Remember to pack your imagination.
Short breaks in the Peloponnese.
Get an early morning flight to Athens, pick up a car at the airport and you could be sitting in a small taverna drinking delicious Nemean red with fresh red mullet by lunch time. Since the building of the new motorway to Elefsina the Peloponnese are far more accessible for short breaks. It`s an hour of slog down the new toll road, with fine views of oil refineries, but once you speed across the Corinth canal, you feel the landscape change. There`s a wildness in the layers of mountains rolling into the distance. Birds of prey circle high in the air, monasteries cling to crags, the land of the Gods beckons you.
As the motorway bears left towards Tripoli, towering above you the walls of Ancient Corinth cling perilously to the cliff face. If you are not in a hurry this makes a good first stop and lunch break. The views from Ancient Corinth are a spectacular 360 degrees, at many times of the year snow clad mountains can be seen on the horizon, whilst large vessels ply their way across the Gulf to enter the canal.
As with many of the ancient sites the atmosphere is in what you imagine. The scale of Corinth and its location make you marvel at the engineering and sheer will power to build it like an eagle`s eerie dominating the landscape. Most of what you can see today are the remains of the Roman city built by Caesar, on the eastern peak is the Temple to Armed Aphrodite, where a 1000 sacred prostitutes were housed. Lais one of the most favoured was famous for her breasts. Artists vied to paint them "she was more glittering than the clear water spring of Peirene" one contemporary poet wrote.To wash down this excitement of memory there are a number of cheap and cheerful taverns in the small town of Ancient Corinth with terrace views to the sea.
Next stop on the archaological tour must be Mycenae. The citadel is astounding. The average weight of each of the massive stones in the huge wall, is 6 tons, 15 ft thick and 50 ft high mythology tells us they were carried by the giant Cyclops.We stayed in Room 3 at the Belle Helene, as much to boast that we had slept in the bed of the famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, than for comfort. The appropriately named Aegammenon, the owner`s son, proudly showed photos and signatures of other visitors, including Virginia Woolf and Henry Moore. It`s a spartan place, bare boards and lumpy mattresses but full of character. For a more comfortable stay and a pool, La Petite Planete, is recommended, ask for rooms with views of the ruins, magical at night.
Naplio just an hour away is a good base from which to explore. The capital of Greece until it moved to Athens in 1824, it is still a thriving town with plenty to occupy you. Shops and restaurants line the lively harbour, and neoclassical architecture graces the back streets. In the centre of the old town you can find the delightful Hotel Byron, a 19c mansion recommended in Jacoline Vinke`s excellent book, Great Small Hotels In Greece. Not cheap, but its elegance and authenticity are worth the expense.
If, however, it is romance you are looking for, then Monemvasia is the place to head. Perhaps, not in the height of summer, but off season when it has a haunting mystery. Mont St Michel without the tourist tat. Often these rock fortresses can be austere places but the honey coloured stone and red tiled roofs give Monemvasia a warmth and glow in the late afternoon sun. It entices you to while away hours over a game of tavli and fresh orange juice on one of the lovely cafe terraces. It is easy to imagine the small harbour, reached through a hole in the wall, full of Venetian schooners, or the noise and bustle of barter in the medieval streets. Nothing much has changed you feel since Keats wrote,"Charm`d magic casements, opening on the foam - Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn". At night the place bursts into life with trendy but tasteful little bars, you can stay on the mainland but we opted for the medieval Hotel Byzantino. Every room is individual and are scattered in various village houses. Make your choice between ones with balconies overlooking the rooftops to the the sea or like ours in a secret inner courtyard.
Continue round the coast and you will reach the island of Elafonisos, which many regard as the best beach in the Mediterranean, pure white sand and a sea reminiscent of the Far East or Caribbean, clear and translucent. It`s importance as wetlands for birdlife has protected it from tourist development but as in all Greece simple but adequate rooms can be found in the small villages. Such beauty inevitably has its price though, the abundance of wetlands also brings an abundance of mosquitoes. Bring some spray.
Each finger of the Peloponnese has a different character. The mystical Mani with its remote mountains and dark forbidding gorges has a wild charm . Windswept and austere, you feel that you are being spied on by the spirits of the past. The towered villages perched on their rock pinacles are often deserted now, but a few are being carefully restored. Stoupa the one place where package tourism has had an impact is best avoided in the summer but the rest of the Mani remains inaccessible, with small mountain roads cutting through gorges and eagles soaring overhead.They say there are more wild herbs to be found here than anywhere else in Greece. It is a land of potions and magic, not surprising that the,"gate to Hades" is reputed to be here. A place where those of us with evil blue eyes are spat at by old ladies in black. A place which Patrick Leigh Fermor describes as, "a dead planetary place, a habitat for dragons". For those wanting the River Styx experience, the thirty minute punt through the caves at Dirou is eerie and magical, better than any ride at Alton Towers, although it is a tourist destination and it is best to avoid weekends in summer. Accommodation like the place tends to be on bare side but you can stay in in a cave like room on a small beach at Marmari or in a traditional Mani tower, as in the beautifully restored Guesthouse Londas in Aeropoli.
The final finger is my favourite, Messinia. Bedecked by endless olive groves, it is a land of fruit and plenty. As Euripedes wrote. "While o`er Messinia`s beauteous land, Wide watering streams their arms expand, Of nature`s gifts profuse.". At its tip lies the two protected villages of Methoni and Koroni, "the eyes of Venice". Each has wonderful unspoilt beaches and castles, Koroni boasts the better Venetian architecture and is a bustling town full of harbourside fish tavernas and a maze of steep alleyways winding through colourfully painted houses, but Methoni has the more impressive castle. North of Methoni is Pylos, famous for the Battle of Navarino and its castle on an island off shore. The town has a genteel, cosmopolitan air, still untouched by the tourism that has developed Naplio. It`s central square full of huge plane trees would not be out of place in Provence. Further round the coast is the perfect crescent bay of Voudokilia, with yet another castle perched high above it. In the height of summer it gets busy with camper vans and scantily clad Scandinvian sunseekers but even in August you will still find a quiet spot. The water is emerald clear, it`s a great place to snorkel and to play at castaways. A small sandbanked causeway links it to the Gialova lagoon, the only home in Europe of the African chameleon and some 245 species of birds have been sighted here. Wonderful in spring and autumn.
But for me the place to visit is Mystra, the great Byzantine ghost town, built in the 13c and known as the "Florence of the East". Once home to 40,000 people now it tumbles down a the edge of the Taiyetos mountains. It would take a day to do the ruins justice, but it`s a city of frescoed churches, all the more atmospheric for being shared with bats and wasps nests. Overgrown, romantic, every path leading through abundant wild flowers to another hidden ruin, backdropped by views of mountains and winding valleys. It is not surprising it appealed to Byron.
Mystra is a metaphor for the Peloponnese, there is still a feeling that you are in one of the few undiscovered places in Europe, rich in its layers of history yet stunningly beautiful. Once off the main roads every track leads you to a surprise: a charming village taverna, a stunning view across mountains to the sea, a small undiscovered cove. There is always good food at the journey`s end: pork in celery, rich lamb in red wine and tomatoes, beef stew with shallots. Road side takeaways of roasted pork, small vineyards producing agioritiko (argued to be one of the oldest grape varieties in the world), barrels of thick green Kalamata olive oil. Much to try and taste.
It`s a place to return to time and again, to explore and savour slowly like a good love affair. You will not unwrap all her secrets at once but in just a few days you will be entranced by her beauty. From the dark caves and hidden gullies of the Mani to the lush fertility of Messinia. From the verdant and aptly named Arcadia to the towering Taiyetos mountains.This is a land of myths and mysteries, remember to pack your imagination.