Pylos, the Gulf of Navarino, olive trees, dunes and the deep blue sea in Messenia with kids
My land, Messenia, is the color of silver. And the best place to look out upon all its beauty is from Nestor’s Palace. Until Paleokastro, as far as the eye can see, a shimmering-silver sea of olive trees. It merges with the sparkling lagoon waters of Gialova that fill into the Gulf of Navarino, where Sfakteria meets Niokastro in its depths. And there the golden beach spreads out, while beyond spreads gloriously the Ionian Sea with the deepest waters in the Mediterranean. Messenia is indeed an ideal destination to travel to with kids!
“This is the most ‘Hellenic’ triangle that you can find in Greece,” said smiling a foreign archeologist who was accompanying a group of students to see the Palace and the nearby digs. And this is where I bring my heart every summer to fill it with colors, silver from the olive trees, gold from the beach and the deep blue of the sea.
When Telemachus, son of Odysseus, arrived at the Palace of the wise Nestor, King of Pylos, he must have looked out upon the same magnificent view. But where was ancient Pylos over which Nestor ruled? There are many theories but the discovery of the ‘Warrior’s Tomb’ in Ano Eglianos in 2015 and the archeological excavations of Sharon Stoker and Jack Davis, archeologist-professors from the University of Cincinnati, certainly give credence that it was located where today’s Chora is situated. Thus, while in Messenia with kids, we can begin a journey through time starting with ancient Pylos and Nestor’s Palace, and through the Frankish rule, the Ottoman rule, the crucial naval battle of the Greek Revolution and arriving back to our own peaceful days.
Today, western Messenia, from Ancient Pylos and the ancient Sela River until the Gulf of Navarino, is covered with golden beaches, ideal for your summer vacation with kids! The region also has developed sustainable and high-quality tourism activities that bring the visitor closer to nature, like water sports, hiking, bird watching but also sampling of authentic food imbued with – possibly – the best olive oil in the world accompanied by wines from the region’s own vineyards.
Ancient Pylos: The Palace of Ano Eglianos and Chora
“It is the best archeological site we have ever seen,” admitted my oldest daughter. The restoration and works to bring this palace back to imaginative life have had a spectacular effect. Today, the Palace is one of the most kids’ friendly archeological sites in Greece. It is completely covered by a standing open-air roof that provides much needed shade from the summer sun while still allowing the visitor to enjoy the amazing view. Elevated walkways let you look down into the Palace as if you are on an aerial tour floating above the throne room, the olive oil storage cells, the bathroom (especially fascinating for kids!), and all the other royal rooms – truly allowing the imagination to bring it all to life. Next to the Palace you can visit a Mycenaean grave, one of the many found in the olive groves in the area and in Chora.
Going to Chora, which is only 3 km away, you will find the Archeological Museum that displays finds from the Palace and the Mycenaean vaulted hollow graves found in the area. Chora’s Museum provides an overview of the whole Mycenaean civilization, a ‘gateway’ into the magical world of the Bronze Age and the Mycenaean splendor.
At Chora, you will also find one of the most beautiful squares to enjoy a morning coffee or an evening snack while the kids play. At Kefalovryso (where the natural springs of the village are located), if you are around on August 23, you can see the local celebrations of the ‘Panagitsa’, the Virgin Mary, or at any day go eat at the tavern ‘Psarakia’, which is so pleasantly situated among shady plane trees and spring waters. As you go towards the sea, on Nestoros road, you can see the big Kokkevi Mansion, a typical architectural example of this area built in 1857, owned by a family of politicians and doctors with old lineage.
Nearby, at the village of Pyrgos, you can visit the vineyards of the Panagiotopoulos Winery, as well as the Nestor Winery that was founded in 2015. The later was created under a partnership of the Winery Cooperative of Messinia and the family of Spyros Lafazanis, who owns the Lafazanis Winery in ancient Nemea.
To ancient ports and today’s beaches with kids
Archeologists and researchers are unable to accurately pinpoint where the ancient port was in western Messenia. There are indications that the Sela River was diverted around the Latter Bronze Period in order to create an artificial lake north of the village Romanos at some distance from the sea. This has led experts to surmise the creation of an artificial port somewhere along the coast from Mati (or Chrysi Akti) to Voidokilia. This proves that human intervention was necessary, since Pylos is sandy and thus the river’s elements together with the sea’s sand must have sealed the entrance of the port. The boats must have come in through the Sela River, which was navigable, and where boat docks have been discovered during excavation digs.
The sandy beach of ancient Pylos is today a major place of reproduction for the endangered sea turtle Caretta-Caretta. It is quite possible that your kids will be able to see the magical moment when, as the sun is setting, the little sea turtles jump out of the sand and begin their journey towards the sea. Along this beach with its mythical whiffs of an ancient port and nature’s reproduction ground, being in Pylos with the kids also means you should just enjoy the golden sands and clear blue waters of family-friendly fun in Greece!
Best kids’ friendly beaches in Messenia
At Mati beach (or Chrysi Akti) there is the KOA beach pool bar that offers the rental of beach lounge beds and umbrellas, ideal for families during morning hours, while a little further is Oasis beach bar, also with lounge beds but more relaxed vibes and immersed in green shade. On the road, you will find Dimitris’ tavern offering grilled and barbecue meats on the spit.
Romanos beach, a little to the south, is where I swam every summer as a child. Every day I would walk through olive groves and reach the golden beach with its aquamarine waters with a view of the Paleokastro castle. When the sea was calm, we would stay all day until the sunset. When, towards the end of August, the northwesterly “Maistros” wind would blow in, we would climb the sand dunes and run-down crashing through the big waves. Other times we would end up eating meatballs with fried potatoes at Rina’s or at Glyfadaki sitting on the pebbles. Today, ‘Rina’s Tavern’ has moved higher up on the road, but still retains its delicious food, while Glyfadaki was taken over by “Melakos”, who decorated it with all of our adolescent memories. And today, the beach, as enchanting as ever, offers practical amenities, like rental of sun beds from the beach restaurant bar Kookoonari.
At the end of Romanos beach is the Petrohori bay, where you will find Grigoris tavern, the beach bar “Ammolofoi” and the restaurant-beach bar Ammothines, which has transformed the coast into one of the most magical landscapes of Messenia. The beach is both sandy and rocky and has deeper waters than Romanos beach. The same is true for the beaches after this, which are deserted and have no commercial establishments, called Agios Nikolas and Almyrolaka which ends with the hill of Profitis Ilias. A small dirt road leads to the top of the hill with its church and a view of the whole coast from Marathos and the lagoon of Gialova to Voidokoilia on the other side. To watch the sunset from here is just spectacular.
The next beach, called “Glossa” (Tongue), is overshadowed by Voidokilia’s fame and it can be reached from Voidokilia beach. It isn’t recommended for families with kids, especially younger ones, since you will have to walk a long way through swampy rushes, but it is along this path that you will come across the domed tomb of Thrasymedes, son of Nestor. On that side of Voidokilia, at the Koryfasio Cape, there are also the remains of an ancient wall, which have led many to speculate that this is the site of the ancient port.
Voidokilia’s aquamarine waters are a famous image of the idyllic Greek beach for tourist destinations. It is sandy and shallow and has retained its name since ancient times since Homer himself mentions this cove as Voufrada, similar in meaning to today’s Modern Greek version meaning the ox’s belly. But, in order to enjoy the clear waters depends a great deal on the direction of the wind. In any case, you will certainly need a sun umbrella, sunscreen, water and snacks for the kids because there is no shade or any business there to provide you with supplies since the cove is a protected area under NATURA 2000.
From Voidokilia, you can follow a sandy trail through the everlasting amaranth flowers and, passing by Nestor’s Cave, reach in about 20 minutes Paleokastro. This castle was built under Frankish rule in 1278 in order to control the borders with the Venetian territory of Methoni. The trail continues behind the hill and ends up at Bouka beach, the point where Navarino’s Gulf meets Sfaktiria. Here, you can enjoy your swim and then return through the path beside the Gialova lagoon.
Modern History and the Gulf of Navarino
Opposite the Old Castle (Paleokastro), the Ottomans built Niokastro (New Castle) in 1573. In 1821, the castle fortress was surrendered to the Greeks, but the Turks regained it in 1825. This culminated in the biggest naval battle of the Greek Revolution on October 8, 1827 in the Navarino Gulf. The French, English and Russian ships finally defeated Ibrahim’s Turkish-Egyptian fleet, though Ibrahim himself remained in Niokastro until he formally surrendered to the French General Maison the following September. [I often wonder how Ibrahim felt staying there in the castle, yet defeated, for 11 months].
Today Niokastro (the Castle of Pylos) is one of the best-preserved citadels and still has a number of standing buildings. They now house the Archeological Museum of Pylos in the Maison Building and the Museum of Underwater Antiquities in the Pasha Building, which has many finds from noteworthy historical shipwrecks in the region. You can also visit the Church of Transfiguration of Christ, which used to be the dominating mosque during the Ottoman rule.
Pylos, or as it has been historically known with its Venetian-Italian name “Navarino”, received today’s name by royal decree in 1833 because it was then considered the site of Ancient Pylos.
Activities and things to do around Pylos and the Gulf of Navarino, Messenia with kids
- Swim at Divari, a shallow sandy beach loved by kids and an ideal choice on a windy day. There are three beach bars offering sunbeds, Divari canteen, White Beach and Lagoon where you can water ski if you want!
- Participate in a pasta-making and olive oil tasting in Gialova. Have your lunch or dinner at this coastal town within the Navarino Gulf with great taverns, restaurants, bars and cafes. A great place to eat for families is Kochyli Fish Tavern, where you can enjoy eating fresh grilled fish, while the kids play on the beach.
- Make a full day sailing trip to visit the monuments of the French on the Tsihli Baba (or Fanari) islet, the Russian on Sfaktiria island and the English on the Helonaki islet; or charter the sailing boat to enjoy a sea cruise in the Messenian islands.
- Live an amazing guided family sea kayaking trip in the Navarino Gulf.
- Enjoy a guided family hiking along King Nestor’s trails.
- Take a photo tour in the castles of the Peloponnese under the expert direction of Greek awarded photojournalist and mother of two Maro Kouri.
- Dive in the wrecks of Proti island with certified PADI instructors starting with kids 8+ for first level instruction and 10+ for actual dives.
- Snorkel with kids along the Western Messenian shore!
- Prefer surfing? Check Surfsalad, which offers Kite and Wind surf.
- If you are interested in birdwatching or you just love biking, rent bicycles from Martin’s Gialova, ride around the Gialova lagoon and observe rare migratory birds according to the season.
Off-the beaten track tips
- Visit the Kalamari Waterfalls at Shinolaka by walking there along a pleasant trail that won’t tire even young kids. This was a site of a major victory against Ibrahim in 1825. It is especially ideal as a family outing in the cool spring weather.
- Visit the church of the Virgin Mary of Sgrapa at sunset. The church has a beautiful courtyard with a view of the Navarino Gulf and the Gialova lagoon, while there are some swings and it is not far off the main road of Gialova-Pylos.
- Another magical spot to watch the sunset over the silver olive groves is the square at Tragana village, where you can also eat your choice of barbecue meats and delicacies.
Accommodation for families
An ideal place to stay as a family, and not only, is Costa Navarino. It is right on the beach, where Romanos beach meets Mati, a location that locals used to call Bouka. Costa Navarino has a fully organized kids’ club with educational and fun activities and as a resident, you will also have the chance to enjoy family bicycle tours, pic-nics in nature, traditional cooking classes, wine and oil tasting and connoisseur classes, agritourism activities in vineyards and olive groves, philosophical and botanical walks, astronomy nights and guided tours of the art and natural history exhibits at the Navarino Natura Hall.
Note of Caution: The big crossroads where the national road of Pylos-Kyparissia meets to road connecting Chora, the Palace of Nestor with Costa Navarino, Romanos and Voidokilia is dangerous and drivers should use plenty of caution when passing through.
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