Messinia Urania Villa Messinia Urania Villa

We knew we had a lot of work to do at the Messinia Villas before the new 2018 season started, in early May.

A recce visit in March had told us that; the villas looked tired after a long winter, and there were the usual niggles … a kettle and a couple of toasters that didn’t work, knives that weren’t sharp, chopping boards to replace, plus new items to be sourced for the kitchen  – glasses, little serving bowls for the likes of olives and houmous, hand juicers with which to make fresh orange juice (endless sacks of fresh oranges picked from local orchards hang from local farmers’ roadside stalls along the route from the airport; what better than freshly-squeezed juice from low-food-miles fruit?)

Messinia Eleni Villa - new look interior Messinia Eleni Villa - new look interior

Detailed lists were made, budgets were worked on and dates were fixed for early April and a big shopping mission. Major expenditure is scheduled on all mattresses, plus new sheets – a big investment all round, but an important one; to date we’ve kitted out Villa Eleni and Villa Katerina with new bedding, including new mattresses; the rest of the villa bedrooms are scheduled for mid-June. We’ve alreadyt bought new cushions for all the sofas, new trays, chopping boards and various little added touches such as simple cotton rugs. New pictures for the walls will follow shortly, too… everything to the power of nine villas. Quite a mission indeed!

The gardens of the Messinia Villas, Chrani

There was also the question of the gardens, which hadn’t had a makeover for some years. The ground was rock hard, the geraniums and bushes already in situ needed hard pruning,  and gaps in the flower beds needed to be filled. The conifers, planted originally for privacy between the individual villa pools, were out of control, and needed fierce pruning; some needed to be cut down.

We couldn’t do it alone – we needed help from British friends who understood gardening and who were keen to see some early season sunshine. We rang Liz, a longstanding pal, who called in her sister Sally and brother-in-law Martin. We rang Sonia, another “forever” friend. All accepted the challenge (possibly without realising quite how big a challenge it would be – we didn’t realise it ourselves!). A date in mid April was agreed, flights were booked and, mid afternoon on Saturday 14th April, the advance party of three – Noel, Sonia and Sue – arrived in Kalamata. Liz, Sally and Martin would arrive the following Tuesday.

Two long days followed (each involved driving the 600 km round trip to Athens to shop for the villas), plus a massive order at the biggest garden centre in Kalamata; thank goodness they were able to deliver direct to the villas, despite the challenge of the steep track up to the properties. We also shopped locally at a couple of DIY warehouses for garden tools suitable for the task ahead. Pickaxes – really? In the event, they proved to be the only way to break up the rock-solid soil.


Gardens of the upper part of the estate Gardens of the upper part of the estate

Here is the story of the garden make-over, in the words of those involved at the sharp end – Liz and Martin:

Pickaxes at Dawn (by Elizabeth Grice)

Towards the end of a grim, snow-bound English February, an email arrived inquiring if I’d be interested in a trip to the Peloponnese in April to “do a bit of digging and some planting” to prettify the grounds around Sunvil’s nine holiday villas on a private estate near Chrani. If so, did I have any friends “with a modicum of gardening nous”, people with an eye for things, who might like the idea? In return for “slave labour”, flights would be taken care of and we would stay in the villas to consumer-test them before the start of the holiday season.

It was sleeting, temperatures had dropped to minus-1 in London and there was no sign of spring. It took about 30 seconds to decide that the prospect of Greece in April was the most hopeful thing since Noah saw an olive twig in the beak of his returning dove.  I co-opted my sister and brother-in-law, bought a book called The Mediterranean Gardener and started to dream of sipping Greek wine at dusk under an arbour of bougainvillea. Two months later, we arrived at Messinia Villas, embedded in seven acres of fragrant maquis on a hillside. The landscape was stunning,
the gardens like nothing we had ever worked in – rocky, wild and neglected with straggly geraniums reaching for the sky under a deep coniferous shade. As we began to unpack trowels, hand forks, kneeling mats, hats and old clothes from our weighty bags, we noticed that two heavy-duty pickaxes, two long-handled spades with sharp points and a quantity of vicious looking
smaller tools, pronged and mattocky, were already waiting for us. What did our taskmasters know that we didn’t?

Possibly more than they were saying. Noel Josephides, chairman of Sunvil, and his wife Sue, had been on a recce a few weeks earlier. They had equipped us for the job. And what a job it was for a small party of enthusiastic amateurs (four to six of us) with knees and backs that had seen better days. But we worked willingly under blue skies with the immense Taygetos mountain
range, still snow-capped, in the distance.

From the terrace of our villa, between us and the mountains, all we could see was the peaceful Gulf of Messinia and an occasional fishing boat. Lemons grew at our door. In the evenings, we were amazed to eat bountifully at friendly village tavernas for 10 euros a head, with wine. And each day, as the rock-hard flower borders were subjugated, one by one, and filled with rosemary, geraniums, campanula, dazzling osteospermum and a yellow-and-pink flowering shrub we called “the bobble shrub”, we felt quite chuffed.

Forget the spade! Forget the spade!

Martin was chief pickaxe-wielder. The rest of us followed in his wake, breaking up the terracotta clods, weeding, watering, composting, planting, watering again…getting hot and sweaty. For light relief, we would break off to plant big clay pots and barrow-load them to each villa’s vast swimming pool. Sometimes it got a bit silly. Filling nine watering cans at a time prompted Martin to offer a rendition of “Stand by your can”, which will pass into family folklore. When we discovered that 250 more geraniums had been delivered by stealth during our lunch break, and deposited in full sun, we flopped into the trolley in despair.

On one morning, it being the name-day of Giorgios, the caretaker of the villas, we were lured out of our trenches and offered honeyed pastries to celebrate. When Noel called by at 11am and found we had downed tools, we felt like naughty schoolchildren.

Diplotes - crumbly pastry with honey and cinnamon Diplotes - crumbly pastry with honey and cinnamon

I wonder if we made the impact he had hoped. By the end of the week, we had re-claimed five of the nine gardens and planted cheerful pots around the other four which didn’t need the same attention.  There was still a small pool of geraniums to be planted when it was time for us to leave. On the final afternoon, Noel and Sue enlisted the muscle-power of an Albanian lady from the village, who wielded the pickaxe as if it were made of balsa wood. In three hours, she tamed and planted a trench that would have taken us a day.

I’m glad they didn’t think of her before. It would have deprived us of a great adventure.

An offer we couldn’t refuse … but I’ve never planted geraniums with a pickaxe before (by Martin Looker)

A week in a villa on the Peloponnese peninsular in Greece – in return for tidying up the gardens – sounded too good to be true when it came, out of the blue, during a cold and snowy English February. Were we interested? “Yes,” we said and, before we knew it, flights were booked and we found ourselves basking in brilliant April sunshine in Kalamaki, with temperatures of 25-27 degrees, overlooking a shimmering sea against a backdrop of the snow-capped Taygetos mountains. Sue and Noel were serious when they said the villa gardens needed brightening up – 150 geraniums were waiting for us, in addition to rosemary plants, bougainvilleas, etc. A further 250 were sneaked up the lane during a lunch break – just to keep us on our toes or, rather, knees!

Newly planted geraniums Newly planted geraniums

Planting everything was ‘interesting’.

Our little group – Liz, Sally, Sonia and Martin – worked out a system. The ground in most of the borders was full of rocks, roots and was so hard-packed that it need breaking up with a pick axe, followed by weed removal with handy little spikey tools, then more pickaxing to make holes where the plants were to go. Then it was in with the compost, a steady supply of which was delivered by Noel from the back of his little hired Fiat, before copious watering, and more watering. We were provided with nine – yes nine! – watering cans and used every one of them. Sonia spent hours
filling them, to the strains of “Stand by your can”, for areas that the hose wouldn’t reach.

Stand by your can... Stand by your can...

We were lucky to be able to retire to the wonderful verandas at the back of our villas to have coffee or very late lunches and to take in the stunning scenery. Impressions: buzzards circling on the thermals above the olive groves, lizards skittering across hot rocks, fishing boats seemingly floating above the silvery sea in the early morning light, enormous lemons peeping through the arches of the villa terrace, and owls hooting beneath starry skies in the evening.

All-in-all, it was an experience not to be missed. Eating delicious food in friendly tavernas was a wonderful way to round off the days and to get a feel of real Greece. And yes, the villas did look brighter by the time we left – in fact, the gardens were positively enticing, if we say so ourselves!

Many hands make light work Many hands make light work

The group of nine Messinia Villas are – Villa Calliope, Villa Cleo, Villa Efterpi, Villa Eleni, Villa Erato, Villa Katerina, Villa Thalia, Villa Theresa and Villa Urania.

(Please note that the photographs on these links were taken in previous years – photography has not yet taken place for 2018.)

Note from Noel:

It was indeed very hard work in the heat of the midday sun, and the team of six of us – especially Liz, Sally, Sonia and Martin – worked very hard and long indeed. Sue and I felt very guilty that they took only one day off during the whole week – we’d hoped they’d be able to explore this fascinating region a little alongside their gardening duties. As it was, they managed only one day off, when they went to Koroni, an ancient Venetian staging post just 25 miles down the coast from the Messinia Villas.
We had a lot of laughs amidst the hard work, and some wonderful meals locally, too, at small owner-run tavernas. Fish near the harbour in Petalidi for a late lunch one day was followed by a taverna near the beach in Chrani one night and two visits to a small hillside village above the villas, home to Giorgos the handyman and Dimitra the cleaning lady. The food throughout was amazing value for money (€10 per person for starters, main courses and a light pudding, inclusive of local wine!) as well as being of local provenance and very tasty indeed; olives, olive oil, locally-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergine bakes, stuffed peppers, souvlaki, feta… puddings were fresh fruit and thick local yoghourt with honey; perfect.

We all enjoyed it so much that we thought perhaps others would like the opportunity to be outdoors in the sunshine in Greece in April. If you are interested in the idea of gardening in spring 2019, please drop Noel a quick email (noel@sunvil.co.uk).

View from the terrace of Messinia Katerina Villa View from the terrace of Messinia Katerina Villa
Noel Josephides

By Noel Josephides

9th May 2018



Noel Josephides
Noel Josephides

Noel is Sunvil’s Chairman. Born in Cyprus in 1948, he joined John der Parthog at Sunvil in 1973. Before that and following university, he spent 3 years as a trainee buyer at C&A Modes and then worked for a large Cypriot builder and property developer for whom he set up a London Office buying electrical components for the Middle East and importing lemons from orchards in Cyprus. He still researches new destinations for Sunvil and is heavily involved in matters relating to the travel industry. He is the current ABTA Chairman, a long standing director and previous chairman of The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) and the current chairman of The Travel Foundation - the travel industry’s sustainability charity.

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