In part one of our trip around the Peloponnese we went to Ancient Messene, Pylos and Methoni Castle.
After two nights it was time to leave ‘sandy Pylos’, as it was called by Homer. We were going to head east across Messinia, go straight through Kalamata, and then drive south down the second finger, the Mani peninsula. The Peloponnese is surprisingly compact to someone used to the vastness of Australia but we quickly found that the correlation between the kilometres we drove and the time taken to drive them had a less than linear correlation. Main roads can be tortuously windy with secondary roads lapsing into a single lane in places. Add to that the presence of two potential pukers in the back seat and our progress was slow.
Our first stop was Polilimnio, or ‘Many Lakes’, on the road between Pylos and Kalamata. The lakes in question are formed by the river Kalorema (‘beautiful stream’) as it tumbles down a narrow, hidden gorge in a series of small waterfalls. From the car park it was a steady hike down the steep hill until we reached the gorge and the river. Pretty, but unspectacular. However a little path appeared on the right-hand side which leads you to a series of cyan-coloured pools.
The soon path disappeared, but I’d read in our guidebook that you can hike up the whole way to the top, so with a bit of rock hopping and scrambling we persevered; soon enough the semblance of a path reappeared. By this stage we were alone, and we hiked up to the 20m-high waterfall that cascades into Kadi Lake. Though spectacular, the lake seemed a bit deep and wide for a family swim so we retreated back down to a smaller pool with a little ledge for the boys to sit on. The water, as always in mountain streams, was freezing, but exhilarating. We swam under a warm sun, surrounding by pines and wild oleander.
After their exertions the boys napped in the car while we continued towards Kalamata with the Taygetos mountains looming behind it. This daunting mountain range continues all the way down the Mani peninsula splitting it in two. As we approached it we turned right and headed down its western flank, sticking close to the coast when possible but also detouring through mountain valleys. At last we saw Kardamyli, our next destination, clinging to where the mountains meet the sea.
Kardamyli, like most places in Greece, has a ridiculously eventful history. It was mentioned in the Iliad as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offered to Achilles. Later, the Romans gave it to the Spartans as an alternative harbour after Gytheio rebelled. Even later still, it was the stronghold of the Troupakis-Mourtzinos clan, key figures in the 1821 War of Independence. It was here that the revolutionary army gathered before moving on to Kalamata to attack the Ottomans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t claim knowledge of any of these events before I arrived; it was a much more recent event that attracted us. This is the town where Paddy Leigh Fermor built his house and was based for the last decades of his life. We had in our luggage his book, Mani, which was written in the 1950s after he traveled around the then still-isolated peninsula.
After the morning’s drive we were happy to relax and explore the town in leisurely style in the afternoon. Strolling around what I thought were the streets of old Kardamyli, we had a chat to some locals over their garden fence. An old guy claimed to have been great friends with Paddy, and then proceeded to elaborate on the history of the town while his wife and the neighbour chipped in with corrections and additions. He also pointed us towards the real Old Kardamyli, a walled, fortified compound accessed by a stone kalderimi (mule path). There are a multitude of these paths that link the mountain villages. The next afternoon we were to follow one of these paths a couple of hundred metres up the hillside (that was all we could coax out of the boys) to where the alleged tombs of the twins Castor and Pollux lie, looking out over the sea.
Caves of Dirou
One of the reasons for visiting the Mani was to take the boys to the Caves of Dirou. I’d visited them when I was 12 and could still recall the awe I felt when I was there. The second time round didn’t disappoint. One of the attractions is that the majority of the tour is by punt with a skilled boatman guiding you through and providing a commentary. We went through chamber after chamber of dripping stalactites and deep black water (30m deep in one cavern). There was much ducking involved. I couldn’t help but speculate that in Australia the whole experience would have been banned due to the real safety concern of someone getting brained by a stalactite. Greece is a bit more lax in these areas and relies on the commonsense of people to duck.
Many facts where shared on the trip which I’ve promptly forgotten, but one I did remember was when we were told that we were 250 metres underground. This produced a momentary internal panic until I decided to ignore that fact and simply enjoy the rest of the tour, as we glided past the ‘Pillars of Hercules’, and on through caverns given wonderfully evocative names like ‘The Cathedral’, and ‘Golden Rain’.