Our odyssey into the ancient heart of Greece – the Peloponnese region – felt like a journey into its soul. On the map, the area looks like a ‘hand’ and it comprises of four main peninsulas that offer archaeological sites, quaint towns, splendid hillsides and beautiful beaches. You are spoilt for choice here, and the only way to truly immerse yourself is to hire a car and start exploring.
We began with a stop at the Corinth canal, an easy hour’s drive from Athens. This deeply carved out canal separates the Peloponnese from the mainland, technically making it an island, and has to be seen to be believed, especially when a ship is being pulled through it by a tug boat. Foodwise, expect snacky refreshment stops only, although we did pick up a pretty tasty tiropita (cheese pie) from the service station.
After visiting the amphitheatre at Epidaurus, we stayed in the pretty seaport town of Nafplio, which is actually part of the Argolid Peninsula. The thing to do here walk down the rocky hill on the South of town to Arvanitia Beach and get a spot at either the Blublanc Beach Bar that juts out into the Aegean. It’s beach bar food, club sandwiches, wraps, salads and drinks, all served under the shade of your umbrella while you get on with the business of sunbathing. Oh and yes, you get WiFi.
The town square is lined with tavernas and cafes, but for something more regional, Pidalio Tavern serves fresh caught fish and local specialities. Great boutique accommodation at Grand Sarai.
Driving South along the second peninsula – Cape Malea – towards Monemvasia, after 1 1/2 hours, Leonidio is a perfect rest stop. Sit on the pebbled beach and watch the boats over an ice cold fruit smoothie, then pick a local taverna like Taverna Tou Psara (Taverna Of the Fisherman), often a family run affair, to enjoy the catch of the day by the sea – we had delicious calamari. They are known for their delicious Melintzanoslata (eggplant dip) which is chunky and flavoured with garlic, parsley and capsicum so make sure you order some for starters.
The grounds of the Kinsterna Hotel in Monemvasia are reminiscent of Italy, but with an ocean view. The hotel and spa boasts its own orchard, olive groves and stables with buildings that date back to the 16th Century. Sitting outdoors on a balmy summer evening in their signature Sterna restaurant is just magic, and their al fresco Taverna with wood fired grill serves a family style shared meal in the evenings, a couple of times a week. The breakfast buffet is also something to behold with locally produced creamy Greek yogurt, floral scented honey, local bakery goods and traditional pittes. It’s a sustaining start to the day if you plan to climb the Kastro of Monemvasia, a medieval Byzantine fortress that dates back to 530AD and has survived many a barbarian attack in its history. A must see spot!
After the climb, sit back and enjoy some home style meze at the Akrogiali Monemvasia Tavern across the port. Very good stuffed zucchini flowers!
Do not miss out on a morning or afternoon on Elafonisos Island, that boasts the best beach in Greece – Simos Beach. You get there by ferry boat and after your beach activities, the Spiros Spiridoula psarotaverna (fish tavern) back at the port serves sensational seafood like prawns saganaki and fried baby red mullets. Add a Greek salad and some hand cut chips and really, you need nothing else.
In Greece, you will find yourself meandering, looking for places to eat. Spotting a good taverna is an art! I look for a few things…if I feel like seafood, which is often the case here, I look for a seafood tavern that has fresh fish on display but always ask what came in today. You want a family run place, and if their name is on the door, that’s a good sign. We try and avoid anywhere that has garish photos of the food on a sandwich board out the front. And the best indication is, are there Greeks eating there? Not just tourists.
The third peninsula of the Peloponnese is Mani and down south the road leads to Gerolimenas, the ‘holy harbour’. The dwellings here are all made of stonework and the rugged coastline and bloody history of the region reflects in the stoic character of the Maniots. This is an unspoilt, largely undiscovered part of Greece that is slowly getting used to another kind of stranger in its midst…the tourist! Boutique hotels, like the historic Kyrimai, where we stayed, are popping up in picturesque coves and the local tavernas are starting to step up. The hotel has the only restaurant in town, and runs a lunchtime wood fired oven. Everything else are family run tavernas, good for a serve of home style Yemista (stuffed vegetables) or the regional specialty – pasta with prawns in an ouzo laced tomato sauce.
Touring the area will lead you Vathia, an abandoned Byzantine town – stop for a refreshment at Marmari Paradise.
Areopoli is the prettiest of the towns in the area and a perfect spot to lunch after visiting the Caves of Diros. Be sure to try the Siglino – this is the regional dish of smoked, salted preserves pork, often served with home style loukanika (sausages) and a Maniatiki Salad of potatoes, oranges and olives dolloped with a spicy cheese dip – at the Mavromihalaiko taverna – it all works together surprisingly well. There are also roadside stalls selling locally handmade, hand painted pottery to browse at and buy, and you will wish you had room in your luggage to smuggle home the cans of village olive oil, jars of honey and hand woven wares you will pass along the way.
The seaside town of Stoupa has a popular beach that is also lined with sun lounges, beach umbrellas and taverns. Take up a spot for the afternoon, to swim and sunbake between drinks and then take a table for a plate of crispy fried baby calamari and a beer. Then an easy 5km down the road it’s caffe frappe time at Aquarella at Kardamyli.
As you head back up North into olive country towards Kalamata, this region will remind you of Tuscany…but with beach! This is the land of olive groves, beekeepers and fisherman and the living is easy.
Kalamata, however, is not the mountain town you might be expecting, it is a large commercial city by the sea with an active port that services the Messinian peninsula, the fourth leg of the Peloponnese. It has a long, wide beach boulevard, lined with hotels and restaurants, and is the Summer playground for Athenians. The souvlaki joints, seaside tavernas and kafenions bustle all day during the warm months, and the centre of town offers good shopping, brunch spots and cafes. A seafood lunch at Navarino followed by an ‘ouzo nap’ is the order of the day…and then a charcoal souvlaki dinner at Ladorigani (which means ‘oil and oregano’).
A must visit, at sunset, is Kastraki Meteoro, an impressive custom built entertainment complex in the Byzantine style, embedded in the hills overlooking Kalamata. It’s a bar, nightclub, cafe and restaurant. Go for a coffee or a cocktail in early evening to see the sun go down and then stay on for nocturnal activities.
Driving down into Messinia on the way to Pylos, you can stop at Agios Andreas for a coffee before heading to Koroni to visit the Monastery and the kindly nuns who will welcome you. Please support them by buying some of their handmade wares. Then wander into town for lunch by the sea. We had great chargrilled calamari at Kagekelarios Fish Tavern.
The castle of Methoni is a must. It is easy but interesting walking out to what remains of the citadel on the edge of the sea. There is a small beach cove here for a drink or ice cream.
The town of Pylos on the Bay of Navarino has a lot to offer for a few days’ stay. It is where the Greeks, with a little help from their friends, defeated the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s. It has a friendly town centre and while the swimming around Pylos is mostly off the rocks, there are several beautiful beach destinations a short drive or boat ride away around the curve of the bay itself. You really do need to hire a small boat for the day to explore the coves or drive into the beaches. There is Voidokilia beach, Divani beach, Golden beach and picturesque Gialova, that has a tropical feel due to the palm trees! The Natura complex of the Zoe resort offers sun lounging and refreshments, and we had a very good Tzatziki and generous Cypriot pita (pork souvlaki, pork meatballs and salad in pita) at Spitiko.
In town, our favourite taverna was O Aetós that has prime position on the corner of town, looking over the water. For the sweet tooth, the Krinos Zaharoplasteio (pastry shop) has superb house made galactobureko and baklava, and I couldn’t go past the freshly made Loukoumades (greek honey fritters) and greek coffee made on a burner in the window, at Zafeirakis.
When you sink in to this part of the world, it is very hard to leave. The living is so soul satisfying, I know it will call me back very soon.