Mesa or Deep Mani

There are differing interpretations of where the Deep Mani begins. As one drives further down the peninsular from Langada the countryside becomes more stark and barren and there is the feeling that one is leaving the relative verdure of the Exo Mani behind one and stones are replacing soil. Just to the south of the village of Ag. Nikon you pass the sign informing you that you are entering Lakonia. In the past this border was further north but it is one candidate for the dividing line. As one sweeps down to Itilo then the Sangias mountains and the Deep Mani appear before you. They are very bare and rather uninviting and I'd plump for Itilo Bay as the dividing line. You are now looking out over the Kakavoulia.

Landscape in Deep Mani. Left looking towards Kitta from the Cavo Grosso. Right looking south towards Taenaron

The name, Kakavoulia, is generally translated as the 'land of evil counsel'. Leake rather pedantically corrects the French surveyors of the early 1830s who called it the Kakavounia or 'Mountains of Evil Council'. However there is an ingenious explanation which says it derives from the strange metal pot helmets once worn by the deep Maniates called a "kakavia" which seem to have served a dual purpose as cooking utensils. The latter may well be true but I prefer the former.

Leake further expounded on the term Kakavoulia thus, "But even this name is applied by the other Maniates as a term of reproach and, as we may easily imagine, is not acknowledged by the inhabitants." Therefore don't use it to an inhabitant of the Deep Mani today! Leake also pointed out that the inhabitants of Tsimova, present day Areopolis, were extremely keen to point out that they disassociated themselves from the Kakavouliotes - even though one could be forgiven for - geographically - lumping them in with that lot.

There are many differences between the character of the Exo and Mesa Mani and these have had a profound effect on the mood and atmosphere of the two districts. There is a nakedness to the landscape of Inner Mani which whereas not threatening (as it used to be) is unnerving and bleak. If it looks generally arid from the land then it obviously looks even worse from the sea. In March 1854 the French and British armies sailed past the Mani peninsula on their way to, eventually, The Crimea. William Howard Russell, the famed correspondent of The Times later wrote of their first sight of the coast of Greece.

'At daylight the coast was visible N. by E. - a heavy cloudlike line resting on the grey water. It was the Morea, and the deck was speedily covered with officers rushing up to gaze on the old land of the Messenians. If not greatly changed, it really is wonderful what attractions it could have had for the Spartans. Tyrtaeus must have been sadly puzzled to have made anything even decent out of it. A more barren-looking coast one need not wish to see. it is like a section of the west coast of Sutherland in winter. The mountains - cold, rocky, barren ridges of land - culminate in snow-covered peaks, and the numerous villages of white cabins or houses dotting the declivity towards the sea did not relieve the place of a certain air of savage primitiveness, which however, little consorted with our ideas of its antiquity and ancient fame. About 9.40 we passed Cape Matapan, which seemed to have concentrated in itself all the rude characteristics of the surrounding coast. Although the old reputation of the cape was not sustained by our annihilation, still the sea showed every inclination to be troublesome, and the wind began to rise every moment.'

Russell was obviously oblivious of the fact that he was looking at the Lakonian Mani and not Messenia, therefore his carefully honed ironic phrases are but ignorant facetiousness, but as a description of the former it certainly rings true!

On land what is plain is the obvious lack of anything very much in the way of vegetation, save stunted olive trees and numerous prickly pears. In Mesa Mani the stones are the things. But most people visit Mesa Mani in summer when everything is dessicated. In winter and spring the fields are covered in flowers and it is clear that there are field systems everywhere, even up the slopes of the Sangias mountains and that every inch of some slopes have been painstakingly terraced - in the past. It wasn't always like this, Cyriaco of Ancona described the Cavo Grosso in the SW of the Mesa Mani in the 1440s as, 'rich in cultivated fields, vineyards and olive trees'. Whatever was here in the past, nowadays the Mesa Mani is unremittingly barren. Even in the 1670s Evliya Celebi the Turkish observer wrote "It is in truth an unpitied place. There are no vineyards, gardens, trees, fruit, plants and grass. The place is covered with stones. There is no soil at all."

Deep Mani - actually both photos were taken on the same day in mid-May 2006. The left was tweeked to make it look bleak - the other shows how green and colourful it can look

Disregarding Celebi's very slight exaggerations it is obvious that Mesa Mani was, and is, an area in which human beings never had it easy. Whereas the inhabitants of the Exo Mani also squabbled amongst themselves, at least they had property and goods to rob from one another. Celebi tells a tale of villages in Mesa Mani stealing soil from one another, so precious was that commodity. People were accused of nonchalantly filling up their sandals with soil. Evliya Celebi continued with a description of the locals, "They are dark skinned, small in stature, with large heads, round eyes, with voices like sheepdogs…shoulder length thick black hair, wirily built with large feet they leap from crag to crag like fleas." Celebi has further observations on the Deep Maniates. Oddly linking with the Earl of Carnarvon's 1839 comments on the commonplace Mani superstitions regarding vampires Celebi noted that the Deep Maniates drank the blood of their animals and, "If they encounter people from the Outer Mani they also drink their blood." It should be pointed out that Celebi never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. However Patrick Leigh Fermor hints at a host of vampire legends in the area but unfortunately has never expanded in print, though Lord Carnarvon relates a tale of a vampire who had to be buried at a crossroads and Rennell Rodd also demonstrates that deep rural Greece is a more likely starting place for vampire stories than the forests of Transylvania.

In 1805 William Leake reported. "The misery of these Kakavuliotes is extreme. To the enquiries of my servants for the commonest articles of provisions, the answer constantly is 'where are we to find oil or vinegar, or wine, or bread?' as if such things were luxuries in which they never indulged". He reported that the Inner Mani diet of 1805 was, "Cheese, garlic and bread of maize, wine and oil as their district produces none they seldom use." In fact the olive tree appears not to have been widely grown in Deep Mani until the latter half of the 19th century. Evliya Celebi had observed in the mid 17th century that, "they do not rear pigs, cows or donkeys but many goats". In fact goats were exchanged for gunpowder with the inhabitants of the island of Kithira to the south east. In fact this hard life may have had a beneficial side effect as Leake reports that there were rarely diseases or plagues in the area. The locals had their own idea of what constituted a plague. They identified it as the wind, which can whip unmercilessly across the peninsula.

The tower houses of Mani are famed and to find the best examples one must travel to the Deep Mani to see them in seried ranks as at Kitta. They were rife down the entire peninsula but in the north western Outer Mani only singular reminders seems to have survived in any one location and there it lends a romantic aura to the landscape. In Deep Mani the tower houses that remain have an impassive menace and gloomy fatalism attached to them. Perhaps this is because they became as much prisons to their inhabitants as defenses against their attackers. The dreadful societal customs of vendetta ensnared their perpetrators into an equally numbing round of boredom. The Earl of Carnarvon reported that in 1839. "…men have been born and married, have lived for twenty or thirty years, and in some cases have even spent their whole lives within the enclosure of these gloomy walls." Carnarvon met one of these benighted souls and waving vaguely at a distant, but clearly visible, village asked of the name and condition of the settlement. His interlocutor replied, "How should he know anything of the country when he had spent his life in a tower."

Mesa Mani Landscape (nr. Vathia)

Not surprisingly the inhabitants were tough and ruthless. Leake again reported that, "a boy even of fifteen has a wrinkled weather worn appearance; but diseases are rare, they live to a great age". Pouqueville, a French doctor who ended up in the Morea in the early 19th century had a more acerbic pen. His views on the relative merits of the Maniote (by which he meant the inhabitants of the Exo Mani) and those of the Mesa Mani (whom he called Cacavouniotes) is worth quoting at length even though it is doubted if they are anything more than hearsay(and are repeated by other sources - often verbatim)

'A Cacavouniote may be distinguished at the very first glance from a Maniote. The latter is well made, has a florid complexion, and a tranquil cast of countenance: the former has a dark and suspicious eye, and is squat and stunted like the plants of his country; he has a withered skin, and an expression of countenance which betrays at once the gloomy assassin. The tone of voice of the Maniote is full and sonorous, that of the Cacavouniote is hoarse and guttural. The one walks with a brisk and airy step, the other rushes forward like a wild boar. The Maniote attacks with fury and plunders with delight the Turk whom he detests; the Cacavouniote has but one enemy, but that enemy is the the whole human race, whom in his blind fury he would gladly tear to pieces and extirpate.'

Nowadays these deep Mani characteristics are thankfully much less marked especially in their violent traits but in the elder generations one can still see the dessication and ageing that such a landscape stamps onto their physiognomy and the younger generations have replaced the vendetta with litigation. I read the above quote out to some inhabitants of the Exo Mani and the comments were greeted with some amusement but, even 200 years later, with agreement with the underlying sentiment! I hasten to add that one of my firmest friends is of Mesa Mani stock and I've received many unsought pieces of hospitality and welcome in the deep Mani. Indeed other travellers throughout the centuries have testified that although the Maniates have a ferocious reputation, in reality they are friendly towards strangers.

In the past the ground yielded few bounties and for its time the deep Mani was relatively over-populated. A release from this and a good source of income was piracy. Pouqueville again. "Neither the fear of danger nor of punishment can destroy in the Cacavouniotes this dreadful propensity to plunder; they cannot resist, they say, the alluring spectacle of so many European vessels continually passing before their eyes." This inolvement in piracy does not apear to have significantly improved the lot of the Kakavouliotes. Leake reported that his Tsimova (Areopoli) companions said, "…that even when the Kakavuliotes had numerous pirate boats and trattas in the Archipelago, and brought home a great deal of plunder, they still continued to live in the same miserable manner."

An Maniate poem of the late 18th century quoted by Leake and written by a certain Niketas Niphakos (a native of the Exo Mani and quoted at more length in Patrick Leigh Fermor's 'Mani') says of the inhabitants of the deep Mani,

'Neighbour hates neighbour, compare compare and brother brother. Whenever it happens that a ship, for its sins, is wrecked upon their coast whether French, Spanish, English, Turkish or Muscovite, great or small, it matter not, each man immediately claims his share and they even divide the planks among them…' not perhaps surprising in a land with hardly a tree to be seen. The poet continued, 'When a man dies (a natural death) they lament him as unslain, unbled, unjustified. These are the men who give a bad name to Mani and render it hateful wherever they go. Let no one salute them , but fly from them as a serpent.'

My description of the sites of the Deep Mani are divided into three sections. One covers the area from Limeni-Areopoli to Kita, the second the Cavo Grosso and the third Ano Boulari down to Taenaron.