Peloponnese holiday guide
The Peloponnese is attached to the rest of Greece only by the Isthmus of Corinth and, since 2003, the Rio-Antirio Bridge. The land echoes to a host of famous names, from Mycenae through Ancient Sparta and Olympia, to the Greek War of Independence. Rich in history and mythology, and largely unspoilt, it has a mountainous heart, and fringes of headlands, bays, and sandy beaches. Yet it is surprisingly easy to get around on a Peloponnese holiday, by road and even by rail. The regional line often appears among the world’s most scenic railways.
Towns in Peloponnese
Three peninsulas reach south from the Peloponnese. On the easternmost stands Pylos, with its fortress and shaded square, north of which is beach-side Giavola. Both look out across Navarino Bay at the blade-like island of Sfaktiria. The central peninsula is the Mani, known for its tough people, the ferocity of their family feuds, and the tower houses from which they were conducted. To the east is bucolic Gytheio, where mythological figures Paris and Helen spent their first night together. Dominating the easternmost peninsula is the mighty fortified island-town of Monemvasia.
Countryside in Peloponnese
Much of the southern Peloponnese is bare, bleak, and beautiful. On the Mani are clusters of terraces where the Maniots have for centuries scratched a precarious living—little wonder they went in for murderous family vendettas. To the north, the landscape is dominated by the grey bulk of Mount Taygettus; the Evrotas valley, in which lie Ancient Sparta and its Byzantine companion, Mystra, is more fertile. West of the Taygettus range, the landscape is gentler; its excellent sandy beaches attract holidaymakers—largely Greeks.
History in Peloponnese
In addition to Mycenae and Olympia, the delights of the Peloponnese include the Palace of Nestor near Gialova; and Sparta, second city to Athens in the ancient world. Its remains are sparse, alas. Nearby Mystras is the most exciting Byzantine city in Greece. Navarino Bay, stretching from Pylos to Gialova, offers an historical double-whammy: a battle in which the Spartans astonished the ancient world by surrendering; and the naval Battle of Navarino Bay, when the whole Turkish fleet was sunk during the Greek War of Independence.
Relaxation in Peloponnese
The further south you venture in the Peloponnese, the more relaxed you will feel: Kalamata apart, there are no big towns. Locals enjoy a relaxed lifestyle, with long lunches and even longer evening meals. Boats putter out of little harbours to harvest the sea; farmers ride from village to farm on donkeys; old men read the paper and play tavli (backgammon) in local kafenions (cafes). The tradition of having an afternoon siesta is alive and well. Families put together picnics and head for the beach. Young men play bouzoukis (a gourd-like stringed instrument) and young women dance.
Eating and drinking in Peloponnese
Fish and grilled meat dominate the cuisine of the Peloponnese. Eat under the plane tree in Pylos’s central square or on the beach at Methoni below its massive castle; picnic with the locals on the almost circular bay at Voidokilia. Look out for little family restaurants in the villages of the Mani. In Gytheio, enjoy the fish that is the town’s main theme. Or luxuriate in some of Monemvasia’s smart little restaurants, supplied through the town’s only entrance—a tunnel through the walls.
Nature in Peloponnese
Gialova glories in a bay and lagoon that are a nature lover’s heaven. Turtles lay their eggs in the sands of Voidokilia Bay, and in the lagoon behind it lives a colony of African chameleons—the only one in mainland Europe. The lagoon is also an important bird habitat, with herons, cormorants, flamingos, and ospreys among the 220 species identified. If you have the puff, you can climb up from the beach to Nestor’s Cave—supposedly where the Mycenean king kept his cattle, and now occupied by bats.
Peloponnese Arts and Culture
One of the Peloponnese’s real cultural experiences is to watch an ancient Greek play performed in the theatre at Epidaurus during its summer festival. Take your seat in the great stone semi-circle as the sun sinks. Watch Oedipus the King or The Birds, and benefit from the structure’s perfect acoustics; even if you do not understand Greek, it is never to be forgotten.
The Peloponnese Coast
The stars of the coast are the beaches of Gialova, Methoni, and Koroni in the west, each with its fortress, and the village beaches of Finikounda. Little bays dot the west coast of the Mani, and the caves at Pyrgos Dirou attract summer crowds. The east coast is even more spectacular, but has little opportunity for swimming or even stopping to admire—the mountains dive straight into the sea. Two towns have offshore islands attached to the mainland by causeways: Gythion has little Marathoonisi, Geefira the massively impressive fortified Monemvasia.