There's a story about the Mani - the middle Greek Peloponnese finger. God, having finished creating the world, had a whole lot of rocks left over. He grinned and chucked them on the Mani. And there they still are.
Deserts aside, the Mani must be one of the more inhospitable places in the world. Particularly the "Deep Mani", the even-more-barren, mountainous southern part, where to get anything to grow requires extraordinary terracing - and moving a lot of rocks.
The Maniots, as they are called, endlessly fought over sparce water resources and any patch of even vaguely fertile land. They built strong stone houses, with castle-like towers, in villages often perched (for defensive purposes) on fairly inaccessible hillsides.
But life was hard and the population of the Mani declined - from around 30,000 in the early 1800s, to probably less than 5000 these days, with thousands moving to the cities and emigrating. Many Mani villages became practically deserted. Until recently, the tower houses crumbled and the mule tracks leading between the settlements fell into disrepair.
Not any more. The smallest Mani settlement on some godforsaken rocky mountaintop, now has several beautifully restored properties and a nice paved road. How come, we wondered?
The answer came one day when I was hitching through the Deep Mani to pick up our hire car from where we'd left it at the beginning of a walk. I got a ride with a Greek guy living in Athens, who was going back to his family's village for his father’s funeral. He asked me what had changed in the 30 or so years since I’d last been in Greece. I ventured that even tiny rural roads were now paved and so many old houses had been renovated.
He smiled. “EU money."
Of course. I looked it up and there has been an extraordinary amount of European Union (and before that European Community) money pumped into Greece in the last three and a half decades. In fact, since Greece joined the EC in 1981, it has received €113 billion more from European coffers than it has paid into those same coffers. €113 billion. In 2015 alone, Greece received €433 more per head of population than it contributed. Sorry about the italics, but that's a lot of dosh.
How much has gone towards tarmacking rural roads in the Mani and making crumbling stone tower houses look like new (or possibly better) isn’t clear. But I would hazard it’s quite a lot. The place is looking fabulous.
Ironically (particularly for the non-Greek Europeans pumping money into the Mani), a large proportion of renovated Mani tower houses aren't even lived in. We visited out of peak season and most were firmly shuttered. Holiday homes, often for expat Greeks or foreigners. The Germans, for example, have bought big in Greece - property is cheap and the weather is better than at home.
Still, given the level of German funding for the EU, there's a certain symmetry in that.