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Talking Location With Marjory McGinn – THE PELOPONNESE

18th July 2023

#TalkingLocationWith... Marjory McGinn, author of the Greek travel memoir Things Can Only Get Feta:  The Peloponnese, GREECE

When my husband Jim and I devised the bold plan to go to Greece for a year’s adventure in 2010, despite the country sliding into economic crisis, there was only one location we had in mind. The wild Mani in the southern Peloponnese.

As someone who has travelled widely in Greece, I knew this area – on the middle peninsula of the three that hang from the mainland like pulled roots – would give us the authenticity and remoteness we craved. It would offer the chance to explore a region which still hadn’t been spoilt by mass tourism and to interact with rural Greeks.

Marjory McGinn

Monemvasia, in Laconia

The Mani is a place that even Greeks describe as wild. The spine of the Taygetos mountains cuts down the centre, tall and dry like a giant cheese grater, with clusters of stone towers on its lower slopes, a nod to the warring years of Maniot clans. The peninsula peters out at Asomati Cove, the location of the fabled Cave of Hades (the Underworld). So, with heaven and hell all in one region, it seemed an alluring base for a mid-life odyssey.

We rented a house for a year in a hillside village in north Mani, just south of the city of Kalamata (famous for its black olives), rather than going completely off-grid, as we planned to write freelance stories and I hoped to write a book about our experiences. My first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, was published in 2013 and it’s a snapshot of rural life and its unique characters, during one of the harshest periods of the country’s recent history.

Vathia, deserted village in Mani

The village of Megali Mantineia was still very traditional, with most locals working as olive and goat farmers. Many of them quickly became good friends, their interest piqued by our seemingly reckless adventure, with our slightly bonkers terrier, Wallace, in tow. I formed a curious friendship with a big-hearted goat farmer, Foteini, who became an unlikely literary muse with her stories of her rural childhood.

The village, built on the edge of the Rindomo Gorge, offered easy access to the Taygetos mountains on one side and the coves and villages of the Bay of Messinia on the other, with Kalamata stretched across the head of it. Many of the coves here sit on ancient settlements, like the village of Palaiohora, mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. My first book and the two memoirs that followed (Homer’s Where The Heart Is and A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree) are a narrative record of our rural shenanigans, but also of our many trips through this region, particularly the Mesa Mani, the Inner Mani, in the south of the peninsula. This region is famous for the toughness of its people as much as the rawness of its barren terrain, but with a rocky shoreline that offers beautiful hidden empty coves, like the old fishing port of Mezapos. The area is dotted with old Maniot villages, including Vathia, where deserted stone towers range across the saddle of a hill, a forbidding sight.

Marjory McGinn

Cave of Hades with Wallace

The real jewel of this peninsula for me is at the very bottom on Asomati Cove, with a rough track spooling further down towards the most southerly point of mainland Greece, Cape Tainaron. The attraction of this outpost lies in its cinematic appeal: rocky fields, wild thistles, pebble coves with indelibly blue water. On a ridge overlooking the shoreline are the remains of the ancient Temple of Poseidon, and nearby is the Cave of Hades, leading down to the Underworld of Greek myths.

Jim, Marjory and Wallace (dog) in Koroni, Messinian peninsula

Fabled it may be, but guidebooks point to a real entranceway within a cave near the waterside, though it’s hard to find. It was our dog, Wallace, who scoped it out finally behind a fringe of bushes. Or had he sniffed out one of the ancient myths, of Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog who was dragged out of the cave by Hercules in one of his famous 12 ‘Labours’? The cave is a wide, low gash in a rockface, with carved stones at its entrance and the outline of a kind of shaft at the back of the cave, now filled with compacted earth. No-one bothers to dig, and neither did we – not even Wallace.

Marjory McGinn

Asomati Cove

What started out as a year’s adventure turned into four and we were able to visit many attractions in the Mani and further afield with ease because few tourists were coming during the crisis. However, post-crisis, the Mani and the nearby peninsulas, Messinian and Laconian, feel just as remote and unspoilt but with slightly more infrastructure. There are more direct flights now to Kalamata from several UK airports, including Heathrow. And more (low-key) hotels, as well as the further expansion of the five-star Costa Navarino resort on the west coast of the Peloponnese, near Pylos.

My top travel tips for this region would include:

Kalamata, with an old quarter, castle, traditional tavernas and long, sandy beach.

Kardamyli, in mid-Mani, an historic village, where travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor built his famous stone house.

Monemvasia, the fabulous Byzantine rock town with restored houses and churches on the east coast of Laconia.

Mystras, the ancient Byzantine town on a hill close to Sparta.

Marjory McGinn

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