The Mani. A region of rugged, powerful: sun beaten mountains descending to crystal clear aqua-blue waters. Tiny villages dot the hillsides with ancient stone towers and even older Byzantine churches.
In the news they say things are bad in Greece, but they don’t give a clear picture. If you work hard you can live better here. I started with nothing, not even a tree.
Set against a backdrop of cypress trees and olive groves which make up the verdant foothills of the majestic Taygetos mountains, Kardamili is a seaside village that even at the height of the holiday season, retains its grace and peacefulness.
Kardamili is the administrative centre of the municipality of Lefktro, a district that consists of twenty villages and a dozen or so other hamlets, with a permanent population of just 6,000.
A four-hour drive from Athens and 35 kilometres south of Kalamata, this unspoilt retreat remains one of the Peloponnese’s best-kept secrets.
The bell tolls early on the morning of Kimisis tis Theotokou at the church beside the plateia.
With the sun barely above the horizon, the air is already warm enough to raise beads of sweat on the brows of the faithful as they make their way to the church to mark Assumption Day.
Around the corner, not far from the bridge, which crosses the parch-dry riverbed on the village’s northern edge, Ilias Dimitreas is preparing for another busy day.
His one-stop shop, the first supermarket to be built in the village, is a favourite with tourists and locals alike. Sitting at the check-out, Ilias, who was born in Kardamili in 1945, relates an experience shared by many Greek Australians of his generation.
“My father was a shoemaker here, but when factories began making shoes he lost his business.”
After Ilias’ father passed away the family emigrated to Australia.
“We had to survive, so that’s where we went.”
It was in Melbourne that he met his wife Eleni.
Originally from Limnos, Eleni has not been back to Australia since the early 1980s, when they made the decision to return to their homeland.
“I’m stuck here,” Eleni proclaims with a smile.
“It’s not so easy in Greece. There are no holidays and I don’t have a day off!”
Eleni and Ilias spent sixteen years in Melbourne.
Both were working in a factory to make ends meet.
“But the money you make in a factory is not enough to put in the bank,” remembers Ilias.
A natural but modest entrepreneur, Ilias bought a delivery truck, delivering soft drinks in Coburg before buying a small shop in Brunswick.
He and Eleni worked hard and saved.
At 36 years of age he yearned to return to his roots.
Ilias came back to the Mani with his family in 1982, bought a plot of land and built the shop.
In the intervening years Ilias and Eleni had also built a family. Their first daughter Stavroula was born in 1969.
Today Voula manages the Vardia Hotel in the village, a second family business that grew from the supermarket.
Voula remembers meeting her younger sister Fotini for the first time at the age of ten.
“I was in Greece and they were in Australia. Immigrant families used to send their first kids back. I was the first child, with my grandmother’s name. So although born in Australia, I grew up with my grandma in Kardamili. We had a complicated life but I had a great time. I grew up like a princess.”
Fotini who helps her parents with the supermarket, and works with Voula at the hotel in the summer season, was born in Melbourne six years after her sister.
Fotini spent the first seven years of her life in Australia before ‘coming home’.
“There are things that look positive and negative about being Greek,” says Fotini.
“It sometimes makes life complicated, but when you look back, you see it was positive not negative. You know you have roots. You know you have responsibilities. You know what ‘family’ means. You know all the things which are really important.”
The Dimireas family’s second business, the Vardia Hotel, known as ‘the eye of Kardamili’, has sweeping views over the village and across the Messinian Gulf.
It’s been been welcoming guests for sixteen years now.
Despite Greece’s economic problems and a decline nationally in tourists this year, business at the hotel has been good.
“But you need to be really Greek to do business here,” says Fotini.
“Nowadays to survive you have to be better than the others. There’s a lot of competition.”
As the morning’s customers to the supermarket grow in number, the chant of the priests at the nearby church drifts through the air.
The first sun-worshippers are making their way to Kardamili’s pebbled beaches to be cooled in crystal clear blue waters.
“In the news they say things are bad in Greece, but they don’t give a clear picture. If you work hard you can live better here. I started with nothing, not even a tree.”
Kardimili is a jewel in one of Greece’s most unique and fascinating regions.
Once savoured, it is easy to understand why Ilias Dimitreas and his family chose to make it home.
For more information on the Vardia Hotel to www.vardia-hotel.gr
For quality car hire to explore the Mani, check out www.mycarrentals.gr