Home to ancient Greek sites, beautiful beaches and charming villages preserved in time, the Peloponnese peninsula is the best of everything Greece has to offer. Diana Noonan takes a tour.
Poised on a harbour wall, youths prepare to dive into chilly water for a cross thrown by a black-clad priest. In the winding lanes of a mountain village, a widow distributes spiced, wine-soaked bread to keep alive the memory of her late husband. This is everyday life in the Peloponnese, the huge three-fingered peninsula which forms the south-west extreme of Greece; a region suspended in time where centuries-old rituals and ancient ruins are as common place as white sand beaches and picturesque harbour villages.
To experience this mysterious land for yourself, skip the hectic Athens traffic and train directly from the airport to Corinth, where a rental car can be delivered to you at the station. If you take the main road south to the town of Leonidio, you're perfectly located for exploring the nearby mountain hamlets: Tsitalia, with its locally made 'pink' retsina sold in recycled plastic bottles, and Vaskina, where the open-air summer bakery and oven is fuelled with wood from local olive trees. Be sure to buy a bag of paximathe, twice-baked bread made from barley grown in the adjacent pocket-handkerchief fields.
In Kosmas, sit in the square beneath sprawling trees and sample karithopita, a traditional cake flecked with walnuts grown in the village. And in white-washed Melena, a village perched on land so steep donkeys are still employed to help bring in the olive harvest, you can steal tiny glimpses into backyards where life has changed little in hundreds of years.
Back in Leonidio, spend your days meandering through seaside orchards and market gardens; come evening, dine at Taverna Mouriae (opposite the high school) where the home-style meals offer a taste of delicious, everyday Arkadian cooking.
The place from where Helen of Troy eloped and Jason set off in search of the Golden Fleece, the Peloponnese is packed with ancient sites both mythological and historic. If you have time only for Olympia and one other, the remains of the city of Epidauros is the pick. An hour’s drive from Corinth, its size is more manageable than the likes of Mycenae, and its acoustically-famous amphitheatre is both grand and intimate. Arrive early, when there are just a handful of visitors about. You'll be less likely to feel bashful about standing centre stage and whispering to your travel companion sitting at the very top of the theatre – who will hear everything you say with astonishingly perfect clarity.
Several centuries younger than Epidaurus, and clinging to a 350m high rock, the fortified settlement of Monemvasia is an impressive sight. Don't attempt to drive the short distance across the causeway to reach it – parking at the other end is impossible. Instead, grab your water bottle and walk, and if the heat of the day makes the trek impossible, take it as a sign to leave your visit until later and instead head 40km south to Elafonisos.
This tiny island, reached by a brief car ferry journey from the village of Punta, is the quintessential white-sand Greek Island beach experience. Shout yourself a hire deckchair and sun umbrella and keep your eyes peeled for the bronzed rich and famous as they are ferried to the beach on jet skis from their luxury yachts moored a little way off shore.
If your Peloponnese tour takes you as far as the south coast, try to stop in at ultra-pretty Gythio. It feels a little like Southern Italy with its ridiculously narrow, straight up-and-down lanes. Sip a coffee beside the harbour and don't leave town without a trying a phoinikota, a crescent-shaped date and almond-filled pastry.
Larger than Gythio, Nafplio is considered the most elegant town in mainland Greece. After you’ve climbed the 913 steps to visit its impressive Venetian-style fortress, cool off at the little-used pebble beach behind the old town. If overnighting in town, try one of the small private hotels clustered behind the square.
For a supremely authentic Greek dining experience, you can't do better than Tsakiris, a fish restaurant at Paralia Timeniou. It's tricky to find, so your best bet is to take a taxi for the 12 minute drive from Nafplio, or ask at your hotel for directions. None of the Tsakiris staff speak English, but mention the specialties – bakaliaro (grilled salted cod), scorthalia (garlic and potato sauce) or oktopudi (octopus) – and you can’t go wrong. Avoid Sundays and holidays when the Greeks pack the place out.
The antidote to so much indulgence is a quiet walk through the Lousios Gorge between Olympia and Tripoli, where medieval monasteries cling like limpets to steep rock faces. Dress modestly, speak quietly, light a candle and accept the loukoumi (Turkish delight) offered by the resident monks. For directions to the many walking trails, ask for information in Dimitsana, the closest town.
Whether you have a week to spend in the Peloponnese or a month, a bit of planning will ensure your trip includes the huge variety of experiences this peninsula has to offer. Even better advice: steer clear of the hottest months when, should a heat wave strike, all that is manageable is a quick dip in the sea and a very lengthy siesta.