Capital and chief port of the prefecture is the muchsung Kalamata,
the land of the Kalamatianos dance and the silk kerchief. Of succulent black olives, honeyed figs and the sesame-covered sweet called pastelli
. The town is dominated by the 13th century castle above it built by Geoffrey de Villehardouin. On the north side of the citadel there is a small Byzantine church, dedicated to the Virgin of Kalomata (of the good eye), from which the town may have acquired its name.
From the castle you can survey the expanse of sea below with its sandy and pebbly shores or turn your gaze upon the deep green plain, the "happy land" of the ancients. The old city is spread out underneath the castle. This is where the Byzantine church of the Virgin Ypapanti and the convent of the Kalograies, where the nuns weave the famous Kalarnata silk, are situated
There are many churches in town, the oldest being the historic church of Agii Apostoli (13th c.), where the Greek Revolution against the Turks was formally declared on March 23, 1821. Kalamata has an archaeological and folklore museum, a fine arts museum and a library containing 60.000 volumes.
Every summer cultural events like concerts and plays put on by the Kalamata theatre are held in the amphitheatre of the castle. In the evening, the town comes alive, especially along the waterfront which is lined with tavernas, seafood restaurants and rotisseries serving local dishes and drinks, fresh fish, roast suckling pig and chicken, sausages, cheese, olives, retsina and raki.
The landscape and the people
From neighbouring Eleia you can already feel the charm of that most cheerful and bountiful of places, Messinia Euripides sung its praises, calling it "a land of fair fruitage and watered by innumerable streams, abounding in pasturage for cattle and sheep, being neither very wintry in the blasts of winter, nor yet made too hot by the chariot of Helios".
And this happy si I nation has continued into our own day. Long, cool summers, the sweetest of springs, gentle autumns, and mild winters, many springs and abundant water, fertile soil, verdant mountains. The first stop is Kiparissia
. The town sits as if wedged into the base of its fortress, its lower districts reaching as far as the sandy shore lapped by the Ionian sea.
Round about the castle is a plain planted with olive trees and grapevines. The sea opens into an infinite expanse of azure. They say that the wiew of the sunset from the castle is one of the most splendid in the world. Everything here is imbued with history and a fascinating light. Everywhere you look see ancient, Byzantine Frankish monuments. Peristera
is a place a little beyond the village of Raches
(5 km. from Kiparissia), where three beehive tombs have been excavated. Filiatra is not far off. The whole district is dotted with churches, Byzantine and Frankish, of a venerable age. Gargaliani
sits on a lusri hillside. It's worth going up to | the town to see the view below: a magical carpet of olive trees and vines that stretches to the sea with Marathoupoli
and the islet of Proti
, the site of a ruined Mycenaean acropolis, in the background.
Hora is built on a hilltop. This village has preserved its old-fashioned appearance - stone houses with tiled roofs and narrow lanes. The finds from Nestor's
palace and Peristera are on display in the local museum. South of Hora, 4 km from Englianos, lies the ruined palace of wise Nestor, who took part in the Trojan War and whose city was the second largest in the Mycenanean world. Built in the 13th century BC, the palace was destroyed by fire a century later. Excavations have revealed the remains of a luxurious, two-storey central building and two other auxiliary buildings. The buildings were divided into formal apartments, storage areas for wine and oil, toolsheds and workshops The central apartements - the throne room with its stuccoed-clay ceremonial hearth and the queen's quarters - were ri decorated with frescoes. In the palace archaeologists discovered thousands of clay pots, a bathroom with teracotta bathtub and 1,250 clay tablets with inscriptios in Linear B, which have since been deciphered. Several beehive tombs have been excavated in the area surrounding the palace. From Hora to Pilos the county is laid out with row upon row of olive trees, those benevolent trees protected by Athena.
Pilos is a pretty little town built up a hill on Ihe south coast of the bay of Navarino. Snow-white two-storey houses with courtyards drenched in flowers. The arcaded streets make you think you've been transported to an island.
The main square ringed with pastry shops is sheltered by humongous, centuries-old plane trees. The Turko-Venetian fortress, known as Neokastro, dominates the west side of town. One of the most attractive in the Peloponnese, it is called that to distinguish it from the ancient fortress to the southwest, named Paliokastro or Palionavarmo. The bay of Voidokilia
extends from the base of the old castle. A tranquil, carefree sanctuary, the floor of the bay is covered with a thick layer of sand.
At the southernmost tip of the west coast of the Peloponnese lies Methoni
. In the town are some enormous Venetian wells whose marble rims are furrowed by the pressure of huge ropes over the centuries. Homer called Methoni
"rich in vines" and tradition maintains that the town is so called because the donkeys (onoi)
carrying its wine used to ged drunk (methoun)
, from the heady aroma. You enter the castle by crossing a massive bridge, impressed by the gigantic walls, imposing bastions and monumental gates. To the south another bridge unites the citadel with the Bourtzi, a fortified islet with casemates and towers. But there's much more to see in Messinia.
Finikounda is a picturesque fishing village at the back of a bay. Caiques and fishing boats are drawn up all along its sandy shore, while its tavernas serve their fresh catch to little tables at the water's edge.
The road winds like a vast serpent slowly amidst lush fields to arrive at Koroni
. Its medieval atmosphere is imprinted in its old mansions, its churches and its castle. Still, diaphanous water, sandy beaches and opposite the little island of Venetiko with its enchanting beach.
From its hilltop site the Venetian citadel crowns the town. A proper eagle's nest, with thick walls and massive gates, it cuts a powerful and magnificent figure. Below the fortress in a little palm grove is a small building housing Koroni's collection of historical and archaeological artefacts. The beauty of the area, unchecked, unbroken, is a constant surprise.
Petalidi juts out from the head of a little bay. The sandy or pebbly beaches round about are shallow and sheltered from the wind. And surrounded by banana trees. What would you remember first about this place? Here, there, everywhere are souvenirs and expensive gifts.
Cutting through central Messinia you meet villages - mini natural paradises harbouring ruins of prehistoric settlements, ancient temples, medieval castles and Byzantine churches. And every so often friendly cafes for a cup of coffee and a "kalimera" (good morning).
Mavromati (32 km from Kalamata) is a small village built like an amphitheatre up the foothills of the sacred mountain of lthomi
, today called Voulkano, where the sanctuary of Zeus Ithomatos was located. One legend maintained that Zeus was born not in Crete or on Olympos but here at Ithomi, where he was brought up by two nymphs, Ithomi and Neda. Water flows from the heart of the mountain to splash out in the centre of the village. It gushes violently and crystal-clear from an opening the locals call "the black eye" (mavro mati
), which gave its name to the hamlet. It was in this stream that the nymphs used to bathe the baby Zeus. It is also called the Kallirhoi fountain and Pausanias referred to it as the Spring of Arsinoe. Dotted with important ancient sites, the land in the area is watered by this spring.
After the battle of Leuctra (371 BC), which marked the end of Spartan domination over the Peloponnese, the Theban general Epaminondas built the town of Messini, naming it after the first queen of the region, and the fortress of Ithomi (369 BC). The new city became the capital of the liberated Messinians.
The city was protected by a circuit wall (parts of which are still standing) 9 kilometres long and 3 metres wide. It is considered one of the finest examples of military architecture of the 3rd and 4th century BC.
The wall was interrupted at intervals by massive gates reinforced with two-storey towers and battlements, which look tbeir name from the direction of the roads that started from them. Four of the gates have been preserved, of which the main one is the Arcadian Gate to the north, where the road to the village of Zerbissia originated. It is paved with large slabs which bear the traces of chariot wheels.
The heart of the walled city lies at the spot occupied by Mavromati today. Here the locals seem to be saluting their great forebears. Among its public buildings Ancient Messini had temples, a theatre, stadium and cemetery not to mention houses. The discoveries excavated here up to now constitute a very important archaeologies entity. There is a guard-guide at the site, who has the key to the small museum in the village if you wish to inspect the finds from the area.
The Virgin Voulkaniotissa
The fertile plain of Messinia starts at the lower boundary of the village, Olives, grapevines, gardens, fruit trees figs, sweet-smelling plants, shrubs. Fences of blackberry bramble and prickly pear. Every so often you come across a local riding a donkey or on foot. You'll spot him again later in the village cafe chatting guietly with its cronies, sipping thick sweet coffee or fiery raki. In the market place cafes and tavernas have spread their table under the shade of plane trees and vines. A path lead from Mavromati to the summit of Mount Vouikanc There, on top of the ruined temple ol Zeus Ithomatos, a convent was erected during the Byzantine period. Dedicated lo the Virgin, it contains frescoes [in good condition) of the Cretan School dated 1608. Tradition maintains that some hermits found the icon of the Virgin Voulkamotissa in this spot, which led to the building of the convent
Between Mount Voulkano and the lower hill of Agio Vassilis, a bit below the saddle of the two mountains, the large monastery of Voulkano, built in 1625 Descending from the summit you encounter the remains of th temple of Arthemis Laphria or Limnatida, the Laconian Gate, and further off, the monastery, amidst the trees. The main treasure of the monastery is the old icon of the Virgin. Here every August 15th there is a big festival an the faithful form a procession with the icon up the mountain lo lake it to its first home, the convent on the summit. The village of Samari is not far from Mavromati.
Outside the village at 1he place called Kalogerorahi, there is the church of Samarina dedicated to the Zoodohos Pighi (Source of Life|, a cruciform church with a dome (12th c.).
It has an impressive belltower, with mosaic flooring and frescoes of the 12th, 13th and 17th centuries. A sign points the way to Androussa
, a market town with a strong traditional flavour and ruins of a Prankish castle and an aqueduct built during the reign ol Andronikos Palaiologos. Twelve kilometres from Androussa, near the villages of Petralona and Manganiko in an area thick with plane tress, lies the famous Andromonastiro or Andreiomonastiro, a monastery thought to have been founded in the 14th century by the emperor Andronikos, from where it took its name. This, too, is a cruciform church inscribed with a dome. The frescoes (of the same period as those in the Samarina) are partly erased by smoke, time and neglect, but impressive nonetheless.
Opposite Kalamata lies Almiro
, above it Mt Taigetos, the "masculine mountain" and next to it the sea, the Gulf of Messmia.
Almiro is a small settlement by the sea with a clean pebbly beach and translucent waters. This is where the Messinian Mani begins. It's like entering another country. The landscape is precipitous, plunging headlong towards the sea. Wooded slopes and rugged peaks. Brooks and torrents. Deep gorges and high ridges. Only by the sea is it peaceful.
Mikri and Megali Mantinia, Avia, Ano and Kato Verga Akrogiali, Kitries are some of the villages. Sand and pebbles and little coves but also pine and fir woods and crystalline springs, solitary chapels and caves once the dwelling place of nymphs and lined with stalagmites. Hamlets hidden in the mountainsides and hamlets on the water's edge. Stone houses. Sitting rooms with fireplaces. Flower-filled courtyards. Cobbled lanes. Byzantine churches and castles. Smudged frescoes and tall towers. Painted archangels and slits in the walls for shooting.
As you penetrate further into this astonishing land, you want to get to the heart of it, to have fun with it, to fight for its sake. You breathe the perfumed breeze that wafts down from Taigelos or you forget yourself swimming alone in a delightful cove. Then more towers and churches (Kardamili)
and more wild gorges (Diros)
and after a while Maniot towers yet again and charming fishing villages and another irresistable cove (Stoupa)
On to shiny rocks and fabulous caves (Katafighi)
, more churches and belltowers (Thalames- Platsa) as you keep walking, a bit bewildered by so much to contemplate but proud, and happy to be alive in such surroundings.