PÝLOS is a compact but surprisingly stylish town for rural Messinía; guarded by a pair of medieval castles, it occupies a superb position on one of the finest natural harbours in Greece, the almost landlocked Navarino Bay. The main pleasures of Pýlos are exploring the hillside alleys, waterside streets and fortress. Given the town’s associations with the Battle of Navarino, and, more anciently, with Homer’s “sandy Pýlos”, the domain of wise King Nestor whose palace has been identified 16km to the north, it makes a good base for exploring this part of the Peloponnese, particularly if equipped with a car. Relying on public transport, you’ll find that long afternoon gaps in services make complex day-trips impractical.
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Pýlos town centre
Shaded by a large plane tree and several of its offspring, Platía Trión Navárhon is a beautiful public space, encircled by cafés and colonnaded shops. At its head is a war memorial commemorating the admirals Codrington, de Rigny and von Heyden, who commanded the British, French and Russian forces in the Battle of Navarino. Nearby, just uphill on the Methóni road, the little Antonopouleion Museum (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; €2) boasts remains from the battle, along with archeological finds from the region.
The principal sight in town is the Néo Kástro, up the Methóni road from Antonopouleion museum. The huge “new castle” was built by the Turks in 1572, and you can walk around much of the 1.5km of arcaded battlements. For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it served as a prison and its inner courtyard was divided into a warren of narrow yards separated by high walls. The design was intended to keep Máni clansmen, the bulk of the prison population, from continuing their murderous vendettas inside. The pens and walls have been pulled down as part of an ongoing programme to restore and convert the castle into a museum for underwater archeology. So far, the only attraction is René Puaux’s extensive collection of historical pictures and cartoons.
Island of Sfaktiría
Memories of the Battle of Navarino can be evoked by a visit to the island of Sfaktiría, across the bay, where there are various tombs of Philhellenes, a chapel and a memorial to Russian sailors. You can also hire a boat from the port and snorkel to see the remains of the Turkish fleet lying on the sea bed; ask at the harbour office or cafés by the port. The island was also the site of a battle between a small group of Spartans under siege by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War – one of the few times that Spartans are known to have surrendered.
YIÁLOVA, 6km north out of Pýlos and linked by regular buses, has tamarisk trees shading its sandy beach, and makes a delightful base for walkers, beach-lovers or naturalists drawn by Voïdhokiliá beach and nature reserve.
Pýlos’s northern castle and ancient acropolis, Kástro Navarínou (Paleó Kástro), stands on a hill ridge almost touching the island of Sfaktiría, at the end of the bay 5km west of Yiálova. It has substantial walls and identifiable courtyards, a mix of Frankish and Venetian designs, set upon ancient foundations. The castle overlooks one of the finest beaches in the Peloponnese.
Voïdhokiliá beach is a spectacular crescent of white sand and turquoise waters 12km north of Pýlos. The lagoon behind the beach is an important bird conservation area, and vehicles are not allowed on the earth road around its eastern rim. Turtles still breed at Voïdhokiliá (and at the beaches of Romanoú and Máti, further north), and there’s a tiny population – the only one in mainland Europe – of chameleons among the dune shrubs.
A path from the southern Voïdhokiliá dunes ascends to the Spílio toú Nestóros (Nestor’s Cave), and then (head right, up steep rocky steps) to the castle. This impressive bat cave with a hole in the roof is fancifully identified as the grotto in which, according to the Odyssey, Nestor and Neleus kept their cows, and in which Hermes hid Apollo’s cattle.
Nestor’s Palace, 17km from Pýlos, is the best preserved of all the Mycenaean royal palaces. Flanked by deep, fertile valleys, the palace site looks out towards Navarino Bay – a location perfectly suiting the wise and peaceful king described in Homer’s Odyssey, though now sheltering rather prosaically beneath a giant metal roof.
The site was discovered in 1939, but left virtually undisturbed until after World War II; thus its excavation – unlike most of the other major Greek sites – was conducted in accordance with modern archeological principles and techniques. The most important find was a group of several hundred tablets inscribed in Linear B, which, given their similarity to tablets discovered in Knossos, proved conclusively a link between the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations. The tablets were baked hard in the fire that destroyed the palace at the time of the Dorian invasion around 1200 BC, perhaps as little as one generation after the fall of Troy. The site guide by excavators Carl Blegen and Marion Rawson is an excellent buy.
The remains of Nestor’s massive complex are in three principal groups: the main palace in the middle, on the left an earlier and smaller palace, and on the right either guardhouses or workshops. The basic design will be familiar if you’ve been to Mycenae or Tiryns: an internal court, guarded by a sentry box, gives access to the main sections of the principal palace. This contained some 45 rooms and halls. The megaron (throne room), with its characteristic open hearth, lies directly ahead of the entrance, through a double porch. The finest of the frescoes was discovered here, depicting a griffin (perhaps the royal emblem) standing guard over the throne; that work is now in the museum at Hóra. Arranged around are domestic quarters and storerooms, which yielded thousands of pots and cups during excavations; the rooms may have served as a distribution centre for the produce of the palace workshops. Further back, the famous bathroom, with its painted terracotta tub in situ, adjoins a smaller complex of rooms, centred on another, smaller, megaron, identified as the queen’s quarters. Finally, on the other side of the car park there is a tholos tomb, a smaller version of the famous ones at Mycenae.
The museum at Hóra
At Hóra (Hóra Trifylías), actually a sizeable town despite the name, which means “village”, the museum on Marinátou, signed above the main square (with Friday-morning produce market), adds significantly to a visit to the site. If you’ve no transport, it might be better to take a bus here first, to the central bus station stop, and then walk the 45 minutes to the site after viewing the exhibits. In hot weather, or if pressed for time, you might be able to hitch, or get a taxi.
Pride of place in the display goes to the palace frescoes, one of which, bearing out Homer’s descriptions, shows a warrior in a boar-tusk helmet. Lesser finds include much pottery, some beautiful gold cups and other objects gathered both from the site and from various Mycenaean tombs in the region.
The battle of Navarino
In 1827 during the Greek War of Independence, the Great Powers of Britain, France and Russia were attempting to force an armistice on the Turks, having established diplomatic relations with the Greek insurgents. To this end they sent a fleet of 27 warships to Navarino Bay below the town of Pýlos, where Ottoman leader Ibrahim Pasha had gathered his forces – 16,000 men in 89 ships. The declared intention was to coerce Ibrahim into leaving Messinía, which he had been raiding ruthlessly.
On the night of October 20, an Egyptian frigate, part of the Turks’ supporting force, fired its cannons, and full-scale battle broke out. Without intending to take up arms for the Greeks, the “allies” responded to the attack and, extraordinarily, sank and destroyed 53 of the Turkish fleet without a single loss. There was considerable international embarrassment when news filtered through to the “victors”, but the action had nevertheless effectively ended Turkish control of Greek waters and within a year Greek independence was secured and recognized.
Telemachus takes a bath
King Nestor rates several mentions in Homer’s poems, but the scene from Homer’s epic that is set here is the visit of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, who had journeyed from Ithaca to seek news of his father from the king. As Telemachus arrives at the beach, accompanied by the disguised goddess Pallas Athena, he comes upon Nestor with his sons and court sacrificing to Poseidon. The visitors are welcomed and feasted, “sitting on downy fleeces on the sand”, and although the king has no news of Odysseus, he promises Telemachus a chariot so he can enquire from Menelaus at Sparta. First, however, the guests are taken back to the palace, where Telemachus is given a bath by Nestor’s “youngest grown daughter, beautiful Polycaste”, and emerges, anointed with oil, “with the body of an immortal”. By some harmonious twist of fate, an actual bathtub was unearthed here, rendering the palace ruins as a whole potent ground for Homeric imaginings.