WRITTEN IN STONE – The Mani Peninsula, Greece

He and Dimopoulos were giddy now, as we wove through narrow farm roads and green olive groves, always with the startling blue of the Mediterranean visible nearby. Finally we came to the Church of the Archangel Michael, a slightly larger red-stone sanctuary.

The Church of the Archangel Michael

Dimopoulos unlocked the door and we stepped into the stale, cloistered air. One room had two marble crypts, one with a carved stone chest on top. And on top of the chest were two human skulls, placed side by side. We were momentarily startled. How long had they been here? Who were they? Dimopoulos said these crypts were once reserved for clerics, so we concluded the skulls had belonged to former priests. It felt strange, chilling even, that someone had lined them up side by side in this crypt, where they had probably lain for centuries. Our mood now somewhat sober, we left the skulls, locked the door, and returned to Areopoli, where I said goodbye to Zouvelos and Dimopoulos and drove my rental car to the nearby port village of Limeni.

Fresh prawns at Takis restaurant, in the village of Limeni; The sea in Limeni

It was nearly sunset, so I took a table on the outdoor terrace at Takis, a taverna barely five feet from the water, where I ordered a plate of calamari and a Greek beer.

“I inhaled the salt of the sea. I was at the end of Greece seemingly at the end of the earth. It was pretty glorious.”

Kitchen workers were cleaning fish at the edge of the terrace. As the sun began to set, the hillsides around me turned gold in the reflected light. I inhaled the salt of the sea. I was at the end of Greece and seemingly the end of the earth. It was pretty glorious.

On my final morning in the Mani, I set out for the underworld. Zouvelos had found a local fisherman named Vasillas Kourentzis who agreed, for a price, to take me to the cave on Cape Tainaron, thought to be the entrance to Hades. It was here, according to legend, that Orpheus descended to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, who had been banished to Hades. She was freed on condition that neither of them look back until they had left the underworld. But Orpheus did look back, and Eurydice was lost forever.

Cape Tainaron – The Gate to Hades

Kourentzis brought his small, motorised boat to a cove near the cape and, as we set off, warned me that the water was especially rough that morning.

I felt my stomach in my throat as the hull of the boat slammed against the waves. The sun was just rising when Kourentzis finally slowed down the boat and pointed to an opening in the cliffs.

“From the old people,” he said, “I was told this was the cave of Hades.” I wasn’t convinced. In his book, Fermor described a larger opening, much like an open mouth. Kourentzis said the original entrance had been on land, but had probably collapsed into the ocean in an earthquake. It seemed he had no doubt there was an entrance to the underworld, but felt an urge to explain why this one seemed so unimpressive. “Everybody says that is the cave of Hades,” he repeated.

I wanted to swim inside, but Kourentzis said the current that day made it too dangerous.

The underworld would have to wait for calmer seas. We fought our way through the swells and back to land. Perhaps it was a fitting end. Mani is about myth, and fighting, and staggering desolate beauty, but also about resistance. Nothing comes easy.

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