It is no surprise that scholar and travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor and his photographer wife, Joan, fell in love with this beautiful village of golden stone houses and towers. They settled by Kalamitsi Bay and here they were visited by their many friends such as artists Ghika and Craxton and writer Bruce Chatwin whose ashes are scattered further up the Viros Gorge.
Joan captured their lives, including their beloved village, in her work. In 2018 the British Museum put on an exhibition - Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor, the catalogue accompanying it making a good read and reproducing many of Joan’s images of Greece including Kardimyli and the area. The village has three parts, the old town defensively located higher up, the new old town around the harbour spilling over the road towards the mountains and new additions scattered here and there yet not detracting from the beauty. The ample supply of fresh water has resulted in comparatively lush tropical vegetation including fig, pomegranate, olive and mulberry trees, gardens packed with vegetables and flowers, it really is a fertile haven. In the harbour sits the island of Meropi where once a Venetian castle stood. The visitor can swim off the harbour platform or north of the village, a short stroll down the Beach Road, to a series of pebbly beaches. Take time to wander the alleys of this village and enjoy it’s excellent tavernas, bars and cafes. There are also several shops selling local produce, Greek designer jewellery, ceramics, books, hiking gear, clothes and more practical things. There are few opportunities to buy anything elsewhere so if you want to stop for moment this is your chance.
The visitor has a great choice of restaurants and bars here – nearly all are Greek cuisine offering something for every palate. Vegetarians and vegans can enjoy bean and pulse dishes such as giant beans in tomato sauce, fava, hummus, Horta (wild greens) with black eyed beans, green vegetables and other seasonal produce and salads. Garlic, cinnamon and allspice and lashings of fresh and dried herbs are common to many dishes. There are excellent cheeses to chose from, try Elias’ staganaki (fried cheese) that I think is the most divine on the peninsula and of course full fat yoghurt packed with calcium and vitamins. Fish is caught daily and when seasonal, grilled calamari tempura style really light and tasty. Grilled sardines are available everywhere along with whatever is brought in that day. For the meat eater there are many choices such as oven baked lamb with potatoes; chicken or rabbit with local lemons; kebabs or grilled lamb... Whatever your taste you will find something to enjoy here (and throughout the Mani). It is simple but tasty healthy fare. To finish a day's walk with a delicious meal watching one of Kardimyli’s magical sunsets is something everyone should experience at least once.
On our walk from Exohori to Kardimyli we get stunning views of the villages and gorge as we traverse on paths and kalderimi down the gorge. Along the way we can visit churches such as the Agios Georgios standing on it own outcrop of rock jutting into the gorge with 360 degree views. Monte Sotiros lays beneath on the valley floor. Further down we pass Agia Sophia before our final stretch on a kalderimi to the fortified complex (the old town of Kardimyli) of the powerful Troupakis-Mourtzinos family who have dominated the area for many centuries. The old village includes a museum, the Mourtzinos Tower and the Church of Agios Spyridon. This was also the site of the gathering of the army, including Maniot heroes Theodoros Kolokotronis and Petrobey Mavromichalis in 1821 before marching north to Kalamata to fight the Ottoman army.
Leigh Fermor’s chapter on Kardimyli is worth a read (The Mani: Travels In the Southern Peloponnese). He ponders the genealogy of the inhabitants of the village and relays how the Mourtzinos family claim descent from the Palaiologos (reigning dynasty at the end of Byzantium) who fled Mystras over the mountains when the Ottomans invaded in 1461. To the left as we walk towards the the old fortified town is said to be the tomb of the Dioskouri, Kastor and Polydeukes (their latinised names: Castor and Pollux). The twins’ mother was Leda who was married to the King of Sparta, Tyndareos. Leda bore Helen and Polydeukes, children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Kastor and Klytaimnestra, children of her husband. Polydeukes was immortal and Kastor mortal. Helen, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world absconded with Paris of Troy and thereby hangs the tale of Homer's Illiad, the ten year war between the Greeks and Trojans. Kastor was a renowned horseman who taught Herakles, another son of Zeus, the arts of war and Polydeukes a boxer, famously fought Amykos (son of Poseidon) when the twins accompanied Jason on his quest to retrieve the the Golden Fleece. They also formed part of the band that hunted and killed the monstrous Kalydonian boar as well as rescuing Helen from Theseus who had abducted her.
How the twins came to lay to rest at Kardimyli is the subject of varied accounts. They had cousins in neighbouring Messina, Lynkeus and Idas. The great poet Pindar relates how a dispute arose between the cousins over brides and other accounts about ownership of cattle. Kastor and Polydeukes fled into the Taygetus Mountains and hid in a hollow oak. Lynkeus who had superhuman vision ran with his brother to the top of Mount Taygetus, there scanning the countryside he surprised the twins by spearing the oak wounding mortal Kastor. Polydeukes killed Lynkeus and Zeus intervened killing Idas with a thunderbolt. Polydeukes then returned to his dying brother pleading with his father to let him die with Kastor. Zeus gave his son a choice - either Kastor goes to Hades and Polydeukes takes his places with the gods on Olympus or Kastor shares his immortality with his brother, both alternating one day in Hades and the other on Olympus. Of course Polydeukes chose the latter and Zeus immortalised the brothers as the constellation Gemini to commemorate their devotion.
The twins were also important gods particularly in Sparta. They were patrons to sailors appearing to them as St Elmo’s fire, a luminous phenomenon that is at times seen playing around the masts of ships in a storm. Myth has it that one ball was a bad omen whereas two a sign of the twin’s protection. The twins died before the Trojan War. After the Trojans were defeated Achilles’ son, Neoptolemos, stopped at Kardimyli on his way to marry Hermione, daughter of Helen and Menelaos, king of Sparta, Helen now reconciled with him. In his honour sea nymphs came ashore to gaze at the young man and a temple built on the now village square to commemorate this event. According to Leigh Fermor the site is now occupied by the Church dedicated to the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin.
Between April and November Kardimyli is bustling with tourists, weekend visitors from Kalamata and the local Maniots. During winter many tavernas and bars close as this is the olive picking season and besides agriculture and tourism there are few other occupations. Some change is afoot however as the possibility for remote working is changing so many lives and communities. I met a young man at the bus station in Kalamata whose native village was Kardimyli and after working in London for ten years has returned to set up a business. He is but one of a growing group re-populating this village and I wish all of them success.
Kardimyli has a bohemian feel and hosts an annual jazz festival in May. It's a small intimate affair, bands playing at different tavernas, bars and cafes all for free. It’s a great way to get to get to know what the village has to offer and to meet different people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. A more demanding event in March is the Taygetus Challenge a 20km run through the mountains, not for me but if you are a marathon enthusiast it will take you through the beautiful hills and mountains of the Outer Mani.