Happy days in the Pelo­pon­nese

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - HUGO SABIN THE SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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