The tiny Greek islet of Cranai is thought to be the place where Helen of Sparta and Paris of Troy consummated the love affair that sparked the legendary Trojan Wars. In the adjacent town of Gythio, considered to be the port of ancient Sparta, crumbling stone houses clamber haphazardly up the hillside from the sea, lending an authentic, rough-around-the-edges sort of charm to a place that is clearly well acquainted with the tourist. Pleasingly situated restaurant patios flank the shoreline while colourful fishing boats bob idly in the harbour.
Besides being a place where legends were created, Gythio is also the gateway to that barren, desolate and forgotten region of southern Greece known as the Mani, where crumbling old tower houses dot the bristling landscape like mini, single family fortresses and the inhabitants were known for their murderous clan wars and fierce independence.
Throughout history, countless armies have marched through the nation we know today as Greece. Tucked away in the remote, wind-swept peninsula beneath the Taygetus and Sangias mountain ranges, the Maniots have stoutly resisted foreign domination for centuries. They defied the Byzantines and the Franks. And when the Ottomans were marching through Greece in the 15 th century, the Mani retained self government, bandits using the mountains as a stronghold from which to fight off the invaders. But when they were not banding together to fight for their autonomy, they were fighting each other. Tales of long and bloody family feuds have been woven through the fascinating history of this unique corner of Greece.
As is the case with many such places, tourism is bringing something of a revival to the Mani. In our compact little rental car we headed south from Gythio to Areopoli, the peninsula's second largest town as well as the place where the Greek War of Independence began in 1821. During this eight-year battle against the occupying Ottoman forces, the people of the Mani fought valiantly. Greece won her sovereignty in 1829.
We arrived, intent on discovering the soul of one of the nation's few wild and untrodden places. But first, we had to get through the touristy bit. Having your own transport is essential. Coaches deposit busloads of tourists at quaint little villages where one can sip lattes among fellow visitors on sunny patios among lovingly restored stone towers. On the outskirts, modern tower homes are under construction, being built in the fashion of the traditional architecture. Winding cobblestone laneways meander pleasingly around the blocky buildings and stone churches, enticing one to explore and perhaps get a little lost. Among the tourists, a wizened old woman may shuffle by, her long robes swishing quietly around her ankles. She lends an air of authenticity to the place but it still seems a little contrived. Surely there is more to the Mani than sipping lattes among tourists and newly constructed tower houses!