Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Peloponnese: Return ticket

The Spectator, 28th July 2012


I first visited the Peloponnese in the spring of 1959, at the beginning of my gap year. I was 18. Having been accepted for university as a classicist, I decided I might as well combine business and pleasure by visiting the great sites of the Mycenaean era before going on to my studies. It was mind-blowing. Olympia, Argos, Tiryns, Mycenae! I went from place to place with the Oxford edition of Homer’s Odyssey weighing down my rucksack, and each day brought a new revelation.

But I had to leave out the great Palace of Nestor near Pylos on that first peregrination through the Peloponnese. The buses didn’t seem to go that way. And a year wasn’t long enough to do and see everything. After Greece, I planned to visit Turkey and then, if funds permitted, South America. Nestor’s Palace would have to wait till another time.

Well, I waited over 50 years and still hadn’t made a clear plan. Imagine my joy, therefore, when out of the blue I received an invitation to visit Costa Navarino, a new development at Messinia, on the south-west coast of the Peloponnese, and realised that it was only a few miles from Nestor’s Palace.

If you are lucky with the connections, you can fly straight on to Kalamata, the airport in south-west Peloponnese which is less than half an hour by car from Costa Navarino. Sadly our timing was out, and we had no realistic onward flight. Instead, though, we had a magnificent three-hour drive across the Isthmus of Corinth and the central Peloponnese to the west coast and the Ionian Sea.

Our hosts had left some glossy brochures in the car for us to study en route. A young Greek boy, Vassilis Constantakopolous — so we read — leaves his home village in Messinia in the south-western Peloponnese at the age of 13 to make his fortune in Athens. He becomes a sea-faring captain, buys his first ship, then a few more, then yet more. But Captain Vassily has even greater ambitions. Determined to do something for his native region, he returns to Messinia, buys up over 1,000 hectares of land on the coast from some 1,300 owners, and plans to build an amazing sequence of hotels, spas and golf courses.

Well, that was the blurb. What about the reality? Costa Navarino, in its present form known as Navarino Dunes, consists of two hotels: the Westin and the Romanos. Jenny and I stayed in the Romanos, part of the Starwood Hotels’ Luxury Collection. Luxury was le mot juste. At the Romanos no fewer than 128 of the rooms had their own private ‘infinity’ swimming-pool. There’s a golf course, too.

If eating, rather than golf or swimming or massage, is your thing, Costa Navarino has it all. The ancient Greeks invented gastronomy, and they knew a thing or two about wine: that knowledge seems to have survived in Messinia, where the local white wines, in my humbler opinion, could hold their own against many better-known labels.

On the morning of our second day we set off early to visit the Gialova Lagoon, where 265 bird species have been observed. Then we drove round the Bay of Navarino, where in 1827 the British, with their French and Russian allies, defeated the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets and struck a vital blow in the battle for Greece’s independence. Each year, on 20 October, the nearby town of Pylos celebrates the great victory. There is a monument on a little island in the bay to the British sailors who lost their lives in that engagement. The British ambassador makes a point of coming down from Athens for the festivities.

Our last stop that day — and for me the highlight of the whole trip — was the Palace of Nestor, set high on a hill at Ano Englianou. We spent an hour there. I could have spent a day, a week. King Nestor, according to legend, took part in the Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths; he hunted the Boar of Calydon and sailed with Jason on the Voyage of the Argonauts. He was one of the greats, up there with Agamemnon and Menelaus.

We were shown round the site by two young archaeologists, Fotis and Natasha, employed full-time by Costa Navarino. ‘The palace burned down around 1200 bc,’ Fotis told us, ‘but the clay tablets on which they wrote down all the details of their daily lives survived. Actually, the fire fixed and solidified the inscriptions. That’s how they came to discover Linear B.’ Linear B! As a schoolboy in the 1950s, I could remember the excitement which gripped us when we learned that the young Michael Ventris had deciphered Linear B, whereas the great Sir Arthur Evans at Minoan Knossos, over in Crete, had totally failed. Heady stuff indeed!

I stood there, drinking it all in. Here was Nestor’s throne; here was Eurydice, his wife’s, royal chamber. Here were the royal baths. They seemed quite tiny, those baths, more like basins, really. How small people must have been in those days, I thought. The ancient Greeks may have invented gastronomy but they obviously didn’t have much to eat, not if body size was anything to go by.

But still, in so many ways, they had conquered the world. From that high vantage point, I looked out over the olive groves to the sea. This is a legacy that endures.

Kuoni (01306 747008/www.kuoni.co.uk) offers holidays at the Romanos. Prices for 2012 start from £115 per person per night based on two sharing a deluxe room with breakfast. For more information see www.costanavarino.com