Last year’s dreamy summer holiday included two weeks travelling around the Peloponnese in Greece – the oft-forgotten, largely mountainous region that makes up the southernmost part of the Greek ‘mainland’. Culturally rich with breath-taking scenery, super laid back and relatively unspoilt – the Peloponnese is a seriously beautiful part of the world. Thankfully, large resorts have never been built in the Peloponnese, primarily because there wasn’t an international airport in the region for many years. Although flights do now run from the UK to Kalamata during the summer months, the Peloponnese is generally overlooked by the majority of tourists who head to the Greek islands. So everywhere you visit feels very low-key and slightly off the beaten track. It’s an ideal escape from the madness of UK city life, if that’s what you’re after…
Our travels in the Peloponnese followed a few days in Athens, which you can read about about in my previous post Visit: Athens. Athens is a very cool city and well worth factoring into a trip to Greece / or as a destination on its own. With its unique and slightly mad mix of ancient temples, Neoclassical old town and modern, energetic residential neighbourhoods, I absolutely loved it. It’s utterly mind boggling that you can walk around a European capital and see buildings that were constructed over 2500 years ago, perched on top of a flattened-off rocky limestone cliff which rises seemingly out of nowhere from the city below. There is simply nowhere else like it.
In terms of our trip itinerary, we travelled from Athens by bus to a city called Nafplio, located in the north east of the Peloponnese. Then after a few days in Nafplio, we hired a car for 10 days to further explore the region, taking in three other towns – Monemvasia, Gythio and Kardamyli.
If I was planning to structure this post in the order of my favourite places, I would have to start by writing about Monemvasia. Which was next level incredible, for a variety of reasons. Instead, I’m going to stick with the same order we visited them:
Nafplio > Monemvasia > Gythio > Kardamyli
Given that they are all small-ish coastal towns in the same region of Greece, I was expecting a fairly similar vibe throughout the trip. Yet the variety in character between the four towns was striking. Local architecture ranges from Byzantine and medieval to Ottoman, Venetian and Neoclassical, while traditional Greek stone built houses dominate many of the towns in the southern Peloponnese. Plus of course there are a number of ancient classical sites to visit. The landscape changes from soft and rolling in the north east, to wild and rugged in the west and south. Each place we stayed in felt very different – the variety was fascinating. Located on a tiny island connected to the mainland by a causeway, medieval Monemvasia stood out as being particularly special. But everywhere was beautifully idyllic, and each town had its own identity.
As we left Athens to head to Nafplio, we took a taxi to take us from our apartment to the bus station (which is located on the outskirts of the city and not connected to the underground / metro network). Unsurprisingly, our taxi driver asked us where we were heading to on our trip. When we answered the Peloponnese, he seemed genuinely thrilled. He pronounced how stunning it was; that for him it was the most beautiful and finest region to visit in all of Greece. He added that the vast majority of tourists he encounters in his taxi are heading out to the islands. According to him, many places in the Peloponnese are much more beautiful than the islands. Of course, hearing all of this from a Greek in Athens made me even more excited to be heading there…
It’s worth mentioning that the Peloponnese is technically a big island itself, or at least it has been since the ‘cutting’ of the Corinth Canal in 1893. Formerly a peninsular, the creation of the Corinth Canal (a narrow manmade channel cut through the rocks that links the Aegean and the Ionian Seas) effectively made the Peloponnese into a separate island to the Greek mainland. To reach the Corinth Canal at the north western tip of the Peloponnese is around an hour’s drive west of Athens. Nafplio, where we were heading to, is another hour’s drive on from the Corinth Canal. We decided to travel this leg of the journey by bus as we didn’t want to drive in or around Athens, so a straightforward 2-hour bus journey from Athens to Nafplio was a sensible option.
Nafplio /// Located on the Saronic Gulf, the port town of Nafplio is a relaxing and interesting place to hang out for a few days. It’s proximity to the capital makes it a popular tourist destination with Athenians as well as with tourists staying in Athens, so it feels quite busy in comparison to other Peloponnese towns. But still not what I would call ‘busy’. Like the old town in Athens, the historical centre in Nafplio is a little bit twee, but utterly charming nonetheless. With its maze of cobbled side streets, it’s the type of place you can wander around multiple times, and each time find a hidden corner you hadn’t seen or notice something different. Watching the sun go down over the Saronic Gulf whilst sat in one of the many cafes and bars along the harbour front is pretty special. The colourful mix of Venetian and neoclassical architecture makes it very characterful. Painted in a beautiful mix of pastel tones, the old buildings exude a laidback elegance and faded grandeur. As a former Ottoman stronghold and major military centre, the city played a key role during the Greek War of Independence, and from 1829 – 1834, Nafplio was in fact the original capital of the modern State of Greece (until King Otto decided to move the capital to Athens). Architectural evidence of this survives in the modern Greek state’s first parliament building, which is located on the site of a converted Ottoman mosque in Nafplio.
There are some great places to explore both in and around the town. Perched high above the town on the hill of Palamidi is Nafpilo’s principal fort, Palamidi Fortress, a well-preserved, large historical castle site that was a major feat in terms of its fortifications. Built by the Venetians in 1711–1714, it was a key military base during the Greek War of Independence. To reach Palamidi Fortress by foot is a very steep climb of 216m up 890 large stone steps set in the edge of the hillside. The steps are in the shade in the morning, but even so it is still a tough, hot climb to the top. Thankfully, the climb is most definitely worth it – the vast fort itself is interesting to explore and offers stunning views across the whole area. There is a small beach in the town but it can get quite crowded, so we chose to walk out of the town behind the castle in search of a more secluded spot for sunbathing and swimming. The walk takes you along a gravel track overlooking the sea which is strikingly picturesque and peaceful.
On our final evening in Nafplio we went on a coach trip to nearby Ancient Epidaurus to enjoy a theatre production of Oedipus by Sophocles (as part of the annual Athens & Epiduarus Festival). During the summer, different theatre performances take place every Friday and Saturday evenings for ten consecutive weeks, and we lucky enough to catch the very first performance of the season in mid-June. Regarded as the best-preserved ancient theatre in Greece, visiting Epidaurus to watch a classical Greek play was an incredibly special, unique experience. Constructed in white limestone, the 12,000 seat semi-circle theatre structure is set against a backdrop of rolling hills seemingly in the middle of nowhere, blending perfectly into the surrounding landscape. As it gets dark enough for then play to start it feels eerily atmospheric. A very highly recommended experience. Though if you do go to Epidaurus to watch a performance, be sure to take a cushion (only provided if you pay extra for VIP tickets) as the stone seating is not particularly comfortable for a prolonged period of time!
We stayed in Nafplio for four nights, which was just the right length of time for a town of its size (and since we didn’t have a car to explore further afield). We hired a car the day we left Nafplio to travel to our next destination and for the remaining 10 days in the Peloponnese….
Monemvasia /// Located near the southern tip of the Peloponnese, it took 3.5 hours to drive to Monemvasia from Nafplio, the longest drive of the trip. It would have been under 3 hours if we had taken the faster roads inland, but we decided to drive along the scenic coast and mountain roads to admire the views. We also wanted to stop for lunch in a small town called Leonidio, which I’d read good things about. A small, historic and pretty town located at the end of the Dafnon Gorge (the long narrow crevice that follows the Dafnon River through the mountains) Leonidio was a picturesque, relaxed spot in which to break up the journey.
Heading on from there, the road snakes inland, following the Dafnon Gorge, which during the summer months is a dry riverbed of white stones. This dramatic stretch of road – full of hairpin bends – climbs ever-steeper, overlooking sharp drops down to the gorge. This part of the drive was an experience in itself, offering spectacular views of the surrounding area and passing the historic Monastery of the Panagia Elona built high up in the mountains carved into the side of a rock cliff. We didn’t stop there ourselves although it is open for visitors. On the final leg of the journey, suddenly around a curve in the road, the tiny island and citadel of Monemvasia appears ahead, and within a few minutes you reach the modern town on the mainland, Gefira (which is separated from Monemvasia itself by a narrow causeway and bridge). You know as soon as you catch a glimpse of the giant rock rising out of sea that it is going to be very special. You have to park on the causeway and walk into Monemvasia by foot, as there are no roads beyond the castle walls of the town.
Divided into the inhabited lower town and the ruined upper town, this beautifully preserved medieval castle town built into the side of a giant rock is insanely beautiful. Except for a few small bars and restaurants and shops you wouldn’t know what century you were in. The absence of vehicles makes it delightful to explore. There’s only one small gate entrance into a labyrinth of alleyways and paths with densely packed stone houses, countless churches and lots plants and flowers cascading from walls and terraces. As you can probably imagine it’s incredibly easy to get lost, but it’s never too difficult to get back on track. Some buildings have been restored under strict archaeological guidelines, and are no less charming than the ramshackle originals. Horses and wheelbarrows transport whatever is needed about the place, which further adds to the atmosphere. Somewhat surprisingly there is a lovely, scenic swimming spot located beyond the south wall of the lower town which is perfect for cooling off, albeit very small and rocky.
The climb up to the upper town is worth it for the views alone, but there are also acres of interesting ruins, including remains of Byzantine houses and public buildings. The landscape itself is unreal, with remnants of an old citadel and fortress amongst the shrubbery. And weirdly lots of spiders in cobwebs between the trees! But don’t let that put you off… every single which way you look from the top is mind-boggling stunning, either looking to the mainland or out to sea. In the inhabited lower town you obviously see a number of other tourists (though it was hardly busy at all in June), but up on the top there was barely a soul. I’ve since read that there is a horror film set in Monemvasia called The Wind (released in the 80s) which I’m now keen to watch. I can imagine it can be a very eerie place in winter when there’s literally no one around. It’s supposed to be an easy drive from Monemvasia to the most southerly tip of the Peloponnese, where you will find lovely beaches along with a ferry service to the islet of Elafonisoss. But we didn’t use the car once whilst in Monemvasia as we didn’t want to miss a second exploring the mesmerising castle town.
Gythio /// Our next destination was close to the town of Gythio, located in the north east of The Mani Peninsular and the south western corner of the Peloponnese, and just an hour’s drive from Monemvasia. Once Sparta’s ancient port, Gythio is now a low-key town and ever so slightly rundown. That said, it’s neoclassical buildings are very pretty in a crumbling, shabby chic sort of way, and it has a friendly, relaxed energy. There is a wide selection of cafes, bars and restaurants along the harbour front, which is a lovely spot for an evening stroll. Full of locals going about their daily lives, Gythio doesn’t feel particularly touristy, but rather an authentic working port town.
We stayed in an apartment located a mile or so out of the town itself, in a small village called Mavrovouni. The village is built on top of the hill above the famous Mavrovouni Beach, a vast sandy beach which stretches for over 5 km. Strangely enough, we didn’t spend any time at all on this beach. Our apartment had incredible views across the bay of Laconia from the balcony, as well as access to a private swimming spot, so we mainly hung out there during the day and ventured into Gythio to eat in the evening. On one afternoon, we drove to a small port village called Limeni on the western side of the Mani peninsular, which had been recommended to us by a waitress we met in a restaurant in Monemvasia. Set against dramatic, rugged hills, Limeni is beautifully picturesque, with breath-taking views, sparkling blue seawater and old stone houses. Although it’s a tiny place, there appeared to be a number of nice bars and restaurants so it could easily make a nice base for a few days.
Kardamyli /// The final stop on our tour of the Peloponnese was a coastal village called Kardamyli, located in an area known as the ‘Outer Mani’. To reach Kardamyli from Gythio took 1.5 hours by car along windy roads and rugged coastline. Kardamyli is incredibly picturesque in a low-key, bohemian sort of way. Nestled in a beautiful spot between the sea and the mountains, it is essentially a classic idyllic coastal village in rural Greece. We stayed in an apartment just south of the main ‘centre’, in a small, modern block just off the main road into the town. Although set a fair distance back from the coast, our first floor apartment was high enough to look out over the sea, mountains and endless olive groves. For a village of its size, there are plenty of very decent cafes, bars and restaurants to head to. Yet despite its outstanding natural beauty, the village does not appear to have been adversely affected by tourism. It’s friendly and stylish, but thankfully not overly touristy.
Kardamyli is a popular base for walkers who head into the Taygetus Mountains via the Vyros Gorge which plunges down from the peak of Taygetus to the sea in Kardamyli. We spent a few hours walking up into the hills ourselves, which was well worth the effort. At the start of the walk you pass through ‘Old Kardalmyli’, a partly restored citadel of 19th century houses, before proceeding on a mixture of paths and tracks up through the valley. The views of the sea and the surrounding hills as you ascend above the town are beyond beautiful. We were kind of winging it, stupidly relying on Google maps on our phones rather than an ordnance survey map (which I believe you can easily purchase in shops in the village). After walking up the valley for a couple of hours we reached a road connecting to a small village which we could see on Google maps, knowing from there that we needed to start heading back down the gorge. Yet, we somehow still managed to get a little lost for a while! After briefly contemplating trying to find the main road to head back down via that route (!) we double backed on ourselves to eventually locate the walking route back down the Vyros Gorge. We descended via the gorge itself, which in summer is a dry riverbed of large smooth stones surrounded by various plants and trees, and (thankfully) surprisingly easy to walk on!
Kardamyli is also where you can see the Leigh Fermor House – the beautiful, inspiring home which belonged to Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was a travel writer who travelled in and wrote extensively about Greece, amongst other places. His book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) covers his journey around the Mani peninsula with wife Joan and friend Xan Fielding. In the 1960s, Fermor and his wife Joan chose to build a home in Kardamyli, designed alongside local architect Nikos Hatzimichalis. In 1996, they donated their house to the Benaki Museum, with the expressed desire that the house would remain open to the public and host researchers looking for a quiet and hospitable place to work. Overlooking the beautiful beach of Kalamitsi, the stone villa occupies three separate buildings set within an olive grove and surrounded by wildflowers, cypress and pistachio trees. I read Fermor’s first book The Time of Gifts (1977), a memoir of the first part of his journey on foot across Europe in the early 1930s, as I travelled through Eastern Europe in 2001. Knowing Fermor’s house was in Kardamyli and open for visitors, I was really looking forward to seeing the property – which I had learned was in part inspired by Fermor’s travels. I was devastated to discover that the house was being renovated when we were in Kardamyli and temporarily closed for visitors, so unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to see inside. Alas, we walked past the perimeter of the property as we headed to the beach, and from what I could see it looked divine. I managed to take a picture from the outside (below), but I will need to wait for our next trip to the Peloponnese look inside…
Read about our stay in Athens – Visit: Athens.
All images © 2020 Tamsin Brooke-Smith