Things to do in Messinia

A long way from party islands and overrun ruins, this quiet corner of the southwest Peloponnese delivers major vacation rewards. The beaches are among the best in the Mediterranean, but you’ll have more than enough space to lay your towel; and head away from the coast and you’ll find swathes of untapped countryside, dotted with Venetian towns, crumbling castles, and mountainside villages. So great is Messinia’s appeal that writers including Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, chose to live here. And Bruce Chatwin was so enchanted that he asked for his ashes to be scattered here after his death.

Fly-and-flop package tourism has made some inroads, particularly around the village of Stoupa, 7km south of Kardamyli, as have international luxury hotel developments and golf courses, but these are few. Stick to the area’s many excellent small guesthouses and village restaurants and not only will you have a more rewarding vacation experience, you’ll be giving something back to local communities, too.

Highlights

A castellated village on the edge of the sea, squeezed in between the towering Taygetus Mountains and the calm waters of the Messinian Gulf, Kardamyli is one of the loveliest spots in the Peloponnese. No wonder, then, that writer Patrick Leigh Fermor chose to base himself here for more than 40 years. Time can be spent exploring the surrounding mountainside villages or hiking in Vyros Gorge, which begins just outside of town. Kardamyli has a history going back to Classical times, even making a brief appearance in the Iliad.
The town of Pylos is a laid-back web of cobbled lanes, vegetable gardens and stone houses covered in bougainvillea. At its heart is a wide square overlooked by huge plane trees, under which local residents sit at cafe tables, drinking coffee, playing cards and shooting the breeze. It feels – dare we say it – ‘authentic’, and not a town just catering to tourists.
On a hill above Pylos sits Old Navarino Castle. A 13th-century fortress, it was perfectly positioned for observation and defence and now that position gives way to breathtaking views down over the coastline and over to nearby islands.
You can get a further does of history at ancient Messini, whose ruins are as impressive and substantial as those at Olympia – yet receive far fewer visitors. Set on a hillside with gorgeous valley views, the site is still undergoing excavation and includes a vast stadium, a theatre and a marketplace. There’s also an impressive gate, 800m beyond the main site.

Beaches

Messinia is home to a clutch of beautiful and unpretentious beaches. With the exception of the high-end Costa Navarino, you won’t find swanky beach clubs or rows of pristine sun loungers here. Beach life is more about turning up at the sands with a picnic and a portable beach umbrella – if you’re lucky, you might find a low-key shack selling drinks and snacks.
The most famous beach in the area is Voidokilia, which is pictured on postcards and posters throughout the Peloponnese. It's not hard to see its appeal, with its golden horseshoe bay and clear, bright blue water that’s ideal for snorkelling as well as swimming. As well as exploring the water and people watching (it does get crowded on summer weekends, so come early or late if you can) you can scramble up the cliffs to get a look at Nestor’s Cave, where, according to legend, Hermes hid the cattle he stole from Apollo.

Our top Peloponnese Vacation

Peloponnese vacation in Greece, Mani & Laconia

Peloponnese vacation in Greece, Mani & Laconia

An unconventional destination for alternative travelers!

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The great outdoors

Messinia's geography is really varied, so there’s plenty to keep outdoorsy types busy. Visibility in the sea here is excellent, so snorkelling is always an option, and there are a number of dive centers if you want to explore the depths further.
Between September and March keen birders make for the Gialova Lagoon, just north of Pylos. It’s a major wetland area and an important stop on the migratory route between Europe and Africa. Among the thousands of migratory birds stopping here in spring and autumn are flamingos, cormorants and herons.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Grzontan] [Highlights (Kardamyli): I, Harald Rossa] [Beaches: Kostas Limitsios] [The great outdoors (Gialova Lagoon): Miltos Gikas]
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