By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2004)
The forgotten coast of the western Peloponnese stretches from Cape Araxos in the north to Cape Akritis in the south, a meandering venture strewn with forlorn beaches, medieval castles and uninhabited islands.
The western Peloponnese has largely escaped the foreign hordes whose presence has had dubious rewards elsewhere in Greece, owing to its remoteness and the rugged, road-inhibiting Peloponnesian geography. And, even as British retirees are starting to warm to the charms of the place, purchasing secluded old farmhouses in spots, for their part lonely Greek farmers worry over the continuing emigration of young women hungering for urban life. A Greek newspaper article recently spoke of the “love bus,” which transports burly, mustachioed Greeks to places like Ukraine, where eager, EU-aspiring wives-to-be are lined up for them. After an instant ceremony with a sped-up visa process, the Greeks return with their fetching brides to once again plow the fallow earth of the Peloponnese.
So much for them. For foreign tourists, the loneliness of the forested west inspires different feelings, of restorative solitude and peace, of wonder at the towering remnants of bygone civilizations. Although the whole coast is strung with deserted beaches, the best can arguably found from Pyrgos (the middle of the coast) on down.
The welcoming waters of the Kiparissiakos Gulf are home to three beaches, all within a thirty-minute drive of ancient Olympia, the area’s best-known attraction for tourists. Zaharo, near the Sulfur Baths of Kaiafas, is a long stretch of sand visited mostly by Greeks, as is Agios Andreas, a sandy enclave amidst rocky coves, noted for its shimmering, translucent water and set under a chic clifftop beach bar.
Third, and best of all, is the desolate beach lying below the tiny village of Kato Samiko. It’s an average hot afternoon in July; the tropical, palm-frond wood umbrellas offer a welcoming respite from the sun. Unlike with many Greek beaches, no one comes to make you pay just for the privilege of lying beneath them. There are neither crass hotels nor pasty, argumentative louts from abroad. No boats rumble by, save for an old chipped skiff drawn up onto the sands. A few local men attempt to jump-start a jet ski, but soon give up and go back to the one beat-up café on the sands, sipping the national drink, the frappe – instant Nescafé whipped up with water and a sweet foamy head. The steely sea is punctured by whitecaps, and bathers gape at an athletic daredevil astride a surfboard, being towed by a billowing kite. He leaves a huge plume of white in his wake – at times, even pulled ten feet out of the water by the sheer force of the wind.
The same breeze is conspiring against the waitress, an eighteen year-old university student (who no doubt will contribute to the Ukrainian influx by relocating someday), slaving away at the beachfront café. Actually, it’s just a little shack with a shaded patio, tables fluttering with the thin paper tablecloths used in most Greek eateries. She fights to hold it down long enough to apply the obligatory plastic table pins, but the table only really obeys when arrive platefuls of crunchy calamari with lemon, Greek salad with enormous, farm-fresh tomatoes, and grilled octopus of a rich ruby almost as strong as that of the red wine that comes in three golden copper carafes. Rushing back and forth to service the six or seven tables spread across the patio, the pretty young waitress apologizes profusely for the wait (Greek restaurants are always understaffed), blushing with a sweet and unusual sincerity wholly unexpected in touristy places. But then again, this is the western Peloponnese, a friendly, unfrequented area, and soon Joannis the owner is leading us idlers back to the improvised kitchen, gesticulating at the day?s diverse catch. He stabs at silver trays of psaria (Greek for fish), and seizes a silvery-purple fellow with lolling yellow eyes. “This one for you! We catch it today!”
In the end, I acquiesced; anyways it was a good idea to gather strength with a plump fish marinated in lemon and rich Peloponnesian olive oil, bolstered by huge helpings of appetizers and golden Greek lager, for the next day was to be a long journey overland along winding mountain roads to Methoni, in many ways the summation of the western Peloponnese’s historic beauty. Hidden far away in the south, below the ancient Mycenean town of Pylos, this former stronghold of naval powers bears testimony to the interwoven centuries of Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman rule.
After about three hours of travel down the coast, over roads that ribboned through bright mountain villages, we arrived at Pylos. The clean and colorful town today sparkles in the embrace of a harbor lined with little fishing boats, cafés, and narrow streets that wind upwards above the town center, where are situated stately, flower-drenched 19th century houses with a commanding view of the Bay of Navarino – the largest natural harbor in the Peloponnese, protected by the long island of Sphaktiria opposite. Pylos’ imposing castle was built by the Turks in 1573, two years after they were defeated in the unexpected naval battle of Lepanto.
Pylos is most famous, however, as the seat of the ancient Mycenean kings. Its large palace, which travelers can visit today, was built around 1300 B.C. The palace yielded an amazing discovery- hundreds of clay tablets in the mysterious Linear B dialect, paradoxically preserved through the effects of the same fire that destroyed the palace long ago.
Homer mentions “sandy Pylos” in the Odyssey, telling the story of Telemachos, who goes there seeking King Nestor, to find anything he might know about the whereabouts of his disappeared father Odysseus. Telemachos had good timing, it turned out; just when he arrived, the Myceneans were in the midst of slaughtering 81 black bulls and roasting their guts on a spit, as a sacrifice to venerated Poseidon, god of the sea and protector of Pylos. While the meat must have been a bit tough, it was no doubt nourishing for the weary young traveler.
Forging ahead, having apparently been ignored by the Myceneans’ welcoming committee, we reached the sublime castle of Methoni, situated on a high, windswept cliff guarding the Peloponnese’s southwestern tip.
Fortified since the 7th century B.C., Methoni was ruled by the Byzantines for almost 1,000 years. It came under Venetian control soon after the Western powers re-routed their planned religio-humanitarian intervention from Egypt to Christian Constantinople in 1204. The mercantile masters of the Mediterranean, the Venetians gave Methoni their own touch-ups and strengthened its fortifications. In 1500, the castle was captured by the Turks, who ruled it until 1829 (save for a short second Venetian period), appropriately enough adding baths for pleasure and dungeons for punishment.
Visiting Methoni turned out to be a real delight because new and unexpected surprises kept popping up around every corner. Upon entering the enormous, unstaffed castle grounds, we crossed a long stone bridge and were greeted by the famous Venetian symbol, the lion of St. Mark, engraved in the rock opposite. A faded sign from the Greek government pointlessly prohibited photography. Mere dirt paths led up across long sloping fields of yellow and purple flowers, where houses and shops once stood, in what was once a thriving medieval town. At the northwestern edge of the castle a baffling pyramid-like tower stood near the edge of sea walls beneath which, far below, the sea crashed on sharp rocks that deterred all would-be invaders.
Following the sea walls led past the ruins of the Byzantine church of St. Sophia and a 19th century church built by the French, as well as a crumbling Turkish bath, its rounded ceiling punctured by light where holes had been made, its walls remarkably still discolored with a green, algae-like residue.
This was just the beginning. Walking through a dark, rounded archway brought us into the heart of the castle: majestic high parapets rising out of dazzling clear water, across an undulating stone bridge, a proud buttress to the rushing waves. In short, everything that a fairy-tale castle should be.
There, beneath the final archway, stood the high octagonal tower called the Bourtzi. It was here that residents of Methoni were massacred by the Turks on August 9, 1500 (locals say that you can still hear their screams when the winter storms howl against the walls). It was used as a prison at various points afterward, and remains a bit creepy and dark today.
Methoni’s strategic position meant its owners could control all sea routes south. Some believed (erroneously) that it represented the halfway point between Venice and the Holy Land. After the Venetians took control of the pilgrimage transport business in 1227, it became a profitable addition to the Serenissima’s expanding mercantile empire. After clambering up the curving stairs on the outer edge of the tower, and gazing out at the coast and sea beyond, I could understand why Methoni was known as one of the “eyes of Venice,” along with the fortress of Koroni, located on the other side of the peninsula’s southwestern tip.
A faint smell wafting on the breeze and millions of purple flowers revealed that wild garlic abounds everywhere inside the castle of Methoni. Was this a vestige of Italian cookery brought by the Venetians, I wondered? There seemed little else save for seaweed in the sheltered bay inside the castle, and spiny sea urchins – if they were in fact edible.
Of course, one would think, in this bustling town where lived thousands during Venetian times, there must have been plenty of sources of food. But this idea is contradicted by the testimony of an earlier Western tourist, the hungry pilgrim Pietro Casola who visited Methoni on his way to Jerusalem in 1494: “in truth, there was not much comfort in the way of lodgings to be found there,” he is recorded as saying in the work of a fellow pilgrim, The Wanderings of Felix Fabri. “It was as much as we could do to find a few eggs.”
Like tourists to this day, Casola complained of the Mediterranean heat, as did all the other pilgrims save for “the Germans and certain other nations, who – said the venerable Don Francesco in his sermon – ate and drunk from morning till night and then went supper less to bed.”
After a long and sunburned afternoon in Methoni, it was time to do the right thing and head for the beach. And so, after a leisurely lunch, we visited yet another isolated stretch of sand back up near Pylos, in a protected bay on a forgotten coast that gazes, in vain, for Sicily beyond the horizon.
It was by that time late afternoon, there were few people to be found. By walking for a few minutes in either direction, one could find that the dunes were completely deserted. The wind was up and the waves steadily rose and fell across the sparkling sunlit water.
The name of this beach – Voidokilia, meaning “bull’s belly” – had a strange resonance. Did it derive ultimately from the black bulls that Homer describes in his Odyssey, of Nestor and his Myceneans making this foam, these sands run red with the blood of their sacrifices, to appease the passions of an inscrutable sea-god? It was a funny thought; and up to my knees in the sea, I gulped in the salty air and plunged head-first into stern Poseidon’s frothy beard.