Though often overlooked by tourists, Messolongi is just a three-hour drive from Athens and has something for everyone: the history buff, the foodie, the nature lover – and anyone who knows how to appreciate authenticity in all of its manifestations.
No matter where you look in Messolongi, there’s something of importance to modern Greek history. The town itself is closely identified with the Greek Revolution of 1821, largely because of the dramatic sortie that is also referred to as the Exodus. After a year-long Ottoman siege, thousands of local civilians and soldiers were massacred on April 10, 1826, as they tried to escape the city and raise the siege. The event, while not a military success, won international sympathy for Greece and helped turn the war in their favor. In town, you can see the tomb of the Revolutionary War hero Markos Botsaris as well as dozens of statues of renowned military chieftains. You’ll also find the monument to Lord Byron, who died here at the side of Greek revolutionaries after contracting a high fever, and many other memorials, both to the philhellenes who gave their lives during the sortie and to the unknown individual, the “Free Besieged” that the Greek poet Dionysios Solomos (author of the lyrics to Greece’s national anthem) wrote of in his unfinished poem of that name.
In addition to such important buildings as the old Town Hall, which today houses the Museum of History and Art – Municipal Art Gallery (dedicated to the Greek Revolution), there are other noteworthy initiatives which further highlight the ideas and ideals of the fighters and intellectuals of that period. One such example is the Messolongi Byron Society, an international research center focusing on the life and work of Lord Byron.
The Diexodos Center of Literature and Arts, housed in the family home of Thanassis Razi-Kotsikas, Commander of the Guard of Messolongi during the sortie of 1826, also does significant work in this area. Along with its permanent collection with historic artifacts dating from 1821, it also stages regular modern thematic exhibitions that highlight aspects of the town and that appeal to visitors and residents alike.
Messolongi is the only town in Greece where bird-watching requires just a short walk or bike-ride to the lagoon. Here, in a wetland that is home to more than 270 species of birds, you can see Dalmatian pelicans, herons and flamingoes (close enough to be seen with the naked eye) in an otherworldly setting protected by the Ramsar Convention.
Along the famous 19th century road that reaches across the lagoon to the island of Tourlida, you will see the pelades, the fishermen’s wooden shacks built on stilts planted in the lagoon’s silty bottom, and the gaites, the elegantly constructed wooden boats with the stafnokari (square fishing nets made for shallow waters and strung between two poles). The best time of the day for fishermen, cyclists, photographers, lovers and lost poets in general is sunset; Messolongi is famous for this “start-of-evening” show.
If wishing to discover Messolongi by cycling away from the main roads, rafting at the Acheloos and Evinos Rivers surrounding the location, climbing Mount Arakynthos, or trekking along the slopes of Mount Varasova, contact the people at Discover Missolonghi, tel. (+30) 26310.25545
Back in the town of Messolongi, don’t forget to sample a local product of worldwide gastronomic interest called avgotaraho (bottarga). This special delicacy is available at cooking workshops in the area, where you may also find a few recipes to try at home, or at some of the local tavernas and restaurants. Avgotaraho is, essentially, cured fish roe from the flathead grey mullet (the Mugil cephalus, known locally as bafa). The flathead grey mullet is fished from the lagoon along with many other choice fish, all of which the Messolongi experts prepare according to age-old recipes. These tasty dishes include mullet petali, sliced open and grilled over charcoal with rock salt; golden grey mullet called myxinari; various types of cured fish; havaro (or bearded horse mussel); and prits’ pato, “princely” eel, which is opened down the middle and topped with afrina.
Afrina, the local fleur de sel sea salt, represents an important chapter in Messolongi’s history, as 90% of the crude salt produced commercially in Greece (more than 130,000 tons a year) comes from two local salt ponds, called alykes, that together cover 1,400 hectares. The mounds of salt that form at the time of year when the salt harvest takes place are a sight to behold.
BIKE TO THE COFFEE SHOP
Two years ago, if you had wanted to rent a bike in what is now a cycling town, you wouldn’t have been able to find a rental store. Nowadays, there are a number of places where you can get yourself a two-wheeler and take a tour. Everyone pedals their way around Messolongi, where bicycles now outnumber the 15,000 residents three to one and where extensive network of pedestrianized roads make life on a bike easier. You can tour charming neighborhoods with single-story houses and yards bursting with flowers at your own leisurely pace, stopping now and then to recharge your internal battery at a coffee shop or ouzeri, either in the town center or somewhere down at the port.