By Elisabeth Herschbach – I’m traveling by bus in the Peloponnese, the large peninsula that forms the southernmost part of mainland Greece, linked by a four-mile isthmus at Corinth. The bus is hurtling downhill at what feels like a dangerous speed. Worse yet, somehow the brake pedal has come loose and for the last ten minutes or so, the driver has had to negotiate the brakes by balancing his foot directly on the stud where the brake pedal was once attached. Occasionally the bus swerves around a curve and passengers let out nervous, tight-lipped cries. But the driver is unflappable. “No problem,” he shrugs, and keeps driving. He’s a man of few words.
The driver’s brusqueness and daring seem appropriate, given our location. After all, we’re now entering the region of Laconia in the south of the Peloponnese, territory of the ancient Spartans, those fierce warriors who vanquished the Athenians in 404 B.C. and whose reputation for severity and reticence has followed them into the English language. Not for nothing do we characterize the taciturn, austere, and toughly resilient as “laconic” or “spartan.”
A Land of Contrasts
I, too, find myself surprisingly unfazed by the misadventures of the bus, but in my case it’s because I’m transfixed by the view outside my window — a gorgeous backdrop of wooded hills, framed by the stark outline of mountains in the distance. We pass lemon trees bursting with golden orbs of fruit, a few goats perched on a rocky overhang, and grove after grove of olive trees, silvery-green and twisted against a blue and cloudless sky. Here the landscape is gentle and green, but traveling further south will take you into wild and arid terrain. Like Greece as a whole, the Peloponnese is a land of stunning natural diversity. Rugged mountain peaks border lush valleys and fertile plains. Cliff-studded coastlines give way to sandy coves, shaded by fragrant pine. Rocky, sun-baked wildernesses contrast with verdant woodlands, cascading streams, and lakes and wetlands rich in wildlife.
With some of the most beautiful beaches in mainland Greece, spectacularly scenic routes for walkers and hikers, and countless underexplored spots off the beaten tourist track — from remote mountain villages to picturesque coastal towns — the Peloponnese is arguably the perfect destination for experiencing the variety of the Greek landscape. Equally extravagant are its historical and cultural attractions. Legendary Olympia, site of the original Olympic Games, lies to the west; Corinth, with its extensive Roman remains, lies to the east. In between, scores of other sites — ancient to medieval to modern — vie for attention. Byzantine churches and monasteries, richly frescoed and often astonishingly well-preserved, attest to the region’s past as a Byzantine cultural center. Medieval castles and fortresses reflect successive waves of Frankish, Venetian, and Ottoman rule. And as one of the primary strongholds of the Greek War of Independence from 1821 to 1831, the Peloponnese boasts several landmarks important to Greece’s modern history, including the site of a decisive naval battle at Navarino Bay near Pylos on the southwest coast — not far from the 13th century B.C. palace of Nestor, one of the great Homeric kings.
From Agamemnon’s Palace to a Byzantine Ghost Town
On the map, the Peloponnese resembles an oddly shaped hand, with three fingers pointing southward and a stubby thumb — called the Argolid after its dominant ancient city, Argos — poking eastward into the Saronic Gulf. So far in my travels, I’ve crisscrossed the thumb of the Argolid, a region more densely crammed with ancient sites than any other in Greece. At Mycenae, I explored the beehive tombs and Lion Gate of Agamemnon’s Bronze Age palace, a sprawling, brooding fortress encircled by massive stone walls and overlooking a majestic sweep of hills sparsely patched with pine and wild olive. At Epidauros, I toured the sanctuary of Asclepius, god of medicine, and marveled at the 4th century B.C. theater so well-preserved that it’s still used for performances every summer. And in Nafplio, the city that served as liberated Greece’s first capital from 1829 to 1834, I climbed up 857 steps to reach the imposing Palamidi fortress, a Venetian stronghold built on a rocky summit commanding panoramic views of sea and mountains. Then, less arduously, I strolled through the town’s charming harbor area and admired the elegant Neoclassical buildings that line its meandering streets and alleyways.
On the west, directly across from the Argolid, I sprinted the length of the 200-meter stadium at ancient Olympia and imagined myself crowned an Olympic victor. On the north coast, I experienced the hairpin ride of the famous Kalavryta-Diakofto rack-and-pinion railway, which runs its precipitous mountain course at impossibly steep gradients and cuts through dozens of bridges, tunnels, and dizzying overhangs along the way. And three miles outside of Sparta in the south, I walked through the ruins of a Byzantine town at Mystras, a major center of Byzantine power from the 13th to 15th centuries A.D., complete with palaces, houses, and frescoed churches still magnificently intact.
Into the Mani
There are countless places left to visit. Particularly enticing, for example, is lush Arcadia in the palm of the Peloponnese, with its dramatic gorges, quiet hilltop towns, cliff-side monasteries, and hidden antiquities. Today, however, the bus is dropping me off at Gytheio, once the naval base for ancient Sparta and now a quiet fishing village in the southern Peloponnese. Red-tiled 19th-century buildings ring the waterfront, and just offshore, connected to the waterfront by a causeway, is the islet of Marathonisi where, according to myth, Paris and Helen spent their first night together, triggering the Trojan War.
The islet gets its name from “maratho,” the fennel plant that grows here and on the mountain opposite. But in ancient times, it was known as Cranae, presumably for its rocky, craggy land (the ancient Greek word κραναός means “rocky”). Though one end of the islet is shaded with fragrant pine and cypress trees and thickly carpeted with grass and clover, its far end is a mass of sharp, jagged rocks jutting into the sea. In the center of the islet is the main attraction: the 18th century fortress known as the Grigorakis Tower, now converted into a small museum.
Although Gytheio is worth visiting in its own right, it is best known as the “gateway to the Mani” — the barren, remote region that constitutes the southernmost finger of the Peloponnese. At the tip of the Mani is Cape Tenaro, the mythical entrance to Hades where Orpheus descended into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice. At its spine is rugged Mount Taygetos, the vast peaks where, according to Homer, Artemis, goddess of hunting, roamed.
The Maniots claim to be descended from the ancient Spartans, and certainly both their resilience at surviving in this dry, unyielding land and their warlike past show them to be heirs at least in spirit. When the rest of Greece succumbed to Ottoman rule, the fierce Maniots managed to preserve an unrivalled degree of autonomy, later leading the first waves of rebellion that ultimately secured Greek independence. Now much of the Mani is depopulated and its distinctive tower houses — the fortress-like structures that are the architectural legacy of a violent history of internal feuds — are mostly abandoned shells, tall and austere against the rocky landscape. But it’s hard to overstate the stark beauty of the Mani, with its deeply cragged coasts plunging into the sea, its evocative, stony ruins, and its wild solitude. Visitors to the area also won’t want to miss the Pyrgos Dirou caves, the largest cave system in Greece, packed with stalactites and bearing evidence of Neolithic settlements.
After the Mani region, there’s another tip of Laconia to explore, extending into the southeastern finger of the Peloponnese. There the highlight is the Byzantine town of Monemvasia, nicknamed the “Gibraltar of Greece” for its stunning perch atop a rock 1,150 feet above the sea. But that will be another trip — hopefully on a different bus, with another driver.