Kambos or Kambos Avias (really the name of the local 'dimos' or municipal district which has its offices in Kambos) is the largest of the villages in a small but fertile plain (and 'plain' is the literal English translation of 'Kambos' - probably related to the Italian 'Campo' and French 'Campagne') nestling under the hill of Zarnata to the south and the foothills of the Taygetus to the east. In fact 'plain' is a little bit of a misnomer as the area is undulating and riven with stream beds but in comparison with much of the surrounding area it is positively level!

View over the Kambos valley. Kambos in the centre - Zarnata the hill to its left

The village was described by Evliya Celebi in 1670 as having, "three hundred tile-roofed houses like castles, a paradise of vineyards, melon fields, two monasteries, seven churches and seventy wells with wholesome water."

Kambos itself is not a dreadfully interesting village - the main road has put paid to any claims to beauty or fascination. Patrick Leigh Fermor arrived here after climbing over the Taygetus (as described in his book 'Mani') in the mid fifties and was more impressed by a deep Maniat he encountered than the inhabitants of the village, described by his interlocutor as 'Vlachs' - a common enough term of condescending abuse in Greece. The village still seems to evoke disdain from other Maniates, probably because it is lush and prosperous. I was informed that would be footballers from Stavropigi, only a minute away on the hill above, would prefer to travel all the way to Platsa to play their chosen game rather than fraternise with the Kambiotes! The jewels of Kambos are the Byzantine church of Ag. Theodoroi with its 18th century frescos and the exquisite rock-perching chapel of Ag.Iannis. There is a large very modern church on the road to Kendro which is worth a peep if only to see how a modern interpretation of fresco painting looks (large and unsubtle - though doubtless in 200 years time visitors will be commenting on their felicities).

Ag. Theodoroi, Kambos

This compact church is easy to find as it is right next to the main road. Coming from the north the road traverses the centre of Kambos before turning sharply to the right towards Zarnata Castle. Ag. Theodorii is about 20 metres along the road to the right. The priest of the village, a jolly looking person, used to keep the church firmly locked (though it has glass panels in the doors). However over the last few years (1998 onwards) he has thoughtfully left the doors open most of the day and will, reportedly, if present and given the opportunity, attempt to proselytise one into the Orthodox church.

The outside of the church is relatively unimpressive there is no obvious mid-Byzantine style cloisonné work - indeed like many of the northern Mani churches the walls are built of well cut local limestone blocks which would date it to the late medieval period. The south door has some good medieval marble surrounds and if one looks up at the west door then there are signs of cloisonné in the arch. The church is fully frescoed although generally the condition is rather blotchy with damp and age. Once your eyes have accustomed themselves to the move from bright sunlight to relative gloom you will be confronted with a series of martyrdoms which are to say the least graphic in their depiction of various tortures and executions. Trying to work out who is doing what to whom and who the Saint is is a difficult task. The Painter's Manual of Dionysios of Fourna (late 17th century) listed hundreds of martyrs and how they should be depicted in church paintings.

Various bits of Foxes Book of Martyrs, Ag. Theodoroi, Kambos

There are a number of delights in store, a delightful Saint dispatching a dragon (or if you look at another way, talking it for a walk) in the Bema. There is a Templon surmounted by an ornate 18/19th century iconostasis. The paintyings are much later than the building - from the mid eighteenth century. Most follow the usual pattern for post-Byzantine work in the northern Mani with a series scenes radiating out from a central Christ figure surrounded by the constellations (as signs of the zodiac) on the ceiling of the western naos. These scenes depict or rather interpret the later Psalms, and are called the Ainoi (Praises) paintings.

The costumes of many of the lay characters have distinctive Turkish period garb and long droopy moustaches. On the south ceiling there is the beasts of the earth, dragons in their depths and even a centaur thrown in for good measure. On the north ceiling there is the other half of this scheme with dancing women, musicians and the Kings and Judges of the Earth in their canopy.

Ainoi paintings - North barrel vault of naos - Ag. Theodoroi

There is an inscription over the inside of the south door with what appears to be a date of 1760 - it's very faint. Looking at this and the stylistic similarities point to the painter being Anagiostes of Langada who painted similar themes at the Monastery of Roussaki near Kallieneika in 1758 and at Ag. Georgios at Mirsini and Ag. Iannis Chrisostomos, Skoutari in the Kato Mani in 1749 and 1750 respectively.

On a lunch break during our 2000 trip we rested awhile in the friendly café on the sharp bend in the road at Kambos - worthwhile if just to observe the many varied approaches by Greek (and foreign) drivers to this right angled and hazardous corner - it has a curved mirror but few pay it more than cursory attention (regrettably, if audience, thankfully, if driver, the local highways department has, at last, done something about this corner as of 2003). I went to pay for our drinks, saganaki and salad. Propped up by the counter was a small photograph of an exquisite and tiny church. My blood raced - it was clearly medieval. The owner, the smiling Erine who, after over twenty years in Zurich, speaks clear German returned. I asked in my slightly more fractured 'Denglisch' where the chapel was. There is, naturally - such is the idiosyncratic positioning of the official signs - no sign in the centre of Kambos directing one to this church. Head off down the Odos Ai. Konstantino from the excuse for a platea - in a southerly direction. After 500 metres or so the road bends to the east and there lo and behold is a familiar brown and yellow sign pointing down a pathway to Ag. Iannis or Iannakis (little St John). The church is dedicated to John the Baptist.

The path soon turns into a sunken kalderimi between high stone walls. We encountered a nervous and skittish mule half way down this who insisted, perversely, in presenting his hind quarters to us. Fine, if we were another equine, but slightly unnerving if you are a human. After a series of awkward terpsichorean attempts to turn the wretched beast round in the confined space we slipped past him - only to have to repeat the absurd ritual on our return. Ag. Iannis is a miniscule church perched on top of, and seeming to grow out of, a rock in the middle of fields. It can only be slightly over eight foot square and not much higher - even so there is a tiny cross barrel vault half way along its length. The church is clearly of the medieval period with signs of tell tale Byzantine cloisonné work which looks to have been sympathetically restored.

Ag. Iannis, Kambos

Inside. It wasn't locked (nor again 5 or so years later), there are fragments of fresco work mainly in the apse (there is no room for a templon) and in the cross vault. From their style I would place them in the Byzantine period, perhaps contemporaneous with the church building - probably 12th or 13th century? Well worth the stroll - even taking into account our stubborn equine obstacle (on my return the mule, thankfully, was missing but a similarly beligerent Billy Goat was in residence). Ag. Iannis is very similar architecturally to the churches of Ag. Nikolaos, on the road between Doli and Kitries, and Ag. Paraskevi at Platsa and Ag. Nikolakis at Kastania.

Byzantine faces - frescos from Ag. Iannis, Kambos

Just at the bottom of the hill of Zarnata there is a sign to ancient Mycenaean tholos tomb which R. Hope Simpson declared, 'is one of the finest of those outside the Argolid'. The roof of the tholos tomb has fallen in, in diameter it is about 8.5 metres and Hope Simpson estimated that the original height would have been about 9 metres. It was obviously looted back in the mists of time but some minor artefacts were discovered when it was excavated by Tsountas in 1891. These are now in the National Museum in Athens. Next to the tomb is one of the Koumoundouros 'castles'. The family were one of the leading kapetani of the NW Mani. There is a modern bust of Alexandros Koumoundouros (1817-1883) in front of it. Between 1865 and 1882 he was Prime Minister of Greece on no less than ten occasions, sometimes for a mere few weeks or days such was the volatility of Greek parliamentary politics at the time. Koumoundouros is remembered as one of the first politicians to seriously look to the redistribution of land in post Independence Greece.

Further to the north of the village is another older road leading towards the Rindomo or Koskarakas gorge - it eventually links to a kalderimi which goes over a stone bridge to the deserted settlement of Mavrinitsa and then Sotirianika. The road starts just beyond the petrol station at the eastern end of the main straight road through Kambos. Turn eastwards and immediately there is a small chapel, take the northern, left, turn and follow this through the olive groves until it descends into a small valley and the asphalt runs out. To your left just before this is an open area - somewhat like a rough and ready carpark. At the end of this there is a small gateway lined with a flower beds which leads to the hidden monastery (nunnery) of Evangelistria (Annunciation). I'd approached the door on an earlier occasion but not realised that it hid a monastery. On the same day as Bob Barrow and I had, at last, gained ingress into the Monastery of Androumpebitzias, and the scaling of nunneries was in our blood, we decided to put caution to the winds and ring the bell. The nunnery is occupied by a sole nun, whom, it is reported by Michael Cullen, an intrepid explorer of these parts, will happily claim that she has scores of comrades, who are mysteriously absent on agricultural pursuits in order, presumably, to dissuade would be miscreants from looting and sacking the premises! The doorway looks into a shaded white and light blue courtyard, at the far end of which is a domed church.

Monastery of the Evangelistria, north of Kambos

On the right are the the monastery buildings with a first floor balcony and on the left the hillside ascended by a set of white steps. Bob called out and the ancient nun briefly popped her head out of a first floor window. Luckily his Greek is good and the enquiry as to whether we could look at the church was answered with a querulous assent - at which point our aged interlocutor retreated to her cell.

The church is interesting as it is not one but two churches. One, obviously the earlier, is a cave church built into the rock which forms the slight outcrop above the monastery. A more modern edifice or rather extension, the two are contiguous, has been added to the east which has the dome above it. Of the two the cave church is the more interesting, the modern church owing much to marble flooring and whitewash but little else. The cave church is tucked into the rock a probably 18/19th century wooden carved iconostasis jammed into the restricted space. Behind this are some fragments of 18th century wall paintings dated to 1762 by a later scrawl on the wall.

Cave church of the Evangelistria near Kambos and garden (looking south)

To the east is the village of Orova just off the road to Kendro (Gaitses villages). Built on top of a tiny hill there seemed to be little of interest here save some faded external paintings on the south wall of the central church. Both Bob Barrow and I had visited it a number of times and had decided that the church (Taxiarches?) was worth no more attention. It was merely on a whim that we decided to visit it together in May 2003. An ancient local popped his head out of an excuse for a kafeneion as we prowled round the church. At first we thought he was going to challenge Bob to a moustache competition. The local's was a decidedly R.A.F. handlebar affair and as white as extreme tobacco consumption would allow whereas Bob's drooped in a more Van Dyck'ishly and rakishly manner. But in fact he was more interested in issuing us into the church.

The keyholder and c.18th century frescos of the church of the Taxiarches, Orova

Here, it was obvious that the church, had once been fully frescoed - probably in the 18th century, though much has been whitewashed over. The ceiling has been boarded over, it's usually the first point which succumbs to age and damp, and has been painted light blue with white stars. The iconostasis is another example of the fine tradition of early 19th century wooden carved affairs.

Iconostasis and view of church in Orova

As one descends to Orova from the main road from Kambos to Gaitses there's a dip over a (most times) dry riverbed. Just past this, to the right, is a turning down a narrow dirt track, follow this for about 100 metres or so, and when you can, stop and park, then walk in a westerly direction through the olive groves. If you aim correctly you'll find the ruin of a rather large medieval church. Its roof, and, if it had a dome, its dome, and certain parts of its walls have gone, leaving it a shell. We were kindly shown it by Spiros, the local guardian appointed by the local Ephorate of Byzantine Archaeology.

The eastern and western views of the ruined church of Sotiras near Orova

I can find no other records of this church, no-one seems to have published their researches, though doubtless the local 26th Ephorate of Byzantine Archaeology, in Kalamata, know of the site and have studied it (and some locals obviously knew of the ruin, when I mentioned it to them). Strangely, it seems to have avoided the attentions of the late Professor Nikolaos Drandakis, who surveyed practically every church in Mani, which is surprising as it is a pretty large edifice, by Mani standards, especially as it is medieval. There are many fragments of wall-paintings, but few are very recognisable, church elders, military saints, and although most are medieval (I'd hate to guess a date but… 13th-15th c.?) and some of them may well be later (18th century?) overpaintings, I frankly haven't had time to study my photos that closely. To the south-west of the church is an old arched bridge over the river-bed, which points towards this church. At some time there was a very different pattern of roads and tracks to the present asphalt roadways. Was Sotiras a medieval monastery? It's in the middle of no-where, there is no sign of a settlement around it, - therefore - probably or at least possibly, a monastery katholikon it was.

Faded fragments of wallpaintings. Sotiras near Orova


On To Next Location - Gaitses Villages