I believe that every Greek should visit each corner of Greece, get to know/understand where other Greeks came from, learn their story and see their patrida from their perspective. My family is from towns in Florina, that’s northern Greece and less than an hour away from Greece’s border from former Yugoslavia. Place your finger on a map of Greece and drag your finger straight down in a line and you will end up in Mani, the middle peninsula of the Peloponnese and southernmost tip of mainland Greece.
This was a spiritual trip for me, as a Greek to visit the Mani, this mostly rugged part of Greece that is so remote from my family’s origins and much different from the rest of Greece. The Mani peninsula begins when you travel to the port of Gytheio, still lush with olive trees and blessed with a charming port town that welcomes tourists and seafarers alike. Travel south on a road that winds through old mountains and you abruptly enter Inner and Lower Mani – the one most of us envision: sparse vegetation, barren hills, lowlands that grow olive trees. At night, you hear cicadas and the taunting howls of the jackals – reminding you that this place used to be called the “Land of the Evil Council”.
People around here used to have a reputation for robbery, piracy – some of the ways to cope with this rugged land. There’s another road that leads out of deep Mani and once past Itilo Bay you’ll soon enter the picturesque town of Agio Nikon and into the Mani of Messinia where tall rugged coasts give way again to lush, rolling hills with olive trees and greenery. Both regions are vastly different in appearance and the people of deep Mani differ from those in the Mani of Messinia and that of upper Laconia. Don’t refer to the “Evil Council”….after all, this is also a land of Vendettas.
I stayed at the Citta dei Nicliana hotel in the village of Koita, boasting of about 20 inhabitants in the winter time but it swells in the summer with Greeks whose origins are in Mani and they return to their ancestral homes. The last major vendetta of Mani ended in 1871 when the army and artillery fire had to be used to intervene in a feud between the Kaourianon and Kourianon families. The final stages of negotiation to end this vendetta occurred in this building.
The Citta dei Nicliana was named after a strong Mani clan, the Nicliani and in 1618, they sent a letter to Italian Duke Charles I of Devereaux, requesting assistance in helping to free the rest of Greece. Deep Mani was never under Ottoman occupation – either the Turks had little value for this rugged land or they were pre-occupied conquering other parts of the region. It Mani, you see many flags still raised that state “Niki h Thanatos” or “victory or death”.
This battle cry differs from that of Ottoman controlled Greece where the freedom cry was “Eleftheria h Thanatos” – “freedom or death”. The first uprisings against the Turks began in Mani and Greeks in the rest of the country should be thankful. To say that the Turks didn’t try to take Mani would be false as well: after Candia (Crete) fell to the Ottomans in 1669, they could finally set their sites on taking over Mani.
Pirate Hasan Baba was sent to conquer the region and he demanded that hostages be surrendered. Instead, he was answered with bullets. During the night, some Maniates cut the ropes loose that held Baba’s ships to the docks – causing them to crash against the rocks and sink. The Maniates attacked and killed Turks on the other ships and Hasan Baba fled with just one lone ship in tact. To this day, a gun culture is prevalent among the natives of Mani.
Later on in history (1910) the main building of Citta dei Nicliani was home to housing the Greek Royal Army that oversaw the region and later during WWII, the Germans occupied the building. Soon after, during Greece’s civil war, the leftist ELAS forces burned the buildings, along with all the records kept inside. The building was abandoned until 2011, when the Sepsas family renovated the buildings and converted them into a first class hotel.
Once you visit Koita, you’re surrounded by the austere beauty of the towers of Mani and their history. The hotel is located in the upper reaches of the village, giving you the vantage point of overseeing the rest of the village and the valley below. During my stay in Koita, I also was able to make a quick visit to the nearby port of Gerolimanas, just 10 minutes away. Here, you may go for a swim, enjoy a meal of fish and seafood or stare out to end of the Mani peninsula to the Gate of Hades.
Guests of the Citta dei Nicliana are also treated to traditional local Mani and Greek cuisine. During my stay, I enjoyed a dinner consisting of a local orange salad dressed with local olive oil, sea salt and pepper and the main was an oven roasted lamb with potatoes tossed in oregano and rosemary from the hotel’s garden. Dessert completed the meal with a serving of a duo of lemon and olive spoon sweets.
Although my stay was brief, the memories from my stay in Mani will be vivid for years to come. The foodie in me was gushing with inspiration when I was served a breakfast consisting of traditional Greek and local Mani ingredients. I received a tastefully plated repast that included an omelet, Feta and Anthotyro cheeses, honey with garnished with bee pollen, fig jam, lalagides (fried dough fingers), Singlino Manis (housemade local delicacy of smoked pork with hints of orange), warm milk pie (galatopita), fresh orange juice from Laconia and a strong brew of coffee to jump start my day.
I was in rush a to make a bus to Kalamata but I was also given some “travichtes” or fried hand-strected bread, topped with sea salt and dried Greek oregano. Like so many Greeks who sought refuge in the safe haven of Mani, I enjoyed a peaceful, assured hospitality at Citta dei Nicliani. I slept within the walls of history, ate an authentic home cooked Greek meal, enjoyed a traditional Greek breakfast. I heard the jackals of Mani revel at night with their howls, as if paying homage to the pirates of yore and once again, I was reminded that yet another corner of Greece displayed her extraordinary beauty and phlioxenia.
Citta dei Nicliani is located in Koita, Mani. From Athens, you can access the area by car. The total distance from Athens is 299 km and it takes about 3,5 hours. The first 160 km are on motorways, while the rest of the distance is on provincial road which is in decent condition.
- Athens – Tripoli 165km / 110min
- Tripoli – Sparti 55km / 40 min
- Sparti – Areopoli (Bypassing Gytheio) 60km – 60min
- Areopoli – Koita 19km / 20min
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