Peloponnese, Jackie. If only those walls could talk (in English!) we would hear many interesting tales.

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    1. LOL, you are so correct about needing the English version Doreen!

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  6. What a fascinating adventure to a place I never imagined existed. Your drive, however scary, was well worth it to arrive at the lovely Vathia. I'm definitely charmed by your account of the Inner Mani of Greece.

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    1. Thanks Pamela and thanks for taking the time to comment. Hope you'll be back and continue the conversation! Glad you enjoyed this slice of our Mysterious Mani!

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  7. Great shots of the ruins of castle.

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  8. Your story-telling was as delightful as your photos.

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    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment. Glad you enjoyed it! Please come back again!

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  9. I would have had to be sedated for that drive. Even during my carpooling days in Philadelphia, one of the drivers looked over as I had my white knuckled hand plastered to the area over the glove compartment, "Suzanne, that part of my car has never fallen off. You don't need to hold it." Having said that, as on the scary drives in southwest Ireland, it looks like it was worth it.

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    1. I can now say been-there, done-that but sometimes I do wonder about us. We often remark that this and other outings like it are the kinds of things we likely wouldn't tell our kids about if we had kids! Thanks for stopping by~

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