From Athens it takes nearly four hours to drive across the Pelopponese peninsula (via a region by the name of Arcadia – what expectations…) to the south-western corner, near Koroni. This is where my partner and I hid out last week, holed up in a pretty little place swamped by olive-groves while temperatures outside rose and rose – and rose again to 40•. Scorching, but compensated for by stunningly clear, cool and calm waters of the Gulf of Messina down below. Here’s a watery view on a rather hazy morning, The outline of the Taygetus mountains of the Mani peninsula opposite is just visible. That’s for the next trip. Next minute (or 15) I was down there, afloat in the transparent water – bliss.
A few years ago I explored the eastern side of the Pelopponese, mainly Napflio, a favourite hang-out for weekending Athenians, also Monemvasia, one of those picture-postcard-perfect villages in an extraordinary site, but now entirely holiday homes dotted with a few classy boutiques and small hotels. Here’s a snap of Napflio, which we passed through briefly on the way back –
It hasn’t lost its attractive Venetian style (thanks to a former occupier – and there’s even an island fort in the gulf), but the backstreets are now overloaded with tourist-junk shops and the harbour strip with over-priced cafés. Fan-humidifiers blast out clouds of cool steam while Athenians shake the ice in their Nescafés frappés = the surprisingly satisfying local drink. The best thing on this side of the Pelopponese is the ancient theatre at Epidaurus – fabulous, but there was no time to return on this trip.
Bottom line of that little digression into the past is to point out that the western side (Koroni, Methoni, Pylos) is, for the moment, far less spoilt. Koroni itself is delightful, with a reasonable line-up of tavernas along the harbour and, high above, an incongruous convent at the heart of the crumbling citadel. Here, even the wizened old ladies in black are welcoming, usher you into the little church then point you to steps up to the vertiginous ramparts – views assured.
and here’s a view from the citadel.
As dusk descends and the temperatures drop a few degrees (though let’s not exaggerate), a truck full of fruit & veg steers its way down the narrow streets to park beside the tavernas while, at the other end of the quay, a man grills corn-on-cob – echoes of Mexico. Our dining destination was Zorba’s – pretty unoriginal as names go, but it had decent fish and succulent dolmades.
Food is rarely exceptional in Greece, it’s repetitive and not exactly refined, but what it does claim is unbeatable Mediterranean freshness. So here, close to Arcadia, we really indulged in our villa lunches: plump. sweet tomatoes, fruity, viscous green olive-oil (bought at the Harakopio village grocery in recycled water-bottles for 2.5€ – incidentally I’ve just read about a Cretan olive oil on sale in the UK for…wait for it…£28!!!), deliciously fresh, crumbly feta (same supplier – from an enormous tin in his counter fridge), juicy, pungent garlic (yes, same man – he was good) and goat’s yoghurt that was so acid it needed a tablespoonful of jam to be edible (same man again). And then there were the slender, delicate, pinkish pistachios – thousands of them. I’ll confess to an addiction. For me, a saucer of those little things plus a chilled glass of red wine (excellent stuff from Monemvasia) consumed at dusk to a deafening background roar of cicadas is pretty near perfection.
After crossing the peninsula through rolling hills and tiny villages where old men sat outside cafés clicking beads and watching one car an hour go by, we reached Methoni, another bastion of Venetian then Ottoman rule. The fortress is vast, its ramparts encircling a now overgrown terrain of ruins and a church, and jutting out at the end, the Bourtzi, a 16th century island fort once used as a prison. Very picturesque and unexpected – obviously highly strategic for the Venetians.
This time we ate excellent cod baked with peppers in a restaurant garden near the fortress, Klimataria. We’d been tempted by a relatively upmarket seafood restaurant down on the beach, but it remained bizarrely deserted, so we steered clear. Go with the flow no?
Another day we headed for Pylos and the adjoining Bay of Navarino where in 1827 a combined fleet of Brits, French and Russians (those were the days) trounced Ibrahim Pasha’s Turkish fleet. Today, this almost completely circular bay is edged by a nature reserve and a beach. The flat warm water is understandably a favourite with local families, but I was far far happier back at the ranch, or rather the villa, watching the mood slowly change over the Gulf of Messina and the olive-trees shimmer in the fading light, listening to cicadas and devouring pistachios.
That is… until I was bitten by a Greek scorpion! Ouch. Aaaarrrgh. Agonising pain that lasts nearly 24 hours. But it did give me a quick insight into the Greek national health system: a 24-hour clinic in a nearby village with a young woman doctor, English-speaking, and happy to help. And yes, I survived to tell the tale.