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.
Byzantine Hermitage of Saint Onoufrios
Three kilometers from Methoni, on the road connecting it with Pylos, stands an early christian cemetery (catacombs). It is the Byzantine Hermitage of Saint Onoufrios, which is carved into the natural rock.
It is not difficult to reach the catacombs: exit the town and after passing the conjuction with the road to Koroni road on your right and the town football stadium, you will see a small chapel (Saint Athanasios) on your left hand.
Park your car by the chapel (next to a stone tomb) and climb up a dirty road till you reach a water tank made of concrete. From there starts a narrow path, hidden in the vegetation, going north and parallel to the main road down. Not far away is located the cemetery, behind an old rusty fence. Enter the area from a narrow opening of the fence on the far-left side.
the Byzantine Temple of St. Bassileios.
Opposite the hill of St Onoufrios, in the area called Agaki, lies another equally important monument of the area, the Byzantine Temple of St. Bassileios.
In order to find the little church, after having left the Saint Athanasios chapel drive towards Methoni for about 200-300 meters on the main road and turn sharply left into a small road without any signs.
Continue for about 200m and at the bend of the road do not follow the right turn but instead continue straight at the narrow dirt road that appears just in front of you. You will see the entrance of an old wire fence, which belongs to the church.
The little church dates back to 1100 AD and is a beautiful Byzantine construction.
The church is an example of ancient cruciform architecture, which belongs to the so-called transitional type. The latter indicates the combination of the church’s plan shaping a Christian cross with the three-isled domed basilica.
In the interior of the church, the archaeologists have discovered only traces of wall-paintings, mainly in the area of the sanctuary. Unfortunately, intact Byzantine frescoes have not survived in the church to the present day.
In the town itself there are three beaches: a) Asprades, which is a little beach just under the castle walls at the base of the long southern breakwater; b) Dentrakia, which is the main sandy beach of the town located just in front of the Paralia Square; and c) Kritika beach which stands at the other side of the Methoni bay. These three beaches you can reach on foot from the town.
The other 4 long, sandy beaches, located further to the east, between Methoni and the village of Finikounda you can reach by car: a) Lambes (which is actually two beaches divided by a small stream); b) Koumpares, a well-protected beach; c) Mavrovounio, which is an organized huge beach; and d) the Finikounda beach, which is in front of the fishing village that bears the same name.
Finikounda town is only 10 km from Methoni. It used to be a small fishing village, but today is a lively and noisy town with lots of restaurants, bars and cafés. It is not a beautiful village (remember what I told you earlier about “Greek misery”), but has a long, sandy beach and it is a great night out place. During my visit I drank my morning coffee at “Almiro-Gliko”, a modern and cozy bar-café on the beach.
Food & Food
Messenia is a very fertile land and the agricultural and stockraising products are in abundance. The excellent quality olive oil and the fresh vegetables are the base of a unique cuisine.
There are many restaurants and fish taverns in the town and while I was there I tried the food of most of them. Visitors in Methoni are lucky because the restaurants here do not serve the typical tourist menus we find in most places, but they offer also what we call “home-cooking”. I would like to propose two restaurants, which I believe are the best, but this does not mean that the rest are not good.
“Klimataria” ("κληματαριά") is the restaurant I had dinner most of the times, while in town. It is located in Miaouli Street, where most of the restaurants are. The restaurant is housed in a humble, one-storey, old building, but it has a beautiful backyard overlooking the castle walls, where you are served under the shade of a vine arbor.
Starters and salads are just marvelous and I got some of my favorite: fried cheese (saganaki), beetroots with garlic, aubergines in the oven covered with melted cheese, bean salad with onions and peppers, anchovies marinated in vinegar and olive oil.
When it comes to main courses I had mostly beef, and there's a reason for that: I do not cook beef at home, as I have not mastered the way to make it tender and tasty. Beef cooked into tomato sauce with baby onions; beef with rosemary and other herbs; beef and pork cuts cooked into tomato sauce, wine and green peppers; beef with pasta; aubergines staffed with minced beef; meatballs in rich tomato sauce served with really tasty chips, etc. Klimataria serves even "Wellington beef"!
The menu is big. My advice is not to try to read the menu or to ask the waiter what is available (if you do not speak the language). The best way to choose your dish is to step into the kitchen and see all cooked food displayed behind a show window. This kind of food display is typical in many restaurants in Greece which serve what we call “magirefta” or "μαγειρευτά" (literary this means “cooked” and refers to food prepared in the pot, as opposed to the food prepared in the pan or grill, which we call “tis oras” or "της ώρας"). Of course, one can go for “tis oras”, like souvlaki or pork chops, if he prefers that kind of food.
The other restaurant I would like to suggest is “Alektor” ("Αλέκτωρ").
As I visited Methoni off season, I managed to find Alektor open only once due to its short opening/closing times. Still I believe it is a great place for lunch or dinner.
The place is a simple tavern with a medium size room and open kitchen, which also has some tables on the pavement of Episkopou Grigoriou street. Even though, it was windy, we sat outside and we served by the wife of the owner.
She explained to us that every day she cooks different dishes and the food is always fresh, but as it was off-season, when we visited, she told us that they have only some basic food to serve. The owner of the tavern is a well-known in the area holder of an organic olive orchard (Andreas Diles) who produces his own olive oil, which you can buy from this tavern too. His wife, the chef, is from Poland, so she “fuses” traditional Greek dishes of mediterranean ingredients with the rich eastern European cuisine. The result is sumptuous nouveau-Greek cuisine, or to put it in a better way: you have the old favorites Greek grandma cooks but with an Eastern European twist.
Besides the always available “greek salad” and the cheese saganaki we had delicious grilled vegetables (fresh green beans, broccoli, mushrooms, peppers and cauliflower sprinkled with lots of fennel) and a big, heart feeling schnitzel… yes, a schnitzel! …the most tender and tasty schnitzel I ever had, served with thick, yummy chips.
Of course, the olive oil for the salad comes on the table in their own branded bottle (“Deleika extra virgin olive oil")…. So do not be stingy…let the tomatoes, the cucumber and the feta cheese be immersed into thick, deep-green colored, organic messenian olive oil!
Less than 100m from our hotel (Achilles Hotel), there is a green, sweet-smelling, tropical “oasis”. That is “Oneiron Gefseis” ("ονείρων γεύσεις") creperie/café/restaurant in Mezonos street. Its name means “Dream Tastes” and it is exactly this!
This Cancun-like decorated creperie serves wonderful sweet crepes and ice-cream of a Greek brand I had never heard before (I discovered later that it is very popular all over Peloponnese): “provio” ice cream. At “Oneiron Gefseis” you choose whatever you want from the available list of ingredients to put in and on your crepe: fresh fruit, provio ice-cream, nuts, chocolate, etc.
They also offer burgers, sandwiches and other food, but this was our sweet-tooth every night stop on our way back to the hotel, so I do not know if the food is any good.
Just 10 km north of Methoni, at the southern tip of Navarino Bay (Όρμος Ναυαρίνου) stands Pylos (Πύλος).
Actually, it is Pylos you first encounter on your way from Kalamata to Methoni, as the later is located at the very end of the Peloponnese. One can reach Pylos either on the national road no82 from Kalamata or the national road no9 which runs along the west coast of Peloponnese. Pylos, historically, is also known under its Italian name Navarino.
Pylos has a long history, having been inhabited since Neolithic times. It was a significant kingdom in Mycenaean Greece, with remains of the so-called "Palace of Nestor" excavated nearby, named after Nestor, the king of Pylos in Homer's Iliad.
In Classical times, the site was uninhabited, but became the site of the Battle of Pylos in 425 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. Pylos is scarcely mentioned thereafter until the 13th century, when it became part of the Frankish Principality of Achaea. Increasingly known by its French name of Port-de-Jonc or its Italian name Navarino, in the 1280s the Franks built the Old Navarino castle on the northern end of the bay. Pylos came under the control of the Republic of Venice from 1417 until 1500, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans used Pylos and its bay as a naval base and built the New Navarino (Niokastro) fortress there. The area remained under Ottoman control, with the exception of a brief period of renewed Venetian rule in 1685–1715 and a Russian occupation in 1770–71, until the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt recovered it for the Ottomans in 1825, but the defeat of the Turco-Egyptian fleet in the 1827 Naval Battle of Navarino forced Ibrahim to withdraw from the Peloponnese and confirmed Greek independence.
The Battle of Navarino was a naval battle fought on 20 October 1827, during the Greek War of Independence (1821–32), in Navarino Bay.
Allied forces from Britain, France and Russia decisively defeated Ottoman and Egyptian forces trying to suppress the Greek war of independence, thereby making much more likely the independence of Greece.
An Ottoman armada, which, in addition to imperial warships, included squadrons from the provinces of Egypt, Tunis and Algiers, was destroyed by an Allied force of British, French and Russian warships. It was the last major naval battle in history to be fought entirely with sailing ships, although most ships fought at anchor. The Allies' victory was achieved through superior firepower and gunnery.
The context of the three Great Powers' intervention in the Greek conflict was the Russian Empire's long-running expansion at the expense of the decaying Ottoman Empire.
Russia's ambitions in the region were seen as a major geostrategic threat by the other European powers, which feared the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Russian hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean. The precipitating factor was Russia's strong emotional support for the fellow-Orthodox Christian Greeks, who had rebelled against their Ottoman overlords in 1821. The British were motivated by strong public support for the Greeks. Fearing unilateral Russian action in support of the Greeks, Britain and France bound Russia by treaty to a joint intervention which aimed to secure Greek autonomy whilst preserving Ottoman territorial integrity as a check on Russia.
The Powers agreed, by the Treaty of London (1827), to force the Ottoman government to grant the Greeks autonomy within the empire and dispatched naval squadrons to the eastern Mediterranean to enforce their policy. The naval battle happened more by accident than by design as a result of a manoeuvre by the Allied commander-in-chief, Admiral Edward Codrington, aimed at coercing the Ottoman commander to obey Allied instructions.
The sinking of the Ottomans' Mediterranean fleet saved the fledgling Greek Republic from collapse. But it required two more military interventions, by Russia in the form of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–9 and by a French expeditionary force to the Peloponnese to force the withdrawal of Ottoman forces from central and southern Greece and to finally secure Greek independence.
Today Pylos, is a small, picturesque town, living mainly on tourism. It is built amphitheatrically at the slopes of a hill leading down to a small port. The center of all town activities is the main Square (“Three Admirals' Square”). It is a big, shady square with cafes, restaurants and shops on its three sides and the sea on its fourth side. The town was built in the 19th century by the French, after the Battle of Navarino.
It could be the perfect place to rest and enjoy the sea breeze and tasty food, but... you remember “Greek misery”? Well, it is present here as well. The main road from Kalamata and Patras to Methoni goes thru the center of the town and even worse: all the incoming and outgoing traffic moves around the main square. Actually, the square plays the role of a huge roundabout. So, you poor tourist sit down to relax, to drink your coffee or have lunch, and the noise and exhaust fumes of hundreds of buses and trucks and cars moving around the square is such that make you miss Athens!
The "Three Admirals’ Square" took its name by the homonymous monument which lies in the middle of it and is created by sculptor Thomopoulos. The monument serves as a constant reminder of the Battle of Navarino. On the three sides of the monument, one can see the figures of the admirals of the three fleets which confronted the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet in the Battle of 1827; Codrington, Heyden and DeRigny. At both sides at the base of the monument, there are two cannons, an Ottoman one and a Venetian one, which are symbols of the civilizations that passed through there.
Just next to the monument stands a big plane tree that bears the name of Dr Elias Tsiklitiras, a famous 19th century mayor of the town, who planted it. Elias Tsiklitiras was the father of Konstantinos Tsiklitiras, a Greek athlete and Olympic champion.
Konstantinos Tsiklitiras is the local hero of Pylos. He is definitely a person who enriches the significant historical presence of the place. Tsiklitiras with his actions and his achievements managed to be mentioned until nowadays. He participated in the Olympic Games of 1908, and 1912 who won a golden and a bronze medal in Stockholm (1912) and two silver ones in London (1908). He served in the Greek army during the First Balkan War in the Battle of Bizani on the Epirus front in 1913.
Unfortunately, Konstantinos Tsiklitiras died at an early age, only 25 years old, from meningitis. To honor him the city of Pylos bought his house and converted it into a museum. It is located in a central part of the city, right next to the Town Hall, in the harbor. It has been renovated and houses the Rene Puaux collection that was moved from the Maison Barracks in Niokastro.
The (New) Castle
One of the best-preserved castles of Greece is that of the New Navarino or Niokastro (Νιόκαστρο) built during the Turkish occupation to control the western coast of the Peloponnese.
In 1573, after the Naval Battle of Lepanto (1571), to secure more the natural port of Pylos, the Turks built a castle in the south entrance of the bay and threw rocks and boulders at the north entry (“passage of the Fig”) to make its water shallow.
The new castle was named Niokastro opposed to older (Paliokastro) that rises to the north entrance of the bay.
After the Venetian conquest (1686) of this part of the Peloponnese, New Navarino became the temporary capital of the Venetian lands on the Peloponnese.
The Venetians immediately started to devise all kinds of improvements on the fort in accordance to the changed military habits. These plans were never carried out, however, as the Venetians had to give up their possessions in the Peloponnese already in 1715.
The castle changed hands once again, and the Turks got it till the famous Battle of Navarino in 1827. In 1828, it was restored by the French who built several structures, like the "Maison-Barracks", which today houses the Pylos Museum.
The French army also helped in building a charming little city at the foot of this immense fort: Pylos.
The castle offers a magnificent panorama over the Bay of Navarino and the island of Sfactiria.
It is open daily from 09:00 am to 15:00 pm exept Mondays. Entrance fee: 6 € (3 €, for seniors, etc).
As you enter the castle, on your right hand is the ticket booth and on your left is the Museum.
The beautifully, recently restored two-storey building (previously known as "Maison-Barracks"), houses today in a modern and comprehensive way, archaeological artifacts from excavations in the area of Pylia, dating from the Neolithic to the Roman times.
Till 2012, the ground floor of Maison-Barracks, which is today the archeological museum, used to house the collection of Grecophyle René Puaux, one of the greatest philhellenes.
During his life, René collected a large number of sketches, tables and other objects from the Greek Revolution, especially from Pylos and the Peloponnese. He donated his collection to Pylos. The collection was transferred to the renovated Tsiklitiras House (next to the Town Hall).
The upper floor of the building is used by the Underwater Antiquities Center as a library and also offers some rooms as a guesthouse for the scientific staff.
Today in the museum you will see funeral gifts from the vaulted (Mycenean) tombs of Voidokilia and Koukounara: vases, jewelery, arrowheads, gold objects, animal figures, etc.
There are also artifacts found at the ancient cemetery of the Hellenistic period from Divari region in Gialova. The highlights of the museum are the beautiful painted glass containers, an elaborate golden belt, the statues of the Dioscuri and a helmet made of boar teeth.
To the north, at the highest point stands the citadel, an impressive hexagonal fort. This is the acropolis of the castle and has six powerful towers at each of its six angles.
In the center imposes the Church of the Transfiguration (of the Savior). The church was built as a mosque by the Turks and later transformed into an Orthodox Church (Ναός Μεταμόρφωσις του Σωτήρος) by the Greeks.
To the south, overlooking the sea, are the ramparts reinforced by the towers-bastions of Hebdomos and Santa Maria.
The ramparts, bastions, cisterns and all the "accessories" still visible to this day give a clear picture of the efforts of its creators to make this fortress impregnable.
Since 2012, the "Building of Pasha" (across from the church of the Transfiguration of the Savior) houses the Exhibition "Navagia" (shipwrecks).
In the beautifully arranged central hall of the exhibition, you will walk on a large map of the Peloponnese marked with shipwrecks. You will learn about the wreck of the “Mentor” (lord Elgin's ship), who had an accident in his effort to transport the stolen “Parthenon Marbles” to Great Britain. In a showcase you will also see his pistol and other objects of this shipwreck.
Among other useful information, you will learn about the “Roman wreck with the big columns and sarcophagi” outside Sapietza island, which is the country's first underwater park. You will see perfectly preserved hazelnuts from a wrecked merchant ship and many other interesting things.
At the end of your visit, you can watch a very informative video about underwater archeology. You will see images from divers - archaeologists and other staff in action, as well as scenes from underwater findings in several shipwrecks. The exhibition is free of charge, since you do not need an extra ticket to visit it.
The Turks when they built the Niokastro fortress, built also an 1km-long stone aqueduct to bring water from the source of Koumpe at Handrinos Village to the castle.
One can easily see this impressive, and very well preserved medieval aqueduct on the road from Methoni to Pylos. It stands at the entrance of Pylos.
It is known to locals as "kamares".
PART 3: GIALOVA, the beaches and PALACE of NESTOR
The northern part of Navarino Bay is famous for its lagoon (called Divari lake or Gialova Lagoon) and its long, sandy beaches.
The only town in the area is Gialova, a nightlife paradise. In Gialova you can visit the Folklore Museum of Gialova, which is private establishment. The owner, Kostas Balafoutis has dedicated many decades of his life to the preservation and promotion of the cultural regional character of Gialova and the wider area of Pylos. Throughout the years, Mr. Balafoutis collected a great number of cultural objects and he later established a museum in order to display them and make the history and culture of his motherland known to the wider public.
If this kind of beach is not of your taste then head a bit north to "Golden Beach" (Chrysi Akti). At about 1 km from Gialova, on the national road Pylos-Kyparissia (road No.9), turn left (*). Continue at that road and after you pass the entrance of Erodios Camping, you are already on the narrow strip of land separating the lagoon from the bay. This more than 3km strip of land is a huge sandy beach (called “Chrysi Akti/Divari Beach”). The road, that runs all the way along the beach, is not paved but it is easy to drive on it. You can park your car anywhere you want by the road or on small paths leading to the beach (in some places you can park under shady trees).
(*) Note: At the turn there is a chaos of road signs. Even though there are more signs than necessary, you better drive slowly and be alert because the moment you see the signs you have already passed by. It happened to me the first time I went there.
At the western end of this beach, just opposite of Sfaktiria island (the northern opening to the Navarino Bay, known as “Perasma Sykia”, which means “Fig pass”), at the foothills of Korifasio Hill, there is a trail going left leading to the Old Navarino Castle ("Palaiokastro") and one going right to “Nestor’s Cave” and Voidokilia beach.
There is plenty of space to park your car here. Both trails are very easy to walk without any extra gear: the one going to Voidokilia is the easiest and takes less than 20 min to walk it, while you need more than 40min to climb up to the castle.
From the point you park your car, if you want you can swim a small distance across the Fig pass to a small and more secluded beach on Sfaktiria island.
The Palaiokastro (Palionavarino, or Old Navarino castle) was built by the Franks in early 13th century on Korifasio Hill, on the ruins of the ancient Acropolis of the classical Greek city Pylos-Koryfasion. The high location where the old castle was constructed, offers a unique view of Pylos, but also of the entire beach of Gialova and Navarino Bay. The altitude and position of Palaiocastro gave it great strategic importance.
The castle is in ruins today but the fortification walls and its towers are saved in a relatively good condition and it is still impressive. Paliokastro lost its importance when the Turks built the new fortress (Niokastro) at the southern entrance of the Navarino bay, in 1573. Nowadays, access to the ruins of the castle is not recommended, as at its entrance which is located at the end of the path starting from Chrisi Akti, there is high risk of parts falling from the fortification of the castle. There is an alternative way of accessing the castle, from the pathway that begins near the entrance of the Nestor’s Cave and leads to a hole in the castle’s walls. You can access the castle from that hole.
Below the castle, on the cliffs just above Voidokilia beach, there is a cave referred to as “Nestor’s Cave” by ancient Greek traveler Pausanias. According to Greek mythology, it was there that Hermes hid the 50 cattle he had stolen from his brother, Apollo. The latter found out and as a penance Hermes offered him a lyre made of tortoise shell. This is how Apollo got his famous lyre. It is easy to climb up to the cave, following an easy ascending trail from Voidokilia sand dunes. The cave is full of stalactites.
When we visited the area, the beach was almost empty and it felt like being in paradise. Kilometers of beautiful beach all to ourrself. The sea is very shallow and you have to walk quite a lot into the water to find deep waters. This makes the area the perfect place for kids of any age who love to play into waters without having to swim. The beach is back to back with the lagoon of Yalova the southernmost station of migratory birds between Europe and Africa.
The area being integrated into the environmental program Natura 2000 is the largest wetland in southern Greece and offers shelter to wild migrating birds, which we did not have the opportunity to observe as it was late in season and most of them had already left for the colder northern far way lands. Here lives the endangered African chameleon while numerous birds such as herons, kestrels, Aegean seagulls, flamingos, ospreys, royal eagles and other migratory and endemic birds take shelter at this hospitable and safe environment.
If you do not want to walk to Voidokilia, you can drive there on your car. You just have to drive around the lagoon and arrive at the northern side of it. Voidokilia is one of the most popular beaches in Greece and always crowded. So, even though its beauty is mesmerizing, it is not my place to be. At the northern end of the beach (by the mouth of a stream) there is a path that takes you to Tholos tomb (vaulted) of the successor of Nestor, Thrassimidis, at the top of the hill. There is not much left of the tomb to see, but the view from up there is wonderful. If you do not like the crowds or you like to swim with no clothes on, take the path down the other side to the small nudist beach “Glossa”.
Less than 2km north of Voidokilia is located the small village Petrochori. The beaches of Petrochori are excellent. One the closest to the village, and on the dunes, there is the restaurant “Ammothines” (means sand-dunes), with excellent cuisine and a lounge bar with shady, comfortable armchairs on the dunes and on the beach itself. We did not manage to find a shady table at the restaurant, so we sat at the lounge bar. We had a club-sandwich, which came with generous quantities of grilled chicken fillet in it and tasty potato chips as a side dish.
From this point and all the way to the north Peloponnese (for hundreds of kilometers), start a series of long beautiful sandy beaches like no other place has. This is the beachgoer’s paradise. Besides, some kilometers away from here, stands the most luxurious seaside resort in Greece. Costa Navarino Westin Resort is a huge place, which caters for the rich and famous.
Palace of Nestor and Chora.
From Petrochori drive back towards the national road Pylos-Kyparissia (No.9), cross it at the junction and follow the signs towards Chora. From this junction to Chora you will drive for about 9 km in an area covered with olive groves. The landscape is stanning and you feel like floating on a silver-green sea of olive trees.
4 km before you reach Chora, on Epano Englianos Hill stands one of the highlights of your visit in Messenia: the (so called) “Palace of Nestor”. You will be promptly warned by signs for the archeological site (thanks God!) to turn left at the car park.
The Palace of Nestor was an important center in Mycenaean times and described in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad as Nestor's kingdom of "sandy Pylos". The palace featured in the story of the Trojan War, as Homer tells us that Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, “went to Pylos and to Nestor, the shepherd of the people, who received him in his lofty house and gave him kindly welcome, as a father might his own son who after a long time had newly come from afar”.
Nestor was a mythical hero of ancient Greece and King of Pylos. He took part with the Lapiths in the war against the Centaurs, in the Argonauts Campaign, in the hunting of Kalydonios Kapros and in the Trojan War. Homer presents him as a wise and prudent old man, whose advice is heard with respect from all the Achaeans.
The site is the best-preserved Mycenaean Greek palace discovered. The palace is the primary structure within a larger settlement, once probably surrounded by a fortified wall. The palace was a two-storey building with large courtyards, many store rooms, private apartments, workshops, baths, light wells, reception rooms and a sophisticated sewage system. The halls were decorated with remarkable wall paintings, while pictorial representations also decorated the palatial floors. The settlement had been long occupied with most artifacts discovered dating from 1300 BC. The palace complex was destroyed by fire in the early 12th century.
In 1912 and 1926 two tholos tombs north of the Bay of Navarino were excavated. One contained three decorated jars and the other a collection of Early Mycenaean and Middle Helladic pots. A joint Hellenic-American expedition was formed with the Greek Archaeological Service and the University of Cincinnati and trial excavations of Epano Englianos were started in 1939. From the first day stone walls, fresco fragments, Mycenaean pottery and inscribed tablets were found. During the first year of excavations, around 1,000 Linear B tablets were found which after translation showed that they were part of the royal archive. A systematic excavation was impossible throughout World War II and excavations resumed in 1952. From 1952 to 1966 the Palace was uncovered with areas around the acropolis being further explored. The Linear B clay tablets confirm that the palace served as the administrative, political and financial center of Mycenaean Messenia.
There is a dispute among archeologists if this is really the Palace of Nestor referred by Homer, but this is of little importance to the visitor, who can walk through time and discover the life and traditions of our ancestors almost 3,500 years ago.
In June 2016 the site re-opened to the public after the roof was replaced by a modern structure with raised walkways for visitors and an elevator for people with mobility difficulties.
Note: As there is only one employee working on site, the person you buy your ticket from, is the same one that comes to operate the lift if you need it. So, be a bit patient.
Just before the entrance to the archeological site, on your right, there is a video room where projections narrate the story of the palace and the excavations. After the entrance you get your ticket and you are free to wander around on elevated paths that give you a good view (of what has been left) of the palace bellow, as well as the mesmerizing landscape surrounding the archeological site. There are informative plates all over the place, that give you an insight of the life in the palace.
About 90 meters from the gate of the archeological site, to the northeast, passing through the car parking and an olive grove, one reaches a Mycenean tomb (tholos tomb or vaulted tomb), whose tholos (vault) was restored in 1957 by the Hellenic Archaeological Service, as it had collapsed and the grave was filled with dirt. Though built with small stones, it is a large grave, with a diameter of 9.35 m.
The tomb had been seized in antiquity, but the looters were unusually careless, and therefore great-valued findings remained in the grave. Among the objects found, there were many golden artifacts, including a royal seal with a winged grip, two rings, glazed jewelry and a shield-shaped pendant. Also 250 beads of amethyst and various other stones, as well as fragments of bronze guns, were discovered. Findings in the tomb revealed that the burial customs were exactly similar to those of the Mycenae, Thebes and other centers of the Proto-Mycenaean period (16th century BC).
Your visit to the palace is not complete without visiting the "archeological museum in Chora". The museum is a nice little building, that looks like coming out of the 60s (actually, it was established in 1969). It has 3 rooms full of findings from the Palace of Nestor as well as other nearby excavations. It accommodates several Linear B tablets, which survived today "thanks to" the fire than destroyed the Palace of Nestor (!).
The museum is located just outside the town on the opposite exit (north) of the one you are entering the town driving from the Palace of Nestor.
After leaving the museum, continue driving out of town and in about one kilometer you will see a sign that prompts you to turn left to the location of more Mycenean tombs. It’s worth the some-hundred-meters detour to see a series of dug into the ground tombs. The tombs are into an open field where sheep graze freely. This is one of the things that still amazes me about this country: wherever you walk, wherever you look there is something to remind you of the long history of this land.
Ancient Messene (Μεσσήνη) is located 22 km north from modern day Messene. Modern Messene is an ugly town build next to the Kalamata Airport, to that extend that passing through it makes your eyes sore. The city is an example of the ultimate ugliness and anarchy modern Greece has to offer. Still, every cloud has a silver lining: the moment you leave the town behind, you feel really happy and relieved, because you enter into unspoiled messenian landscape with rolling hills and beautiful olive groves.
Note: I do not know how many times I have referred to “olive trees” or “olive groves” in this adventure of mine, but to tell you the truth I was so much impressed by the landscape that makes me feeling like raising it again and again.
This day trip to ancient Messene would not be complete without visiting a couple of the important monasteries in the area.
My first stop was the monastery-museum of Andromonastero, which is located some 7km west of ancient Messene. The main reason I believe one should start this itinerary from Andromonastero is because it closes early (at 2 pm). If you decide to visit first ancient Messene, most probably you will not arrive early enough to find Andromonastero open. The monastic complex is closed during the weekends. When we visited there was an employee who was very well informed and very polite and eager to guide us around and to answer all our questions.
How to arrive to Andromonastero: from Messene drive north on the provincial road Messene-Naou Epikouriou Apollonos for about 10km; pass via Aristodimio village and in 0.5km turn left on provincial road Lampainis-Mourgiatadas bypassing village Lampena; drive westwards for about 8km till you reach the bridge “Gefiri Mami”; do not cross the bridge towards Magganiako village, but instead turn right (northbound) just before it; continue for 3.5 km and you have arrived. As you approach to the monastery you see it on your left hand: a beautifully restored monastery, which today functions as a museum.
Note: even though the monastery is known to everyone as Andromonastero, the signs on the roads refer to it as «Ιερά Μονή Μεταμόρφωσης» (Monastery of the Transfiguration).
The Monastery of the Transfiguration, also known as Andromonastiro, is an impressive monastic complex with fortifications and one defensive tower, which was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (end of 12th-beginning of 13th century). Since then, the monastery went through six additional construction phases.
It is located in a lush ravine of great natural beauty. Abandoned for many years, the complex was spared random modern alterations and thus retained many of its original features, which are valuable for the study of the development of monastic architecture. The monastery was left to decline during the last four decades which badly affected its state of preservation. The refectory and adjacent tower presented severe problems and were about to collapse.
Built on a partially artificial west to east sloping terrace, the complex comprises buildings of various periods and functions with an irregular ground plan. Andromonastiro is characterized by highly fortified elements and consists of the catholic monastery, a three-story tower, a two-storey west wing and a two-storey building that houses the passageway of the main entrance to the monastery, an underground tank and other secondary buildings. Restoration works started in 2011 and were almost complete when I visited in May 2018.
The “Katholikon” (main church) of the monastery is a relatively large cross-in-square building with a narthex at the west side vastly rebuilt during the Post-Byzantine period. In its initial form it was flanked by open porticos at the north, west and south sides. The Church in Andromonastiro is dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Savior, while there are two chapels, right and left, dedicated to Saint Georgios and Saint Catherine.
The main church stands on a complex of vaulted structures that cover the most important water source of the area, while a well-organized pipe system served for the water management. During the course of the renovations a glass floor has been placed over the water source inside the church. After the original building of the Church a small vaulted room, probably a chapel dedicated to Prophet Elias, was added to the south of the relevant cross-arm. Possibly by the early 17th century, the main church was surrounded by an exonarthex and the existing side aisles. In the same period, the east side of the north aisle was transformed into a chapel. Its current dedication to Saint Catherine probably dates to the late eighteenth century, when Andromonastiro was annexed by the famous Monastery of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai.
The Church was originally paved with an elaborate opus sectile mosaic, part of which was revealed and conserved in the narthex. New elements revealed during the restoration of the main church confirm a date for its first structural phase to the first decades of the 13th century. Hence, the katholikon of Andromonastiro represents one of the most significant monuments built in the Peloponnese, right after the installation of the Franks in the region and the foundation of the Principality of Achaea.
The nave is decorated with wall paintings, now partially preserved, which had been covered almost entirely with several coats of lime. Three main painted layers, dating to the thirteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, were uncovered during conservation. The original marble templon is considered to be a creation of famous masons that created also other temples in the area. The carefully carved architrave of the original templon nowadays tops the katholikon's later built altar screen; this should be dated to the 18th century, according to the style of the wall-paintings that decorates its frontal side representing the Christ, Virgin Mary and Saint John the Theologian. The new elements revealed during the restoration of the main church confirm a date for its first structural phase to the first decades of the 13th century.
North of the katholikon rises the monastery's original refectory, an elongated structure (14.30 x 5.30 m.) with a complex architectural history on the west side of which a tower was added in a later period. During its first construction phase, it had the shape of a two-storey vaulted building, which may be dated to the 13th-14th century, according to its morphological and structural elements. Its pointed barrel vault was covered by a two-pitched roof with large ceramic roof-tiles. The last major alteration of the refectory took place after the construction of the impressive four-storey tower against the building's west side. This required the reconfiguration of the building's entry and is probably to be associated with the construction of the monumental southern external staircase, which did away with the south facade's timber-roofed awning, and the opening of the door in the second floor's south wall. Writing on this door's left doorjamb mentions the date of the refurbishment as July 1726. An awning lined the south facade, as indicated by the preserved corbels for the timber roof, which consisted of reused Early and Middle Byzantine stone elements. The ground floor had no windows and probably served as a storeroom. Small single windows dimly lit the single room on the upper floor, which probably housed a wooden table for monastic meals. Sometime later, the space over the two-pitched roof was leveled and converted into a terrace with crenellated parapet. The terrace was accessed by an internal stone staircase, which was built into the thickness of the wall and ended in gable-shaped top. Designed to fortify the building, this alteration is to be linked to the insecurity caused by the repeated Turkish invasions of the mid-fifteenth century. At a later date, probably in the early seventeenth century, a third floor was added.
The west wing comprises the two-storied building of the stables and first-floor cells. Two elongated, vaulted stables occupy most of the west wing's ground floor. Between them lies the monastery's wine press, with a small cistern for wine must in the east. The six small, vaulted rooms to the east of the stables, which probably date to the seventeenth century, were incorporated into this new wing during the extensive refurbishment of 1753.
All of the cells (except one) have a fireplace, cupboards, and a small arched niche for an icon. The first floor's northwest corner occupies the “synodikon” a reception apartment for the heads of the monastery and the official guests. It consists of a large, vaulted room with fireplace and a small toilet. The west wing's first floor is accessed from the courtyard by a stone staircase. This floor features six small cells, each with an arched doorway and a large window opening to the hayat.
The northwest wing includes the bakery with two built-in ovens and a labyrinthine two-storied structure, with many rooms and a complex building history. A covered passageway in this wing's ground floor serves as the monastery's main entrance. Extensive renovations and additions were carried out aimed at improving the monks' living conditions during the monastery's long history.
There is a very old bridge near the monastery which spans the water course that is fed by the spring that runs underneath the church. In Andromonastiro there is also the church of Saint Lazarus which is the cemetery church of the convent, 100 meters away from the complex. Since 1962 Andromonastiro has been dependent on the monastery of Voulkano and has not had any monks. Every year on August 6th when the Transfiguration is celebrated, hundreds of worshipers gather in Andromonastero.
Messene walls and the Arcadian Gate
After leaving the Andromonastero, continue the road for about 1km and at the junction with a wider road turn right (on the left the road goes to Petralona village). After about 4km the road passes through impressive ancient walls among lavish greenery. These are the Ancient Messene walls, which means you are into the limits of the ancient city now. The walls dated to the 3rd century B.C. is one of the most important achievements of the ancient military architecture.
Greek traveler (2nd c. AD) Pausanias was astonished by the size of the walls: «Δεν είδα τα τείχη των Βαβυλωνίων ή τα μεμνόνεια στα περσικά Σούσα, ούτε άκουσα γι’ αυτά από αυτόπτες: από τα τείχη όμως της Φωκικής Αμβρόσου, του Βυζαντίου και της Ρόδου – πόλεων άριστα τειχισμένων – δυνατότερα είναι τα τείχη των Μεσσηνίων». (Παυσανίας 4.31 4-6).
In less than1 km you come across the impressive Arcadian Gate.
The “Arcadian Gate” is an impressive monument, a symbol of power and an example of high fortification technique. It is one of the two main gates of Ancient Messene (the other is the Lakonian Gate) and part of its fortification. The well preserved Gate is located to the north of the archeological site of the ancient city, at the merging point of the roads to the villages Petralona, Mavrommati, Neochori and Zermpisia. Actually, the modern roads pass thru it.
The Arcadian Gate is a monumental construction, built with large limestone rectangular stones. It is circular and spacious, with a double entrance (internal and external). The internal entrance led to a paved road towards city center and the external to the road which ended at the capital of Arcadia, Megalopolis (this is how the Gate took its name). There are two square protective towers, to the right and left of the external entrance, communicating with the main construction of the gate.
"Hermaic columns" were erected in the internal circular space of the Arcadian Gate as God Hermes protected the gates. These columns were also described by Pausanias. There is an inscription over the northern niche of one of the column: “Κόιντος Πλώτιος Ευφημίων”.
A cluster of funerary monuments was recently discovered outside the Arcadian Gate, dated from the 2nd to 4th c. AD, at a site used for the burial of the noble families of the city.
Part of the fortification walls and two more square protective towers are also preserved in the area.
Continue south and just before the Museum building turn right. A big car parking lot is located before the entrance of the archeological site of Ancient Messene. Buy your ticket at the entrance for 12€ (6€ for seniors). This is a rather expensive entrance, but believe me the archeological site worth every single euro: the size is vast, the buildings impressive and the restorations extended.
Note: Do not forget to get a bottle of water with you, as well as a hat and most probably some sun lotion, because the area is huge and the sun is harsh during summer months.
The archaeological site of ancient Messene lies in a fertile valley approximately in the centre of Messenia prefecture, south of Mt Ithome.
Ithome was the strongest natural and manmade fortress of Messenia, controlling the valleys of Stenyclaros to the north and Makaria to the south. (Strabo compares it to Corinth as regards strategic importance). The first installation on the site dates to the Late Neolithic or the Early Bronze Age, while in the 9th-8th c. BC the cult of Zeus Ithomatas was established on the peak of Mt Ithome. A heroon shrine was founded in the lower city during the Geometric period (800-700 BC), along with the first sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Asklepios and Messene (the princess from Argos, who with her husband Polycaon, established the kingdom of Messenia). All the sacred buildings belonged to a town named Ithome.
The Spartan annexation of the area following the First Messenian War (743-724 BC) put a stop to the evolution of the town into a more complex urban organism and the development of an urban outlook. The Spartan occupation, however, did not result in a total loss of national consciousness among the inhabitants, who were now helots.
The city of Ancient Messene was founded in 369 BC by the Theban general Epaminondas (after the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, which resulted in Spartan defeat and the establishment of the Theban Hegemony).
It became the capital of the free Messenian state following a long period (about four centuries) of occupation of the Messenian territory by the Spartans.
On the site of the city are preserved public and religious buildings, many of them reconstructed to a large degree. The extensive complex of the Asklepieion (3rd-2nd c. BC) stands out, with the Doric sanctuary of Asklepios, which is surrounded by stoai of buildings of a religious and secular-funerary nature.
A series of reconstructed monumental structures, such as the Ecclesiasterion-Odeion, the Bouleuterion, the Theatre, the Arsinoe Fountain, the Agora and the Stadium, as well as an extensive group of funerary monuments and heroons, including the reconstructed monumental Saithid Mausoleum (1st c. BC-1st c. AD), bear witness to the size of the city and its political, religious, economic and social importance.
Particularly luxurious Roman villas with mosaic floors complete the urban plan, while a multitude of inscriptions sheds light on hitherto unknown facets of the historical events that took place during the period of the Alexander’s Successors, the Macedonian Kingdom, the Achaean League, the Koinon of the Arcadians and the Aetolians, and Roman interference in Greek affairs.
The lengthy excavations continue to this day, alongside the major, internationally acclaimed reconstruction work and efforts for the promotion and protection of the archaeological site, providing an easy-to-understand reading of the morphological characteristics, dimensions and function of the monuments.
In size, form and preservation, Messene is one of the most important cities of antiquity, and one which still has a great deal to offer. It boasts not only religious and public buildings, but also imposing fortifications, houses and funerary monuments.
The city has the rare advantage of not having been destroyed or covered by later settlements and of being situated in an untouched Mediterranean natural environment par excellence. This landscape combines the mountainous majesty of Delphi and the lowland riverine tranquillity of Olympia, with the looming bare limestone mass of Mt Ithome and its acropolis, and the low, fertile valley around the ancient city.
The archaeological site and monuments of Ancient Messene constitute an exceptional testimony to the urban environment and living conditions of an ancient Greek city, preserving all those elements that make up the ancient Greek way of life in an ancient city (secular, religious, political/administrative, residential, funerary).
All the buildings of Messene share the same orientation and are set within the grid formed by horizontal (East-West) and vertical (North-South) streets. This urban plan is known as the Hippodamian grid, after its originator Hippodamus of Miletus, an architect, town planner, geometrician and astronomer of the 5th c. BC. Rhodes and Piraeus are characteristic early examples of cities designed and built according to this system. It is worth noting that this predetermined, strictly geometric pattern, which is based on the principles of isonomy (equality under the law), isopolity (equal civic rights) and isomoiria (equal sharing of land), i.e. the virtues of democracy, was adapted to the particular terrain and climate of each site, harmoniously integrated into the natural environment.
The basic idea of the Hippodamian urban plan, arising from the democratic ideal, is that all citizens should have plots of land of equal size and suitability, and access to public and sacred buildings, the communal spaces in other words, which dominate the city due to their monumental size and wealth of decoration. Messene forms an exceptional and uniquely preserved example of this type of urban plan, precisely because it preserves all the elements that make up the social network of the city, whether religious (sanctuaries and heroons), secular (Agora, balaneion-baths, dining-halls, theatre, gymnasium, stadium), political/administrative (ecclesiasterion, bouleuterion, Archive), funerary or residential.
After having visited this exciting archeological site, which I have to admit has really impressed me, visit the small but interesting museum. It was built in early 70s and extensively renovated in the 90s to house finds of the excavations in ancient Messene.
You do not need an extra ticket, as the one you already bought covers the entrance to the museum, too.
Among the sculpture exhibits, it is worth mentioning the "Hermes of Messene" a roman copy of "Satellite" of Polykleitos; “Artemis Laphria” and works of the local sculptor Damomontas, a prominent personality with economic power and political influence, who during the later Hellenistic Period (late 3rd-early 2nd century BC) sculpted statues depicting exclusively gods and heroes.
Your day has been very exciting so far, but you need some rest, a cool drink and certainly a hearty lunch.
At the nearby village of Mavromati we stopped at the tavern “Ithomi”. If anything, else, the views from the covered veranda of the tavern is unique: you have a full view of the archeological site from above. Food comes second to this, but you know me I need food. We ordered moussaka (why I do the same mistake all the time? "tavern moussaka" is only for those who have not tasted my friend’s Makis moussaka…not for me), a green salad with figs and the "exotic dish": roasted goat with wild artichokes (!). Lots of French tourists around.
Mt Ithomi & Voulkano monasteries
Next stop? Climbing up the Ithomi mountain and visit the Old Voulkano Monastery.
Just few meters after Ithomi restaurant, the road is divided into two legs. Take the one on the left which goes uphill and leads to (new) Voulkano Monastery. Leave the village behind and after 1km or so you will see a dirty road on your left going up to Ithomi mountain.
The road is not good and I recommend you, unless you have an off-road vehicle, to park the car here and continue on foot. The road is not difficult for walking but it is quite tiring as it is 5 uphill kilometeres. The Old Voulkano monastery is located on the very top of the mountain, at 800m altitude.
On your way to the peak, 0,5km from the start, you see the sanctuary of Artemis Limnatidos-Lafrias (a little temple and an altar, dated to the middle of the 3rd century BC). From here starts a secondary path leading to the Sanctuary of Elythethias (3rd-2nd c. BC).
The Monastery of Voulkano (also known as “Dormition of the Virgin Mary” or “Our Lady of the Peak” or “Katholikon”), is built on a huge natural rock where the Sanctuary of Zeus Ithomatas was situated in ancient times.
The cult worshiped a statue of "child Zeus", designed by sculptor Ageladas, and performed sacrifices, even human ones.
Climbing up here takes about 40 minutes.
Today the monastery is deserted and the gate is locked.
As I was walking around it to admire the views, I noticed that at the northern wall there is a small opening covered with a wooden grid. I removed the grid and entered into the monastery precinct. Most of the buildings have no doors or windows, so one could enter freely. I decided not to proceed further as I was alone and I felt uneasy: the location is very isolated and there are no other people around, so avoid going alone up there.
Back to the car to continue the driving towards the new Voulkano Monastery.
On your way there you will notice what has been left of another big gate of Ancient Messene: the “Laconian Gate”, also called “Tegean Gate”. The gate took its name because the road started from here ended at the capital of Laconia, Sparta. This gate destroyed in the 18th century, when the road to the new Voulcano Monastery was opened.
The old monastery on Ithomi abandoned in 1625 due to the unpredictable cold of the winter months and the difficulty of the pilgrims to reach it, so monks sought a place to the south. They decided to move to the location where they found a water spring, the so-called "Mana of Water” and a two-storey tower, which became the beginning of the new monastery. Today, the imposing complexity of the monastery with the loggia and arches astonishes the visitor.
The church of the new monastery was erected in 1701 and dedicated to the “Birth of the Virgin Mary”. The main treasure of the monastery is the miraculous icon of “Vulcaniotissa Virgin Mary”, bearing the inscription "Η Οδηγήτρια η επονομαζομένη τω όρει Βουλκάνω". In the monastery are also preserved Holy Relics of many saints, including Agios Neomartyras Ioannis of Monemvasia, Agios Dionysios Areopagitis and Agios Elias of Kalamata. In its rich library there are old and new books, manuscripts, Ottoman documents and much more.
The monastery was closed when we visited at 4:30pm, even though it was supposed to open at 4 pm, after the afternoon siesta of the monks. Unfortunately, our nocking at the door had no results.
As the monastery was closed, we had plenty of time before the end of the day. So, we decided to visit the “Androusa castle”.
We continued on the same road and at the national road 'Messinis-Naou Epikouriou Apollonos' we turned south (right) and then right again at Eva village. We continued for a couple of kilometers till the village of Androusa.
The castle is located at the entrance of the village and looks very impressive from the road. The western fortification walls have been gone, so the road goes directly into the castle. There is plenty of space to park your car in the castle itself. The eastern walls and fortification towers are very well preserved.
The castle was built sometime after 1250 by the ruler of the Principality of Achaea, Guillaume II de Villehardouin. In 1381 became the seat of the Navarrese Company, a company of mercenaries, mostly from Navarre and Gascony, who fought in Greece during the late 14th century and early 15th century, in the twilight of Frankish power in the dwindling remnant of the Latin Empire. The company was hired to help James of Baux to claim the throne of Achaea. They were not very successful, but eventually they became the de facto rulers of the Principality of Achaea and Androusa was their seat. In 1417, the Paleologi family, the Byzantine rulers of the Despotate of Mystras, took the castle. In 1462 the Turks captured Androusa, who kept it till the indepedence of Greece.