Further into the hills of the central Taygetus are a number of small villages seldom visited and isolated from the coast. Here drinks in a local kafeneon will cost half the price that they would on the coast. The villagers still treat you as guests rather than familiar tourists and the proliferation of second homes for foreigners are less marked. These villages have also come close to extinction and even today their inhabitants seem to be made up of the over fifties and what younger inhabitants they contain look wistfully to the coast and the bright lights of the cities. Milia. oddly, seems to have grown in population. The latest census shows a quite enormous expansion from 195 in 1991 to 363 inhabitants in March of this year. As the general trend in the local dimos is slightly downward - even in the coastal villages - one can only speculate that a large number of Athenians returned 'home' for the count.
Kato Chora - Milia - looking west - dome and campanile of the Panagia - Theotokou church below.
Above Pyrgos you'll find a turning to the east which is signposted to Milia. It straggles over a ridge and down into a steep valley and sweeps through the tiny village of Kariovouni or Arakhova - we'll return here later. It then climbs up the other side of the valley before turning a bend into another but broader and greener vale leading into the heart of the mountains. At the end of this is Milia.
Like many villages Milia has an upper and lower part - and in fact Milia is spread over three levels. The Kato Chora (lit. 'lower-place') is reached first. It is spread over the northern side of the valley and one could easily drive through it without realising its size. It stretches precipitously to the river bed below and has a number of interesting churches all of which were locked when I visited in September 2000. The large church of the Panagia - Theotokou (prob. 18th century) at the bottom of the hill is particularly interesting with its fine Venetian style campanile and tall cylindrical cupola. It is always locked and all the locals I've asked seem not to know where the key is - but on one visit the window on the north side was open. It doesn't appear to have any wall paintings save stars on the ceiling and some decorative friezes which probably hide earlier painting schemes. There is an impressive carved wooden iconostasis.
The main church in in Kato Chora - Milia. Koimisis tis Theotokou with its campanile (which is dated 1776 - the church is rather earlier) and it's exceptionally high cupola.
The much smaller church of Ag. Nikolaos is on the same level as the Theotokou church. Just follow the street to the east for about 75 metres and it is in front of you. On my first finding of the church it was locked and has no windows but in June 2001 someone had fortuitously left the key in the lock. Even if one didn't know the church's name it would soon be clear it was dedicated to Ag. Nikolaos (I've lost count of the number of Ag. Nik's I've seen in the Mani) from the iconography of the wallpaintings and the modern mass produced icons. The church is fully painted inside from the mid 18th century. According to Kassis they were painted in 1757 by Dionisio from Nomitsis. As the church has no windows the colours are still relatively vivid though, as with many churches, the paintings could do with a careful cleaning.
Frescoes from Ag. Nikolaos, Kato Chora. Left is the martyrdom of St George (above his mounted image)
Above the west, and only, door is a crucifixion and below that The Last Judgement. On the lower walls on the north west walls is a frieze of ordinary souls being tortured by demons. These crude reminders of hellfire and damnation are rather faded but there is the miller with his stone around his neck and two ploughmen have been yoked to their own plough which is being driven by a devil. On the side walls are scenes from the Passion and the lives of the Saints.
Scenes from the life of Ag. Nikolaos of Myra - Ag. Nikolaos Kato Chora Milia
Obviously Ag. Nikolaos gets the most coverage. Of particular note are two long paintings midway up the north and south walls. That on the south wall is an animated depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Massacre of the Innocents. Ag Nikolaos Kato Chora Milia. Scene and detail.
There is a painted Templon with one doorway and a large Panagia and child in the 'orans' position in the single apse. Kassis mentions that there are marbles in this church carved by Nikitas - whose signature is recorded in many Byzantine Deep Mani churches. This is curious as Nikitas was carving his marbles back in the 11th century and this church is definitely post- Byzantine. I was unaware of the connection when I looked at the church and can report no sightings of the marbles - presumably re-used in its construction from an older church, called Ag. Trapeza.
Above Kato Chora is a small monastery dedicated to Ag. Dimitrios. Now deserted it is a steep climb up from the main road via a small monopedio (footpath) which zig zags up some 300 metres and when I went in early June was infested with spider's webs. The church is probably 17th century and, as I had been warned by an old lady at the bottom of the path, was firmly locked. Pity as it has 17th century frescoes. The site, as with many monasteries, has an isolated and lofty sylvan charm which I and a local donkey appreciated on our own.
Monastery of Ag. Dimitrios - to the north of Kato Chora Milia and the view from there
Upper Milia proper, the first part you encounter is also known as Fagrianika, is further up the valley and on the south side of the ravine. Evliya Celebi described it in 1670 as "Comprising two hundred stone tiled roofed houses, resembling castles, two monasteries, vineyards, melon fields and springs with the water of life". The poet Niketas Niphakos was from Milia and his History of the Whole Mani, its Customs, Villages and Produce probably written in the 1780s is more of a scurrilous popular ballad than the objective tome its title might suggest. It is thought to have been written in honour of Zanetbey Grigorakis (Bey from 1782-1788) and it contains some particularly damning verses on his own village. Captain William Martin Leake came across a copy in Mistra in 1805 and wrote in his Travels, "Milea falls also under his lash, particularly its chief place Kastania, which having mentioned he desires to fly from immediately. Arakhova he calls "the renowned" and describes as hidden in a bewitched valley - and then adds "From hence let us proceed, by the wolf path to the robbers of kids and goats, the walkers at night, and record the name of the town of the kid-eating rogues, the mule stealers, the goat slayers, the thrice apostate Milea "
Today there is a large main platea, some local council buildings and a small kafeneion. Next to it is a fine example of a Byzantine cross in square church (dedicated to the Metamorphosis) which has been extended in later centuries. The eastern end of the church has cloisonné brickwork and a good high cupola. Bob Barrow speculates that the cupola may have been 'extended' at some time and he has some justification as it certainly is taller than most 12/13th century church domes in Mani and this church must be around that age. There is the requisite bell tower at the western end dated 1808. Mani was one of the few parts of Ottoman Greece where the locals could ring church bells with impunity - and there was a demonstrable fashion for adding these soaring campaniles in the late 18th and early 19th century. As usual the tower is covered with folk-art carvings. The church is normally locked but if you are lucky, as we were, a keyholder can be found in the adjacent kafeneion (now a rather unlikely event as this seems to have closed for good as of 2002!). Bob Barrow, who visited the church out of season a month or so after reported it unlocked.
Church of the Metamorphosis, Fagrianika, Milia - paintings of the Saints Theodoros (Tiron - the 'Recruit' on the left - Statelates - 'The General' to the right) and at the lower level devils doing unspeakable things to sinners.
The paintings inside are mostly complete and date from the mid 18th century. As, on my first visit, the keyholder was present and was probably the church-warden I wasn't able to get into the Bema but the frescoes in the nave, though somewhat soot stained from candle smoke and suffering from damp, are dense and detailed. The west end of the naos is divided into three vaults but has the common Ainoi frescoes and a fine early example of a Westerner and Turk as the 'krites tis gis' or 'Judges of the Earth' in the northern vault. (see the page on this particular piece of iconography by clicking here). The Westerner was unfortunately hidden by a large, ornate and rather nasty modern piece of church furniture but is dressed in an white (or very pale pink) costume (apart from yellow cuffs to his jacket) and I didn't have the nerve to just move the blasted thing.
the Church of the Metamorphosis - Milia. Right, The Venetian and Turkish judges from the Ainoi paintings.
The style of the costume would point to a date no later than 1715 though western costumes in frescoes are almost invariably anachronistic and this could be from any time in the 18th century. We know that Christodolous Kalliergi painted Ag. Iannis Prodromos in Milia in 1706 (see below) but the style of painting in this church is of a different, and from my experience, later hand almost certainly the same painters who were active in the 1750s and 1760s in many Mani churches; Anagnostis of Langada and Nikolaos of Nomitsi. The westerner could well be a portrait of a Venetian official or officer - Venetians wore white uniforms at the time - and could conceivably have been painted from contemporary remembrance as Milia would have been part of the Venetian administrative district of Zarnata between the late 1680s and 1715. As the later extension of the church is in three vaults some frescos are in slightly odd places - the Last Judgement, for example, usually on the rear west wall is in the southern vault
There's something of an update on this church as of 2006. Expert restorers from the 26th Ephorate of Byzantine Archaeology in Kalamata are uncovering the Byzantine frescos of this church. Bob Barrow kindly appraised me of this development a day before I flew out to Athens in spring '06 and naturally I planned to drive up to Milia and investigate. Of the two restorers, the male speaks excellent English, the other, female, speaks French. They are working mostly in the Bema - or sanctuary - of the church and faces are beginning to appear from the more recent plaster, when I visited with my friend Ralph (another fresco enthusiast) in early May. It appears to be rather good mid to late Byzantine wallpaintings. The restorers were more than happy that we looked at their work but they politely, but very firmly, insisted that we did not photograph the paintings they were uncovering - if I could recognise the Greek for 'It's more than my job's worth', I would have undoubtedly heard it.
However Giorgios, the lead restorer, was submitted to a barrage of persuasion by my good self. I shoved an official letter from the 26th Ephorate (complete with official stamp) under his nose allowing me to photograph wallpaintings in Mani churches, in riposte he pointed out, quite justifiably, that it alluded to two completely different churches some 15 miles north of where we stood. Nonplussed I whipped out a bilingual letter I'd concocted a few years back from my university Faculty's head of research imploring all readers of same epistle to give me all assistance possible. This was also politely deflected by Giorgios (whom I suspect is carefully guarding the paintings so that he can write up his findings - and who shall blame him?). But my constant badgering, my evident knowledge of Mani churches and his relative indifference to the 18th century wallpaintings (his expertise lay with Byzantine art) eventually wore him down and he allowed us to photograph the wallpaintings from the 1750s - which was my main intent.
Giorgios was as yet uncertain of the exact date of the Byzantine frescos which are appearing from the overlay of whitewash and plaster - There's not much to go on so far such as details of clothing and the way in which the artists depicted the folds (a common way of dating wallpaintings) and as is often the case the overpainters from later centuries insisted on chipping out bits of the original surface so that their plaster took a better grip. At the moment the surmise is that the medieval paintings are from somewhere in the 13th - 15th century time span. My guess, for what it's worth, on that extremely brief look, is late 13th century.
Above the platea to the east is a steep wooded hill. There is reputedly a monastery on top of this - after a strenuous climb a friend and I found a small single chambered pitch roofed church with a good view over the upper village. The church was locked and a local lady disliked my attempts to stick my head through a partly open window. The path on to the Panagia Giatrissa monastery, 1000 metres up on the watershed of the Taygetus, starts here. It's only walkable from Milia but easily driveable from the eastern side of the mountains. The view shows the three main parts of Milia. Kato Chora to the north in the valley. Milia or Fagrianika directly below with the bell tower of the church of the Metamorphosis and on a small hill to the south and linked is Xanthianika.
View from the small churchyard above the main village of Milia. Looking west.
There it's a brisk climb up through the streets and alleyways of Milia to Xanthianika or you could drive - just hope you don't meet someone coming the other way as the road is both very steep and very narrow. Take the road west from the main platea and after passing the now deserted school on your right there is a sharp reverse turn to your left which climbs up to the upper village. On my first visit I decided there was little of immediate historical interest - a small platea with what appeared to be a modernish church and a couple of small kafeneions.
Well that's what I thought until May 2003 when I decided to give it another visit. A Papas I'd noticed a few times before in Milia was sitting in the plataea drinking a stoup of wine and after a few sentences of broken Greek from myself and some demotic replies from himself I realised I was being invited into the church. It soon became clear that the church is, just like the Metamorphosis below, originally a Byzantine cross in square edifice which has had a later extension cum narthex added at a later date. The paintings, and the older part of the church is covered with them, are of the 18th century - probably in the 1750s or '60s but the capitals of the supporting columns, now overpainted much more recently, are extremely similar in style to those at Ag. Petros in Kastania with the same plump bird carvings.
The c.12th century Byzantine 'bird' capitals at the Koimisis church Xanthianika, Milia, a 20th century relief of Christ with Maniat figures and St Simon Stylites next to the iconostasis
This would date the original church building to the 12th century. The church - dedicated to the Koimisis tis Theotokou - is obviously the pride and joy of the Papas although my attempts to articulate the names frescos on the walls were sufficiently garbled by my pronunciation to lead to mutual bafflement, There is a faded and candle smoke occluded example of the Ainoi (last psalms) in the northern transverse, with the usual beasts of the earth and the Judges of the Earth depicted as Turkish and Venetian Judges. Naturally, as the church is dedicated to the Virgin, there are many depictions of Her and the life of Christ and finally the iconostasis is a highly wrought and garishly painted wooden affair, topped with sinuous dragons, probably dating from the 19th century.
The west face of the Koimisis (pronounced 'Keemeesees') church Xanthianika, Milia and the Papas
The church is, as of early summer 2006, undergoing a facelift. They are clearing the plaster from the outside walls and exposing the original medieval stonework with tell tale dog tooth tile decoration and the cleaning clearly shows the line of the addition of the later (18th c.?) extension. Inside someone with taste has stripped the modern paint off the medieval capitals. I've mixed feelings about this, as I suspect that when they were first put in place that the carvings would have been painted - though perhaps a little more felicitously. Around the south side door one can clearly see the marble carved pieces which were probably re-used from the original templon. By the way the key to the church is kept in the small kafeneion on the south side of the square, they'll quite happily open up the church, though as is normal they insist on accompanying you.
Koimisis Xanthianika, May 2006. Showing the cleaned up carvings on the capitals and the south wall showing off the original stonework
If you stop by the old school on the road below Xanthianika you'll spot that it is now in rack and ruin - old illustrated posters which once instructively decorated the classroom walls were found on one visit curled and mouldering in the rubble of the playground along with old desks (these have now disappeared). Immediately below and to the left of the school is a large ruined house and below that a smallish domed church. There's a distinct kalderimi path which leads down to the church.
Church of Ag. Iannis Prodromos- Milia from the house above and embrasured wall -
The area below the house and around the church is encircled by a high stone wall pierced by what look suspiciously like embrasures for cannon and firearms. Peter Burridge, who brought groups of architectural students on study trips here in the 70s says that this was once a Monastery and rather like the fortified ring of monasteries around Kardamili to the north the ecclesiatical walls were shared by the inhabitants in times of trouble. Kolokotronis the Klephtic bandit and later hero of the Greek War of Independence was brought up in Milia after his father was killed by Turks in the village of Mikri Kastania just over the Taygetus below the Panagia Giatrissa monastery.
Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Milia. View from SE and fresco of Saint Mary of Egypt .The monk Zosimus giving Saint Mary of Egypt Holy Communion. St Mary, a former Alexandrian prostitute, has a connection with St. John the Baptist as, according to the story, she was baptised in a church dedicated to John the Baptist (The Prodromos or "Forerunner') by the River Jordan. She spent 47 years in the desert and is usually depicted, as here, as a skeletal naked old hag. After receiving the holy communion from Zosimus she found peace, died and was buried in the desert.
The church is dedicated to Ag. Iannis Prodromos and is fully frescoed - by Christodolous Kalliergi of Mykonos in 1706 (inside there's an inscription over the door) in a particularly distinctive style - his figures are tall thin and the lines of the costumes and faces are paticularly sensuous. Kalliergi also painted the church of Ag. Nikolaos in Zarnata castle and possibly seems to have started a small dynasty of painters in Mani. If so his descendants, called Kalliergakis (lit. 'little Kalliergi') painted other churches in and around Zarnata in the 1780s.
Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Milia. The Raising of Lazarus and the Death of the Virgin Mary (Koimisis tis Theotokou)
Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Milia - John the Baptist (the 'Prodromos') and the painter's inscription
I've known the church to be both locked and unlocked and in 2001 with a small padlock - but the metal door is not solid and one can see in through the wrought iron top part and in 2002 and 2003 the padlock had gone. If you follow a path below the church you will eventually reach an extremely overgrown old single-arched stone bridge over the ravine which connects to the Kato Chora.
The niche above the door of Ag. Iannis Prodromos - Milia and decoration in the doorway
There is a road which now connects Milia with the main road near Platsa. It has been 'under construction' for years and is now signposted. A few years back I asked one of my local sources if the road was asphalted. "Yeah sure. It's asphalted but there's about one kilometre of track about half way". In fact it was the other way round. There was one kilometre of asphalt - an amazingly good, wide and fast kilometre - but as we sped along it at 70mph we noticed that it rather suddenly narrowed to a tiny, bumpy and bone shaking track and the remaining four kilometres were much of the same, passing the small village of Garbelia or Kivelia, until you reach the outskirts of Milia. That situation has, thankfuly, now changed and in May 2005 the road was nearing completion - large sections were rough ballast without the final topping of asphalt but I'm presuming, from the number of large construction vehicles, it was to be finished before winter. (May 2006 - it's finished - at last)
Carvings on the belltower of Kivelia and the view from the plateia northwards across the gorge of the river Milia towards Arachova
The village of Garbelia/Kilevia is up an older concrete track and is a small hamlet sitting on a low ridge in between the mountains. To the east of and below the village there is, for Mani, a considerable flat plain which must have grown crops as well as olive trees in years past but now appears to have reverted to scrub and pasture. The settlement has little to recommend it apart from the vistas and quiet. There's nothing striking architecturally or historically, though someone has thoughtfully mounted a canon overlooking the plateia. The Koimisis tis Theotokou church in the centre of the village has some charming folkloric carvings on its bell tower (dated 1862) and the locals have had fun decorating the interior of the same church in rather tasteless if fun paintwork. The church of Agia Triada lies just outside the village to the south surrounded by trees and bushes. It has some 19th century icons and has some odd fluted columnsbuilt into one wall which may, or may not, be ancient (whatever, someone's whitewashed them). Tracks lead away into the broad valley and presumably cross over the col towards Langada.
Returning to the coast via Kariovouni in its "witch haunted valley" stop for a while and wander round this leafy if tiny village. The old name Arachova is of Slavic origin and comes from Orechova meaning 'nut tree'. The Greek name means almost the same 'nut mountain'. It has suffered badly from the movement of people to the coasts and the cities and is now mainly occupied by old people. Peter Hartleb gives a population in 1981 of 65 and although the population had risen slightly in 1991, to 91, it has dropped in 2001 to 82 and it is hard to see that this will rise significantly. The village is bisected by two torrents, dry in summer and rather unsympathetically concreted. Many of the houses are falling into disrepair and there is a particularly moth eaten tower house on the western slopes of the valley. We fell into conversation with a Greek couple who had emigrated to America, they were doing up the wife's old house as a holiday home. We were joined by two old ladies who were eager to know if we were going to buy a house in Kariovouni. I answered diplomatically (and truthfully!) that we hadn't enough money. As quick as a flash the reply came back echoing old Maniate customs, "Well why don't you rob a bank?"
On to Platsa