Explore The central mainland
Mesolóngi (Missolongi), for most visitors, is irrevocably associated with Lord Byron, who died here to dramatic effect during the War of Independence. Otherwise it’s a fairly shabby and unromantic place: rainy from autumn to spring, and comprised largely of drab, modern buildings between which locals enthusiastically cycle along a flat grid plan. To be fair, the town has been spruced up, especially in the centre, but if you come here on pilgrimage, it’s still best to move on the same day, most likely to Lefkádha island or the Peloponnese.
Gate of the Sortie
You enter the town from the northeast through the Gate of the Sortie, named after the April 12, 1826 break-out by nine thousand Greeks, ending the Ottomans’ year-long siege. In one desperate dash they quit Mesolóngi, leaving a group of defenders to destroy it – and some three thousand civilians not capable of leaving – by firing the powder magazines. But those fleeing were betrayed, ambushed on nearby Mount Zygós; fewer than two thousand evaded massacre or capture and enslavement by an Albanian mercenary force.
Garden of Heroes
Just inside this gate, on the right, partly bounded by the remaining fortifications, is the Kípos Iróön, or “Garden of Heroes” – signposted in English as “Heroes’ Tombs” – where a tumulus covers the bodies of the town’s anonymous defenders. Beside the tomb of Souliot commander Markos Botsaris is a statue of Byron, erected in 1881, under which – despite apocryphal traditions – is buried neither the poet’s heart nor lungs. Byron might conceivably have been offered the throne of an independent Greece: thus the relief of his coat of arms with a royal crown above. Among the palm trees and rusty cannon loom busts, obelisks and cenotaphs to an astonishing range of American, German and French Philhellenes, those Romantics who strove to free the Classical Greece of their ideals from the barbaric thrall of the Ottomans.
Museum of History and Art
Back on the central square, the Neoclassical town hall houses the small Museum of History and Art devoted to the revolution, with some emotive paintings on the upper floor (including a copy of Delacroix’s Gate of the Sortie), reproductions of period lithographs and a rather disparate (and desperate) collection of Byronia on the ground floor. Pride of place, by the entrance, goes to an original edition of Solomos’s poem Hymn to Liberty, now the words of the national anthem.
More interesting than any town sight is a walk across the Klísova lagoon, past two forts that were vital defences against the Ottoman navy. The lagoon, with its salt-evaporation ponds and fish farms, attracts a variety of wading birds, especially in spring.
A causeway extends 4km from Mesolóngi to the open sea at TOURLÍDHA, a hamlet of wood-plank and prefab summer cottages on stilts, plus a few tavernas. If you can stomach the intermittent stench from the nearby salt-ponds, there’s a packed-sand beach to swim from, with showers and a few café-bars. Makes a picturesque, funky outing if you’re visiting Mesolóngi.
Byron in Mesolóngi
Byron in Mesolóngi
Byron has been a Greek national hero ever since he became involved in the country’s struggle for independence. Almost every town in the country has a street – Výronos – named after him; not a few men still answer to “Vyron” as a first name. He first passed through in 1809 when tyrannical local ruler Ali Pasha was at the height of his power, and the poet’s tales of intrigue sent a shiver down romantic Western spines.
Later, in January 1824, Byron made his way to Mesolóngi, a squalid, inhospitable southwestern port amid lagoons – but also the western centre of resistance against the Ottomans. The poet, who had by then contributed his personal fame and fortune to the war effort, was enthusiastically greeted with a 21-gun salute, and made commander of the five-thousand-strong garrison, a role as much political as military. The Greek forces were divided into factions whose brigand-chieftains separately and persistently petitioned him for money. Occasionally Byron despaired: “Here we sit in this realm of mud and discord”, read one of his journal entries. But while other Philhellenes returned home, disillusioned by the fractious, larcenous Greeks, or worn out by quasi-tropical Mesolóngi, he stayed.
On February 15 Byron caught a fever, possibly malaria, and two months later died; ironically, he became more valuable to the Greek cause dead than alive. News of the poet’s demise, embellished to heroic proportions, reverberated across northern Europe; arguably it changed the course of the war in Greece. When Mesolóngi fell again to the Ottomans in spring 1826, there was outcry in the European press, and French and English forces were finally galvanized into sending a naval force that unintentionally engaged an Egyptian fleet at Navarino, striking a fatal blow against the Ottoman navy.