The Best Worst Town in Greece
“This isn’t coffee,” Rich said, glaring into his cup. “It’s gasoline.”
“No, there’s definitely some coffee in it because I have grounds stuck in my teeth.”
We set down the cups of revolting brew and stared around us at Kalamata, Greece: gloomy sky, empty street, silent men hunched over scattered tables under two giant trees. I could almost hear the blood from Rich’s leg wound dripping onto the paving stones underfoot. It was a low point in a day that had started with a setback and gone downhill from there.
We’d awakened that morning 50 kilometers to the south in Agios Dimitrios to discover the village was in the grip of a power outage and a sirocco. Fierce, sand-laden winds that blow up from the Sahara, siroccos turn the Mediterranean sky a gritty gray and (they say) drive people mad. During the Ottoman era, if you murdered someone during a sirocco, you got a lesser sentence due to extenuating circumstances. Rich and I managed not to go berserk, even when we realized without electricity we couldn’t make coffee.
The landlord of our rental apartment gave us a lift to the bus stop, conveniently located in front of the café run by Freda, widely known as the village’s most resourceful resident. She didn’t fail us now. Working with a car battery and a gas-powered burner, she produced French-press coffee for us and our friends, Jackie and Joel. Many of you know Jackie from TravelnWrite, her lively blog about expat life in Greece. After corresponding for years, we finally met IRL (in real life), and not only had she and Joel generously spent days showing us around, they came to see us off on the bus — a bright spot in the morning.
“Does the sirocco always knock out the electricity?” Rich asked.
“Oh no, this is a planned outage,” said Jackie. “They must be fixing something.”
The outage and the sirocco extended all the way up the coast to our next stopping point, the city of Kalamata. After the picturesque charms of Crete and the rugged magnificence of the Mani Peninsula, our first glimpses — and frankly, our second and third glimpses as well — suggested that Kalamata was a soulless wasteland of shabby, crumbling concrete.
We were too early to check in, so our Airbnb hosts kindly directed us to their favorite café, just around the corner under a pair of huge trees. Stepping into the deeper gloom below the branches, Rich immediately walked into a low metal table, gashing his shin. As he hobbled to a chair and began sopping up the blood with his handkerchief, I ordered coffee — the only item on offer. They were likely heating the water with kerosene, which could account for the taste.
“I gotta tell you,” said Rich. “I am not warming to this town.”
Disinclined to linger at the café, Rich tied his handkerchief around the wound and we set off to reconnoiter. Hours of walking took us past closed shops, lightless windows, and a few shadowy restaurants serving coffee. Suddenly Rich’s sniffer went on high alert.
“Do I smell food cooking?” he said.
We followed our noses into the steamy warmth of a café, where a gas cooker had produced an array of hearty dishes. In a matter of moments we were seated before heaping portions of moussaka, green beans, and chicken "mincemeat." We sighed with pleasure and tucked in.
Ten minutes later the lights came on and the sun came out. Leaving the restaurant, we found ourselves surrounded by bright, inviting shops and cafés with abundant charm and originality. Our apartment turned out to be even pleasanter than it looked in the photos. Rich grudgingly agreed the town might have some redeeming features.
The next morning we took a food tour, and our guide, Fotini, introduced us to local characters as well as local cuisine. Tourists are relatively rare creatures in Kalamata, and everyone seemed delighted to spend time with us. The Economakos family gave us slivers of their famous salted pork and cups of homemade wine as they showed us a picture of the sausage plate that won first prize the 1999 trade fair. We nibbled and sipped our way through the morning, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, promising to come back one day.
Kalmata’s world-famous olives were mentioned only in passing, and I asked Fotini why there wasn’t more fuss about them. She shrugged. “When you’ve been eating something since ancient times, it is just a part of everyday life.” I asked if there were any special dishes we should try while we were in town.
“Gourounopoula,” she said. “Roast pork with plenty of skin and fat. Back in the days of the Ottoman empire, we used it to plan a revolution. When we had feasts, we of course had to invite our Ottoman neighbors. But being Muslims, they didn’t eat pork, so when we served gourounopoula, they stayed away. And we could plan our revolution, right under their noses.” Thanks to gourounopoula — and a few other factors, of course — the Greeks gained independence in 1829 after 400 years of Ottoman occupation.
Where we should try this famous pork? Fotini led me to the corner and pointed. “There. That café with the two giant trees.”
“No way,” said Rich.
“Oh, man up,” I said. “Let’s see if that little table is ready for a rematch.”
“I want a second opinion.”
When we asked at the tourist office, the woman at the desk sighed ecstatically.“Ah, gourounopoula,” she said. “Yes, you must try it. The best is here.” She pointed at the map. “At Barbayiannis.”
We set off, hampered only by the fact most streets weren't marked, and the few that were didn't seem to match any of the names on our map. Eventually I noticed a window displaying the remains of a pig, with a severed head and a meat cleaver. We had found Barbayiannis!
I did a doubletake. "Hey, this is the place we had lunch the first day!" What are the odds?
Gourounopoula was comfort food at its finest: a crispy outer layer of roasted fat covering meat tender enough to cut with a fork. I didn’t even try to talk my way into the tiny kitchen during the lunchtime rush, but I did the next best thing and looked online for a recipe. Ideally you roast the pig whole on a spit, but when that's impractical, this video shows how to create the same effect with a pork shoulder roast and a few other simple ingredients in your home oven.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Rich told me. “But I actually think Kalamata is my favorite stop so far.”
“You’re just saying that because you’ve stopped bleeding and have a belly full of roast pork.”
“I rest my case.”
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5/9/2019 04:34:03 pm
I am loving your adventures! Especially the food!
5/9/2019 04:39:31 pm
So glad you're enjoying the adventures, Kay! And yes, the food has been amazing. We've now had gourounopoula at two different places in Kalamata, both fabulous. Today we lunched on grilled sardines, oven roasted vegetables, and a local wine ... my kind of day! Thanks for joining us on the journey.
5/9/2019 05:23:15 pm
Another wonderful chapter of your journey. The written descriptions are first rate (as usual), and the photos really add to the pleasure of sharing your experiences. We just hope that Rich's wounded shin has healed. We look forward to each post. Stay well, and continue to enjoy!
5/9/2019 06:29:53 pm
Not to worry, Rich is well on the road to recovery, although every time we pass that particular restaurant he glares at the small table that attacked him. I think he is plotting revenge. Luckily we will be heading north soon, so with luck further bloodshed can be avoided. Thanks for your kind words and it's great to know you are (virtually) with us on the journey.
5/9/2019 06:36:47 pm
Loved This report on Kalamata. I live in Memphis, a pork proud city, so I can’t say that looked like the best pork in the world but gee, I can smell it from here. Are you going to Pilos?
5/9/2019 07:10:20 pm
Glad you enjoyed the report, Catherine. And yes, the smell was enticing, and we thoroughly enjoyed the pork. Wish you could try it for yourself and let me know how it compares with what's cooking in Memphis. Pilos isn't on our itinerary at this point, but you never know! Do you recommend it?
5/9/2019 06:57:37 pm
Hi Karen, great fun catching up on your latest travels. Some friends of ours are heading to Kalamata this summer, but I’m not sure I’ll forward your post. 🤣 Or maybe I will after you’ve explored the surrounding area and found a treasure trove of ideas. Sounds like yet another incredible trip. Love to you and Rich
5/9/2019 07:15:02 pm
Katy, if your friends are headed this way, be sure to give them a head's up on the gourounopoula and the food tour (I think there's only one; it's called Food Philosophy). In fact, let them know that although our entry was a bit rough, we have become quite fond of Kalamata and have extended our stay. What it lacks in storybook charm it more than makes up for in authenticity. Such a pleasure to be utterly off the tourist track! And the food is delicious. There are said to be terrific beaches too, but we haven't gotten there yet. Maybe tomorrow.
5/10/2019 05:38:39 am
We are the friends that Karen mentioned in her post. Tell your friends to get in touch with us -- we have some great recommendations for coffee shops, eateries and such. But tell them to prepare for tourist crowds as the place is hopping come June -- it is a popular cruise ship stop as well. Karen and Rich lucked out and hit the cusp of tourism -- the place gets packed with European travelers.
5/9/2019 08:28:07 pm
Loved this posting on Kalamata (which autocorrect wants to be Kalamazoo!). So how were the grilled sardines you and Rich had for lunch? Inquiring minds want to know.
5/10/2019 07:20:51 am
The sardines were a treat, Dorothy. Grilled to perfection, which as we all know is the natural state of sardines. In other breaking news, Rich agreed to go back to the café under the big trees and try the gourounopoula, which was even more spectacular than at Uncle John's. Luckily for everyone, they had moved the attack table to a distant part of the café, so there were no casualties.
5/9/2019 11:31:03 pm
I so love idea of a “Kindness Wall”.....thank youll so much for allowing us to journey with you’ll. What a treat! and an education in itself! It goes without saying, i always look forward to the next post!
5/10/2019 07:24:22 am
Like you, Faye, I am inspired by the idea of a Kindness Wall and hope the idea spreads. We heard it was set up so that people can give and receive anonymously, so no one's pride is wounded. A truly wonderful idea. Thanks for joining us on the journey!
5/10/2019 05:44:16 am
Sorry you had such a gritty start to your time in Kalamata - thanks both to sand and coffee grounds! There are so many fabulous coffee shops there -- Luna Lounge in the old speakeasy, or Blossom Owl that we mentioned or Athanasiou, the bakery that's been around for more than half a century, that we are sorry you hit one of the kafeneons where coffee is still served Greek-style, heavy and with grounds. And while pork is the traditional food, we who live out in the country here go for the many upscale restaurants the city has to offer. . .but not in the summer as the place is overrun with European tourists. Looking forward to where you two land next in Greece. . .we enjoyed our time with you in The Mani!! xx J and J
5/10/2019 07:33:14 am
The bumpy entry just made the Kalamata ride all the more delightful by contrast, Jackie. We have found so many great places to eat and drink; we went to the Luna Lounge last night — wonderful wine! And I have learned to enjoy the Greek coffee, grounds and all, because I love the old-style coffee houses. Rich still holds out for places that serve filter coffee and cappuccino, saying some things are too important to compromise on. As for the timing, you're right that we lucked out big time. There are practically no tourists and everyone has plenty of time to chat. Thanks again for all your kindness while we were in Mani! We had such a wonderful time getting to know you and Joel, and learning about your lifestyle in a Greek village on the coast. And say hi to Freda for us!
5/13/2019 11:57:38 pm
Great description of a broken down town where you have a real adventure. I have been thinking about the name Kalamata and the olives. Funny, because places like Parma and Modena are more connected to their food items. Guess Kalamata isn't the Olive Capital of the World.
5/14/2019 09:22:21 am
Like you, Kitty, I was surprised that Kalamata doesn't make more of its famous name. In Napa, for instance, you can't take three steps down a sidewalk without being hit over the head by Wine Country marketing efforts. It was actually very refreshing to be in a town that hadn't gone down that road. As for the food tour, I strongly suggest it! We've taken out of town guests on one in SF's North Beach and Chinatown that was delightful; we often replicate it for our visitors now. You learn a lot and get to taste fabulous food; my favorite way to spend a day!
9/1/2020 10:34:30 pm
i want to live in greece
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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