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Though strictly speaking Kalamata is not actually in the Mani (which officially begins at Verga, just south of the town), it is for most people the main gateway into the Mani. Whether you arrive by plane or by road from Athens or from Patra, after crossing from Italy, Kalamata is your starting point and, as the capital of Messinia, it is worth spending a day exploring. The town has a rich history, an interesting Old Town, a number of museums and galleries and a long, pebbly beach, backed by bars and tavernas. It also has all the buzz of city life: this is a place where Greeks go about their business, largely unaffected by the demands of tourism.

On a day’s visit you will probably want to focus on two sections of the city – the sea-front and, at the opposite end, the area from the Kastro down to Aristomenos square.

The sea-front stretches all the way from the Filoxenia Hotel at the eastern end of the bay, up to the harbour in the centre of town, and then on to the marina. The pebbly beach was blue-flag rated for cleanliness, and has stunning views down the Messinian Gulf; it must be one of the best town beaches in Greece. At the Filoxenia end it is backed by a stretch of large hotels interspersed with nightclubs. These soon give way to tavernas and trendy cafes as you get closer to the centre; in summer they buzz with activity. The harbour area provides an interesting change, with the occasional cruise ship being replaced by oil tankers in the winter (olive oil that is!).

The marina is an oasis of tranquillity, and is located very close to the busy harbour – but tucked away, off the main road. The thing to do here is lunch or dinner in one of the numerous quayside restaurants, watching the yachts and their owners come and go. Many of the tavernas specialise, understandably, in fresh fish

The area around the Kastro is the old part of Kalamata and therefore probably more interesting. Some of the narrow streets around March 23rd square survived the earthquake in 1986 and give some idea of what the city was like before safer, but less attractive concrete took over. It’s here you’ll find the really interesting shops, selling everything from spices to made-to-measure mattresses. It’s a miracle that they have survived the rapid spread of chain stores.

Church of the Apostles and the March 23rd Square

Both mark the centre of the Old Town. Surrounding the church are a number of interesting shops and a small souvlaki joint. The church itself is in fact an amalgamation of two churches. The earlier free-style cross part dates from the 12th century and has a smattering of its 14th century frescos left intact- the Pantocrator in the dome is in good condition and below this the Ascension is just visible. The larger domed basilica was added during the second Venetian period (1685-1815).

A sculpture by local artist Christos Riganas celebrates the historical significance of the square. March 23rd 1821 saw the meeting of the clans on this spot to begin Greece’s seven-year effort to repel Turkish occupation. The main players involved were Theodoros Kolokotronis, originally from Messinia, Petro Bey Mavromichalis and Mourtzinos Troupakis from Kardamyli. As Kolokotronis reflected in his memoirs

On the 23rd March we fell upon the Turks at Kalamata. They were led by Arnaoutogles, a man of some importance from Tripolitsa. We had 2000 Maniotes….”

From here the army moved out to spread revolutionary fever throughout the Peloponnese and beyond. “As we went along all the Greeks showed the greatest enthusiasm; they came out and met us everywhere, carrying the sacred ikons, with the priests chanting supplications and thanksgivings to God. So we went on, followed by crowds. When we came to the bridge of Kalamata we exchanged greetings and I marched forward.”

A large oil painting in the Folklore museum depicts this event.

This area also houses the city’s museums. The Archaeological Museum of Messinia, formerly the Benaki, must be the town’s flagship museum. Located just off the March 23rdSquare in what used to be part of the old market, the recently restored building works magnificently. The internal design and layout differs from its predecessor. Exhibits are arranged by area rather than by artefacts. In other words, instead of having all marble objects together in one room, weapons in the next, and so on (regardless of provenance), you will find all the exhibits from one area displayed together, thus giving a much better sense of place and identity. There are four provinces represented: Kalamata, Messene, Pylia and Trifylia. Each province is then broken down into specific places or villages. For example, the Kalamata section has displays from Kardamyli, Exohori, Stoupa, Neohori and the villages all the way down to Thalames and Langada. This is a museum with a modern feel. Exhibits range in date from Mycenaean times through to Byzantium. The descriptions are clearly displayed in both Greek and English, so there is no need for a commentary here. There is a tourist office next door that has a few free magazines and pamphlets published by the local authority and there is a renowned souvlaki shop close to hand if you need a quick bite, on the square itself.

Summer Opening Hours: 08.00- 20.00

Winter Opening Hours: 08.30 – 15.00. Closed Mondays.

Admission: 3 euros

Tel: 2721026209 www.archmusmes.gr

Kalamata’s Military Museum is also hosted in a well-restored building (this one used to be the home of the “Despotis” of Kalamata and the bureaucratic centre of all ecclesiastical matters). Set out on two floors, the museum follows, in chronological order, the area’s involvement in wars dating from the 1821 revolution to the Second World War. As the commentaries are in Greek only, you may be grateful for a summary of the exhibits.

The first floor displays uniforms, weaponry and paintings from 1821 to the First World War including the Balkan Wars and the struggle for Macedonia. The First World War room has two opposing display cases. On your left, a British Enfield rifle, a Webley pistol, a bugle and a rum pot and, on the right, paraphernalia from Germany, Austria and Bulgaria, including two gas-mask holders.

The landing of the second floor has a list of servicemen from Messinia killed in the Macedonian conflict. A quick glance at the place names reveals that lives were lost from throughout the county. This floor begins with the 1922 Smyrna catastrophe and finishes with Greek military involvement in peace work in Korea. The largest display is on the Second World War where separate displays are given to Greece, Italy and Germany as well as Greek involvement in North Africa. The Allies’ victory in Greece is best portrayed in a black and white photo showing PM Papandreou raising the Greek flag on the Acropolis in Athens.

Entrance to the museum is free.

Opening times are Tuesday-Saturday: 09.00-14.00, Sundays: 11.00-14.00. Closed Mondays.

27210 212

The Historical and Folklore Museum is also set in a handsome building that took a battering in the 1986 earthquake. Officially reopened in 2002, the museum intends to provide a “breeze of emotions, a game of memory and imagination in order to preserve the history and tradition of the local community.” The only problem in achieving this aim as far as the foreign visitor is concerned is that the exhibits are only described in Greek. The friendly staff may be able to help out here. If they can’t, then here a few pieces to watch out for. The ground floor room is dedicated to giving a snapshot into daily life in times gone by. The agricultural tools displayed as you enter the room are easily understood. The press in the corner was used for squeezing the last juices out of grapes. The residue was then boiled in a vat to produce the fiery “tsipouro”. The olive oil bars of soap are around a hundred years old. Moving through the room, other display cases host carpentry tools and wooden baking trays for baking bread. The weaving looms at the far end are testimony to Kalamata’s once booming silk production.

On the landing of the first floor you are first greeted by a series of book presses and a display case showing carved stamps for printing pictures. Due to her role in inaugurating the struggle for independence from Turkey, the town was the first place in Greece to have a printing facility and much of the pre-revolution literature was printed here. The rest of the landing is given to recreating a “kafenion” including a gramophone. As you enter the first room look to your right to the poster from 1908 advertising the voyage of the ship the “Patris” to New York- this was a time of mass migration from Greece due to a harsh economic climate. Inside the room an impression is given of how a well-to-do family’s sitting room might have looked, complete with an English stove and French armchair. The second room off the landing is all about the revolution itself. The large painting depicts the meeting of the clans on March 23rd 1821 by the church of the Apostles. The Castro dominates the scene. The large framed text is a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Some of the weaponry on display has a personal assosociation with some of the leading players form that period- in one case is the blunderbuss used by Mavromichalis, in another is the stirrup and bullet pouches that once belonged to Kolokotronis. Opposite these are examples of clothing worn by the clans. The next room is one for the ladies- the display shows how tastes in women’s fashion slowly started to shift form the traditional (on the left) to the more European (on the right). The final room hosts a number of post-Byzantine icons and a few other clerical bits and bobs.

The museum is open 09.00-13.00 every day except Monday and entrance is two euros. Tel: 27210 28449

The Metropolitan Church of Ypapanti tou Sotiros, the town’s “cathedral”, is the most unmistakable landmark in the Old Town. With her two soaring bell-towers and gleaming domed roof, it simply cannot be missed. Being positioned at the foot of the Castro, this would have been the most obvious place to have built the community’s most important building, once life had ventured outside the security of the walled-in acropolis. The splendour of the modern day church does not reveal a whole series of predecessors whose fate were less glamorous. Two churches were totally destroyed by the Turks in 1770 and in 1825. The earthquake of 1843 then caused extensive damage to the rebuilding plan. The church seen today was begun in 1860 and had to be seriously repaired after the earthquakes of 1886 and 1986.

The Holy Icon of Ypapanti is now kept in the church, having been found in the stables of the Ottoman “Aga” (governor). The icon is said to have had miracle powers as well as wonderful eyes- hence giving the town her new name of Kala Matia (Fair Eyes). The Ypapanti saint’s day is celebrated over a number of days each year at the beginning of February, when the icon is paraded around town.

The Kalograion Monastery is a short walk from the Ypapanti square (and clearly signed down Mystra St.) – it is a still-functioning nunnery. The number of inhabitants now totals 23, compared to over 80 at the monastery’s peak. The nuns are still active in the production of silk products, which gave both the nunnery and Kalamata as a town a reputation in times gone by. A stroll through the peaceful courtyard and a peer into some of the ground floor rooms reveals the looms still used to weave silk.

The monastery was established as long ago as the late eighteenth century but was shut down on two occasions; once by Ibrahim Pasha in 1825 in the heat of the war for Independence and then twelve years later by Greece’s new regent, King Otto!

Today, there are two churches in the courtyard. The newer Agios Ipsos Tinios Stavros stands centrally amongst the orange trees. The older Agioi Konstantine and Eleni is set within the nuns’ cells. There is a small shop on your right as you enter the main gate, selling silkware made by the nuns. (The shop will be closed in the afternoon as the nuns take a well deserved siesta.) A sign outside the monastery requests that visitors “please dress modestly”.

If you’ve had your fill of museums and churches, the market, at the foot of the Kastro, offers something very different. It operates on Wednesdays and Saturdays and is worth a visit simply to observe such a vibrant and bustling spectacle. Traders deal only in fresh food products: fish, meat (some still alive!), cheeses, fruit and vegetables. There are also stalls selling plants. Villagers come in from all around, bringing whatever they have to sell. Sometimes it will simply be a dozen eggs in a bowl or a few bunches of horta but the overall impact is one of colour, variety and freshness. And the prices put the supermarkets to shame.

If you’ve attempted all or even part of the above you will be in need of refreshment. You may well be tempted into one of the small kafenions in the old quarter, but a short walk, through the recently pedestrianised area, will bring you to Aristomenos Square, the place where everyone goes to meet friends – and you can see why. It is a large, airy, open space with a whole range of bars and cafes to choose from: the perfect spot to watch the world go by.

Arriving by bus, the station is close enough to simply walk to the old town and the museums. If you have a hire car, then it is easiet to park up by the cathedral or in the official car park nearby, where you will have to buy a ticket from a kiosk, and walk. In either scenario, refer to the map.

 
 

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