The Cavo Grosso - or 'Great Cape' of the Deep Mani bulges out from the peninsular and is well worth a detour along its narrow roads. This page describes some of the sites and gems of the cape but there are many more churches, towers and old fortifications to be found by the avid explorer. For such a small area it is ludicrously easy to get lost in the Cavo Grosso but this tour of the area starts in the south and moves northwards - sort of…
The Cavo Grosso from Tourlotti near Kitta and mid Byzantine face from Pentakia
For a clickable map relating to this page click here
The landscape of the cape, called in Greek 'The Embros' (lit. before, in front of - which probably denotes in English - 'foreland'), rises in a series of sharp escarpments until reaching its final ridge near Kipoula where it drops in a series of sheer cliffs into the Med'. The cliffs were known in ancient times as the Thyrides, ("The Windows" so named after the miriad caves in the cliffs) a place feared by sailors through the ages and that should still be treated with respect by modern craft. It is, viewed from the main road, a stark landscape of stones and olive trees and not a lot else, but the view from the road emphasises the stark rocky cliffs of the escapments. In truth the plains are relatively good agricultural land not much cultivated nowadays apart from olives but quite capable of sustaining crops in earlier centuries. Cyriacus of Ancona - a humanist scholar, traveller and merchant visited the area in 1448 and waxes lyrical on the richness and fertility of the Cavo Grosso. As with most of western Mesa Mani the major problem with vegetation are the salt laden winds which can sweep over the landscape. The Cavo Grosso's isolation means that it is good birdwatching territory and I've watched eagles circling (noisily) above, choughs crowing to one another and smaller birds attacking buzzards.
Two aerial views of the Cavo Grosso - taken by Panayiotis Katsafados in early 2006. Left, from the south, and right, looking south down the Makryna ridge
There are, of course, numerous, be-towered villages clustering together and churches dotted, not only across the landscape but seemingly merging into it. There are some pretty obvious structures but most seem to be piles of stones until one gets up close - and even then, what one has fondly expected to be a church, actually turns out to be a sheep pen or - you've guessed it - a pile of stones. The villages are ramshackle with towers pushing up from the huge prickly pear plants, and the whole area reminds me of the pictures of the Holy Land in illustrated Bibles from my childhood.
Starting from Gerolimenas one can drive up a precipitous road up the sides of a cliff to the first plateau. A turning to the left after a kilometre or so will take you to Ochia. Here you will come across Ag. Nikolaos in the fields to the east of the village. This Byzantine domed church is set back from the road and is architecturally interesting, sporting a number of gargoyle like water spouts around the dome.
Ag. Nikolaos, Ochia
Built in the 12th century it is a good example of the mid Byzantine period - obviously still used as a cemetery church the tiles of the dome have gone many years ago and it is now bare to the elements. This was usual until recently when some of the churches of the mesa Mani were restored and earlier photographs of Tourlotti and Episkopi show this uncovered state of affairs. There is a more recent telescopic style campanile at the South West corner of the church which is decorated with local folk carvings - the bell tower is a rarity in Mesa Mani whereas there are many in the Exo Mani - this one is dated 1861 - much later than those of the Exo Mani which are usually dated to the period 1780-1810. The church, which may have been the katholikon to a previous monastery, has always been locked when I have visited but the west door has some fine medieval carvings around the lintel.
Ochia itself is Hicksville - even by Mesa Mani standards. On our last visit we had to stop in the tiny main street as a gaggle of gobbling turkeys were shepherded past us by smiling locals. Just at the 'epicentre' of the village is the small twin church of the Panagia and Ag. Petros built of megalithic stones which are joined by a small and cramped passage which I for one had to stoop low to navigate. Ag. Petros and the Panagia are both barrel vaulted and have remains of frescos on their templons though on my last visit they had sprouted locked doors.
Back on the main road there is travelling west - another small but steep escarpment at the top of which is a turn off to the right (north) along the top of the scarp. This village is Keria - and a sad tale follows. The jewel of Keria is Ag. Iannis (St. John the Apostle).
Ag. Iannis, Keria
It is a few hundred metres into the village and to your right - you can't miss it. A Byzantine period (13th century) domed church it is famed for the amount of ancient spolia that had been integrated into its facade. Old Roman gravestones and bits n' bobs of marble were put to good use by the medieval builders - who were no respecters of the stones' original purpose or orientation and put things in upside down or on their side. Cyriacus of Ancona was an Italian merchant traveller and humanist scholar of the mid 15th century. He visited Mani in 1447, staying at nearby Dri, and wrote an account of his visit. What is fascinating about Cyriacus is his interest in Antiquity and his habit of sketching what he saw and transcribing inscriptions. He must have visited Keria - not presumably out of any particular interest in its church - but for the Roman period fragments in the wall - and there are sketches in his own inimitable style (he wasn't a dreadfully good draughtsman) of the gravestones used in the west facade at Ag. Iannis Keria.
Cyriacus of Ancona's sketch of the gravestone in the facade of Ag. Iannis Keria - see below for photo of the real object
Don't however expect to see them any more. In the winter of 1998 some light fingered bastards decided to jemmy the thing out of the wall. Two pieces are missing and are presumably decorating the garden or house of someone rich and unscrupulous enough not to ask where they came from. I hope it falls on his/her foot.
The ancient gravestones stolen from Ag. Iannis - Keria in 1998
If anyone out there sees these please do not hesitate to shop the owners to Interpol. The church is locked but one can peer in through the windows - the interior apears to incorporate some ancient columns in support of the dome but what paintings I could see appear to be from a much later date than the building and have been the target of generations of grafitti artistes.
To the south of Ag. Iannis in Keria (Drandakis confusingly, at least in his French summary, has it to the north) is the smaller chapel of St.George - Ag. Georgios. This is less impressive from the outside than the much larger Ag. Iannis and it can easily be ignored - I only found it as late as late as 2003 though I'd been to Keria at least twice before. It's behind some modern houses and one needs to walk along a narrow path between two walls strewn with prickly pear pods and donkey crap with two 90 degree turns to reach it. There are some distinct signs of medieval cloisonné work around the niche over the doorway but although the stonework is well cut it is of a crude conception and the roof has lost it tiles and is covered in . The doorway is open (and in Drandrakis' photograph the door is merely blocked with rubble) and the interior is dark, dank and narrow.
Ag. Georgios, Keria. View from west and fresco (13th century) of the Prophet Elissaios
The Templon has collapsed many years ago but was supported by two ancient marble columns. One is still upright the other northerly one has fallen diagonally across the bema. The church is divided into three spaces but is rather small - just under 7 metres long but a mere 2.3 metres wide. Most of the paintings have succumbed to nearly a millenium of damp and neglect but a few stand out and are of a second period of painting in the late 13th century. Drandakis asserts that one can ascertain traces of earlier 10th century paintings in the apse - but they are certainly fragmentary, to this eye at least. The later 13th century paintings have had hardly a better ride and are suffused with mould and fissures. One can identify a number of representations; the Nativity, Palm Sunday, Archangels and various prophets.
Kounos - Tower/war houses - what is amusing is that the torn down features on the top floors have been assiduously copied by modern developers and architects (especially in the Exo Mani) desperate to evoke some spurious past. Try developing a modern idiom guys!
Further into the Cavo Grosso there are a number of tiny villages worth exploring. Dri is at the base of the southern end of the Makryna ridge and is a dead end of that road. The village's name is derived from the Greek for oak tree of which species there is a distinct lack in today's Mesa Mani. to the north is Kounos, a crossroads village with a number of tall thin war-towers piercing the skyline and a small chapel beside the road boasting a fine Byzantine double headed eagle on its altar.
Kounos - the chapel of the Panagia (?) The altar decorated by a double headed eagle - this and the rest of the frescoes in the chapel are late 18th- early 19th century
Just to the north of Kounos is a junction. The left hand road goes towards Kippoula but if one takes the right hand road one then there are two Byzantine churches worth seeking out which are amongst the modern cemetery to the north east of the centre of Kounos. In Kassis' book on churches in Mani there are photographs showing these two single chamber barrel vaulted churches in open fields but since then a thriving little modern necropolis has collected around them, in itself quite interesting for the busts of their 'inhabitants' that some family vaults display. The earlier medieval churches are known as the Pentakia - I thought at first that this indicated 'five churches' and wondered where the other three churches were but the 'akia' bit of the name refers to 'saints' or 'holy ones' - thus the English translation is 'The Five Saints'. There is, of 2002, a signpost on the road to these churches which are up a short lane. Both are unexceptional architecturally being simple barrel vaulted edifices with rough stonework and large slate 'tikles' roofs, but they both have fine examples of mid-Byzantine painting. The higher church to the east is Ag. Georgios and here the door is held by a rusty nail, the other church just below on the slight slope is dedicated to Ag. Nikolaos and here the door has simply fallen off (revisited September 2003 and no change in this condition).
The Pentakia churches
The paintings in both need better treatment as they are exceptionally fine examples of mid Byzantine period work. In both cases there is evidence of various layers of painting. This is particulary clear in Ag. Nikolaos where paintings some centuries apart in style are evident.
Ag. Georgios - Church of the same name Pentakia - Byzantine wall paintings of Saints George on his white horse and Kyriakos and another Saint.
The paintings in Ag. Georgios are the better preserved and are very fine. The faces of the Saints are real people with an individuality so often missing from post-Byzantine interpretations. The colours are rich and one can get an excellent picture of what middle Byzantine clergy and nobility looked like. Kassis dates the paintings to the 11th century and points out similarities to those in the church of Ag. Varvara at Glezos, a church I've not visited.
Ag. Nikolaos - Pentakia - The Pentecost and female Saint
Ag.Nikolaos is in a worse state of affairs and the frescoes are often extremely difficult to appreciate such is the fading and the ravages of damp. There is a particularly fine crucifixion scene on the west wall with an excellent depiction of Byzantine soldiers in lamellar armour. There's a picture of this in the page on Frescoes. No date on these paintings but I would suggest the earliest are 11th to 12th century but with later overpainting and retouching. In fact it looks as if the church was replastered at some time.
Ag. Nikolaos - Pentakia - showing the various layers of paintings and the Presentation in the temple.
Taking the road past Pentakia in a northerly direction will take you through a number of small villages with enticing churches. To the right (east) is sign pointing to Karavas. This leads due east for about a kilometre before reaching a small collection of houses on one of the Cavo Grosso's escarpments and here take the turning due south, down a rough but driveable track for another similar distance until one reaches the houses of Karavas where, next to a pyrgos the road turns east again. Park here and follow a wide footpath going due west for a hundred metres or so into the olive groves. Lurking amongst the olives and low stone walls, so that one doesn't actually spot it until one is actually upon it, is the church of Ag. Nikitas which is of the late Byzantine period.
Ag. Nikitas, Karavas - View from west and detail of Saint Nikitas, north wall of the naos
The church has a later early 14th century narthex but both that and the earlier church are made from megalithic stones pulled out of the local fields (though somewhat restored lately). The paintings in the naos are dated to the period 1270-90 and include some of the usual Byzantine themes such as the Anastasis or 'Harrowing of Hell' A partial crucifixion and the Nativity. Their condition is not very good but allowing time to get used to the gloom and medieval faces, including that of a mounted Ag. Nikitas start to appear from the walls. There are paintings in the narthex but these, although later are even more faded though one is confronted by a very stern faced 14th century Panagia.
Karavas - Ag. Nikitas - detail of crucifixion showing 13th century soldiery and The Nativity
Leake, on his visit in April 1805 described that "in the central and highest part of the peninsula of Cavo Grosso there is a conical height which appears artificial and marks probably the site of Hippola". Pausanius describes the Cavo Grosso as Thyrides (the windows), which refers to the cave peppered cliffs which circle most of its bulge and mentions a ruined sanctuary to Athene of Hippola. Today the village of Kipoula lies just under the ridge and appears to have held on to a version of the ancient name. Above Kipoula is the Makryna Ridge which is probably the site of the acropolis of ancient Hippola and there are local heritage signs pointing to the site. Friends of mine who run the estimable Aman Bar in Kardamili took their dogs walking here one winter day. The wretched animals got lost and they spent a few hours waiting around for the return of the recalcitrant canines. Their presence was noticed and the Police arrived and asked what they were doing as the area (q.v. Keria) is known as a target for thieves of antiquities.
The ridge above Kipoula is called the Makryna and the northern section above Kipoula is called Ano Poula. This escarpment rises pretty abruptly from the plain, in places in cliffs some 30 metres high. There are various ways up the the summit from Kipoula - we took the middle path though there are routes in the south from near the village of Dri and another further north there are steps leading up to a collection of churches, the most significant being Ag. Theodorii which has medieval frescos from the 11th and 13th centuries. There's a path, of sorts, which runs along the entirety of the eastern edge of the ridge. Whichever route you take up - be prepared. Ano Poula is waterless, has little shade and is hard underfoot.
Ano Poula - looking south along the ridge and the view north east over the Cavo Grosso with Kipoula below
There's a dirt track signposted from Kippoula along which one can drive to the base of the ridge. Park your car here opposite the local cemetery and take the path past this - but stop to look inside the church of Ag. Nikitas (not locked) - though Kassis has it as Ag. Gikas, which is situated at the top of the cemetery. This church is obviously very old. The stonework starts at base level with huge megalithic boulders of the vicinity.
The Panagia in the apse of Ag. Nikitas and the outside of the church from the NW
The church is a monochambered barrel vault and undistinguished architecturally but inside are good if fragmentary frescos from two periods. Of the underlying layer, little is actually visible, though from the depiction of the faces it is thought to be from the 10th century and is contemporaneous with the frescos at Ag. Panteleimon at Ano Boulari - therefore can be dated to circa 990 AD. The later layers of wallpaintings are mostly medieval, probably from the 13th century. There's a particularly stern Panagia (the Panagia Nike?) in the centre of the bema or apse. Unfortunately someone at some time has both whitewashed large areas of the internal walls and inserted a sort of concrete shelf half way up the side walls which cut in half the medieval frescos such as the warrior saints. There is an old flat topped stone altar in the apse which has a dedicatory inscription carved into its surface.
Ag. Nikitas - Kipoula - left - As if appearing over a washing line - older 10th century faces were covered by more sophisticated 13th wallpaintings. Right Ag. Iannis Chrystotomos and Ag. Stephanos.
Just above Ag. Nikitas is the church of the Panagia Eletherotria or Virgin of Freedom. This has been assiduously restored by its owner who has also erected a large modern crucifix next to the building. The church is very crude in construction and like its neighbour is probably early medieval. There are a few very faded traces of Byzantine frescos inside. The door is unlocked but extremely low and being over 1.85 metres I had to crawl in on my hands and knees. From here the rough path, leads up the ridge in a zig zag fashion. As one gets closer to the top you can see that there's a wall along the lip of the ridge - and that this path is approaching it at an oblique angle. In other words the entrance - or gateway, is hidden from below. Having scrambled up over the wall you can now see that it extends for a considerable distance both north and south. It is not very high, at most about chest height, though was presumably a bit higher in the past. It doesn't need to be very high as, built as it is on the edge of precipitous cliffs and rockfaces the natural defences of the ridge more than compensate for the lowness of the man-made walls. The relatively flat top of the ridge at Ano Poula is not particularly wide - some 300 metres at the widest closing down to less than 100 metres at its narrowest point, but above Kippoula it has a baffling network of walls and ruined buildings dotted across it. Luckily we visited it in the excellent company of Panayiotis Katsafados who painstakingly surveyed and studied the area whilst researching his 1992 book 'Ta Kastra Tis Manis' (The Castles of Mani) and is an expert on the subject.
Church of Ag. Nikitas. Angel and the Entrance into Jerusalem
The walls stretch for some 400 metres along the eastern edge of the ridge. There is no need of walls on the western side as here the ground falls away steeply towards the sea and then drops in sheer sided cliffs some dizzying hundreds of metres high. Some 250 metres or so to the south the eastern walls stop and a 4 metre wide wall blocks off the ridge at its narrowest point. There is another smaller wall some 200 metres further down the ridge but it is nothing like as impressive as this one. The walls are extremely thick - though it is to be doubted if they were ever mortared and from the amount of stone that has fallen down on either side neither was it dreadfully high - perhaps 3 metres? There are a number of gateways. Or I presume they are such - though the gates are either built for the little folk or were merely intended for sheep or goats. No normal sized human would want to crawl through them. The walls along the eastern edge of the ridge are nothing like as wide, perhaps 1.5 metres, but they are, at regular intervals laced with low level firing slits. This is not merely a large animal pen, it's a fortress.
The eastern walls of Ano Poula - a firing slit and the walls ontop of the eastern cliff looking north
Dating this fortress is more problematic. It has probably gone through many iterations. Many reckon that Ano Poula would have been the acropolis of ancient Hippolla - and the ridge so dominates the Cavo Grosso that it is a natural spot for a fortress. The firing slits could be used for bows and arrows or firearms - I'd suspect the present slits were intended for firearms as they are so low on the walls that they were probably used by prone marksmen. The stonework is taken from local sources - it is not sophisticated and there is little or no sign of effective mortar. There is no central focus to the fortress, no evidence of a keep and although there are walls bissecting the interior of the walled area, these have no particular defensive logic or cunning and are probably for penning in animals. The Franks - if nothing else, were expert builders of intricate and powerful castles, Ano Poula may have briefly been occupied by them, but, in my opinion they didn't build what we see today.
The southern walls of Ano Poula - walking westwards and the gateway complex half way across
In the distance towards the southern end of the ridge above the tiny village of Dri is a flattened cone shaped hill which rises some 50 metres above the rest of the Makryna. This is called Kastro tis Orias (the Castle of the Beautiful) - when it gained this appellation and who the good looking castelains were I'm unsure but there's no sign of a castle there now. Admittedly I've not been up onto it and only looked at it through glasses, but it appears to be bare of buildings though traces of a wall are recorded on maps. Panayiotis Katsafados, standing next to me as I gazed binocular, confirmed this observation. There are lots of stones jumbled across the summit of Kastro tis Orias, but none of the complex network of walls of Ano Poula. And the area south of Ano Poula, is devoid of churches apart from a small cluster above Dri on the other side of Kastro tis Orias.
The entrance to the northern cluster of Ano Poula and the view south-east from that point
There is a northern cluster of buildings at Ano Poula which I explored early one morning in May '06 in the excellent (and expert) company of Takis Katsafados. It's a tad more difficult to find the path up to it from Kipoula (though someone is bulldozing a bloody great track through the undergrowth just to the west of the village - to what purpose?). To the west of Kipoula there's a large (and in May 06 bone-dry) cistern/pond - the path starts just above that and works diagonally up the cliff in a northerly direction - You can just see the east apses of two churches on the edge of the cliff - aim for those - once you've found it the path is relatively easy to follow.
The actual entrance up onto the plateau of the ridge is a switchback (defensively sensible) with the steps cut into the rockface. This then opens out into a shallow area bounded by walls. Just to the north-west is a large walled enclosure bounded on the east by the churches of Ag. Giorgios and Ag. Theodoroi. In the north-west corner is a ruined building which obviously had a tower on it - though this can never have been very high as nearly all the stonework is lacking mortar. Just to the west of the enclosure a distinct path weaves between dry stone walls (some just that, others are ruined houses) in a north westerly direction - leading, presumably, to grazing areas for flocks on the northern sector of the ridge.
Northern Ano Poula looking south towards Dri (the entrance to the southern section of Ano Poula is just above the cypress trees in the middle of the left photo). Right are the two standing figures of two military Saints church of Ag. Theodoroi.
The two churches are in an appalling state of repair and being doorless are used by a small herd of local cattle as both shelter and midden - the floors are thick with cow-shit. Ag. Giorgios, the first church, has been ravaged by damp internally and there only fragments of post-byzantine wallpaintings remaining on a part of the templon (the word Prodromos - denoting John the Baptist is evident). Both this church and it larger northern neighbour Ag. Theodoroi have ancient columns as part of their internal structure - in Ag. Theodoroi ancient capitals were presumably used as the altar. The two churches are only a few metres apart and are joined apse to apse by a stone wall which was obviously added later as it matches neither churches' stonework. The apses of the churches therefore form part of the fortifications of the site - though the curtain wall - possibly because it incorporates the churches - is oddly set back a metre or so from the edge of the cliff. Why there are two churches quite so close together is another puzzle, although such proximity isn't unique - the Pentakia churches near Kounos are similarly adjacent.
The churches at Ano Poula (N). Left. Ag. Theodoroi - right. Ag Nikolaos. Ag. Theodoros Stratelates. S. wall. Ag. Theodoroi
Ag. Theodoroi (the Greek plural 'oi' - pronounced 'ee' - denotes more than one Saint Theodore) is a slightly larger structure, though neither building shows any sophistication in construction and are single apsed barrel vaulted affairs. Joined to the church on the northern side is a low barrel arched structure which one can merely guess at its purpose - it has no apse, so presumably wasn't a separate side chapel. Inside Ag. Theodoroi there are three internal arched spaces to the nave then a templon with a single doorway flanked by two ancient columns. In the bema there are various classical capitals which once made up the altar. There are patchy remains of wallpaintings in the second and third sections of the nave and some in the bema. They are, observedly, from three different periods. Two of them medieval and those on the templon are much later, my instinctive reaction, on seeing them, was to describe them as early nineteenth century.
13th century detail of donkey from the Nativity and two unamed 11th century saints. Ag. Theodoroi Ano Poula.
According to Professor Nikolaos Gkioles' scholarly paper on the church in the Greek journal Lakonikai Spoudai (= Lakonian Studies) these are, in chronological order, 11th century, latter half of the 13th century and 18th century. In places one can spot the difference in layers between the two Byzantine plaster levels. The earlier paintings show a series of saints' heads in roundels - they are not identified - but are of a vigorous style. The 13th century paintings are more sophisticated if faded and damp ravaged (a hole in the roof of the bema isn't helping). There's a fine mounted Ag. Theodoros Stratelates (The General) despatching a dragon and some military saints on foot - Gkioles has them as Ag. Theodoros Tiron ('the recruit') and Ag. Dimitrios. There are various saints and fragments of a medieval dedicatory inscription which mentions a donor called Kiriaki. On the north ceiling are the remains of a Nativity and the descent into Limbo. These paintings are from the confused time when Franks and Greeks were struggling for ascendancy in this area. Prof. Sharon Gerstel has pointed out that there is a contemporaneous shift from depicting the warrior Saints on foot to showing them as mounted on cavalry horses. There are certainly a good few examples of this shift in and around the Cavo Grosso.
The post-byzantine paintings on the Templon wall are extremely wooden and naively executed. Gkioles mentions a long list of 18th century wallpaintings in Exo Mani - all of which I am familiar with - and frankly though they are no great shakes artistically, these are even weaker. There's an inscription which identifies the renovator of the church as a certain Kallinikos Angelakis, unfortunately there's no date.
Ano Poula - some speculations on its purpose.
Both the Kastro tis Orias above Dri and the fortifications dotted along the Makyrna ridge at Ano Poula are putative sites of the castle of Grand Magne built by the Frankish ruler of the mid 13th century Peloponnese - Guillaume de Villehardouin - sometime in the 1250s. The castle's building, situation and it's later loss by the Franks to the Byzantine Greeks is described in the 14th century 'Chronicle of the Morea', but it still has experts arguing as to its exact location. Antoine Bon, the great twentieth century French scholar of the Frankish and medieval Morea ascribes, in a rather cursory manner, the Kastro tis Orias as Grand Magne. Bon didn't put a lot of thought into the problem of the location of Grand Magne. Takis Katsafados tends to identify Ano Poula with Grand Magne, or at least with a Frankish period fortress. As there is little documentation from the medieval period and precious little systematic archaeological work of the Byzantine - Frankish sites we are left with scraps of information, intriguing ruins and a great deal of speculation.
My own opinion is that the remains on the Makryna ridge, whereas they dominate the Cavo Grosso and its stepped plateaus of flat agricultural land (something of a rarity in Mani) they are not Grand Magne. The isolated position of the ridge means that the fortress was more likely to be somewhere where the inhabitants of the Cavo Grosso withdrew to (along with their flocks) and took refuge in when threatened by an outside force. Grand Magne was a major castle which was part of a controlling cordon by a force trying to assert their hegemony on the Morea. To be the 'Grand Magne' of the Franks a fortress has to have the logic of containing the Melingi - a troublesome tribe of Slavic origins - and most of the circumstantial evidence points to them being in the Exo Mani in the 13th century - some fair few kilometres to the north. The outside force is not hard to guess at, just which one, as the Mediterranean has a long - if intermittent history of piracy from Egypt or the Barbary Coast or it could be an incursive foreign force such as the Franks or Ottoman Turks. Then again it could be far more modern and be a defensive complex for the villagers of the Cavo Grosso against their neighbours in the Niklean villages of Kita, Mina and Boulari - or even a retreat for the whole area. The prints of the Venetian artist Coronelli show a fort on the edge of the cliffs of the Cavo Grosso - though the print is entitled 'Capo Matapan', P.S. Katsafados has convincingly identified the features of this print with actual topographical features and locations in the Cavo Grosso and the Sangias mountains. This points to the assumption that there was certainly an observable fort at Ano Poula during the time of the Venetian rule in the Morea i.e. at the cusp of the 17th and 18th centuries.
A version of Coronelli's depiction of 'Capo Matapan'. Despite the fact that Coronelli never visited Greece (and is unlikely to have travelled far from the Veneto throughout his life) his prints were based on traveller's tales and eye witnesses. If one compares this view to that of someone looking at the Cavo Grosso from a passing ship and rejects the more obvious tropes of artistic licence (there are rocky shoals along the western shore of the Cavo Grosso but they don't stick out like those depicted) - one can relate this to the actual landscape.
With the remains of Pausanius' ancient Hippola in the area it is probable that this has always been the acropolis of the villages along the bottom of the ridge. But there has been no concerted attempt to give the walls any real substance - there is, apart from the few churches, no sign, whatsoever, of the use of mortar in construction techniques. All other castles in Mani have evidence of mortar and ashlar facing to their walls. Finally the ridge is far from any sensible harbour. Although the tiny landing place of Mezolimenas lurks at the bottom of the north eastern bulwark of the Makryna with a cobbled stepped path leading up to the plateau this is not a landing place for any decent sized vessel. Therefore, although the fortifications have complete dominance of the interior of the Cavo Grosso and look impressive from the sea they have little strategic influence on the Mani peninsula as a whole or the ships which circumnavigated it.
For a full disputation of the site of Grand Magne click here.
Kippoula, as with all Mani villages, houses a number of churches. One is an example of the very few Byzantine churches in Mani to be graced with an inscription of the medieval painter which we shall visit shortly. The other church is a curiosity. In the centre of Kippoula - and I use the word centre loosely - the village is really only a bend in the road - is what looks at first glance to be a rather grand house. It is without a roof or any glass in the windows or doors. This is because it isn't a house but an incomplete church and inside it is another older tiny church.
The story behind this is that a devout local who had made his money elsewhere returned to Kippoula in his dotage intent on raising an impressive new church. He started by building around his family church and was intending, eventually, to demolish the tiny inner church once the roof was completed. Unfortunately for him, though perhaps fortunately for posterity, he died before the edifice was finished. His relatives could think of far better things to do with his legacy and after all didn't they already have a perfectly good family church in good working order? The inner church is very low affair below the ground level of its modern carapace and is locked but it does have some ancient spolia set into its walls. The ancient stuff looks like a gravestone and the there also a lump of some very fine lattice marble work which could be medieval. What is equally fascinating is the form of the 'new' church which follows none of the classic forms of Orthodox architecture or indeed any other type of church I've seen.
Ag. Anargyroi - Kipoula - paintings from 1265 - View from west and detail of the Nativity
Just round the corner from this church there is a small dirt track to your right - drive a few metres and again to your right in the fields behind Kipoula you'll see the church of the Anargyroi (SS Cosmas & Damian - martyred c. 300 AD- Anargyroi means 'the silverless ones' - a reference to the physician saints giving their services to the poor for free). This looks unimpressive from the outside but inside are Byzantine frescos and a rare inscription which not only lists the benefactors of the church ends with the painter writing "It was finished by my hand, who am Nikolaos the painter, from the village of Retziza together with Theodore my brother and pupil, in the month of June, on the sixth day 1265." The church is full of furniture and Bob Barrow was amused by my attempts to get good shots of the frescos whilst wrestling with heavy and recalcitrant items of seating.
The Baptism of Christ - Ag. Anagyroi - Kipoula 13th century
The frescos have gone from many surfaces but even so what remain are a full gamut of themes favoured in Byzantine painting schemes. The Birth of Christ, the Three Kings, The Presentation in the Temple, The Harrowing of Hell and a crucifixion on the west wall over the door.
Saints Cosmas and Damian - The Anargyroi or 'Silverless Ones' - Kipoula 1265
Dear Nikolaos of Retziza (I don't know where that village is - but other, better, authorities reckon it was local) was not the greatest of painters but he had a natural talent for capturing faces and some incidental details are delightful and intriguing. Who for instance is the small figure playing a flute in the top right hand corner of the Nativity? And why is an angel blessing him? A church well worth a visit and as a bonus the door usually appears to be left unlocked.
The road continues towards Stavri and soon becomes a quite driveable track rather than asphalt. This descends into a valley and up onto a ridge where Stavri sits with its impressive vertical fingers of Maniate towers.
There is a northward road from Stravri which soon descends towards the hilltop hamlet of Agia Kiriaki. Don't be tempted by a track which runs uphill, unless you just want to admire the view, as this ends up in a dead end next to an impressive towered Maniate dwelling. On reaching Agia Kiriaki, once deserted, now the site of some summer dwellings, ignore the road up to the village and continue down the western side of the village and park up near a gateway across the road. You'll see a heritage brown and yellow sign to the 'Church of the Panayia Agitria' beside the road and look around for the edifice. Don't worry that you can't see it - it's a stiff walk away and invisible from this position - but is one of the gems of the Cavo Grosso and well worth the 20 or so minute walk (and incidental vertigo) visting it entails.
From near the signpost you can easily spot a small path wandering off across the countryside towards the edge of the cliffs. This path is easy to follow and takes a generally westerly route, it's about a 15 minute walk to the edge of the cliffs. You may spot a church to the south underneath a steep escarpment, this isn't Agitria but another local church, Ag. Georgios, which I've not visited (Bob Barrow and I have speculated as to whether it is worth the slog to reach it - without conclusion). Annoyingly the recent Anavasi Topo 50 'Mani' map locates Agitria in the exact position of the church of Ag. Georgios. Ignore it, earlier Military maps have it right, it is some half kilometre further west much closer to the sea. As one approaches the edge of the visible land Agitria comes into sight (though it blends in nicely with the surrounding terrain) to the south west. It's underneath a large cliff face and the path takes a sudden precipitous downward route in that direction. It's here that those with a propensity for vertigo may freeze and wonder if it is all worth it - actually the path is neither difficult nor dangerous but on a windy day the sea does churn somewhat some hundreds of feet below one.
A distant view of Agitria looking towards the SW. Don't try and spot it in this jpeg - it camouflages itself quite nicely into the surrounding stone. Detail of the Taxiarches Michail (Archangel Michael) from the narthex of the church
Agitria is perched at the bottom of the vertical cliff with a steep incline running down to further cliffs which fall directly into the Gulf of Messinia. The church's name is a local variant on the name 'Ogitria' one of the many versions of the Panagia or Virgin Mary meaning, roughly, 'The Shower of the Way'. The church is tight up against the limestone cliffs and the site appears to have been deliberately chosen for it's wild remoteness - even though the geography of the location means that the church doesn't follow the usual strict east-west orientation. There is a cave just above the church to the right, which was presumably the dwelling place of the priests or more likely monks who worshipped in the church. My companion poked her head into the cave and reported it had some sort of well in it - rather necessary in this isolated spot - and possibly why the church was built here - it was still used as sleeping quarters by salt workers at Tigani as late as the 1950s. Nowadays there are some highly inappropriate red plastic chairs bolted to picnic benches just below the church. How they were got to this point is a moot point as there is absolutely no way a vehicle could approach Agitria - but I would suggest that there is a rather pissed-off donkey somewhere locally who now hates the sight of red plastic chairs. The church itself is so much of the same hue as the surrounding cliffs, one wonders if the stone was quarried in the vicinity. The external stones are well cut though have been stucco'd over at some point. The cupola is small and circular and a bell still sits at the top of a small bell tower at the southern end. There are two doors, west and south, and both were unlocked in September 2003.
Agitria, view from the south, view through the north west door towards Tigani and western facade
Inside, even though a relatively small church (7.35 metres x 3.78 metres), Agitria is divided into three parts: Bema, 'cross in square' Naos and westerly Narthex. The church structure is clearly medieval and is dated by Drandakis to circa 1200, but there are at least two periods of paintings, 13th century late Byzantine - mainly extant in the Narthex though there are fragments in the body of the church, and some early 19th century additions, including Christ in Sorrow and John the Baptist in the naos and bema. The more impressive paintings are from the medieval period and portray the Taxiarches They are dressed in contemporary military garb - studded jerkins - and hold spears. Above the (better preserved) Michail are signs of a Last Judgment with the heads of the damned, very similar to those at Episkopi (some few kilometres away) - some gibbering skull like masks grinding their teeth and others infested with worms (see below).
The internal Byzantine marble work of the church is also of note, with fine carved capitals to the supporting columns of the cupola, some intricate tie beams and a nicely multi-coloured decorated floor with various decorated slabs one of which sports a medieval eagle.
Agitria is also worth the walk just for the stunning scenery - Michael Cullen has included it as a 'must do' walk in his recent book on walking in the Peloponnese (and gives precise details of how to reach Agitria) and even if there wasn't a delightful and interesting church at the end of the path the views alone would recommend an expedition.
One of the obvious views from Agitria is of the appendix of land snaking out into the sea to the north. This is the Tigani (literally 'the frying pan') and another contender for the location of the Frankish castle of Grand Magne. A low and extremely bare arm of rock, Tigani, the stress is on the middle 'a', ends at a larger outcrop with cliffs on the seaward sides which is surmounted by centuries old battlements. There's never been much consensus of what these are or who built them. Leake plumped for 'Italian' and one of the first travellers of the British School at Athens, Arthur Woodward conjectured 'Venetian'. We know that Leake didn't go to Tigani and one suspects Woodward only looked at it from a distance. Helen Waterhouse and R. Hope Wilson of the BSA went there in the early 60s and assume, probably following the 19th century French historian, Buchon's short assertion that Tigani was built by the Frankish Prince Guillaume de Villehardouin in 1248, though they also spotted some 'cyclopean' masonry of the Mycenaen era. Greenhalgh also assumes that this was Villehardouin's Frankish castle and many a subsequent map sticks the words 'Grand Maina' next to it.
I have to own up that I hadn't walked out to the end until this year - tales of razor sharp rocks, salt pans and the sheer desolation of the location completely lacking in any cover had persuaded me to merely gaze at it from a distance, and read about it. In 2004 I contacted Panayiotis Katsafados who has written about the castles of Mani in his fine book 'Ta Kastra tis Manis' which collects up most of the evidence and opinion on the interpretations of this location. He insisted that he took me to Tigani on my next visit to Mani and in mid May of 2005 we set off early one morning to walk out to the point of Tigani. It was a hot day, some 30 degrees, but a fierce wind from the east allieviated the worst of the sun's heat rattling the thistles and spurge growing from the rocks and forming squadrons of white horses whisking across the deep blue of Mezapos Bay. Keeping hats on heads and feet on the ground became somewhat problematic. The walk is not as arduous as I had imagined, or as distant as it appears. Allow about an hour to get to the point from Ag. Kyriaki with a bit of dawdling and exploration on the way, an hour for poking about the castle and an hour to return. I highly recommend the experience but if you do go be sure to take water, there's none out on the tip despite the many cisterns, and wear stout boots. Additionally, in my experience, buffeted by a force six gale, with loose, sharp stones and recalcitrant vegetation underfoot, a walking stick would be a great help - oh that I'd taken one!
The track to Tigani and the remains of a salt pan
A road descends from the entrance to the village of Ag. Kyriaki which is driveable for some hundred metres down from the village, you'll pass the sign pointing to Agitria. After a while the track narrows to a broad path leading down onto the neck of the peninsula. As it descends the path gets narrower and then, on reaching the bottom, somewhat lost in the white stones and salt pans of this lowest part of Tigani. Paddy Leigh Fermor wrote of meeting two barefoot women still working the salt pans when he was rowed across to Tigani in the 1950s. The women lived in the cave above Agitria and scraped a living - hauling buckets of sea water from the rocky shore and then decanting them into the shallow pans created on the low neck of the promontory. The pans have been deserted for many a long year, the odd bottomless bucket rusts amongst the stones, the only signs of modern life you'll stumble across are empty plastic shot-gun shells from the hunting season, nestling amongst the wild caper plants
Takis Katsafados musing on the remains of the outer gateway to Tigani - about two thirds of the way across the peninsula and the view back south from below the main curtain walls.
There is a low bump of stones where a wall was on the landward slope of the peninsula but the first real part of the fortifications you'll reach is in line with a small but surprisingly steep rise or hillock to the eastern side of the promontory. This probably was the site of a small tower and a wall cut directly across the breadth of the land from east to west - there's a recognisable gatehouse. By now the main walls of Tigani are beginning to dominate the northern horizon and the path, becoming clearer again slants diagonally up to the north east towards the hidden gateway to the citadel. The closer one gets to the main remaining tower the more the stonework impresses one - in parts a vertical rock-face meant that the walls only had to surmount this natural defense. The tower is a typical Byzantine diamond pointed bastion and was obviously fronted by another smaller wall which mimicked the line of the main curtain. This wall has mostly disappeared but its line is clear. Thus one would have firstly entered the fort by the outer wall half way across the peninsula - then through this lower wall at the base of the escarpment on the point. This gate would have been at right angles to the line of the walls and thus not front on to an approach. One would then progress between two walls (a killing ground if any attackers forced their way through the gateway) The final entrance is a sharp turn up of steps cut into the rock. Just as you think you are walking over the cliff and into Mezapos Bay the steps turn sharply to the left. You are now inside Tigani.
The bastion tower at Tigani
Take a moment to inspect the steps. A legend has it that a beautiful princess (are there any other sorts?), beseiged in Tigani and realising her cause was doomed mounted her horse and urged it forward over the cliffs and to her death in the waves. Or rather their death, one can't help feeling sorry for the poor horse. In the solid stone steps there is an indentation which could, if one is susceptible enough, be interpreted as a hoof mark. The story is possibly based on the real suicide of Leo Sgouros, a Greek noble or 'archon' who was beseiged in the huge fortress of Acrocorinth by the Franks. After many years resistance he realised the game was up and in 1208, rather than surrender, he rode his steed over the battlements to their doom on the rocks below. Another traditional ballad tells of yet another (or possibly the same) beautiful medieval princess who is brought to Tigani by her abductor, the protean-hero Mavroeidis, who in turn is pursued by the figure of death - Charos - in the middle ages transformed from a gloomy classical boatman into a black armoured knight. The poem is refered to by both Paddy Leigh Fermor and Paul Greenhalgh, who gives a full version the verses - I shall merely quote a few verses from his translation.
…The girl enthralled Mavroeidis
Who wished her for his bride,
And so they sailed and captured her
And carried her aboard,
And casting off they sailed away
To far-off Mani's shores.
And finding there an arm of rock
Extending far to sea,
With wave-lashed cliffs and gloomy caves
And water black as pitch,
They built upon Tigani's crown
A castle of there own.
They brought from France both iron and steel,
From Venice glass and pearls,
And marble from Byzantium,
And sacred fish of gold,
And raised aloft a tower of glass
To keep the girl apart…
Despite our hero's attempts to defend his bride Charos finds Mavroeidis and fights him for the girl on a steel threshing floor eventually leading them into the Underworld via one of the many caves in the area.
The foundations of the basilica church, Tigani, looking east. A sole remaining column - decorated with a cross.
Inside Tigani immediately in front of you are the large remains, mostly at foundation level, of a basilica styled church. This is quite the largest pre-20th century church I've seen in Mani - being around 25 metres long by 15 metres wide. There was a sizeable narthex (c. 5 metres long by 15 metres wide), at the west end of the church and three naves ending in three semi circular apses. The central naos is about 20 metres by 8 metres and two side naves of about 5 metres width - divided by two rows of marble columns which would have supported the roof, which was probably wooden and tiled. The bases survive along with a few fallen stumps. The church was excavated by Professor Nikolaos Drandakis and a team of archaeologists in the 1970s and a large number of excavated graves are agape to the elements and now filled with vegetation. The northern nave of the church seems to have had a large cistern built under it. There are faded patches of wallpaintings clinging to the few remaining scraps of plaster on the walls near the narthex. Takis Katsafados noted that many of the fragments of worked marble left by Drandakis' team, which he remembers from his own field work of some fifteen years ago, have vanished. Presumably as (rather heavy and doubtless illegal) souvenirs. In mitigation it's worth pointing out that this despoilation of the site may have happened as early as the 12th century as it is presumed that some of the ancient marbles from the church on Tigani re-appear in medieval churches in Mesa Mani.
Other than the basilica church there are only a few other recognisable buildings dotting the plateau - though there are many bits of wall and cisterns - 365 are claimed - by legend rather than observation. The walls follow the rim of the summit turning in a northwards direction. There would have been more 'v' shaped bastion towers, probably at least two. On the north and eastern sides there would have been little more than a restraining wall as the cliffs start abruptly and are sheer, or at least I assume they are. I hate heights at the best of times, and in a raging gale, practically blowing me off my feet I was not about to get too close to the edge. Greenhalgh, who sailed round the promontory points out that in places the stonework extends down the cliff faces. The line of the southerly curtain wall is continued on in a westerly direction even though the contour line and the main wall turns northwards at right angles at the site of a largish tower cum bastion for another 100 metres. This secondary wall drops down the hill and ends after about 100 metres at the edge of a lower cliff, there are the remains of three towers and a lower gateway on this stretch which encloses a small lower section of the town. One thing is baffling. The fortress dominates the sea, not the land. The position is generally defensive and the long trek across the neck of Tigani would have made sallying forth a long winded affair. Yet there is no good landing place on the peninsula, the rocks are jagged and Mezapos Bay is too open to the elements to give any experienced sailor the slightest feeling of security. As much as I try I find it difficult to hit on a convincing raison d'etre for anyone to build here.
Tigani - looking down on the lower western walls and the far North Westerly corner
From all the evidence, it is likely that that the church and the walls were parts of either a late classical or early Byzantine fortified town perhaps founded around the time that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565) ordered the strengthening of the defences of the Peloponnese. Observers have pointed out that there are signs of bronze age cycladian stones in the lower levels of the wall, though the site has turned up only a few ancient pottery sherds. One might have expected many more if Tigani was a significant ancient city. One theory is that the population of Kaenopolis just to the south of the Cavo Grosso near present day Kipparisia, moved to Tigani when their 'city' fell, either to raids from pirates or from earthquakes. Kaenopolis was certainly deserted at this time when the ancient world was descending into the Dark Ages and has signs of early Christian buildings (sometimes replacing ancient temples - one can tell by their alignment) and the large ruined basilica church of Ag. Petros.
The fact that there is a basilica style church at Tigani would point to the location being inhabited in the period of late Antiquity and early Byzantine period and what jewellery Drandakis and his team found in the graves of the church, ear-rings, rings and buckles, are dated to the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Some of Drandakis' team's finds, in the shape of a collection of exquisite scent bottles, are now displayed in the newly refurbished (and recommendable) Byzantine Museum in Athens. Panayiotis Katsafados has estimated from the rough remains of building clusters that the population of the town would have been in the region of 600 (see this interesting analysis on his website complete with arial view of Tigani). Tigani could be the fortress of Maina described briefly by Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (908-959) - but we have no corroborative proof and others have championed the (now also deserted) inland hill top site of Old Kariopolis near Vachos dominating the pass between Kato and Mesa Mani.
Tigani seen from the Makryna ridge at Ano Poula - looking north
Tigani seems to have been deserted. When, exactly, this was and whether the site was ever re-established is difficult to ascertain.The site possibly fell to the Slavic invasions in the 7th century (there are possibly a few place names with Slavic origins in the Cavo Grosso). Probably it just became untenable for the Byzantines to hold on to it. There are few signs of any other church buildings (save a small chapel by the western walls) later than the large basilica - and the Cavo Grosso at the other end of the peninsula - is full of small medieval churches following later medieval patterns of church building. This lack of evidence of new building at Tigani in the 11th-13th centuries, a time when the Mesa Mani as a whole was going through a demonstrable church building boom (and featuring lumps of marble nicked from Tigani), coupled with the intrinisically bleak outlook of the site leads me to conjecture that Tigani was never re-establshed in that period and has been deserted for over a millennia.
I have to admit that others disagree and think that Tigani was re-established with the renaissance of Byzantine power in the area in the 8th and 9th centuries. The name itself is interesting - it's a nickname based on the topographic similarity to a frying-pan (and it's bloody hot out there too), and this appears in no census report or lists of settlements throughout the centuries. Historians have stuck the name Maina and Grand Magne onto it. The locals just call in 'the Tigani'. Finally, although a marvellously elemental place to go for a walk and survey the coast of the Mani - I'd hate to have been cooped up there, being baked and blown about, drinking cistern water, and suspect that, despite its intrinsic defensibility, people just got fed up of living stuck out there.
Vlacherna and Episkopi
To the south east of Tigani and to the east of Stavri are two interesting churches mentioned in most of the literature on Mani. Vlacherna is a ruined 12th century church with but few remaining frescos and a 'bald' dome. It can be reached by driveable track either from Mezapos or Stavri. From Mezapos take a left just before the 'main street' of that tiny village downhill past the pebble beach then drive up the slope and onto the top of the cliffs forming the southern fringe of the bay. After about a kilometre there is a track running down to an old tower house and to it's right, a little lower is Vlacherna. It is named after the Virgin of Blachernae in Constantinople. Its setting, with the azure of Mezapos Bay and the Sangias stretching northwards is quite marvellous. Greenhalgh describes it as being in a partly ruinous state and structurally not much seems to have been done to improve this situation in the intervening 20 years. There is still a large hole in the dome which is still sans any tiles.
Vlacherna - view looking northwards and angel in the bema
The exterior is made of well cut regular ashlar with a dog tooth border running around the structure. There are remains of cloisonné around the windows of the dome and in the entrance from the narthex into the naos. The interior has some fragmentary wall paintings - probably of the mid to late Byzantine era (13th-14th century), but mostly the plaster has disappeared leaving bare masonry. The painting of John the Baptist on the templon appears to be of later provenance but a few Byzantine faces peer out from the walls and there is an identifiable razing of Lazarus. Greenhalgh dubbed Vlacherna, 'the poets' church' - not that it has any actual connections to poetry, more that he could imaging Shelley sitting musing over its sad beauty and composing verse, rather as that poet did in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
Vlacherna - View with Tigani in background, interior and fragmentary fresco
Nearby and well restored in the 1980s is the church of Episkopi. This houses one of the best preserved series of frescos in Mesa Mani and it is well worth trying to find Dimitris Kolokouris as he has the keys. These churches are reached by driving north through the tiny hamlets of Agiorgis and Phokaloto of the road between Stavri and the main north south strip. Episkopi is down a narrow track to the west when you've driven about as far as the road will go. There's a signpost pointing to the church. It is situated half way down a west facing escarpment and has a panoramic view over the bay of Mezapos with Tigani in the distance. You can see the church from the road running down the ridge to the east of Stavri and it is easy to see on its hillside from just above Vlacherna.
Episkopi with Tigani in the distance and the view down to the church
From its name it was probably once an Episcopal church - i.e. that of a bishop - and the newish tiles certainly give it an impressive appearance and it is a distinguished building. We know for certain that there was a Bishop of Maina circa 1222 from the writings of Demetrios Chomatianos the archbishop of Ochrid in Bulgaria from 1217-35. With the chaotic political situation in Greece after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the Frankish incursions into Byzantine terrotory it is interesting that a local dispute in the southern Morea should have to be referred as far afield as Ochrid. However distant, Chomatianos was asked to intervene in a dispute between two local Greek magnates, one, a certain Daimonogiannis who supported the invading Franks, the other, a John Chamaretos (who was afforded, perhaps for the first instance and it's unclear by whom, the title despotos - despot) and was loyal to the Byzantines. Daimonogiannis appears to have lived up to the first two syllables of his name, switching sides in a Machiavellian manner and attempting to carve out his own fiefdom and Chamaretos was desperately trying to extricate himself from a disastrous marriage to Daimonogiannis' equally nasty daughter. There is mention of a message being delivered to Daimonogiannis in the 'church of St. George' - the likely dedicatory Saint of Episkopi. Prof. Nikolaos Drandakis, the leading expert on Mani churches believed, albeit with little actual documentary proof, that Episkopi was founded by Daimonogiannis whose first name was George. Episkopi is, stylistically, dated to the early part of the 13th century.*
*For a full account of this story see Magdalino,P. A Neglected Authority for the history of the Peloponnese in the early thirteenth century: Demetrios Chomatianos, Archbishop of Bulgaria. Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 70 (1977) pp. 316-323.
The church is not as large as one might, if a western european, expect of a bishop's see but it is well proportioned and has some fine cloisonné work around the dome's windows. Inside it has a narthex which boasts a fine series based on The Second Coming or Last Judgement, and amongst the blood curdling images are The Never Ending Fire, The Gnashing of Teeth , The Everliving Worm and Hades on the back of a dragon.
Episkopi, Last Judgement and Scene from Life of St. George
In the Naos and the Bema a number of cycles have survived including scenes from the Life of Christ and those of the Life of St. George - which might point to the church originally being dedicated to this saint. There are many Saints on the walls too numerous to list but Greenhalgh has a useful plan of the church and its paintings translated from Drandakis. Drandakis dates the frescoes to the late twelfth century whereas Doula Mouriki put them a little later to the beginning of the thirteenth. By the way the paintings in the bema of the Panagia Vlachernitissa and on the Templon are of a much later period - Rogan gives a date of 1771.
The church is locked and the keys, as mentioned, are with Dimitris Kolokouris, though I did hear a report that a small north-side door may gain one entrance. My interlocutor also commented on the high pong of rodent pee in the church! Since then I've been back - for the first time in what must be a decade - and although the church is firmly locked (no go with the side door) one can peer in through the south window. Someone has thoughtfully piled up a relatively stable load of large stones and the window has no grille. You can see bits of the frescos. A local has also decided to concrete the steepest parts of the path leading down to the church in 2001. It's a nice religious thought, and is dedicated to the fond memory of a Nikolaos Alogokas, but frankly I wish they hadn't bothered as there's far too much concrete in Greece as it is without despoiling lovely little corners of it like Episkopi.
Episkopi - Nativity and Saints in the Bema
One further church of passing interest in the vicinity of Episkopi and Vlacherna is that of Ag. Procopius. If you take the track from Vlacherna towards Stavri (sort of SW and uphill) you'll pas some ancient quarries on your left. These, if you look closely, show signs of ruts where sleds or wheels incised their marks on the bedrock over many years of use. The stone from here was probably used to build the local churches and possiibly the earlier structures such as ancient Messa or the early Byzantine settlement on Tigani. Above the quarry and again to ones left is the shell of Ag. Procopius. The question mark over this church is whether or not it shows evidence of church bulding in Mani from the 'iconoclastic' period of Byzantine history (circa 711 - 843 AD). During this time various Emperors and church leaders held that the portrayal of people in walpaintings was an anathema and the only images allowed were symbols. On the much faded walls of the apse of Ag. Procopius there are symbols of the Cross in a layer earlier than the extremely faded figurative paintings that this church must have had before the roof fell in - so perhaps dating this church to the 9th century and as such one of the first churches built after the Byzantine reclamation of Mani from the Slavic invasions.
Ag. Procopius nr Stavri - View looking east and faint remains of Christian symbols in the apse - perhaps the earliest wallpaintings in Mani?
Deep Mani intro
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