With the blue waters in its port and the bougainvillea-swathed, pristine white houses fanning up Mt. St. Nicholas, Pylos may remind you of an island town. It was built according to a plan drawn by French engineers stationed here from 1828 to 1833 and was the site of a major naval battle in the War of Independence. Ibrahim Pasha chose Sfakteria, the islet that virtually blocks Pylos Bay, as the site from which to launch his attack on the mainland. For two years Greek forces flailed under Turkish firepower until, in 1827, Britain, Russia, and France arrived to lend support to the Greek insurgents. They sent a fleet to Navarino Bay commanded by the British admiral Edward Coddington to persuade Turkey to sign a treaty. Impatient at the Turks lack of immediate response, he moved the fleet into the small bay, and at close quarters misunderstandings were inevitable. In the confusion a British ship was fired upon by the Turks, and the small fleet retaliated with devastating force. At the end of what became known as the Battle of Navarino, the allies had sunk two thirds of the Turko-Egyptian fleet without a single loss among their 27 war vessels. What had begun as a diplomatic brinkmanship became an accidental turning point in the war. The sultan was forced to renegotiate, and this paved the way for Greek independence. A column rising between a Turkish and a Venetian cannon in the town's main square, Trion Navarchon (Three Admirals) Square, commemorates the leaders of the victorious fleet.
For a closer look at the bay, take an hour-long boat tour to see various monuments on Sfakteria, some sunken Turkish ships, and the neighboring rock of Tsichli-Baba, which has a vast, much photographed natural arch, nicknamed Tripito. This former pirate hideout has 144 steps. The boats can also take you to the weed-infested 13th-century Paleokastro, one of the two fortresses guarding the channels on either side of Sfakteria, and may make a stop also at Nestor's cave. Boat trips cost about €25; walk along the dock and negotiate with the captains, or ask at the waterside kiosk (staffed only occasionally). The trip is less expensive if you go with a group, but these trips are usually prearranged for the tour buses that drop down to Pylos from Olympia.