Shimmering in summer, ice-clad in winter, the grey-green Taygetus mountains rise off olive-strewn plains, shutting out progress and warning of what's to come - the barren, southern-most finger of the Peloponnese, battered by the howling tramontana winds and inhabited by black-draped villagers with stern codes of honour. As much blood-stained opera as geography, the Mani peninsula has long been a destination approached by foreigners, even other Greeks, with high anxiety.
"You're mad," said an Athenian friend when I first came here. "If you look the wrong way at a Maniot, he'll slit your throat." That was 1984: she'd never been to the Mani, not even to its more hospitable edges. "But I'm a Maniot," I protested. "That's how we got our family name." My Greek father was born in Turkey and had never been to the Mani either, but some ancestors had fled from here, and he'd certainly inherited their qualities of resilience and authority. As a lumbering bus carried me deeper into the Mani on that opening journey, I looked out a dusty window and saw, crudely painted in metre-high letters: "Stop! Communists go back!" They were unswerving supporters of royalty and right-wing politics. Now, four hours from Athens and a quarter of a century on, I'm wondering if "Long Live the King" and "Death to All Traitors" still hold sway.
The fishing town of Gythio is a useful start, though hardly the Mani in extremis; that comes later. It's a short drive south-east of Sparta and handy, if you're coming from the capital, for an early lunch: the sight of raw octopus drying in the morning sun might not stir your appetite, but marinated anchovies (gavros) and deep-fried whitebait (marides) - hyper-fresh off the boat and stacked like bullets on the plate - are difficult to resist, especially if you add a glass of pungent Maniatiko ouzo and ice. Across a causeway sits Marathonisi (fennel island) - called Kranae by Homer - where mythical elopers Paris and Helen spent their first night of bliss. Today it hosts a shabby but hard-working boatyard; in the Mani, practicality always wins over looks. The typical Maniot has no interest in out-styling those around him, just as his great-grandfather's primary interest was in out-gunning the neighbours. Today's warning sign is more likely to be, "Stop! Fashionistas go back!"
But they come. Both coasts of the Mani - the Aegean in the east, the Ionian in the west - are dotted now with substantial stone houses, bloated replicas of the villas of the past, and most of the owners are wealthy outsiders. I spot a blazing red Ferrari, with Athenian plates of course. In 1984, Gythio seemed - like most of the Mani - a backwater, its charms buried under grime. Today it sparkles with Euro-cash. So great is the construction boom that Albanian stonemasons have been imported to erect the faux fortresses; the locals have long forgotten how to carve the deep-grey rocks that shaped their own architecture.
"What's changed most?" I ask 80-year-old Mitsos, sitting patiently at his family-run taverna, watching the fishing boats come in. "Tourismos," tourism, he unravels in a shaky voice. "They changed everything. Foreigners came, they know the place now." The first wave appeared a decade ago and saved the Mani from deeper penury. "I was a poor boy, one of eight," Mitsos declares. "We didn't bother anybody. But if anybody bothered us, we soon knocked them down." He quickly warms to the Mani's us-versus-them ethos. "We fought the Italians in the war and chased them out, and before that, Greece was occupied for four centuries - but no Ottoman Turk set foot here." The Mani is famed for producing the country's toughest sea captains, police chiefs and army officers, a source of local pride and beyond challenge. ("In Athens," a waiter boasts, "those who protect nightclubs are all Maniots too.") Does old Mitsos see himself as Greek first, or a Manioti? He laughs, at the idiocy of my question. "Manioti!"
The rudiments of Mani life and rejection of external influences ("we don't use spices in our cooking," says another local, "because the Turks did") emerge the deeper south you go, well beyond the clichéd Greece of classical ruins, whitewashed houses and plate-smashing Zorbas. None of that here: crumbling stone walls still delineate who owns to a centimetre exactly what, and empty shotgun cartridges from the hunting season (migratory birds from Africa, quail, wild boar) hint at a deeply embedded culture of vendettas that survived into the 1970s. "A hard life makes hard people," says George Rostandis, my guide. "This is the life they live, and love."
Coming off the winding, rock-strewn road into Kotronas Bay, we stop to absorb the view, a panorama of cloud-churned peaks and water so blue it seems out of place, too pretty for the Mani's intrigues and darkness of spirit. If this is hell, it's set against heaven. That night at En Plo, the eatery of Greek celebrity chef Mary Panagakos, we'll feast on Maniot specialties - pork sausages called loukanika, laced with chunks of orange and lemon peel, wild thyme and oregano; a salad of dried figs, lettuce, walnuts in grape juice and pomegranate seeds; and a roast of goat, potatoes and artichokes cooked on a bed of fennel, flavoured with salt, lemon juice, olive oil and oregano, and slowly oven-baked in its own juices. The meat is robust in flavour. Even goats here thrive on hardship, drinking sea water and feeding on thistles.
Down on the wharf, Petros Perinarkos coolly displays his catch: a three-kilo snapper. "I've worked since I was five years old. Every day we ate fish, it was the poor cousin of beef. Now it's just for the rich." Poverty sent a lot of Maniots away to Germany, to Australia, everywhere. "They worked in the frost and sun, and went to bed hungry." Since curses and the evil eye still count in the Mani, I'm curious if he knows any superstitions about the sea. Perinarkos nods solemnly: "But they are secret. If I told you, they might come true. About the sea you don't joke." Another fisherman, Aris, waves dismissively and laughs. "All rubbish. I don't believe in paradise or hell - life is only what we eat and drink." Deftly gutting a pink-red barbounia, much prized in the tavernas, he smiles cheekily. "And no need for Viagra - here we eat eels!"
If summer is devoted largely to fishing, winter is the season of olives. The harvest starts in November and runs until February, and picking and pressing go on across the coldest months. Olives are the Mani's big cash crop, grown on steep terraces carved into the hills centuries ago. I spot groves filled with olive trees, unharvested. "The owners have given them up to rot," says Alexi, one of the young pickers. "Nobody collects them. You only touch what is yours." Driving uphill, we spy an old woman going our way. She's bent, impossibly tiny, all in black with a white sack on her back. Where is she headed? Her eyes narrow. "To collect olives." Can we take her photo? "Oxi," no. Would she like a lift? "Oxi." She proceeds as if the exchange had never taken place. "That's how all the Maniots used to be," says Rostandis, shaking his head. "Believe me, these are very difficult people."
The land is harsh, and prone to earth tremors and quakes. The shifting plates under the Maniots' feet - a constant reminder of their tenuous grip on the land - surely added to their troubled psyche. Yet in spring the peninsula hosts Europe's most stunning wildflower display, with over 600 species, while roadsides yield herbal treasures in abundance.
Ahead waits the lighthouse at Cape Tenaron, where the escarpment falls hard to the sea; a terror for shipping, perfect for pirates. In the absence of fertile soil, piracy kept a lot of Maniots alive, and this was the ideal point of attack; ships rounding the southern-most tip of mainland Europe were laden with bounty and exposed to jagged rocks. When a French ship came to grief in 1786, locals plundered its cargo, its rigging and its timbers. An observer of the Mani pirates wrote, "They cannot resist, they say, the alluring spectacle of so many European vessels continually passing before their eyes..."
Graveyards cling desperately to the windswept hills as hawks and eagles wheel overhead, looking for insects and lesser birds. "This is the entry to the underworld," Rostandis declares. "The Death Oracle, the Gates of Hades." A small crypt-like stone structure rises from a field sprinkled with bright purple crocuses. In pre-Christian times, worried Greeks came here to consult priests about the afterlife. The Maniots were the last Europeans to convert to Christianity, in the 10th century; as befits extremists, the ferocity of their resistance gave way to profound conversion, and some villages boasted up to 30 churches, with family-appointed priests.
As we drive north again, up the west coast, rows of turquoise beehives suggest order and industry. Then an apparition rises off the hilltop like medieval Lego, a series of massive stone boxes piled on boxes to create disturbing shapes and a sense of foreboding. It was here - in the village of Vathia - that Maniot family feuds reached their pinnacle, an English traveller in 1805 noting the community had been "divided into two parties for the last 40 years, in which time they reckon that about 100 men have been killed." Today the austere towers are just as they were when I clambered through them 25 years ago, except for one telltale sign; on doors are numbers, evidence of a doomed effort in the 1990s to convert them into tourist lodgings. The rooms are again empty, wrecked, splattered with bird droppings.
"Why would anyone pay to stay here in the heat of summer when they could holiday at the beach?" asks Rostandis. He's right; why reside in a labyrinth of cells an hour's walk up from the crystalline sea? Yet the towers of Vathia retain an eerie fascination. Reflections of power, much as skyscrapers are today, they were instruments of revenge too - "spite architecture", built ever-higher to block their neighbour's view. As battles raged and shots were exchanged, the towers rose, each side vying for vertical supremacy. Now only the wind hisses through the ruins, and wild fig trees threaten to engulf the place.
We retreat to Areopoli, a bustling market centre that hosts, behind a simple façade, one of Greece's best traditional bakeries. Presiding at Artos is Melia Tsatsouli, as authentic and crusty as the country bread (psomi horiatiko) that emerges from the 200-year-old wood-fuelled oven. "Sugar, flour, sunflower oil, cream," she calls, mixing up sweet bread, "and ground oriental seed called mahlepi, to give flavour." And then, the magic ingredient: ouzo. "You'll honour me if you drink one, and I won't take no for an answer." She sloshes out a generous shot. "You must learn how to do business with the Maniots." It's eleven in the morning, but time for Tsatsouli is obviously flexible. We clink glasses: "Yia mas!"
The shop is packed. One man buys 10 aromatic loaves for family and friends. Some have come far for the delicious tiropites (cheese pies), and koulourakia Smyrneika (sweet biscuits), others for the hard-baked paksimadia that Greeks dip in their morning coffee.
Tsatsouli knows all about elopements and vendettas. "Only these days we're civilised," she says. "The children know each other, so the matchmakers have nothing to do. By the 1990s, the 'old minds' of the Mani had emigrated to the Lord - and young Maniots went to Athens to study and found a different life." The photos of Tsatsouli as a young woman, coated in a veil of flour, offer a classic Greek beauty, windblown in a floral dress, legs on show. Widowed in her twenties, she raised six children and remains optimistic. "When I retire," she tells her customers, "I will find myself a rich American, or even an Australian, and live my life!"
A few steps away, in the fresco-filled Orthodox church of the archangels Gabriel and Michael, Patir Yiorgis oversees a dwindling congregation. "Once it was an incredibly religious part of Greece," he reflects, opening his palms. "A double problem faces us - the young men don't want to be priests any more, and those who do can't find women eager to be priests' wives." Does he have this problem? Father George laughs. "I have three teenage boys who make my life difficult. It's a war. A daily war in the house."
It's hard to imagine any priest having the power to stop Maniots from warring; in the words of one early observer, it was customary "for priests to wear a brace of pistols" as they pursued their religious duties. "It was difficult," Father George agrees, "but a priest's opinion carried weight. To have an idea of the distrust between the Mani families, imagine this - you see a wall, you think the wall is solid, you see no window, no opening, only the barrel of a gun. You see no person, and then you feel the bullet, and that's it."
Our journey closes before a glistening bay. The fishing village of Limeni once served as the sheltered port for Areopoli, although in the wild winter it's said to be anything but safe. These days a culinary drawcard puts Limeni firmly on the map: Takis Fish Taverna, hailed as one of Greece's finest and frequented by presidents of the republic, business tycoons and actors. "The queen of Denmark also," says owner Takis Kalapothaki. Opened for business in 1986, shortly after I first trekked along these shores, the taverna keeps expanding.
Kalapothaki has no trouble naming the house specialty: "Fresh fish." In the modern world, nothing could be simpler or more complicated. "By the traditional Mani way of preparing it; we cook the fish slowly over hot charcoal, with salt on the fish." And not any salt. "It's from very old salt fields near here. There are rocks, with deep holes, and they fill them with buckets of salt water and it evaporates." Sounds easy enough, but I've discovered nothing here is easy. "One single rainy day in August," says Kalapothaki, "and you don't get any salt for another year."
The long tides of history lap at our feet, blue and white tablecloths flutter in the breeze, lunch customers are settling in, overlooking waters so pristine we can spot schools of bream two metres down. The undersea world of the Mani constantly re-creates itself, every day and every hour - unlike the land behind us, strong and stubborn yet worn by the centuries. "What makes this place different from the rest of Greece," he reflects, "is the people. We had nothing and we fought for everything." Outsiders may arrive with bulging pockets, the kids might depart for Athens and beyond, the vendettas are fading into legend, but Takis Kalapothaki and his fellow Maniots remain a breed apart - those stone walls are still in place. "We consider ourselves the toughest of all," he says with a broad smile, and just a hint of danger.