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Ride Greece: Messin’ in Messenia

Greece

Words and photos: Kevin Sharpe

HEADS UP
A ride in the south-east corner of Greece’s Peloponnese region. A mix of terrain and lots to see.

Distance: 15.5 miles (25km)
Big hills: 1
Challenge: 2/5
Cafe stops: 1

“Y ia sas!” booms up the Lycra-clad man outside the bike shop. It’s our guide for this afternoon’s ride — ultra-chatty and self-confessed bike nut John van Derkaaden. He promises me and friend Kathryn a nice steady ride around the bay of Navarino, a magnificent natural harbour, one of the largest in the world, in the south-east of Greece’s Peloponnese region.

It is an area steeped in history with its Neolithic settlements, Mycenaean palaces, medieval castles, as well as being home to 20,000 assorted waterfowl, and a major stopover for migrating birds in winter time.

After getting fitted with mountain bikes from the shop suitable for the mixed bag of terrain that our guide gleefully tells us to expect, we head out on some dusty farm tracks, quickly finding out about the little sand traps that try to catch us out by soaking up our front wheels.

Ride GreeceHigher purpose
We climb up to a little chapel, which apparently is a very popular wedding venue on top of the headland that offers amazing views; I can see why it’s so popular. To the right can be seen the golden beaches of the Messenia coastline.

Looking to the left, perched on top of the promontory, is the 13th-century fortress of Paleokastro, a formidable natural defensive position with its ruined battlements and towers guarding these panoramic views.

Further down the hill into the distance we can just about make out the dark silhouette of a cave entrance. Inside this grotto, according to Homer’s Odyssey, Hermes hid the cattle he stole from Apollo. But today it just boasts some impressive stalactites, slowly marking time.

Dropping back down, pleased with the reward of great views for the effort of the climb, we pedal along to our next stop, Voidokilia, also known as Golden Beach, which according to the Times is one of the best in the world. We get off our bikes and half push and half drag them through the fine sand and are again rewarded for our effort.

This cove is an amazingly beautiful little horseshoe-shaped sandy bay directly under the headland that we had just climbed. It is a breeding ground for turtles along with Romanos Beach, which is on the other side of the rocky outcrop. We stop and have a little paddle in the clear-blue calm sea and wander along the sun-bleached white sand for a while. It would be nice to stop for longer and chill on the beach, but the ride must go on.

Island life
Next up on our agenda, we pedal out along some gravelly, reed-fringed doubletrack. Nothing strange about that, only that it’s on a spit of land and we have water on both sides of us.

To the left is the salty water of Gialova Lagoon. Two freshwater streams feed the surrounding wetlands, which are Greece’s southernmost major stopover site in the flyway of migratory birds.

The area has been declared an Important Bird Area (IBA), providing shelter to 271 of the 442 recorded bird species in Greece and supporting a mosaic of habitats for birds like flamingos, eagles, heron and other assorted water birds. It is also the only refuge in Europe of the African chameleon, but the chances of spotting one of these rare creatures are very slim as we coast along.

On the other side of the track, and equally beautiful, is the almost land-locked Bay of Navarino. This vast natural harbour was the setting, in October 1827, for the Battle of Navarino, in which an allied British, French and Russian fleet defeated a combined Egyptian-Ottoman armada.

This battle marked a decisive turning point in the Greek War of Independence. It was also the last major naval battle in the world to be fought entirely with sailing ships. It is rumoured that the battle was so bloody that it turned the water in the bay red.

Our guide jokes as we pedal along the track by making a comment comparing the events of nearly 200 years ago with Greece’s economic struggle today within the EU.

The refreshing afternoon breeze across the bay keeps us energised and keeps the heat off as we pull over for a quick look at the environmental information centre, detailing on boards all the local flora and fauna, fish and birds. It is also the starting point of a walking trail that leads up to the castle and grotto mentioned earlier.

GreeceNot cooked yet
Grateful that last night’s meal, served by two local ladies at an impromptu cooking lesson, had been high in carbohydrates, we still had enough go in our legs to keep riding. We are rewarded for our efforts as we now enter shady, gnarly olive tree groves, home of the prized Kalamata olives, found in delicatessens the world over.

During harvest they use what sounds like a painstaking process involving laying nets around the trees and delicately striking the branches with long sticks causing the olives to fall. A reminder that I will be in serious trouble if I forget to take some of the local produce home.

We turn off the mud tracks and onto the black stuff, but the local roads we ride have been very quiet and the occasional traffic we encounter leaves us plenty of room. We ride back to the bike shop passing through the little village of Romanou, where the older generation all seem to be sitting about enjoying shade from the afternoon sun. They all wave as we pass by, probably making a little joke about bikes, mid-afternoon sun and idiots.

Returning back to base, having really enjoyed getting out and about on the bikes there is time to reflect on our own little Odyssey in which we have covered a real variety of terrain and pedalled through the tracks of time.

A possible ride for future consideration is one of the many routes that Navarino Outdoors offers, and relevant to this summer’s Olympic Games in London: it goes from here to the ancient site of Olympia where it is believed the first Games were held in 776 BC. That’s a 100k pedal out and a van ride back.

GreeceSTOP!
Old piles
The Palace of Nestor
Home of the wise old king Nestor. First written language in history to use syllabic signs found here on tablets

Neo Kastro fortress, Pylos
Built in 1572 by the Turks with impressive battlements guarding the southern approach to the harbour. Its dungeons were used until the 20th century as a prison

Paleokastro
Ruined 13th-century fort with battlements and towers

Eco Information Centre
Local environmental issues and info about identifying species of birds, fauna and flora

Accommodation
Westin Resort, Costa Navarino
A deluxe garden view room starts from €140 (approximately £112) per night
www.costanavarino.com

Bike hire
Navarino Outdoors
Cycle hire and guided rides to suit novice to experts for a variety of terrains
outdoors@costanavarino.com

Getting there
Aegean Airways
Flights from London Heathrow to Athens, as well as daily flights from Athens to Kalamata. For more information go to www.aegeanair.com

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