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.
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.).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.
, 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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.