The three-pronged ‘island of Pelops’, the mythical chariot-racing king, was not an island until the 1890’s, when the narrow isthmus at Corinth was finally severed by a shipping canal. Most people still consider it part of the mainland. But it is culturally and scenically very distinct – and very rich.
It boasts a spectacular concentration of ancient sites, including royal Mycenae (home of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra et al), therapeutic Epidavros (whose wonderfully preserved theatre still hosts classical tragedies) and athletic Olympia (where the Olympic games were founded). Less known but equally fascinating are the many Byzantine cities, churches and fortresses, including the hilltown of Mystras and the sea-rock of Monemvasia, where time has apparently stood still since the Crusaders left. The rugged Mani peninsula, central of the three ‘fingers’, positively bristles with towers, castles and frescoed chapels built in defiance of the Turks - and various other passing enemies - during the Ottoman era. If you fancy something more civilised, check out the elegant seaside town of Nafplion, with its narrow alleys, tiled houses, twin castles and frequent festivals - it's a perfect base for the sites of the Argolid peninsula (the 'thumb').
The Peloponnese also has its fair share of natural wonders. The southerly mountain range of Taygetus offers breathtaking gorges, spring flowers, jagged 8000-foot peaks and well-maintained mulepaths to link them. Kardamyli is a perfect base for exploring its foothills. Some of Greece’s finest beaches can be found on the western finger around Pilos, or along the pine-shaded sands that line the west coast. The northerly ranges around Kalavrita conceal historic monasteries, fir forests, lakes and a jaw-dropping rack-and-pinion railway route. This is the ancient Greeks’ Arcadia, and you can see why.
So if you're after one part of Greece with a bit of everything, and no tourist hordes, this is the place. But you’ll need plenty of time - even 2 weeks will only scratch the surface. Our editor-in-chief Michael Cullen has been coming here for 25 years, doing everything from hiking tours to family holidays and guidebook research, and he still has a few more secret corners to explore. Watch this space...
The Peloponnese's middle fingertip is an austerely beautiful peninsula, with silvery olive groves lining the west coast and rocky mountains plunging dramatically into the sea on the east. It was once inhabited by feuding families and self-proclaimed rebels, and bristled with the stone towers they constructed in order to achieve local supremacy. With little to live off besides olives, prickly pears and sea-salt, it is no surprise they hired themselves out as travelling mercenaries.
Now, small-scale tourism has reached this hinterland, and some of the impressively fortified villages have been made over into guesthouses, including Citta dei Nicliani in Kita (read our review) and the southerly hamlet of Vathia (pictured; the guesthouse is currently closed).
Near Areopolis, don't miss the spectacular sea-caves of Pirgos Dirou, a succession of chambers dripping with stalactites, through which a boatmen ferries you in a shallow punt in scenes reminiscent of mythical Hades (the underworld).
1. Odigitria chapel: of the many frescoed Byzantine churches dotted about the Mani's olive groves, this is the most dramatic of all, built against a cliff overlooking the sea near Stavri. It's only accessible on foot, from a track forking left below the tiny tower-hamlet of Agia Kyriaki, which then dwindles to a path twisting down a steep band of rock. The paintings of archangels and gruesome Biblical scenes are wonderfully brought to life by Peter Greenhalgh in his book "Deep Into Mani" - if you can get hold of a copy.
2. Cape Tainaron: from Vathia and Porto Kagio, the small road ends at Tainaron, where once a bustling Laconian town stood. You can still make out sections of mosaic floor, temple fragments and deep water cisterns. Surrounded by bright turquoise inlets and sun-yellowed thistle fields, it's an elemental, almost lunar spot. Follow the footpath to the lighthouse - the most southerly point in the Balkans.
3. Ancient Aigila ("Kionia"): hidden high among barren hills on an oak-shaded terrace, the scattered ruins of this ancient temple are perhaps not as impressive as the view, over plunging slopes to the deep blue of the Mani's eastern seaboard. Walk up from Nyfi, via the half-forgotten nunnery of Panagia Krounou; or drive up the steep track from Kokkala via Pachianika.
Photo credit: Kornelius Hug, www.odyssia15.gr
Most of the Mani's coast is stony (which keeps the water clear and the crowds away). But there are 3 sandy beaches which children of all ages will love, so long as you bring plenty of drinks and sunscreen!
1. Kalogria, Stoupa (pictured): the best of the beaches in this mini-resort near Kardamyli, with soft sand, parasols for hire, and a taverna at its edge. Underwater springs keep the water crystal clear - and a few degrees colder than elsewhere.
2. Neo Itilo beach : midway between Itilo and Areopolis, where the Outer and Deep Mani meet, is this protected, sandy beach, lined with plenty of cafes and hotels.
3. Marmari beach: a pair of sandy crescents beneath the tiny hamlet of Marmari, near the tip of Cape Tainaron. Not many amenities, though there is a seasonal taverna in the village.
I defy anyone to eat at these 3 tavernas and not be converted to Greek food...
1. Lela's Taverna (waterfront, near the harbour): it's every guidebook's "secret tip", but this laid-back seafront eatery, run now by the grandson of Leigh Fermor's former housekeeper Lela, is worth reiterating here. Enjoy fresh-grilled catch of the day (maybe mullet, bream, pandora), a creamy and authentic moussaka, artichokes or wild greens, oregano-dusted tomato-feta-cucumber salads - and orange sunsets over the Messinian Gulf.
2. Elies (Ritsa beach): 15 mins' walk north along the seafront brings you to this simple but popular lunch spot tucked among olive groves next to the pebbly beach. Kiki and Stavros have welcomed illustrious Greek artists and politicians, but their recipes remain simple and unfancified: spicy meatballs, butter beans, seasonal salads. Closed evenings outside summer; read our review.
3. Spitiko Manis (Prosilio village): a couple of km up the road towards Kalamata, this is the kind of place where there's no written menu, and you may be the only non-Greeks. But Chris and Maria will welcome you with a verbal rundown of whatever's cooking - pork souvlaki, tender lamb chops, delicious stifado - and ply you with excellent local wines. The price is delightfully untouristy, too.
The landscapes above Kardamyli combine olive and cypress groves, timeless stone villages, Ottoman mulepaths, glorious coastal hikes and, looming above them all, the fir forests and snow-dusted 8000-foot peaks of Mt. Taygetus. It's a magical mixture which, thanks to Anavasi's 1:25,000 maps and the Sunflower "Southern Peloponnese" guidebook, you can easily explore at your own pace (full disclosure: the latter is written by our own Michael Cullen). Here are 3 appetite-whetters:
1. Sotirianika - Kambos - Kardamyli (5-6 hours): a wonderful day hike combining paved mulepaths (pictured), a hidden Mycenean beehive tomb, frescoed chapels, a crumbling castle (Zarnatas) and uplifting sea views.
2. Kardamyli - Petrovouni - Proastio - Foneas cove (3 hours): a shorter walk, passing 2 sleepy villages and shimmering olive groves, before dropping to a pirate-like cove for a swim.
3. Viros gorge (3-6 hours): this white-bouldered canyon rarely flows with water, making it a spectacular - if slightly knee-jarring - hike, past 2 silent monasteries and 300-metre limestone cliffs stained orange and purple. Start from Kardamyli and hike as far up it as time and energy allow.
The Unesco-listed medieval hilltown of Mystras is justifiably famous for its frescoed churches, Frankish fortress, Byzantine palaces and stunning views over the valley of Sparta. But if you want to find a chapel of stunning natural beauty and meditative silence, head 2km down the road to Parori and, just south of the plane tree and fountains, walk west up a track, which soon becomes a path. Forking right after 10 mins brings you to Panagia Langadiotissa (Virgin Mary of the Gorge), a tiny whitewashed chapel built inside a tall cave, where the only sounds are goat bells and dripping stalactites. Return to the fork and continue uphill, along a water conduit, for vertiginous views over the ravine (pictured). No map needed.
If you're visiting Mystras or Sparta and fancy some rustic-chic cuisine nearby, here are 3 options to whet your appetite:
1. Chromata, Pikoulianika (pictured): a couple of miles up the hill is this theatrically decorated stone bolthole, serving creative Mediterranean cuisine on a terrace with amazing views down onto the plain. Expect colourful salads, mushroom risotto, local cheeses, and good house wine.
2. Ktima Skreka, Mystras: traditional Greek family-run taverna halfway up the Mystras hill road, with delicious tiropitakia (cheese pies), horiatiki (Greek salads), Cretan dakos (rusk, tomato and rocket salad), homemade burgers, perhaps even braised rabbit in wine sauce.
3. Keramos, Parori: 2 km south of Mystras, opening onto a pretty square with outdoor tables by a huge plane tree and gushing springs - a great place to try fresh-grilled trout or local lamb chops.
The charming harbour town of Nafplio (or Nauplion) is a great base for exploring the sites of the ‘thumb’ of the Peloponnese, including Mycenae, Epidavros, Argos and Tiryns, as well as being a lovely place to linger for a few days in its own right. It was once - very briefly - capital of the newly-reformed republic of Greece in the 1830’s, and many of the Neoclassical mansions date from this era. Now lively tavernas, touristy shops, boutique guesthouses and museums (including a unique collection of worry-beads) line the cobbled streets of the old town.
Facing the mountains of the central Peloponnese, it sits on a small peninsula, an evening stroll around which will yield some of the most delightful sea views in Greece. Offshore is the picturesque Bourdzi, a small island-castle which once served as a prison. Crowning the hill above the city is a massive fortress in which the famous liberation hero Kolokotronis was imprisoned: take a taxi up, and afterwards descend the 500 steps back to the city. Stay a few days and you can follow a 45-minute coast path to lovely Karathona beach, taste Nemean "lion's blood" wine, or hop on a yacht for a day cruise to remote coves. Nafplio is 1.5 hours' drive from Athens, or 2+ hours by coach or train.
Nafplio is a perennially popular weekend hangout for a young Athenian crowd, which means that it has more than its fair share of outdoor cafes, fire-lit ouzeria and happenin' cocktail bars. Here are some favourites:
1. 3Sixty (pictured): in a spotlit Neoclassical mansion, this modishly decorated cafe-bar-restaurant (think Anglepoise chandeliers and long leather banquettes) boasts long cocktail lists, Adonis-like DJs and some of the most expensive coffee in town. The place to be seen.
2. Skantzochiros: on the other end of the scale is this diminutive and quirky cafe (whose name means 'hedgehog'), offering local wines, raki, coffees and crepes. A cosy winter bolthole.
3. Syntagma Square (Plateia Syntagmatos): there's no better place for people-watching than this historic cobbled piazza, with the town hall on one side and outdoor cafes lining the other 3. You would never have thought coffee and ice cream could be served in so many different ways.