For those not already in Greece getting to Mani is relatively easy. Either fly to Athens or from May until October there are weekly charter flights to Kalamata airport. Kalamata cuts out the unnerving experience of traversing Athens but is usually more pricey than the cheap no frills flights to Athens and seats fill up quickly with package tourists.
A car is a must if you really want to get about. It is usually cheaper to hire cars via firms in UK and pick them up at the airport than hiring in Greece. Greek driving standards vie with those of Portugal for the prize of being the most dangerous in Europe. Greek drivers are oblivious of other traffic to almost suicidal levels of incompetence and bravado. During the Easter weekend of 2000 over 50 people were killed on Greek roads and the dangerous mix of old bangers and the latest supercharged models competing for space on often poor roads is a lethal mixture. Road deaths in Greece are rated at over 200 deaths per million population, that of Britain is 61 deaths per million - 'nuff said. Drive defensively, expect the unexpected and keep eyes in the back of your head.
The road descending towards Kardamili - Exo Mani
That said the roads in the Mani are relatively empty of traffic and are always scenic. The same cannot be said for Athens and its approaches. I have been warned by those who live in Athens to avoid the motorway from Corinth into the city - and having ignored their advice can see why. Beyond Corinth traffic eases off dramatically and the trip from Athens Airport to Mani can be done in between four to five hours and is likely to speed up as more motorways are opened up. Most motorways are toll roads but the level of tolls is so small that the minute cost involved shouldn't deter you from using them.
As for dirt tracks, I leave this to individual discretion. To reach many of the sites listed in these web pages you will perforce have to navigate a dirt track or two. Whether you decide to foot it or drive it will depend on a number of factors. The main one is, "Has this car got enough ground clearance?". Sports cars with flash racing spoilers are out: however cool you may feel you look posing in it with your Raybans on, you will soon leave large bits of plastic plus most of your sump over the landscape. Question number two is usually "Can I change a tyre if I get a flat?", followed closely by "Will the car slither over the edge of that 100 metre deep chasm over there?". If the dirt track is a forestry track it will usually be OK for a two wheel drive hire car and I and others have easily driven over the Taygetus on the track which starts near Moni Samouil above Saidona and crosses over the watershed at 1600 metres to the Vassiliki Forest before going either north along the central ridge to the mountain hamlet of Ag. Dimitrios or south to the Panagia Giatrissa Monastery (1000 metres) from where there is good asphalt road all the way to Githeon. I suppose I ought to add that all car hire companies in Greece distinctly point out in the small print that any damage incurred whilst mucking about on untarmac'd roads are your responsibility.
For some more vertiginous and vertical tracks I have given up, as slithering around in first gear with the aforementioned precipice lurching into view accompanied by the sound of stones clonking off the underside of the car well discretion can get the better of valour. In this situation either give up with a passing "I bet there was nothing up there anyway", comment. Or go and hire a Four wheel drive vehicle.
The Mani as a whole, and the Outer Mani in particular, is a delightful area to walk in but please do not wander off in a pair of flip flops sporting a singlet and shorts. Even in April the sun can be blazingly hot and the going rough. I recommend wearing lightweight walking boots with those natty socks which push sweat away from your feet. Take clothing which is light but covers you - long trousers may seem silly until you try wading through dried and very spiky undergrowth in shorts - apart from which shorts are all too often a fashion disaster (and why, oh why do Englishmen insist on combining them with grey ankle socks?). Sun cream and block and a hat (also often silly but no-one, save a few hungry goats, will take any interest in your naff Panama) are de rigeur. Water is bloody heavy to carry but necessary - take plenty. There are the odd water taps - by the way a red top means it is drinkable - but they and convenient cafés are infrequent up in the hills. A small rucksack can contain useful objects like a Swiss Army Knife, Maglite torch - to see inside dark churches, something to stave off hunger pangs (do not take chocolate or similar items which melt easily), a pair of binoculars, basic first aid stuff and insect bite cream. Things like photographic paraphernalia, bird spotting books etc. I leave to your discretion - with the proviso that by the end of any walk you'll wish you'd left half the stuff behind.
The kafeneion in Vorio - Gaitses villages (it's been tarted up somewhat since this photo was taken!)
I have met a pair of intrepid English ladies at Vorio who seemed both oblivious to distance and confused as to which gorge they were actually descending into. On being warned that sundown was fast approaching they replied heartily that we were not to worry as they had traversed the Taygetus on numerous occasions and anyway they were equipped with Space Blankets! I have also encountered a group of burly Dutchmen who had forgotten to furnish themselves with an even half way passable map for a traverse of the Taygetus. They were much taken with mine and wondered, rather niavely, if there was a photocopy bureau in Kambos - regrettably the nearest photocopier is in Kardamili. By the way if you are fretful about sprained ankles etc. you can always take a mobile 'phone - they work very well in Greece, even in gorges and if you really are worried the object that always comes out top in those 'desert survival' exercises is a small mirror to signal with
Scenes - Mani, like much of rural Greece has a fast ageing population, here two chat in Kendro. Be prepared for the visceral side of rural life. Walking around Stavropigio I came across this impromptu abbatoir (an olive tree and a length of rope outside a church) - the farmer was carefully unravelling the sheep's entrails - here every part of the animal that can be, is used.
Flora and Fauna
Mediterranean mountain sides hold a plethora of nature's bounty and in spring the flowers are simply stunning - by mid June most have gone to that parched yellow straw colour but the autumn rains often brings a new arrival of bulbs to brighten the scenery. Carrying a good guide to Mediterranean wild flowers with you may elucidate what the plethora of species are but there are so many within even a few square metres to give the plant taxonomist a mild headache. Wildlife to avoid are the usual stinging and biting things. Wasps, hornets and territorial horse flies can be a nuisance. Bees usually ignore one but around hives can be aggressive. Lizards are often to be spotted - ranging from small darting ones to some rarer but pretty huge bright green buggers about the size of an iguana which can give one a shock when unexpectedly encountered but are rarely if ever aggressive.
Snakes are reported in lurid and multitudinous detail by the locals - and I have been regaled by stories of flying vipers who aim for the spot between your eyes - but mostly they will get well out of your way - being much more frightened of you than you are of them. Vipers, adders, call 'em what you will are the only venomous snakes and pretty obvious from the zigzag pattern on their backs. Locals will, if they see anything vaguely resembling a snake, belabour the thing to death with the nearest blunt object thus dramatically increasing their chances of being bitten. Simple rules such as looking where you are putting your feet and hands (and not sticking them into crevices) will avoid serpentine encounters and anyway, remember the vast majority are non-poisonous, including a number of completely innocent legless lizards and slow worms which aren't even real snakes. Incidentally I was gratified to note in his recent book 'Landscapes of the Southern Peloponnese: a countryside guide' that Michael Cullen, who has walked much more of this area than most over the last decade, has only encountered vipers on two occasions.
A herd of goats above the Viros gorge
More to be suspected are agricultural beasts and dogs. Most goats are smelly but harmless but rams can be aggressive if they think you're invading their territory specially at kidding time (they're the ones with the huge horns and vast scrotums). Donkeys can kick and although they look sweet natured can often be cantankerous and are invariably stupid. Dogs are to be approached with caution. Mountain shepherds breed and train their dogs to fend off predators and that usually includes anyone whom the dog doesn't recognise. I've never met one of these animals but am told that stooping down as if to shy a rock in their direction is the best form of defence when confronted by one of these slavering beasts (second best presumably being lobbing the actual stone at the rabid creature). However most dogs you'll meet are domestic pets and although sometimes exceeding noisy are rarely actively aggressive. One English couple I met were "adopted" by a friendly Setter up in the hills who, wagging his tail, followed them all the way down the Viros gorge and back to Kardamili. They eventually got rid of the dopey animal at the Police Station where the local constabulary were less than pleased to be woken from their siesta with the gift of a thirsty lost dog.
View down the Viros Gorge (Kalyves to the right top) and olive grove above Kardamili
Loud crashing in the undergrowth can often herald the arrival of a tortoise, often of pretty large proportions. They are benign but dislike being manhandled and can hiss, sometimes piss and if given the chance give a nasty nip when treated thus. Tortoise and terrapin bites can infect with Salmonella. There are squirrels and beech martens (kounabi) in the trees (the latter are often seen in villages at night) and at night foxes (alepou) and badgers aplenty though you're only likely to see dead ones on roads. There are some creatures which may look like foxes but are in fact golden jackals. They have the same sticky out ears and are about the same size as foxes but of a more browny colour (how scientific!). Bob Barrow was delighted to hear that they had been reported as he'd been trying to convince people for ages that Jackals were prevalent in the Stoupa region and had been told that he was imagining things. They are the same as the Egyptian 'Desert Fox' and are common enough throughout the Balkan peninsula.
From September onwards the shooting season begins. Greek males love blazing away at anything that moves. They tend to dress up in the most ludicrous combat gear and, laden with bandoliers, they and their Alsatians are a bloody menace to innocent walkers. If you even suspect that any of these out-takes from "Apocalypse Now" are in your vicinity make loud human noises unless you want a peppering of twelve bore shot.
Birds are about but generally shy of twitchers with binoculars - golden orioles will flit about, owls can be heard hooting and sometimes seen (surprisingly often in daylight) and there are many birds of prey from relatively common buzzards to the odd Bonelli's eagle. I am sadly, no expert on these nor the multitude of butterflies which flutter about, regardless of how often I take along an illustrated guide to them.
Oh God. Most European countries have excellent maps going down to detailed and accurate local ones. On the whole the Greeks don't. In fact most village Greeks don't even seem to understand the concept of maps and will peer at any such manifestation with puzzled if fascinated brows. Until quite recently most maps were arrant wishful thinking and roads appeared where in reality there was merely a slight furrow in the undergrowth forged by an adventurous goat. Things have vastly improved in the last few years with the National Army Geographical Section editions but even these are, to my own knowledge, occasionally inaccurate and not to be completely trusted. For Mani use the Road Editions Peloponnese 1:250.000 (Number 5) and the better Taygetos 1:50.000 (Number 51) maps - which only covers the northern area of the mountain range and stops at Platsa.
However!!! … since the above was first written there are a new series of maps, Nea Seria Topo or Petzoporikos Kartis (hiking maps) published by Anavasi at a far more useful 1:25,000 scale on sale in local bookstores for a reasonable €6 or so. So far there are three of use covering Exo Mani, 8.12 Kardamili-Stoupa, 8.11 Mani Verga-Kambos and 8.13 Agios Nikolaos-Trachila and two covering Mount Taygetos (for the intrepid out there). From my experience these are generally reliable and accurate (though I have spotted the odd minor mistake). One side of each the map shows contours, roads etc - the reverse shows the marked hiking routes with notes in Greek and English. There used to be nothing of use for Mesa Mani but there are of 2003 two Anavasi maps. There is a Topo 50 (1:50.000 scale) map of the whole Mesa Mani (called Mani) which covers from Itilo to the point of the peninsula and one of the area from Kitta down to the tip at Taenaron which is at the more detailed 1:25.000 scale in the Topo 25 series - it's named Mani-Tenaro.
For more details of these and other maps of Greek mountains and islands go to the Anavasi website.
Local photocopied maps which give walking routes can often be picked up and give a rough guide which is a least informed by local knowledge. Also in my possession, but probably out of print, are the old and outdated Korfes Mountain map and the Austrian produced Freytag & Berndt 1:50,000 Peloponnese. These only cover a small area to the area north-east of Kardamili. There are military maps but your chances of getting hold of a legal copy locally are slight or it involves going to the one office in Athens that will issue them to you (4, Evelpidon Street.Athens). That is - when they are open - with your passport and in possession a large dollop of patience for grappling with Greek bureaucracy. These are also obviously the basis of the large wayside maps which have sprung up in the Exo Mani in the last couple of years, normally near to bright green signposts for footpaths in the area.
Only the above maps can be recommended - please do not buy the other touristy maps which still can be bought by the unsuspecting punter in shops in Mani. Bob Barrow and I were enjoying a welcome coffee in the kafeneion in Kendro one May morning in 2003 when a hire car hove into view with a very puzzled, hot and red faced Englishman at the wheel. He thought he was in Kampos (over 5 km away) and on the main road (which Kendro definitely isn't) and was clutching one of these pieces of cartographical fiction. I think we pointed him in the right direction and hope that he heeded our pleas to throw the useless bit of paper in the nearest bin.
Incidentally the concepts of Private Property and Trespass don't feature much in the Greek consciousness so unless you see signs in English stating this you can feel free to wander. Gates are few and far between and of Heath Robinson construction but close them behind you. Say hello, "Yassas", to those you meet - rural Greeks are extremely hospitable and will sometimes try and give you directions. These are often designed to be friendly rather than intrinsically helpful and ideas of distance and direction can be wildly wrong or rather based on their experience - during the war British agents soon got used to distances being measured by the number of cigarette breaks they would entail.
More of this sort of stuff in the following pages
Getting into churches The travails of locked doors and how to live with them
Church Architecture A simple guide to what a Greek church looks like
Church interiors A simple guide to what the inside of a Greek church looks like
Frescoes and Iconography A slightly more complex guide to wall paintings
The Ainoi paintings A common wall painting theme of the last Psalms - explained and a local variation investigated