It was an interest in pirates and seafarers that took me on a circuitous route through the Peloponnese (a large peninsula in southern Greece) to visit two of the Venetian fortresses that once guarded the seaways of the Mediterranean: Koroni and her sister city, Methoni. When pirates were pillaging Greece’s coastal settlements and during the Ottoman Turks invasion of Greece in the 1490’s, these castles protected the coast.
Koroni’s Venetian Charm
I arrived at Koroni in the evening. The Venetian castle was lit by a mystic green light. Above its turrets, Mars blinked its red beacon and a crescent moon illuminated the sky over the twinkling lights of the village. Little fish boats bobbed on the tranquil moonlit sea.
Located on the Messinian Gulf, Koroni was once a Venetian naval fortress. It is a delightful town, clustered on a hillside. Its narrow, cobbled streets and stairways lead up to the Venetian castle which once protected the waterways. Koroni was an important urban settlement, of strategic importance during the Middle Ages, 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, 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. The old castle is now occupied by the Timios Prodromos Convent. You can stroll free in the small promontory below the castle.
Koroni’s sister-city was Methoni, farther along the south coast of the Peloponnse at its western tip. The twin fortresses of Koroni and Methoni were known as “The Eyes of the Serene Republic” and guarded the Venetian sea-ways from marauding pirates, allowing safe refuge for pilgrims heading for the Holy Land during the Crusades. The Venetians launched an attack on pirates in the Mediterranean in 1124 and built the castles to secure the ports from invaders as well as to protect these ports which were on the route between Venice and the Holy Land.
Methoni, known by the Venetians as “Modone”, is one of the most historic regions of the Peloponnese with a long cultural history. It has been fortified since the 4th century BC and remained so into the Byzantine years. The ancient city Ampeloessa (‘of vine leaves’) was mentioned by Homer as one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offered Achilles to appease his anger after Agamemnon had ‘stolen’ Achilles’s favorite woman. Built over ancient walls, the impressive 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?
The fortress entrance is accessed by a stone bridge. I walked through the central gate and up the road that leads through a second gate, then a third, to the interior of the castle. I spent a day exploring the ruins. The medieval port town which stood within the fortress walls was the Venetian’s first and longest-held possession in the Peloponnese. Inside those massive walls some of the ruined buildings still stand, all that remains of the houses where Venetian lords once lived. There are many spooky chambers, underground passages, cisterns, the remains of Turkish mosque and hamam, a cathedral and crumbling houses. A stone causeway leads out to the small octagonal Bourtzi tower on an adjacent islet. This is where many soldiers and inhabitants were slaughtered when the Turks occupied the fort in 1500. When the sea is stormy and the wind howls along the walls, the locals say that you can hear the screams of the prisoners unjustly killed there.
The town of Methoni is a traditional settlement of Venetian-styled houses and cobbled streets. Unlike Koroni, it is built on flat ground with two broad central streets where bright-colored hibiscus blooms in profusion. In the Middle Ages it was a hub of commerce, but now it’s a sleepy little town, quiet and friendly. There is accommodation in the town, but I chose to camp on the beach nearby.
On my final evening in Methoni I packed a picnic lunch and took along Italian music just to keep the Venetian theme. 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. Homer’s “wine-dark sea” was dappled with the last of the light. A half moon was visible over my shoulder, and behind me loomed the castle ramparts. It was sheer magic, an unforgettable way to spend the last night of my Venetian castles tour.
Written by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com