WRITTEN IN STONE – The Mani Peninsula, Greece

I kept driving and reached the town of Areopoli—named after Ares, god of war— where a gas station attendant directed me farther south, toward Cape Tainaron, the southernmost tip of the Mani. I passed a sign for the caves of Pyrgos Dirou, a local tourist attraction where, a half-century ago, the road linking the Mani to the rest of Greece came to an abrupt end.

Aerial view of Cape Tainaron

In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s beguiling 1958 book, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, the proprietress of a guesthouse near the caves notices Fermor’s future wife writing a letter to a friend in England. “Well,” the proprietress says, “Tell them in London that you are in the Mani, a very hot place, and there is nothing but stones.”

Soon enough, I came to the stones. The road cut through a sun-baked valley where olive groves were pinched between the sheer grey cliffs of the Taiyetos Mountains and the striking blue of the Mediterranean. Stone tower houses rose from almost every hilltop, medieval silhouettes against the sun of late afternoon. On a distant ridge, I could see the dome of a 12th century Byzantine church. There was not a modern convenience in sight; it was as if the calendar had reached 1150, then stopped.

A roadside wanderer near Marmari

Here at continental Greece’s arid and remote southernmost point, survival has never been taken for granted. Yet as the road traced the coast, I began to understand why the Maniots were determined to stick around. Evening was approaching, and the sun was beginning its descent into the water, leaving a liquid blue horizon where sky met sea. Beside me, the coastline was a rocky curlicue of hidden coves and empty beaches, fringed by a sea so clear a swimmer could look down through the glassy, green-blue waters and see his toes. The view was breathtaking.

The road delivered me to a sign: LAST GAS STATION. As in, last gas station—period. It was written in English, as fair warning to non-Maniots.I checked the tank; three-quarters full. Onward.

I’m not certain whether I kidnapped Kostas Zouvelos, or whether he kidnapped me, but he became my guide to the Mani. Zouvelos is an Athens-born architect who describes himself as a ‘Mani groom.’ Years ago he married a woman from the area, but being an outsider himself, he will never fully be a part of a region defined by male bloodlines and deep-rooted conservatism. Like me, Zouvelos studied the Mani with an outsider’s eye—only I was leaving in five days, and he wasn’t going anywhere.

In one of the most ruggedly beautiful places in Greece, Zouvelos had become an energetic, if solitary, apostle of small-scale tourism. In the 1990s, when he was visiting his bride-to-be, he came across a crumbling tower house overlooking Cape Tainaron, thought by some to be the site of the mythological entrance to Hades. The owner had painted FOR SALE on the rocks outside the tower.

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