When the dim skies of winter fill with the bright light of spring, myriads of multicolored little heads pop up from the ground. And me stuck in Athens with too little time to visit some faraway island, I feel like being grounded. Luckily, in this tiny but very beautiful country there is a selection of awesome places to visit within a three hour drive from Athens. So, no worries about boat or plane tickets, just rent/borrow/steal a car (or motorbike!) and go!
We chose to visit Pylos, a charming, town in Messinia, Peloponnese and camp to Sphakteria the remote, uninhabited island opposite to Pylos. The route from Athens to Pylos was quite rewarding itself. It is the beginning of April and we are able to see a little snow, still clinging the peaks of Mount Taygetos; on the other side, the sea glimmers in the spring sunshine. The last part of the trip, from Kalamata to Pylos, is lined with olive groves and wildflowers. This is one of the largest olive groves in Greece and the source of much of its extra virgin oil and its famous Kalamata olives.
After a three hour drive we arrived in Pylos, a small picturesque seaside town with rich natural beauty and glorious history. Here took place the naval battle of Navarino between the Allied and Turkish fleet, held on October 20, 1827. The historic victory of the Allied contributed to the liberation of Greece from the Turkish occupation. The town has a very beautiful plaza facing the sea where you can enjoy traditional sweets in one of the plaza’s café. It is the ideal place to relax and take a break before you continue your trip and that we did so.
We started our kayaking tour from the marina of Pylos heading towards the Tsihli Baba, an impressive monolithic island with spectacular rock formations and an imposing rock arch at its northern tip. The area is a key stopover in the flyway of migratory birds so keep an eye on the rocks to spot birds. We saw cormorans and ducks! The coastline forms sea caves and secluded bays accessible only by the sea. We chose one of them for our next stop. We were out there all alone enjoying the first swim of the year! We paddled a little more and we approached the Sphakteria island. Nobody lives up there, so for one night we were the only inhabitants of the island.
The next day we had to unset our camp and paddle back to the mainland, crossing the Navarino bay. Unfortunately, we had no time for a bigger trip. However, on our way back to Athens we made a detour to visit the city of Kalamata and the Medieval fortified town of Mystras in Laconia.
Life pass by in a very relax pace in this small city of 80.000 inhabitants, where the weather is most of the year warm and sunny. The city lies on the west coastline of Greece and it is surrounded by high mountains. Definitely walk around the historical center an area with buildings of the 19th century. Near the old train station there is the famous restaurant Kardamo. We tried Fresh mushrooms with wine, garlic and thyme and Handmade pasta with smoked pancetta and zucchinis. What makes this restaurant special is that all of its courses are prepared with local and fresh ingredients. And as it is very typical in Greece we completed our visit in Kalamata with a coffee at the seafront of the city.
Mystras was only one hour twenty minute drive from Kalamata and the road, passing through the mountain of Taygetos, gave us spectacular views. Lying on the other side of Mountain, Mystras is rising in steeply ascending rows along the slope of a hill, providing a view over the fertile plains of Laconia. It served as the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea in the 14th and 15th centuries and although the Byzantine Empire was already beginning to collapse, Mystras was reaching its peak, experiencing a period of prosperity and cultural flowering.
You can wander around for hours among the old stone streets, noble mansions hundreds of years old, Byzantine churches and works of art. The beauty of the place is stunning and I can see why Mystras is considered one of Greece’s greatest archaeological sites, worthy of its ranking as a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.
Access to the Mystras castle can be gained from two gates, the Lower and the Upper and you need at least 3h to walk around. Take your time and enjoy the site, as you stroll around the beautiful cobbled alleys, you take a taste of how life looked like during the Medieval times.
And even if this trip was short, we had the chance to experience the blooming landscape and the freedom of being outdoors!
Written by Nefeli Papageorgiou