Happy days in the Peloponnese
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
ISLAND hopping is for backpackers and binge-drinkers; if you want a real Greek holiday, go to Koroni, Messenia, in the southwestern Peloponnese.
It’s an old town, founded before Christ, absorbed into Byzantium, then squabbled over by Ottomans and Venetians. Its geography is ancient history — Olympia to the north, Sparta across the bay, and Nestor’s Palace, Corinth, Mystras and the amphitheatre at Epidaurus all nearby.
Yet Koroni feels somehow young and unbothered. Sit in one of the cafes or bars along the harbour, and it seems like a jolly seaside town from the 1970s or 80s, unpretentious and touristic enough to be easy to enjoy, but unspoilt.
The hotels are mostly small and uncomplicated, with the recent arrival of a few boutique establishments. The taverna owners are eager for your custom, but they are not pushy or grasping.
Visitors mingle with friendly locals. I know a cafe owner, Takis, who spends all day scampering back and forth across the bay, waiting on tables, and never stops saying, ‘‘ Yassou, yassou!’’ to anyone who’ll listen.
One eats well, too, here — usually simple, cheap Greek fare. If you walk away from the waterfront down a narrow side alley, you can find the shabby but delightful Souvlaki Shack, run by two slightly dishevelled brothers. The wine is disgusting, the menu nonexistent and one sometimes has to share a table. The souvlaki, fried potatoes and Greek salads are delicious, though.
Things are magically quiet in Koroni and many other parts of the Peloponnese. It’s as if the gods have ordered the volume down. In fact, it is the politicians, not the deities. Having made such a spectacular mess of just about everything else, Greece’s leaders seem determined to get things right here. Strict environmental regulations have preserved the countryside and the tourist authorities have ensured that most beaches retain a natural character and a sense of calm.
The economic crisis may in fact have prevented Koroni and its environs from becoming another heaving Faliraki. A few years ago, the government, with EU support, invested heavily to make the southernmost points of the Peloponnese more accessible. A motorway from Athens to Messenia was completed, and easyJet was allowed to fly into Kalamata. Messenia’s tourist trade seemed ready to soar. But the financial crisis slowed the process, and now towns such as Koroni exist in a curious limbo, suspended between being major tourist destinations and peaceful backwaters.
It is a happy limbo, though, and a happy place. If you are seeking an easy and affordable break, I can’t think of anywhere better.