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Kalamata: Walkabout Two

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsKalamata: Walkabout Two

Messenia is justly famous for its beaches, which vary from pebbles to sand, from even shallows to shelving depths, right around the eponymous Gulf. Kalamata itself has 4km of shore, and it is possible to walk almost all of this length, either along the paved promenade or the sea-edge. Why not try a walk from the Filoxenia Hotel in the east to the Marina area in the west? Out on the water, there is invariably something to observe: a fishing-boat setting out or returning, a scatter of small racing yachts, the occasional motor-boat or jet-ski, and flocks of birds skimming low or wheeling high. Choose a good day, and take your time. Whatever the season and whatever the sights on the water, you can dilly and dally to your heart’s content in the numerous coffee-bars, restaurants and tavernes that line the way.

Kalamata's endless pebble beach

Some coffee-shops have been part of the promenade scenery forever. One such is the neo-classical Pan Ellinion on the shore side of Navarino Street, near its junction with Akritas Street. The Pan Ellinion is the ideal spot to sit and observe the doings of the fishing fleet, now considerably reduced from former times, but still returning every morning to supply local restaurants and eager housewives with a variety of succulent fish. Seagulls and cats are ever hopeful, too. Look for the boats from about 9:00 a.m. onwards. This is also a good starting-point for a short walk along the mole, from which there is an unobstructed view of Kalamata’s mountain, the mighty “Basket,” as it is called by the locals. It is on the mole that retired men and little boys like to try their own luck at fishing, although many seem simply to wash a great number of worms in vain.

Just continue to follow your nose along the promenade for as long as you like: it is impossible to get lost. Soon you will arrive at the commercial port area and its pretty pale-blue Customs House and Post Office with their delicate gryphon-decorated, wrought-iron balconies. Once upon a time, Kalamata was one of Greece’s busiest ports, exporting, among other commodities, figs, currants and the famous olives. It is still possible to see traces of the railway track that ran from the center of town down to the wharves. Follow this track away from the sea and you will find a pleasant park where old railway steam engines are on display.

On the southwestern corner of the park stands the modest war memorial, which bears a touching little inscription: “In memory of the Allied Forces and the Greeks who fell at the Battle of Kalamata on the 28th of April, 1941, or who were taken prisoner or who escaped to fight again that the world might be free.”

The soldiers who escaped did so to Crete, where more fighting and hiding was their lot. The memorial was dedicated by the veterans of the Kalamata campaign on May 17, 1994, and every May there is a service here, with dwindling numbers of veterans and Army nurses making the trip from Britain especially in order to attend.

Watermelon and scooter amongst the yachts

The port was also an extremely busy one because until the mid-1950s, as Messenia was very poorly served by roads. What roads there were had often been badly affected by neglect and the ravages of war and civil war. People from both sides of the Gulf of Messenia who wished to visit Kalamata did so by boat; peasant boys whose parents could afford to educate them also came by boat in order to attend high school; they stayed for months on end, often fending for themselves in tiny rooms in the heart of town near the one school for boys. (There was very little concern for the education of girls, who were rigorously trained in the domestic arts and little else.) These days, there is still some activity in the port, with container and cruise ships coming and going, the occasional navy vessel putting in an appearance, and the ferry to Crete leaving once a week. Navy Week in July is a highlight, with visiting battle-ships and the harbor lights drawing summer evening crowds the length of the promenade.

At this stage of your walk in the commercial port area you can press straight ahead to the Marina, or you can take a turn left and walk along the sea wall, built to protect boats and buildings from the freak waves that can occur during all-too-frequent and dramatic winter storms. It is possible to walk along one side of the towering structure, and then along the other, after navigating a slightly daunting flight of stairs for the return journey in either direction. On the outside of the wall there is again the Basket, and also the whole sweep of the Gulf, to view. Avoid a day on which a brisk wind is blowing, and settle for an early morning or afternoon of zephyr breeze instead, for then the whole sea-surface resembles nothing so much as a gigantic bolt of shirred and ruffled blue-green silk.

On the inland side of the wall, boats of a modest variety, little runabouts and caïques, are lined up and, once again, there are always a few men using their fishing hobby as a pretext, no doubt, to get away from their wives. But along this stretch you need to watch your step quite literally, for some people use the most rudimentary equipment. When I walked this way recently, I tripped unexpectedly and caused a clatter of tin cans. An older woman of weather-beaten countenance and determined air had arranged a row of very fine fishing-lines over some little distance and had anchored them by means of spools and soft-drink containers. In this very efficient way she could multiply her prospects of a catch. Not that there seemed to be many the afternoon I was there.

Kalamata gents of an earlier era

From the inland side of the wall you can also take in the architectural jumble that is modern Kalamata. There are some fine neo-classical villas along the waterfront, homes to prominent families of the 19th century, usually merchants, when the port was at its bustling business peak. At least one mansion, sadly neglected, is classified by the Greek National Trust, and bears a marble plaque commemorating the architect, Ernst Schiller. It is a two-story building that takes up a good half block on the corner of Byron and Navarino streets, and is a thing of faded beauty with its tall shutters, marble and wrought-iron balconies featuring a leaf design: the front door (on Byron Street) has a wrought-iron panel of an unusual bell-shaped flower design.

As the town grew and developed and business interests proliferated, and as families declined in position or disappeared altogether, so such gracious houses became divided into apartments and jostled by high-rise blocks of apartments: most of the latter are of very dull and uniform appearance, enlivened only by the invariable presence of colorful balcony gardens. The umbrellas of the numerous beachside tavernes and coffee-shops also relieve the modern monotony.

Returning to the commercial port area, you can either retrace your steps or turn left and westwards: five minutes’ walk will see you in the Marina area, which is reputed to have very reasonable fees, and is very conveniently set up with a dry dock, and all the other amenities that seafaring people expect. Here serious boat-lovers will find themselves in seventh heaven, and will want to linger longer, strolling in leisurely fashion in order to look and yearn, perchance to dream.

Still more tavernes are spread along the water here; these are of a higher standard, and it is to these places that middle-class Kalamata likes to come for lunch and dinner at any time of year. Most eating-places offer traditional Greek fare, but there is a very popular Italian restaurant in the area as well. From the tavernes at water-level you will have glimpses of the mountains through a forest of masts: there must be trillions of euros, mostly in the form of luxury yachts, moored at any one time in the quite extensive area. The elegant Café Yachting, situated above the Marina offices, is a favorite place for indulging in that most Greek of pastimes, that of coffee and chat: from here there is yet another breathtaking view across the Gulf. As the seasons wear on, cloudscapes of great grandeur, piling up over the mountains, are another source of pleasure.

Seaside lunch

Any road leading a short distance away from the Marina in the direction of the town center will take you to a little neighborhood that has a unique charm. This is a section of town containing some of the small houses that were built in a hurry in order to accommodate those unfortunate people involved in the huge population exchange that took place between Greece and Turkey in 1923, after an ill-fated military venture intended to make “The Great Idea,” the reunion of all the Greeks in the Asia Minor region, a reality. Unlike modern dwellings, these houses have individual character, and such character often echoes village life. A few pocket-handkerchief vegetable gardens still flourish, chickens scratch in the dirt, and old-fashioned clotheslines are supported by props fashioned out of saplings.

Look in particular for two little houses (quite close to the Café Yachting) that I like to think are owned by brothers or sisters who have always been on very good terms. In a street running parallel with the sea, they are almost identically decorated in bold red, yellow and blue, and make full use of an appropriate nautical theme, with little ships’ helms in blue and white along the front roofs. Both are a visual feast of painted gourds suspended from verandahs, masses of bright plant-pots alternating with pieces of trellis; then there are the whirligigs and round medallions. No mere description can really do them justice. When you find them, whip out the camera.

Not far away, however, is a sight that reminds the observer of the deep poignancy of Greece, with its checkered and often tragic history. This is a huge corner block edged by a still-solid stone wall. No house remains, but what is left of the garden, the oaks, figs and palm trees, suggests that there was once a very grand dwelling here, right by the sea. This land is a piece of prime real estate and always was: I long to know its history but I do not particularly want to think about its future. All that is left are two minute cottages in a sad state of decay, and built on the very edges of the property.  They are still inhabited, doubtless by very old people, whose future I do not want to think about, either.

Village door with bougainnvillea

But turn away from such slightly maudlin thoughts and make your way back to the sparkling sea, or else wander along in the other direction, and light a candle in one of the several churches you will find along the route. The walk, the day, the experience, all deserve a candle.

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