This article was first published in the April 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine
It was not the classical sites that first lured me to the Peloponnese. Instead, it was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, an account of his late 1950s hike through Mani’s arid landscape of mountains and sea. Leigh Fermor slept on the rooftops of crumbling tower houses, the evocative remnants of centuries of blood feuds, and was thrilled to his romantic core.
Even in the 1950s, however, this beautiful peninsula in southern Greece wasn’t quite as remote as Leigh Fermor presented it. When he wrote about the village of Kardamyli, his future home, he edited out the factory chimney of the old olive-oil works. By the time I got to Stoupa, just south of Kardamyli, in the 1990s, it was a package-holiday destination, with village rooms rather than grand hotels the order of the day.
If Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of a still-medieval corner of Europe brought me to the Peloponnese, it was a day trip to Mystras – a long, winding bus ride from Stoupa – that would bring me back in the future. I recommend wandering through the streets of this Byzantine town in the foothills of the Taïyetos mountains: you will stumble upon crumbling churches and discover fading frescoes. (Mystras is near Sparta, so it is also deeply evocative of another history, that ancient city-state’s struggle with Athens.)
Mystras was a revelation – and led me to another Byzantine wonder, the unique fortress town of Monemvasia, linked to the mainland only by a causeway. Founded in AD 583 by refugees from the Slavic and Avaric invasions of Greece, the city flourished between the 10th and 15th centuries before being almost entirely abandoned, then (partially) brought back to life in the late 20th century.
To arrive in Monemvasia is a traveller’s dream. From the mainland, all you can see is the causeway and bare rockface. Get closer, and you catch sight of a gateway. Pass through, and you enter a car-less, crumbling, cat-filled city.
I would recommend staying overnight to experience Monemvasia’s full magic. In season, boatloads of tourists arrive for the day from Nafplio, which is the most well-known city in the region, and definitely worth visiting too. Elegantly situated on a beautiful bay, the old town offers an evocative, if somewhat manicured, insight into Greece’s recent history. Controlled by the Franks, Venetians, Turks, Venetians (again), then Turks (again) – all of whom have left their mark on the city – Nafplio was the first capital of the modern Greek state, liberated from Ottoman control in April 1822.
The really special thing about the Peloponnese is that a fairly short bus journey can transport you back 2,000 years. And, after all, it would be foolish to miss the region’s spectacular classical sites. First stop, from Nafplio, might be the remarkably intact theatre at Epidaurus, with its superb acoustics; Olympia – a longer car ride this time – is a perfect destination if travelling with young children, who can sprint up and down the running track, living the Olympic dream; and don’t miss the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, another stunning combination of architecture and landscape.
However, my heart belongs to some less well-known historical sites. You’ll need a head for heights because the roads are narrow and precipitous, but Arcadia (and who would not wish to spend time in Arcadia?) offers fascinating villages such as Dimitsana and Stemnitsa. The former has the Open-Air Water Power Museum, an intriguing insight into the workings of pre-industrial society, while the latter boasts a Folklore Museum, allied to a School of Silversmithery and Goldsmithery, which works to sustain the region’s tradition of jewellery making. Both villages have spectacular settings, with superb hiking possibilities, a network of ancient paths leading through impressive gorges or to remote monasteries.
Another hidden gem (and not just for train geeks, although I admit to being just that) is the 1890s-built rack and pinion railway which begins at Diakopto on the north coast of the Peloponnese. In addition to marvelling at the impressive engineering, and the obligatory monastery en route, the train’s destination, Kalavrita, is a powerful reminder of Europe’s more recent history. The village clock is forever stopped at 14:34 to commemorate a massacre of the inhabitants by the Nazi occupiers in reprisal for the Greeks’ killing of captured German prisoners.
Whether it’s the Nazi occupation or the war between Athens and Sparta, the past is always tangible in the Peloponnese. And, if all that history is just too much, there are always the stunning beaches.
Anna Beer is visiting fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Her books include Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh (Oneworld, 2018).
Advice for travellers
What to pack
Comfortable shoes for scrambling around the sites, and – for any time other than summer – warm clothes for chilly evenings in the mountains.
If you have the time, it is wonderful to arrive in Patras by boat from Venice, then pick up a hire car. There are direct flights to Kalamata from the UK in season, or year-round to Athens.
Best time to go
My favourite times are spring and autumn, when you may have wonderful places to yourself, although at Easter the crowds become part of the experience. The downside is that fewer places are open, it can be cold and wet, and only the hardy will want to swim in the sea!
What to bring back
Food and drink, definitely. Olive oil and honey are obvious good choices, but also try the new generation of Greek wines. For more lasting mementoes, perhaps jewellery from Stemnitsa.
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