I Re­turn ticket to the Pelo­pon­nese

Messinia makes an ideal base for ex­plor­ing Greece’s an­cient past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - STAN­LEY JOHN­SON THE SPEC­TA­TOR

I FIRST vis­ited the Pelo­pon­nese in the spring of 1959, at the be­gin­ning of my gap year. I was 18. Hav­ing been ac­cepted for univer­sity as a clas­si­cist, I de­cided I might as well com­bine busi­ness and plea­sure by vis­it­ing the great sites of the Myce­naean era be­fore go­ing on to my stud­ies.

It was mind-blow­ing — Olympia, Ar­gos, Tiryns, Myce­nae. I went from place to place with the Ox­ford edition of Homer’s Odyssey weigh­ing down my ruck­sack, and each day brought a reve­la­tion.

But I had to leave out the great Palace of Nestor near Py­los on that first pere­gri­na­tion through the Pelo­pon­nese. The buses didn’t seem to go that way. And a year wasn’t long enough to do and see ev­ery­thing. Af­ter Greece, I planned to visit Tur­key and then, if funds per­mit­ted, South Amer­ica. Nestor’s Palace would have to wait.

Well, I waited more than 50 years and still hadn’t made a clear plan. Imag­ine my joy, there­fore, when out of the blue I re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to visit Costa Navarino, a new de­vel­op­ment at Messinia, on the south­west coast of the Pelo­pon­nese, and re­alised that it was only a few kilo­me­tres from Nestor’s Palace.

If you are lucky with the con­nec­tions, you can fly straight on to Kala­mata, the air­port in south­west Pelo­pon­nese, which is less than a half hour by car from Costa Navarino. Sadly our tim­ing was out and we had no re­al­is­tic on­ward flight. In­stead we had a mag­nif­i­cent three-hour drive across the Isth­mus of Corinth and the cen­tral Pelo­pon­nese to the west coast and the Io­nian Sea.

Our hosts had left some glossy brochures in the car for us to study en route. A young Greek boy, Vas­silis Con­stan­ta­kopolous (so we read), leaves his home vil­lage in Messinia in the south­west­ern Pelo­pon­nese at the age of 13 to make his for­tune in Athens. He be­comes a sea­far­ing cap­tain, buys his first ship, then a few more, then yet more. But Cap­tain Vass­ily has even greater am­bi­tions. De­ter­mined to do some­thing for his na­tive re­gion, he re­turns to Messinia, buys up more than 1000ha of land on the coast from 1300 own­ers, and plans to build an amaz­ing se­quence of ho­tels, spas and golf cour­ses.

Well, that was the blurb. What about the re­al­ity? Costa Navarino, in its present form known as Navarino Dunes, con­sists of two ho­tels — the Westin and the Romanos. My wife Jenny and I stayed in the Romanos, part of the Star­wood Ho­tels Lux­ury Col­lec­tion. Lux­ury was le mot juste. At the Romanos no fewer than 128 of the rooms have their own pri­vate in­fin­ity swim­ming pool. There’s a golf course, too.

If eat­ing, rather than golf or swim­ming or mas­sage, is your thing, Costa Navarino has it all. The an­cient Greeks in­vented gas­tron­omy and they knew a thing or two about wine. That knowl­edge seems to have sur­vived in Messinia, where the lo­cal white wines, in my hum­ble opin­ion, could hold their own against many bet­ter­known la­bels.

On the morn­ing of our sec­ond day we set off early to visit the Gialova La­goon, where 265 bird species have been ob­served.

Then we drove around the Bay of Navarino, where in 1827 the British, with their French and Rus­sian al­lies, de­feated the Ot­toman and Egyp­tian fleets and struck a vi­tal blow in the bat­tle for Greece’s in­de­pen­dence.

Each year on Oc­to­ber 20 the nearby town of Py­los cel­e­brates the great vic­tory. There is a mon­u­ment on a lit­tle is­land in the bay to the British sailors who lost their lives in that en­gage­ment. The British am­bas­sador makes a point of com­ing down from Athens for the fes­tiv­i­ties.

Our last stop that day — and for me the high­light of the trip — was the Palace of Nestor, set high on a hill at Ano Englianos. We spent an hour there. I could have spent a day, a week. King Nestor, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, took part in the bat­tle of the Cen­taurs and the Lap­iths; he hunted the Ca­ly­do­nian Boar and sailed with Ja­son on the voy­age of the Arg­onauts. He was one of the greats, up there with Agamem­non and Menelaus.

We were shown around the site by two young arche­ol­o­gists, Fo­tis and Natasha, em­ployed full­time by Costa Navarino. ‘‘The palace burned down around 1200BC,’’ Fo­tis tells us, ‘‘but the clay tablets on which they wrote down all the de­tails of their daily lives sur­vived. Ac­tu­ally, the fire fixed and so­lid­i­fied the in­scrip­tions. That’s how they came to dis­cover Lin­ear B.’’

Lin­ear B? As a school­boy in the 1950s, I could re­mem­ber the ex­cite­ment that gripped us when we learnt the young Michael Ven­tris had de­ci­phered Lin­ear B, whereas the great Arthur Evans at Mi­noan Knos­sos, over in Crete, had to­tally failed. Heady stuff in­deed.

I stood there, drink­ing it all in. Here was Nestor’s throne; here was the royal cham­ber of Eurydice, his wife. Here were the royal baths. They seemed quite tiny, those baths; more like basins, re­ally. How small peo­ple must have been in those days, I thought. The an­cient Greeks may have in­vented gas­tron­omy but they ob­vi­ously didn’t have much to eat, not if body size was any­thing to go by.

But still, in so many ways, they had con­quered the world. From that high van­tage point, I looked out over the olive groves to the sea. This is a legacy that en­dures.

costanavarino.com British politi­cian and au­thor Stan­ley John­son is the fa­ther of Boris John­son, Mayor of Lon­don.

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