The traveller interested in history is spoilt for choice in Greece as one travels across the expanse of its mainland and further to its many islands. The physical legacy of its rich past is evident almost wherever one looks. Whether one is interested in Pre-Classical, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Medieval, Ottoman or the modern eras – there is much to see and appreciate.
One of my own personal fascinations is the architectural legacy of the Venetian presence in Greece. This can be experienced in the many fortified ports and castles that were erected as this vast trading empire established its footholds across the Eastern Mediterranean. Beginning around the 11th century and surviving well into the 18th century in some locations, the Venetians vied with other powers to rest these bases from both Byzantine and then Ottoman control. A visual feast of this Venetian presence across the region can be viewed in Venetian architect and historian Francesco da Mosto’s excellent documentary series, Francesco’s Mediterranean Voyage, released a few years ago.
One of the most significant of these Venetian bases in Greece lies at the tip of one of the “fingers” of the Peloponnese, the Castle of Methoni. While its story is impressive, Methoni Castle’s history contains tragic and gruesome chapters, both Venetian and modern. One might say that its stones speak of the ghosts of these eras.
My guide through its history is the wonderful Rhonda Cousens, someone deeply interested in the history of Methoni, its Castle and more, whom I have known for many years. She comes to Methoni most years with her husband Peter – who hails from the town – and their family
Approaching the Castle from the town, one is impressed by the depth and strength of its outer fortifications. The entrance is across a narrow causeway raised on solid arches which bridge a deep moat. Walking towards the gate, you are aware of not only the high walls above which stretch away on both sides but also the ramparts which protect the entrance from attack including the Bembo and Lorendon bastions.
On passing through the narrow gate, you realise that what you have seen is only the outer wall, for once inside there is only a narrow pathway between this outer wall and a larger, taller inner defensive wall. Any enemy that sought to enter the Castle by force would have to breach and survive these defences before entering the Castle itself. The Venetians certainly knew how to build castles.
The Castle is steeped in history. Rhonda tells me of its Classical Greek foundations on which what we see today constructed. Originally a settlement, the area is referred to both by Homer and Pausanias. The town increased its status under Byzantine rule, with a Bishop appointed and the strengthening of the defences of the town. Not surprisingly, Methoni became a staging post for traders and pilgrims headed for the Holy Land.
But much of what we see today was created under the periods of Venetian rule. Beginning in 1206, the arrival of the Venetians saw both the military and commercial importance of Methoni greatly expanded as it became part of the Venetian Empire. The initial period of Venetian rule lasted for three hundred years, until its capture by the Ottomans. The Venetians would return briefly, from 1685 until 1715, followed by the re-conquest by the Ottomans. During the Greek war of liberation, Methoni would be a military base for the Ottoman forces until it was captured by a French expeditionary force in 1828. It was during this French period that some improvements to the Castle were made – such as the replacement of the former wooden entrance causeway with the stone one that stands today – and the modern town outside the Castle walls was created, the settlement inside being largely demolished. The Second World War would see the Castle used as an Axis military base.
Emerging from the double castle walls, you are confronted by the expanse of the area enclosed by the Castle. This was a city, with traders, markets and living quarters – as well as barracks, armouries and even a hospital.
Standing before you is a monolithic column made of reddish granite, originally from Caesarea in Palestine. Known as “Morosini’s Column”, this was erected during the first period of Venetian rule in honour of then governor Bembo. On the wall nearby is installed the traditional stone “Lion of Venice” plaque, signifying Methoni’s incorporation as part of the Venetian Empire.
Nearby can be seen the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior, originally built during the second period of Venetian rule and subsequently converted for Greek Orthodox use. It was at this Church that one of the first leaders of the modern Greece – Ioannis Capodistras – attended his last Easter service before his assassination in October 1831.
The Castle grounds also once contained an impressive cathedral, the Church of St John the Theologian. Built on the site of an earlier ancient temple and then Byzantine church, this church was subsequently converted into a mosque and then destroyed, only the base of the minaret remaining. The Ottoman period is also reflected in the remains of two bath houses. Other significant buildings on the site include the impressive Sea Tower to the south east.
Walking towards the end of the complex you finally pass through the southern defensive wall and gate – the Porta di San Marco – to be taken by the vision of the Bourtzi. Connected by a small causeway, this impressive little fortress built by the Ottomans was originally designed as a lighthouse, but its use as a prison would give the Bourtzsi its haunting and notorious reputation. Prisoners are reported to have pleaded for death rather than remain in its dark and watery dungeons. The Saint of Methoni, Grigorios Papatheodorou, was imprisoned and killed here.
As Rhonda walks us back along the western wall of the Castle we come to the location of another tragic event connected to its history. It was here in 1941 during the Second World War that an Italian troop ship – the MV Sebastiano Veniero – came to grief on the grim and jagged rocks that lie beneath sea. It did so after having been torpedoed by an Allied submarine in the waters of the Ionian Sea. Amongst her cargo were hundreds of Allied prisoners, captured in the battles of North Africa. Many would survive but hundreds would die, either in the explosion that ripped through the ship or as they tried to come ashore. Rhonda pointed to the area of rocks where even to this day human remains can be found, washed up from the depths below.
A few years ago Rhonda and Peter introduced me to one of their family members from Methoni, living in Melbourne. As a young man, Nick Georgopoulos had been one of the locals who dragged many of the bodies of the drowned soldiers from the rocks and the shore. Sadly, Nick has now passed away. Spurred on by the urging of Australian veteran the late Bill Rudd and encouraged by Rhonda, Peter and Nick, with the support of Melbourne’s Papaflessas and Navarino Brotherhood’s and the local authorities, I was honoured to have organised the erection in May 2018 of a commemorative plaque near the entrance to Methoni town to the Sebastiano Veneiro tragedy.
The fortunes of Methoni have risen and fallen many times, it has witnessed terrible tragedies and worse. Death has walked this Castle. The ghosts of these sorry events are tangible as you walk inside the Bourtzi or gaze at the dangerous rocks in the surrounding sea.
In its architectural remains the Castle’s Venetian legacy appears dominant. But like all Empires before and since, the physical remains stand testimony to the transitory nature of power. No doubt it brought prosperity and a degree of protection to the inhabitants of Methoni. But they also imposed their own customs and authority. The Venetian Empire would fall into decline, its faded glories reflected across Greece and in the Mediterranean. The Venetian sacking of Constantinople would see Venice itself decorated with stolen Byzantine art, sculptures and jewels. But the Empire would be no more.
As I leave the Castle I muse on the words of the great English poet and philhellene Percy Byshe Shelley. In his poem Ozymandias, we have a vision of the ruins of an empire, its statues broken and half covered in sand, Shelley’s words ringing true – “Look on my works ye Mighty and despair, Nothing beside remains …” Well, maybe not nothing.
On your next trip to Greece I would encourage a diversion to Methoni and its Castle. Maybe you might also enjoy a relaxing meal at the Achilles Hill restaurant overlooking the town with the most amazing views. And just might meet up with Rhonda and Peter and get lost in the rich history of Methoni.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance author and published author. Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, Jim is the author of Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and Grecian Adventure as well as a contributor to Mates & Allies, a commemorative publication of the Australian Embassy in Athens. He thanks both Rhonda Cousens and Peter Georgopoulos for their welcome to Methone and Rhonda for her expert guidance of the Castle of Methoni. Readers seeking more information are referred to Giannis Biris’ excellent The Castle of Methoni – A Visitors Guide, published in Athens in 2018. He can be contacted at email@example.com.