You’ve probably already been introduced to Kalamata even if you haven’t visited. The capital of Messinia, in the western Peloponnese, has been supplying the world with its large, black olives for centuries now. But what you won’t know, unless you’ve been, is that it’s also an up-and-coming city escape that ticks every box imaginable.
Greeks and a growing number of foreigners who have taken advantage of its airport (with a growing list of direct international flights) or easy 2hr40min road connection with Athens. Seaside? Mountain? Culture? Streetlife? Nightlife? Food? Shopping? Spring? Summer? Autumn? Winter? Ticks all round. You could be passing through on your way elsewhere in the Peloponnese, or enjoying a city break… either way, exploring the city on foot is a must. You’ll find ancient and Byzantine relics and houses with an architecture that’s part neoclassical, part Renaissance in feel – with red-tiled roofs, little alleyways and stone-built churches – and a waterfront made all the more special by the backdrop of Mt Taygetus and its nearby beaches.
The city of sun and culture
They prefer it passionately…
Greeks and a growing number of foreigners who have taken advantage of its airport (with a growing list of direct international flights) or easy 2hr40min road connection with Athens. Seaside? Mountain? Culture? Streetlife? Nightlife? Food? Shopping? Spring? Summer? Autumn? Winter? Ticks all round.
You could be passing through on your way elsewhere in the Peloponnese, or enjoying a city break… either way, exploring the city on foot is a must.
You’ll find ancient and Byzantine relics and houses with an architecture that’s part neoclassical, part Renaissance in feel – with red-tiled roofs, little alleyways and stone-built churches – and a waterfront made all the more special by the backdrop of Mt Taygetus and its nearby beaches.
Sitting just above the agora (market) of the Old Town is Kalamata’s Kastro. Dating from the start of the 13th century, it was built by the Byzantines and finished by the Franks. It isn’t as intricate as other medieval fortifications of the Peloponnese, but it’s a wonderfully atmospheric place to start your tour, with excellent city views.
There are inscriptions dating from the Venetian occupation of Kalamata (1685-1715) and excavations have revealed the site of the 6th century city of Fares, with a small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary Kalomata built in its place – so named because its icon of the Virgin (from which the city took its name) had beautiful black eyes. Look out for the Kalamata International Dance Festival, which takes place here each July.
Very close to the castle are two museums that deserve attention. The Folklore Museum of Kalamata, housed in the two-storey 19th century Kyriakou Mansion, has collected memorabilia from the 1821 revolution against the Ottomans, as well as other objects of everyday life (including agricultural, weaving and printing/bookbinding equipment).
And immediately afterwards is the Archaeological Museum of Messinia, with exhibits from prehistoric to Byzantine times. Look out for a gold signet ring from the 16th century BC, found in a local tomb, as well as coins, pottery and other ancient artefacts from the region.
March 23rd Square
Taking its name from the day of the city’s liberation from the Turks, in 1821, March 23rd Square captures not just the history but also the vibe of Kalamata. The diminutive Church of the Holy Apostles in the middle of the square is where the revolution is said to have been declared and the first mass of the liberated city was celebrated.
Around it are shops, cafes, bars and tavernas – especially along Amfias St, which ends in Paplomatadika (famous for its nightlife) and Ypapandi St (where you’ll also find shops with local products, such as traditional, loom-woven Kalamata headscarves).
Vasileos Georgiou Square
This is another square that’s central to daily life, with a cosmopolitan air of cafes, bars and shops. It leads on to Aristomenous St (the shopping hub), with some lively arcades (Londos and Varvoutsis) where you can also grab a bite to eat. You’ll enjoy the neoclassical structures, amongst them the handsome Bank of Greece building.
Municipal Railway Park
Leaving the historical centre behind you and walking down Aristomenous Street towards the port, you reach the Municipal Railway Park. Located by the old Kalamata-Limin train station, this is a 54-acre treasure trove for rail enthusiasts, with a collection of locomotives and rolling stock taking you back to the days of steam-powered travel.
Continuing south, you reach Navarinou, Kalamata’s famous waterfront. This is where city life gravitates during the summer, but it’s also great for a winter stroll. There’s something endlessly romantic about the generously-sized, palm tree-fringed promenade. Starting at the marina, with its collection of sailing boats, head along the Messinian Bay, with Mt Taygetus beckoning you in the distance.
There’s a bicycle lane all the way, as you pass cafes, shops and great ouzo & meze spots and bars serving everything from breakfast to cocktails. If you continue around the coast, you soon reach Kalamata’s beachfront.
Kalamata’s food deserves special mention. The locals have a way of doing things their way. You should try the roast pork (gournopoula), which has even found its way into gyro souvlaki and burgers. More traditional are pastelia (sesame seed bars), diples (folded, fried pastry, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with nuts), lalangia (crunchy fried dough loops) and, of course, the famous Kalamata olives and olive oil.
For meze, there’s sfela cheese and synglino (cured pork) to go with your ouzo or tsipouro (firewater). And for something heartier, cockerel stewed in wine with hylopites (little pasta squares).
A great end to your day is to head up to Verga, a short drive out of town, where there are restaurants and bars with amazing views. It’s perfect for a coffee or cocktail, particularly at night, with the lights of the city and the fishing boats in the bay sparkling below you.
Nothing represents Messinia quite like olive oil. You see it, feel it and taste it everywhere around you: In the acres of silver/green-leafed trees, perfectly lined up for easy harvesting; in the olive presses dotted around the countryside; and in the local food that melts in your mouth. So to explore this region of the Peloponnese through the prism of its most famous product is to travel to its very heart.
As you are guided around a Messinian olive grove, you learn all about the connection of this noble fruit with the people and land that have produced it since antiquity, making it a staple of the Mediterranean diet.
It’s worth timing your visit to coincide with the harvest – a community-affair of laying out nets, beating the gnarled trunks or branches with a stick and watching the fruit fall. And then on to the olive press, where the magic happens. There are traditional mills and modern high-volume facilities, but they all have the same goal. An astonishing 95% of the olive oil produced in Messinia is extra-virgin. Just take a chunk of bread and taste the liquid gold and you’ll understand why.
You’ll learn that olive oil sampling is every bit as sophisticated as wine tasting. You’ll talk acidity (the lower the better), variety (Koroneiki is king down here), aromas (freshly cut grass, tropical fruit…) and taste (bitter, peppery…). And of course you’ll meet the colourful personalities behind the product.
There’s a depth to the experience you’d scarcely have imagined, but most of all it’s the tastes that will stay with you – especially when you buy a bottle or two and return home with a part of the Peloponnese you’ll never forget.
Most of the olive groves and presses that you can visit in Messinia are found between Kalamata and Pylos, in the southwest Peloponnese:
To Kalamata from Athens
- By car: 240km (2hrs40mins)
- By bus (KTEL)
Ancient Messene has the double attraction of being amongst the most exciting and complete archaeological settlements ever discovered and one of the most beautifully situated.
Little more than a lush green valley in the southwestern Peloponnese just 40 years ago, it now ranks as one of the most significant remains of Greek antiquity.
The city flourished in the 4th century BC after the defeat of the Spartans by the Theban General Epaminondas, ending centuries of Spartan rule. And to our eternal gain, it was never subsequently destroyed or settled over, allowing an astonishing insight into life in ancient times.
A complex that some believe is little more than a third excavated has already revealed the remains of a theatre, agora and gymnasium, as well as an assortment of sanctuaries, temples, statues, springs and dwellings – many of them brought to life by the writings of Pausanias.
Designed around a symmetrical grid system (known as the Hippodamian plan) rather than the more typical labyrinth to ward off attacks, the city can be seen as a forerunner to modern urban planning, with excellent fortifying walls that helped protect the gem we can all enjoy today.