An engaging Grecovery

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As I boarded the Aegean Airlines flight bound for Athens, it seemed like I had mistakenly intruded on a congregation of goddesses – there was a foreign and palpable femininity manifest in their silky dark tresses and wide eyes. Feeling discomposed, I tried to slip down into my seat unnoticed when I received an email alert about Art Basel. Ah reality …  and a discussion on how museums cope in times of austerity highlighting, once again, Europe’s distressing economic situation. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, I was en route to the opening of a new art platform, Costa Navarino: Engaging Art, a bioclimatic resort set within the unspoiled coastline of the Peloponnese. I turned off my phone.

Arriving at Elefterios Venizelos Airport in the middle of the night I was greeted by a courtesy driver who was just the right mix of swarthy and manly from the Hotel Romanos. He promptly relieved me of my bags and escorted me to his car. Stepping out of the airport the air was so thick with scent it felt like bumping into a stranger – full of the promise of summer  – a heady mix of cyprus with rosemary and thyme found in abundance on the Greek hillsides. I must have fallen asleep – only briefly to stir when he covered me with his jacket in a random act of old-fashioned chivalry. It’s the little details that make all the difference – and over the course of my stay at the Costa Navarino I would repeatedly experience such subtle details that are the hallmark of authenticity, a unique combination tradition and sophistication that makes Messinia so unlike anywhere on earth.

I will never forget my arrival at Hotel Romanos as the early morning sun pulled the earth’s colours up into the sky. The scene was epic. Nestled in an olive grove is a lobby for the gods. Opulent volumes based on Messinian architecture, noble columns with billowing linen cream curtains ushering the air through the cool space punctuated only by the necessary neutral soft furnishings. In my semi conscious state I half expected Zeus to appear and take me to bed.

The cool marbled interiors give out to expansive views of the Ionian Sea, floors are decorated with traditional mosaics in earthy tones that echo those found in the neighbouring Palace of King Nestor. On the walls are clusters of ancient maps and paintings depicting scenes from the battle of the Bay of Navarino from the private collection of Captain Vassilis.

It took almost 30 years for Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, Costa Navarino’s founding father, to acquire the land here, the first phase in an ambitious and uncompromising vision for the region. Following his ethos, who set environmental protection as a non negotiable priority, architect Alexander Tombazis was commissioned by the developers Temes to create a bioclimatic design that would occupy no more than a 10 per cent of the total land. In time both five star resorts, golf courses, spa and thalassotherapy centers are to be powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity through the development of a 22MW photovoltaic system, and air-conditioned by geothermal installations with 123km of undergrounds pipes beneath the golf courses irrigated by water reservoirs.

But the real luxury today is space, and having previously felt somewhat claustrophobic on previous trips to Greek islands, this could not be more different. I could feel my lungs expanding and my mind emptying. Inspired by old Messinian mansions, clusters of west-facing, low-rise villas blend seamlessly into a lush seafront landscape lined with a 1.5 km sandy beach long enough to walk off into the sunset. Rooms at the Romanos open out onto spacious balconies or terraces and each ground floor unit has its own infinity pool, which in turn contributes to the overall dynamic flow and cooling of the resort. The thoughtful interior decorating by London-based Maria Vafiadis of MKV Design leaves room enough for each guest to add their own colour without overcrowding.

So this is what they mean by sustainable tourism – staying somewhere that is contributing to the economy whilst minimising any negative impact on its surroundings or stripping it of its resources. It is clear Captain Vassilis loved this region and wanted to preserve it for generations to come. What is remarkable about his legacy is that anyone who really knew him speaks with a kind of reverence and wonder that is usually only reserved for saints and icons – he may not be the first, but he is now a Navarino legend.

* * *

I was late for my treatment – having been absorbed various activities in my ample room that is more the size of a studio, such as morning exercises in my private infinity pool – but they were more than gracious at the Anazoe reception.

One particular quality of Ancient Greece that always appealed to me was how divinity was a constant presence throughout the daily rituals – every aspect of life had a god attributed to it. It seems that Costa Navarino have somehow translated the rituals of their mythological and royal past into one of the most memorable and immersive spa experiences I have ever had. Inspired by the clay tablets discovered at the Palace of Nestor that rests like a guardian on the edge of Navarino Bay, the Anazoe Spa has created an authentically Greek offering of treatments that go beyond the indulgent towards the curative. The treatments involve the use of exclusive products rich in the naturally extracted ingredients of wild herbs and include oleotherapy, using olive oil from the surrounding olive groves.

There are so many things about this experience that make it authentic, memorable and far beyond the prescriptive notion of a “treatment”. It is holistic in concept, from the music commissioned and composed by Petros Tambouris based on ancient modes and scales, to the locally scented candles that begin to work their aromatherapy magic before the treatment begins, and a softly spoken therapist who seems, really, to have all the time in the world just for you.

* * *

That evening we were given the opportunity to venture deeper into the story of ancient Greece during a Peripatos through the Olive Groves. These Philosophy Walks, one of the many offerings from Costa Navarino’s authenticity program which ranges from cookery classes in someone’s home or local wine tasting to working with artists in residence, are the perfect opportunity for a proper sundowner conversation with some like minded strangers. Taken from Aristotle’s decisive march away from the crowded Agora (Greek town centre) they embody his fundamental belief that a healthy body feeds a healthy mind. Like many great philosophers and writers since, think Neitszche or Borges, walking the literal road somehow allows the mind to unfold, giving rise to great streams of consciousness.

It seemed almost surreal then when later I was introduced to one of Greece’s favourite imports the author Victoria Hislop, whose book The Island was created into a 26-part mini-series in Crete. With her own entourage of goddesses including the husky voiced lead actress Gioulika Skafida,  she was here to read an excerpt from her most recent creation The Last Dance. Formerly known as The Priest and the Parrot, this book of short stories arose from her own forays into the Greek hinterland. As I joined her briefly in the lobby of Westin ahead of the event she pronounced, “I just love it here – we have already booked to come back!”

During the Q & A the audience were so touched by Hislop’s passion for their country that one asked, “Is there nothing you don’t like us for?” After much deliberation she offered us this “ While filming The Island for over two years in Crete there was one thing that really did bother me. At the start of the season the water was pure and clear and by July it was filthy because you just dump all your rubbish in the sea and that really upsets me – of course you don’t have that here in the Peloponnese and Costa Navarino.” Watch this space.

* * *

Discovering the southwest Peloponnesian coastal region of Messinia is like finding a precious ancient necklace set with the gems of unspoiled white sandy bays and lagoons held together with the thick trunks of the olive groves and the delicate vines that cover the rolling hills. There are few regions left in Europe that retain their original beauty, and Costa Navarino is as concentrated on preserving Messinia’s ecosystem as it is its rich heritage.

That morning en route to Pylos we picked up golfing journalist Nadine – who was positively ecstatic having played the best round of golf in her life – not to mind a camera full of breathtaking views of the Bay of Navarino. Whilst the 72 par Dunes Course, designed by Bernhard Langer, ventures into olive and fruit groves, it is The Bay Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr that offers some of the most sublime sea views In Europe and possibly the world. Both courses are operated by Troon Golf and facilities include a fully equipped golf academy, practice facility and excellent club house where the restaurant Flame sits looking out across the courses onto the hills beyond. I couldn’t help noting just how many perfect spots this place had for a proposal – and could not even bring myself to go into the spectacular bar at the Romanos without a lover.

After a magical tour of the Paleokastro (Old Castle) one of Messinia’s 33 medieval castles, we had worked up quite an appetite. Set in the dunes beneath the Romanos off a weathered wooden pathway is the Restaurant Barbouni – its roof rippling like a mirage with strips of sand coloured linen. It felt like we were sitting under a school of red mullet, the ocean breeze wafting around us like a current. Once again, I was enchanted by the thoughtful and subtle proportions of the place, with generous volumes of breezy shade, ideal for the fair skinned or those who prefer to avoid the sun at its zenith. It was otherworldly, everyone there had an ethereal glow and I mentally blessed the girls at Hibiscus for sending me just the right white beach dress for this lunch with the gods.

Lunch started with the refreshing pop of their signature watermelon and sfela – a local and to my mind superior variation of feta – salad.We were then treated to a seafood feast accompanied by stamnagathi – local wild greens – and finished off with the creamiest yoghurt drizzled with honey and nuts. Like the other restaurants here, the food is locally sourced, a large majority from its own farms, and is spared the depreciation of colour and taste of frozen and imported food. “Have you had enough?” the lovely Valia asked. I replied in jest, “Ready for some roast pig now! That felt like a feast with Dionysus.” “No that was a light lunch!” laughed our hostess who was increasingly like an actual goddess in my mind, “to us Greeks, fish is like fruit!”

En route to Pylos, with Nico our captain for the day, it became clear that there were plenty of opportunities still to gorge myself. In Messinia food is like a constant festival and there is something for every occasion.

Unbelievably we had the Bay of Navarino to ourselves  – no maddening cross crossing of plastic fantastic gin palaces, no obnoxious banana boats, just clear blue sea and the wind in our sails. As we sailed out of the little port, I asked Nico about the gentle tablecloth of cloud resting on the mountain at the Bay’s entrance. “That is St Nicholaos, and if the cloud is there we have wind in our sails – if it goes it takes the wind with it.”

The Bay of Navarino is not only epic for its natural beauty – it is etched in the history of Greece for the battle that was fought here against the Ottomans that restored Greek independence. There in the bay are four monuments to the English, French, Russian and Italians who fought with the Greeks, and sailing towards them it felt as though I was chartering the map to my newfound knowledge of the region. One of the guests asks Nico in Italian where he got the scrawl on his arm La Pazienza e la virtu dei forti (Calm is the virtue of the strong)which reads like a testament to the interconnectedness of these two countries that is as ancient as their history. We were sailing through the crossroads of European history.

Navarino Sea Yachting offers guests a range of cruises from a three hour sunset and full moon cruise to a two day cruise with an overnight stay in Venetiko. Having grown up in the South of France I have never experienced the Mediterranean like this with its incredible access to an unspoilt coastline with the most gracious and accommodating service. Surely the jewel in the crown, the crescent moon perfection of Voidokilia beach only accessible by sea or hiking, is worth the visit alone.

Arriving back to my room with my hair like Medusa – the wind still singing in my ears and my skin powdered with sea salt – I had just enough time to shower and change into something bright and colourful for that evenings opening of  Costa Navarino: Engaging Art an interactive artist in residence project. Jumping into a golf cart I raced, well whizzed, over to the Westin Tower where its curator, Dimitrios Antonitsis, was giving a revelatory talk about the project standing next to a column of metal teapots surrounded by a sea of local and international VIPs and the sponsors including another goddess from Estee Lauder.

This year’s theme 60 Picks Per Minute curated with the support of Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, references the momentous creation of Edmund Cartwright’s first power loom to achieve 60 picks per minute in 1785 that changed the face of an industry. Positioned to become a permanent platform for contemporary visual arts, this season four artists in residence have been invited. It is an ambitious project. Whilst each artist will present a solo exhibition, allowing collectors a unique opportunity to stay in the place where the art they take home with them is created, they will also interact with guests through in-situ workshops allowing them to engage materially in their creative process.

Antonitsis is inspired by and trying to revive an awareness of the Arts and Crafts movement that was a backlash during the 1860s to everything mechanically produced. Its champion proponent was William Morris who, galvanised by the writings of John Ruskin, wanted to create an international design philosophy that emphasised the handmade, organic aspect of design. More importantly he was motivated by a social unease at the lack of training and opportunity. This project it seems like a natural extension of the Costa Navarino’s Authenticity Program – inviting artists to stay and create here and contribute to its identity and as a destination for both contemporary and ancient cultural immersion.

As I meandered back to my room my eyes picked out the original works of art by Greek and international artists that not only form integral part of the interior design, but are a backdrop to its continually evolving story.

That night as I unwound my linen scarf, a brilliant emerald beetle fell out from inside its folds onto the bed. The scarab is an ancient symbol for solar deities and new life – and perhaps a sign from the gods that I was hopefully to return.

Arriving at the airport I had just enough time to stop into Korress and buy an explosion of scented body creams and lotions, followed by some beautiful hand made treasures from the Navarino Icons – a ceramic horse for my daughter and a Caretta Caretta maquette and some paper craft ancient figurines from my son. One day I will bring them here to discover the incredible facilities on offer at the Costa Navarino.

When I boarded the plane I felt just that little bit closer to goddess – all my senses refreshed, my skin glowing, and my eyes dancing with light. Right now, as I write, I am listening to Petros Tampouris to keep my spirits up, because upon returning I missed the place so much I felt like an olive tree that has been ripped out of the soil and transplanted temporarily – waiting to be returned.

by Nico Kos Earle

The Romanos, A Luxury Collection Resort, Costa Navarino, comprises 320 beautifully appointed rooms and suites with private infinity pools in almost all ground-floor units, as well as the magnificent 660m Royal Villa Koroni. An infinity room at The Romanos, A Luxury Collection Resort, Costa Navarino, starts from 225 Euros per night (approximately £251). For more information please visit Romanos  and  Costa Navarino

Aegean Airlines offers flights from London Heathrow to Athens, as well as flights from Athens to Kalamata.

For more information please visit Aegean Airlines  For the perfect capsule summer wardrobe visit Hibiscus

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Glass Online arts writer

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