Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Kyparissia: Aroma of olives, color of watermelon

By Dimitris Bouras
The most striking image I have of Kyparissia, the town where I was born and lived until the age of 18, is that of the point where the land meets the Ionian Sea. The sound of roaring waves can often be heard even when there is no wind, resounding even through otherwise quiet winter nights.

As a child, I saw the most beautiful sunsets along the horizon, the most magnificent compositions of colors and shapes that the clouds can form in the sky, especially after a sudden heavy shower. When the rain stops, the clouds part and the islets of Strofadia appear in the distance, mirrored in the calm sea. At or near sea level, you can see the islets clearly, but climb up a bit and they seem to disappear, as though they’ve sunk back into the sea.

Other than its wonderful topography, Kyparissia is also a charming town. It has a population of some 6,000 permanent residents and is the seat of the Municipality of Trifylia, a small administrative hub in the prefecture of Messinia, 74 kilometers from the capital Kalamata.

The town is built in the shape of a horseshoe on the slopes of Mount Aegaleo, which locals call Psychro (Chilly), possibly because it is the only one in the area that will see a sprinkling of snow during cold winters.

The name Kyparissia derives from the Greek word for cypress tree (kyparissi) and this species is indeed plentiful in the area. According to mythology, Cyparissus was a handsome youth, beloved by the hunter Apollo. While out hunting one day, Cyparissus accidentally killed his favorite tame stag and was so overcome by grief that he was transformed into a cypress tree, which in Greece is a symbol of mourning and features in most graveyards.

Until not so long ago, Kyparissia was the last stop on the train from Piraeus, which pulled up at a station surrounded by cypress tress. If there is one thing I miss today in Kyparissia, it is the train and its station, which used to buzz with activity as it was used by people all around the region but today has been left to abandonment. These days the station and the remaining train carriages serve only as shelter for seasonal laborers when they’re in town for the olive harvest.

Now that I don’t live in Kyparissia any longer, although I do go as a frequent visitor (when the new Olympia Odos highway is completed, it will take just 2-2.5 hours to drive there from Athens), my impression is of a town that is perfect for a relaxing holiday. Unless, of course, you don’t find walks relaxing.

Kyparissia’s most beautiful walk is up to the old town, a listed settlement around a Venetian castle that affords wonderful views over the Gulf of Kyparissia and stunning sunsets. A stop for a glass of ouzo or tsipouro is a must before heading back down to the main square of the old quarter and partaking of souvlaki or the traditional-style pork slow-cooked on a spit.

The town is also a relatively short drive away from a number of interesting villages such as Raches, where there is a well-laid trail for trekking, Pylos, where the Battle of Navarino was fought, Methoni and Koroni with their attractive castles, and the stunning Voidokilia beach, whose sand dunes abut the Natura-listed Gialova lagoon.

If you have more time and the inclination to drive further afield, don’t miss Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Temple of Apollo Epicurius is located.

As interesting as Kyparissia is in the other seasons, in summer it is absolute heaven. It has dozens of beautiful beaches that are easy to reach and rarely get crowded.

Boukas beach is where the diminutive Arkadikos River empties into the sea, while the nearby beach of Kalo Nero (Good Water) is one of the longest in Greece, and Vounaki has a small refreshment stand where you can enjoy a quiet snack and a cold beer -- preferably the local Neda brand.

How to sum up Kyparissia? In winter it is the smell of olives and in summer the color of watermelon, its red-tiled roofs turning pink in the sun, surrounded by majestic cypress tree.

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