Pylos - Neocastro

Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.

The Bay of Navarino on the west coast of the Peloponnese has a long military history stretching back to the construction around 1300 BCE of the Mycenaean citadel known today as 'Nestor's Palace' some 8 kilometres to the north. In 425BCE at the battle of Sphakteria the Athenians defeated the Spartans below the classical city of Koryphasion which in its turn became a Byzantine citadel and a castle constructed after 1278 by the Franks and strengthened by the Venetians and Turks, now known as the Paleocastro.

In 1573, two years after the naval battle of Lepanto the Turks further strengthened the defences of this important anchorage with a new work opposite the southern entrance to the bay. This consisted of two large rectangular batteries dominating the entrance to the harbour which may be earlier than the hexagonal bastioned'citadel'on the crest of the hill. Between these was laid out a small walled town with a central mosque.

In 1686 the fortification was taken by the Venetians under Francesco Morosini after a 12 day siege. During the course of this operation the powder magazine'exploded destroying the northern most bastion of the citadel. The Venetians were quite dismissive of the site's military value citing its poor position and lack of ditch. Ambitious proposals were drawn up for work including three detached detached ravelins'and a hornwork'defending the approach to the citadel from the east but apart from the construction of two curious little loopholed'ravelins in the ditch around the citadel little was done.

In 1715 after a lightening campaign by the grand vizier Ali Kioumourtzi Turkish rule was restored and the Venetian forces driven out. The declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in 1770 by Russia saw an attack on defences in the area by a small Russian force under the brothers Orloff working together with local Greek forces. Neocastro surrendered after a six day bombardment. However, following the arrival of an Ottoman army consisting of several thousand Albanians the Russians in turn withdrew. This failed uprising had tragic consequences some of which were replayed in the Greek war of Independence (1821 -1828).

The Greeks captured the fortress after a siege lasting several months and then held it until in 1825 Ottoman forces under Ibrahim Pasha from Egypt landed and retook it. Intervention by the three European powers of Britain , France and Russia saw the arrival in 1827 of a large combined fleet who anchored in the bay. Here they clashed with a Turkish fleet whose almost total destruction signaled the collapse of Turkish domination of the area. The castle was surrendered to the French general Maison who carried out some repair work and erected a new set of two storey barracks.

The castle became a prison in 1864 and the interior of the citadel was partitioned with radial wars to control the prisoners. During the Second World war and number of gun emplacements were set up around the castle. A major programme of restoration and rebuilding was carried out between 1982 and 1987 opening part of the barracks as an art gallery and setting aside other areas to serve the needs of the Greek Centre for Underwater Archaeology.

Visiting Pylos

The pleasant little town of Pylos can be accessed either bus from Kalamata but for the independent traveler the best solution is to fly into Athens and hire a car. This then also allows visits to be made to Koroni, Methoni and other sites in the area. The castle is open to the public from Tuesdays to Sunday 8.30 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. with an entrance charge of 2.50 Euros (2008).

Public entrance is through a simple gate in the curtain north of the Makriyannis Bastion. To the left is the restored Maison barracks and the path leads to a crossroads in the centre of what would have been the old town. To the right a path leads up the hill to the citadel past a small rectangular fountain house. This was formerly fed by two aqueducts which brought water to the town. The original main gate lay to the north east of the citadel and consists of a heavily buttressed square tower. The hexagonal citadel is now flanked by five (one having been destroyed) small two story bastions. The citadel is entered through a simple gate on its north face and a broad ramp gives access to the wide paved wall walk which links all the bastions and the gate tower.

The southern curtain carries an arcaded wall walk down to the semi-circular Verga Bastion the interior of which was destroyed by British bombers in 1943 while the fortress was occupied by the Italians. Overlooking the rocky coast at the south west corner is the Hebdomas Bastion also known by the Venetians as the Forte Santa Barbra. This carried 15 cannon placed at two levels. It was largely destroyed during the attack of 1825 and rebuilt by the French. At the northern corner of the site stands the second rectangular bastion known as the Santa Maria. The interior contains a variety of overgrown foundations and ruins as well as the aptly named Church of the Metamorphosis having been converted either from mosque to church or vice versa no less than seven times. Sadly it is currently closed having been badly damaged by fire.

Article and pictures by Stephen Wass, all rights reserved.

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