Legend has it that the entrance to the Underworld lies in a remote corner of Greece. Well, I’ve been there and I can say it ain’t so.
Allegedly, Orpheus and Hercules entered a cave on the Peloponnese peninsula and descended into Hades.
However, my search brought me closer to a piece of Heaven rather than the gates of Hell. For an hour or so I trekked over a hillside of wild flowers and buzzing insects. All I discovered was a cove lapped by azure water and the mosaics of a Roman settlement.
I decided to leave Hell for another day. It was good enough just to be in the Mani, where ancient myth, wild feuds and daydreaming escapism all come together.
The Mani? Check the map of Greece. On the southern coast of the Peloponnese peninsula you will see three fingers of land jutting into the Mediterranean. The middle finger is this wild, rocky region of fortress houses, phantom villages and secluded inlets.
When you’ve done the most famous historic sites of the Peloponnese – Epidaurus, Mycenae, and the rest – it’s worth journeying south to experience another world sufficiently off the track to avoid succumbing to mass tourism.
One, delightful, way to reach the area is via Yithio, once the port for the Sparta city-state. Paris of Troy after abducting Helen allegedly spent his first night with her on an island in the bay.
Driving west, you find the lofty, fortified houses of Areopolis, one of the region’s bigger settlements. These tall stone towers, often with only slits for windows, are reminders that until a hundred or so years ago blood feuds were commonplace here.
Fierce confrontations between rival clans led to the construction of hundreds of these amazing structures, fitted with special platforms for hurling down boiling oil or water.
Only aristocrats were allowed to build towers. Whenever there was a serious conflict, they retreated inside. The women were allowed out to work the fields. At times an amnesty might be declared, so the women could bring in the harvest.
An army of 400 regular soldiers was needed to suppress the last big vendetta. The good news is that today boiling oil is out. And the towers are being converted into tourist accommodation.
Entrenched amid gorges and olive groves, the poverty-stricken Maniots long had a reputation for rebelliousness and piracy. Have no fear, however, for these days the locals are renowned for their hospitality.
Many visitors get no further than the spectacular Pyrghos Dhirou caves, located by the sea. Flat-bottomed boats take you over a subterranean lake past bizarre rock formations.
Only ghosts seems to inhabit many villages but Yerolimenas, bounded by a high cliff, has a harbour, a post office and accommodation. Sip an ouzo at one of the waterside cafes and think about lunch.
Dramatic mountain and seascapes open up as you head further south. Running along a ridge is one of the most spectacular of the fortress settlements, Vathia’s skyline of towers resemble a mini-Manhattan.
But tread the labyrinthine alleyways and all you will find is one café, and maybe a stray cat.