When it comes to pets, I have to admit to being a dog-lover first and foremost, but as we tramped up and down the many stepped byways to and from Koroni castle, we met a number of very handsome cats. In fact there were cats and dogs everywhere we went along the coast. Some had more to say for themselves than others. The Koroni cats were particularly self-contained. One definitely had the impression it was THEIR village, and foreign interlopers were thus beneath their regard. They could take us or leave us.
After wandering around Koroni Castle we descended down the stepped streets to the harbour front in search of ice creams and coffee. Greek ice cream is delicious and ours came in many astonishing flavours. We wolfed it down like five year olds. Next we settled ourselves at a seaside cafe and ordered coffee, but we had not been there long when the waiter came dashing to tell us there was a big turtle to be seen just off the quayside. ‘It is the last turtle of summer,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow it will be gone.’
A little crowd had gathered and was peering into the stormy looking water. The weather had changed, and there was a cool wind blowing off the Messenian Gulf. It was hard to spot the turtle between the dark ripples, and I missed a couple of chances to take a photo as it popped its snout above water. Then a silly young Frenchman decided he wanted to swim with it, jumped in and scared it away. ‘Merde’, said his girlfriend. Merde, indeed.
So here is my best shot. Little more than a peek. But then it is good to know that there are still loggerhead turtles around the Peloponnese. One of their breeding beaches is at Koroni on the far side of the castle. Every year between June and mid-September the turtles make some 46 nests there. These are monitored throughout the summer by ARCHELON, The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece, along with a host of volunteers from around the world. Good on them, I say, and bon voyage last loggerhead of summer.
You can find out more about Archelon, The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece HERE.
Over the past three thousand years the Messenian Peloponnese has suffered so many phases of foreign invasion it is hard to know where to start unravelling its history. Best stick with the built remains then. This massive medieval bastion belongs to Koroni Castle, built in the early 1200s CE by the Venetians, and one of a string of Messenian coastal forts controlled by the Republic until 1500.
The Turks invaded next. After summary slaughter in neighbouring Methoni, so spurring Koroni to a quick surrender, they set about strengthening the castle’s eastern defences, which perhaps included this tower. It is hard to track down details. One Greek writer, whose identity I am yet to discover, described Koroni Castle as ‘the architecture of hate.’ He had a point. Venice anyway regained control in 1685, and of course the Turks came back again later, staying until the Revolution of 1821, which finally ousted them.
Koroni’s historic heyday, though, was the thirteenth century. Under the first round of Venetian rule it was referred to as ‘the chief eyes of the Republic’, and as such, was one of the main ports of call for the ships and galleys of Venice’s Levantine trade. Its must-have product was cochineal, much desired by Venetians for the lustrous dye it yielded. So now you know where that gorgeous Venetian red came from – this small corner of the Peloponnese.
Today, you can spend many hours wandering around the castle’s 40 hectare interior. It is then you begin to grasp that before the Venetians occupied Koroni there were invader Franks on site – they of the French-Italian Crusader States. And before them, in the era of the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople, there was a Byzantine fort. This had apparently been built atop an ancient acropolis. And long before the Byzantine presence – that is from around 700 BCE and for a few hundred years, the Spartans were in occupation, so muddying the archaeological remains of the very much earlier Bronze Age Mycenaean period (1400-1100 BCE) and the ancient settlement of Assini.
And these are just the barest bones of Koroni’s history.
There are also astonishing present-day aspects. The first that strikes you is that people actually live inside the castle. As you walk up from the towering seaward gateway, you find yourself on an ancient cobbled street, and next there are cottages with pretty gardens, and later we come on an olive grove and a small holding. As ever, there are many cats about. There is also a cemetery which is in current use, several churches, ancient and modern, used and disused, and a monastery that is now only inhabited by nuns. The latter has a tranquil garden and a gift shop and picturesque cottages where the nuns live, and you are free to wander around.
This next and final shot is was taken just outside the monastery entrance, one of the several sacred buildings built cheek by jowl in this part of the castle interior. It is dedicated to Saint Sophia and, dating from the 11th century Byzantine period, overlies the ancient temple precincts of Apollo. At which point you lose all grasp of time, since there is simply too much of it to fathom, and decide that a swift downhill return to a harbour taverna and an enlivening cappuccino is definitely called for.
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell
Koroni Castle CORONELLI, Vincenzo 1688 Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Library