This was a fabulous, 3-day, solo excursion I made to the Peloponnese, Greece's southern peninsula. On my own I was free to indulge my interest in Greek history at my own pace, dilly-dally, hurry along, or change my mind as I pleased. I could, on a whim and without discussion, discard my camping plan should I decide a pension(guesthouse) would be more agreeable.
This trip I decided to visit Peloponnesian places with a Venetian influence. Several buses a day go from Athens to the Peloponnese. To get to my first stop, Monemvasia, I went via Sparta.
On the slopes of a rock known as the Gibraltar of Greece, Monemvasia is a rare treasure that tourists usually by-pass. The entire town is walled and invisible from the shore. The steep rock, crowned with its Venetian fortress, is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Motor vehicles are prohibited, but a free minibus takes you to the old city gates. Monemvasia got its name, which means "Sole Entrance," because the only entry is through a fortified tunnel.
As I entered the L shaped tunnel through the thick stone, vaulted gateway, I was immediately transported into another age. The narrow cobbled streets wind up the side of the rock. Many of the old buildings are restored in the "new town," a few are small hotels and there are interesting little shops and cafes. Farther up most of the old town is in ruins, except for a few houses like the home of Yannis Ritsos, one of Greece's most well-known poets.
Renowned for producing excellent wine and situated on an important trade route, Monemvasia attracted pirates who not only took merchandise and animals, but also people to sell as slaves.
Fed up with that treatment, the locals called upon the Venetians for help. Venetians occupied the town in 1417, renaming it Malvasia. When Venetian power began to wane in 17l9, Venice sold it to the Turks for 30,000 gold florins, and the people were forced to relocate. Later, when Turkey declared war on Venice, the city was recaptured. It was the first among the fortified towns of the Peloponnese to be liberated by the Greeks in 1821.
From Monemvasia I took the early morning bus and, after a circuitous route through Sparta, arrived in Koroni that evening to an inspirational sight. The castle was bathed in a mystical green light. Above its turrets Mars blinked its red beacon. Village lights twinkled, and a crescent moon illuminated tiny kaikis bobbing on the sea.
I stopped at a pleasant seaside taverna to savor the scene along with a meal of tender kalamarakia (squid) and marouli (lettuce) salad served with capers and olives. A half carafe of krasi aspro (white wine) and a trio of Romanian serenaders stirred up warm, comforting feelings to complete my day.
Once a Venetian naval fortress located on the Messinian Gulf, Koroni is a delightful old town. Its narrow cobbled streets and stairways lead up to the castle, most of which is now occupied by a convent.
Like its sister cities, Methoni and Monemvasia, it was a strategically important urban settlement during the Middle Ages for Venetian ships headed East.
The old town of Koroni has long since fallen into ruin, but the Venetian architecture has been preserved, with wrought iron balcony railings, arched windows and doors. The largest, two-storied mansions and public buildings are on the waterfront, while higher up are the smaller laika (folk) houses with small inner courtyards.
Koroni's beaches are important for the endangered and protected loggerhead sea turtles. These turtles have been nesting along the coast of the Peloponnese for thousands of years. The females return to the beach where they were hatched to lay their eggs. There are about 800 protected nests on the beaches in this area.
Unfortunately for me I didn't see any of these rare turtles as their hatching season was over mid-August, but I did make the 20-minute hike to fabulous Zaga Beach, a long curve of sandy shore behind the hillside. I spent a glorious afternoon lounging on a beach chair and swimming with a view of the castle above.
I would have liked to stay much longer in Koroni, but I had one more Venetian site to visit, so I set off for Methoni wondering which set of instructions locals had provided would prove correct.
After some dithering, I decided to go with the English-speaking baker who had even drawn me a map.
According to these directions, I disembarked at the cross-roads of a village called Rozymalos and waited at a kafeneion for just over an hour until the bus finally arrived. Wrong! That bus didn't go to Methoni, and I was dumped off in the town square of Pylos – eleven kilometers to go.
Fortunately I have enough rudimentary Greek to ask for help. A pharmacist explained that the Methoni bus runs often from the bus depot right across the street. Okay, no need for worry after all. I had a tiropita and iced tea and waited.
When I eventually did arrive at Methoni the town seemed deserted. There were no taxis in sight; it was mid-afternoon, and all the Greeks were apparently having their siesta, but I did see a sign pointing to the beach.
I followed the road until I saw "Methoni Camping" and thought I might as well set up my tent and proceed to the beach for a swim. At first, the beach appeared to be all stones sloping down into the water, but the sea bed was pure sand. Not a stone or a shell and no seaweed either. Marvelous! Farther along the beach I got my first glimpse of Methoni's immense castle.
Methoni is one of the most historic regions of the Peloponnese with a long cultural history. The ancient city Abeloessa Adassos was mentioned by Homer as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offered to Achilles as appeasement for having "stolen" Achilles' favorite woman.
The twin fortresses of Koroni and Methoni were known as "The Eyes of the Serene Republic."
Built over ancient walls, the 15th century fortress expands over the whole of the southwest cape. The castle has a protective moat and, surrounded on three sides by jagged coastline with sharp teeth-like rocks jutting up from the sea, it's virtually impenetrable. I wondered how many ships had floundered and smashed on those rocky shores?
I spent a whole day exploring the ruins. There are many spooky chambers, underground passages, cisterns, a ruined Turkish mosque and hamam (public bath), a cathedral and crumbling houses. A stone causeway leads out to the small octagonal Bourtzi castle on an adjacent islet.
The medieval port town, which stood within the fortress walls, was the Venetians' first and longest-held possession in the Peloponnese and a stopover for pilgrims en route to the Holy Land.
The town of Methoni itself is a traditional settlement of Venetian-styled houses and cobbled streets and, unlike Koroni, is built on flat ground with two broad central streets. In the Middle Ages it was a hub of commerce, but now it's a sleepy little town, quiet and friendly.
The tourist season was winding down and there were few people around, so I decided to have a sunset picnic. I packed a little supper and a half liter of krasi to drink from a plastic wine goblet. I took along Italian music just to keep the Venetian theme.
I sat at the end of a ruined wall and watched the sun being swallowed by the sea. Traces of brilliant pink clouds hung over the horizon and opalescent beams of light shot eastward from the horizon. The wine-dark sea (yes, Homer was right. It is!) was dappled with the last of the light. A half moon was visible over my shoulder and behind me the castle ramparts. What an unforgettable way to spend the last night of my Venetian castles tour.