My journey to Greece by the inside track
Ivor Baddiel put local knowledge to the test when touring the Pelopennese
The view over Pylos harbour made famous by Homer’s Odyssey and renowned for its beauty
Commonly held wisdom says that if you see Chinese people eating in a Chinese restaurant, it must be a fine establishment. But does this apply to holidays?
There were a large number of Greek tourists holidaying in the South Pelopennese when I was there, something I did, indeed, take as a sign of its quality as a destination.
But then it occurred to me that resorts such as Margate and Blackpool are full of Brits in the summer and, wonderful as they are, I'm not sure that the glut of indigenous tourists quite qualifies them as top-notch holiday spots. I had two weeks to find out.
The Pelopennese is a large peninsula in Southern Greece. It resembles a handprint, consisting of four south pointing 'fingers' and we were headed for the most westerly of these, The Messenian Peninsula.
Sunvil offer 1 week from £646 to £868 and 2 weeks from £856 to £1238. Prices are per person based on 4 people staying in a 2-bedroom villa and include flights from Gatwick and car hire. A supplement of £45 is applicable on flights from Manchester.
Kalamata airport, just over three hours from London, is little more than a couple of shacks and some tarmac but it functioned adequately and retrieving our bags was painless, as was picking up the hire car. We headed to the coast to Kalamaki villas, nine of them nestled a short way up in to the hills between the villages of Petalidi and Chrani. In actual fact they're in Kalamaki, though from what I could see, Kalamaki consisted of two signs saying, 'Kalamaki' separated by a couple of hundred metres of road.
Our villa, Theresa, was in a row of five, though thanks to some thoughtfully planted shrubbery, each was fairly separate and secluded.
It consisted of two air-conditioned bedrooms, a bathroom that housed the washing machine and a fairly spacious lounge area with a small kitchen in one corner. Whilst not exactly luxurious, it was comfortable and more than adequate. The patio doors opened on to a balcony with an accompanying view of the sea and the Mani peninsula, one of the middle fingers. Between the balcony and the view is a rather large swimming pool. Okay, so it wasn't quite Olympic-sized, but big enough to accommodate the entire family, plus all the usual watery accoutrements of lilo, rings, balls etc. Trust me, it saw an awful lot of use.
There was a small welcome pack of basics on arrival; bread, cheese, spreads, biscuits and the like, and a bottle of wine.
So, we'd made it, and after a cooling dip in that pool, it was off to explore one of the less charted areas of a country that isn't exactly shy when it comes to tourism. And The Messenian Peninsula really is less charted, certainly when it comes to the massed ranks of foreign tourists intent on invading and commandeering a coastline, a fact that first began to hit home when we visited the beach in Chrani and discovered that there was no charge for the sunbeds.
Other signs soon amassed such as the complete lack of big, gaudy hotels and, despite visiting numerous beaches, no paragliding, banana boats or jet skis.
I lost count of the number of beaches we plonked ourselves down on. The area is awash with them; they ranged from good to great, with none disappointing. The one nearest our villa was a lovely, tiny thing with calm waters, hidden away and so untouched by tourist amenities that we had to take our own umbrella and snacks.
Other beaches were more lively, especially Golden beach, on the opposite coastline, just outside the town of Pylos. It's a long arc of golden brown sand with one central bar where the young congregate, but there's plenty of space for everyone. The sea is just lovely, gently lapping the shore and allowing the kids to play happily and safely in it. Finikounda beach, at the southern end of the peninsula, is lovely too. The place is much more of a resort, with tavernas and souvenir shops. But it retains a mellowness, and though the beach was busy, it never felt too crowded.
The town of Petalidi, about a seven-minute drive from the villa, is extremely nice with some fine tavernas along the seafront and the added bonus of a kids' playground. The central square is lined with cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries and a fishmonger.
Similar in size and feel is Agios Andreas, further south down the coast. It's quieter than Petalidi, but equally charming and with a couple of interesting shops.
Koroni, almost on the southern-most tip of the coastline, is a blinding place with a wonderful harbour lined with tavernas, shops and local farmers selling produce from the backs of trucks.Inland, there's a lovely square and church and, heading up to the top of the town, you hit Koroni castle and the old city. It's beautiful and peaceful but wandering about in the heat is uncomfortable, so I'd save it as an end of the day treat.
A short drive from Koroni you hit Zaga beach, which is the perfect place to cool off if you have traipsed around the castle in the midday sun.
Over on the opposite coastline is Pylos. It was mentioned in Homer's Odyssey and is renowned in Greece for its beautiful natural harbour.
And it is indeed delightful, as is the central square where you can sit in the shade of the expansive plane trees and quaff beverages and enjoy people watching.
Be warned though, there were an awful lot of Greek tourists in Pylos and we found that things were more expensive there. There's also a castle up on high in Pylos, but we didn't fancy overheating, so gave it a miss.
North from our villa were the towns of Messini and the region's capital Kalamata. Messini is not really worth a visit, but there are some impressive ruins out at ancient Messini, which, if you like that sort of thing, will not disappoint. It's a good 20 kilometres away from modern Messini though, which is a fair hike.
As for Kalamata, well, despite a bustling fruit and veg market on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings, I'm not sure I'd rush back. It's quite big and oppressive in the heat. It also has a castle and some good shopping, in case so you're there when it's a bit cooler.
The area has with marvelous tavernas, often with seaview tables. It'll come as no surprise that the seafood is terrific, and I'd say that the sea bass I had in our favourite gaff, Sokrates in Chrani is the best I've ever tasted.
So, the lesson is clear; Greek tourists holidaying in Greece is a good guarantee of quality. I hope the locals to whom I recommended Bognor Regis, like it as much as I liked the Pelopennese.