to Katherine Kennard
reading this story
In the fir forest of Arcadia
When we arrive in Arcadia, after a 2.5-hour drive from Athens through the pitch-black night, we instantly notice three things. Firstly, it’s the clarity of the air: cold, fresh and so pure that we immediately take several deep breaths. It’s as if our bodies instinctively know how beneficial this air is. Secondly, it’s the silence: no incessant urban noise, just absolute stillness. And thirdly, it’s the starry sky: the night is so dark that it seems as though all of the stars are visible at once, some of them rarely or never seen before. The North Star, the Great Bear and a myriad of other twinkling lights – we can hardly take our eyes off the skyscape above us.
The following day, as the morning mist dissipates and the sun slowly rises behind the mountains, casting the place in soft light, we come to recognise its utter beauty. Deep green fir trees surround us, in whichever direction we look. And in the middle of it all is the MANNA hotel, perched atop a hill at an altitude of 1200m in the forest of Arcadia, in the heart of the Peloponnese. With its light grey limestone walls, numerous windows and gently ascending stairs – inviting, not intimidating – it exudes friendliness and appears as though it has always been there, ready to welcome guests, as if the trees have grown around it over time.
Inside the building, we encounter a similar atmosphere of tranquillity and connection to nature. The colour palette features tones of beige and grey, and is complemented by natural materials such as wood, terrazzo and marble. Sheepskin and wool upholstery adorn the seating, while a warming fire crackles in the lobby’s fireplace. The interior invites us to relax and unwind. Our steps slow, our thoughts settle, our voices lower. We feel far away and yet more connected to ourselves.
It is precisely the serenity of this place, combined with its history, that captivated Stratis Batagias many years ago. While we are served a welcome drink in the lobby – local mountain tea infused with fir tree honey and star anise – he seemingly appears out of nowhere: tall, with a friendly smile, and almost shyly hidden under his black cap, his reserved nature adding to his charm. He is not the typical hotelier who guides guests through his domain with big strides and bold gestures. Instead, he is quietly present, and exudes the same warmth and calmness as this building, to which he has such a special connection.
We settle into the bright sofa by the large windows together and are immediately captivated by Stratis’ words as he shares the story of the hotel. “The building was constructed between 1927 and 1929 as a sanatorium for Greek soldiers with tuberculosis. It was commissioned by a lady named Anna Mela; she was a member of a wealthy and well-known Greek family and dedicated her life to helping Greek soldiers during the many wars of that time in Greece. She needed additional funds to build the sanatorium, and travelled across three continents to raise the money – and she succeeded. However, after its opening in 1929, the sanatorium operated for just nine years.” Scientists at the time began to consider the air near seaside venues as more therapeutic than the air at higher altitudes. Additionally, penicillin was discovered, which evolved into a medication for tuberculosis and soon rendered sanatoriums obsolete. As a result, the building stood empty for just over 75 years from 1938.
“I was very little, six or seven years old, when I first stumbled upon the building,” Stratis continues. Every summer, he attended a camp in the nearby woods, and every year, he and his friends would sneak up to the ruins in the early evening with torches in their hands, making up stories of what might have occurred in this abandoned, somewhat ‘creepy’ place. “Despite the darkness within the building, there was this energy that captivated me,” Stratis says. His eyes sparkle as he recalls standing before the building, dreaming that one day it would transform into a hotel in which others could experience the same positive energy he felt.
Seemingly, this energy has emanated from this place for centuries: Arcadia is believed to be the site where Greeks settled for the very first time, embracing the ‘Arcadian Ideal’ that emphasises the importance of living in harmony with nature rather than imposing upon it. And indeed, that’s precisely how things are done here: no matter which window we look out of, we see the majestic fir trees. Every window frames them like a painting, each offering a slightly different perspective, set against a backdrop of the constantly changing sky.
Sometimes it’s soft sunlight setting the scene, other times it’s heavy clouds, then again gentle mist, and, in winter, often fluffy snow. The area around MANNA is named after the nearby Mount Mainalo. The name ‘Mainalo’ derives from the Greek term ‘menos’, meaning ‘anger’ and ‘momentum’. Hence, the mountain is also affectionately referred to as the ‘Moody Mountain’.
It wasn’t until 2014, a full 30 years after his escapades with his friends, that Stratis’ dream began to come true at this site steeped in nature, mythology and history. Greece was in the middle of an economic crisis, forcing the government to auction off deserted public buildings, including the sanatorium in the mountains of Arcadia. “I came across the auction announcement in the newspaper by chance. It’s a moment I will never forget; I got goose bumps because I instantly felt that this was my opportunity,” Stratis says.
“I’m a dreamer. A persistent romantic dreamer.”
Born in Athens, where he grew up with his parents and sister, Stratis earned a Master’s degree in Marketing and Communication in London, and to this day, he continues to work within the family’s retail business, dividing his time between Athens and Arcadia. From a young age, he enjoyed travelling and developed a profound affection for hotels. “Staying in a hotel felt like having a home in any corner of the world. I loved it.” Driven by his passion and with the support of his family, Stratis did not hesitate to take part in the auction. Besides himself, there was only one other bidder. Stratis vividly remembers the moment he found out he was the winning bidder: “I was driving in my car and my eyes instantly filled with tears – tears of happiness – because I knew that the journey was about to begin. While I was also nervous and stressed, deep down, I always felt that this was meant to be for me.”
Many within the industry considered Stratis to be out of his mind. It seemed that no one could envision the potential that lay within the ruins. Stratis remembers the gaping holes in the floor, water dripping through the ceiling, and the ground level being occupied by sheep. “Nature had taken over the place throughout the years. It was magical.” The reason the building was still standing after so many years, having endured the extreme weather in the area, was that it was one of the first buildings in Greece built with concrete. The limestone, collected from a quarry 200 metres away and used for the façade, made it additionally robust. Only the adjacent wing was no longer there; a tree had fallen on it, burying it underneath. “People were saying, ‘What you’re doing is absolute madness. Do you really want to invest so much in this secluded area?’ And I’d respond, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do,’” Stratis recalls, adding with a laugh, “I’m a dreamer. A persistent romantic dreamer.”
Not only did Stratis have a vision of what the ruin could become, he also had the necessary courage and patience to bring it to life. It took nine years for the abandoned building to be transformed into a welcoming hotel. Four years were dedicated solely to acquiring the necessary licenses and permissions. During the renovation phase, the building was placed under historical preservation, requiring further authorisations and meticulous care to ensure it was rebuilt exactly as it originally stood – an aim Stratis was committed to achieving from the beginning. Additionally, the renovation faced various challenges, including the weather: some winters were so cold and snowy that construction had to pause for three months. “Throughout the process, I experienced every possible emotion: happiness, frustration, anxiety, anger, despair... everything!” says Stratis.
“I love the mountains. I feel more grounded there. I feel closer to nature. I feel more peaceful. The mountains offer quietness. I think quietness is a luxury nowadays.”
Engaging in a conversation with Stratis is truly delightful. He attentively listens to our multitude of questions while openly sharing his childhood memories, fears and dreams – all accompanied by wonderfully warm laughter that proves contagious. Despite the constant buzz of his phone, he remains focused on our conversation: it is clear that we are the only ones that matter in this moment. When we ask whether there was anything that has inspired him during his journey – be it a person, a book, or a film – he takes a moment to reflect. And another one. “No, I don’t think so.” That’s exactly how we perceive him: as someone whose inspiration comes from within. He doesn’t look at what other people are doing, but is guided by his own vision and intuition. Interestingly, his employees will later describe him to us in a similar way: respectful and approachable, open-minded and forward-thinking, kind and gentle – also with animals, such as wild cats; instead of shooing them away, Stratis would stroke and feed them. His respect and love for nature are evident throughout our conversation. It’s the simple things, nature itself, that fulfil him the most. He prefers winter to summer and mountains to the sea: “I love the mountains. I feel more grounded there. I feel closer to nature. I feel more peaceful. The mountains offer quietness. I think quietness is a luxury nowadays.”
Reflecting this quietness was Stratis’ aim when working on the concept for the interior design: “For me, good interior design doesn’t conflict with the exterior design.” He enlisted the Athens-based architecture practice K-Studio, who collaborated with construction designers Monogon and immediately shared Stratis’ dedication to the project, respecting the original structure of the house and its natural surroundings. Trees that had grown roots inside the building have been transplanted or repurposed, custom-made furniture and wall coverings were crafted from chestnut wood, while Peloponnesian marble forms the staircase steps. The heating is geothermal and the room amenities are eco-friendly, avoiding the use of plastic. The spa’s pool, sunken into the ground, evokes the feeling of swimming in a grotto. Thoughtfully curated art pieces, gradually collected by Stratis, complement the spaces. Moreover, there are numerous endearing details, so skilfully and organically integrated that we notice some of them only upon a second glance. The room numbers, for instance, are subtly carved into the floor. Little bells hang in the doorframe of each room; these are typically worn by sheep and goats in the Mainalon Mountains to help locate them as they graze freely in the meadows. At MANNA, when hung on the door handle, the bells serve as a ‘Do not disturb’ sign, allowing guests to symbolically enjoy the same freedom as the animals. The structure of the original entrance door – a pattern of intersecting lines forming rectangles – was mirrored in the space-dividing elements in the rooms and as wooden ceiling coverings throughout the hotel, intentionally chosen to provide a warm contrast to the terrazzo flooring while expressing reverence for the house’s history.
Similarly, the hotel’s name honours Anna Mela in two thoughtful ways: Due to her dedication to the patients, she was nicknamed ‘mana’, which translates as ‘mother’ in Greek. Additionally, MANNA is a combination of the first letter of Anna Mela’s surname and her first name. Year by year, room by room, detail by detail, the once-ruined building has been transformed into a 32-room hotel; elegant and appropriately minimalist, harmoniously blending luxury with environmental responsibility, all while paying homage to its rich history.
“The forest is the most healing place you can find. In some countries, doctors recommend walks in nature. Here you have it right outside the door; you are surrounded by an ancient virgin fir forest.”
While health is the foundational essence of the house, the calming ambiance of MANNA is also a natural effect of its surroundings. “The forest is the most healing place you can find. In some countries, doctors recommend walks in nature. Here you have it right outside the door; you are surrounded by an ancient virgin fir forest,” says Stratis. Recognising nature’s potential, MANNA offers its guests an array of seasonal outdoor activities, guided by a local expert; from mushroom hunting to horse riding or honey harvesting among the fir trees. It prompts us to explore the area more closely.
We drive up the quiet country road to the spot where MANNA becomes visible through the fir trees from a distance. We ponder whether Anna Mela stood here in the past, deciding that down below was the perfect location for her sanatorium. As we ascend further along the winding road, we gaze out over snowy mountaintops, pass by a picturesque chapel and fresh water springs, and stumble upon a tiny mountain village. Finally, we reach the farm from which MANNA sources its meat, milk and cheese. Before we even turn the corner, we hear the bells of two curiously approaching cows and the loud bleating of the sheep and goats with their adorable ten-day-old goatlings – one of which the cheerful farmer places in our arms. The little creature feels light, warm and soft. While it calmly rests there, wiggling its ears from time to time, we contemplate how unfortunate it is that humanity has distanced itself so much from nature, increasingly favouring urban living. And how beautiful it is to experience a moment like this: standing in the Greek mountains, cradling a baby goat. An instance of bliss.
Upon returning to MANNA, we venture into the restaurant, choosing a seat near one of the windows overlooking the spacious terrace and the fir forest, and peruse the menu. Curated by the award-winning chef Athinagoras Kostakos, the dishes are crafted from unprocessed and locally sourced ingredients, including options such as oven-grilled chicken with charred lemon, pasta with sour milk and morels, and risotto in goat broth. Our favourite is the cheese pie with local truffle and fir honey: a crispy dough crushed by the waitress before our eyes and mixed with the goat cheese beneath. What a delight! And it’s not only the freshness of the ingredients that makes the food so enjoyable – it’s also the friendliness of the staff, their genuine interest in the guests’ well-being and the pleasant little conversations that they strike up at the table.
Night has fallen over Arcadia again. We step outside the restaurant onto the warmly illuminated terrace. The air grows crisper by the minute and although we can’t wait to settle down beside the cosy fireplace in the lobby and delve into its vintage book selection, we find ourselves drawn to the starry sky once again. Below it, we feel small, yet connected to nature and the universe at large. Infused with the positive energy of this place, we think of Stratis’ words from earlier in the day; when asked to describe MANNA in just a few words, he responded: “Not a usual place.” How right he was.