Although she inherited a deep love of travel, it was only after a battle with cancer that a daughter went east to the land of her ancestors.
Story and Photos by (and courtesy of) Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo
We have been told we travel in bunches, which is quite typical for Greek families. On this day, our group consists of a three-car caravan of multigenerational family members for our drive into the Mani Peninsula. Our excursion will take us to a part of the country we have not yet seen—and to the place our paternal ancestors come from.
My dad was born 80 years ago in a small house on the waterfront of the beautiful seaside town of Kalamata, Greece, but his paternal grandparents settled there generations ago from the Mani. Dad immigrated to Canada in 1963, almost 60 years ago, met my mom a few years after he arrived, and later welcomed me and my three siblings.
We settled into our life as a proudly Canadian family, always knowing we had Greek roots, but which we didn’t appreciate until we were older. My siblings and I all inherited a love of travel and exploration from our parents, and over the years discovered many beautiful places around the world. It was later, and after my battle with cancer, that our curiosity was piqued about the amazing places our parents came from, as well as the lands of our ancestors before them.
Today, our group departs on the main road out of Kalamata that snakes along the striking blue waters of the Messinian Bay. We pass olive groves and orchards, flowering laurel bushes, and drive over small bridges spanning the creeks that run down the mountains and drain into the sea. I drive the lead car, and my dad is in the passenger seat. In his hands, he holds a map marked up with arrows, notes and places of interest circled. As we drive, my dad points out a few rocky beaches where, as a teenager, he used to spend the day fishing and the nights looking at the stars.
“It must not have been easy to leave,” I say. He shakes his head.
My dad was born in 1939, just before the start of the Second World War. The Nazi occupation of Kalamata, and most of Greece, lasted for years. Between that war and the civil war that followed, the people of Greece were left with grave conditions and limited economic opportunities. When Canada offered my dad the chance to settle there, he jumped at an opportunity that would allow him to provide for his parents and his five siblings.
I understand why he left, but it could not have been easy to make the decision to leave this picturesque Mediterranean community, set perfectly between the sea and the mountains.
We meander along the road, eventually turning inland. I maneuver several ascents and hairpin turns until we reach an opening in the mountain at the lookout over the valley below, the town of Kardamyli in the distance. We can see the striking jagged coastline of inlets and outcrops, groves of cypress trees and the traditional stone buildings dotting the landscape. The mountains in the distance are shrouded by a gentle haze—a sign of the impending heat of the day. In Homer’s The Iliad, Agamemnon offers the town of Kardamyli as a bribe to Achilles during the siege of Troy.
We pose for the required series of family photos at the lookout and continue our drive through the town centre of Kardamyli, which nowadays is one of the trendier towns of the region featuring shops, cafés, restaurants, even hosting an international jazz festival every year. There is a large map showing all the mountain hikes in the region, including one to the tombs of Castor and Pollux, the mythical brothers of Helen of Troy. We don’t stop this time, but we will be back for some biking and hiking into the wilds of this area.
There is no clear marker when one arrives in the Mani. The closest thing is the appearance of the traditional stone buildings and tower houses built into the natural landscape of the region. The Maniots built these stone houses and towers from locally quarried stone, and they designed them to act as fortresses to defend their families from foreign invaders, pirates, and even other clans—their fierce rivalries part of the documented history of the Mani Peninsula.
The buzzing of the cicadas is at full volume when we stop at the lookout over the Oitylo Bay. We can trace some of our family line to this exact region, even if the tracks dried up a long time ago. The panoramic view of the stark mountains next to the emerald and cerulean shades of the water is striking. In the distance, we see the busy postcard-perfect waterfront town of Limeni with its stone houses and direct access to the water. Below us is the sleepy village of Oitylo, surrounded by a ring of hardy olive trees and prickly pear plants full of cactus figs ripening in the sun.
This place is not a trendy hotspot like Santorini or Mykonos, nor is it the location of ancient wonders like the theatre of Epidavros or Ancient Olympia. Here, what you come to see is the land itself. Mostly cut off from the rest of Greece, this rugged region is close to inhospitable, with very little freshwater, not much vegetation, and a rocky coastline.
The rough geographic conditions were the reason this area remained, for the most part, unconquered but also underdeveloped. The Maniot people were at one point known to be the fiercest fighters in all of Greece. Even today, they are known for their toughness and resilience. It has been proven that the Maniots are actual descendants of the Ancient Spartans who fled Sparta after the collapse of their empire in the third century BCE.
Upon entering the town Areopolis, named after the Ancient Greek God of War, Ares, we park near a large statue of Maniot general Petrobeis Mavromichalis, long sword at his waist and one hand raised as if giving a command. Mavromichalis played an important role in the 1821 Greek Revolution (also known as the War of Independence) against the 400 years of Ottoman rule in Greece, taking a leadership role in the uprising on the Mani Peninsula where the revolt began.
We walk the quaint stone streets of Areopolis and pick up some spinach and cheese pies, fresh fruit and lalagia—perfectly crisp, flaky tangled hoops of fried dough, a specialty of the region. Everyone agrees it’s time to hit the beach.
Tucked into the craggy, uneven coastline south of Areopolis, we find a serene inlet with a rocky beach that we have to ourselves. The towels are quickly tossed aside, and we all dip into the clear, cool water. My dad leads his grandkids to the rocks and points out a young octopus that quickly swims away into a rocky hole. They dive down over and over, calling out “Papou!” over and over to draw his attention to the shells, rocks and urchins they discover underwater. (Papou is the Greek word for grandfather and what our kids call him.)
If I didn’t know better, I would not realize the man leading this aquatic adventure was 80. He looked rather like a young boy frolicking in the sea he had spent too much time away from.
We emerge from the water only to explore some abandoned stone houses along the inlet. We discover sea salt drying up in a small crater by the sea and run our hands through the pearly white crystals. The Maniots call the local sea salt the white gold of Mani. I think we are rich. Rich with the real treasure of our family here together to share in this experience.
After a lovely evening at our remote guesthouse, we wake up rested and continue our drive deeper into the Mani Peninsula. The landscape around us resembles a place that has been stripped away of all excess, exposing only its foundation. You think your eyes will tire of the relentless landscape, but they never do.
The abandoned village of Vathia comes into view, perched on a hilltop overlooking the sea. It’s a dramatic sight, a cluster of fortress-like stone buildings and towers built between the vast waters of the Mediterranean and the barren hillsides of the surrounding mountains. Established in the 17th century, the town was perfectly situated to protect against enemies attacking from land or sea.
When we stop to wander through the deserted streets, we are certain we are the only humans here. The only sound we hear is that of the warm winds whistling as they pass through the open doors and cracked windows of the uninhabited buildings. We leave the village with the lingering feeling that our large group may have disturbed the peace.
We arrive at Cape Tainaron, the southernmost point of mainland Greece, excited about our hike to the lighthouse.
Legend has it that Cape Tainaron, named after Taenarus, the mythical son of Zeus, is the location of the Gateway to Hades and entrance to the Underworld. We explore what is now a small Orthodox church, which used to be an Ancient Spartan temple dedicated to Poseidon. We discover remains of several old buildings and some beautiful mosaics from times long past, but there are no signs of any fiery gates or its Cerberus protector.
The sun is blazing, and I worry about my parents, especially my dad, being 80 years old and wearing Nike Slides (a slip-on sandal) as his hiking footwear. He doesn’t seem at all concerned about the heat, the lack of shade or the almost four-kilometre hike we are about to embark on. The kids joke that if he is truly a descendant of the Ancient Spartans he will be fine.
We walk in single file along the narrow path. The trail is rocky and uneven in places, but despite being carved out of the angled cliffs it’s not very difficult. My dad and the teenagers are all in a race to get to the lighthouse first. For me, the views are too spectacular to rush. The sea is a deep cobalt blue; the land, varying shades of brown, grey and beige. It’s an isolated place of immense beauty where rock and earth are surrounded by the sea on three sides.
The lighthouse, built by the French in 1882, is a dramatic sight, a lone sentinel, where the land ends and the sea begins. Upon our arrival, we rest for a few minutes in the shade and take in the jaw-dropping 270 degrees of wide-open sea around us. In the distance, a large container ship passes by, and we see a few fishing boats offshore, but nothing else. We are in awe of this place. It doesn’t feel like we are at the gate of Hades; it feels more like heaven.
That evening, we sit down to a family dinner at the waterfront of the quaint fishing village of Gerolimenas. The sun has already set behind the mountains, but the sky is coloured with streaks of indigo and orange. Our table is full of traditional Greek dishes—hilopites (small, square egg noodles) with chicken, stuffed peppers and tomatoes, saganaki (kefalotyri cheese, battered and fried), Greek salad, sourdough bread, olives, feta cheese.
We feast on the delicious food and chatter about the experiences of the last few days. We talk of pirates and Ancient Spartans, of the tower houses and ghost towns. We talk about the connections our family has to the Mani Peninsula.
“Why did your family leave this place, Papou?” one of the kids asks my dad.
“The reason most people leave—to make a better life for themselves and their families,” he replies. “But, even when we leave, we can always return, and we can always be proud of where we came from.” ♦
Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo lives in Montreal, where she braves cold winters with her husband and daughters.