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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Traversing Greece's Pirate Peninsula

The scent of wild orchids wafting on the breeze, the murmur of the sea echoing conch-like from chasm wall to chasm wall, the shrill dirges of black-shrouded widows resounding through towered villages -- such are the impressions to which Greece's mountainous Mani peninsula, the southernmost point of all contiguous Europe, treats its visitors. This is a realm of stone, cactus and briny sea, as stark as the marble stages on which Greek tragedies were acted out two millennia ago.

Mani's history is as engaging as its terrain is barren. Pirates, rebels, zealous defenders of liberty, Maniots descended not from the exalted Hellenes, who bequeathed to the West the foundations of its civilization, but from Spartan warriors who retreated into the mountain fastnesses south of their capital rather than submit to foreign domination. Theirs is a history of defiance, of willful isolation, of piracy and bloody insurrection against Turkish rule in Greece.

Regarded by mainland Greeks as backward and violent (indeed, Maniot chieftains assassinated the country's first president), Maniots nevertheless shower guests with hospitality, and tourists familiar with other parts of Greece will feel, in Mani, as if they have landed in another country -- or another era. A spirit of unalloyed local pride transpires even in brief encounters with Maniots, and travelers searching for respite from crowds will have their day on this desolate peninsula, where the regional capital is home to just 980.

A love of Byzantine and Ottoman history has drawn me to Greece a number of times. One sweltering afternoon recently, I hopped a bus in Athens and took off for Mani. After leaving Gythio, our bus crossed the mountains to inner Mani and rattled down the road above the shores of the Mediterranean. Over and over we lurched to a halt to discharge passengers along the way. When finally we made it to the fishing village of Gerolimenas, the sun had slipped into the sea and the moon was silvering the rooftops. I disembarked and heard boats creaking with the tide's ebb in the tiny port.

In the general store the next morning, while asking directions to a village noted for its churches, I met Nikos, a 33-year-old tombstone maker from Mani who had moved to Athens but was back for his vacation. "If you want to see churches," he said, "we have some in our village, Keria, that date from the third century. Come with us to Keria." I accepted the invitation, and we piled into his car with several of his relatives for the drive up the mountain.

"Gerolimenas was built only recently, in the 1920s," said Nikos, as we bumped along the gravelly road. "Until then, we Maniots lived on mountaintops. We were mainly pirates, but pirates preyed on us as well. For this, we needed the lookouts afforded by locations above the sea."

Up at Keria, we examined the Byzantine church of Saint John, now a stone hovel. Since people here once thrived on piracy, it is difficult to imagine that the churches could incarnate the spirit of the land, but they did: During 400 years of Ottoman rule in Greece lasting from the 15th century to the 19th century, Maniots permitted no faith other than Christianity, violently fending off the Turkish Moslems.

"No Turks raped our women" Nikos declared, proudly raising his chin. "We are the only pure Greeks left. Twice the Turks tried to invade, but we cut them to pieces. No one ever conquered Mani."

This may be roundly regarded as true, though one might point out that the rugged peninsula, just 50 kilometers long and with few natural resources, held little to interest the many invaders, from Barbarian tribes to Franks to Turks, that ravaged Greece beginning in the third century. And of course, it is difficult to exclude the Nazi occupation from reckoning, though Maniots do. Still, the freedom they enjoyed from the Turkish yoke stands as the central pillar of their identity, and the role they played in the War of Independence during the 1820s was prominent indeed.

Yet within Mani itself during the Ottoman era, insularity took its toll, judging by the many stone towers looming above the villages. Maniot chieftains, the fathers of families with many sons, subjugated smaller families and commandeered their daughters to pick their olives, work their fields. This, combined with a dearth of arable land, sparked conflict and led to bloody vendettas between neighbors, with the result that families often took to their towers, from whose nearly windowless confines they shot it out with their village rivals.

One midday I hiked up the narrow road from Gerolimenas to the village of Ano Boulari on the western slope of Sangias Mountain. The sun was flooding the landscape with light. Cicadas buzzed a tune as staccato and dry as the dusty earth, which had been scorched by wildfires. Streaming with sweat, I reached the village after an hour's march and found it deserted, its towered houses tumble-down and wind-worn, spilling at their bases into screes of jagged stone and cactus. A wind passed flute-like through the ruins. I stood and listened; a pair of ravens croaked and circled above, croaked and flapped their heavy black wings. I thought of how, from where I stood, women would keep watch for their husbands' ships, or for those of foreign pirates approaching the shore below.

I scrambled down the footpath, which was choked with cactus and thorn plants as high as my chest, and came upon the 12th-century church of Saint Stratigos, beside which lay a jumbled cemetery. I was trying to descry the date on a cross above a grave when stones skidded: A black billy goat bounded away across the collapsed house opposite me, a hircine sprite of this rocky realm.

Perhaps no place in Mani is more evocative than the village of Vathia, standing alone on a mountaintop near the peninsula's end. I hired a taxi for the 11-kilometer ride there from Gerolimenas. We rounded the last bend, but where Vathia should have been, we saw a promontory wreathed in black smoke. A wildfire was raging on one of the lower slopes, racing in an expanding circle through the brush. We rolled into the smoke and out of it: Ahead of us, Vathia's towers rose isolated on the summit, composing a vaguely ominous vista that conjured up thoughts of ghosts and story-book villains. I got out and walked around, half expecting Count Dracula to flap forth from one of the darkened houses, but the only people I met were a pair of suspicious widows and three French tourists: Vathia now has an upscale guest house.

Every night I dined at one of Gerolimenas' four portside restaurants. Since Maniots were pirates, not fishermen, fish is not big on the menu there, but delicious fried squid serves to replace it. Octopus, also commonly found in Mani, tastes the same as squid to me but has a rubbery consistency I can do without. Otherwise, the familiar (and delectable) Greek staples, such as feta and souvlaki, hold sway. A full meal usually costs about $10.

Getting there, getting around

Aeroflot has daily direct flights to Athens Helleniko Airport. If you buy your ticket from a travel agency, the price should be about $520.

The bus fare from Athens to Gerolimenas is $20, but you might want to break the six-hour ride in Mani's pleasant port town of Gythio.

Gerolimenas makes a good base for excursions by taxi to such villages as Koita, Vathia, and Lagia.

The vast caves at Pirgos Dirou are worth a trip as well. To see everything, a week will suffice.

In Gythio, I stayed at the Pantheon Hotel for $40 a night and enjoyed its air conditioning. In Gerolimenas, try the Akroyali Hotel for clean rooms at about $17 a night. Domatia -- rooms to let -- are to be had everywhere, and the rate is about $15 a night. The Vathia guest house, located in a Maniot tower, costs $64 a night. Even in high season, it isn't necessary to book a room in advance on Mani; showing up and finding a place is no problem.

Buy a modern Greek phrasebook before departure: English speakers are rare in Mani. Ancient Greek, if you have studied it, will prove about as useful as Beowulfian English at a Texan rodeo: the language has changed a lot since Homer's day.