Castles in the Sun: A Visit to the Venetian Castles of the Peloponnese

September 4, 2008 Updated: September 4, 2008
VENETIAN LEGACY: The romantic city of Koroni features well preserved Venetian architecture and was once a strategically important port for Venetian ships. (W. Ruth Kozak)
VENETIAN LEGACY: The romantic city of Koroni features well preserved Venetian architecture and was once a strategically important port for Venetian ships. (W. Ruth Kozak)

On a quest to find Venetian influence in Greece, I traveled to the Peloponnese, Greece’s southern peninsula. 

Monemvasia: A Medieval Treasure

My first stop was Monemvasia. Hidden on the slopes of a great rock known as the Gibraltar of Greece, Monemvasia is one of those rare treasures that tourists usually bypass. The entire town is walled and invisible from the shore. The steep rock, crowned with its Venetian fortress, is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Motor vehicles are prohibited, but a minibus takes you free of charge to the old city gates.

Monemvasia got its name, which means “sole entrance,” because the only entry is through a fortified tunnel. As I entered through the thick, stone vaulted gateway I was immediately transported into another age. Narrow cobbled streets wind up the side of the rock. Many of the old buildings are restored in the “new town.” A few are small hotels and there are interesting little shops and cafés. Further up, most of the old town is in ruins, except for a few houses like the home of Yannis Ritsos, who was one of Greece’s most well-known poets.

Known in medieval times as the “Rosemary of the East,” the Venetians called it Malvasia. It became renowned for the excellent wine produced there. The city was occupied by the Venetians in 1417 when inhabitants asked for their help in staving off pirate raids.

When Venetian power began to wane in 17l9, Venice sold Malvasia to the Turks for 30,000 gold florins and the people were forced to relocate. Later, when Turkey declared war on Venice, the city was recaptured. It was the first among the fortified towns of the Peloponnese to be liberated by the Greeks in 1821.

ONE WAY IN, ONE WAY OUT: The unique structure of the rock city of Monemvasia, walled from sight, often protected the populous from invasion.  (W. Ruth Kozak)
ONE WAY IN, ONE WAY OUT: The unique structure of the rock city of Monemvasia, walled from sight, often protected the populous from invasion. (W. Ruth Kozak)

Koroni: A Romantic Interlude

From Monemvasia, I took the early morning bus heading for Koroni, another Venetian town. After a circuitous route through Sparta, that evening I arrived at Koroni. The castle of Koroni was lit by a mystic green light. Above its turrets Mars blinked its red beacon, a crescent moon illuminated the sky over the twinkling lights of the village, and little kaikis (fishing boats) bobbed on the moonlit sea.

I chose a pleasant seaside taverna and took a table nearest the water to enjoy  a meal of tender kalamarakia (squid) and marouli (lettuce) salad served with capers and olives, and a half carafe of krasi aspro (white wine). A trio of musicians serenaded me while I dined.

Once a Venetian naval fortress located on the Messenia Gulf, Koroni is a delightful little town. It’s narrow cobbled streets and stairways lead up to the castle which is now occupied by a convent. Like its sister cities Methoni and Monemvasia, it was an important urban settlement of strategic importance during the Middle Ages as a port for Venetian ships headed East.

The old town of Koroni has long since fallen into ruin, but the Venetian architecture has been preserved, with wrought iron balcony railings and arched windows and doors. The largest, two-storied mansions and public buildings are on the waterfront, while higher up are the smaller laika (folk) houses with small inner courtyards.

Koroni’s beaches are an important nesting area for the endangered and protected loggerhead sea turtles, or caretta caretta. These turtles have been nesting along the coast of the Peloponnese for thousands of years. The females return to the beach where they were hatched to lay their eggs. There are about 800 protected nests on the beaches in this area.

WATER PLAY: Koroni beaches are great for swimming as well as for water sports.  (W. Ruth Kozak)
WATER PLAY: Koroni beaches are great for swimming as well as for water sports. (W. Ruth Kozak)

Unfortunately, I didn't see any of these rare turtles as their hatching season was over by mid-August. However, I did make the 20-minute hike to fabulous Zaga Beach, a long curve of sandy shore behind the hillside, where I spent the afternoon swimming with a view of the castle above.

I would have liked to stay much longer in Koroni, but remembering my quest for castles in the sun, I set off for Methoni.

Methoni Magic

In Methoni, I wondered which set of the many instructions, bus schedules, and information that I was given by Greek locals would prove to be the right one? After considering various suggestions, I decided to go with the English-speaking baker. According to his directions, I disembarked at the crossroads at a village called Rozymalos and waited at a kafeneion, or meeting place, for just over an hour until the bus finally arrived. Wrong! That bus didn’t go to Methoni and I was dumped off in the town square of Pylos—with seven miles to go. Fortunately, I know enough rudimentary Greek to ask directions. The bus depot was right across the street and the Methoni bus runs often. So I had a tiropita, a kind of cheesy Greek pastry, and iced tea and waited.

When I eventually arrived at Methoni, the town seemed deserted. There were no taxis in sight, so I followed a sign pointing “to the beach” and came to “Methoni Camping.” I set up my tent at the campsite and went to the beach for a swim. The beach appeared to be all stones, sloping down into the sea, but the sea bed was pure sand. Not a stone or a shell and no seaweed, either! Farther along the beach, I got my first glimpse of Methoni’s immense castle.

Methoni is one of the most historic regions of the Peloponnese, with a long cultural history. The ancient city Abeloessa Adassos was mentioned by Homer as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offered Achilles to appease his anger after Agamemnon had “stolen” Achilles' favorite woman. The twin fortresses of Koroni and Methoni were known as “The Eyes of the Serene Republic” and guarded the Venetian seaways.

ANCIENT SPOUT: A Venetian fountain.  (W. Ruth Kozak)
ANCIENT SPOUT: A Venetian fountain. (W. Ruth Kozak)

Built over ancient walls, the 15th century fortress expands over the whole of the southwest cape. The castle has a protective moat on the land side and is surrounded on three sides by the sea, making it impenetrable. I wondered how many ships had floundered and smashed on those rocky shores?

I spent a day exploring the ruins. There are many spooky chambers, underground passages, cisterns, a ruined Turkish mosque and hamam, a cathedral, and crumbling houses. A stone causeway leads out to the small octagonal Bourtzi castle on an adjacent islet.

The medieval port town that stood within the fortress walls was the Venetians’ first and longest-held possession in the Peloponnese and a stopover for pilgrims en route to the Holy Land.

The town of Methoni itself is a traditional settlement of Venetian-styled houses and cobbled streets and, unlike Koroni, is built on flat ground with two broad central streets. In the Middle Ages it was a hub of commerce. Now it's a sleepy little town, quiet and friendly.

The tourist season was winding down, so there were few people around. It was my final evening in Methoni so I decided to have a sunset picnic. I packed a little picnic lunch and a half liter of krasi (wine) to drink from a plastic wine goblet. I took along Italian music just to accent the Venetian experience.

I sat at the end of a ruined wall and watched the sun being swallowed by the sea.

Traces of brilliant pink clouds hung over the horizon and opalescent beams of light shot eastward from the horizon. The wine-dark sea (yes, Homer was right. It is!) was dappled with the last of the light. A half moon was visible over my shoulder, and behind me were the castle ramparts. It was sheer magic. What an unforgettable way to spend the last night of my Venetian castle tour.