The drive from Areopolis south east over the hills runs past ancient Pyrrichos, where a small vineyard testifies to the altitude and climate and on to a crumbling castle on the end of a ridge at Loukadika; from here there is the first view of the shimmering sea and distant Cape Maleas. With the sun warming the hills from first light there is a stark difference in the landscape to that of the western flank of the Mani; it is drier, hotter, brighter and spring seems a week or so more advanced.
The bright yellow Jerusalem sage is out alongside the pink sage, I think Salvia fruticosa; both cover the hillsides along with the yellow greens of tree spurge Euphorbia dendroides and Mediterranean spurge Euphorbia characias and dark evergreen shrubs, all in between the bare grey limestone cliffs and outcrops. The colours are bright, the aromas warming and morning sun blinding.
In the village of Exo Nimfio there is a sign to the archaeological site at Kournos; it is up a small winding road past a house with two huge barking dogs to a concrete lane that traverses the narrow ridge and laces between the old houses. The village sits uncomfortably below great rounded stone outcrops and ruined stone towers; it is peaceful apart from a flock of startled sheep that run off at a pace even though hobbled.
There is one occupied house where the radio plays and an old man arrives on his motorbike but the place is largely abandoned. One large house has been recently built but most are crumbling and many are dead with empty doors and windows that are only brought back to life by invading shrubs. A pair of ravens fly over as does a kestrel and a buzzard stoops; all probably have nests in the cliffs above.
The village is taken over by house sparrows, rock thrushes and hundreds of mason wasps that cover one south facing wall of a house like an ugly rash; their industry has also plastered every rock face near the roads where they gather their sand grains to make their nests. The bees swarm noisily on passing but none sting; they are too busy racing to build their great constructions. The bees are large and purple black but there are other, smaller species, attractive in metallic purple and emerald, sitting patiently on rocks nearby; these are cuckoo wasps. As the name suggests, these parasitise the mason bees and lay their eggs in their chambers before each is sealed by the unwitting host and the shiny, pretty things emerge in the spring having consumed the egg or small larva.
On the road down, a hoopoe forages on the verge and is hungry; it probes with its elegant, long curved bill and pulls out grubs with great agility and tosses them up to swallow with a gulp and brief fluffing of neck feathers. When disturbed it is flamboyant, bounding off with a flick of broad wings and flared crest. On the road south, the land becomes more scrub dominated and there is a rich mixture of other migrants; wheatears, wrynecks, redstarts and calling quail. The residents are prominent too, singing and establishing territories: the most obvious are corn buntings, stonechats and rock nuthatches. The wrynecks call like hobbies and hide with their immaculate camouflage in the scrub. A Ruppell’s warbler sings next to the road and has probably only recently crossed the Mediterranean from its wintering grounds in north east Africa; the difference between its song and that of a subalpine warbler is impossible for an untrained ear to distinguish.
At the south end, the land is spare and the houses even more remote and again many are abandoned. Below Lagia is the small village of Akrogiali which sits in a sheltered valley surrounded by large spreading oaks beneath which cattle roam. There are hints throughout the Mani, such as the trees around Akrogiali and the huge oak in the centre of Thalames and other villages, that the land was once dominated by a great broadleaved forest.
The road down passes through olive groves that are full of pink butterfly orchids, Ophrys orchids and the parasitic Bellardia latifolia with its characteristic, diminutive flowers. There are also hundreds of shotgun cartridges; stark evidence of a passion for shooting any bird in range.
The road runs down and onto the barren, southern isthmus where the tip is a walk across a windswept grass heath to Cape Tenaro, the southernmost point of mainland Europe. Corn buntings sing from telegraph poles. Beyond Gerolimnas with its pretty cove and fish restaurants, the land rises to the west in a huge limb of land known as the Cavo Grosso or ‘Great Cape’; here the uplands are impenetrable macchie above fertile olive groves and small villages. The landscape is spare; dry and wild. The Cavo Grosso will need a day to explore; a visit in early May to see if Eleanora’s falcons are present on the great cliffs.