When foreigners plan a visit to Greece, they tend to think mostly of the islands. The names Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, and Corfu, are known around the globe, but Greece’s mainland destinations offer a wealth of natural beauty that it would take a lifetime to explore fully. One region, the Peloponnese, with countless miles of spectacular coastline, dramatic mountains and gorges, alpine forests, mountain villages dotted with stone houses, and a mix of pebbly and white sandy beaches, is particularly well-endowed. Add to this a number of major historical sites, including the famous Olympia, Mycenae, and Epidaurus, and you have cultural riches for visitors of all interests.
If you any association with the Peloponnese it is probably with the long-running battles between ancient Athens and Sparta that you were forced to study in high school world history class. And, indeed, a visit to the Peloponnese offers many windows into the past, including the origins of many English words. In that little corner on the far southern tip of the European mainland, you can investigate whether the Spartans still live in spartan conditions, whether the Lakonians are truly laconic, whether the Arkadians truly live in an arcadian paradise, and whether the inhabitants of the Mani are still maniacal.
My wife and I took a short trip there this week, only enough to give us a glimpse of the wonders of this fascinating region and to whet our appetite for future visits.Our primary destination was the Mani, a remote finger of rocky land on the far southwest corner of the peninsula, whose warrior culture fiercely and successfully resisted occupation from the Ottoman Turks for hundreds of years. Their warlike nature was also manifested in violent clan feuds, the last of which in 1877 required the intervention of the national Greek army, complete with artillery, to break up. The Mani’s fortress nature is evident today in the remains of hundreds of ominous looking stone tower houses that dot the landscape.
We stayed in the lovely small village of Kardamyli in the northern Mani, after a rather tiring drive over the mountains from the central Peloponnese. (The area can be visited on a fast highway from Athens to Kalamata, but we talk the longer, more scenic route.) While the Mani may be little known to most international visitors, the number of real estate offices and tourist-oriented shops in Kardamyli is evidence of a growing presence of British and German visitors (and home buyers) to the region. We stayed at the lovely Elies cottages, stylish stone houses set literally in the midst of an olive orchard.
The cottages sit just across the road from a lovely white pebble beach and just a short hop from the town.
Other highlights of our brief tour of the Peloponnese included:
- The mountain village of Exochori just above Kardamyli and the Virou Gorge in which it is nestled.
- The Diros Caves on the Mani, in which nature created spectacular works of abstract art.
- The ghost town of Vathia, a mountain village of ancient tower houses (but with electrical cables running to a few of the houses, suggesting that there are still a few inhabitants today.)
- The drive along the southwestern coastline of the Mani, which affords fabulous coastal views and crystal clear waters.
- The sweet little mountain village of Kosmas, famous for its delicious local goat soup and its four giant plane trees dominating the central plaza. (I got a kick out of the fact that on Holy Saturday, on which eating meat is verboten, the enticing smells of goat permeated the plaza, as the priest’s sermon was broadcast from the church.)
- The drive through the dramatic Badron Gorge between the towns of Geraki and Leonidio in the Lakonia region on the east coast of the peninsula.
- And for those interest in linguistics, the living presence of another language in the town of Leonidio, complete with bilingual signs–Tsakonian and Greek. Tsakonian , a descendent of ancient Doric Greek, is spoken fluently by only a few hundred people in the area, but we met a woman in Leonidio who showed us children’s books she had recently published in Tsakonian and Greek–Little Red Riding Hood and a basic vocabulary–with the goal of keeping the ancient language alive among the new generation.
We barely scratched the surface of the Peloponnese, but we left eager to return on a longer trip another time.