The ruins of this remarkable fortified ancient city, about 20 km (12 miles) north of the modern town of the same name, are set amid a lush landscape of olive groves and pine forests on the slopes of majestic Mt. Ithomi (also known as Voulkanos). It is dubbed by many as the most underrated ancient site in Greece, though at some point the sheer groundswell of collective agreement surely negates this observation. Still, far fewer visitors find their way here than to other major archaeological sites on the peninsula, such as Olympia or Epidaurus, and if you arrive late in the day (it closes at 7 pm), you can find yourself walking alone among its eerily silent Doric columns.
Dating from the 4th century BC, the city of Messene emerged later than Athens or Corinth, after the Thebans finally pried apart Sparta's iron grip on Messinia in 362 BC. Sparta had coveted its fertile lands and reduced its people to servitude. Under the Theban general Epameinondas, the city was built up into a bulwark against further Spartan encroachment, resulting in its 9 km of defensive walls. Within its protection, the Messenians prospered, becoming a cultural, religious, economic, and artistic center for the ancient world, though its golden age was short. By the 3rd century AD the city was in decline; around 360 AD it was abandoned entirely, and its survival is partly due to the fact that much of the site was never built over or cannibalized for its stone. Above it, the quiet village of Mavromati lines the lush slopes and it's worth a stop at one of the taverns on its main square to refuel.