Into July and we were itching for a road trip. In this strange summer season, some resort hotels and restaurants have chosen not to open at all. The usual campaign for the sky the sun the sea! has brought so far just a trickle of tourists, not a flood. Though tourism is seen a little like the savior of the economy — in Iraklion Crete a rousing concert of Cretan music greeted the first plane of tourists on July 1st — tourism has inevitably brought an increase in coronavirus cases. It’s not out of control, but still a little worrisome, after Greece had done so well with handling the virus…
We could feel Methoni, one of our favorite places on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese, beckoning to us. In a kind of “Homeric” mood we decided to first make a stop at the Palace of Nestor, that we had last visited over 20 years ago. Although a lesser figure in the Trojan War than other Peloponnese kings like Agamemnon of Mycenae or Spartan king Menelaus, Nestor figures in a lovely episode of the Odyssey when he welcomes at the palace with great hospitality Telemachus who has come to ask the old king if he has any news of his wandering father Odysseus (Ulysses) after the end of the Trojan war.
Before 1990, if you wanted to drive from Athens to Kalamata, as I experienced, it could take you as long as 6 hours winding your way through the roads around the mountains. Eventually a national road with a whole series of tunnels — along with countless toll booths — was built that cuts the time in half. Be very careful with speed limits (and seat belts) as police are out in full force and penalties are very harsh for violations.
We put on some good traveling music, Chris Rea. Here’s “Looking for the Summer” that really gets us in the mood. Note his husky voice, the guitar work and quiet feeling of joy. And the refrain is appropriate, what with covid 19 lurking around, wondering what kind of summer we’ll experience.
Even though we’re on a national road, it’s scenic with the sea on one side until Corinth, and then as we get into the Peloponnese interior, we’re surrounded by mountains and more tunnels – signs warn you to be careful of fog and indeed in the winter, you can be in the sunshine at one end, and after you exit a tunnel, descend into thick fog hiding the mountains ahead of you. There is the summer dryness, the pungent smell of thymari or thyme filling the air, the sight of windmills on hills and solar panels. The incessant singing of the cicadas. As we leave “Arcadia” and get closer to Kalamata in the province of “Messenia,” olive groves fill the landscape, with an occasional cypress tree. No surprise, for Messenia is one of the major olive oil producing areas in the country. Turning off the main road, you can see small greenhouses and plenty of stands with makeshift shade, with ropes of garlic hanging down and vendors selling the usual melons, nectarines and tomatoes. In the small towns there’s always a place with the name “traditional stone taverna” and a cafeneion with usually men (though you see women occasionally) sitting at tiny tables on the sidewalk watching the cars pass by.
Before you reach the palace, you hit the little dusty town of Chora and park the car under some plane trees next to the small museum, with its finds from surrounding areas and the palace, which was destroyed in a fire in 1200 B.C. We’re asked politely to put on our masks. (Masks have been required only for public transport, taxis and airports, and recommended for other indoor areas, but a new law as of today, requires them in supermarkets and other closed areas — 150 euro fine for violation.) We’re the only ones in the museum. A very helpful and knowledgeable young lady, who I had to strain to understand through her flowered cloth mask, was eager to explain the display cases to us.
Most amazing to me were replicas of clay tablets written in Linear B (originals in Athens archaeological museum) that were baked in the destructive fire, and thus preserved. You can also see a number of vessels and how they were warped, twisted and changed color by the fire, which destroyed the palace. The year of the fire, 1200 B.C., is generally considered the end of Mycenean civilization all over the Greek mainland.
At the Palace we learned more about Linear B, the oldest European script and an archaic form of Greek, that was used hundreds of years before Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey. Deciphered in the 1950’s, it’s a language that’s syllabic and ideographic and was primarily used to record things: accounting records, transactions, raw materials used by craftsmen. There was also mention of the gods – Zeus, Poseidon, Dionysus, Hera. No abstractions: that came later in the evolution of language.
“Is this the way to the palace?” we ask the kiosk owner in the main plateia in Chora.
“Yes but it’s not in operation anymore,” he replies, laughing at his joke. From the palace you can look down past the olive trees to “sandy Pylos” below as Homer calls it.
Before we go in, Elias studies some of the information. There are a few visitors but we mostly have the place to ourselves.
During the four years that it was closed for renovations recently, a steel roof was constructed above the ruins with explanatory plaques. Thankfully we could walk around in the shade! The administrative seat of Pylos kingdom is actually the best preserved Mycenaean palace in mainland Greece and the 2nd most important center after Mycenae itself (in the Argolid near Nafplion)
The kingdom was very wealthy and prosperous – their “gold” then (as now) was olive oil, that they filled huge jars (pythoi) with, and used to trade for other products.
Inside the palace were brilliant wall paintings, many of which were represented in the early and mid 20th century by artist Piet de Jong who also did drawings of Mycenae and the Minoan palace of Knossos among others. There were many scenes of everyday subjects — battles, hunts, or as we see here, with a partly hidden dove and woman playing the lyre.
The colorful wall paintings are similar to the ones done at the Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete, that flourished several hundred years before the Myceneans, and used similar sacred symbols were used, such as the mythical griffin. The lion was an important Mycenean symbol as well. Here is a painting that was found in the Throne Room.
In the Throne Room the King (or wanax) entertained important Mycenean representatives and other important visitors. It seems that Nestor certainly enjoyed sharing his hospitality as shown by the thousands of broken kylixes (drinking cups that were used by guests) found fallen from shelves after the fire that showed lavish banquets.
The word “hospitality” is actually a poor translation of filoxenia, one of those hard-to-translate Greek words. If you break it down, it’s “friend of the stranger” (Xenos interestingly originally meant “guest” and later acquired its meaning as “stranger” or “foreigner,” the meaning it’s most used today.) A stranger equals a guest. The Ancient Greeks used to think that Zeus sent strangers their way and they had a moral obligation to offer everything they could to them – foreigners were considered as “sacred persons.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Book 3, Nestor says to Telemachus “May Zeus..forbid that you…should go back to your fast ship as some man altogether poor and without clothing…no no no in my house the dear son of Odysseus shall not have to go to sleep on the deck of a ship, as long as I am alive, and my sons after me are left in my palace to entertain our guests, whoever comes to my household.”
Actually, without even knowing who these strangers are, Nestor welcomes Telemachus and his men warmly when they arrive at the palace. They are fed with meat that is roasting, and then only after “the pleasure of eating,” does Nestor question them about who they are. So it was during Mycenean times over 3,000 years ago. Perhaps olive oil, the “gold” was also given to guests to take away with them in small containers, the way it is done in modern times. In any case, we’re told that when Telemachus leaves, he’s given bread and wine and meats for the road (as he’s off in his chariot to visit Spartan king Menelaos).
Besides the throne room, there is a room with a well-photographed bathtub (asaminthos), another similarity with the Minoans. Other similarities and influences of Minoan architecture: courts, baths, a second story in the palace, drainage system, even signs of the double axe motif.
This is the kind of bathtub referred to in the Odyssey when we’re told that Polycaste, King Nestor’s youngest daughter bathes and cares for Telemachus and anoints him with oil (aromatic oils were also experimented with). Then, dressed in his cloak and tunic, it is said, he goes and sits by Nestor, the “shepherd of the people.”
Near the palace are several of the well known tholos or “beehive” tombs where Mycenean royalty were buried.
We leave the Mycenean world and make our way down to “sandy Pylos,” famous for the battle of Navarino in 1827 during the Greek war of independence. Outside Pylos, huge cranes and cleared land seem to be telltale signs of deluxe hotel construction. A little outside the town sits the “modern palace” of Costa Navarino, a luxury resort which boasts two world-class golf courses in a country not really known for the game of golf. On its website, Costa Navarino makes sure to associate itself with the hospitality of King Nestor “who first gave meaning to the word ‘hospitality’ when he befriended complete strangers.”
The Costa Navarino resort is an effort to draw in a certain kind of visitors to the southwest Peloponnese. There’s no connection to the simple beauty of Methoni, about 12 kilometres south of Pylos. We stay at the hotel run by Mr. Aris and Mrs. Eleni, a short block away, as most of the Methoni hotels, from the long sandy beach with the always calm and crystalline sea.
It’s not only the sea that draws people — there are plenty of beautiful seaside towns in Greece — but that you’re swimming practically next to one of the largest and most beautiful Venetian castles in Greece. It must have inspired the kids who made this sand castle we saw on the beach one day!
Life moves slowly in Methoni. In the last 25 years since we first came here, we’ve seen almost no changes. Same hotels. Same playground right off the beach. The pedal boats that used to be on the beach have been replaced by umbrellas belonging to the Methoni Beach Hotel, a reincarnation of a Xenia hotel, which were box-like structures during the junta time (late 60’s, early 70’s). Same barber shop/hairdresser on the upper street. The Methoni bakery has updated itself and is operated by two young ladies who have decorated the store with liqueurs and large burlap bags of coffee from all over the world. The coffees are delicious, as well as their pitas. Try the one with anthotiro (a soft white cheese) and yogurt.
Hotel owners Aris and Eleni, who are getting on in years, spend most of their time sitting in the generous shade of the morea tree in the plateia next to the hotel. The plateia has a historic monument, a Venetian well from the late 17th century, when the Venetians recaptured Methoni from the Ottomans for about 30 years. A Turkish traveler at the time noted that it was the center of activities for the locals, as well as “foreigners washing their clothes.”
Methoni is in fact a town rich in history. According to Homer, the city, known as “Pedasus,” was one of the cities (“vine-rich…near sandy Pylos”) given by Agamemnon to Achilles to lessen his rage. Pausanius, the indefatigable 2nd century traveller, refers to it as “Mothoni” in his travels, named for “mothona,” a mythical rock. During the Crusades Methoni was a well-known stopping point on the route between Europe and the Holy Land. For this reason the Venetians had their eye on conquering it which they eventually did in 1209 A.D. and started building their fortress on top of the older Byzantine one.
The fortress, being next to the modern town, differs from most cities where castles are found up in hills (as in the neighboring Koroni — both Methoni and Koroni were known as the “eyes of the Venetian republic) In Methoni, the castle is right there as you go to the beach. Its Western Ionian side is always rough — no worry about anyone approaching — but it’s the eastern side with its calm water, that could be the site of a surprise attack.
So, from 1200 BC & Nestor’s palace, we’ve moved 2,400 years later – the Venetians. I had vowed actually not to explore the castle on this trip –enough of sweltering under the sun, of trekking around in no shade, but in the end we got up early and walked across the bridge – the original entranceway into the fortress across the moat was a wooden bridge – used until 1829 when it was replaced by the one used today with 14 arches.
I guess there’s just something you can’t resist about walking around fortifications, especially by the sea.
There must have been space for hundreds and hundreds of houses as we pass through the Piazza Grande d’Armi, which at one time was a paved market street with vendors, merchants, shops and wooden houses for the Venetian lords. In the middle what’s left is a huge purple granite column that was found in a shipwreck and brought there in 1493 and at the top of the column, the winged lion of St. Mark, the patron saint of the Venetians.
You follow a passageway past some Ottoman baths (the Ottomans conquered the Venetians after 1500) till you get to the Bourtzi.
You follow a small walkway to a tiny rocky islet where you see the octagonal Bourtzi tower, built around the same time as the one in Nafplio, in the early 1500’s. At this time, the Ottomans had seized the fortress from the Venetians and gave the name Bourtzi to the tower (after Turkish «burz» meaning «fort.») The Ottomans held the fortress until 1685, when the Venetians recaptured it until they lost it again to the Ottomans in 1715. The tower had various uses: as a seat for the guards who were watching the fortress, as a lighthouse, a shelter in times of siege, but mainly as a prison and torture ground. During the winter when gusts of wind blow and high waves crash against the rocks of the western side, it is said that the sound is the moaning of unjustly killed prisoners of Bourtzi…
In the evening, watching the sun from the cliffs fall into the Ionian sea on the rough side of the castle is one of the main activities before you wend your way through the town to choose the taverna where you’ll have dinner.
Time to eat! Klimataria is one of the oldest tavernas around. We particularly like Nikos Taverna; if you go, sit under the orange bougainvillea. They offer a plate of mezes at the beginning with peppers baked with mizithra (another soft white cheese) and zucchini blossoms stuffed with rice and cooked on the stove like dolmadakia. Both mezes are delicious, as well as the salad.
Usually you can find zucchini blossoms at the fruit and vegetable markets. Pull them off from the zucchini, clean the inside, wash them and use them the same day, as they don’t keep well. Besides stuffed, they’re delicious fried or grilled, topped with lemon and olive oil.
There is also Modon Restaurant near the sea in the main square with great seafood that we enjoyed one evening. No problem finding a table at the tavernas. Though there are some tourists — besides Greek, we hear German, Italian and English, there’s a kind of a deserted feeling in the evening. The hotel and restaurant owners are counting on more tourists next month in August when more Europeans take their vacation. Restaurants right outside the town on the way to the “camping Methoni” have a desolate air, but we do see a few trailers and tents in the campground, which runs a taverna right by the sea.
If you want to check out other beaches in the area, Lambes is beautiful. Nearby Finicounda is a more built up resort than Methoni and attracts a younger crowd.
Voidokoilia (“cow’s belly”) is always on a list of most gorgeous beaches of not only Greece, but of Europe. Two drawbacks: first, it’s really hard to find and second, you’d better go there by 10 in the morning or after 7 pm or you can just die under the rays of the sun. Even with an umbrella.
When we’re ready to leave, we learn that hotel owners Aris and Eleni are also into agricultural production. As Aris shows us the fish in his aquarium, Eleni disappears into a storeroom and returns with a large plastic bottle filled with their own olive oil to offer to us as a gesture of filoxenia,
along with a Guinness-book-of-records cucumber and some tomatoes from their garden. We’re assured that the olive oil will burn our throat, which shows how good it is. (See olive oil blog.) This gift of “gold” continues the tradition from the Mycenean times, and these gifts of hospitality would certainly have met the approval of old King Nestor and Zeus himself.