Methoni at the south-west point of the Peloponnese was the “vine-producing Pedasus” of Homer’s Iliad. In the 13th century it became the biggest Venetian citadel outside Venice itself, and the ruins of the great fort are still there today, maintained (frugally) by the Department of Antiquities.
Methoni was known as “the right eye of Venice” because of its importance in controlling Mediterranean trade routes. Its sheer size and imposing defensive architecture – it covers a good square mile and has the biggest moat I’ve ever seen – bring home what extraordinary trading power the Italian city state once had. This was the basis for the wealth manifest in the great palazzi that line its canals and in the art patronage that fostered Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto.
Old ruins, architectural as well as human, are full of surprises, and inside the walls we found a vast field of pungently aromatic wild garlic, hundreds of metres long, covering the space where houses once stood. At the far end a great octagonal watch tower juts out into the Ionian Sea.
We came here on a day when the summer winds were blowing from the south-west, driving down past Navarino Bay and through the narrow streets of the little town. In the lee of the fortress a sheltered sandy bay affords a good place to swim and eat fish. Australia may have better beaches, but there are none with views like this.
We drive back over the hills north of Koroni and have another swim at a beach within sight of our beloved Taygetos mountains on the Mani side. The land on both sides of the gulf is tinder dry. What happens, we ask each other, if there’s another bushfire?
THE KINDNESS OF GREEKS
Everywhere we go here we are overwhelmed by the friendliness of the local people we meet. They encourage my stumbling Greek, warm to Alex, offer suggestions of places to visit. And when we get talking to someone in a shop or café, there’s always a good story.
Stopping in Pylos for breakfast we meet a young Greek man with impeccable Canadian English and French. He has come back, he tells us, after a long time abroad, because Greece is in trouble and he wants to help. He and his wife have set up a shop selling exclusively Greek products. She buys in all the stock, he tells us proudly – stylish clothes and jewellery at surprisingly good prices, organic skincare products from Crete, woodwork, ceramics and glassware so good it reminds me of my friend Sue Axford’s at home. So far business is not bad – there are some Germans and Scandinavians in town, and today a cruise ship standing off in the bay. We wish him good luck.
Our bookshop friends in Kalamata continue to help us with advice and local knowledge. I’m fascinated by the beautiful little 12th century church, the Agii Apostoli, in the central 23rd of March Square where the old town meets the new. The square was named for the date in 1821 when the leaders of the insurrection against the Ottomans met in the church to swear an oath of allegiance.
Wasn’t that the beginning of the wars of independence, I ask young Leo in the shop. He gives me a lesson in local pride. No, he says, it began six days earlier on the 17th, in the Mani, when they raised an army to march here.
The date of March 23 is, however, engraved in the minds of every schoolchild in the area. And every year on that day, there’s a re-enactment in Kalamata.
I would like to see that.
We end a memorable day by strolling down the hill for dinner at our local taverna, where the welcome is always warm and the food is unfailingly excellent. This time we have zucchini flowers and village cockerel.
It was the journalist Phillip Knightley who advised us, as we set off on this journey, to tell people what we’re eating, and I would never disregard the advice of the man they call “the Captain”. But here in the Peloponnese food would have made its way into the conversation anyway – it’s so central to social life, and we’re so close to its source that we can literally see where it comes from. You don’t have to teach the people about food miles.
I just wish we could bring some of that good Methoni garlic back to the Tweed Valley.
As the sun went down behind the mountains and the lights came on around the gulf, our Australian eyes spotted a light bigger than usual 50 miles away in the hills beyond Kalamata, and a wisp that might have been a cloud rising against the sunset. It was a bushfire, we realised – and watched helpless as it flared and died, flared again and within an hour went dark.
We wondered what struggle had gone on up there. Greece has introduced heavy penalties against tossing cigarette butts and other forms of arson since the bush fires a few years ago, but fire-fighting resources are thin on the ground. Those tough Peloponnese farmers had sprung into action, no doubt, and their victory would have owed a lot to traditional farming methods: terraced hillsides regularly cropped by sheep and goats.