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Day Trip Two: Giavola, Pylos & Methoni

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsDay Trip Two: Giavola, Pylos & Methoni

These three destinations can be managed in a day by car, but not otherwise. As usual, however, there is so much to see and do that many people will be tempted to spin their stay out longer. Both Pylos and Methoni are easily accessible by bus, but people using buses will need to take a taxi to Gialova from Pylos.

Like Koroni, Pylos and Methoni are almost impossibly pretty little towns, each with its own castle. Giavola has a castle, too, a very imposing one, but is equally famous for its wetlands: it is a sanctuary where approximately 245 species of bird-life find a home and haven. When coming from Kalamata, Giavola is the logical choice of first visit but, en route, one catches a first glimpse of the Bay of Navarino. Australian novelist Patrick White, the Nobel Laureate and philhellene already mentioned in these pages, was so deeply impressed by the bay that he thought it should be designated the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Pylos, with Navarino Bay beyond

Navarino, the largest natural harbor in the Peloponnese, with not too much competition elsewhere, as it happens, is a huge expanse of water bordered by rugged cliffs, and almost blocked at its entrance by the island of Sphacteria, which is over 4km long and 1km wide. The bay itself measures about 3 by 5km, and has a depth that varies from between 20m in the north to 60m in the south, ideal anchorage for whole fleets, and so always of strategic importance. (The harshly modern marina can cater for up to 250 vessels at any one time.) There are two narrow channels to either side of Sphacteria: the one to the north is guarded by the formidable Paliokastro (“Old Castle”) near Giavola, while the channel to the south is watched over by the Neokastro (“New Castle”), in Pylos proper.

The Bay of Navarino was the setting for the last great naval battle in history; it was here, on 20 October, 1827, that the English, French and Russian allies defeated the Turkish-Egyptian fleet, which was lying at anchor while the army of Ibrahim Pasha was ravaging the Peloponnese. The fleet had three times the number of ships and was vastly superior in firing power to the allies, but it was taken by surprise, trapped, and unable to maneuver, so that 6,000 of its men died; the allies, on the other hand, lost only 174. This battle definitively marked the end of the protracted Ottoman occupation of the Peloponnese: the blow to Turkish morale was immense, the Sultan was forced to negotiate, and Greek Independence was thus not far off.

The modern town of Pylos is not to be confused with Homer’s “sandy Pylos,” whence King Nestor’s ships set out for Troy. Ancient Pylos is near modern Giavola, and indeed there is a cave named for King Nestor to be found at the foot of the cliff on which the mighty Paliokastro stands. Even the most energetic may be daunted by the long and steep climb up to the castle, but most people agree that it is worth the effort. Care is needed when walking within the huge structure; it has been standing since 1278, after all, and so has naturally seen better days. Interested parties will wish to spend quite a lot of time investigating, exploring and observing: the castle walls enclose an area of 8 acres. The views from those same walls defy description: the lazy writer’s excuse, but well-nigh true. Look down on Voidokilia beach and bay, a unique geological formation named for its shape: “ox-bellied,” and famed for its beautiful silver sands and blue-green water. And gasp. And gaze at length.

Palaiokastro, above Pylos

The formation is actually a bar that separates the sea of the bay from the brackish waters of the Gialova Lagoon, which is also very beautiful. As well as being home to the aforementioned multitude of birds such as kingfishers, egrets, and the various breeds of owl, wintering birds and those of passage, it shelters sea turtles and other species such as the unique African gecko. The lagoon is a nature reserve of international importance, and is part of Natura 2000, a European network of protected sites. Thus, all the usual rules and regulations about conduct within such an area apply: please be guided by all signs relevant to driving, parking, camping, the lighting of fires, etc.

Bird lovers and others may well want to extend their time here. (Note that the Hellenic Ornithological Society conducts guided tours during the winter; check their very efficient website for information.) The village of Gialova has accommodation available, but it would be as well to make enquiries about possibilities before leaving Kalamata.

From Gialova it is on to modern Pylos.

A seafarer's rugged countenance

The road to Pylos consists of long descending zig-zags along the side of the majestic bay. The town, designed and built after the battle was safely won, extends upwards from the sea in the shape of an amphitheater, while at sea level the main square, quite near the marina, and with ample parking, coffee- bars and tavernes nearby, is planted with venerable and spreading plane trees. This is Trion Navarchon Plateia, the square named for the three victorious admirals: Codrington, de Rigny and de Heydden; towards one end of the square is a monument that commemorates their leadership. The anniversary is still marked by prolonged celebrations and the attendance of sailors from the three allied nations.

Neokastro is only a short walk from the square: head for the car park and follow the signs. When it comes to Messenian castles, a template or pre-recording would be handy: of course they are all different, but their history, as has been noted, follows much the same pattern of alternating Turkish, Venetian, Turkish occupation. In Neokastro, it is possible to see the changes charted in one of the churches: mosque, church, mosque, church, the last change taking place in 1821, when the castle was handed over to the Greeks, although there was still some time to go before the Ottoman Turks were finally defeated, as we have seen. The fortress was built by the Turks two years after they were defeated in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571: the aim was to control the entrance to the Bay.

A template or recording is also needed for description of the views from Neokastro: only a very good camera can do any sort of justice to them and, even then, it would be a pity to spend too much time clicking. Sit and ponder the fortunate fate that brought you here to witness such beauty. Take the photos, by all means, but do not neglect the inward eye.

Neokastro is another place that repays wandering and exploring, but do venture indoors in order to investigate the museum. Here you will come to an understanding of how significant a victory the Battle of Navarino was, and how easily it could have been lost, given the imbalance in numbers. The Greek heroes gaze from the walls: spend half an hour or much longer, as the mood takes you. The basis of the museum is the René Puaux Collection. René Puaux (1878-1937) was a French reporter who left his collection to Greece on condition that it be displayed in a museum in modern Pylos. That condition has been met, and very well indeed.

Naïf art commemorates a nautical past

Methoni is approximately 12km from Pylos, along an easy road:  note that not all Peloponnesian roads can be said to be easy, by any means. “May your eyes be four,” as the Greeks say, and sometimes may they be 14. Look for the sign close to the Pylos plateia (town square) and note, on the way out of town, the viaduct of graceful arches that lines the route for a short distance.

References to Methoni are ancient: its older name was Pedasos, and it is recorded that it was one of the seven “gift” towns mentioned by Homer as Agamemnon’s attempt to appease the wrath of Achilles. Later, the Spartans gave it to the Nauplions as a reward for their support during the Second Messenian War. In its Byzantine heyday it was the seat of a bishopric.

The Franks rediscovered Methoni accidentally, when Geoffrey de Villehardouin was blown off course and into the little harbor en route from the Holy Land in 1204. He did not linger, but went off to join William de Champlitte in the conquest of the Peloponnese. The nation state being a relatively new idea, even in the last 200 years, Methoni, or Modon, as it was then called, was eventually passed over to the Venetians, and the usual pattern of alternating Venetian/Turkish occupations began.

Methoni Castle swept by waves

Methoni itself is charmingly picturesque, with the usual whitewashed buildings, bright flowers, and winding streets. It also has an invitingly beautiful sandy beach, while the safe little bay attracts windsurfers who can skim effortlessly back and forth all day if they feel so inclined. The central attraction of the little town is, however, the castle. They built them big in the Peloponnese, and the Methoni castle is no exception. Most of the construction work was done by the Venetians: look for the fairly well-preserved Lions of St. Mark at various points in the walls.

Methoni's dark history

A stone bridge with 14 arches leads the visitor into the tremendous structure, with its towering walls and fortified corners. The population of the town used to live within the castle area, as was usual for the sake of at least some security. This, of course, could never be guaranteed: in 1500, the inhabitants, believing they were safe, left the walls unguarded, so that the Ottoman Turks were able to slaughter all the male inhabitants. The women and children were sold into slavery and the castle itself was left to burn for a week.

Vaulted archway, Methoni

The castle was guarded by its moat and by the sea. There is a graceful structure known as the Bourtzi (fortified islet) at the castle’s outermost point. It looks and is a little gem of architecture, but has a dark history, for the Turks built it as a place of imprisonment and execution. Even if you don’t know of this history, the vibrations emitted from the solid stone are disturbing. If those walls could only speak. But no, it is better that they remain mute.