The inhabitants of the Mani peninsula, the "middle finger" of the Peloponnese, Greece's southern mainland, have long been known for their independence and self-reliance. When the Greeks rose up against the Turks in 1821, the fighting started in the Mani, where leaders such as Petrobey Mavromichalis (Black Michael) rejected the usual Greek cry of "Freedom or Death!" in favour of "Victory or Death!". The Maniots were already free.
This wild and independent spirit survived the crushing poverty that was the Mani's fate for much of the 20th century – and especially lately – and is typified by Gaia, a local volunteer organisation that does everything from fighting wildfires to cleaning the area's golden beaches before each year's tourist season begins.
The Mani's renaissance began in the 1990s, when visitors tired of the over-commercialisation of the islands started to explore the mainland. Kardamyli, in the outer, northern Mani had long been a favourite of more bohemian travellers (the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor built a house there in the 1960s), but what attracted the holiday companies was the sandy beaches of Stoupa, just to the south. Development was low-key and careful, though. Families that owned property by the beaches soon adapted to new businesses. One such is Patriko, a cafe-bar built in a well-restored stone house on Stoupa's beach. Its lively courtyard, filled with English, Dutch and Greek holidaymakers for much of the year, hides a more industrious secret, however – for behind the scenes, Patriko is the hub of Gaia.
Gaia began back in 2000, but really came into its own after the financial crisis hit in 2008. Out-of-the-way places such as Kardamyli and Stoupa seemed to be the first to have their services cut back, and even in a good year are still an hour's drive from resources such as hospitals and firefighters. The volunteers of Gaia run two fire engines, co-ordinated by radio from the back room of Patriko.
While wildfires remain the most obvious threat to the natural environment of the Mani, Gaia turns its attention to multiple other tasks. Many of its volunteers also work in the tourism industry, and have realised that one of the big draws of the area is its natural beauty. If this is to endure, someone has to take responsibility for it, and in these troubled economic times it seems that the local community has to step up.
Fortunately the community spirit in this rural area of Greece remains strong. Christina Constantios, the owner of Patriko and a leading light of Gaia, says she could not have continued without the support of her family and the wider neighbourhood. Her daughter now keeps the business running, giving her time to run the charity, while local support from Greeks and the foreigners who have made the Mani their home, is vital. In 2012, apart from firefighting duties, Gaia volunteers were involved in planting trees, clearing hiking trails, repairing storm damage, responding to accidents and emergencies and, of course, keeping those stunning beaches in pristine condition.
article source: Guardian.co.uk