Kalamata and Messene: Stories for Our Time
By Diana Farr Louis
For many travellers, Kalamata has always been a place to hurry by on the way to Mani. I knew it had a castle and plenty of shiny black olives but they were not sufficient bait to lure me into staying for longer than a coffee break. The city’s reputation suffered too after the earthquake of September 1986 left 26 people dead and 200 injured in the course of devastating 75 percent of its buildings. The situation seemed so hopeless that half its population fled to
the countryside or moved elsewhere. For years rumors drifted north of tent colonies and damage beyond repair.
Now it’s time to start another story circulating: Kalamata, the second largest town in the Peloponnese, is alive and well and definitely worth a longer visit. The annual dance festival provides an additional incentive, but even on its own Kalamata offers a lesson in tasteful disaster management with a smile.
At first sight Kalamata seems to be two cities, an old one hugging the mountainside, a newer one opening onto the sea, with a large section of pleasant but unmemorable one- or two-story houses separating them. The gap between the two points of interest could be problematic for would-be pedestrians, while the distance between the port and the last hotel on the coast road is also too long for walkers. On the other hand, the beach that runs parallel to the road must
be one of the finest, cleanest town beaches in Greece and this stretch claims most of the best fish tavernas. Buses and taxis will bridge the gap if you haven’t a car.
Back in the center of town the distances are very manageable. As in most provincial cities, life focuses on the main square, but Kalamata’s square is a generous marble-paved rectangle with plenty of room for trees and flowerbeds, buzzing cafés, moms with strollers, teens showing off with wheelies and skateboards, the inevitable sidewalk peddlers surrounded by Louis Vuitton lookalikes and radios, kids playing tag or ball, young women with bare midriffs and old gents
with canes and panama hats. This casual evening’s entertainment takes place against a backdrop of beautifully restored neoclassical buildings with delicate plaster moldings on pastel blue, apricot, ochre and white facades topped by terracotta roof ornaments. The picture would be perfect were it not for the graffiti – in-your-face tags as high as the spray paint can reach.
There are fewer graffiti in the oldest part of town, which rises gently towards the castle hill. Many buildings were damaged here so that the main market had to be shifted north, but this is still a picnic-maker’s paradise. Start at Mylopetra, a café-emporium of traditional foods – including olives, dried figs, biscuits, preserves
– very near the church of Agii Apostoli and a green grocer’s brimming stand. The church is lopsided: the larger section was tacked onto the 14th century core in 1626, the bell tower a bit later. It was here that on March 23, 1821, the people of Kalamata declared their independence from the Turks, two days earlier than the rest of the country.
To the west of the church, encircled by a motley collection of old, new and ruined structures, other food shops beckon with local cheeses, like sfella – a sharper version of feta; orange-flavored sausages and smoked pork vacuum-packed for travelers at Ekonomakos butchers; diples, fried pastry so ineffably light it disappears before you realize you’ve eaten it; but best of all, Frangeas Bakery. This fabulous place, recognizable from the stacks
of wood outside, smells of real flour and real bread. And the taste and texture are sublime. Here, too, you will find another Kalamata specialty, lalangia, crunchy fried dough loops resembling oversized paperclips.
Besides the market, the old district has two more conventional museums, both in fine 18th-century houses. The Benaki Archeological Museum, closed for repairs until the late 1990s, has a superbly displayed collection of finds from the area: Classical grave steles; stone age tools, most notably a sickle with obsidian teeth; a bronze
sea horse statuette, blue glass, rock crystal beads, gold jewelry and green-patinaed bronze swords – together with a model of the beehive tomb in which they had been buried and insightful descriptive texts. The Folk Art Museum, the corner home of Georgos and Aglaia Kyriakos, who also endowed the Children’s Hospital in Athens, highlights more recent stages in the life of Kalamata: the olive oil industry, soap making and shipping that made it prosperous in the 18th and 19th century. Women’s outfits
then had the same wasp waists and bustles as Londoners’, but their silk shoes must have suffered on the city’s muddy streets. A place of honor is reserved for the press that printed three editions of a newspaper proclaiming independence before the Turks shut it down.
The Castle of Kalamata is where the July dance festival is held you can save it for an evening. Those overgrown stones represent millennia of history, containing remnants of Mycenaean walls and of the acropolis of ancient Pharai on which the Byzantines and then Franks built fortresses. The last Frankish ruler of Mystra, Guillaume Villehardouin, was born and died here. Until 1960 it was thought to be the site of ancient Kalamai, from kalamia/reeds, which
gave the city and its olives their name.
As you might expect, the outskirts of Kalamata are one enormous olive grove. Olives ascend the slopes of Taygetos well into Mani and fill the Messenian plain to the northwest, where they are interrupted by luxuriant vegetable patches. Strabo, the 1st century geographer, was quoting Euripides when he called it “a happy land of
fair fruitage and streams, cattle and sheep – neither very wintry nor made too hot by the chariot of Helios.”
This happy land, however, was regularly torn apart by war from the 7th century BC on, when the Spartans first captured the Messenian capital Ithome and turned its people into their slaves or helots. The next four hundred years or so saw uprising after uprising, attempts by exiles to regain their homeland. Messenians helped the Athenians at the siege of Sphakteria, the island in Navarino Bay where the Spartans surrendered for the first time in their history; they
settled in Nafpaktos and founded Messina in Sicily but did not get their home back until the Theban general Epaminondas finally cracked the Spartans’ supremacy in 371 BC at the battle of Leuktra in Viotia.
After the victory Epaminondas wanted to create a defensive cordon that would keep the Spartans under house arrest in Lakonia. He strengthened fortifications at Argos and Mantineia and even went so far as to found a new city which he called Megali Polis, the Brasilia of the times, as the capital of Arcadia. Great in size only, Megalopolis (the Roman version which has stuck), did not last more than about two hundred years. Apart from repeated sackings, many of its
inhabitants sneaked back to their mountain villages; some even fled to Trebizond.
Epaminondas was far more successful in Messenia. He didn’t need an oracle to tell him that the exiled Messenians would be an invaluable resource against the Spartans. Messengers were dispatched to all their colonies and as Pausanias says, “they gathered faster than all expectation, longing for their land and country, and still
nursing their bitterness against Lakonia.” Meanwhile a dream commanded Epaminondas to build their city on the slopes of Mt. Ithome, the place
most sacred to them.
An ancient source says that the city was built in 85 days. Amazing when you think that the walls alone follow a circuit of 9 kilometers interspersed with 30 towers. And they were built to last, of finely chiseled blocks set without mortar, a Great Wall in miniature. Awed by their size, Pausanias also says the builders “worked with no other music but Boeotian and Argive flutes.”
When I first saw these fortifications in 1973, little else was visible through the thick olive and cypress trees. Since then so much has been excavated that Messene is now one of the most impressive sites in the Peloponnese. The main feature is a large square aesklepion or health center, surrounded by a double arcade
and enclosing the foundations of a temple, altar and bases for more than a hundred statues set on a deliciously green lawn. It seems to have been more
of an art gallery than clinic. Smaller buildings line the perimeter, including a perfectly preserved little theater and an assembly hall with benches for 76 representatives. Further down the slope, the stadium has several rows of seats still intact, the gymnasium yet more arcades. And in August 2013, about 2,000 spectators crowded into the partially restored larger theater (original capacity 10,000 seats) for the first time in 1700 years to hear not Sophocles or Euripides but arias by Puccini and Verdi.
The museum has finally opened its doors, too, after being hermetically sealed for decades. With only three rooms, it cannot begin to display the 10,000 finds unearthed here, but the statues inside are true masterpieces: an Artemis in huntress mode, a lion devouring a deer, a Hermes from the school of Praxiteles, and several robed, headless women by Damophon, a famous local sculptor of the early Roman era. (The site is open all day every day; the museum until 4 pm,
and there is a small fee.)
In the end, we did not unpack the picnic assembled with such gusto in Kalamata; the shaded terrace opposite the Klepsydra fountain in the one-street village was too inviting – after we persuaded the waiter to lower the Bold and the Beautiful to reasonable decibels. Nor did we manage to get to the top of Mt Ithome to see the acropolis ruins and the
abandoned 16th- century Voulkano monastery. Guidebooks and locals alike advised against taking anything except
a jeep or a rented car, “certainly not your own,”and we were too lazy to walk. The walls start from there, following the ridge of the mountain, another where Zeus was said to have been raised after the nymphs washed him in the Klepsydra. It was sacred to Messene, the mythical pre-Dorian queen for whom the city was named. Aristomenis, the Messenian’s most revered leader, was reported to have sacrificed 300 Spartan POWs on her altar but he was the only man ever to escape from the Kaiada, the notorious chasm on
Taygetos where the Spartans tossed their POWs, criminals, traitors and deformed infants.
Today’s serene setting makes it all but impossible to dwell on war crimes, past and present. The thought of the Messenians, joyfully at home after so long an exile, and of the Kalamatans, their city restored with sensitivity and pride, made me want to congratulate both Epaminondas and (former) Mayor Stavros Benos, not to mention the Greek Archeological Society, for doing such a superb job.
How to get there
Kalamata is the only town in the Peloponnese with an airport, but you can also take the bus or your car and drive either direct from Tripoli or via Sparti, the scenic route. For Messene, take the main road west out of town and at the modern village, head north, following the signs to Ancient Messene.
Elias Manoua is the owner of Swift Rent-a-Car in Athens and works with car rental companies all over Greece and can assist you in finding the car you want at a reasonable price. Great prices and good cars.
Where to stay
Located right across from the sandy beach of Kalamata, Hotel Ostria (pictured here) is within walking distance of seaside restaurants, cafes and bars. It offers inexpensive rooms with free Wi-Fi and it has a bar. Rooms at Ostria
are simple, yet tastefully furnished and air-conditioned. Each is equipped with a satellite TV, mini bar and hairdryer. All units have a balcony, while some enjoy views over the Messinian Gulf. The Grecotel Filoxenia, at the east end of the coast road, boasts both pool and beach, as well as comfortable rooms that make up for the rather stodgy, old-fashioned décor in the lobby and diningroom. The Elite, also on the coast road but about a kilometer closer, comes highly recommended as well. Just across from the famous, organized beach of Mikri Mantineia, Mantinia Bay Hotel offers a swimming pool open throughout the year, and a snack bar. It features elegant, self-catering accommodation with free WiFi and balcony.
You can find more hotels with photos, descriptions, guest reviews and maps on Booking.com's Kalamata Page
Where to eat
We stumbled upon the Naftikos Omilos (Yacht Club) (tel. 27210 23860) behind a string of cafés in the middle of Kalamata’s coast road. Open to all, it had a fridge full of glistening fresh fish, which they know how to cook, good local wine and imaginative salads. The Oasis (tel. 27210 24246), alongside the Elite hotel, is known for its fish and authentic traditional cooking, and there are other fish tavernas on the port. For a snack in town, don’t miss
Mylopetra in the Old Market district (Benaki 6, tel. 27210 98950). Just outside Kalamata, at the junction with the road to Messene, are two rotisseries specializing in spit-roasted piglet, a favourite local delicacy. The Ithome taverna at Mavromati/ancient Messene presents a good excuse to save your picnic for another day.
Don’t leave Messene without a copy of the excellent guide by archaeologist Petros Themelis, who has worked on the Messene excavations for the past 35 years. And thank you to Brent Kinder for his Messene photos.
See also Kalamata: A Local's View
Update! The Dance Megaron was built in 2013 for the Kalamata Dance Festival and the old train station is now an open air cinema... same owners as the theatre/cinema in town. It's lovely. My friend George's Music Studio Bandapart is a great live music venue, as is Giannis' Brooklyn Live Stage... it's brand new... it's probably one of the nicest stages outside of Athens.
(Thank you Michelle C Hicks!)
Diana Farr Louis is an American food/travel writer and long-time resident of Greece. She has published dozens of articles and two books on Greek cooking – namely Prospero’s Kitchen, Mediterranean Cooking of the Ionian Islands from Corfu to Kythera, and Feasting and Fasting in Crete. She was the chief
travel correspondent for the weekly Athens News from 1997 to 2007 and has written two excellent travel books,
Athens and Beyond: 30 Day Trips & Weekends and Travels In Northern Greece, both highly recommended reading for those whose traveling in Greece goes beyond Mykonos and Santorini. Feasting and Fasting in Crete includes recipes and anecdotes, history and tradition about the island and is an essential ingredient in any Greek or Grecophile Kitchen. Prospero’s Kitchen was recently republished in a new, third edition by IB Tauris in London/Palgrave in the US and is widely available through Amazon
and other websites and bookshops. Feasting and Fasting in Crete can be ordered from the publisher, Kedros, firstname.lastname@example.org or in the US from Greece In Print She also writes a bi-monthly column for www.weeklyhubris.com called “Eating Well Is The Best Revenge” and contributes positive stories about Greece to the Huffington Post. Since the demise of the Athens
News and the scandalous closing of its publications department, Diana’s travel books have become as rare as hen’s teeth, but the occasional copy can be found by doing an online search.
Activities in Kalamata