The Deep (or Mesa) Mani starts somewhere just south of the hamlet of Agios Nikon. There is no sign announcing a demarcation, just a correction in the landscape – as if this new land, this scabrous edge of Greece, were announcing the extremes of its beauty. Look at me, it says, come in (if you must) and admire my crystal coves and black-holed caves, my lunar mountains and crumbling churches. Come, now you’ve come this far, and see the pride of my stumped towers and low, latticed walls, my dusty groves and purple evenings. Look, it says, and marvel. But don’t get too comfortable.
Any trees other than olives are so rare that they serve as landmarks. “Take the road that leaves the main road at Chotasia, just south of Agios Nikon,” says our host at the kindest hotel in the Peloponnese (antareshotel.gr/). “When you get to Alfigia, make sure to turn left onto a small track and follow this to an almond tree.”
We bump very carefully along the track heading south from Alfigia. At its end, close to the almond tree and a barefaced, empty house defended by ramparts of prickly pear, we park and begin looking for the hole in the wall.
We find it soon enough and clamber through. On the other side, the footpath zigzags over a small dry stream and bears sharply to the right. At its end, squatting on an outcrop of jagged, brine-soaked rocks, a distant towel of royal blue and bottle green bakes in the evening sun. These are the salt pans of the Mesa Mani.
We come unannounced, prepared to make a repeat trip the day after. But as we make our way hesitantly down to the shore, a couple of figures shift shape from a small wooden hut tapestried outwards with blankets and rugs to create extra space. Two statuesque, curious, brown-eyed women come to meet us, opening a ramshackle gate. I hand them my phone, our hotel host explains our interest and courteously, they lead us in.
Maria and Vula are sisters. Along with Maria’s husband Adonis, they spend five months of the year from May to September (when the rain comes, adulterating the evaporation process) here, on this small west coast promontory, working in the long light to extract salt from seawater under the Mani’s high, insistent sky.
The process is simple, but laborious. In May, seawater is filled into large, plastic-lined ponds and subsequently ladled into the smaller salt pans. Day by day, the water evaporates, leaving tiny, delicate salt floes coagulating on the surface. Morning and evening, each and every pan is controlled for insects or wind-born foreign matter using a tea strainer attached to a short pole. By mid-end August, the salt is ready to be harvested. Packaged into small containers, enough to serve local requirements, it’s transported on foot or by boat southwards to the Mesa Mani’s largest settlement, Areopoli. Come October, the trio follows its product to spend the winter “in town”.
We’re beckoned under the rug-tapestried awning for a cup of tea, served with fresh prickly pear. Maria shows me how to peel one: top and toe, slice carefully down the middle with a sharp knife and open it, like shutters on a window, to expose the soft, deep yellow, pip-studded flesh. And I’m given a tour of the small garden – white and purple aubergines, cucumbers, tomatoes – the open-sky shower and dual hot plate kitchen. Everything you need.
Did ever a cup of tea taste as good as this, washed down with an evening wind breezing through a makeshift tent under such a friendly gaze? The sun is lowering itself gently into the sea but before we leave Vula gives me a pot of precious salt. I take a pinch and crumble it. It feels moist, sensuous, the mother of condiments purring under my fingers. Vula takes a photo – we sign the guest book – and it’s time to go.
We walk back up the hill, turning around often to look at the shrinking hut, until the matchsticks moving between the pans turn into dots and then disappear into the tenebrous husk of evening : one landscape, one sun and a sea so endless and unconcerned that we shiver. This is not comfort. It’s mettlesome choice. Briefly, we’ve been part of it: cleansed and primed and privileged. The hardest thing, made simple.