Off The Beaten Path in Greece Part 1
When most tourists (especially first-timers) think of visiting Greece, they think of Athens and ithe Acropolis, the Islands, and the food. But what do you do when you've been here more than once and you want to venture away from the mass-marketed tourist traps? The mainland is far more than Athens and her ruins, and the Peloponnesian Peninsula is more than just a day trip to Olympia and the resorts of Nafplio. Let me, the Travel Genius, introduce you to the rest of this amazing country.
Most people enter the country on one of the dozens of flights into Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens, which is fine and great, it's a gorgeous and beautifully efficient airport (and not too large to make it a pain to get from your arrival flight to customs and out the doors) and a worthy successor to the obsolete, but classic, Ellenikon Airport of yesteryear. Once you clear customs, you've got the whole country to play with, but where to start? Well, that all depends on what you want to do. I won't cover the entire country in this post, instead, I'll break it up into several articles, to make it easier for my fans, followers, and clients to digest and plan their trip to the Cradle of Civilization.
Let's start from the bottom of Greece, the Peloponnesian Peninsula and work our way up. In this article, I'll cover the Peninsula, another on Central Greece south of Thessaly, and skip Attica, as that deserves an entire article on it's own, considering it covers Athens and its environs. Then we'll cover Thessaly, Epirus, and West Greece in another article, finishing up two more articles on Macedonia (Northern Greece) and Thrace, with the final article on lesser known, but stellar islands (including Cyprus). So, without further ado...here we go!
I covered the capital of Laconia, Sparta, in my previous article on this site ( https://www.georgethetravelgenius.com/post/ancient-modernity-this-is-sparta ), so I won't delve into it anymore than I already have, save for one spot, the ruins of Ancient Sparta, situated just North of the current city. There's not a whole lot there, but it is definitely worth seeing, as Ancient Sparta was a powerhouse entity in it's day, and, mythology aside, many of it's traditions still upheld and valued by governments, militaries, and entire nations the world over.
My next stop in Laconia is the seaside town of Gythio, 43 kilometers (about 27 miles) South of Sparta. I recently spent an entire week here, and it's still pretty much a locals getaway, not quite as set up for foreigners as say, Glyfada, or the islands are, but there are plenty of options for accomodations, from motels to 3 star hotels, to airbnb options for longer stays or for those traveling with a larger party or family. As much as I don't trust airbnb or recommend them, I did stay in an apartment listed on airbnb less than a block from the seaside, and it was a fantastic place, despite the massive climb up to the third floor, with no elevator (normally, it wouldn't be much of a problem, but there were 4 of us, one with a walker, and 8 huge suitcases and almost the same amount of carry-ons). Gythio is more than just a seaside beach lover's hideaway, in ancient times it was a strategic port and where, according to mythology, Paris of Troy and Helen of Sparta spent their first night together, thereby kicking off the Trojan War. There's a ton of history here, and some of the freshest and best prepared seafood I've ever had anywhere in Greece.
Next on the trip through Laconia is the Caves of Diros. I've been here twice in my lifetime, and this last time the trip through the caves took a bit longer, as more passageways have been excavated since my first time back in 1992. The area around the caves were some of the earliest known inhabited sites in Laconia, dating back to the 4th Millennium BC. Entry to the caves is not free, it costs about 15 Euro, and is a hell of a great deal. The ride through the caves with tour guide is worth the fee, and more. Some of the older guides were on the archaeological teams that did the original excavations in the 1970's - 1990's. The information they dole out is amazing and it's a trip you will NEVER forget. Trust me on this.
Heading West from Laconia you end up in Messinia, with it's largest city, Kalamata. I've picked three must-see places in the prefecture, so if I'm missing anything that any of my fans, followers, or clients have been to and felt I should've added, please let me know!
First up is the Palace of Nestor, one of the best preserved palaces dating back to Mycenaen times. Also, if you've read Homer's Odyssey, this was the palace described as Nestor's Kingdom in the hills of sandy Pylos (Pylos being the city occupying the Southern tip of the Navarino Coast, as it is called now). Here you will find excavations and artifacts dating back to 1300 B.C. It is well worth the visit, especially if you are staying at one of the resorts in Costa Navarino, rapidly becoming one of Greece's must-stay sun-worshipping destinations.
Which leads us to the next spot, the Costa Navarino. What was once a sleepy little coastline where only the super rich jet-setters frolicked their summers away, has grown into one of the top destinations in Greece for foreign sun-worshippers to flock to. Aside from the beaches, this corner of Greece is steeped in history and folklore, one of the tales being this is where souvlaki (Greek skewered meat) was first made, and how Messinian villages used to mask roasting lambs by placing a suckling pig on a spit directly in front of the roasting lamb, thereby fooling the Ottoman overlords to believe they were only cooking pork, and other such lore. This is also the place to go if you're on a wellness or health getaway. Quite a few Europeans spend weeklong holidays here biking, hiking, beach and elsewhere yoga, and other wellness activites. Spas and fitness centers abound at all the resorts around the coast.
Moving along, further South we come to the city of Kalamata, the capital of Messinia, and 2nd largest city in the Peloponnese. This is the home to that ever-popular Festival dance, the Kalamatianos, and those delicious and world renown Kalamata olives. Aside from that, Kalamata is known and visited for the Kalamata International Dance Festival, the Port and marina of Kalamata, the largest port in the Peloponnese, the Maria Callas Museum (my all time favrotie Opera Diva), Kalamata Castle, and the Railway Museum of Kalamata, home to some of the largest gatherings of railroad spotters and enthusiasts in Europe.
Moving to the center of the Peloponnese, we enter the prefecture of Arcadia, home to its capital, Tripoli, and from Greek Mythology, home to the God Pan. During the time of the European Renaissance, Arcadia was celebrated in art and folklore as harmonious and unspoiled wilderness (it still has some of the best forests and greenery in all of Greece). Arcadia doesn't have too much to offer outside of Tripoli and the coastline, but, there are campgrounds and hiking trails throughout the prefecture, which lives up to it's historic moniker of unspoiled wilderness. Some of the best rafting can be had in the Lousios River, if that's your thing, If you end up visiting the monks at the Prodromos Monastery, they will treat you to traditional loukoumia (english speakers know this confection as "Turkish Delight") If you're of the outdoorsy type, this is THE place to go in the Peloponnese, you simply will not go wrong, and you'll never forget the adventure.
Moving up the East Coast we come to the prefecture of Argolis and it's incredibly picturesque capital, Nafplio. Nafplio was the newly liberated Greece's capital in 1829, before the title moved back to Athens following it's liberation in 1834. When most visitors come to Nafplion, they usually visit the world renown Theatre of Epidaurus, just a half hour away, but there's more to the prefecture than that. Nafplio is an amazing town worthy of spending an entire day in and walking the streets (dont forget to duck into the narrow backstreets and alleys for some of the best bargain shopping this side of Monastiraki in Athens), and scarfing down the local ice cream from the walk-up windows in the Syntagma Square.
Next up is Epidaurus. Only a 2 hour drive from Athens, it's a must-visit, not just for its theatre, you also have the ruins and archeaology digs in and around the city, including a recently excavated gymnasium, and the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Ancient Greek God of medicine. You'll also find the surrounding areas completed covered in beautiful and picturesque orange and olive groves.
If beaches are your thing, there are some amazing hidden gems in Argolis, namely the beaches at Arvanitia, Karathona, and Neraki. These are all frequented more by locals, so the area hasn't been gentrified for tourists as much, giving you a more local and Greek feel to your sun worshipping. For booking a day trip from Athens, please get in touch with me, and I'll get you squared away and set up with some of the very best and most proficient and expert tour guides of the area.
Crossing over to the West side of the Peloponnese, we end up in the prefecture of Ilias, and it's capital of Pyrgos. It is here you will find the ruins of Ancient Olympia, the home of the Olympic games, and where the Olympic Flame is kept lit until it's time to make it's journey to the next Olympic Host City (that in itself is an event to watch or be a part of if you're in Greece during that time).
Aside from the Olympic related sites, one of the must see places is the village of Andritsaina, on the side of Mount Lykaion, just south of Pyrgos. Here you will find the Peloponnese' oldest fountain, built in 1724, as well as cobblestone streets, and ancient stone mansions dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Also, Andritsaina lays claim to Greece's largest private library, the Nikolopouleis Library, with the largest collection of rare 15th, 16th, and 17th century manuscripts, not only in Greek, but many other foreign languages, along with many important documents relating to the Greek War of Independence and from Peloponnesian folklore. The library boasts more than 40,000 volumes and is a must see for any bibliophile the world over.
Up next is Achaea, one of the most populated prefectures, with it's capital, Patras, and encircling the appropriately named Gulf of Patras. It is also the site of the only other bridge to the mainland from the Peloponnese (the Rio-Antirrio Bridge).
Most tourists come to Achaea to visit Patras and the Castle of Patras and the various museums, such as the immensely popular Archaelogical Museum, what with its very peculiar shape, and all the treasures displayed within. Also hugely popular is the Patras Carnival, held in mid-January. But enough about what the majority come to see, there's a few other things to check out in the area as well.
As I mentioned above, Achaea has the only other link to the mainland without having to go through Corinth and up into Athens. Just North of Patras is the seaside village of Rio, and from there you can head across the Rio-Antirrio Bridge to the parallel village of Antirrio, just a few kilometers Southwest of Nafpaktos. This is a far better option for those travelers who are road tripping throughout the country and are maing their way North to places like Messolonghi, Preveza, Arta, or Ioannina.
Another place to see in Achaea is the Museum of the Kalavryta Holocaust, in Kalavryta, chronicling the massacre and complete annihilation of Kalavryta in 1943 by occupying German troops, in retaliation for Greek guerrila fighters capturing and killing 78 German soldiers. A very solemn place, it chronicles everything about the massacre.
Another very famous, and still somewhat off the beaten path place to visit is the Achaea Clauss Winery. This is the home of the incredibly popular (and gaining more popularity here in the U.S.) Mavrodaphne wine, a very sweet, and VERY dark wine (one of my favorites of Greek wine) with hints of carmel, chocolate, raisins, and plums. Space is very limited at the winery, and reservations must be made well in advance, so when you're ready to book your trip to Greece, let me know you'd like to visit the winery and I can get you a reservation set up.
Back to Kalavryta, and the Agia Lavra Monastery. This place is sacred to most every Greek around the world, as not only is it holy ground, it is also where the battle cry for freedom against the Turkish Occupation of Greece first rang out on March 25, 1821 that kicked off the Greek War of Independence which eventually led to the Ottoman Empire's defeat and withdrawl from Greek land. There are quite a few artifacts in the monastary's museum, well worth the visit, and on the hill opposite the monastary is the monument to the Heroes of 1821.
Last, but most definitely not least in my view on the Peloponnese is the prefecture of Corinthia, and the largest and busiest access point from the mainland due to it's proximity to Athens. Of course, there's the Canal that everyone wants to see, but what else is there? Let's take a look...
No trip here would be complete without a trip to Ancient Corinth and Akrocorinth. In Ancient Times, Corinth was one of the most powerful cities around, until it came under Roman rule in 146 BC. It is here you will find roman-era ruins and archaeological finds, including the Doric Temple of Apollo, built in 540 BC. Akrocorinth is an ancient fortified hillside just South of Ancient Cornith, home to the Temple of Aphrodite, which was ransacked and converted to a mosque by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th Century. The Corinth Archaeological Museum has artifacts from both sites.
The other place in Corinthia worth visiting and spending a day or two at is Loutraki, a seaside village overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. There are resorts aplenty to pick from here, and is a summer haven for Greeks and Eastern Europeans alike. Here there is also the Loutraki Spa, natural thermal springs that have beeen known to alleviate many an ailment. The best time to avoid places like Loutraki and other, heavier tourist spots are June through August, while the best times to visit are from late March to early June, and from September through December.
Well, that's my look at some lesser known, but very visit-worthy places in the Peloponnese Peninsula. I know I havent covered them all, so if you know of any, please drop me a line and let me know, I'd like to check them out too! My next article will be on Prefectures of Central Greece, covering the area South of Thessaly. Stay tuned for it.
For booking information, or to start planning your trip, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or hit me up on social media, and I'll be glad to get you on your way.
**All photos my own except where credited**