AREOPOLIS, Greece -- When someone poses that perennial question, "What did you do on your vacation?" our family has a zinger of a response: "We went to Hades and back!"
To be sure, Mani Peninsula is not the Greece you know. It is a mysterious mountain province, an untamed land of stone towers and a destination fabled in ancient writing. Here, honor is paramount -- so much so, that vendettas of an intensity that would surprise a Hatfield or McCoy dominated several centuries.
The capital, Areopolis, is named for Ares (Mars), the god of war. But here, also, is raw beauty. From the sheer palisades to the signature towers erected as protection during those centuries of honor feuding, the rock displays its gorgeous face. The Maniat men, rock-solid themselves, tell you of their Spartan ancestors.
Mani (or as some say, the Mani) sits on the central of three south-pointing fingers in the Peloponnese. Mount Taygetus cascades down the length of the peninsula, rising to 8,000 feet and separating the Aegean and Ionian seas. And at Cape Tenaron on the southern tip the ancients did, indeed, place the entrance to Hades. So hauntingly lovely is this moonscape, though, that it could just as well be the gateway to heaven.
Intriguing Mani had long topped my travel wish list. My late father, a Boston physician for five decades, was born just south of Areopolis. On a family videotape, he describes Mani's Hellenic roots. "Historically, Mani goes back to the Trojan War," he says. "In Homer's 'Iliad' you can read how the Maniat town of Oetylon contributed four of the 1,000 ships launched by fair Helen's face in 1200 B C."
I was hooked. My husband and I set out for Greece in July with our two grown children. Wary of Peloponnesian roads, we hired a driver/translator in Athens (next time we'll rent a car). I would be meeting two male first cousins for the first time in Areopolis.
Four hours later, we entered Mani's eastern port, Gythion , which bustled with a clutter of fishing boats in the harbor, dozens of taverna tables at dockside, and outdoor ouzo bars displaying hanging octopi . We nestled overnight at the Cavo Grosso Bungalows by the beach. The air pulsated with cicadas. Lemon-laden trees and hot-pink bougainvillea vines splashed the hillside with color.
In the morning, this rainbow world faded to monochrome as we drove west through the 16-mile mountain pass to Areopolis. Rock and stone abounded. The gray-on-gray palette was punctuated by occasional flashes of green.
Then, fused into the mountainside, there loomed the first stone tower -- a square sentinel with narrow windows and crenellated walls. Soon others appeared in clusters, like a town of LEGO block castles left behind by playing giants. They were intriguing, mesmerizing, many sitting broodingly on the edge of the sea. Once sanctuaries from Mani's blood feuds ("The goal had been to erect a tower taller than the offender's, the better to rain down boulders and bullets on his roof, " my cousin would later tell us), now they are being scooped up and redone as inns and summer homes.
Many a tale of glory clings to the towers and to the people. The revolution that freed Greece in 1821 from 400 years of Ottoman occupation was sparked by a native Maniat son, the revered Petros Mavromichalis. He hoisted the Greek flag of independence in Areopolis, named in his honor, after Ares.
Sure enough, as the road opened into Areopolis' s town square, a bronze Mavromichalis with ballooned breeches, bandana, and a curved scimitar greeted us. He reigned over a store, inn, church, and two tavernas. Immediately, a wiry man with a cigarette dangling from his fingertips arose from an outdoor cafe table, planting kisses -- Greek-style -- on both my cheeks.
"Artemis, at last," my cousin Yannis greeted me, using ancient Greek for my name. His brother, Giorgos, a plumper version of himself, was one of the two local taxi drivers. They ordered up yogurt, bread with olive oil or honey (both Maniat signatures), and muddy Greek coffee. We noticed folks with cameras across the way.
"It's Revolutionary Square," explained Giorgos. The historic site was blanketed from its narrow streets to its rooftops with cobblestones. A hole in the road was still intact where Mavromichalis had raised the Greek flag. To a generation raised on "Les Miserables," it induced shivers.
And then, a surprise: "Tonight you're staying in your own tower!" Yannis proclaimed. He had booked us at Limeni Village, Areopolis' s unique tower resort that mimics the originals. The complex hangs on a mountainside over the aqua waters of the Ionian Sea. Little in one's experience could equal swimming in the pool at cliff's edge, sharing the stunning panorama with continental vacationers, and then retiring in fairy-tale fashion to a two-story stone-tower castle. Spartanly furnished, it protected us admirably -- at least from the afternoon heat.
With siestas done, the touring continued, our sleek urban taxi trailing Giorgos's dilapidated cab. A short distance south was Mani's chief sightseeing draw: the Diros Caves .
"Diros ranks with any world-class tourist attraction," declared Giorgos. A swarm of sightseers seemed to agree. The system honeycombs its way beneath the mountains, running perhaps 43 miles north to Sparta. We climbed into a wooden punt painted blue on white, like the Greek flag, and descended through nine fantastical underground grottos. The boatman navigated with a long pole, gliding beneath shadowy stalactites and archways, evoking a River Styx crossing. It came as no surprise that just a ways south at Cape Tenaron was the cave entrance to Hades.
"Tenaron was where ancients like Persephone,
Against dramatic drops to the Aegean, we were soon rounding Tenaron, where Odysseus had traced the fabled Hades sea cave and summoned the prophet Tiresias' s shade from below. I was prepared for desolation or decay -- or even hokey signs telling us to "Go to Hell, here." But instead, there was unblemished beauty. Fittingly, an orange glow suffused the dusk as the dying sun set the ancient sea afire.
Like the wandering Odysseus, we soon took rest in a hidden cove (Porto Kayio ) with a seaside taverna. The owner, Nikos, had just arrived in his skiff. He was a Greek bearing one gift we gladly accepted: "barbouni," a deep-sea red mullet . Within 30 minutes of Nikos pulling it from the sea, we were savoring it, char-grilled, with bread, retsina , and a salad.
Mani is a secret starting to spill. Growing tourism may eventually tame this wild and glorious region into a commercialized "Greek Riviera." But the savvy traveler will consider visiting now, while the land still belongs to Ares. It could be one hell of a trip.
Diane Speare Triant, a writer in Wellesley Hills, can be reached at Dtriant@aol.com.