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Kalamata: Walkabout One

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsKalamata: Walkabout One

Cars, tourist buses and public transport are, of course, just fine for moving from tourist spot A right through to Z, but there is nothing quite like a leisurely stroll for getting the feel of a new place: you come to know what makes it tick, you often develop more than a nodding acquaintance with the locals, who take much more kindly to perambulating persons than they do to bus-bound ones, you take in treats such as the markets and the architecture: in Kalamata, look up every so often for a view of graceful arches, pediments and miniature statuettes.

Young Kalamatianoi playing backgammon

Modern Kalamata is designed on the grid principle, and is therefore easy to explore. But the old town is like Topsy, in that it “just growed,” so a good map, available at most newsagents and book shops, is a great help. The old town was also geared to donkey traffic, so that the lanes and byways tend to be of the narrow, twisting sort: beware of motor bikes! Wear good non-slip walking shoes and take reasonable care: Greece may have invented democracy but, as it has never won any prizes for plumbing, it has never won any for street surfacing, either. Also, remember to wear a hat, even if the sun has lost its summer sting: the same Greek light, shining for at least 300 days of every year, that quite literally turns the heads of northerners, also gives them freckles, wrinkles and other nasties, so remember your sun block as well, whatever the season. Another hazard is water dripping from balcony gardens: a second reason for wearing a hat!

There are two main squares in Kalamata: the modern part of town is served by the Square of the National Resistance, which is actually a long rectangle built by French soldiers and sailors who had to be kept busy after the Battle of Navarino in 1827; and the Square of March 23, which commemorates the beginning of the War of Independence against the Turks. The first-named runs half of the length of the main street, Aristomenous, and is the scene of the main drag, as it were, with fashionable coffee shops vying for custom for most of the way. The second marks the beginning of the old town and the market area, and is the ideal spot from which to start a walking tour of the historic city center.

An hour and a half is the ideal time for a fairly easy walk; this interval also allows some time in which to get slightly, but always agreeably, lost. (Depending on your tastes in museums, allow an hour or so more if you intend taking in any of the three museums that are in the vicinity: the Benaki Archaeological Museum, the Folkloric Museum, and the Military Museum.) The recommended walk will take you in a rough circle, so that you will finish where you began.

Freedom

A well used to be an integral part of this square; it no longer exists, but has been replaced by a flag-pole (Greek flags are always very much in evidence) and a memorial plaque inscribed, in katharevousa, once High Modern Greek, with the sentiments that drove the many risings against the Turks. Small wonder that there is heavy emphasis on concepts such as Barbaric Tyranny, Mother Greece, and Eleftheria, or “Freedom.”

A very short distance away, heading away from the modern town, stands the 12th-century Church of the Holy Apostles. (If those walls could only speak.) This structure was so badly damaged in the 1986 earthquake that its dome sat on the ground amidst a rubble of bricks for quite some time, but the eventual restoration was extremely successful. A little gem in weathered sandstone, it was expanded during the late 17th century, when the Venetians were in power: it was at that stage that the main body of the church and the bell tower were added. The frescoes, understandably fading, date from the 14th century. Art-loving women be warned: females are not permitted in the inner sanctuary of Orthodox churches. (While I draw a heavy feminist veil over my opinion of this practice, there is nothing I can do except fume impotently at the thought that any chap with an efficient torch can examine what I am not permitted to see.)

The neighborhood of the Holy Apostles has become modernized and gentrified; gone are the days when my mother-in-law, the formidable widow of an Orthodox priest, would nip into a shop for the black dye necessary for the mandatory smartening-up of her headscarves. The powder would be weighed out according to her demand, and then neatly wrapped up in a tiny newspaper packet. But the umbrella and hat shop is still there, and so is the souvlaki joint, although it, too, is much more up-market than it used to be. (Bear in mind that all Greeks eat in the street, so forget any lingering hang-ups you may have about this practice.) But, should you need more formal sit-down sustenance before, during, or after this little tour, be sure to patronize the Milopetra, the Millstone, which isn’t a millstone hanging around anybody’s neck at all, but a pleasure and treasure-trove of organic food, the traditional fare of Kalamata, and locally-produced wines. It is about five steps east of the church, and there is a tempting jewelry shop almost next door.

Lacerations in the city's old quarter

With the church behind you, you have two choices: the street on the left will take you to the Folkloric Museum and a view of the castle, while the one on the right will take you to the Benaki Museum and onwards to the cathedral. Both museum buildings were formerly houses belonging to grand families and are worthy of attention in their own right. But the area is, to borrow Patrick White’s phrase, a mixture of visions and lacerations. The visions consist of little squares and small chapels tucked away in unexpected spots, the occasional neo-classical mansion standing in renovated glory, and balcony gardens, which usually manage to be a blaze of color, whatever the season. Among the lacerations are crumbling old houses, most often owned by ageing expatriates, or else the subject of disputes among numerous heirs; such buildings are simply left to crumble more, and often become overgrown with weeds, or otherwise serve as garbage dumps in which skinny cats forage in a somewhat hopeless fashion.

The roads to both castle and cathedral are well-signed, and it is impossible to miss the latter, which is typical of the large and imposing Orthodox churches most commonly built during the 19th century. If you have never visited one of these before, Ipapandis, named for Candlemas, the Feast Day of February 2, the fortieth day after Christ’s birth and the occasion of the Visitation to the Temple, is worth a look. Note that modesty in dress is a definite requirement, so do not wear skinny tops and/or shorts. Women’s sunhats of the cartwheel straw type, in an unexpected instance of culture-clash, are also frowned upon.

The castle is higher up, and the whole city spreads in all directions around and down from it, so that on fine days there is a splendid view that includes a broad sweep of buildings and the shirred blue silk that is the Gulf of Messenia. Before the 1986 earthquake, it was possible to explore every inch of the castle, and look in the opposite direction towards Sparta, but now the top section of the castle is closed as being too damaged and dangerous, and the outside walls are at present covered in scaffolding. But if you go up as high as is permitted, you can still have a view of the passes of the rugged Taygetus mountain range. Lower down there is a small modern theater, which is used practically every night during the summer months; it is here that many of the performances of the Kalamata International Dance Festival are held during July.

The castle was of strategic importance; the structure you see today dates from the Frankish Conquest of 1205, and is mentioned in The Chronicle of the Morea: “And there they found a castle that was weak, used as a monastery, and they fought and took it by sword.” The “Franks” ruled the Peloponnese until 1460, when the Turks vanquished them, after which the Venetians and the Turks fought over the region with monotonous regularity for the best part of the next 200 years: the Venetians, in a dog-in-the-manger act that caused tremendous damage, blew up the castle’s powder magazine before leaving. From the 18th century on, the castle declined in strategic importance, and became little more than a ruin; it is only within the last few years that measures have been taken to strengthen the walls, thereby conserving what is left of the medieval structure, which originally had two sets of walls and a fortified tower-keep.

On leaving the castle, bear slightly right and then left into Mess. Gerousias Street. A T-junction at the bottom of the street leads left to the Church of St. George, a renovated structure, which is, alas, most often locked. Turn right into Ger. Papadopoulou Street, and left again in order to visit the Monastery of Saints Konstantine and Helen. (Westerners would call it a convent, as it is inhabited by nuns but, in fact, monastery is the correct term.) Once again, modest dress is a requirement in this little oasis of tranquility, where a small modern church, which boasts the presence of a periodically weeping icon, sits in an orange grove. Feel free to visit the long rooms where the nuns sit weaving; their wares, mainly silk scarves and linen tablecloths, may then be viewed and purchased at the shop situated just before the monastery’s exit, which is via Mystras Street. The cathedral is again plainly visible from Patriachou Prokopiou Street.

Here you have two choices: you can walk down Ipapandis Street towards the Square of March 23, past souvenir shops selling olives, ouzo, and the snack made from sesame seeds and honey known as pasteli, along with more silk and linen, and so complete the aforementioned rough circle. Alternatively, you can bear left towards the wide thoroughfare of Faron, which will take you right down to the sea. But it is a long walk, and you may already be discovering a few calf muscles you didn’t know you had. Perhaps a search for lunch, soon rewarded, might be a wiser idea.