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Two life-size statues on the quayside -- one of a jaunty-tailed mermaid and one of a sailor in baggy trousers shading his eyes and gazing out to sea -- are the first things you'll spot as your tender noses its way into the harbor at Gythion. And their jolliness seems to encapsulate the spirit of the place.
Stroll around Gythion, and this joie de vivre is evident everywhere -- in the higgledy-pigglediness of the pastel-tinted houses, which jumble their way up the foothills of Mount Koumaros, and the crooked whitewashed staircases that snake their way between them; in the purple bougainvillea climbing past shutters and tumbling over wrought-iron balconies brightly painted in nautical shades of deep blue and green; in the gaily checked tablecloths of the restaurants that line the waterfront; and in the vividly painted little fishing boats, each marked on the prow with an eye to avert evil, that bob about on the sparkling, inky-blue waters of the marina.
If, like me, you hanker for the unspoiled Greece of 30 or 40 years ago, you'll find it there. Gythion looks like a quintessential Greek island of the 1970's -- except that it isn't.
It's actually a small seaside town on the Mani Peninsula, which lies in the Southern Peloponnese and is the gateway to Sparta, the ancient Byzantine city of Mystras and the region of Laconia. In ancient times, the brusque and bellicose locals gave the world the word laconic.
The residents are a lot more relaxed nowadays -- even though Gythion is a working town and is run-down in parts. The pretty seafront and excellent fish restaurants there make the town an enjoyable and memorable port of call, particularly if you just want a relaxed day ashore that won't take you far from your ship.
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The best souvenir has to be one of the beautiful Greek shadow theater puppets made by local artist Giorgios Hassanakos and displayed in his shop, which is on the main street facing the harbor, more or less opposite the tender station. (Go right from the harbor, and it's on the left, near the police station.) The puppets range in price and will look pretty fluttering in your windows or above a child's bed back home.
The shop also sells attractive photographs of the island, taken by the elaborately bearded Giorgios, who is something of a local character. Taken in monochrome with one single splash of color -- the red of a geranium, the green of a bunch of grapes -- they're striking and affordable, at less than 100 euros with frame and less than 40 euros without.
Greek is the official language, and as this is not a mainstream tourist haunt, don't assume you'll find English-speakers easily. Take along a phrasebook if you really want to connect with the locals.
You won't find English street names, either, so I've used landmarks for directions. Further confusion may be caused by the fact that various places around Gythion -- and the port itself -- have different names.
Gythion is also known as Gythio and can be spelled with a Y or an I; Mystras is also called Mistras or Mistra, and the little island linked to Gythion by a causeway (see Don't Miss) is variously known as Cranae, Kranai and Marathonisi.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro. See XE.com for the latest conversion rates.
You'll find an ATM machine almost opposite the tender drop-off. Just head left around the small marina, and follow it around to the main shopping street; look across the road, and there's an ALPHA Bank ATM point right in front of you. Alternatively, if you head right along the main promenade, you'll find two more outside the Bank of Piraeus and the National Bank, which are on the corner next to the small shady park on the right, about a five-minute walk away.
Where You're Docked
You tender into Gythion along a narrow sea wall, which is embellished with statues. Go left from the drop-off point, and walk right around the little harbor, and you'll find the main square with its cafes and restaurants off to the left. The main street, which runs parallel to the harbor, will be straight ahead of you
If you just want a sunny stroll ashore and a quick coffee -- or glass of wine and plate of calamari -- there are plenty of pretty little restaurants-with-a-view around the harbor. The main street is only a few minutes' walk from the tender drop-off.
Head right from the harbor front, and you'll find taxis lined up between the small park and the Bank of Piraeus. Taxis are metered, but rates with waiting time are obviously subject to negotiation. I was quoted 80 to 100 euros for a roundtrip to Sparta and 100 to 120 euros to Mystras (each with about an hour's waiting time).
The going metered rate is approximately 1.20 euros per kilometer, so the Caves of Diros (38 km away) should cost about 50 euros each way and Areopolis (26 km away on the west coast of Mani) about 32 euros each way.
The taxi drivers were friendly and did their best to be helpful, so my advice would be to talk it through with them and agree on a fee in advance for the roundtrip plus waiting time.
Most attractions in Gythion are within reasonable walking distance.
Watch Out For
Hefty local taxes on restaurant meals can make an affordable lunch look a lot less so when the bill arrives. Checking one menu, I noted that VAT is 9 percent on soft drinks and 19 percent on alcoholic drinks; a 13 percent service charge and a 5 percent local tax are added on top of all that. So, if money's tight, look before you eat.
Look out, too, for heavy traffic along the coast road. Narrow pavements and lines of parked cars mean you often have to walk into the road to get along, so watch your back.
Legend has it that the tiny island of Cranae was the island on which Paris spent his first night with Helen of Troy. With its 19th-century lighthouse; pine-scented, gecko-haunted woodland; whitewashed, red-roofed chapel; and stunning views of the sea, it certainly has an air of romance -- in spite of the two comically scruffy but very tame ducks who greet you on arrival. To get there, walk left from the marina, around the bay and across the causeway.
Gythion has some beaches within walking distance -- or a short taxi ride -- from the tender drop-off. The largest beach in the area is Mavrovouni, which lies near a village of the same name, around two kilometres south of Gythion. It's a pebbly beach, so if you're looking for sandier terrain, try Selinitsa Beach. It's even closer to the port, about one kilometer away.
If you're interested in history, look out for the ancient amphitheater that lies 200 meters along the coast road from the main square (head right from the harbor). It's not madly exciting -- just the usual semicircle of stone seats, but part of an ancient Agora was discovered close by. More details of excavations and the history of the Mani region are contained in the Gythion Historical and Ethnological Museum, which is housed in the Tzanetakis Tower on Cranae (open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Been There, Done That
Sparta lies about half an hour's drive from Gythion, on a broad plain beneath Laconia's Taigetos Peaks. Appropriately enough for a city once famed for its military might and the toughness of its fighting men, there is a large army base nearby -- but the modern city itself shows few signs of its illustrious past. Sparta's Archaeological Museum (a pretty, neo-Classical building at 71 Osiou Nikonos St., tel: 30 27310 28575) does contain bas-reliefs, mosaics and statues from the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. There's not all that much to see there, but real ancient history buffs may get a thrill out of standing on the same soil as the ancient city-state.
Mystras, the 13th-century Byzantine citadel set atop a steep hill about six kilometers from Sparta, is a much better bet for lovers of history, atmosphere and spectacular architecture. Built by the Franks in 1249, it fell into the hands of the Byzantines only a decade later and was transformed into the fabulous city that ruled the Peloponnese for the next two centuries and was home to the last dynasty of Byzantine emperors. Captured in the 15th century by the Turks and later the Venetians and abandoned in 1832, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its stunning hilltop castle and Byzantine churches.
The Caves of Diros, enormous underground caverns, lie halfway down the western coast of the Mani Peninsula and extend inland for at least five kilometers and (some believe) as far as Sparta. Discovered in the mid-20th century after being blocked for years by effects from an earthquake, the three caves -- Glyphada, Alepotripa and Kataphyggi -- are among the most spectacular in the world and are famed for their immense stalagmites and stalactites. The Diros Neolithic Museum lies near the entrance of the caves and exhibits Neolithic remains found in them. (Open every day except Monday, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Decide to lunch in Gythion, and you'll be spoiled for choice; the seafront is lined with dining tables. The best way to find a lunch venue is simply to stroll about, check out some menus, and see what takes your fancy. While the local restaurants obviously major in that day's catch and deliciously crispy calamari, they also serve Greek classics like moussaka (aubergine, lamb and cheese bake), kleftiko (slowly braised lamb) and baklava (a sweet dessert made from phyllo pastry, spiced honey and nuts) -- washed down, of course, with pungent, thick Greek coffee.
Best lunch with a view: Right on the harbor, overlooking the fishing boats one way and the sea wall the other, Navrinia serves up crisply battered calamari (squid rings); fried shrimp; Greek salads, enhanced with tasty tomatoes, olives and Feta cheese; and, of course, the local catch of the day. You'll spot it as you walk round the marina; look out for the washing lines hung with the unfortunate victims of that morning's trawl for squid.
Best long-established eatery: The Saga Akpoiadi fish restaurant, which was founded in 1961, has a good name locally and lies on the coast road that runs left from the harbor to Cranae's causeway. It's also good for a sea view over to Cranae and its lighthouse.
Best meze-style snacky meal: The little restaurant attached to La Boheme Hotel, also on the coast road, offers snacky little goodies like cheese and spinach pasties, zucchini balls, grilled feta, shrimp soup and salted pork from Mani for about 2.50 to 3 euros a portion. Like most restaurants in Gythion, it has tables set right next to the sea. Locals in the know also recommend the Ouzerie Korali in Gythion's main square (Platia Githeiou) for a shot of the famous Greek falling-down water and tasty mezedes (bite-sized Greek snacks similar to Spanish tapas).
Best takeaway lunch: Stroll along the main street, and you'll find fragrant bakeries, serving cheese pasties and delicious custard and phyllo pastry tarts.
Staying in Touch
From the harbor, turn right and walk along the seafront until you find a small park and the Bank of Piraeus on the next righthand corner; head right up there, cross the street, and farther up on the right you'll find an Internet cafe called Vertsa II.
As Gythion is not a particularly tourist-oriented place, these are the only shore excursions typically on offer in this port:
Best for natural beauty (and spookiness!) is the Diros Caves tour (four hours). These caves, about an hour's drive from Gythion, were discovered in 1958 and are among the earliest inhabited settlements in Greece. Tour participants join small boats to row through the caves. A nearby museum contains Palaeolithic and Neolithic artifacts found there, along with the Bronze Age skeletons of victims trapped in the caves by an earthquake an estimated 4,500 years ago.
Editor's note: Wear sturdy, sensible shoes, as the path at the caves can be slippery. This is not a tour recommended for the claustrophobic.
Best for history lovers is the "Last Byzantine Stronghold" tour to Mystras (four hours). You'll head north from Gythion to Sparta and the UNESCO site of ancient Mystras, which lies in the foothills of Mount Taygetos. There is time to explore the narrow streets of this once-invincible fortress and to climb to its summit. If that's a mite too strenuous for your taste, enjoy instead the beautifully painted interiors of three churches -- Aghios Dimitrios, the Evangelistria and the Pantanassa. (Women must have shoulders and knees covered to enter.)
Best for active travellers is the walking tour of Sparta (three hours). The guided tour of modern Sparta is followed by a trip to the Olive Oil Museum. There, visitors will learn how oil pressing changed over the years, from the post-Byzantine period to today, and view working models of the various machines used in olive oil production.
For More Information
Greek National Tourism Organisation: U.S. 212-421-5777, email@example.com;
U.K. +44 207 495 9300, firstname.lastname@example.org
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--by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic Contributor