Greece’s Peloponnese in September 2019

This was a long-planned trip to go to our favourite country Greece with our Amercan friend Nancy. We felt that the Peloponnese, which is the southern part of the mainland, was the best area to visit in a week. The scenery is typical Greece and there are plenty of archaeological sites and churches.

Go here for a picture gallery.

I have loved this country ever since I first went there with two school friends in 1967. You can find out why here.

The Peloponnese has three peninsulas (prongs) jutting out to the south. It’s well worth visiting all of them.

The West Prong: Methoni and Pylos

We met up with Nancy at Stansted and flew from there to Kalamata in the south where we picked up our rental car. After driving to Pylos in the dark we had our first meal outside. Most of the people eating there were Greek which meant that the food was good.

It was only about 10 kilometres to Methoni, our first stop. Settlement in Methoni dates back to ancient times but it is best known for a Venetian castle built on a promontory.

Methoni Castle

Our hotel looked across the bay to the castle which covers a large area. We did it justice and Martin just about found the place where he slept outside in 1965.

Then it was back to Pylos for some lunch. It’s a lovely Greek small town with plenty of restaurants by the water.

The remains of what is called Nestor’s Palace have been excavated a few kilometers north of Pylos. This site dates back to Mycenaean times and artefacts discovered there have been dated to c.1300 BC. Named as Pylos it appears in the Trojan War and in Homer’s Odyssey. The whole site is covered by a large roof and you go round on elevated walkways. There is a good explanation of how the ancient bath there was used.

Mycenaean bathroom, Nestor’s Palace, near Pylos

The Middle Prong: the Mani

We stayed three nights just north of Areopoli which is where the Mani really begins. This is rather a wild and barren area and the Maniots have had a reputation for fighting each other.

View from our hotel, Limeni near Areopoli

All the houses are made of stone and plenty of the original stone tower houses remain, although few of the older ones seemed to be occupied. Recent road improvements have opened the Mani up to tourism, but it was still rather quiet.

On our way to the southern tip we stopped at Vathi which is the archetypical Mani village. Sadly a good many of the houses were falling into ruin, but the spectacular view from the road south of the village remains the same.

Vathi, in the Mani

It was very hot. Two of the three of us attempted to walk to the southern tip of Cape Tenaron which is the second most southern point in mainland Europe. One came back fairly quickly and other did not go right to the end as we had done years ago. The other one (guess who?) had a nice cup of coffee and admired the view from the cafe above the car park where we also had lunch.

Barren land near Cape Tenaron

On the way back we attempted to find the tiny church which Martin and I visited years before. From the outside it looked like a pile of stones, but inside were amazing frescoes on all the walls. Sadly this time the path to it was so overgrown that we had to give up. Sadly too, the nearby village was almost deserted. We found plenty of other churches but all were locked.

Church in the Mani

One village welcomed us with writing on the road, the Greek for “welcome”.

Welcome – a village south of Areopoli

Next morning we drove up to Dekoulou monastery which the guide book recommended, but it was locked. Apparently the person who has the key lives in the house attached to it but nobody was at home.

We moved on to the Dirou Caves. You visit on a boat which holds up to 7 people. The boatman propels the boat like a punt by pushing on the wall at the side with a kind of paddle. In some places the roof was so low that we had to duck. You have to walk the last 300m to the exit and then another 500m in blazing sun back to the car park.

Dirou Caves, nearly at the end

Lunch places are few and far between on the east side of the Mani. We stopped at tiny Kotronas where the lunch choice was between a burger bar and a tiny Greek restaurant. We chose the Greek one where the menu was somewhat limited, the food was fine and the decor and ambience went straight back to my 1967 trip.

The main road through the new part of Areopoli is fairly dull but on the way back to our hotel we looked round the old part. It’s pedestrianised with plenty of churches. We did get manage to get inside one to admire more frescoes (no photos allowed) and we did get tea which actually came in a teapot.

Church in Areopoli

At dinner in a smarter restaurant down by the water in Limeni we spotted a turtle in the water very close in. It was about 2 feet long and was enjoying a meal of scraps thrown into the water by a man filleting fish.

You can just see the turtle, Limeni

The turtle missed some of his meal when a rather large tender from a yacht arrived. Five very well dressed people plus what must have been a bodyguard got off and walked straight through our restaurant and out to another one. We wondered if they were Russians.

The East Prong: Monemvasia

Leaving the Mani, we first stopped at Gytheion which was the port of ancient Sparta and still retains a nice Greek atmosphere. Across a short causeway from Gytheio is a tiny island Cranae where legend has it that Paris of Troy spent his first night with Helen wife of Menelaus King of Sparta, after he stole, or eloped with her. This event started the Trojan War, the subject of Homer’s Iliad and other works in Greek literature.

Church on Cranae, Gytheion

Nearer Monemvasia we had to stop suddenly for a tortoise as he made his slow way across the road.

Living dangerously – he made it

Our destination on this day was Monemvasia, a Gibraltar-like rock connected to the mainland via a causeway.

Monemvasia

We ate lunch at Gefyra at the mainland end of the causeway where I finally managed to have some stuffed tomatoes and peppers one of my favourite Greek foods.

Stuffed tomatoes and peppers, my favourite

Monemvasia was an important Byzantine fortress. It has retained its old character with a maze of narrow cobbled streets and steps with plenty of churches. You cannot drive any further than the gate to the town and so Martin dropped Nancy and myself at there and parked the car some way down the hill up to the gate. While we waited for him to walk back some porters were unloading laundry into wheelbarrows to transport it to various hotels. We managed to find our way to our hotel, almost certainly not by the shortest route.

The main street in Monemvasia

It didn’t take too long to look around the old town. Once again most of the churches were closed, but there were some nice exteriors some with animal carvings.

We had a very good dinner at Matoula, the oldest restaurant in Monemvasia.

Buildings are squashed together almost on top of each other in Monemvasia but there was still room to eat breakfast outside.

Breakfast in Monemvasia

Mystras and Going North

Next morning we set off in good time to drive north heading first for Mystras just outside Sparta. On the way we passed the foot of Mount Taygetos, the highest mountain in the Peloponnese, and marvelled that Martin and I had climbed it about 40 years ago.

Taygetos – did we really once climb this?

Mystras is another Byzantine settlement and it covers a huge area on a steep hillside. You have to walk up or down steep cobbled paths to see it. We decided to go to the top car park which is as far as you can drive up. Martin and Nancy walked up a lot further to the ruined castle on the very top. I was glad I decided against it, but just amused myself watching the faces of the people who had walked up from the bottom car park and then saw how far it still was up to the castle.

Mystras has a plenty of churches, many from the 14th century and now partly in ruins. This meant that we got to see many more frescoes as we made our way down over the uneven cobbles – thank goodness there was no rain which would make them very slippery.

Frescoes at Mystras

If you go there, don’t underestimate how much time you need, as there is no cafe and no other facilities at all. We had to walk down the road further to get a very late lunch at the Xenia Hotel. The waiter there woke up the hotel’s taxi driver to take us back to our car.

Deciding to take the old road north was a good choice as we saw plenty of typical Greek mountainous scenery without having to deal with Greek motorway driving. Surprisingly for us we didn’t see any goats.

The scenery is a bit more industrial around Argos but we were soon at at Palaia Epidaurus on the Saronic Gulf. There we stayed at a typical Greek hotel, basic and clean with a lovely view out to sea and restaurant tables by the water.

From our hotel room, Palaia Epidaurus

Epidaurus and Mycenae

The next day we visited two big tourist attractions along with many bus loads of people. It’s a day trip from Athens and there were far more people than when I went there in 1967.

First we went to the theatre of Epidaurus which is the best preserved ancient theatre in Greece. It dates from the 4th century BC.

Theatre at Epidaurus

The acoustics are amazing – and plenty of tourists were testing this out. Greek plays are performed there in July and August. I would love to see this some time.

Epidaurus is a lot more than the theatre. It was a sanctuary of Asclepius where, from the 6th century BC, the sick went to be healed. The remains cover a large area, which is easily explored with good information boards in English and Greek.

Stadium at Epidaurus

Mycenae was a major centre of civilization from about 1500BC to 1200BC. The Myceneans built their walls from huge blocks of sandy-coloured stone. The name Cyclopean walls was given to them by the ancient Greek geographer Pausanias and it has stuck.

The site of Mycenae is on a hill and is fairly compact with information boards and a concrete trail around it – no slippery cobbles here. There was the obligatory photo at the famous Lion Gate.

Lion Gate, Mycenae

The only big herd of goats we saw anywhere on our trip was about 100m away.

Goats near Mycenae

Again we ended up with a late lunch down in the town of Mykines – there is no cafe at the site, only drinks and crisps.

Back at the site we couldn’t miss huge the Tomb of Agamemnon also known as the Treasury of Atreus. It is a large example of what are known as beehive tombs because of their shape.

Tomb of Agamemnon

It also has huge Cyclopean walls leading up to the entrance.

Cyclopean walls at the Tomb of Agamemnon

Rain had been forecast and the clouds were gathering as we walked around Nafplio, the largest town in the area.

Storm clouds over Nafplion Castle

Fortunately the sun umbrellas where we got some tea were not porous and we managed to keep dry when the heavens opened with thunder as well. It was a wet drive back to our hotel and we had to eat dinner inside.

Next morning the rain had stopped but it was still cold. We had breakfast in a large plastic cage, technically outside, but out of the wind.

Corinth and Athens

We took the coast road to Corinth, stopping briefly at Agnoundos Monastery with yet more well-preserved frescoes (no photos allowed). We also stopped at the Corinth canal along with plenty of other people.

Corinth Canal

We had to go into the town of Corinth to find an ATM. Acrocorinth, another fortress on the top of a hill, looked tempting. We drove up as far as you can. Two of us walked up some of the way to the top, but the path was more uneven cobbles and we were running out of time.

View from Acrocorinth

The motorway to Athens was much improved since the last time we had been there and thanks to our new Tomtom we delivered Nancy to her hotel in a narrow street by the Acropolis going via the two main squares in Athens.

Martin and I drove down the coast a bit from Athens, but found it rather disappointing. The real Greece had gone, replaced by burger bars, western music as well as too many private beaches. We did get a meal in one of them which was not really Greek food then it was back to Athens airport to drop off the car before the flight home.

Practicalities

We flew from Stansted to Kalamata on Ryanair. They are survivable if your expectations are low. While Nancy stayed on for another tour round the islands, we came back on Wizzair who had a flight with good timings for us. This was also passable. As usual, we booked our accommodation with booking.com. A one-way car rental was easy to organize with Sixt. Wifi was good everywhere and mobile signals were better than in the UK.

We have an assortment of maps from previous visits – there are some really good detailed ones of Greece now. We do like to see the big picture on a paper map before using a satnav (GPS), but our new Tomtom was amazing in detail and completely accurate.

For guidebooks, we used the Sunflower book Landscapes of the Southern Peloponnese, and a very recently published and excellent Bradt guide: Greece: The Peloponnese. Our copy of Greenhalgh and Eliopoulos, Deep into Mani had gone awol, but we easily got another one from abebooks. If you are serious about exploring the Mani, this book is highly recommended.

Why I love Greece

Early morning at Palaia Epidaurus


Just a few reasons:

  • the food: Greek salad, souvlaki, fish grilled with herbs, slow-cooked lamb, stuffed tomatoes and peppers, aubergine salad, the bread, baklava
  • eating outside, especially by the water
  • sunsets (and sunrises) over the water
  • there’s so much history
  • the little cats – they are everywhere
  • tiny villages up in the mountains
  • churches everywhere, but don’t expect many of them to be open
  • hiking, although we didn’t do any this time
  • the people, always cheerful and helpful
  • it’s always clean
  • bright blue sea – I never under stood why Homer called it the “wine-dark sea”
  • hearing goatbells tinkling in the mountains

Picture gallery: Greece’s Peloponnese in September 2019

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