Messenia

With a temperate climate and easily accessible, Messenia has much to offer the visitor. Here, there is the most evidence of the presence from ancient times of the olive in Greece. All the dense chapters of history are here, representing all the historical periods of the country, in an area which was already inhabited during the Neolithic period (6000-3000 BCE). A transition between myth and reality, with the famous Nestor and his kingdom.  The three Messenian Wars, which resulted in its complete submission to Sparta, its inclusion in the Argive League, the Roman period and the later raids by other tribes, shaped its history and created the coastal settlements, which became more substantial over the following centuries, like Kalamata, Koroni, Navarino and Arcadia (in ancient Kyparissia).  Here, the southern Peloponnese gets its own saint, Nikon of Pontus, in the 10th century, while later, the Frankish occupation secured the area with castles and powerful coastal fortresses in Koroni and Methoni.  Conflict brought a series of conquerors: The Franks, Venetians, Navarrese and Genoese took over, one from the other, until, at the end of the 15th century, Messenia was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.  On the 21 March 1821, the flame of revolution was lit in Kalamata and the Byzantine church of Aghioi Apostoloi by the heroes of the Revolution, Papaflessas, Kolokotronis, Nikitaras, Petrobey Mavromichalis.  The victorious sea battle of Navarino (1827) between the Turks and the allied fleet of European powers established liberty, and, in 1828 life began in modern Pylos, which, earlier, had been but a small settlement outside Nikokastro.

Kalamata, the capital and port of the Regional Unit, built on the foothills of the Taygetos and in the heart of the Messenian Gulf, has 70 130 inhabitants, and is the administrative, economic and commercial centre of southwest Peloponnese, 215 kilometres from Patras and 230 kilometres from Athens. An ideal transport hub, with a local bus service with five routes, an organised marina in the port, and an airport 7 kilometres outside the town, Kalamata is both an important attraction for tourism, with a substantial infrastructure and rich natural and cultural recourses: the Byzantine church of Aghioi Apostoloi, from the 11th-12th century, from where the start of the Greek Revolution was declared; the Frankish castle of the 13th century; the railway park; and the great museums (the Archaeological Museum of Messenia, the Historical and Folk Museum, the Military Museum, the Gallery of Modern Greek Art, the Municipal Gallery ‘A. Tassos’ ), as well as the modern amphitheatre in the castle, which hosts the International Dance Festival every summer. Other major festivals are the Anthestiria, which has been organised every year from 1960, the famous Kalamata Flower Show, the Peloponnesian Equestrian Competition – Show Jumping and, naturally, the well-known tradition of the saitopolemos [battle of fireworks] every Easter Sunday night, the origins of which date back to the Ottoman occupation.

With tempting places to drink and eat, Kalamata is one of the most interesting cities in Greece, operating as a base for learning more about the surrounding areas with their outstanding beauty, such as Messenian Mani, Taygetos, Koroni, Ancient Messene, etc. From the port in Kalamata, there are boats to Kythira and Crete in the summer months.

Messeni, in the southern part of the Messenian Plain, to the right of the banks of the Pamisos River and 10 kilometres northwest of Kalamata, is the base of the municipality of the same name, with 11 041 inhabitants. Today, a lively, constantly developing town, it has excellent facilities, as well as the wonderful beach at Boukas, which has been awarded a blue flag. Its wonderful ancient theatre now hosts theatre and dance performances, while there are many cultural activities on offer throughout the year. The Archaeological Museum was created to house exclusively the finds from the excavations of the Ancient Messeni Archaeological Institute, objects which number more than 12 000.

Other important museums in Messenia are the Archaeological Museum of Pylos, known as the Antonopouleio, with finds from the area of Pylia from the Middle Helladic to the Roman periods, and the Archaeological Museum of Trifylia in the town of Chora, in the Messenia Regional Unit, with the famous palace of Nestor from the 13th century BCE.

Kyparissia is the third largest city in Messenia and the seat of the Municipality of Trifyllia, and is in the western part of the Regional Unit, on the shores of the Ionian Sea. In ancient times, it belonged to Nestor’s kingdom of Pylos and produced its own currency in 199 BC. The most important attraction is the castle known as the Tower of Justinian, which is one of the city’s treasures. With great facilities and superb organisation, today it is divided into the Upper (the old city) and the Lower or New Town. Kyparissia is 255 kilometres from Athens, 63 kilometres from Pyrgos in Elis, 100 kilometres from Tripoli and 67 kilometres from Kalamata.

Standing out, in passing from the main urban centres of Arcadia to the picturesque villages, are Kopanaki in mountainous Trifylia, with its Sunday market (which first opened at the beginning of the 20th century), Alagonia in west Taygetos, with its annual Potato Festival, and Aghios Nikolaos, a beautiful fishing village, 49 kilometres southeast of Kalamata, with an excellent infrastructure for tourism and a great sea.

An important attraction of unmatched beauty is Kardamyli, an historic, seaside village in Messenian Mani, 35 kilometres southeast of Kalamata, with well-equipped defensive towers standing next to the tower houses of the old Manian families. The endless olive groves, the wonderful beaches, the well-maintained stone houses with their lush gardens and the picturesque village harbour are some of the beauties of the landscape. In the historic settlement, there is the tower of Troupakis-Mourtzinos, and other nearby attractions include Byzantine and post-Byzantine churches, such as Aghioi Theodoroi, the Koimisi of the Panaghia, Aghios Spyridon, as well as many tower houses, ruined castles, such as Zarnata, fountains, bridges, the beaches of Ritsa, Delfinia, Kalamitsi and Foneas and the island of Meropi, a representation in miniature of the beauties of Messenian Mani.

Today, Kardamyli is a gateway to learning about the endless history and natural wealth of Messenian Mani. All the surrounding villages (Prosilio, Prasteio, Lakkos, Exochori, Saidona, Lefktro, Stoupa, Tseria, Chora Androuvitsa, Mila, Kastania, etc.) in the interior or on the coast, represent the dynamic architectural wealth of Mani, impressive churches and chapels of brick, fountains, towers, such as the tower of Dourakis from the 18th century and the tower of the Kapetanakis family, all surrounded by rich vegetation, sea vistas and the heroic stories of the old Manian families.

The religious monuments of Messenia are places of faith and wonder for their visitors. The Monastery of Panaghia Voulkaniotissa in Messeni is connected with the miracle-working icon of the Virgin (which, according to legend, saved the people of Messeni from the plague in the 17th century) and its eight-day annual festival. The Monastery of Konstantinos and Eleni, about 1 kilometre from the historic centre of Kalamata, is noted for the superb internationally-famous and award-winning fabrics made by the monks, which began when silk was being produced there in the past. The Monastery of Velanidia was a meeting point for the heroes of the Revolution, Kolokotronis, Papaflessa and Nikitaras. The old and new Monastery of Voulkano, at the top of Mount Ithomis, next to Ancient Messeni, stands proud and was most likely built at the beginning of the 8th century by iconolater monks. The Monastery of Dimiovas is also interesting. It is in the west of central Taygetos, above the village of Giannitsa and the church of the Eisodos of the Theotokos in Prasteio, a village in Outer Mani, and has the tallest bell tower in Greece.

Settlements that have been officially characterised as traditional are located everywhere in Messenia. They beautify the area and are a delight for their thousands of visitors, their form and architecture elements remaining unmarked by time.

Thalames, in Messenian Mani, on the road leading from Kardamyli to Oitylo, with its famous oracle,dedicated to Ino, is one of these. Here we find the small private Museum of Mani, the tower house of Stavroneas and the impressive Levis residence, from 1856. In the surrounding area, there are many old Byzantine churches and monasteries, such as Aghios Konstantinos, from 1669, and Aghios Vasileos, from the 12th century.

Another small settlement is Langada, a picturesque village in Messenian Mani, on the road from Kardamyli to Oitylo, with its four-story tower of Oikonomeas, from 1757, the five-storey tower of the Kapitsinis family, from the 19th century, the wondrous Aghia Triada from the 11th -12th centuries and the Church of the Metamorfosi of the Soter, with its impressive murals, which has existed for over 1 000 years.

Koroni, built amphitheatrically on the southern tip of the Messenian Gulf, is surrounded by beautiful beaches which are easy to reach by enchanting walks through the olive groves of the area. The much-suffering castle, an excellent example of fortification, to the present day, has a settlement within its walls. The picturesque town, which extends outside the walls, never fails to charm the visitor, and the walk around the fort, with its gates, towers, cisterns and Byzantine churches, provides a unique view of the Messenian Gulf. The seaside settlement and, aside from the wide Foinikounta Beach on the road to Methoni, the road heading north toward Petalidi, reveal beaches and beautiful landscapes peppered with taverns, and a wonderful view of the Messenian Gulf.

Methoni, with 1 000 inhabitants, on the southwest tip of Messenia, which has been identified with Homeric Pedasus, is a beautiful small town with houses in the neo-classical style and a variety of seaside beauty. Today, the fort at Methoni, one of the most impressive in Greece, has retained its imposing bastions, gates, walls and the remains of some buildings. On a small islet nearby, there is a sea fort, the distinctive Bourtzi.

From Methoni, the visitor can make many interesting journeys throughout the Messenian landscape, so rich in things to see. You can see beautiful Pylos, a few kilometres further north, with Niokastro, one of the best preserved forts in Greece, and the wonderful view of Navarino Bay and its fish taverns. The unique beach of Voidokoilia, with the Gialova Wetlands (the most southern migration stop for the migratory birds of the Balkans heading towards Africa, and home to the rare African chameleon, which is under the threat of extinction), Palaiokastro and the famous palace of Homeric Nestor, a little further to the north, which is the best preserved Mycenaean palace in all of Greece. Toward the east, to the beaches, up to the wide Foinikounta beach, lies the other ‘eye of Venice’ (as it was known, together with Methoni), the beautiful castle and the even more beautiful settlement of Koroni.

Messenia is not without its small islands, which complete its picturesque coastline. Schiza is the largest island in the Messenian Oinousses chain, and has been included in the Natura 2000 network. Mavri Troupa is located there, a cavern with stalactites and stalagmites, which was once a pirate hideaway. Sapientza, with its beautiful, sheltered beach, Ammo, is a small island in the Oinousses, the second largest, with an area of 9 km2. In its centre, there is a large expanse of broadleaf evergreens, trees reaching 10 m tall. Southwest of the island is the famous Calypso Deep, the deepest point in the Mediterranean (5 267 m).

A transition to the wonders of the natural environment of Messenia is Nestor’s Cave, on the beautiful Voidokoila Bay at Cape Koryfasio, as well as the Vatsinidi Cave, near the village of Proastio in Mani. Nature offers yet more matchless beauty in the Vyros Gorge, which is on the western slope of the Taygetos, and cuts a path of 19 kilometres, as well as in the Rintomo Gorge. The gorge of the Neda, the only ‘female’ river in Greece, is 32 kilometres long, and is full of wonderful natural landscapes. A temple dedicated to the god Pan was found here, while Vasses is dominated by the grand temple of Apollo Epicurius, the work of Iktinos.

The great festivals and customs of Messenia keep the past alive but take us into the present, continuing long traditions. The summer Cultural Evenings in the Municipality of Pylos-Nestoras, the three-day festive revival of the famous wedding of Koutroulis in Methoni, the ancient custom of ‘Clean Monday’ with goat costumes in Nedousa, and the custom of the ‘Makaronas’, which is burnt on the fire on the eve of Clean Monday, are just some of these.