Peloponnese – heaps of history, mountains & crystal-clear sea…

Peloponnese – heaps of history, mountains & crystal-clear sea…

Travel

THE PELOPONNESE!

Many ancient heroe’s tales have their real origin in the Peloponnese. The story of the beautiful Helena, who was kidnapped by Paris and the legendary Agamemnon, who therefore went to war against Troy. The heroic Spartans and their very own social order and, of course, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.

And the very origin of its name alone let’s us expect exciting things:
Peloponnese means „Pelops Island”. Pelops, according to legend, got chopped into pieces by his father Tantalus and dished up to the gods as a test of their omnipotence. The gods, however, did not let themselves be deceived, spurned the food, all but Demeter, who accidentally ate the shoulder. They banished Tantalos to the Tartaros (part of the underworld) and let him suffer the proverbial torments of Tantalos. And  with their magic powers made Pelops rise whole again. The missing shoulder was replaced by ivory. Uuuuhhhhhhh !!!!

But the peninsula, which is connected to the mainland by only two bridges, has not only  scary and eerie stuff to offer but also a terrific variety of beautiful, different landscapes, great bays, delicious local cuisine and history, history, history !!

The first thing you see when you approach the Peloponnese from the West, is the Rio Andirrio-Bridge. Inaugurated 2004 with a length of 2883m, it seems to be a pretty but completely normal bridge. However, it is probably a masterpiece of engineering, for the builders have achieved something that was thought impossible for a long time. To develop  a bridge of these dimensions in a tectonic fracture zone, highly endangered by earthquakes, without having solid ground to construct it on. The whole thing was made possible by using the knowledge gained in the construction of offshore drilling platforms instead of profane civil engineering!

Alternatively to the bridge, you can take a ferry across the Gulf of Corinth.

Having crossed the bridge we leave Patras, the third largest city in Greece, on our right  side and start looking  for a nice place by the sea.

And we found this place in Kakovatos on the West coast in the region of Ilia. A very nice, wide and long, fine, light sandy beach, which is just pleasantly touristically developed. We parked right next to the lifeguard tower and just enjoyed a beach day.

Fresh local cuisine is served in “Mouries” restaurant on the beach, which is bursting at the seams almost every night of Greek guests.

In Brazil the Olympic Summer Games 2016 are up and we are on the way to Ancient Olympia.

During our days on the road, however, we keep noticing that there obviously seems to go something wrong with waste disposal management. Even more pronounced than anything we’ve witnessed on our trip across the Balkan Peninsula. True landfill sites of waste are stacking high around undersized garbage cans, the roadsides and every holding bay are completely filthy and trashed! In Greece and especially on the Peloponnese there has been going on a garbage war for years. EU sanctions for illegal disposal, local garbage barons, which fight the Syriza government’s new system implemented in 2015, outdated disposal sites and incinerators, etc… All of this leads to the fact that municipalities are almost suffocating in their garbage and garbage dumps get not picked up for more than 1 year. Such things, make you realize that the country requires still lots of reform to restore a well-ordered public life.

Anyway, back to ancient times and their importance in modern tourism.

As you enter the small village of Archea Olymbia, you will find a long street lined with souvenir shops, jewelers and tourist-restaurants, signposts to every imaginable “attraction”, hotels and guest-houses, only few scattered residential houses, way too small parking lots for all the tourist buses and heaps of people following guides with signs or umbrellas!

You’ve reached one of the top attractions of the Peloponnese and all of Greece and even if you come early in the morning, others have done that too.

The archaeological museum allows you to get a fascinating insight into what has been discovered on the site of Ancient Olympia from different epochs, from pre-historic times to the Roman era. It is absolutely worth seeing, but you should try to visit it as early or as late in the day as possible, in order to avoid to be pushed along exhibits by all these travel groups. (Admission for museum + excavation site 2016: 12 €)

And visiting the inspiring museum we leave for the excavation site full of expectations! But honestly, we were a bit disappointed… Somehow you expect the site to be more preserved, tangible…. It takes a whole lot of imagination to create a general picture of halls and statues from the many cairns and pillars parts. And between all the travel parties, whose tour guides try to get through the background noise in all sorts of languages, it’s hard to develop an awe-inspiring feeling at the sight of the stadium’s starting line, which is also crowded with visitors, trying to shoot a pic with themselves as a 100m-sprint-star.

But if you ever happen to be near the site, it is worth the visit, primarily because of the museum.

After so much hustle and bustle, we are drawn once more into quieter, more remote areas and we follow the promising EP 44 to the center of the island direction Menalon Mountains. The road winds it’s way up along wooded slopes, along gorges, into the mountains. We somehow managed to pass the narrow passagways of picturesque places like Langadia, which nestle on the slopes and from whose tavernas you’ll have a great view over the fascinating canyon landscape. We pitch our tents in Dimitsana at an altitude of 1000m, another picturesque mountain village with winding streets, traditional stone houses that stick to the hills and many inviting tavernas and bars.

The next day, we start a hike in Dimitsana, which follows the first part of the Menalon Trail. This trail can adorn itself with being the 1st internationally certified quality hiking trail in Greece and consists of 8 sections of varying length, which can be walked separately or in total in individual stages from Stemnitsa to Langadia. The first part runs between Stemnitsa and Dimitsana, is 12.5km long and leads through the Lousios Gorge, past the spectacularly built monastery of Timios Prodromos, through dense forests of fig trees, oaks, olives, laurel trees and wild blackberries. Along the way you’ll find sage, mint and all sorts of other wild herbs. A wonderful, although in the heat of the afternoon very strenuous hike, for which we in Stemnitsa we rewarded ourselves with delicious Tsakona eggplant from the oven! This eggplant variety is found only in a small part of the Peloponnese. It is long and small, seedless and less bitter. Simply delicious!

Returning to Dimitsana in one of the 2 only exsiting taxis is an experience! The driver knows everyone and on the 10-minute trip he shakes about 20 hands through the window, exchanges the most exciting news and in the meantime cuts the curves speedily. As a farewell, he thanks us on behalf of all Germans for the existence of excellent Swabian Cars. At the parking lot we are expected by two mini-ponies, that pull out the last not yet dried blades of grass between the paving stones. As we take off our hiking boots and hang the socks over them, the smaller one of the two approaches curiously and suddenly grabs one of the socks! We can only just save it, but the tiny horse seems to be unbelievably taken by the apparently delicious cheesy odor that we have problems getting rid of it again…

With the view of the Parnonas and Taygetos Mountains we continue our trip through  seemingly endless olive groves to the modern city of Sparta. I cannot remember having seen only just 100m² of uncultivated ground without olive trees in Greece, incredible! The present town of Sparta was built in 1836 under the German King Otto I. of Greece near where used to be the ancient city of the same name. The reason for this new settlement was that the inhabitants of the old Byzantine city of Mystras, that had been extensively destroyed in the Greek liberation wars, had to be relocated. The modern Sparta has not a lot in common with the ancient city state and its unique, military form of state and society, except the location. And the remains of the ancient Sparta are rather inconspicuous and not particularly worth seeing.

We enjoy a day at the pool at the „Camping Castleview“ and by night get enchanted by the bewitching full moon, which wraps the olive trees in mystical splendor.

The next day brings into play another epoch of Greek history, the Byzantine Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, which then already existed for centuries, was dismembered during the 4th Crusade in the 13th century and the Peloponnese fell to the Franks. In Mystras at the foot of the mountains they built a strong fortress with a view over the surrounding plains. After only a few years, the Byzantine re-conquered the area and Mystras became their headquarters in the region. They extended it, and the Despot Palace became the largest, representative Byzantine building outside the capital Constantinople. Today you can walk through the ruins of Mystras, awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site, admire well preserved churches and frescoes and imagine what it might have looked like during its heyday. And additionally the view from the fortress on top of the hill is phenomenal!

Directly behind Mystras the Taÿgetos Mountain Range rises, we cross the beautiful Langada Pass at 1524 m and drive down into the Messina region with its capital, Kalamata, which is famed for its olives.

After a short stopover on the beach of Velikas where we stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables with local oranges, tomatoes, okra pods, pomegranates and figs we continue to the probably wildest and roughest part of the Peloponnese, the middle finger “Mani”.

This small part of the Peloponnese, because of its isolated situation by mountain chains, has always been a refuge for fugitives, freedom fighters, dissidents and pirates. Many conquerors had to withdraw unsuccessfully and even Christianity only  in the 9th century found its first followers among this very peculiar breed of people, which developed far away from all influences. The Maniots were not only prepared to defend themselves outwardly, but also amongst themselves. They lived in fortress-like residences and blood vendettas were common among the families of Mani until the twentieth century, with the aim of destroying the towers of the opposing clan and extinguishing all male family members. The mothers therefore called their male descendants not sons, but also guns!

The landscape is barren, repulsive, shimmering dully in all earth tones. Everything seems to consist of stone and undergrowth with nasty thorns. The mountain villages are bulwarks, driving through them you will meet almost no human soul or just few grim looking old men. Some of the coastal towns like Kardamylie or Gerolimenas are much more welcoming, with pretty tavernas and cafes and friendly grinning people. Thanks  to this discrepancy the Mani has its very own charm, which over the decades attracted queer birds, hippies, writers and those who sought piece and seclusion.

The mostly wild landscape contrasts strongly with the crystal-clear, turquoise bays and the sugar sweet, kitschy sunsets. Unfortunately the access to the small pebbly beaches  often is extremely narrow and steep and like that difficult to reach with a camper-van and if you try  you should hope for a lack of oncoming traffic. The main route runs mainly along the coast. Our attempts to get to the interior, either ended with indignant villagers, who with annoyed expressions and rude gestures make us understand that there’s no thoroughfare for us, no matter what the map indicates. Or we end up at sites  overgrown with thistles, recommended in tour guides in semi-abandoned villages.

Concerning culinary issues you can find incredibly tasty and varied food-choices in many tavernas on the entire Peloponnese and tiny villages like the maniotic Limeni, with only a handful of inhabitants, but 2 culinary big-shots among the 4 restaurants.

And if you follow the road all the way to the South you reach Kokinogia, the end of the Greek mainland. The entrance to Hades, the mythological underworld and the kingdom of the dead is said to be found here. Those who prefer it less mystically can walk to the second southernmost point of Europe, the Cap Tenaro or bounce into the invitingly turquoise waters and snorkeling explore the underwater world.

If you think you’ve now reached the maximum of ruggedness and barren landscape, you haven’t yet been to the South-East coast of the Mani. While in the West you find at least some „friendly“ looking plants, fields of thistles cover every meter of the East that man does not keep free from it. You can see a few goats, otherwise rocks and thorns. Signs for  the presence of humans are given by various private chapels. The clans in blood vendetta could not even let rest their feuds in places of worship and definitely not pray in peace beside the enemy, so each family built its own little church. Whether that helped the salvation of their souls is questionable.

Souhern Mani Süd Mani

The further north you drive, the more inviting the landscape gets again and we are glad to find a nice spot on a sandy beach for the night and will not have to sleep in a thistle bed.

A large part of the Peloponnese consists  of mountain ranges reaching up to 2400m. We cross another one of them, the Parnon Mountains, which leads us from the region of Arcadia to Laconia. Definitely worth a stop is the mountain village of Kosmas. On the one hand because it is simply enchanting and the area around it is best explored from here and  on the other hand because among the huge plane trees on the village square you can find delicious home-cooking and Peloponnese wine at unbeatable prices in the restaurant “Maleatis Apollo”. The wife is the cook, the husband serves the customers and in the evening the washing up of the whole dishes is done together manually!

On our way to the coast we once more pass a monastery in an impressive location. We already started to call ourselves “Love Create Monastery” as a running-gag, because we have certainly never before visited as many as on the trip through South-East Europe. Seems like half of the Balkans must be monks or nuns! The Monhi Elona is in any case another proof that the holy men and women have always sought refuge in top locations and e.g. in our hometown in Stuttgart would definitely live on the Killesberg or on Monte Scherbelino.

Just shortly before you reach the coast again you have a magnificent view over the lowland plains, which open up out of the canyon where the village of Leonidio is situated. Along the coast of the Argolic Gulf to the North, one beautiful bay follows the next and tourism still seems to be within pleasant boundaries.

Full of impressions, after an overnight stay at Nafplio, we approach the second connection of the Peloponnese with the Greek mainland. The only land bridging, the Isthmus of Corinth, which is however, broken by the Canal of Corinth. With the impressive view into the narrow gap of the canal in the setting sun we leave the Peloponnese full of impressions. Next stop Athens.

Sights:
Outdoor:
  • hiking the  Menalon Trail in Arkadia
  • scout out the Lousios or Vergos Gorge 
  • Parnon Mountains
  • climbing in Lagada or Leonidio
  • snorkeling in one of the crystal-clear bays  around the peninsula
  • take the rack railway from Diakopto to Kalavrita (Odontos Rack Railway)
  • walk to Cap Tenaro, the southern most point of the  Mani
Camping:

Have a look at our extra article here!

Food & Drinks:
  • Dimitsana: home-cooking at restaurant DRYMONAS, a Drink or ice-cream in bar/café AROMA PLATIAS
  • Gerolimenas: maniotische basics directly at the port in taverna  AKROTAINARITIS
  • Kakovatos Beach: lots of locals, directly at the beach, restaurant MOURIES
  • Kardamylie: Frozen Yogurth at LALA, food at ELIES
  • Kosmas: family business  under plane trees in MALEATIS APOLLO
  • Langadia: with a spectacular view, restaurant MANIATIS
  • Limeni: high-class cuisine in the tiny village at  TELONIO or KOURMAS LIMENI
  • Stemnitsa: simply delicious RESTAURANT STEMNITSA or GEROUSIA