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Messenia, Fertile Province of the South

Messenia, Fertile Province of the South

Greece is like that other jewel of the East, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra: age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. To many people, Greece is simply Athens and the islands. This notion may be a natural mistake, given the great attraction of these places, but mistake it is, nonetheless. Famous Cretan novelist Nikos Kazantzakis gave it as his opinion, and his opinions are still worth heeding, that any journey in Greece must always begin from the Peloponnese, “the old mother. Here are the famished bloodstained roots. . . Athens, the bloom, the root’s uppermost aspiration, comes later.”

The Indominatable Greek Spirit

Of the seven prefectures in the Peloponnese, that of Messenia has a fair claim to be the most appealing. But then, dear reader, I could be biased, having lived nowhere else in Greece for the whole 27 years I have been in this bewitching land. However, once upon a time, which is how many good stories begin, I did not know of Messenia’s existence. My scanty knowledge of the Peloponnese, geographical, historical and literary, came to an abrupt halt in the province of Arcadia, that wooded, gladed area traditionally known as a bucolic paradise largely inhabited, at least in the popular imagination, by Pan and assorted nymphs and shepherds. But life is shot through with irony, or at least my life is. Long ago, I married a Messenian immigrant in Melbourne, Australia, an act that speedily ensured Messenia’s location on my mental map. And, a while later, I became an immigrant myself. In reverse.

The adjective “Arcadian” appears in many dictionaries, and denotes “rustic simplicity.” Messenia, and Messenian, usually do not feature in dictionaries at all. Yet only an hour and a half’s drive separates Tripolis, the capital of Arcadia, from Kalamata, the capital of Messenia. Messenia also shares borders with Elis, to the north, and Laconia, to the east. The rest of the land is sea-girt: by the Messenian Gulf, along which the city of Kalamata and its villages spread, the wider Mediterranean to the south, and the Ionian Sea to the west, 140km of coastline in all.

Sea beneath Koroni

As Greece is varied, so is Messenia. It quite literally has something for everyone, and in all seasons. Mountains cleft by ravines slope down to valleys and then to the sea, with its beaches and uninhabited islands; rivers wind through wooded plains and spill through gorges; lagoons, lying still and quiet, shelter an abundance of bird life. Those visitors in thrall to history will never want to leave, and neither will naturalists and botanists: the Caretta caretta sea turtle and its relevant conservation program is just one of the attractions for the former, while the latter will be enchanted by the 80 botanical species present in the province, 23 of which can be found solely in the Taygetos mountain range.

For those who are simply interested in a change, and in the mental and emotional stimulation which comes from observing and experiencing a different and exotic slice of life, Messenia provides an ideal opportunity. It is still very largely an area dependent on agriculture—the main products being table olives and high-quality oil, dried figs, currants and citrus fruits—and so it follows that traditional villages are much more part of life here than the average visitor would expect.

Pausanias, the Greek who traveled extensively and wrote copiously in the second century AD, described Messenia as “the blessed land.” Quite some time later, a great many people still agree.