During the 13th to 14th century the Venetian Republic was huge with outposts in the Adriatic and Aegean Seas as well as the city states in mainland Italy. I have already found the Lion of St Mark in Palamidi Castle, Nafplio. Now in the Messiana region of the Peloponnese, I find three defensive strongholds which have seen plenty of action and which are free or ridiculously cheap to visit, always a bonus.
I start in Koroni, billed as one of the prettiest towns in the Peloponnese. However, after visiting the Mani, I find it’s not really living up to the hype. The whitewashed walls are a little grimy, the streets a bit dirty and the paint is flaking from the waterfront restaurant terraces. I do find some nice, classy souvenir shops, a rarity so far in Greece. They are selling jewellery, wooden items and local food products, but I’m not here to shop.
Making my way through the narrow backstreets, I climb up to the castle, perfectly situated on a high outcropping with views of the neighbouring bays and the town down below. A lot of fortifications are in ruins, but in places an effort has been made to restore some of the walls.
People still live here, in a few small cottages with kitchen gardens, and in the large Timiou Prodromou Convent, where visitors are made to feel very welcome indeed. At the entrance is a polite notice asking guests to dress appropriately and providing a colourful assortment of shirts, shawls and wrap around skirts. I tie a skirt over my trousers and enter the peaceful sanctuary where I discover a couple of elderly nuns chatting away in the courtyard, eating mandarins picked from their orchard. One of the nuns gives me a suggested tour in Greek, but through hand gestures her meaning is perfectly clear. ‘Round behind the church and up the steps for a nice view. Through the orchard and up the steps for a nice view.’
However, I start in the central, white church, the interior of which is adorned with modern painted icons. Each saint is made clear by particular objects being included within the icon from rules laid down in the 16th century by an artist monk named Dionysios of Phournia. The easiest to recognise is John the Baptist who is always holding his head on a plate, despite there being one still attached to his neck! Behind the church are some of the original cells where the nuns slept – tiny, dark rooms with a small, narrow entrance. Luckily, they now live in larger, brighter quarters.
Through the orchard of trees dripping with oranges and mandarins, I find another corner of the fortress. The warning sign feels familiar: ‘Enter at you own risk.’ Last time I ignored it I had to turn back but this time I safely reach the summit and the views are worth it. I can see the town, the sea and the sheep and chickens in the yard which also supplement the nun’s diet.
Back in the courtyard, as I browse the small souvenir shop, I am offered some sweet, sticky loukoumi (the Greek version of Turkish delight). I want to buy something in order to thank them for their hospitality. In the end, I settle for a small wooden icon of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, which seems appropriate and will hopefully keep me safe as I continue my nomadic adventures and which will remind me of the kind nuns in Koroni.
Methoni is situated at the end of a long crescent shaped bay with a sandy beach and sheltered by the long island of Sapienza. The new town is a long line of modern houses and a huge paved square surrounded by tavernas and overlooking the sea. However, 600 years ago the inhabitants lived in the citadel at the tip of the peninsula.
Established by the Mycenaeans and fortified by the Venetians in the 15th century, it is a huge complex hidden behind thick stone walls and an incomplete moat. I have to cross the beautiful 19th century stone bridge to reach the first of three gates where a lonely lady sits in a small metal and plastic booth for the occasional winter visitor. It seems like I might be the only one today.
As I enter the inner area, I am greeted by two worn, stone plaques depicting the Lion of St Mark and a huge red marble pillar that looks a bit lonely and rather out of place. A long, wide, stone road, turned green due to the grass and weeds, leads to the most eye-catching part of the citadel, the sea gate. I pass two small, brick, domed buildings along the way with cracked interior terracotta pipes and looking more like pigeon lofts than the bath houses that they once were.
Beyond the sea gate I’m presented with the Bourtzi, a fortified tower on a small islet surrounded by sharp, jagged rocks and accessed via a creaking, wooden footbridge and a narrow, stone causeway. The last of 7,000 Venetian soldiers were slaughtered here at the end of a fierce battle with the Turks in 1500. I think I can hear the eerie cries of their souls, then I realise it’s just more pigeons asking me to leave their home.
Near to the Orthodox Church, open but disappointing inside, is a curious pyramid structure. I wonder if it is an ancient tholos tomb but it doesn’t seem ancient enough. My guidebook suggests it was an armoury but that doesn’t explain the strange shape and when I ask the lovely lady at the gate she confesses that it’s her first day at the site and she doesn’t have a clue.
After the peace and quiet of Koroni and Methoni, Pylos seems a loud and busy place. The main square near the port is surrounded by cafes and tavernas and the locals are sitting outside soaking up the sun, chatting and observing each other. But before I stop for morning coffee I want to see the Neokastro – New Castle. It’s hidden by a forest of pine trees on the southern edge of the town, within a thick enclosure wall built in the 16th century by the Turks to replace the 13th century Paleokastro at the northern end of Navarino Bay. From the top of the inner citadel I am afforded splendid views across the bay to the old castle and the Gialova lagoon.
Feuding Maniots were imprisoned here in the 19th century but today the cells are used as offices by the Ephorate of Maritime Antiquities who also have exhibits of their underwater archaeological projects dotted around the castle. The most interesting is one on local Greek shipwrecks and I discover that in 1802 the brig ‘Mentor’ sank off the SE coast of Kythia while carrying the controversial Elgin Marbles back to Britain. It cost Lord Elgin a great deal of money and 2 ½ years to recover them using local sponge divers, Another, known as the ‘column’ shipwreck, produced Egyptian red granite columns similar to the one in Methoni Castle.
Back in the main square of Pylos I discover a large monument surrounded by cannons. It is in honour of the 3 admirals from England, France and Russia who arrived in 1827 to support the Greeks in their fight against the Ottoman fleet of Ibrahim Pasha. In Navarino Bay the sailing ships blasted each other with cannon fire and attacked with swords. It was a bloody battle but the Greeks and their allies triumphed. The victory is still celebrated in Pylos each 20th October with parades and celebrations.