Author and columnist Ivor Baddiel ignores the media hype and manages to have quite a nice time in Greece……

They called us irresponsible maniacs. They said we were danger-mongers, intent on our own destruction. They told everyone we were deranged, thoughtless and beyond contempt. How could we possibly go to Greece when the country was crumbling into anarchic chaos with an economy that made Iceland’s look positively buoyant, a truck drivers’ strike that was starving the place of petrol leaving countless millions stranded and at the mercy of roaming cannibalistic hordes, unemployment flailing wildly out of control, civil unrest and a huge shortage of feta (okay, I made that last one up)? Yet, somehow, by an incredible freak of good fortune, we not only survived two weeks in the South Peloponnese, we actually had a fantastic time.

Okay, so comic melodrama over – if I’m honest, we were slightly trepidatious at the prospect of holidaying in a country with mounting problems and a certain uncertainty about its future; and, yes, I did ring Sunvil a couple of days before our departure to ask about the petrol issue – I was reassured that their rep in the area had advised that 50% of the petrol stations were stocked and that they expected the problem to ease within days, information that proved to be correct. (As is so often the case when the press goes overboard and create hysteria, the reality was somewhat different)

We flew in to Kalamata airport, which frankly is little more that a couple of large sheds and some tarmac, though it was well organized and retrieving our baggage went smoothly. The waiting Sunvil rep then gave us our welcome pack which, crucially, included directions to Kalamaki Villas where we were staying.

Sorting out the hire car, which in my experience can sometimes add painful hours on to a journey, was a swift transaction and we were soon heading off in a southerly direction along the Messinian coast, a full tank of petrol at our disposal I might add.

That first drive is always slightly nervy, especially with my girlfriend and two children screaming ‘remember to drive on the right!’ intermittently throughout; but, we found the slightly precarious dirt track that led to our villa, Villa Theresa. As mentioned we were staying in Kalamaki Villas about midway between the villages of Petalidi and Chrani.

Kalamaki Villas is made up of nine villas a short way up a hillside, though each was pretty separate and secluded. They’re not what you might call luxurious, but then that isn’t what we were expecting. Sunvilcertainly don’t oversell them and I would say that comfortable and more than adequate is an apt description. There’s a fairly large lounge area with sofas and telly, and a kitchen in one corner. Off this, through a sliding door, are two bedrooms with air conditioning, and the toilet and washing machine.

Where the villa did excel was outside. The patio doors open on to a balcony with one hell of a stunning view of the sea and over to the middle ‘finger’ of this part of the Peloponnese, the very mountainous Mani peninsula.

Between that view and the balcony is a cracking swimming pool that more than exceeded expectations. Not quite Olympic-sized, but big enough to accommodate the entire family plus the usual watery accoutrements of lilo, rings, balls etc. Trust me, it saw an awful lot of use.

So, we’d made it, and ahead of us was two weeks to explore one of the less charted areas of a country that isn’t exactly shy when it comes to tourism.

And it really is less charted, certainly when it comes to the massed ranks of yer 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. I know, unbelievable in this day and age, but there you have it, in my book a very good sign. Other signs quickly amassed such as the complete lack of big, gaudy hotels and, despite visiting numerous beaches, not one paragliding thing, banana boat or jet ski.

There is, however, quite a lot of Greek tourists, which on first thought I took as another very good sign, akin to going in to a Chinese restaurant, say, and seeing lots of Chinese people eating there. In this instance, though, the proliferation of Greek tourists was a pretty good guarantee of great beaches, great food and relaxed, chilled out vacationing.

I lost count of the number of beaches we visited, but they ranged from good to great, with none disappointing. The one nearest our villa was a lovely, tiny little thing with very calm waters, completely untouched by any tourist amenities, such that we had to take the umbrella from our villa for shade and some snacks.

Other beaches were slightly more geared up for humanity with tavernas and beach cafes nearby. Special mention has to go to Golden beach, which is over on the opposite coastline to where we were staying, just outside the town of Pylos, of which more later. It’s a long, arc of golden brown sand with one central bar where the young uns congregate, but plenty of space for everyone else. The sea is just lovely, gently lapping the shore and allowing the kids to play happily and safely in it.The beach at Finikounda is also at the top of the tree in my book. The place is much more of a resort, with plenty of tavernas and souvenir shops, but somehow it retains a real mellowness, and though the beach was quite busy it never felt over-crowded or noisy.

There was also much fun and adventure to be had in driving through the mountains to get there. The roads vary from reasonable to dodgy, but the views are spectacular and the villages you pass through are delightful.

So, the beaches get a big tick, what about the towns? Well, Petalidi is extremely nice with some fine tavernas along the sea front and the added bonus of a kids’ playground. There was also a very small fun fair type thing there for a few days, which also kept the nippers well amused.
Similar in size and feel is Agios Andreas, further south down the coast. If anything it’s even quieter than Petalidi, but equally charming and with a couple of interesting shops if you fancy a browse.

Neither of those places have much in the way of sites though. For that I would strongly recommend either Koroni or Pylos, and very much in that order. Koroni, almost on the southern-most tip of the coastline, is a blinding little place with a wonderful harbour area lined with tavernas, shops and local famers selling produce from the backs of trucks.

Inland a little 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 up there, and very peaceful, but wandering about in the heat is oh so sweaty, so unlike us, 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 round the castle in the midday sun.

Over on the opposite coastline is Pylos. It’s quite a famous old place having been first mentioned, apparently, in Homer’s Odyssey, and is renowned in Greece for its beautiful natural harbour. And it is indeed very lovely, as is the central square where you can sit in the shade of the expansive plane trees and quaff coffee, fanta and other beverages. Be warned though, there were a lot of Greek tourists in Pylos and we found that things were far more expensive there than elsewhere in the region. Perhaps it was the economy pushing prices up, though it felt more as if the locals were cashing in somewhat on the town’s notoriety and popularity. 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 are the towns of Messini and the region’s capital Kalamata. Messini is not really worth a visit, so we didn’t stop there. However, there are some very impressive ruins out at Ancient Messinia, 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.

Lastly, and quite possibly most importantly, I come to the food. Well, the good news is, the area abounds with marvellous tavernas, more often than not with tables looking out over to the sea and overflowing with cracking nosh. It’ll come as no surprise that the seafood on offer is terrific, and I’m going to go as far as to say that the sea bass I had one night is the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Our favourite gaff was Sokrates in Chrani, not right on the beach, but pretty near. A close second was one of the tavernas in Petalidi, I didn’t catch its name, but if you’re driving in from down south, it’s the first on the right as you hit the square.Of course being self-catering we ate in from time to time with my attempts at barbecuing fish bought from the fishmonger in Petalidi, causing much hilarity, but being ultimately successful.

All told it really was a very relaxing break made all the more so by the professionalism of the Sunvil folk. Oh you may scoff and remark that I have to say that, but honestly it’s true. I’ve not really done a package holiday thing before, but they made the booking process all very easy, were really helpful and knew their stuff. Once out there, their reps were equally good, dealing with the minor problems we had – I woke up to discover the car had a flat battery one morning and our barbecue was broken – efficiently and with no fuss at all.

The only thing that remains is to make sure that now we’re back in England, I remember to drive on the left.

Ivor Baddiel,
Sunvil Client