As May is said to be a perfect month to explore the Peloponnese, we traveled this large Greek peninsula by camper and convinced ourselves of its extraordinary beauties. One of the most attractive regions appeared to be Messinia, a land full of contrasts in the southwest corner of the Peloponnese. We didn’t only discover vast olive groves, green valleys, picturesque mountains and sandy beaches, but we also explored two impressive castles: Methoni and Koroni, once known as the “Eyes of Venice” in the southern part of the Mediterranean.
The Methoni and Koroni castles have always been an “apple of discord” among the major powers that have controlled the coastal area of the Peloponnese throughout the ages, due to their strategic positions and their importance for trade and maritime traffic. They were built (or reconstructed) by the Venetians in the 13th century to guard the seaways and ports from marauding pirates, and to provide safe refuge for pilgrims heading for the Holy Land during the Crusades.
The fascinating castle of Methoni – one of the largest castles in the Mediterranean – stands as a landmark on a rocky promontory jutting out into the sea.
After we had found a parking lot in the new part of the town, we approached the castle over a stone bridge with 14 arches that crosses a sea moat, connecting the castle to the shore. The symbol of Venice, the lion of St. Marcus, dominated the gate. The site appeared to be very large with a small fortified islet at the southern edge, known as “Bourtzi”. This octagonal tower was built by the Venetians, but reconstructed by the Turks in 1500, when it became a prison and place of executions. Inside the massive walls we saw remains of a Turkish mosque, a bathhouse, an ammunition depot and plenty of underground passages and spooky chambers. The place looked like a movie set and it was hard to imagine how people lived here many centuries ago….
By the way, can you believe that a Venetian army of 7,000 soldiers tried to defend the fortification from 100,000 Turkish soldiers? Of course, a hopeless undertaking…. Methoni was conquered and the Ottomans stayed here for 300 years.
Although the Methoni castle is, no doubt, more impressive, I preferred the Koroni castle, an interesting mix of Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish architecture, located at the edge of a rocky mountain ridge. Why? Just imagine a castle that doesn’t only consist of ruins, crumbled walls and abandoned stone buildings; Koroni is still “active”, with inhabited old houses and a magnificent convent.
The town of Koroni itself is a nice and charming place with a long “plakia”, a promenade with open-air terraces on the waterfront. Chairs and tables of the tavernas are often painted blue and green, which gives the place a very special look.
We reached the castle (free entrance) through steep cobbled streets in between the typical Greek houses of the fishermen district and entered the gate through a Venetian tower from the 13th century.
The first thing we noticed was the abundance of wild flowers and well-maintained olive groves. The atmosphere was tranquil; it was as if time had stood still in this oasis of peace and calm.
But a visit of the monastery was a special experience. The nuns were welcoming and friendly. Although they didn’t speak any foreign languages, they pointed at a narrow gate to the courtyard. What a surprise! I had never expected to see such stunning gardens within a castle. Everywhere the fragrant perfume of jasmine, thyme and other herbs. Magnificent views and old chapels could be found around every corner. We spent an hour or so enjoying this extraordinary place…
I love old castles and fortresses. They stimulate my fantasy and imagination. The castles of the Peloponnese remind me of many other fortresses along the coasts of the Mediterranean with a similar history – but I will certainly carry special memories of Methoni and Koroni, the “Eyes of Venice”.