South of Kardamili the road twists along a corniche for a few kilometres before passing the cove of Phoneas (lit. Murder(erer)'s Bay) which now has the gentler reputation as the nudist beach of choice in Exo Mani (i.e. more obese northern Europeans lolling about like over-grilled beached whales wondering if they'll ever see their own sunburnt nether parts again without the aid of a handy mirror). Past Delphinia Beach one comes into the steadily encroaching, outlying houses of Lefktro-Stoupa. This 'urban sprawl' has built up over the last few years and now most of the olive groves to either side are echoing to the sound of cement mixers and filling up with villas, appartments, swimming pools and the roads and overhead power cables to serve them (oh, and while am about it where in hell is the water to lubricate them all going to come from?). I rave on about how development will kill the Mani's goose with the golden egg elsewhere in these pages, but I am getting seriously worried about the blinkered lack of planning, and blatant land-rush greed that is so evidently ruining the landscape around Stoupa and up towards Neohori … and don't get me started on the quality of the architecture (enough to say - if I see the phrase 'traditional Maniat dwelling' one more time - so help me God …)

The view from Stoupa's acropolis - May 2006 and Bon's photo from a similar viewpoint,1930s

OK, sometimes development can lead to amusement. The relatively new supermarket on the main road past Stoupa is both externally charmless and has perhaps the worst designed entrance/exit road to a store in Greece (a difficult call that…) and when it first appeared there was consternation from all the other traders in the area as they saw their earnings being watered down. They got together and had a good winge to the local authorities about the incomer taking away their trade - 'Look at their opening hours' they moaned. The authorities, in a wonderful piece of deliberately ironic bureaucracy, pointed out that most (nay all) of the supermarkets in the area were flouting Sunday trading laws and brought everyone into strict adherence to these self same rules (which, it being Greece, there certainly are, but were, everywhere, completely ignored). This Sunday closure festered for some months, with British tourists coming in on the Sunday flights fretting in on-line chat rooms that they wouldn't be able to nip out and buy their ouzo, wine and beer on immediate arrival in Stoupa. Trust the Brits to worry that they'd have to wait until 8 a.m. the next morning to fill the fridge with booze. Of course, as any keen student of the life Hellenic could have predicted, the whole farrago fizzled out. The authorities realised that to enforce the law they'd have to personally get out and about on a Sunday, and they frankly couldn't be arsed, and everyone else waited a discrete momento, then went back to habitual practices. So everything, thankfully, is back to normal. Bless.

Views - Stoupa

Taking into account my earlier comment on the British prediliction for imbibing alcohol you might think I agree with the opinion of some Kardamiliotes and Kardamiliphiles who talk of Stoupa as if it were a den of iniquity and the natural haunt of lager swilling proles with 'kiss me quick' hats. I'll have to admit the present day villages have contrasting characters. However one difference comes down, from a purely British point of view, to the fact that in Kardamili they'll call it 'Bacon & Eggs' - in Stoupa it's 'Full English Breakfast'. Let me say that although it's not entirely my cup of tea, Stoupa is a very pleasant resort boasting a number of family friendly sandy beaches (Kalogria is particularly pretty and frankly as much as they try and sell it, Kardamili's beach has just got pebbles) and a plethora of bars and tavernas some claiming (if somewhat unconvincingly) to double as 'discotheques' and an extremely loyal following of annually returning guests (most of whom seem to know one another).

Stoupa still manages to capture the sense that it's a slightly overgrown village, and is pretty tame by contrast to such Club 18-30 hell-holes as Kavos on Corfu (which I stayed in in August 1975 when it was just an empty stretch of beach and 20 tourists (max.), mostly sleeping in the olive groves). Apart from July and August, Stoupa is positively sedate and in the the latter period it's never other than slightly lively, plus that is the time to sit back and enjoy watching the inevitable patch wars which flare up over the local sun lounger and beach umbrella franchises. The village has few objects of historical interest and until the road was built in the sixties existed only as a place where steamers used to stop and unload goods. The locals, however, may have got pretentions above their station, due to the undoubted wealth that floods in from the tourists. Until recently Stoupa's parish church was the perfectly adequate Agia Triada, however the worthies of the Orthodox Church felt that they needed something a bit more grandiose. Many locals argued that the money would be better spent on improving local amenities, such as the school, but what we've got is a miniature concrete cathedral, which looks exactly like every other new religious edifice in Greece and which the church fathers lovingly floodlight at night (even though it's not yet finished). It is, frankly, quite horrible.

How times change… Antoine Bon's photo of Stoupa in the 1930s and the spanking new church

Pausanius, the late Roman 'tourist guide' wrote that Leuctra was a small city ('polis' - from which we moderns must conclude - 'significant village'). Pausanius was puzzled as to the derivation of the name. Today it's moved in modern Greek to Lefktron (that's the local council's name for the 'dimos') which is extremely close to the modern Greek word for 'white' - but as there's nothing in the slightest bit 'white' for miles one doubts that this is what the name means. Pausanius also noted that the river ran through Leuctra - and it does to this day and spills out into Stoupa beach. In the winter it flows quite naturally. With summer bulldozers block it's path with sand. It is to be doubted that modern day Stoupa is Pausanius' Leuctra. The older village is on the east side of the main road where the climate is less damp and mosquito-muggy. John Morritt described Leuctra in 1795 as, "a small hamlet". Lupins, a crop used to feed animals, would be brought down to to the sea to be washed and softened and then laid out to dry on the threshing floors. One day I sat in the bar at the south end of the main beach (a tip, if hot, sit to the right side- you get the through breeze from the road above) while my friend Theo Tsouleas, a native of the area, pointed out the buildings which existed before tourism began to develop - 20 years ago there was almost nothing in Stoupa.

The medieval 13th century Frankish castle of Beaufort is thought, by most (if not all) experts, to have sat atop the knoll that rises some 30 metres above the plain to the SE of the village and this was probably the site of the ancient acropolis of the 'city' of Leuctra, Pausanius describes it has having a statue of Athene ontop of it. If you know what you're looking for, and at, it is clear that it was used in Mycenaean, classical, medieval and even relatively modern periods. An engraving of a sketch by the early nineteenth century Estonian artist von Stackelberg shows it being used as a defensive position by a local Maniat who was at loggerheads with his uncle, the powerful kapetani of nearby Scardamoula, Panayiotis Mourtzinos. Note the pyrgos (tower) on top of the hill in the picture below - there's little sign of this today. In his notes von Stackelberg wrote (in French…)

'...sur son sommet couronné de rochers sont des murs ruines et un grosse tour servant de residence au chef independante se la contrée qui, de haut de ce donjon fait flotter avec orgeuil son etendard …les murs de la forteresse en ruines ont d'une epoque plus rapprochée de nous, mais plusieurs futs de colonnes des inscriptions effacées des monnaies et des debris de statues semblent prouver que la etait l'Acropole de Leuctres, renomme du temps d'Homere.'

Von Stackelberg's view of Lefktro in 1813 and a similar view from a slightly more westerly angle 2005.

To climb up onto the acropolis you need to find the path which starts at the north eastern side of the hill and then curves up round to the southern slope eventually gaining access to the summit via a entrance in the middle of the southern scarp. The start of the path can be difficult to find if the vegetation is high - it's not far from the main road on the southernmost road leading out of Stoupa, near the commercial garden-centre. There's a gap in the high wall on the south side of the road which then follows a path up the hill. There are signs of old walls - most I'd guess, from the masonry, are medieval - but the builders made as much use as possible of the natural rock faces and defenses of the hill. On top there's a lot of bare rock - some of which has been worked into, providing, probably, ancient steps. There's a modern mast, with a large star in light bulbs on it, surmounting the rock which is presumably switched on at Easter and other festivals - otherwise it's remarkably peaceful up there - I'd skipped breakfast when I nipped up to the top, and wished I'd taken a picnic.

Views from the acropolis of Stoupa/Leftro

Just off-shore from Stoupa are a number of massive natural pure water 'sinks' which feed gallons of mountain filtered fresh - and freezing cold - water into the sea. I once met someone who had been taken out by a local fisherman who had some sort of device which measured the sea depth and the machine recorded the sudden underwater chasms which open out under the surface. All this fresh water diluting the briney is a bit of a waste as the area is always short of water though flocks were brought down here to wash in the waters in days gone by.

You'll find Stoupa full of references to 'Zorba The Greek' as it is sometimes claimed that the author of the novel, Nikos Kazantzakis, wrote that tome here, though setting it in Crete. (The late '50s film stars Anthony Quinn - a Mexican, and the Kazantzakis 'Boss' character is turned into an Englishman - Hollywood eh?) In fact Kazantzakis did spent the year of 1917 in the area and tried with the help the lyric poet Angelos Sikelianos, rather unsuccessfully, to run a lignite mine. There was a grave shortage of fuel during the First World War and even the tiny and rather poor quality lignite found in the bluffs above Stoupa was of use. Kazantzakis was one of the partners in a syndicate which tried to make a go of the mine at Prastova. It is more than likely that he and others got involved in the mining, not so much to make money, but rather to avoid being called up into the Greek army. Mining was one of the 'protected' employments which gave one immunity from 'the draft'.

Kazantzakis wrote 'Vios kai politeia tou Alexi Zorba' or as it is translated into English, 'Zorba the Greek', much later in his life. The book appeared in 1946 and it was filmed (in Crete) in 1964. But Kazantzakis based the book on his Stoupian experiences and the character of the eponymous hero on a Macedonian Greek, Giorgos Zorbas, who was hired as foreman to run the mine. The real Zorbas, who was in his fifties at the time, was, if anything, a larger than life character than his fictional portrait. Illiterate but canny and extremely practical, full of life and enthusiasms, hard working and a masterly practical joker, Zorbas was remembered vividly by all who came into contact with him. In contrast, the aesthete Kazantzakis lived in a small wooden shack above Kalogria beach (where there is now a bust in his honour) and kept himself somewhat aloof from the locals, reading Buddha, Bergson,Tolstoy and Nietzsche and thinking of higher things. Sikelianos seems to have been even more 'away with the fairies' and slept on a platform suspended over the sea on Kalogria beach. His habit was to wander around the area, communing with nature and composing verses, dressed merely in his silk nightshirt. When he wandered down to the makeshift quay where the lignite was being loaded by Maniat women he had to be taken to one side by Zorbas who pointed out that the silk was diaphanous and he was causing a local scandal.

Some remains of the diggings at Prastova can still, reputedly, be found up in the cliffs behind the road to the north of Stoupa, although the actual shafts dug by Zorbas and Katzantzakis have been filled in. The top soil from these was used by the locals to form orchards on the levels below. There was a small railway running down to the area of Delphinia beach (or perhaps Phoneas, it is unclear which from the account I've read) where the lignite was sorted and then transfered by an overhead rail to boats.

There is a peculiar addendum to this story. In 1917 a group of Germans appeared in Stoupa (Greece was 'sort of' and 'sort of not' at war with the Central Powers at the time). They rented a house and mostly kept themselves to themselves but worked hard in the lignite mines by day. Locals remembered them making wooden toys for the village children and one was seemingly a dab hand at clock repairs. As mysteriously as they had arrived they disappeared, the house left locked and deserted. The police from Areopolis were called but, as there was no road at the time, the constabulary took their time to reach Stoupa by which time the trail had gone cold. No-one recalls the Germans hiring a boat nor did they appear at any other port along the coast. The conclusion is that they were engineers interested in the lignite mines (Germany was also short of fossil fuels by the latter part of WWI) and that they both landed by and were taken off by U-Boat.

Clouds lowering over the mountains - looking south towards Platsa on the corniche south of Kardamili

Just outside Stoupa there is a turning eastwards into the mountains. The road rises to an number of escarpments. To the left in the olive groves is a fine example of local initiative. An ancient theatre. Well… not quite. Wanting to import a little culture into the area and doubtless wishing to emulate the success of the Epidavros Festival of Drama, a keen, if slightly eccentric, local hired a group of Albanian workers and throughout one blazing hot summer constructed a stone and cement amphitheatre. His activities attracted the attention of the local planners - something of a surprise in that they seem to ignore so much more rubbish that is hurled up in the name of progress. Be that as it may, they asked him what he was going to do about the necessary amenities which usually accompany a theatre. Carparks, toilets, box offices, health and safety issues etc. Needless to say none of this had been thought of, let alone planned for, and the 'ancient' theatre now languishes overgrown in the olive groves…though it can fool the susceptible. Bob Barrow reports that a local was alarmed one day to notice a middle aged woman prone in the centre of the 'stage'. After his immediate relief that she wasn't dead but merely lying down, arms outstretched, he enquired if she was alright. Her reply, in German accented English, was that she was 'Soaking up the vibrations of these ancient stones'. Ah well…

On the first escarpment is Neohori - which to my shame I have yet to explore fully- though I've driven through it more often than I can count. The village has a fine example of a post Byzantine 'parish' church in Ag. Nikolaos.

Up another and steeper scarp is Pyrgos. This village is perched on a promontory overlooking most of the Gisterna Plain, Stoupa, Ag. Nikolaos to the west and Platsa on the opposite hill to the south. It is a sleepy little backwater and is full of old people sitting around chatting and watching the world go by - the odd tourist probably livens up their day, so say 'Yassas' to them. There are a number of churches worth finding. The main road skirts the village but driving in is not recommended as the road ends in a small platea and performing a seven point turn in front of a critical if octogenarian audience is not my favoured occupation. Follow the alleyway south from the small platea and you'll soon pass the small church of the Koimisis tis Panagias (The 'Going to Sleep' of the Virgin) on your left. It is whitewashed up to the small arched bell tower above the west door. It was locked when I arrived and locals sitting across the street were unaware of the location of the key. Anyway one of the south side windows of the church was open and I was able to look in. The inside of the church is mostly whitewashed but has some wallpaintings on the barrel vaulted ceiling. 18th century and nothing remarkable.

Pyrgos - the churches of Agii. Georgii and the Koimisis tis Panagia.

The other church worth the short walk further to the south is dedicated to Agii. Georgii. It is a largish 19th century looking edifice with a tall campanile at the west end which has a number of folkloric carvings on the lower stones. Here the view is everything - what a location (the bell tower is clearly visible for miles around). As one enters the spacious grounds of the church you'll notice some seemingly ancient capitals which flank the gateway. Look closely. Did the ancients decorate their Corinthian capitals with the sign of the cross? Er, no, they didn't. There is a story that a rich, and eccentric local decided that this location was the perfect spot for a repro' Ancient Temple. Perhaps there was one here in antiquity - it's certainly a lofty site - but either his funds or enthusiasm ran out and all that remains of his dream are these lonely 20th century fake caps.

Church of Panagia, Pyrgos. Bell tower and crucifixion, west wall of naos

Further to the east, up a steep street from the Koimisis church, is another church, with a small campanile, dedicated to the Panagia. When we first happened upon it in September 2003 it was obviously undergoing some building works with a huge pile of sand in front of the door. The tiny nathex was open and a plastic sheet covered the door to the nave of the building. The owners were there and spotted me eagerly peering under this covering and suggested I go in. I needed no further encouragement and was scrambling through sand and cement like a rat up a drainpipe.

Church of Panagia, Pyrgos. Proud owner, Maria, next to her namesake and detail from iconostasis

Inside the church is decorated in slightly faded 18th or 19th century period frescos and the owner proudly pointing out that she shared her Christian name with the Virgin, Maria, was pleased to let me photograph and poke about. There are two interesting carved marble slabs set into the floor. One, of a sword, is probably of ancient origin, another, with a double headed eagle in a roundel, is of later progeny.

South of Stoupa

Further down the coast road from Stoupa are the pleasant sea side villages of Ag. Nikolaos also called by its older Slavic name Selenitsa with its rather pretty harbour and resident ducks and Ag. Dimitrios and Trahila, where the coastal road runs out. At Ag. Dimitrios there is the tower of the Christeas family which is described later in this page. A narrow road shoots up the hill from here to the tiny hamlet of Kotroni. It's a a very, very steep hill and ends in a dead end. Park just below the village unless you want to evoke an international incident by blocking the village street. There is little in Kotroni of intrinsic historic interest but the views are great.

Kotroni - view of sunset over the rooftops looking north west and the burned out church

There is a tiny chapel and larger church at the top of the village. The latter, built in the thirties of brick, was burned down in early 2002 leading to much gossip and speculation by the locals as to whether it was arson or not. As it co-incided with a spate of explosions in appartment blocks and restaurant blazes in Stoupa (out of season I hasten to add) some culprits had to be dreamed up. The locals' money seems to be on an imaginary sect of Black Magic Devil worshipers who have an arson campaign against Christian churches. A friend and I discussed this - I looked at him and said "70 year old Greek electrics?" - he smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said "More than probably" - not such a good story though… In the cemetry of the church are the graves of Herman von Hainten a Pommeranian Baron, and his wife, some of the first ex-patriots to fall in love with and settle in the area and who lived for many years in Nomitsis. As Herman had been in the Afrika Korps during the 39-45 war he was known to the local Greeks as 'Rommel'.

In the intervening years since my visit in 2002, the church, now identified rather unsubtly as the Zoodokos Pigi, at Kotroni has been rebuilt as the photo above, taken by friends using the fine kalderimi which leads up to Pigi and Platsa in May 2004, proves. Let's hope the wiring is better!

Finally at the end of the road going down the coast is Trachila. The road follows the cliffs in which there is the entrance to what is a pretty large cave system. I hate caves so will pass on the information with no personal knowledge. Trahila - about 5 kilometres on from Ag. Dimitrios is a pleasant little village sitting under the lee of the small Trachila peninsula which justs out into the Messenian Gulf. I've not explored the peninsula, but there are stories it was fortified in the past. The village was only really attached to the rest of Mani in the relatively recent past and for a long time had no decent road, running water or electricity. This had meant that it has avoided some of the 'improvements' which blight other coastal villages and has retained its pleasant late 19th early 20th century low rise buildings and quiet nature.

Trachila views

There is a whitewashed church on the harbour front dedicated to Ag. Iannis Prodromos (St John the Baptist). Although quite old it has retained few old internal features apart from an ornate 19th century crucifix over the templon. This in turn has been re-decorated with 20th century frescos and the roof with a series of stars on a blue background. Above the south door below the bell tower is what appears to be an ancient gravestone set into the wall depicting a sword and circular shield. The main church is Ag. Triada which is to the east of the village and modern and without interest.

As the road moves across the small plain of Leftro or Gisterna one can actually put one's foot onto the accelerator and feel the hot air in ones hair. Be careful, the locals love to speed along this stretch of road and donkeys have a perverse habit of wandering out of the olive groves when you least expect it. Almost as soon as this exhilaration begins so the road begins to twist and turn and you climb up into the hills again. Before a bridge crossing the dried up ravine which leads up to Milia are turnings to the villages of Ringlia, Ano Ringlia and Eleohori.

Just below Ano Ringlia there is a cemetery church on your left which may have been a monastery at some time in the past. It has a small two storey campanile and is locked, which is a pity as it seems, from peering through the north door, to have a full set of 18th century frescos. There is a date on a relief above the main door which is dated to 1823 though I suspect that the building is earlier as there is a line of cloisonée work around the church and what looks like a medieval marble lintel above the same door.

Churches - Ano Ringlia

In Ano Ringlia itself there is a large domed modern church but of more interest is what appears to be a twin church which is reached by taking the street leading north from the square. Itself in a small walled open space it has 18th century style frescos but was on my first visit locked. However on a second visit a year later I found that the west door was open, though it needed a stiff tug to discover this. The barrel vaulted church is covered in mid 18th century frescos - I'd guessed from the number of times he appeared and the typical modern icon that the church is dedicated to St.George and this is confirmed by Kassis in his huge list of Mani churches.

Ag. Georgios, Ano Ringlia and a vivid 18th century depiction of The Ladder of St. John Climacus

There is an inscription on the north wall of the church, but it has defied my attempts to decipher it and the date and names of the painters (if they were there) would have been at the bottom and have unfortunately succumbed to damp and decay. The style points to the same group of local painters who were active in Mani during the middle decades of the 18th century.

 

The bell tower of Ag. Georgios, Ano Ringlia a Last Supper and St. George (?) seeing off a devil

 

Eleochori or Izina (its old Slavic name) is perched up on a steep hill and here the road runs out although kalderimia will take you up to Pyrgos or Milia. The church at the top of the village is of little interest save its position which affords panoramic views of the gorge below to the south and to the sea.

Following the main road, soon the small plain below is but a view as the road moves up to a high plateau overlooking the northern Mani. The first village passed is Pigi (lit. Springs) and there are churches here, most notably the Panagia Iatrissia (The Virgin Healer) dated to 1693 which is signposted but I'd never stopped until June of 2002, mainly because it's rather difficult to spot a safe parking space. The church is just off the bend in the road and was firmly locked and the adjoining house was shuttered closed. I took a speculative number of photos through a tiny pot-hole of a window but the results were not good. Pigi has a reputation for being completely colonised by retired and holiday homing Germans but I have also heard that this trend has been reversed.

Platsa

Higher up the hill as one breasts the rise is Platsa. This is a fairly large village although the road south to Areopolis and deep Mani skirts the eastern edge of it. To enter the village take the right hand fork in the road then turn sharply to the right. There is a main platea with a large probably early to mid 20th century church on its western edge and the village is larger than one might believe from a cursory glance. Hartleb gives a population in 1981 of only 186 but 20 years before it was more than 360 and the village boasts both a policeman and a post office.

View from above Platsa - looking north

Traquair points out that the village boasts over 12 churches (Kasses lists 38 in the area) and rather like Proastio one can spend a happy hour or so traversing Platsa's streets and alleyways in search of them. However few of them are of any historically significant value. Most are simple single barrel vaulted edifices built during the upsurge of piety - and the money and independence to build them - in the 17th and 18th centuries when Platsa was a centre of kapetani power. Evliya Celebi and other commentators describe Platsa as a port, and there are the impressive remains of a kapetani fortified house at Ag. Dimitrios on the coast below.

The Christeas tower by the coast below Platsa

Celebi describes the village in 1670, as being particularly rich due to a thriving trade with, particularly Venice, but also with Genoa, Spain and France. In April 1795 John Morritt landed at the, "little creek of Platsa shut in by the rock of Pephnos, near which was a tower, the residence of the Capitano Christeia…" Morritt talked at length to Christeas whom he described as around 45 years old and having no less than three bullett wounds in the chest, two more on his face and many slighter wounds on his legs and arms. The reason for this was Christeas' habit of fighting with other neighbouring kapetani. Morritt reports that just recently Christeas had attacked a neighbour with not only 80 of his male warriors but with an accompanying force of 30 women led by his sister who was wounded in the ensuing fracas. Another factor in the genesis of Christeas' formidable body-map of entry wounds was undoubtedly his piratical career. He boasted to Morritt that he had recently seized a French merchantman and then followed a strange story which points up the different cultural mores of the Maniate chieftain, his French captive and not forgetting the Englishman who narrated the story.

Christeas offered to land the French captain ashore and give back one thing from the prize. Christeas was presuming that the Frenchman would choose his crew or at least part of the cargo he had been entrusted with. To his surprise (and disgust) the Frenchman chose a single item. An enamelled snuff box which had a lock of a lady's hair on the lid and inside what Morritt describes as, "a very indecent design'. I have been assured by someone who has inspected a collection that the inner lids of Gallic snuff boxes of the time were often 'erotically and indeed contortionally interesting'. Christea was not impressed as Morritt, in a very English manner, points out, "…though a pirate [he] was enraged at [the Frenchman's] unmanly and heartless levity, retracted his offer and left the captain with only a shirt and pair of trowsers in the boat to shift himself. He set the crew on shore, and had brought his prize to Platsa where he shewed us the snuff-box with great satisfaction." One wonders what prurient interest or schadenfreudlich satisfaction Morritt gained from perusing the inside of the French captain's aide memoir d'amour and how baffled was the Frenchman by his captor's inchoate rage at his choosing a simple memento d'amore?

Morritt reported further of the problems of love in a distant land. He himself spares no adjective to enthuse over the beauty of the Maniate women but after watching an exuberent display of dancing and post Easter feasting told of a violent if cautionary tale. When congratulating Kapetani Christeas on the nimble fingerdness of his lyra player he heard that Christeas had, until the year before, had a German fiddler in his employ.

"… a most accomplished musician… who played not only Greek dances, but many Italian and German songs; but that in 1794 his fiddler, brought up in the laxer morals of western Europe, and undmindful of the rigid principles of the Maina, had so offended by his proposals the indignant chastity of a pretty woman in the neighborhoood, that she shot him dead on the spot with a pistol."

Leake reported in 1805 that a Khristodhulo Khristea of Leftro governed Platsa and the district of Zygos which contained over 1000 houses. The Christeas family name still exists in Platsa. For a map of the whole area from Platsa to Langada click here.

Ag. Paraskevi, Platsa

Take one of the streets leading uphill to the east of the main platea and walk towards the main road, it's no more than 20 metres away - if you miss the church in the warren of alleyways then walk along the main road and look back down into the village. Agia Paraskevi (lit. Saint Friday) is a small barrel vaulted church with a transverse barrel vault half way across its length and no dome. The outside is decorated with cloisonné brickwork bands in an X or diamond shape pattern, though the stonework is generally rather rough and ready. Above the west door are three cloisonné decorated niches.

Traquair dates it to the 13th century or towards the end of the Byzantine building boom - the lack of a cupola is significant. Inside the church has a variety of frescoes, possibly not all of the same period and all likely to be much later than the date of construction. The earliest are dated to the 15th century. The church one can assume, from the signs of worship and the modern icon of Ag.Paraskevi, is still in use and this may well be due to the extremely pretty colour schemes and artistry of the frescoes - its a pity that some have felt the necessity to carve their initials on some of the oldest - and rather faded - paintings - but there is a particularly doll like (and I use the phrase carefully) Pantocrator in pleasing greens and muted reds. The church was unlocked and indeed the door was wide open on each of my visits a year apart.

The Ascension, Ag Paraskevi, Platsa and Ag. Iannis, Platsa

Further north is another large space in the village and in its centre is Ag. Iannis. As with most churches in the Messenian Mani this has its obligatory sign put there by officialdom and - as is often the case - it can be locked. On one visit I was thwarted but in May 2000 the key was in the lock, although we embarrassingly had to ask for local assistance in actually turning the thing. I've since noted that the key is generally located just above the door. Domed with a single external apse (although there are three apses inside) and a bell chamber above the west door (which may well be of late construction) the church is dated by Traquair to the 15th or 16th century. It is a tall and long church with two internal columns - one of which is reused classical item - this is a pattern unusual in Mani - Ag. Soter in Itilo being another example.

It is partly frescoed - mainly in the Bema as large areas have been whitewashed. The iconography points to a 18th century date for the paintings although two or more artists may have been at work and the paintings in the western nave appear more niave, if that's possible, than those in the sanctuary end.

View of the templon/bema of Ag. Iannis, Platsa and a detail of the musicians from the Ainoi (last psalms) in the western barrel vault

There are the usual depiction of the signs of the zodiac and associated Ainoi (last psalms) paintings in the barrel vault of the west part of the naos and a distressed version of the crucifixion on the west wall. There are some carved marbles of no great distinction and on the floor of the naos there are two carved insets.

Ag. Demetrios

To the south of the main platea this church is above a lane. A largish single cell barrel vault it has no particularly interesting architectural features and no paintings but has a number of interestingly carved marbles inset into the floor and internal steps to the Bema. The view from the door of the church northwards over towards Stoupa is worth the short walk.

Ag Nikolaos at Kampinari

This church is just to the south of Platsa. Drive on the main road south from Platsa towards Areopoli and about 250 metres outside the village there is a small track leading off to the south. You can see Ag. Nikolaos, a largish church, overlooking the sea next to a slightly incongruous basketball pitch. The church is for a variety of reasons one of the most important churches in the area. It has its own web site provided by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture (click here). Therefore it is exceedingly frustrating that the damn place is invariably locked and that even friends I have, who live locally, have failed repeatedly to organise ingress to the building. Bob Barrow has managed to get in but was refused permission to photograph - it was after all the Saints day of St. Nicholas in December. I have heard that the church is owned by the Bouras family who can be asked for in the main platea of Platsa. In 2005 I contacted the 26th Byzantine Ephorate in Kalamata who gave me permission to contact a key-holder and was shown around the church. Even then the keyholder didn't have a key to the gate of the compound and we had to scramble over the back wall. More photos and description when I get the time…

Ag. Nikolaos, Kampinari, Platsa

The building is generally dated as being one of the earliest in the Mani. Most experts agree that it was originally a set of three single celled churches in a basilica pattern and was probably erected in the 10th century. The dome is a later provision probably added in the 14th century when the church was radically renovated and decorated by a local dignitary Constantine Spanis. Spanis is an interesting figure as he was the representative of Byzantine rule for the Drongos of the Melingi. Drongos means "district" and the Melingi, as elsewhere described in these pages, were the Slavic tribe who inhabited the north western flanks of the Taygetus during the medieval period.

We know this because there is an inscription which runs around the central naos of the church high up on the wall which describes the good works of Spanis described as the "tsaousis" or ruler of the drongos of the Melingi and his wife Maria. Spanis himself is described in a number of different sources and it is clear that he was a Melingi himself. This points to the fact that the Slavic Melingi were adopting Greek names and language and copying the behaviour of the Byzantine nobility. The Spanis family are first mentioned in a Venetian document claiming that a Michael Spano had stolen some cereal from a Venetian in Koroni. This Michael is described as Captain of Arduvista, which is generally taken as the Venetian way of spelling Androuvitsa - present day Exohori and Kardamili. In the French version of the Chronicle of the Morea a "Spany" is called "A powerful man of the Slavs who was ruler of the Gisterne and the other castles thereabouts".

Constantine Spanis himself is also mentioned in a plaque (now upside down) in Ag.Georgios at Itilo, where he is listed as the main donor of the restoration of the church in the years 1331-2. The final mention is a Turkish description of the local ruler in the Mani during a raid by the Emir of Aidin in 1335. Here Spanis is named Ispen - but scholars seem to think that this is a Turkish interpretation of his name. The inscription on the walls of St. Nikolaos at Kampinari points to the restoration work taking place in the years 1337-8. The three separate churches were decorated at different times although at this juncture it seems likely that small low doorways were opened between the chambers.

I have not seen inside the church (and there are no windows) but fortuitously there is a superb book on the church. Long out of print but written by the doyenne of Byzantine art scholarship, the late Doula Mouriki, "The Frescoes of the Church of St. Nicholas at Platsa in the Mani" gives a comprehensive description and many coloured plates - the details of this page are based on this tome. Unfortunately it is extremely rare and copies need to be sought in academic research libraries.

Although the church is known as Ag. Nikolaos only one of the chambers seems to be dedicated to him and from reading the inscription Constantine Spanis intended the church to be dedicated to Christ. The carvings on the templon are older than the paintings and seem similar in style to those in other mid Byzantine churches in the area - certainly there is a similar creature (otter?) to ones in churches in Platsa and Nomitsis. Doula Mouriki believes these to be of the 12th century - which would tie in with part of the Spanis inscription which says that the church had been restored 200 years after its building. Now Traquair and Megaw put the original structure to the 900s - it is too crude in construction and exterior decoration to be any later. Mouriki decides that the church was decorated and restored two hundred years later in the 12th century which explains Spanis' reference to it being founded 200 years before his restoration. Of course he could have just got it all wrong.

The paintings are (if you can get to see them!) extremely interesting both in their iconography and stylistically. For the Mani they are a rare example of late Byzantine period painting and it is interesting to compare them to those in the churches of Mistra on the other side of the Taygetus.

Deisis and John the Baptist - Ag. Nikolaos Kampinari - Platsa

Although Greek churches usually show a uniform pattern to the iconographic scheme in Ag. Nikolaos the division of the building into three distinct aisles has had the effect of creating distinct differences in iconography. It is a pity that the similarly shaped church of Trissakia at Tsopokas in the Deep Mani (its name means literally "Three churches") has lost so much of its frescoes so that we cannot compare decorative themes. At Kampinari the central aisle is dominated by the Melismos - the infant Christ on the Holy Table flanked by Angels and Bishops. The south aisle is dedicated to St. Nicholas and has many depictions of his life and the north aisle's frescoes have suffered rather more than the others and are difficult to assign. The style is a distinct cut above other paintings in the Mani- both in the boldness of the brushwork and the size and ambition of the iconography and it is possible that the painter or painters employed by Spanis came from Mistra.

By the by, if you have a relatively powerful PC or Mac and QuickTime you can see a 360 degree photo of Ag. Nikolaos Kambinari at the Augenblick site. Click here.

For a map of the whole area from Platsa to Langada click here.

On to Nomitsis