After flying eight-hours to Athens, picking up the rental car from the airport and driving three-and-a-half hours to Sparta to see their tiny archaeological museum, driving another hour-and-a-half up and down through the Taygetos mountains and into the Mani and checking into our room, the first thing we did was to walk down a rocky path to a tiny private cove, take off all of our clothes, and jump into the sea.
It felt like a baptism, cleaning our souls of some 12 hours of travel grime.
I chose a small hotel between Stoupa, where some insist Nikos Kazantzakis wrote Zorba the Greek, and Kardamyli, where the writer Patrick Leah Fermor lived, as our home base. (We preferred Kardamyli, which felt a little less manicured.) In the evenings, after dinner at a local taverna–we liked Psaras and Harilaos–we’d settle into our place and from our terrace we could hear the sea, watch the the sun set and the moonlight shimmy on top of waves.
And every morning on the terrace, I could obsess about the weather. It appeared as though our five days in the Mani were going to be five days of clouds and rain with flashes of sun. So I planned accordingly.
The big rainy day saw us drive through the opposite side of the Taygetos mountains to ancient Messene, a city dating to about 370 BC. We’d read that it’s one of the best preserved and least-visited ancient sites in Greece but nothing could’ve prepared us for the sprawl of this place. There were temples and stoas and sanctuaries and baths and a gymnasium, an odeion and a theatre. But when we rounded a corner and caught a glimpse of the stadium, our jaws dropped.
We moved on to Pylos to visit the Palace of Nestor, considered to be the best preserved Mycenaean site in mainland Greece. They discovered 600 Linear B tablets, a huge stash of banqueting supplies, which made it very easy to imagine the scene from The Odyssey when Telemachus is lavishly welcomed and entertained when he visits Nestor, and even a clay tub.
Besides a handful of German tourists, it felt like we had both of these ancient places to ourselves. In fact, it often felt like we were alone. I guess that’s what you get when you go to Greece at the end of October. The Beast got so accustomed to swimming with no trunks on that when he had to, he’d complain that he was “living in hell, a virtual prison!”
From there, we fell into a really nice routine. Drives into Kardamyli, where there’s a medieval castle and Mycenaean rock cuttings–ancient Kardamyli was one of the seven cities Agamemnon promised to Achilles to calm his wrath–swims when the sun flashed at little beaches–Foneas, which we could walk to, was our favourite–and pulling the car over whenever we saw signage, which was often, for a Byzantine church. They were almost always locked. But when they weren’t, at Platsa, Thalames, and Lagada, we saw remains of 10th to 14th-century fresco paintings that vibrated with contemporary life.
A particularly thrilling excursion was our hour-long drive to the Caves of Diros, followed by lunch and a swim in Limeni, one of the most charming towns I’ve ever been to. We had Alpha beers, squid, and the best fried potatoes at Takis, a beautiful little seaside taverna where we watched two giant sea turtles dancing in the sea. And then we had a swim in electric blue water with a dramatic view of menacing storm clouds moving over the mountains.
The best moments, however, tended to be unplanned, like when we hopped the wall to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house–it’s being turned into a museum and writer’s retreat and is closed to the public–to inspect the gardens. Was this illegal? Yes. Did we run for our lives when the Beast heard a beeping from a sensor light? Yes. Do we regret it? Not one bit.
Or when the Beast, after I’d just driven two hours up and down winding switch backs on our way back from Pylos, suggested we drive up to Exohori, a little village that Bruce Chatwin used to walk three hours to in order to clear his head when he was writing. Chatwin’s friends, including Fermor, buried his ashes at a little chapel high up in the mountains. The Beast wanted to find it. It was not an easy drive. And we’d already clocked in well over 13,000 steps that day. When we finally spotted the chapel a good kilometre away high up on a mountain side, I looked at him and said: “Well, that’s good enough. You get the idea.” We started to walk back to the car. And then I realized there’s a good chance we may never come back and we were so close. So I grabbed his hand and we turned around.
The clouds parted, the wind whipped up our hair, and it felt, for a moment, that we were alone, on top of the world.