Githio is 301km (186 miles) S of Athens and 45km (27 miles) S of Sparta; Areopoli is 32km (20 miles) W of Githio
The innermost of the Peloponnese's three tridentlike prongs, the Mani is still one of the least visited areas in Greece. That's changing fast, as word gets out about the fine beaches near Githio and Kardamili and the haunting landscape of the Inner Mani (the southernmost Mani). Good new roads mean that you can drive the circuit of the entire Mani in a day, but why rush? To get a sense of this remote and haunting region, try to spend at least a night here, perhaps in one of the restored tower-house hotels. Whatever you do, eat at least one meal in Limeni, the port of Areopoli, at the superb Fish Taverna Takis To Limeni.
The Inner Mani's barren mountains are dotted with tiny olive trees and enormous prickly pear cacti. It's hard to believe that 100 years ago, this was a densely populated area and almost every hillside was cultivated. If you look carefully, you can make out the stone walls and terraces built by farmers on the deserted hillsides.
Originally, the Maniotes chose to live in tower houses because they were easy to defend, an important consideration for these feuding Peloponnesians who spent much of their time until the early 20th century lobbing cannonballs at their neighbors. Fortunately, many tower houses survived. The towers of the sparsely populated villages of Koita and Nomia look like miniature skyscrapers from a distance.
When the Maniotes weren't trying to destroy their neighbors' homes, they seem to have atoned for their warfare by building churches: The area is dotted with tiny medieval chapels tucked in the folds of the hills. Keep an eye out for the stands of cypress trees that often mark the chapels, many of which have decorative brickwork and ornately carved marble doors. If you don't want to tramp around the countryside in search of chapels, at least take a look at the Church of the Taxiarchoi (Archangels) in Areopoli. Don't miss the droll figures of the saints and the signs of the zodiac carved on the church's facade. The square around the Taxiarchoi is now freshly paved, as are several nearby streets; the square and many streets around it are also pedestrian-only in summer from 8pm to 6am. There's a big celebration (bands, speeches, parade marchers in period costumes) here on March 17, the day that local hero Petrobey Mavromichaelis called on Maniotes to rise up against the Turks. Maniotes delight that this took place a good week before the Archbishop of Patras called on all the Peloponnese to rise up and fight for independence.
After World War II, when most Maniotes moved away to Athens or abroad in search of work, entire villages of austere gray-stone tower houses became deserted. In recent years, many of these handsome houses have been restored as vacation or retirement houses by Maniotes, other Greeks, and foreigners. Villages that were ghost towns 10 years ago are gaining new leases on life in this austere and beautiful region.
Tip: Longtime Mani resident Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor died at age 96 in 2011; his Mani remains one of the best books on Greece ever written. University of Herefordshire professor and longtime hellenophile John Chapman's excellent and beautifully illustrated Mani: A Guide and History is available online at www.maniguide.info or www.zorbas.de/maniguide.