It’s one thing to read about an early civilisation or see pictures of its monuments. But to stand above a great amphitheatre, and look across what remains of the city below, is something quite different. You feel its history all about you.
Ancient Messini in the southern Peloponnese is one of the most significant sites of classical times. Never built upon, it has fair claim to be the most complete of rediscovered cities. Extending over an area of more than 20 sq km below Mt Ithomi, north-west of Kalamata, it is fed by the purest springs and looks down over the fertile plains and coast of Messinia.
The city was built in 369 BCE by the Theban general Epaminondas. Excavations began only in 1987, revealing a complex including temples, marketplace, public baths, theatre and a huge stadium with seating for at least 7,000. Within the outer walls, considered the best fortified in all of Greece, were hundreds of homes. The layout was well known to scholars because it was described in detail by the geographer Pausanias in 176 CE (AD).
On the morning we visited small teams of those underpaid archaeologists were continuing the work of excavation and restoration together with a handful of volunteers and building workers. After two enthralling hours, as the temperature climbed towards 40°C, we left but they were still hard at work.
Epaminondas built his walls to keep out the marauding Spartans. But it was the Goths who demolished the place, in 395 CE.
Barbarians from the north are invading once again. But this time they come wearing business suits and carrying briefcases, to impose the European Union’s austerity measures, milk the country on behalf of the international banks, reduce its people to destitution and once again endanger the priceless heritage Greece has given the world.
AT THE PALACE OF NESTOR
The following day we drove west to the Ionian coast, through the vineyards and farmlands of Pylia to Navarino Bay and a still more ancient part of the Peloponnese, referred to by both Homer and Thucydides. Human settlement here goes back at least 6,000 years but the greatest excavated site is the Palace of Nestor, in the hills, the main seat of Mycenean civilisation after Mycenae itself.
Built in the 13th century BCE, it was destroyed around 1200 BCE by a fire whose cause is unknown. Its structures remain remarkably in evidence, including a throne room, stairs to the vanished upper storey and even a bath with its decorative stonework largely intact. Nearby is the circular tomb which held the remains of 17 members of the royal family.
Greek and American archaeologists in the 1950s and 1960s unearthed huge quantities of pots, artefacts and lavish wall decorations. Many went to Athens but others, including superb painted amphorae, jewellery and friezes, are held in the beautiful little museum at nearby Chora.
SEA BATTLE IN PARADISE
Navarino Bay is one of the natural wonders of the Mediterranean, sheltered on the seaward site by great rocky outcrops. We visited the castle of Pylos, built by the Turks in 1573. The biggest of a string of castles along the coast, for centuries it was contested between the Ottomans and Venetians to secure their sea routes. In 1827 the bay below was the scene of the last great battle fought entirely under sail, the Battle of Navarino, when the joint forces of the British, French and Russian navies destroyed the Ottoman fleet, a key moment in the Greek wars of independence.
In the 20th century the castle was used as a prison, and in the Second World War as a base for the Nazi occupation. Today it serves as a centre for underwater archaeology.
The 1828 barracks within the walls house a remarkable collection of drawings and engravings bequeathed to the Greek state by French journalist René Puaux (1878-1937). Many date from the time of the wars of independence, and among hundreds of images there’s a superb drawing of Byron, who didn’t live to see the victory of the revolution he supported, and another of European officers after the Battle of Navarino. The caption describes them as “coming to the aid of the Greek people”.
Very different from relations with the European powers today.
We have the good fortune to live cheaply here. A memorable dinner a couple of nights ago at the local taverna with our friends Jim and Marjory: discs of scrumptious eggplant, with spiced cheese and stuffed peppers, followed by zucchini flowers, octopus and souvlakia.
We’ve cracked the problem of the price of fish. We avoid the tavernas catering for tourists and buy our own at the Kalamata fish market, where piles of glistening fresh catch are traded among much laughter and shouting and, on the morning we were there, live music on the violin and accordion. We came away with enough sardines and mackerel for two good meals, all beautifully gutted and cleaned, for the princely sum of five euros.