In the third part of our tribute to Laconian Mani we are mainly in Gythio. There, we visit the Cultural Center of the Municipality of East Mani, where we see the permanent exhibition about the stone and traditional products, and a periodic exhibition of contemporary art, we try the local gastronomy and we get to know a Greek company with traditional pastelia. Finally, for an impressive closing of the first part of our trip to Laconian Mani, we visit the caves of Diros.
After wandered around the places around our base, the hotel Koukouri Village in Kafiona, Laconia, we could not miss the beautiful Gythio. Gythio is the largest city of Mani and the largest port of the southern Peloponnese after Kalamata. It is built at the foot of Mount Larysio and is bathed by the sea, a combination that makes it unforgettable.
Looking for a few things about the history of the city we would visit, we learned that Gythio in antiquity was the port of Sparta. In Roman times it became independent from Sparta and had great development, as evidenced by archaeological excavations. In 375 AD a catastrophic earthquake with a tidal wave destroyed the city and drowned the inhabitants. During the Turkish occupation the city was forgotten and got the humble name Marathonisi due to the development of fennel (marathos in Greek) in the area. After hard struggles, the people of Mani together with the Venetians conquered the city again, and since then it has not stopped upgrading, reaching its current image.
Having done our little read, we got in the car to discover another special destination.
On the way to Gythio…
Arriving in Gythio, the first place we wanted to visit was the Cultural Center of the Municipality of Eastern Mani. There we saw the permanent exhibition, which narrates how the people of Mani “conquered” the stone and used it in their daily lives, as well as an exhibition of contemporary art by a new artist, whom we met personally.
At the cultural center we met the manager Mrs. Vasiliki Koumoundourou, who spoke to us with the best words about the work of the mayor Petros Andreakos in Gythio and Eastern Mani in general, as well as specifically in the creation and support of the cultural center.
We asked Ms. Vasiliki how old the exhibition at the cultural center is and she told us that the inauguration took place in 2016. In the very old days, she told us, the building functioned as a girls’ school and that is why it was called “Parthenagogio”. When it ceased to function as a school, the space became useless, and at some point, with decisions of the municipal council, the study was done and what we see today was made. In the texts of the exhibition we read that the building was erected and operated in the 19th century as the “Girl’s School of Gythio” and it is said that its architect was Ernest Ziller. In the 20th century it housed the 2nd Primary School and at the end of the 20th century it ceased to operate as an educational institution.
The exhibition, as Mrs. Vasiliki told us, deals with how the people of Mani managed to make very useful objects with stone, and how they faced the difficulties with their strong character. It is a modern museum of the place, which talks about the identity and the character of the people of Mani, how they managed to “tame”, break and shape the stone.
The people of Mani, Mrs. Vasiliki told us, dug deep into the ground and found white and red marble. They built churches, towers, walls with the stone. In the exhibition we will even see many old useful objects.
Another point of the exhibition is dedicated to salt. In the informational signs we read about the way it was produced and what favored the production of salt in Mani. We learned that on the rocky shores of Mani, on the rocks, sea water is collected without penetrating the ground in natural or artificial troughs. Thus, it remains there until the water evaporates and the salt crystallizes or until the producer transfers it to another trough. There, in the stone, as Mrs. Vasiliki told us, is produced the high quality salt called “fleur de sel”.
Something very interesting that Mrs. Vasiliki told us and described in the exhibition is the quail hunting that took place every autumn. The inhabitants gathered in one place and made noise, clapping hands or stones, in order to gather the birds and catch them with a tool, which was called “trapela”.
The cultivation of legumes may not have been very widespread in Mani, but one of the most important local products was lupins, Ms. Vasiliki told us. In a brochure of the museum we read that it was a produce of the Mani land that nourished its inhabitants at all times.
The stone was also used in beekeeping. Mrs. Vasiliki told us about the stone hives in which the bees made honey. The people of Mani had understood that the bees were concentrated in the hollows of the trees and in the crevices of the rocks, that is, in places protected from the extreme weather conditions and the hot sun. Based on this observation, as we read in the texts of the exhibition, the people of Mani made the stone square boxes and placed them next to each other.
In the exhibition we read very interesting information about olive oil. According to the texts of the exhibition, olive oil may have been the main export product of the region, but its production until the end of the 19th century was geographically limited to the fertile valleys of North Mani. Efforts to develop olive cultivation in South Mani began with the establishment of the Greek state in 1830. We also read about how olive oil is produced in livestock mills.
In the next room of the museum, as Mrs. Vasiliki explained to us, we are in the newer Gythio, where we see the first photographers who came from Pontos, as well as the musical development of Gythio, which was very large.
A corner of this space is dedicated to the old school, with the old desks, the blackboard and an old authentic wardrobe … a representation of the old use of the building that we believe fits well in the museum, as a souvenir of the past.
Finally, Mrs. Vasiliki showed us the tourist projection room. There we saw a large interactive board, which travels visitors to all the sights of the Municipality of East Mani. Ms. Vasiliki told us that she is in charge of the library and that the combination of the library and the museum is very successful, since one can come to the museum and see the library or vice versa come to the library and see the museum. Library books may not be too many, but they are of good quality, from almost all categories. Mrs. Vasiliki also stressed that the reading traffic of the library is huge and we are very happy for that!
In closing, Ms. Vasiliki told us that the visitors leave the exhibition excited and impressed, especially with how the stone became the material with which the people of Mani made all these masterpieces. We felt the same! Of course we could not photograph and record all the important exhibits and the wealth of information that one can see at the Cultural Center of the Municipality of Eastern Mani … That is why if you come to Mani it is worth visiting!
Leaving the permanent exhibition of the cultural center we met Mrs. Poly Vartzioti-Galenianou or Poulia. Poulia is the artist who exhibits her works in the periodic exhibition in one of the halls of the building. We asked her to give us a short tour and she gladly accepted.
Entering the periodical exhibition hall, the color flooded us. We saw works of realistic style, but also more abstract, some with landscapes and others with human figures, all with vivid, optimistic colors. We literally got lost in the color thanks to the works that conveyed a happy mood, which is often missing from contemporary art.
Poulia started our little tour by saying that she is a new painter, since she has started only four years ago. She started painting when she retired -her profession was dietitian and decorator- although art was something she had in mind for years.
Especially with Corona virus, she found the time to do a lot of works, with a lot of color because, as she told us, people needed this to get out of the “darkness” that prevails. The response of the people to her works is very positive, everyone tells her how beautiful the colors she uses are! They even tell her that they are so alive and true, that they look as if they came from a computer…
Poulia’s works are made with acrylic paints on canvas. What she likes most, she told us, is to capture nature, to render things as they really are. Some of her works are based on memories. We have to say that everything is wonderful and we wish her good luck!
Leaving the exhibition we decided to take a short walk in the city of Gythio and look for a local business to get souvenirs for Athens – of course one of the local products of Mani. On our way we passed by the confectionery “Manolakos“, which as we saw on its sign has a history since 1902, and we could not resist.
Entering the store we found ourselves literally surrounded by pastelia (traditional Greek sesame or nut bars). And all different from each other, we wanted them all and weren’t able to choose!
In the store we met Mrs. Manolakou. We asked her to tell us a few words about the history of the business and she told us that her grandfather founded the business in 1902. With the raw material, honey, sesame and sugar, he molded the pasteli on a marble counter. In the past, pasteli was not sold in pieces, but it was a sheet, which was cut into diamond-shaped pieces. These pieces were served with ice water.
The second generation, the father of Mrs. Manolakos’s husband, took over the business which he continued in the same way, making an innovation – he put the pastelia in a box. Until then the consumption was local and the business had an introverted character. Mrs. Manolakou’s husband, who has studied marketing in America, when he came to take over the business in 1980, he modernized it and built a workshop in accordance with all health regulations. He kept the traditional recipe intact, as Mrs. Manolakou pointed out to us, and distributed the same product into different pieces and box sizes. Then he started creating other codes, reaching 72 today!
Mrs. Manolakou told us that all this love was passed on to their children, who while studying economics, wanted to take over the business. The son, Christos has taken over the creative and productive part, while the daughter, Alkistis, has taken over the marketing. Mrs. Manolakou spoke to us with great pride about her children. She told us that they are constantly producing new flavors – especially in Corona virus quarantine they created many new ones. The company is healthy and is doing very well, in fact it cooperates with all the Duty Free stores in our country and also does exports. In Greece, they make collaborations with selected stores all over the country, Ms. Manolakou told us, and we wish them to continue like this and even better!
Mrs. Manolakou showed us a box with a vintage design and told us its story… In the 80’s her husband abolished it to make the then “modern” packaging, with purple color that was then in fashion… Fortunately, Mrs. Manolakou had kept a sample and when her son saw it, he decided to bring back the grandfather’s box. And very well done we will say, because it is beautifully nostalgic!
Manolakou pastelia are made, with the traditional recipe of the grandparents, with a little sugar and a lot of honey of very good quality and certified, something that is immediately visible in their texture, which is soft and chewy. They also come in versions with all honey, organic, with brown sugar, multigrain, with spices, with super foods, with original and creative flavors, such as spirulina, black sesame, pollen, propolis and a lot more. The son of the family, Christos, in fact, recently made a crunchy pasteli with only honey, which was not done until then.
The company also has the traditional Mani lalagia. Mrs. Manolakou told us their story, which was recorded by the historian Sarantos Kargakos: In the old days, when Mani lacked many things, the mother from Mani created lalagia for the children who were upset because they did not have sweets to eat. The mother made a dough from water, salt, flour and oil and created the lalagi. She was would pour honey from her beehives on top. The children, out of their joy, would sing “la, la, la” and so the name lalagi came out!
We left the store in a sweet mood and a bag full of pastelia: all honey pasteli, crunchy pasteli, almond pasteli, multigrain pasteli, with mastic, with goji berry, with chia seeds, with bitter almond, with forest fruit, with Taygetos pollen, with black sesame, with cranberry and much more… Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, they are all wonderful!
By the time we were immersed in honey and sesame stories, it was getting dark outside. So, we took a short walk and headed to our next destination, which as you will guess, was for food!
Our choice in Gythio was “Diosmos“, a family business of George Kapsoulias and his wife Stavroula Kakokefalou, which has existed for three years. It is a hidden gem, as it is located in a small alley, in an area of refugee housing. With tables on a street that closes at night and becomes a sidewalk, due to the new measures for the distances of the tables, the store has a warm, family atmosphere, which was created mainly by the attitude of its people, combined with the elegant decoration.
The restaurant is decorated by the owners themselves, as Mrs. Stavroula told us, with their own taste and lots of love, something that can be seen from the dishes they choose to serve their food to the spotless, elegant bathrooms.
Their menu looked delicious and so we asked the most gentle and very sweet Mrs. Stavroula to suggest us selected dishes from their menu. We trusted her and we did well!
We also asked Mrs. Stavroula to tell us a few words about the tavern. She told us that “Diosmos” has become known for cooked food, although it was not in their original plans… But there was a gap in the market and their cooked food was loved by people, not only in summer but also in winter, during which they operate mainly with delivery. All the dishes of the day are cooked by Mrs. Stavroula and her mother, every day different ones. They have also worked with chefs on specific dishes that they kept on the menu. Mrs. Stavroula told us with pride that they have a very good team in the kitchen and that they have recently been awarded for the quality of their food. We tried it and we totally agree!
Filled with flavors and experiences, all we had to do was return to our hotel, the four-star Koukouri Village Hotel in Kafiona, and immerse ourselves in its soft mattress and fluffy pillows for a relaxing and refreshing sleep. In the morning we enjoyed breakfast again and got ready to leave.
Leaving, we thanked from the bottom of our hearts the children of the owner who work in the family business, Athanasia Giannarou and Thodoris Giannaros, who are really hospitable, kind and hardworking! We promised to come again and we were told that from next year they will have a large swimming pool by the mountain, overlooking the sea… We will look forward to seeing it completed!
To close our wonderful trip to the parts of Laconian Mani we wanted to visit one of the most impressive sights, not only in the area but also around the world, the Vlychada cave in Diros. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the route we would be able to take would be reduced (as well as the ticket for the visitors), but again we did not want to miss it.
Arriving at the caves of Diros we met Mr. Petros Lazarakos, head of Diros Caves, which is managed by the Public Real Estate Company (ETAD), whom we thank warmly for his kindness, as well as for the immediate permission for entering, taking photos and posting our experience from the brief tour we were able to do. And if you see how many beautiful things we saw, imagine what would happen on the complete route!
Vlychada cave, on the west coast of the Laconian peninsula, is ranked among the best lake caves in the world. An underground river flows through it, which, as we read in a brochure of the Cultural Center of the Municipality of Eastern Mani, has a sweet or “vlychi” taste according to the local idiom, from which it takes its name.
Click on the photos to see them in full view:
On the lake -short due to pandemic- route, inside the boat
In the brochure of the cave we found many interesting things about its history. We read that its existence was known to the locals from about 1900 and that by 1960 there had been explored and mapped 1600 meters from the current length of more than 14 kilometers. The doors of the cave were opened for the first time in 1967, when E.O.T. (Greek National Tourism Organisation) completed the work that had begun six years earlier.
Entering from the narrow natural entrance of the cave we saw directly a magnificent spectacle… We got into a boat and started our tour, knowing that it would be an unforgettable experience!
The boatman of our boat during the voyage gave us some important information about the cave. He told us that the water, the underground river, is on the same surface as the sea and that only eels live in it. He informed us that the water temperature is 12 degrees, and the air 18 degrees, both in winter and summer. It was a hot afternoon, so our visit was right on the spot!
The boatman explained to us that stalactites are those who hang from the roof, while stalagmites are those who come out of the water. Wanting to know a few more things about stalactites and stalagmites, we read that everything is due to water and a salt, calcium carbonate. Rainwater, which is acidic, when it penetrates the limestone rocks it erodes them, and in this way caves are formed. Thus, calcium ions are created in the water.
When water drips from the roof of the cave, the droplets evaporate to form white, solid calcium carbonate. In this way stalactites are formed, drop by drop, for thousands of years. Correspondingly, some drops fall to the ground where the water evaporates again leaving the calcium carbonate, and thus the stalagmites are formed. Sometimes stalactites join with stalagmites, creating striking columns.
As for the lake cave in which we are, in the brochure we read that it began to form hundreds of thousands of years ago, when the sea surface was much lower than its current levels. In fact, stalactites have been found at a depth of 71 meters!
Continuing our lake boating, we learned that fossilized bones of panther, hyena, lion, deer, ferret and the largest hippopotamus deposit in Europe have been found in the cave. Impressive information that complements the spectacular images!
Descending from the boat we continued an equally beautiful land route, passing by stalactites and stalagmites, and we went out full of coolness, knowledge and beautiful photos… We urge everyone in Mani not to miss this unique experience, it is truly magical and will be unforgettable!
Click on the photos to see them in full view:
On the land route to the exit from the cave
Going out and walking a little further, we found a small beautiful beach, where one can continue to cool off, taking a dip.
Apart from the beach, near the exit of the cave we saw a statue that made a big impression on us. This is the statue of Maniatissa, the woman from Mani, who stands imposingly with a scythe in her hand, looking at the sea. In one of the brochures of the Cultural Center of the Municipality of Eastern Mani we read some things about the history of this place. We learned that in June 1826, Ibrahim’s troops attempted to land on the beach of Diros in an attempt to trap the men fighting in Verga. But they found the women determined to run into the attack with their own weapons, the scythes and the stones of their place.
We believe that this is the right way to close our small tribute to Laconian Mani, a place made of stone and history… We continue our sweet journey in Messinian Mani now, stay tuned!