Cape Tainaron, also known as Cape Matapan, is the southernmost place in continental Greece. Here is how to get there and why you should visit if you go to the Mani area in the Peloponnese.
Gateway to Hades
Wow, that sounds a bit sinister, right?!
Well, extreme places always fascinated the ancient Greeks. Think of Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in Greece. The top of Olympus was difficult to reach, and that made it the ideal place for the 12 Olympian Gods to call home.
In a similar vein, Cape Tainaron was also woven into Greek Mythology due to its extreme location at the southern end of the Peloponnese.
Naturally, this makes it an enticing place to visit for modern day travelers as well. As such, we added a stop at Cape Tainaron to our recent road trip itinerary of the Mani in Greece.
Cape Tainaron in Ancient Greece
Even before the Olympian Gods existed, Cape Tainaron had been a place of worship for the Sun. When the Olympian Gods arrived on the scene, mythology tells us that both Apollo and Poseidon were interested in Cape Tainaron. Allegedly, Apollo was happy to swap it with Poseidon for Delphi, one of the most famous archaeological sites in Greece.
Fittingly then, the area became a place of worship for Poseidon. For centuries, captains sailing past Cape Tainaron stopped to pay their tributes to the mighty God of the Sea. But Cape Tainaron also had other associations.
Gate to the Underworld
Apart from being home to the temple of Poseidon, Cape Tainaron was believed to be one of the numerous Gateways to Hades. It was one of the places where the deceased entered the Underworld, whose entrance was said to be guarded by the mighty three-headed dog, Cerberus.
If the name of the three headed dog rings a distant bell, it's because for one of his twelve labours, Hercules had to bring Cerberus up from the Underworld.
I was actually going to include a visit to Tainaron onto my Hercules Bike Tour of the Peloponnese a year previously. Having run out of time to do so then, it felt fitting that I should include a visit on this trip.
Like in other areas of Ancient Greece, a Nekromanteion operated in Cape Tainaron. At Nekromanteia, the dead were believed to rise from the Underworld, in order to answer questions asked by the living. The most famous Nekromanteion in Ancient Greece was in Acheron River, in Northern Greece.
According to Ancient Greek beliefs, after the soul had been separated from the body, it developed psychic abilities. People visited the Nekromanteia to gain insights about the future from the souls of the dead.
Summoning the dead was not an easy or straightforward task. It required a series of rituals, including various prayers and sacrifices. Pilgrims would spend several days in a dark room at the Nekromanteion, and their diet included hallucinogenic plants. This helped them reach a state of mind that was suitable in order to communicate with the dead.
Odysseus had visited the Nekromanteion in Acheron River, in order to find out more about his journey towards Ithaca. He eventually managed to summon the soul of the dead prophet Tiresias, one of the most famous oracles in Ancient Greece. Homer described the procedure in detail in the Rhapsody 11 of the Odyssey, also known as Nekyia, and it’s a fascinating read.
The Lighthouse at Cape Tainaron
During the Ottoman Era, the area was a refuge for the pirates of Mani. Sailors were careful to avoid Cape Tainaron, or they were risking a pirate attack.
In the late 19th century, a stone lighthouse was built at the edge of the cape. It ceased operation during WWII, and started operating again in the 1950s. The lighthouse keepers helped keep the wild, uninhabited place alive.
In the mid-1980s, an automatic system was installed, and the lighthouse keepers were no longer needed. The Cape and the lighthouse are now visited by tourists, who want to explore the southernmost area of continental Greece.
Hiking Around Cape Tainaron
Even today, the wild, untamed Cape Tainaron at the end of the largely uninhabited peninsula of the south of Mani in the Peloponnese is evocative. Driving (or cycling!) towards this southernmost point does feel like you are nearing the edges of the world.
You can leave your vehicle (or bicycle!) in a car park near a taverna at a small settlement marked on Google maps as Kokkinogeia. From here, you can access the beginning of the hiking path to Cape Tainaron lighthouse.
It is a relatively easy hike, though some people might find it too hot in summer. We visited at the end of September, and the weather was perfect.
Walking to the lighthouse at Cape Tainaron
To get to the main path leading to the edge of Cape Tainaron, turn right. You will soon see a lovely pebbly beach, where you can go for a nice refreshing swim.
In a few minutes, you will reach the “Star of Aria”, a beautifully restored Roman mosaic, on your right hand side. The mosaic is actually quite fascinating, as it’s in the middle of nowhere, and all you can see around it are stones and bushes. We later thought that this mosaic had influenced the design of a table we saw at the Patrick Leigh Fermor House later on during our trip.
Continue following the path, and you will eventually reach the lighthouse, in about 30-40 minutes. The path is easy and it’s absolutely fine to walk in sandals, so no special shoes are needed. Just bring a hat, sunblock and water.
As you are walking, take some time and take a look around you. The views are pretty unique, as the only things you can see are the sea and the dry, arid land.
We were there on a non-windy day, and the sun was shining, but it would have been interesting to see the landscape on a windy day. The Mani is really wild and untamed, and its southernmost point is even more so – you will feel that you are at the end of the world.
The Lighthouse at Cape Matapan
Once you reach the lighthouse, take some time to rest and take in the beautiful views. On the lighthouse there is a plaque, indicating that the lighthouse was restored in 2008, by a private donation of the Laskaridis Foundation. It would be great to see this during the evening, and perhaps catch the sunset.
Other things to see
Near the car parking area, you will notice the little Byzantine church of Agioi Asomatoi, allegedly built with stones from the ancient temple of Poseidon.
Inside, there is an altar, where people have left modern day offerings. Perhaps not a lots has changed from the time of the Ancient Greeks after all!
If you want to visit the Nekromanteion, head towards the left, following the sign to Hypno-oracle. This is where the dead entered the sea cave that led to the Underworld. The exact spot of the sea cave hasn’t been determined.
Traveling Beyond Cape Tainaron
If you have reached Cape Tainaron, you will have already driven through the Mani. That said, there are a couple of places close to the Cape that are really worth visiting.
We spent a couple of nights at the tiny settlement of Porto Kagio. It’s a great place to stay if you want something out of the ordinary. If you are planning to spend some time here, make sure that you buy anything you need, as there are no markets at all in the wider area. Porto Kagio has a small beach that is great for snorkelling.
On the west coast, you will see the beautiful beach of Marmari. At the time we were there it was too windy to swim, but it’s a lovely, sandy beach nevertheless.
Finally, on the way back to north Mani, you will pass by Vathia village, one of the most famous stone tower villages in the Mani. Allow some time to wander around the ruins, and imagine what life must be like in the remote mountain villages.
Have you been to the Mani, and did you walk all the way to the end of the world? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!