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Boats on a peninsula

Gythion (Sparta), Greece

Once the port of ancient Sparta, this lovely fishing town draws its name from gi theon, which means "land of the gods" in Greek. It’s the entryway to the rugged, mountainous realm of the Spartans—the fiercely independent people who rejected foreign rule time and time again, and fought vicious internal feuds as well. As legend has it, a splinter group from Sparta settled among the olive trees and giant prickly-pear cactuses of the Mani Peninsula, where they built their distinctive, austere fortified towers. The region's bloodthirsty people became known as Maniots, meaning “of the dry, barren place.” (The folk etymology is more fun: It maintains that the name stems from the ancient Greek word mania.) Unable to quell the Maniots' fighting spirit, the Ottoman Turks largely left them alone—which turned out to be a grave tactical error. The defiant region became the cradle of the War of Greek Independence (1821–1832). Today Gíthion (also called Githio) presents a gentler aspect, with its lush hills, splendid beaches and neoclassical houses. It's a great base from which to explore the mysterious Mani’s stark landscapes, brooding villages and numerous churches, relics of the area’s intense religious fervor.