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. 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.
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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:
Life despises and dares to fall:
Glory and your country call!"
- Select Essays of Dio Chrysostom, Greek orator, writer, philosopher and historian of the Roman Empire in the 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.
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.
Our day trip to Argolis also includes a visit to the Italianate town of Nafplio, with its distinctively Venetian architecture -resembling Corfu Town or Heraklion- and castles. 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!
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 in its ground. If you’re interested in mythology, we offer Percy Jackson Mythology tours of three, five or seven days to fully discover the ancient splendors of this wondrous land.
Due to its close proximity to Athens, another tour that you should certainly consider is our trip to ancient Corinth. 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.
If you want to find out more about the Peloponnese, continue reading the Ultimate Guide to the Peloponnese- Part Two!