We’ve recently returned from a week’s driving tour around the Peloponnese – a holiday within a holiday, if you will. We’d been in Zakynthos for two and a half months by mid-June, and once the boys finished school it seemed like a great time to head off for a bit of exploring.
I’d previously been to the town of Pylos in 1998 for a quick overnight stay and was so charmed by it that I’d always wanted to go back. It lies on the south-west coast of the Peloponnese at the top of the first of its three ‘fingers’ – the peninsula of Messinia.
En route to Pylos, we made a large detour to take in Ancient Messene, arriving the old fashioned way – via the 4th century BC Arcadian gate. Except for one other couple, the site was deserted. Amazingly, we had a city to ourselves. It’s more extensive than, say, Ancient Olympia or Delphi, and the site includes city walls, a theatre, a marketplace, a stadium, tombs and – much to the boys’ delight – ancient toilets. We passed an inspiring few hours wandering around under the hot sun. At one stage we took a break to watch the boys perform in the theatre. Today’s show was a reenactment of the duel between Achilles and Paris during the Trojan war.
We arrived in Pylos by late afternoon, just in time to see the sun set behind Navarino Bay. Modern Pylos was built by the French in the early 19th century, after the allies defeated the Ottomans in the naval battle of Navarino, and thus retains a slightly Gallic character, evident in its thriving café culture. The town forms a natural amphitheatre; the square its centre stage, the harbour and bay its backdrop. The sound of kids playing resonates through the square in the evenings, while the adults sip coffees or eat out at one of the harbourside tavernas.
That evening we dined on the square, of course, at a place called ‘Gregory’s’. As we were about to sit down the waitress invited us to come and see what was cooking in the kitchen. So, across the busy road we trooped, since the actual taverna building lay across the road surrounding the square (which is actually triangular, although you don’t feel that when you’re there). Once inside the spotless kitchen, pots and pans were uncovered to help us make our selection. Of course we hopelessly over-ordered – I think that’s the point! A great banquet of food was brought out to us, although I have to admit that as the evening darkened I couldn’t help worrying about the safety of our jaywalking waitress.
Not far from the modern city of Pylos is the Mycenaean city known as Nestor’s Palace. We’d hoped to pay it a visit but since it was closed we headed southwards instead, to a more recent historical attraction – Methoni Castle. The town of Methoni is only 11kms south of Pylos and, together with Koroni, is one of a pair of forts that used to protect the tip of the Messinian peninsula. The castle itself is a huge affair, containing a 14-arched stone bridge over a moat, as well as a (fairly) intact wall. Through the second gate you come to the interior of the castle itself. This is where the old town of Methoni was situated, and now mainly lies in ruins, though there are still some intact churches, and a ruined turkish bath. If you continue to the southernmost wall of the castle you come to the much-photographed (now even more so!) Bourtzi tower (see picture above), perched on a rocky islet, accessible by a quaint stone bridge. Like many pretty places in Greece, it has a dark side. This is the spot where the last of the Venetian defenders of the castle were put to the sword in the Turkish assault of 1500.
Our final outing was a drive north along the coast of Navarino Bay. At the small channel that separates the mainland from the long, thin island of Sfaktira (which lies across the entrance to the bay), we left our car at a spot known as Golden Beach. Following a path that wasn’t always easy to find we trekked along the foot of the looming cliffs of the Old Castle, skirting Gialova lagoon. After about 15 minutes we arrived at Voidokilia Bay – a horseshoe bay of white sand and cool aquamarine water. A perfect reward for our hard work.