WRITTEN IN STONE – The Mani Peninsula, Greece

On a peninsula as remote as the Mani, piracy was regarded as an import-export economy: Maniots used force to loot passing ships, while local seamen were exported to other seafaring nations as mercenaries. A regional character was shaped in the process. “It is not that they are wild,” said Eleni Kouvazi, a teacher and amateur historian of the Mani who joined us for dinner one evening. “They are people with their own ethics and philosophy. They don’t want to be ruled.” Piracy fell off with the advent of modern naval forces, and the Mani’s poverty and isolation deepened as a result. After World War II, life became so difficult that many people simply left, migrating to the United States or the Greek port city of Piraeus, near Athens.

“The Mani went empty,” said Androutsakos, the only one of 10 siblings to live in the region today. “Life changed. People went to places where it was easier to survive. They couldn’t survive here.”

Not much of the old farming, fishing, and pirating economy could really thrive, either. What did remain was a region largely untouched by the modern world, with architectural ruins that resembled medieval castles and a stunning coastline peppered with idyllic spots to swim and sunbathe. Tourism began to arrive in the 1970s, and local entrepreneurs opened properties such as the Hotel Kyrimai, which occupies a 19th -century stone building overlooking the harbour in the village of Gerolimenas. I teasingly asked Androutsakos whether Maniots were capable of hospitality, given their bellicose traditions. His eyes clouded. “Of course,” he said brusquely. Then he broke into a smile, just as a waiter arrived bearing plates of food. We had ordered simple salads, but Androutsakos had insisted we also try the orzo and a sumptuous dish of slow-roasted beef known as stifado. “We are known as wild people, tough people,” he said. “But we have never behaved that way to people from other parts of Greece. Or to visitors.”

Pikoulakis tower museum – Areopolis, Mani

We found the human skulls on my third day in the Mani. Zouvelos had called a friend in Areopoli who had connected us to Giannis Dimopoulos, an employee of a local museum. Dimopoulos is a tall, laconic man who keeps the keys to Mani’s Byzantine- era churches, many of which are little more than ruins. Technically, they are under the protection of the Greek state, but the Greek state is flat broke. So for now, protecting the churches means locking them up, even though many are treasures of antiquity, decorated with ornate icons and frescoes.

Maniots were once pagans, worshipping Greek and Roman gods until Christianity arrived in the fourth century, at which point temples were gradually converted into churches. The museum in Areopoli has a fine gallery of icons and crucifixes removed from local churches, as well as piece of stone carved with Byzantine reliefs. Two footprints had been carved into its underside; it had been used as a pedestal for pagan statuary when the Romans ruled the Mani, then repurposed once the Christians took over.

Dimopoulos tossed his church keys into his backpack and we headed out, with Zouvelos at the wheel of his Mini Cooper. Clouds began pressing down on the valley as we drove. Suddenly, Zouvelos abruptly reversed the car. He wanted to show me a turtle on the roadside. Turtles are so common in the Mani that Zouvelos says on some nights you can hear the sound of clacking shells as they have sex.

For several hours, Zouvelos drove us happily through the Mani, passing tiny villages and so many ancient churches that he began a running commentary of “Old church, old church, old church.” Many were in sad shape, with water-damaged frescoes and collapsing altars. In the village of Boularioi,

Boularioi village

Zouvelos again unexpectedly stopped the car, reversed and drove backward down a small lane, jumping out beside a stone ruin. It was a cistern built by the ancient Greeks; more than 2,000 years old, it pre-dates the Christian era. “I love this place,” Zouvelos said.“I mean, look at it. An ancient cistern. This is Greece. The olive trees. The stones ”.

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