The Peloponnese is a leaf shaped peninsula hanging off the southwest coast of mainland Greece and is famous not only for many archeological remnants of a history that rivals Crete’s Minoan ages, but for its natural beauty from mountain tops to lush valleys to pristine waters. We had always been told that the Peloponnese was one of the most beautiful parts of Greece so we checked it out for ourselves in May of this year. Packing up the bicycles on our car, we departed on the ferry from Kissamos port in western Crete and arrived 8 hours later in the old port of Gytheio on the Peloponnese. It was an easy drive to our first destination, Monemvasia, a medieval fortified town built on the lower and upper sites of the huge rock that juts out of the sea off the coast.
As we rounded the corner and Monemvasia came into view it was easy to see why this place was nicknamed, “The Gibraltor of Greece.” This giant rock formation was severed from the mainland by an earthquake in 375 AD and remained an island until a causeway was built in the 6th century. In its prime (15th century) it was home to 50,000 and was an autonomous city-state with a lower town (working folks) and an upper town (aristocracy). Today, the lower town is restored and within the walls of the castle are quaint cobbled streets winding around to small homes, pristine churches, Venetian architecture marked by the famous St. Mark’s lion emblem, surprising views and hospitable shopowners.
The upper town is in ruin except for the beautiful Agia Sofia (13th century) but sadly the ascending path up to the town was closed due to restoration purposes. Our decision to stay at a small hotel on the mainland was a good one as we had a knock-out view of ‘the Rock” from our balcony over the sea (Hotel Pramataris). In the morning, we rode our bikes across the causeway to the West gate entrance where we parked them and continued on foot into the fortress walls. We spent most of the day snooping around old Monemvasia, stopping at the museum, chatting with the locals, perusing through the little shops and finally enjoying a fresh fish dinner at a terraced taverna called Matoula.
Originally, the first capital of modern Greece, Nafplio is now a popular destination for visitors to the Peloponnese as well as Athenians looking for an easy weekend excursion away from the big city. The charming and busy old town with a spectacular waterfront has so much to offer it’s easy to see why so many people who have been here refer to it with a dreamy smile on their faces…”Ahh, Nafplio…magical!”
The medieval town was protected by three fortresses, the Bourtzi, a pint-sized castle in the middle of the harbor, the Akronafplia (oldest part of the city) and the impressive Palamidi fortress which crowns the cliffs above Nafplio and dominates the city.
The last two fortresses are both are accessible by car but more fun on foot or bicycle. We headed out on our bikes soon after we checked into our B&B (Andromeda Pension) which was conviently located in the old town two blocks from the main square. The ride up to Akronafplia was unfortunately spoiled by a monstrosity of poor taste – an abandoned old 60’s style hotel built by the Greek government during the dictatorship. But turning a blind eye to this graffiti-covered weed-infested concrete beast , we continued peddling up and were rewarded with stellar views over the city and the Argos bay. The view here was rivaled easily by the other famous fortress and the highest point in Nafplio, the Palamidi Fortress which was a huge Venetian citadel housing seven self-sufficient forts built in the early 18th century. Energetic walkers can access the fortress by trudging up the 999 stone steps on the west side but we defaulted to biking the ascent – still quite a workout.
Another surprising discovery was the well-used path that skirted along the coast around the base of the Palamidi fortress and ended at the expansive yet secluded beach of Karathona. It was a beautiful 4K late afternoon ride with the waning sun reflecting low over the sea on our right and the high cliffs of Palamidi glowing above us over our left shoulders. Couples and families were out enjoying their “volta” (afternoon walk) sharing this scenic path with a few joggers and bikers.
The rest of our visit in Nafplio was spent wandering around the old city, dropping in on museums, engaging in many conversations with the hospitable locals, roaming around the busy Saturday farmer’s market, sharing numerous gelatos and cappuccinos, indulging in fresh fish and cold beer every night, and riding our bikes wherever we could find a good pathway.
An easy 45 minute drive east from Nafplio took us to the archeological site of Epidavros, a therapeutic and religious center of the ancient world (6th century BC) mostly famous for its magnificent theater. Renown for its near-perfect acoustics, it is still used today for music and theater productions including the annual summer festival of ancient Greek drama. We visited this magical site in the cool of the late afternoon. A couple of small school groups hastily (and loudly) blew through finally leaving us with a peaceful silence that was permeated occasionally by the sounds of the birds and breeze playing in the expansive space of the amphitheater. It’s easy to feel very small in a place like this.
Our last night in Nafplio we did our “volta” at a relaxed pace around the marble paved waterside promenade and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Nafplio on a summer evening.
We ended up at a the Noufara Taverna in the bustling, marble paved Syntagma Square and watch the night’s activities unfold over a great salad and pizza – magical!
HOPSCOTCHING TO ATHENS
Our overnight ferry from Pireas Port in Athens didn’t depart until 9pm on Sunday so we had all day to wiggle our way north from Nafplio and visit the many sites of interest along the way. First stop – ancient Mycenae, home of the renown “Cyclopean” walls. The Mycenaean civilization dominated Greece during the late Bronze age (1700-1100 BC) and this particular settlement boasts walls made of huge stones that encircle an enormous hilltop city of palaces, treasures and tombs for the ruling class.
2nd stop: Nemea, home to arguably the best wine region in Greece nestled in a lush green valley with a surprising ancient sentry.
3rd stop: Ancient Corinth, a vast Roman city which enjoyed prosperity (and a reputation for the sins of licentious living) as a trading port providing the shortest route from the eastern Mediterranean to Italy. This site was all but deserted when we arrived and as we walked around the ancient stones and columns it seemed to be a sleeping giant now forgotten by the archeological community.
But the lack of crowds was pleasing and we enjoyed imagining St Paul walking the streets, working with his friends and preaching every Sabbath at the meeting place. It was here that he wrote the epistle to the Romans, founded the Corinthian church and was hauled into the court to defend himself and the gospel he preached (Acts 18:1-17).
Last stop: the Corinthian Canal, a deep cut through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth that once connected the Peloponnese with mainland Greece. Construction of this canal actually was started by Emperor Nero but was not completed until around 1893. Four miles long and 26 feet in depth, it now serves as a passageway connecting the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea as well as a hot spot for bungee bridge jumpers.
We boarded the ferry in Pireas and settled into our cabin about 9pm. It wasn’t long before the travel exhaustion, the smooth sailing and the growling lull of the boat engines took effect and we slept soundly until our morning docking at Souda Bay in Crete.