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50km (31 miles) W of Kalamata; 108km (67 miles) W of Sparta; 317km (196 miles) SW of Athens

I spend as much time in Greece as I can, but I have to admit that all too often the modern village with a famous ancient name -- Argos or Corinth, for example -- is a disappointment. That's not the case at Pylos (also known as Navarino). Although the outskirts of the modern town are ungainly, the harbor area has considerable charm. The harborfront, the tree-shaded main square with its statues and cafes, and the cobblestoned side streets all make Pylos an appealing place to wander, especially in the cool of the evening when breezes blow from the sea.

In fact, it's so pleasant to sit at a harborside cafe it's hard to realize that Pylos's harbor has seen some bloody battles. The Athenians trapped a Spartan force on the offshore island of Sfaktiria in 424 B.C.; and in 1827, a combined French, Russian, and British armada defeated the Ottoman fleet here. More than 6,000 Ottoman sailors were butchered in what proved to be one of the critical battles of the Greek War of Independence. There's a monument to the three victorious admirals in Pylos's main square (called the Square of the Three Admirals), as well as lots of cafes that stay open late for after-dinner wanderers.

Some memorabilia from the battle, as well as archaeological finds from the area, are on view in the little Antonopouleion Museum, just off the main square (usually Tues-Sun 8:30am-3pm; admission 3€).

Ancient Pylos, site of the Mycenaean palace of old King Nestor, is about 17km (10 miles) north of the town on the hill of Englianos. Homer described Pylos as "sandy Pylos, rich in cattle," and the hilltop palace still overlooks sandy beaches flanked by rich farmland. Ancient Pylos seems to be a site that people take to -- or don't. For every visitor who complains about the protective plastic roof over the site, another raves about the palace's idyllic setting. Some call the remains here "scanty," while others find this the perfect place to imagine Nestor telling his tall tales (yet again!) while his courtiers sighed and cast surreptitious glances across the gentle countryside.