‘World’s most beautiful bay’ has new palace to rival Homeric past – Ian Johnston
Costa Navarino is a luxury resort in Greece built close to the ancient ‘Palace of Nestor’ – a wise king who featured in Homer’s stories about the seige of Troy – which has a claim to being the birthplace of hospitality, writes Ian Johnston.
In 1874, Heinrich Schliemann, the pioneering archaeologist who discovered the ancient city of Troy, arrived in Messinia in Greece. He was looking for the fabled Palace of Nestor, a wise old king in Homer’s Iliad. He didn’t find it. However, the trip wasn’t entirely wasted as he did discover what was, in his opinion, “the world’s most beautiful bay”.
I’d need to do a lot more travelling before making the same claim, but Navarino Bay is pretty spectacular, with the island of Sfaktiria almost closing it off from the sea, making a perfect natural harbour, a nature-rich lagoon at its northern end, and the bluest-of-blue waters.
So it is perhaps surprising that Messinia is not more famous as a tourist destination, remaining instead in the “best kept secret” category for years. Doubly so, given one of Britain’s most famous travel writers, the late Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, gave it the ultimate personal endorsement by making his home in Kardamyli on the Mani peninsula.
The five-star resort of Costa Navarino was designed to put the region firmly on the international map. The brainchild of local-boy-made-good Vassilis Constantakopoulos, it includes two luxury hotels; 18-hole golf courses good enough to secure the accolade of European Golf Resort of the Year in 2017; a multi-award winning spa; fine-dining restaurants, an American burger joint, and a place that served souvlaki, traditional Greek fast food of meat on a skewer that, to my taste, was absolutely delicious and left the fancier fare in the dust.
Basically, it has everything you’d expect from a resort recently named as one of the National Geographic Traveller magazine’s best 20 destinations to visit on the planet.
Spoken of in reverent terms as “the Captain”, Constantakopoulos was born in 1935 in the village of Diavolitsi, went off to sea as a teenager and, cutting a long story short, eventually created the world’s largest independent private cargo shipping company.
In the 1980s he developed his “grand vision” for Costa Navarino, hoping to provide a new source of employment in his home region to enable local people to stay rather than leave for life in the big city as he had done.
But it was not until 2010 that the first part of the resort actually opened, in something of a hurry to enable Constantakopoulos to live to see it. He died the following year.
While it is by the sea, it is more than just a beach resort. The grounds are filled with thousands of olive trees, many of which were carefully transplanted when Costa Navarino was being built. So, in addition to looking after well-to-do tourists, the resort produces its own award-winning oil. In Greece, olive trees are precious or even, as Alexandra Skouteli, who works at the resort, puts it, “sacred”. The oldest one on the resort is thought to be about 1,000 years old.
“It’s part of our blood, we’re infused with olive oil,” says Skouteli, who studied for an Edinburgh University masters degree in wildlife, biodiversity and ecosystem health, graduating this year. “When it is time, we stop everything and do the harvesting.”
According to the resort, Constantakopoulos was a “passionate environmental activist” and sought to ensure Costa Navarino was designed in a sustainable way.
Among the most important species in the area are the loggerhead sea turtles which nest on the beach and the resort has worked with Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece, to ensure they are accommodated along with the tourists. This means the beach restaurant, Barbouni, closes at sunset to avoid its lights deterring adults looking for a place to lay their eggs or disorientating the hatchlings as they make their way to the sea.
To someone who rarely visits such holiday resorts – a dilapidated hillwalking bothy is more my style, and still would be even if I could afford Costa Navarino’s prices – keeping the olive trees alive and harvesting their crop, and making an effort to coexist alongside the natural world make Costa Navarino feel like one of the more pleasant examples.
But it is also more than just a beach or golf resort because of the region’s extraordinary history. Navarino Bay was the site of a naval battle that was pivotal in Greece’s struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. In 1827, British, French and Russian ships sailed into the bay and destroyed an Ottoman fleet in a massive blow to its power and prestige. Greek forces eventually triumphed in the war of independence with the country winning international recognition in 1830.
But, in Greece, history goes back much, much further. An hour-and-a-half’s drive to the north is Olympia, where it is still possible to run where races were held in the ancient Olympics some 2,500 years ago.
Closer to Navarino is the Temple of Apollo Epicurius, “one of the best-preserved monuments of classical antiquity” according to Unesco, and said to have been built by Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon in Athens. Like that famous temple’s “marbles”, sculptures were removed in the early 19th century and are kept in the British Museum in London.
Closer still, on a hill just north of Navarino Bay, are the fabled ruins that Schliemann failed to find. What has been identified as the Palace of Nestor, dated from 1,300 BC, was eventually discovered in 1939.
In addition to remains in keeping with comedian Eddie Izzard’s view of archaeology – that it’s always a “series of small walls” – there were some remarkable findings, including tablets written in the ancient Linear B language, which confirmed the building’s importance, and an astonishingly well-preserved bath.
The latter discovery is tantalising. A famous Homeric story has been held up as an archetypal example of hospitality or “philoxenia” in Greek, from philos, meaning friend, and xenos, meaning foreigner.
It tells how Telemachus arrived at the palace while looking for his father, Odysseus. Before he was asked the reason for his visit or even his name, he was bathed by Nestor’s daughter Polycaste (they later married) and then fed. Only then did the wise old king Nestor ask this stranger who he was and what he wanted.
So the bath, virtually intact among the ruins, might just be the very same one used by Telemachus three millennia ago.
The hospitality at Costa Navarino is a little less poetic, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest it is a modern palace, created by a latter-day Nestor.
Ian Johnston was a guest of Costa Navarino (which has two five-star hotels, The Romanos and The Westin, at its Navarino Dunes resort near Pylos in Messinia on Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula, where rooms start from €250 at The Westin and from €335 at The Romanos. A second resort, Navarino Bay, is already home to an 18-hole golf course and will include another luxury hotel. Direct flights with British Airways (London Heathrow), easyJet (Gatwick) and Thomas Cook Airlines (Manchester, Birmingham and Gatwick) fly to Kalamata airport, 45km from Navarino Dunes, between April and September/October. Direct flights to Athens, about a three-hour drive from Navarino Bay, are available from Edinburgh and other UK airports.