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Holidays: PEL OF A FIND; Robin Gauldie explores Greece's spectacular South.

SUMMER comes early and stays late in the Peloponnese, the rugged, southernmost part of the Greek mainland. So it's ideal for a sunshine holiday from the moment the first charter flights touch down in Kalamata in May until the last plane leaves at the end of October.

Kalamata is famous for its olives and olive oil. Apart from that, this dusty modern seaport town is no great shakes - but east and west of it are long, uncrowded beaches, medieval castles, sleepy fishing villages and ancient cities.

THE WILD WEST

IF you like castles, you'll love the picturesque seaside towns west of Kalamata and its airport. Back in the Middle Ages, Koroni and Methoni were known as the "Eyes of Venice" - twin fortresses built by the Venetian Republic to guard against the galleys of the Ottoman Empire.

There's more than a hint of the Lord of the Rings about both of them. Koroni's castle stands high on a sea-cliff and looks down on an old-fashioned harbour surrounded by red-tiled houses and palm trees, while on the other side of the castle there is a long sweep of beach.

Palm trees line the quayside, and there are enough bars and tavernas to keep you happy for a full fortnight. Koroni is a popular holiday spot with the Greeks themselves and that always means the food is a cut above what you might find in a resort devoted to tourists.

Methoni is even more spectacular. The towers and bastions of this formidable fortress are surrounded on three sides by the sea, and with the sun setting over its battlements it looks almost ridiculously romantic. Next to the castle, the modern town is a cheerful mix of shops and cafes serving the local fishing communities, with a scattering of slightly more touristy establishments and a string of friendly small hotels spread out along a sandy beach where the water is so shallow that it gets delightfully warm in summer. Not ideal for grown-up swimmers - but great for toddlers.

A few miles from Methoni is Finikounda and it's a real surprise. Three beaches of crunchy yellow sand are amazingly uncrowded. There's a clutch of family-run hotels and studio apartments - and plenty of tavernas and cafe-bars.

If you're looking for somewhere a bit less steeped in history, try Chrani (Kranai). It's always great to find somewhere new in Greece, and this little farming and fishing community is slowly turning into a holiday resort. Most of the accommo-dation here is in purpose-built studios and apartments, and there are two mini-markets as well as a handful of tavernas.

EASTERN PROMISE

HEADING east from Kalamata, the coast gets more rugged as the Taigettos mountain range plunges into the Aegean. If you're not keen on winding cliff roads and steep drops, you may want to keep your eyes shut as your tour bus winds its way towards Stoupa. But it's worth the trip.

Stoupa is a crescent of old stone houses, tavernas and hotels around a sandy bay and a little harbour where fishing boats land their hauls of octopus, squid, and snapper. There's a sandy beach - good for younger kids - and Stoupa has merged into its even more picturesque neighbour, Kardamyli, to become one of my favourite low-key Greek resorts.

ITCHY FEET

BEYOND Stoupa lies one of Greece's remotest regions - the Mani. This barren, mountainous peninsula stretches all the way to Cape Matapan, the southern tip of mainland Europe.

There's not a tree in sight, and the little square towers built by feuding medieval clans rise out of clumps of spiky prickly-pear cactus. The Maniot chieftains fought the Turks for centuries. When there was no-one else to fight they fought each other in vendettas that make the Mafia look like a bunch of big soft girls.

By the end of World War II they'd virtually wiped each other out. Now, their towers are empty or have been turned into guesthouses or holiday homes for Athenians. For a fistful of dollars, you too could own a mini-castle in this spaghetti Western setting (last time I looked, you could still pick up a tower for around pounds 55,000).

Messene (Ithomi) is Indiana Jones territory. Archaeologists are still unearthing new secrets inside the six miles of grim, grey, ancient walls that surround this 2,300-year-old archaeological site on the slopes of Mt Ithomi, some 20 miles north of Kalamata. Nobody seems to go here, so you can ramble round the ruins in peace.

Pylos - an imposing Turkish fortress guards this mellow little fishing port on Navarino Bay. When the Turks ruled Greece, this was one of the country's best natural harbours - and it was here in 1827 that the British Admiral Codrington sank an entire Turkish fleet and handed Greece its independence. Great place for a fish dinner by the harbour.

WHAT'S THE DEAL?

-SEVEN nights self-catering at the Sardelis Studios in Finikounda costs from pounds 665pp and in Kalamaki Villas in Chrani from pounds 980pp (including car hire). A week in a one-bedroom house in Maniatiko Village near Stoupa costs from pounds 840pp with car hire. All prices include flights from Gatwick to Kalamata. Go to www.sunvil. co.uk

-FILOXENIA (www.filoxenia.co.uk) have a week self-catering at Yiorgos Studios in Kardamyli starting at pounds 675pp. A week's B&B in the four-star Odysseas hotel in Methoni costs from pounds 750pp. Both prices include return flights from Gatwick to Kalamata and hire car.

-FURTHER info: Greek National Tourist Office, www.gnto.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

Property is cheap in Mani
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 12, 2005
Words:922
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