Peloponessos – there is something magical about the name, and something mythical in all that is contained within. ‘The island of Pelops’, derived from the mythical king Pelops who supposedly unified the region, is a name first used during the Greek Archaic period (800-479 BC). Today, the Peloponnese conjures up visions of the most exotic traces of the Hellenic past. Sparta, Mycenae, Olympia, Argos, Corinth; relics of a distant age.
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The peninsula – it is a peninsula, not an island, joined to mainland Greece by the isthmus of Corinth – is littered with ancient sites, attesting to the brilliant flourishing of the great Hellenic ages. Let us take you on a journey through this land of myth and raw beauty.
Standing at the top of Taygetos, or as it was called from Byzantine times until the 19th century, Pentadaktilos, mentioned in the Odyssey as the tallest peak on the Peloponnese at 2,407 meters, you can survey the vast landscape around you.
Approximately 20 km to the northeast lies the ancient site of Sparta. Today Sparta -or Sparti in Greek- is a small town of approximately 20,000 inhabitants, however, all around the town are traces of a much more sizeable historical significance.
The ruins of ancient Sparta tell the story of a great city-state in ancient Greece, which by 650 BC had become the preeminent military power in Greece. Sparta was indeed unique in Greece known for its social system and constitution being overwhelmingly focused on military preparation and excellence.
“Genuine sons of Sparta bold!
Firm and full your bucklers hold:
With intrepid step advance:
Poise and point the vengeful lance.
Life despises and dares to fall:
Glory and your country call!"
- Select Essays of Dio Chrysostom, Greek orator, writer, philosopher & historian of the Roman Empire (1st century)
After leading the Greek resistance to the Persian invasion in the early part of the 5th century BC, Sparta contested the Peloponnesian War with Athens between 431 and 404 BC, emerging victorious – although at great cost.
Sparta was subsequently faced with another challenge to its power: Corinth formed an alliance with Argos, Boeotia, Thebes, and Athens to fight Sparta in the Corinthian Wars of 395-386 BC. This alliance was also defeated. The dominant force in Greece did, however, eventually lose its crown. Sparta lost to Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, a defeat that marked its decline as the leading military power in the land, a decline that was never reversed.
Ancient Corinth - credits: Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock.com
From the summit of Taygetos, off in the far distance, also to the northeast, you can see Argos, Mycenae and Corinth. Argos is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, with its inhabitation dating back some 7,000 years! The name of Argos is indeed ancient, derived as it is from the Pelasgian word for ‘plain’.
The Pelasgian language is pre-classical Greek. Located on the Argolic plain are numerous sites from antiquity. Why not discover these places and sites such as ancient Mycenae in the company of our deeply knowledgeable, local guide as part of our tour of Argolis?
Ruins in Ancient Corinth - credits: Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock.com
Mycenae – the home of the legendary Agamemnon and the source of the name given to the era of Greek history spanning the years 1600 – 1100 BC, the Mycenaean period. Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, was king of Mycenae.
When Helen, Menelaus’s wife, was kidnapped by Paris and taken to Troy, Agamemnon commanded the Greek forces in the ensuing Trojan Wars. Mycenae in many ways, therefore, represents the epicenter of Greek cultural history. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are based on these Mycenaean exploits.
On our tour you will visit the archaeological site of Mycenae, taking in the Cyclopean Walls, the Royal Tombs and the Treasury of Atreus. The Lion’s Gate, the main entrance to the Bronze Age citadel, dates from the 13th century BC and is the sole surviving example of Mycenaean monumental sculpture.
The sensational sea views from the hilltop castles overlooking the old town are a sight to behold. The walls of the Acronafplia, the rocky peninsular extending beyond the town and dating from pre-classical times, were incorporated by the Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans into the town proper and extended. Climb to the top of Palamidi castle and imbibe the luxuriant view of the Argolic Gulf.
Palamidi castle - credits: Olga Kot Photo/Shutterstock.com
Nafplio, a town of just 14,000 or so, was much more important not that long ago: the ‘Naples of the East’, as it was known to the Venetians, was the capital of the First Hellenic Republic from the first moments of Greek independence from the yoke of Ottoman rule in 1821 until 1834, when Athens took on the mantle.
Nafplio is, arguably, a tremendously romantic place, and also a place with significant culinary culture, making it the ideal setting for a Greek cooking class. Indulge in the invigorating culinary experience of a Nafplion cooking class and get an insight into the riches of Greek cuisine while also tasting some of its offerings!
Town of Nafplio - credits: imagIN.gr photography/Shutterstock.com
Another important Argolic site is Epidaurus, home of the healing center of Asclepius. The Asclepeion was the most celebrated healing sanctuary of the classical world.
A son of Apollo, Asclepius the Paean, or Healer -an adjective he shared with his father- was a hero and the Greek god of medicine in Greek mythology and represents the healing dimension of the medical arts. After the destruction of Corinth by the Romans in 146 BC Epidaurus gradually became less important, with raids by Romans and Goths diminishing its stature. It was still cited as a place of healing as late as the 5th century AD, but this time as a Christian sanctuary.
The most outstanding feature of the site is the 14,000-capacity theatre, dating from the 4th century BC, and renowned for its exceptional acoustics. Its shape was inspired by that of a seashell, and it continues to delight the human ear with an annual festival that takes place on its ground.
In winter the white peaks of Taygetos glimmer in the distance as you stroll around the beautiful Temple of Apollo and the ancient Agora. Rising majestically behind this site is the imposing rock fortress of Acrocorinth, the Acropolis of Corinth. From there, you will feel like the whole of the Peloponnese is yours; this is indeed the gateway to the peninsula and has been heavily fortified over the centuries.
Temple of Apollo - credits: WitR/Shutterstock.com
Commanding the heights above the isthmus, would-be conquerors had to reckon with the heights of Acrocorinth. The walls you will see winding their way around the rocky outcrop were constructed and used by the Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans.
You will also come across the ruins of the sanctuary of Goddess Aphrodite. Much like the Parthenon in Athens, this sanctuary was converted into a church in Byzantines times before becoming a mosque under the Ottomans.
I stand once again upon the grand peaks of Taygetos, straining my eyes against the brilliant horizon. Innumerable centuries of history clatter through my mind, like the unbound hooves of Alexander’s Bucephalus. Those hooves touched these lands, that noble and great conqueror walked through the gateway of this enchanted peninsular; he needed to proceed no further than Corinth to assert his authority.
All of Greece was his. Standing atop Taygetos, it feels as if all of Greece is here. I look northwest, towards the setting sun, and I know that somewhere over there lies the ancient site of Olympia. Olympia! The very name connotes such grandeur! This was the site of the Olympic Games, held every four years, from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD.
The Games, set up by King Pelops, were originally intended as a celebration of the god Zeus, and therefore had a particularly pagan quality. As time went by events were added and the Games took on a more overtly sporting nature. The Olympics were dedicated to the Olympian gods in general, as well as to Zeus, and formed part of the Panhellenic Games – a series of four sports festivals including those at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia.
They were outlawed, however, in 396 AD by the Roman Emperor Theodosius as part of the drive to install Christianity as the state religion of Rome on the grounds that they were representative of a pagan cult.
Archaeological Site of Olympia - credits: Greeking.me
Treading in the footsteps of Olympic greats from millennia past, you will run in the stadium and explore the gymnasium – a truly heroic experience. Beyond these places of sporting legend you will discover the Altis, the sanctuary of the gods, and within it, the Philippeion. This Ionic circular memorial to Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, contains statues of Philip himself, Alexander, and Olympias, Alexander’s mother.
You will also wander between the fallen Doric columns of the Temple of Zeus and behold the Sanctuary of Hera, queen of the gods. Olympia has a resonance that transcends the ages and speaks of the glories of ancient Greece. It is also a reminder of the ephemerality of things; after being damaged and desecrated by the Romans, Olympia fell into ruin after successive natural disasters in the 6th and 7th centuries.
Justinian’s plague (named after the Byzantine emperor of the time), which wiped out around 13% of the world’s population, was followed by two deadly earthquakes before repeated floods finally did for Olympia.
I have been on Taygetos for some time now. I’m hot and in need of a refreshing swim. The Peloponnese is absolutely awash with bays and beaches. The choices are endless – and simply stunning. I can see two beautiful bays just to the southwest of where I stand now. Stoupa and Kardamyli are utterly delightful, full of charm and elegance. The beaches surrounding these two towns are to be savored.
The famous Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis traveled to Stoupa with Giorgos Zorbas, whom he employed as foreman of his nearby lignite mine. The relationship between the two inspired Kazantzakis’s book Zorba the Greek. Further north lies scenic Kardamyli, mentioned by Homer in the Iliad as one of seven cities offered by Agamemnon to Achilles to persuade him to return to the Trojan battlefield.
Its buildings are an amalgam of Greek and Venetian architecture, and the town offers unparalleled views of our favorite mountain, Taygetos.
Methoni Venetian Fortess - credits: Greeking.me
Stoupa and Kardamyli are situated at the northern end of the Mani Peninsula, a place whose unofficial flag talks of victory or death. That more or less sums up the prevailing historical attitude of this untamed land. The area’s remoteness, at the far reaches of the Peloponnese, made it extremely difficult to administer.
Successive empires felt their authority hang by a thread in this mountainous outpost. The Byzantine Empire struggled to impose control, whilst Franks and Saracens battled for supremacy over Mani’s rebellious hinterland. Forts were built by the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century before the peninsula once again returned to Byzantine suzerainty in 1262.
After the fall of Constantinople Mani’s new overlords were Ottoman, but this was purely nominal. In exchange for an annual tribute (that was only paid once), the peninsula was ruled by local chieftains. One of the most unique features of this enchanted landscape is the tower house, prominent in villages such as Vatheia, a symbol of the fortified and unbowed nature of this fiercely independent land.
Vatheia, Mani - credits: Greeking.me
Three further beaches, or areas of beaches, recommend themselves. Heading west to the Messenian peninsula, the outlandishly beautiful strip of sand of Voidokilia cries out to be lain on. Guarding the entrance to its pristine horseshoe bay are two fortresses, one Frankish, one Ottoman.
The Frankish fort, built in the 1280s, is called Old Navarino castle – Navarino (from the Greek Avarinos) being the Italian name used for the town of Pylos since Frankish rule was established in the 13th century. The town was also known by its French name, Port-de-Jonc.
After a brief period of Venetian rule, the Ottomans conquered Messenia and built the New Navarino castle to protect their newly-established naval base. Above Voidokilia beach is the cave of Nestor, king of Pylos in the Iliad. In Greek mythology, this is the cave where Hermes hid the cattle stolen from Apollo.
Overlooking the beach at the northern end is the tomb of Nestor’s son, Thrasymedes. These Mycenaean-era features of the landscape are not the oldest by any means. Neolithic remains indicate habitation at the site from as early as 4000 BC. Voidikilia beach is Homer’s ‘sandy Pylos’ where Telemachus was welcomed by Nestor during the search for his father, Odysseus:
We left for Pylos, Nestor too
the shepherd of the peoples,
And He, receiving me the king,
within his halls so lofty,
Embraced me with all
eagerness as a father does
His son back from a long time abroad.
- Homer, Odyssey
Let me take you east now, to the most easterly of the three peninsulas jutting down from the main body of land. Like the teeth of the indented Mulberry leaf the peninsulas of Messenia, Mani and Malea reach out, as if the beauty of the Peloponnese were a painting whose excess of color could not be contained within the frame, dripping beneath the margins.
Just off the coast of Cape Malea lies the island of Elafonisis, a small expanse of land with exquisite beaches and wonderfully clear water. The island was connected to the mainland until 1677. The most beautiful of the beaches is Simos, divided in two by a headland that creates a delightful bay to the south.
The whiteness of the sand, the clarity of the turquoise water, and the wildness of the dunes backing onto the beach make this one of the most stunning beaches in all of Greece.
Views from Mani - credits: Greeking.me
The beach of Kato Nisi on the west coast is also well worth visiting, its expanse of white sand, clear water, and pine trees making it a place eminently capable of taking your breath away.
Around 200 meters off the coast of Elafonisis, to the northeast, is the sunken city of Pavlopetri, lost to the sea around 1000 BC. Dating from the 3rd millennium BC, the city is the oldest of its type in the Mediterranean, and quite possibly the world. Its layout remains unchanged after 5,000 years, despite the erosion of the millennia.
Finally, let us move northeast, to the eastern coast of Malea. Here we find the once-impregnable fortress-island of Monemvasia, today a tourist hotspot. Monemvasia, meaning ‘single entrance’, seems almost incongruous, rising from the sea like some hulking iceberg terribly far from home.
Its unlikeliness makes it all the more beautiful. Sheer cliff faces 100m in height drop into the sea, whilst on its southern flank a delightful village leans up against the walls of rock. The town walls and numerous Byzantine churches remain from the Medieval period.
Monemvasia was a powerful Medieval fortress, with fortifications dating back to 583 when inhabitants of the mainland sought refuge from invading Slavic and Avaric groups. As a Byzantine fortress it withstood Arab and Norman invasions, in advance of changing hands several times in the usual way – from the Franks of the Crusades and back to Byzantine hands, before moving on to the Venetians and Ottomans.
After the fall of Constantinople, Monemvasia held out twice against the Ottomans, in 1458 and 1460, and became the last remaining possession of the Despot of Morea, Thomas Palaiologos (claimant of the imperial Byzantine throne). Eventually, the island-fortress succumbed.
Monemvasia - Image owned by Greeking.me
The 20th century produced the most famous son of Monemvasia. The poet and left-wing activist Yiannis Ritsos was born here in 1909. Ritsos is considered one of the five great Greek poets of the 20th century, alongside Kavafis, Kariotakis, Seferis, and Elytis.
The French surrealist poet Louis Aragon described him as ‘the greatest poet of our age’. On nine separate occasions, he was put forward for the Nobel Prize for Literature, without success. Ritsos joined the KKE (Greek Communist Party) in 1931 and lived a life of political struggle.
His groundbreaking work Epitaphios, published in 1936, was publicly burned at the foot of the Acropolis by the right-wing dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, whilst in 1967 he was again the victim of the authoritarian rule when he was sent to a prison camp by the Papadopoulos military junta.
In between these two periods of censorship and repression, Ritsos fought in the Greek Resistance against the Axis occupation, joining the National Liberation Front in 1941. At the end of World War II civil war erupted in Greece (1946-1949) and Ritsos, on the side of the left, was arrested and imprisoned. Confined to prison between 1948 and 1952, Ritsos gained truly iconic status, and his poem Epitaphios, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, became the anthem of the Greek left.
The poem Romiosini – a term that contains within it much of what it means to be a Greek connected with the whole spectrum of one’s national past, especially of the Greco-Roman fusion concretized in the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. the Byzantine Empire – provides a flavor of Ritsos’s work, of his combining of Greek tradition, struggle and the natural realm:
These trees don’t take comfort in less sky
these rocks don’t take comfort under foreigners’
these faces don’t take comfort but only
in the sun
these hearts don’t take comfort except in justice
This landscape is merciless like silence
it hugs its fiery rocks tightly in its bosom
it hugs tightly in the sun its orphan olive trees
it clenches its teeth There is no water Only light
Yiannis Ritsos, Romiosini
Peloponnese food guide
After all this adventuring I must admit I’m pretty hungry – it’s time to eat. The Peloponnese offers so much variety, so much delicious choice, and so much that is distinctive. The peninsula is famous for the quality of its olives, and consequently its olive oil, with the regional hub of Kalamata well-known in this regard.
Also fairly ubiquitous is the wonderfully tasty aubergine, especially around the town of Leonidio, where each year at harvest time a festival is held in its honor. The variety here is called Tsakoniki (after the region where Leonidio is located) and is light purple with white stripes. Stuffed Tsakoniki is highly recommended. Spinach simmered with big butter beans and feta serves as a mouth-watering accompaniment to chicken, lamb, or goat. Indeed goat is highly popular in the Peloponnese. Goat stew is a hearty winter dish to be savored.
Roasted and chopped artichokes are another local delicacy, often used in spring – in fact, artichokes are almost indispensable in Peloponnesian cooking. Roasted with lamb to form a classic Easter dish from Mani, they are also braised with spinach and simmered with chicken and Avgolemono.
Kalamata Olives - Image owned by Greeking.me
The famous sauce of Avgolemono – made of eggs, lemon juice and broth – also works well with stuffed vine leaves, pork, and stews. The use of cinnamon is widespread. It is added to dishes and sauces much more than in the rest of Greece. Indeed, a sweet touch added to dishes is fairly common throughout Peloponnesian cuisine.
Raisins and figs are thrown into a wide range of dishes, both sweet and savoury. Oranges are everywhere and used widely in cooking, as is lemon juice – especially with pork. Meat is sometimes served with a garlicky breadcrumb (Skordalia) sauce, and that meat will include rabbit.
One of the most beloved of regional dishes is a simple omelette of tomatoes and cured pork, called Kayianas. If you are a fish lover, try Savoro, a dish of marinated small fried fish served with rosemary, currants and wild fennel.
Kayianas of eggs, tomato & cheese - Image owned by Greeking.me
Raisins or currants are paired with salted cod to create one of the most unique dishes in Greece, whilst cinnamon is added to lemon-scented braised artichokes. Other favourites include black-eyed beans – for example, simmered with chard and spinach and bunches of wild chervil.
Cabbage and pork form a fulsome winter dish. On the sweeter side of things try Diples – large dough fritters traditionally served at weddings – and Lalangia – finger-thin dough sticks. Two final specialities worth mentioning are Chestnut Skordalia, from Arcadia in the central Peloponnese, and quails baked in bread.
Oh, and just because one should always mention Ouzo, what about Pastelli – sesame seed brittle served with Ouzo, a real favourite in local cafes. After all this talk of food you might be interested to discover more about Peloponnese and Greek cuisine in general. We have a range of culinary experiences to offer – I would heartily recommend these to you.
Greek spirits - Image owned by Greeking.me
To wash all this down look out for wine created from two local varieties of grape: the agiorgitiko grape produces deep red, berry-infused wines popular throughout Greece. The unusual pink Rhoditis grape is the basis for dry Patras' wines and is often mixed to make Retsina. White wine fans should seek out the Mantinia appellation, on the eastern side of the peninsula around the town of Tripoli, well-known for the light and refreshing wines the high-altitude Moschofilero grape produces.
Now we have done all this exploring and eating it might well be time for a little siesta – choose your favorite beach upon which to drift off. And when your slumber comes to an end, you’ll awaken into a dreamscape more beautiful than anything the unconscious mind could conjure.