Blessed by Gods, Loved by people…
Introduction to Messenia
Messenia is located at the southwest part of the Peloponnese, so it is the furthermost part of the peninsula (from the Athenocentric point of view).
I decided to visit the area for a week and stay at the “Land’s End”, which is the mesmerizing town of Methoni. The idea was, to do this trip in early May, while the weather is still cool (I dislike hot summers in Greece), beaches and towns are not crowded yet and the roads are full of blossomed hibiscus trees. From Methoni I would do daily excursions by car to cover as much of the southwest country as possible.
Nowhere else in Greece, the authentic Mediterranean landscape can be represented so clearly as in Messenia, maybe the most beautiful region of the Peloponnese.
Messenia is a country with very long history and has played an important role during the Greek Independence struggle against the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. Even though it has thrived throw-out the whole Greek history, it is best known as the place where the so-called Nestor Palace, which enchanted the whole Mycenean world almost 3,500 years ago.
A country covered with low mountains and rolling hills coated by vast olive groves, a country whose fertile soil made its inhabitants wealthy and conquerors eager to rule over them, Messenia has numerous castles and charming old towns, unique archeological sites, byzantine churches and monasteries, hidden coves and endless sandy beaches, sea caves and picturesque fishing villages, uninhabited islands and turquoise waters.
You can wander through ancient olive trees, which give the country that unique silver-green color, or walk on stone-built trails and pathways leading back in time, linking nature with people and their traditions.
One of the biggest naval battles took place at the gulf of Navarino, a lagoon-like bay, outside of which are the deepest waters of the Mediterranean. It is there, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, where a very important physics experiment took place. In that experiment, called “Nestor”, I was honored to participate as a physics student at the University of Athens.
Arriving to Methoni
Methoni is about 290 km from Athens. It takes 2.5 hours to drive on the highway (you will need 15€ for tolls) to Kalamata, which is the capital city of Messenia (240 km) and almost another hour to drive the last 50 km on the provincial road to Methoni.
Note: Be aware that on the highway between Tripoli and Kalamata there are traffic police blocks checking for speed. I got a ticket, as I was going with 153km/h on an 130km/h limit highway.
Greece, is a very beautiful country. It has everything one would look for: high spectacular mountains, the bluest seas one can encounter on this planet, countless charming islands, rich history that goes back thousands of years, a unique cuisine, very important antiquities that dot the whole country, marvelous weather for all tastes, and much more.
Nevertheless, it seems that she is not able to take advantage of all these. Whatever human touches, submerges into anarchy that spoils almost everything. Disorder, waste, aesthetical pollution, mischief, confusion and people who care only about themselves and never for the public wellness. I call all these “the Greek misery”. And for me this is unbearable and hurts me deeply.
Messenia, of course, has not escaped from this misery either. But, the good news is that the area defined by the imaginary quadrilateral Methoni-Pylos-Chora-Ancient Messini-Koroni could be well out of all this. It is like an invisible fence protects the area from all the modern Greek misery, at least to the extend this is possible.
I should stop grumbling, though, and let me introduce you to a lovely country.
Nevertheless, after Messenia I spend a week in Napoli, Italy. When I came back from Napoli, everything in Greece seemed to me very tidy and very clean!! So, everything is a matter of perspective.
PART 1: METHONI
Methoni is certainly the “jewel on the crowd” of Messenia and it has the charm very few towns have in Greece. It is tranquil (not during the peak summer season, though), well organized and clean, most of its two-storey houses have green orchards, its tavernas and cafes are pleasant, its huge castle is like coming out of a fairytale and certainly it is a town that has escaped “the Greek misery”.
I have chosen to stay at a very nice little hotel (13 rooms) located just two blocks away from the castle and the sea (anyway, everything is only two blocks away from anything else, as the town is small), on Eleftherias Square, in the very center of the town. “Achilles Hotel” is a modern hotel with nice rooms characterized by ergonomics, functionality, modern comfort and aesthetic excellence.
All rooms have big private balconies, but I got one of the (only two) corner rooms, which have two balconies.
My room had all the necessary amenities you expect from a 3-star hotel and lots of electric outlets to plug in all my gadgets: an outlet for my phone, an outlet for my tablet, an outlet for my laptop, an outlet for my camera, an outlet for my smart watch.
I hate when I stay at hotels which have barely one electric outlet in the rooms, and that is only for the TV!
Methoni is located on an elongated peninsula, the tip of which is occupied by a venetian castle the size of the rest of the town. Thanks to its strategic position, Methoni and its castle has been an important trade and marine center for the Venetians during the medieval years. The castle is the most impressive fortress in the Peloponnese and it is separated from the mainland and the town by an artificial moat.
The town itself is constructed around two streets, the only streets that are long enough to traverse the whole town from south to north and lead the visitor thru the city and into the castle entrance. The first of these two streets, Mezonos Street, is a two-directional road serving both incoming and outgoing traffic. The other street, Episkopou Grigoriou Street, is the “market street” (or the “upper street”), a slab covered street which, in the evening, closes to traffic.
On the south west part of the town opens a huge, crescent like beach.
Across Methoni, emerges the ever-green island of Sapientza, which is home to rare species of flora and fauna. The network of trails crossing the island leads into an ancient arbutus forest, a unique ecosystem, home of muffle (wild sheep), wild goats (kri-kri), partridges, pheasants, and many other species. You can reach the island by boat or canoe. Near its coasts several shipwrecks are lying with great archaeological value.
On the south-east part of Sapientza there is an important historical and architectural landmark worth visiting: the lighthouse.
The lighthouse was built in 1885 and the height of its stone tower is 8 meters. It was constructed at the request of Queen Victoria of England.
The first lit of the beacon took place on September 1, 1885. Today it is powered by photovoltaic systems.
The Methoni Castle is the main tourist attraction of the area and can be visited any day of the week (except Mondays) from 9am to 3pm only (entrance fee: 2€).
Unfortunately, although tourism is the only heavy industry left in Greece and regardless of the existence of many important archeological sites, the Ministry of Impotence…. sorry of Tourism I meant to say, has not managed to have enough employees so they keep the sites open longer hours. It is so frustrating to arrive at an archeological site after long hours of driving or walking and find the entrance locked!
So, be prepared and plan in advance your trips.
A bit of history
In the classical years, the castle was a simple, plain fort. Pausanias and Strabo identify the ancient Methoni with the "full of vineyards Pidassos" (αμπελόεσσα Πήδασος), which Homer refers to as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offered to Achilleas, trying to persuade him to return to the battle during the siege of Troy.
Later, during the byzantine era, it grew bigger and conquered by the Franks of the 4th crusade in 1205. With the treaty of the island of Sapientza (1209), the castle was given to Venetians, which they turned into the fortress we know today, more or less, in order to promote their commercial interests. This period is called the “First Venetian Era”.
In August 1500, the castle was conquered by the Turks and many of its residents flee for Zakynthos, Kefallonia and later for Lower Italy.
In 1532, the emperor of German and Spain, Charles the 5th, wanting to create a distraction and provoke the sultan Souleiman the Magnificent, he sends armed forces to the Peloponnese headed by admiral Andrea Doria. Doria's expedition was a failure and he had to leave Methoni in 1534.
The Venetians came back with Frank Morozini, they conquered the castle in 1685 and they kept it till 1715. This period is called the “Second Venetian Era”.
The Turks took it back and stayed here until 1828, when the castle is liberated and given to the Greek government by the French general Maison.
A walk in the castle
The central entrance of the castle is located on the north side, the only side that borders with land.
It is a monumental renaissance construction, decorated with Corinthian style pillars in relief, accompanied by spears and banners.
Built around 1714, it is included in the large building program undertaken during the Second Venetian era.
Two great bastions are reserved on both sides of the gate: the Bembo Bastion, built during the 15th century to protect the northwestern part of the castle and the Loredan Bastion, built in 1714, to protect the vulnerable northeast part of the castle.
The north side of Methoni Castle took its final shape in the early 18th century and it retains it until today. The height of the wall on this side reaches 11 meters.
The area just after the entrance into the southern southern is the Square of the Arms.
In the center of it stands a monolithic (made of rose granite) column coronated by a limestone capital with anthemia and scrolls on its four corners. On the top of the capital rests a rectangular plaque bearing the date 1493/4. The column is commonly known as “the column of Morosini”.
Behind the column stands the “Church of Transfiguration” with its stone belfry. The porch of the church is located at the middle of its north side and consists of two white marble columns crowned by a marble pediment.
On the road leading south to the Sea Gate, there are two ottoman bath complexes (hamam) and also the base of a mosque minaret. The mosque constructed by the ottomans on the site of the byzantine church of St.Sophia.
An arched stone causeway connects the Sea Gate with the Bourtzi.
Bourtzi consists of an octagonal tower, surrounded by a low octagonal wall. The tower is a two-storey construction and it is covered by a semicircular dome. Stone stairs lead to the first floor of the tower, where a chamber is formed with cannons perimetrically placed.
The construction of the fortress at Bourtzi began shortly before 1500 by the Venetians and it was completed by the Ottomans in the 16th century. According to the Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi, the fortress dates from the reign of Suleyman I the Magnificent (1520-1566), shortly after the fall of the Venetian Modon (Modon was the Venetian name of Methoni).
Bourtzi was not used only as a fortress and a lighthouse, but also as a tower-prison, after the arrival of Ibrahim at Methoni in 1825, where hundreds of prisoners were tortured and found horrible death.
Here, in October 1825, defeated by the hardships and cholera, died "the Saint of Methoni" (Gregory Papatheodorou). He was one of the priests who fought in the Greek Revolution. According to the tradition, his body was thrown in the foaming waves and disappeared.
Places of interest in town
Of course, the castle dominates the interest of the tourist, but the town itself has some historical landmarks worth visiting by wandering around its streets with the excellent urban architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These landmarks include churches, public squares, venetian wells and old school buildings.
Paralia Square is the center of all town's activities.
While we were there, on Monday the 30th of April, the people of Methoni celebrated the 193rd anniversary of the Naval Battle of Methoni. During these celebrations, took place the unveiling of a monument standing at the southern part of the Square.
In 1825, in the gulf of Methoni, Greek ships under the order of Admiral Andreas Miaoulis destroyed a frigate, three corvettes and other warships of the Egyptian fleet.
The western part of Syngrou Square is dominated by a Venetian well which was built during the second period of Venetian Rule. The well is 2.60 m in diameter and its present depth is measured at 4 m. It was particularly important during the days of the castle’s occupation and thus, extremely protected by the locals.
There are plenty of references to its existence with the name “Azimo” (Άζυμο). Additional reference is found in the texts of the Turk traveler Evliya Çelebi in his travelogue called the Seyahatname ("Book of Travel"), 1667 - 1670.
The “mutual education” as a teaching method was a movement developed after the French Revolution, and especially in the Napoleonic era, and aimed at the quickest and simpler training of city and village residents, which were "slowly" emerging from the obscurantism and ignorance.
In mutual learning schools, two or more young people with particular appeal to the letters, after studying in a mainstream school, return to their place to teach reading, writing and practical arithmetic to the rest in a mutual education school.
In Greece, in December 1824, started operating in Argos, the first primary school of mutual education, at the expense of national benefactor I. Barbakis.
A typical such school, the Kapodistrian School, was founded (1830) in Methoni after the repeated visits of Governor I. Kapodistrias in town. It was one of the first schools of mutual education that were rebuilt in the free Greek state. The building of that school, recently renovated, stands in Kopodistria Street.
The town has two big churches: The church of Saint George, build in 1937 (at the site of an older church, which was destroyed in 1825) and the church of Saint Nikolas.
St Nicholas is located on an elevation near the entrance of Methoni, in Agiou Nikolaou street. The courtyard of the church extends at three levels. At the first level (the "main courtyard"), as we enter, on the right we see the grave of Oikonomou Grivas, a hero of 1821, who fought as a military and politician for the liberation of Greece.
At the same level, behind the Sanctuary, on the northeast corner of the courtyard, is the old ossuary.
On the second level, three steps lead to the main entrance to the church. On both sides of the entrance there are embedded plates. On the left plate are written the names of the "Benefactors of the Church" and on the right the names of those who died during the Balkan wars (1912-1913). On the left, beneath the plate of the benefactors, there is a limestone relief where a cross and the year 1833 is engraved, the year when the church was founded. (It was inaugurated in 1839).
The interior of the church has gone recently a full renovation and in 2002 the wooden roof was replaced with a new one.
On the 3rd level we see the magnificent "bell tower", a real masterpiece of architecture. From the embedded plaque we are informed that it was built in 1912.
amazing! I have heritage from this area and you have shown so much of what I never knew was here!
Robert E Avallone
Love the pic and the writing!