While two days are not enough to explore Messolonghi in all its beauty and detail, they are sufficient to get a taste of its distinct charm.
We recently had the chance to discover some of its most fascinating secrets through a guided tour led by Messolonghi by Locals, an initiative started in 2018 by a group of young Messolonghi residents. It is a non-profit organization that was created with the aim of supporting the local community through a participatory mapping scheme of the city’s cultural routes and activities. “We chose to remain and work in Messolonghi, our hometown, during a time when the social and economic crisis had increased the number of young people leaving, creating a climate of introspection and apathy in the local community,” says team member Alexandros Panagiotopoulos. The two-story stone building that houses the Messolonghi by Locals group hosts activities for children and adults, locals, and visitors, and showcases artworks by local artists (the wooden models of bird observatories shaped like birds are wonderful). Visitors can get information, directions, and tips on the city’s most fascinating hidden secrets, as well as participate in experiential and interactive guided cultural, environmental, or gastronomic tours.
The young people who make up the group clearly love and respect their hometown: they organize experiential tours, suggest ecotourism accommodations, recommend seaside tavernas for authentic local fresh fish cuisine, and establish creative connections between local professionals and farmers in a way that both benefits the local economy and community and engages visitors.
In the Garden of Heroes
The Garden of Heroes exudes a unique sense of serenity and tranquility, even in a city as peaceful as Messolonghi. The Monument of Markos Botsaris, a replica by Georgios Bonanos of an original by the French sculptor David d’Angers, and the statue of Lord Byron by G. Vitalis dominate the Garden of Heroes, an area of about 4 hectares in the north side of the city and a place of great historical interest. These are just two of the approximately 70 monuments to Greeks and Philhellenes honoring Greeks and Hellenes who gave their lives defending Messolonghi’s independence, many of which have outstanding artistic merit.
The wealth of information and historical detail provided by guide Giorgos Apostolakos makes the tour an unforgettable experience for visitors. We learned, for example, that Messolonghi was named a Holy City in 1937 and is one of only two cities in the world to have this title for non-religious reasons, along with Los Alamos in the United States (Los Alamos Holy Land).
The Messolonghi-Aitoliko Lagoon is one of the largest and most important in the Mediterranean. Encompassing roughly 2,500 hectares, it stretches along 50 kilometers of unbroken coastline. Here, humans, birds, and fish have coexisted for thousands of years in a rare, delicate, and interconnected ecosystem. The aim of the Experience Messolonghi guided tour is to introduce visitors to this form of coexistence. Designed by the Messolonghi by Locals group, it is one of the most exciting experiences in the lagoon.
It is a circular day tour that starts with an hour-long boat ride to Klisova in a traditional fishing boat called a gaita, which is ideal for sailing in the shallow waters of the lagoon whose maximum depth does not exceed 1.80m. Sisia Roussi, a geologist and environmentalist who works with the group, provided all of the information about the lagoon’s geological formation, the hundreds of bird and fish species, and the fishing methods used in the area, while Aristidis Mantzouratos, president of the Anagenissi Fishermen’s Cooperative, demonstrated how the barriers used to keep the fish inside the lagoon are built, as well as how fishing is done with traditional “gaita” and “priarie” boats equipped with special stafnokari nets.
A thousand ways to cook mullet!
The Anagenissi Fishermen’s Cooperative’s most significant contribution has been the awarding of PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification to bottarga from Messolonghi, salted and dried fish roe made from the eggs of the female grey mullet, the bafa. The Fishermen’s Cooperative produces the only PDO-certified Messolonghi bottarga.
The fishermen of the lagoon prepare various dishes using the many species of mullet. After the boat tour, we had the opportunity to try some of the dishes prepared by the fishermen’s wives on the “pelades,” the wooden houses and workshops of the fishermen that are supported by thick wooden poles above the shallow waters. During the fishing season, this is where the fishermen and their families live and work, curing gray mullet and preparing bottarga.
This was a thrilling experience for us. First, we prepared our own meze with cured mullet, guided by Aristidis Mantzouratos and his colleagues who had previously cured the gray mullet in local coarse sea salt for 24 hours. We put on gloves and learned how to fillet the cured fish using small knives. Despite our initial clumsiness, each of us managed to make our own meze, which was later served on the balcony with local Trikene ouzo. The fishermen’s wives prepared mullet stew and grilled gray mullet, as well as delicious blue crabs and baked cheese pie, which were served with a hearty Greek salad. Everyone can take advantage of this special opportunity to eat dinner at dusk in the complete tranquility of the lagoon by booking a guided tour with Messolonghi by Locals.
But the experiences do not stop here; the next day, we had our first glimpse of the tentative beginnings of fishing tourism in the area. At the port of Messolonghi, we boarded the boat of the Kapourdeli family, who provide visitors with the opportunity to go offshore fishing and then cook the catch on a gas stove. On the boat, you can taste the local savóro, which is fried fish served in a tomato sauce with vinegar, tomato paste and garlic.
An easy ascent to the castle of Ancient Plevrona allows you to enjoy the stunning panoramic landscape of Messolonghi, with the lagoon stretching before your feet and views of the Achelous River estuaries. In the summer, you can also watch theatrical performances there in an ancient theater that was fully restored in August 2023.
Don’t forget to visit the Salt Museum and take advantage of director Despina Kaneli’s lively guided tour. Rich photographic and archival materials tell the story of the salt flats and salt workers of Messolonghi, while the collection of salt crystals from around the world and the incredible collection of saltshakers of all ages, materials, techniques, and styles are of great interest.
Messolonghi is worth visiting for the diverse yet unique gastronomic, environmental, ecological, historical, and cultural experiences it offers, which the local authorities have chosen to make accessible in the most environmentally friendly and immersive way possible in partnership with the Messolonghi by Locals group, aiming to attract eco-conscious and well-informed visitor-travelers rather than regular tourists.
This article was previously published in Greek at gastronomos.gr.