The Peloponnese has been at the forefront of European history, culture and mythology for millennia; it’s given us the Olympic Games and Helen of Troy (she of a thousand ships fame), and its innumerable ancient sites continue to attract visitors from across the globe. But, as Inntravel’s Aimée Smith explains, this southernmost stretch of mainland Greece also has plenty of hidden corners, unknown to all but a lucky few...
Here, we take a look at some of the Peloponnese’s most legendary sights, and the lovely but little-known treasures concealed in their midst.
The legend: fierce warriors, brutal battles and an uncompromising way of life. The ancient Spartans were the ultimate warriors; a people whose entire society revolved around combat and whose purpose was clear: victory for Sparta, whatever the cost.
The reality: despite their best efforts, the Spartans suffered a series of heavy defeats in the 4th-century BC that eventually led to their decline, and there is little in the modern-day city to hint at Sparta’s former importance (the ancient citizens were more focused on waging war than construction, after all!). What does remain of the ancient acropolis is scenically located on a grassy mound framed by the soaring Taÿgetos Mountains.
The secret: although there’s not enough at the acropolis to hold your attention for a full day, Sparta is also home to the excellent Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil, and the nearby medieval citadel at Mystras contains some of the most magnificent and haunting Byzantine buildings you’ll find anywhere. However, one of the area’s best-kept secrets lies a few kilometres from Mystras, in the leafy Langada Gorge. A short foray into its dramatic interior reveals Panagia Langadiotissa, a curious chapel decorated with 14th-century frescoes and built into the rock face.
The legend: founded by a mythological hero and made famous by a mythological king, the ancient citadel of Mycenae was once the nerve centre of the Peloponnese, from where a succession of Mycenaean princes ruled over the peninsula as well as several areas of northern Greece and many of the islands.
The reality: this is still one of the most important sites in Greece and a must for any visitor to the region. To explore its Cyclopean walls, intriguing grave circles and impressive Lion Gate in relative tranquillity, we recommend arriving as early as possible in the morning or delaying your visit until the end of the day.
The secret: a short drive from Mycenae brings you to Nemea, overshadowed by its more famous neighbour only in terms of visitor numbers. The beautiful archaeological site here contains a 4th-century BC temple, currently undergoing a fascinating programme of renovations, while a wander around the well-preserved stadium is all the more enjoyable for the absence of crowds.
The legend: Kardamili’s charms are well established: this coastal town once formed part of the dowry offered to legendary Greek warrior Achilles; and the ‘Gemini’ twins Castor and Pollux are said to have chosen the hills above the town as their final resting place.
The reality: today, Kardamili is primarily a pretty seaside town, known for its association with intrepid author Patrick Leigh Fermor and as the starting point for many of the region’s best walking trails. 200 years ago, however, it was at the heart of the nation’s struggle for independence, led by the powerful Troupakis-Mourtzinos clan. Explore their fortified tower-house, now an archaeological museum, when you visit the town’s picturesque ‘old’ quarter.
The secret: although it’s tempting to while away the hours in one of the enticing restaurants that line Kardamili’s seafront, we suggest following a narrow footpath that leads away from the town centre and up to one of the area’s best and least-known viewpoints. A discreet signpost for the acropolis – in Greek only – points to what at first seems an unremarkable grassy mound; persevere and you’ll soon be rewarded with views of the Viros Gorge that are anything but ordinary.
The legend: Olympia is one of those places that just doesn’t need an introduction. Home to the simple stadium where the Olympic Games were born in 776BC, it has seen plenty of drama over the centuries: glorious victories; crushing defeats; and the Roman Emperor Nero cheating his way to success.
The reality: although the gigantic golden statue of Zeus – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – disappeared long ago, there’s much to see at Olympia’s vast archaeological site and it is justly popular. Highlights include the spot where the Olympic flame is still lit, and the simple but iconic stadium whose starting line and judges’ seats remain intact today.
The secret: our final ‘secret’ really is hidden in plain sight. Located on the main street of the modern village, the Archimedes museum is a small, interactive and utterly engaging exhibition dedicated to the inventions of the famous Greek astronomer, physicist, mathematician and engineer who inspired Da Vinci and influenced Galileo and Newton.