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Day Trip One: Koroni

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsDay Trip One: Koroni

Kalamata is not only a place well worth exploring in its own right, it is a useful and convenient base for further exploration. To the east lies the Mani, that wild and rugged area alive with legend and storied in myth. To the west is the area known as Pilia, which (once again) boasts spectacular beaches, but also small, picturesque towns that are steeped in history. Some of these are ideal for a day excursion, but know that some are so enchanting that you may well wish to linger longer. Popular Pylos and Methoni are on the Gulf of Kyparissia, while Koroni is on the western side of the Gulf of Messenia.

Koroni is situated on a headland near Cape Akritas, approximately 50km southwest of Kalamata. (There is a fairly regular bus service to this part of Messenia for those people who shun hire cars.) Like much of the Peloponnese, Messenia is fairly littered with castles, especially in coastal spots, which were most vulnerable to attack by pirates, but also strategically important: Koroni’s very imposing castle, which dates from the 13th century, can be seen from a long distance. Its history is no exception to the rule of early Frankish domination, with alternating Turkish and Venetian control following later: the Turks obviously remained in control for far longer, having conquered the settlement in 1500. A successful attack by the Spanish and the Knights of Malta in 1531 led to only a brief occupation until 1533, when the Turks triumphed again.

View of Kalamata through Koroni Castle entryway

When I first visited Koroni 30 years ago, during a winter holiday from Australia, it was a charming but sleepy little fishing village. Now, the place having been considerably smartened up, foreign tourists make it a popular holiday destination and/or a place in which to have a home away from home: real estate has been booming for years. The beach, water sports, opportunities for serious walking, and the addition of some sophistication in the form of coffee-bars and restaurants, all make Koroni a place of great appeal for most age groups. But, I am thankful to report, it retains much of its former charm, and remains basically unspoiled.

As the only thing that one can expect in Greece is the unexpected, so anything can happen in Koroni. Many years ago, on one of my frequent excursions there, I was walking up to the castle past the small and picturesque houses that line the steep way, when I was struck by the sight of a bird in a cage. Caged birds are, alas, a common sight all over Greece, but this bird was unique: I had never seen a sulphur-crested cockatoo in Greece before, and I have not seen one since. “G’day,” I said, coming all over Aussie in a kind of companionable nostalgia. “You’re a long way from home.” Cocky fixed me with a characteristically beady eye, but clearly suffering from linguistic maladjustment and culture shock, declined to talk.  Nevertheless, I felt, very egotistically, that he was there solely for my sake.

Caged singers a Greek tradition

Even further back in time, when I first visited Koroni, my eldest son was a somewhat highly-strung small creature of five. There is a monastery/convent within the castle walls and, of course, for this Orthodox-baptized child, a visit to the religious center was considered mandatory. Dear Reader, picture the scene. Sheltered Presbyterian-raised mother, fresh from Melburnian suburbia, ushers her impressionable offspring into the presence of a smiling nun, who conducts us on a brief tour. All is well until the very last, when Dimitris points a quivering finger at a certain wall and demands to know, as well he might: “What’s that?”

The nun continues to smile as she explains gently that that is a skeleton.

And a skeleton it indubitably was, quite a tall one, complete in every detail, at least as far as I could judge, and suspended from a hook on the wall; even I could see it was grinning horribly. Dimitris recovered sufficiently to ask the same question of a piece of paper that was clutched in one bony hand. The nun gently removed the paper and showed us the words that read something like: As I am now, so you will one day be. My mentally robust son clearly did not believe it. In my early 30s at the time, I knew it to be true, but I didn’t believe it, either.

Since then I have searched for Mr. Bones, but have failed to find him.

Snowy crown of Koroni

Make the castle and the monastery your first port of call. There is quite a lot to see, and it is all of a most picturesque nature. Camera freaks will definitely want to make and take plenty of pictures here, starting with the spectacular view across the Gulf of Messenia, which is ever-so-neatly framed by the arched gateway at the entrance to the castle. Before reaching the monastery, however, history and architecture buffs will want to take a close look at the Byzantine church of St. Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, which was built on the site of an ancient Temple of Apollo. The monastery itself is painted a blinding white, and climbing around its own set of walls, looking at the chapel crosses against the sky, and then descending into its gardens, is an experience not to be missed. Make sure you have your photograph taken beneath the white lintel that bears the legend painted in black—Orthodoxia ee Thanatos (“Orthodoxy or Death”)—a good talking point when you get back home.

Church within Koroni Castle keep

After a thorough wander round the monastery and its surrounds, including a cemetery, which interested parties and those not possessed of a morbid imagination might like to inspect, make sure you take in the view from above Zaga Beach. A long sweep of golden sand borders silken water so pellucid that sunlight makes patterns on the sea floor; the mountains stretch away into the distance. Perhaps the cemetery behind you only adds to the feeling of how good it is be alive and looking at such a spectacle.

The castle and environs are considered, for obvious reasons, the main attractions of Koroni, but there is much else to see besides. Walk along the lanes that zig-zag up and down and discover little gems of architecture: much renovation has been carried out in the most tasteful and conscientious fashion. Then there are the more modest cottages, often with gardens that are the usual riot and blaze of color in the spring and summer. Many of these little houses are picture-postcard material, and indeed one can be remembered by this very means. Look for a card depicting brightly-painted earthernware pots and colored gourds decorating a house on one of the higher streets and see if you can find the real thing: it’s not too difficult, and if you brandish the facsimile the locals will be glad to direct you.

Dinner by the sea

Eating and drinking are of course a great part of Greek life and leisure, so do not miss the chance to have a simple lunch or dinner by the water. Fish is fresh, delicious and fairly cheap, and so is wine from the barrel.  More magnificent views form a background to these pleasures; in the foreground painted boats rock gently on what could almost be a painted ocean.