Destination

Peloponnese

Greece
The Peloponnese is a mystical wild land rich in heritage, representing the cradle of many Mediterranean peoples and cultures. Its truly diverse and wonderful landscape enchants with mountains, forests, arid rocks and lush sea coasts that hide breathtaking coves. On top of this, stunning archaeological sites and little hidden wonders make this region a paradise for explorers.
(G Da, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)
(G Da, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Due to its many gems, the Peloponnese is one of those places that takes a long time to explore. A minimum of two weeks is suggested to appreciate its tastes, scents, heritage and landscape. Thus, to support the exploration of such magic land below is a simple list of selected destinations and things worth visiting. To make things even easier, we have divided each location into historical categories so as to take you on a journey through time to discover a land still little travelled by tourists.

What to see in the Peloponnese?

Mycenean culture

  • Mycenae
  • Tiryns
  • Palace of Nestor

Classical Greece & Hellenic Period

  • Agrocorinth
  • Argos
  • Epidauros
  • Sparta
  • Temple of Apollo Epicurius
  • Olympia

Byzantine Age

  • Monemvasia
  • Mystras
  • Methoni Castle (Pylos)

The greek identity

  • Arcadian villages
  • Mani, a pirates' kingdom
  • Palamidi (Naufplio Castle)

The origins and Mycenean culture

The area of Greece and the Balkan Peninsula has been inhabited since the time of the first hominids. With the development of agriculture and the use of the first metals, developments and great migrations that have as their epicentre, the famous Fertile Crescent (in the Middle East) went on over the millennia. It is precisely this migration movement that creates in the area of the islands and mainland Greece the first concepts of civilisation. Maritime cultures began to form all over the Aegean Sea, populating the coasts and the countless islands: these were the Cycladic and then the Minoan. Their basis of livelihood was the trade of metals, ceramics, textiles, dyes, and food such as fruits, grains, oil, and wine.

Regarding the Peloponnese in particular, scientific studies recount a core civilisation dating back to the Bronze Age, which was later joined by a population probably originating from the Balkans, setting the foundation for a mighty military folk: the Achaeans.

We owe this civilisation's earliest explorations and discoveries to the German Heinrich Schliemann. In the 19th century CE, prompted by legendary tales, mythological stories and classics of ancient literature such as the Iliad and Homer's Odyssey, he ventured into these lands and uncovered an entire civilisation. Despite the rough and often invasive attempts of the time in exhuming artefacts, today, we inherit important archaeological sites and unique pieces.

The Achaeans founded Argos, Tiryns, Pylos, and especially Mycenae, the centre of their domain, which is why their culture is also known as Mycenaean. As previously mentioned, the Achaeans distinguished themselves as a people of warriors. They gave rise to Homer's legendary tales, in which their warlike nature is very much alive, making them the force behind their expansion. They, united and captained by the famous Agamemnon, conquered and subjugated populations of the Aegean, including the legendary Ilium, famously known as Troy.

Homer's writings, though mythical and legendary, offer an exciting insight on which to better understand this population's character. The Achaeans, although skilled fighters, were also farmers who based much of their identity on agriculture, trade and a deep bond to the deities that were slowly being welded into the common culture. This gave a principle of unity to the Achaean peoples and tribes, who identified themselves in a word that was the progenitor of Greece as we know it today: "Hellas."

1. Mycenae

According to legend, it was the mythical Perseus who founded this city. As tradition has it, it wandered these lands of the Argolis, and thirsty in search of water and food, it picked a mushroom (in Greek "mykes"), under which, by divine will, a spring flowed. Precisely to pay homage to this fortunate event, Perseus named the city Mykenes. Today the archaeological site offers a splendid view over the valley in a deeply enchanting atmosphere.

2. Tiryns

The historian Pausanias devoted a brief commentary to Tiryns, writing that two mules coming together could not have moved even the smallest stones of the walls. This is because Tiryns has been called "cyclopean" precisely because of the incredible boulders that form its structure. The area has been inhabited since prehistoric times. A flourishing pre-Hellenic settlement followed the small Neolithic settlement in the mid-3rd millennium BC. The first Greek inhabitants, the creators of the Mycenaean civilisation, settled in Tiryns at the beginning of the Middle Period (2000-1600 BCE). However, the city reached its most extraordinary growth during the Mycenaean period.

3. Nestor’s Palace

The ancient Pylos became the capital of one of the most influential human centres of the Mycenean civilisation and a powerful kingdom, often referred to as Nestor's kingdom. The social structure of the Mycenaeans was relatively simple and hierarchical. Each settlement had at its head a ruler called "wanax," and in this case, the famous Nestor was the founder of the city. Each palace had its area of control, and that of Pylos, extended over much of the southwestern Peloponnese. Today one can admire The Palace of Nestor, which offers a splendid image of the life and livelihood of ancient times. Thanks to walkways and elevated passages, it is possible to observe the entirety of the ancient structure and be fascinated by the organisation and beauty that the palace must have had.

Classical Greece & Hellenic Period

The Mycenaeans, or Achaeans, imposed themselves on the surrounding populations, including the thriving Minoan culture, which fell in 1400 BCE. Mycenaean expansion spread into the Aegean and westward into southern Italy, forming the first Greek-Italic colonies. To the amazement and sometimes mystery of researchers, this period of significant development is almost cut short by one particular event, presumably an invasion from the north, of an even more fierce population: the Dorians. This period, which has gone down in history as the "Hellenic Middle Ages," corresponds to the 12th century BCE and marks the decline of the Mycenaean civilisation. In fact, during these times, traces of long-distance trade were lost, written evidence (of the famous Linear B) diminishes, pastoralism took over from agriculture, and no large buildings were erected. On top of this, the Peloponnese and all of Greece was hit by a general depopulation.

This transitional period lasted a few centuries until a revival occurred throughout Greece between 900 and 800 BCE. This new flourishment also included the Peloponnese peninsula, in which the monarchy, or sovereignty that characterised the ancient periods, gave space to a new form of civilisation: the polis. From the union of towns and villages, more solid centres based on laws and new urban identities emerged, such as Argos, Corinth, and Messene. However, in the Peloponnese rose a particular and vigorous polis. Forged by the harsh and iron laws of Lycurgus, it was the time of Lakedaimon, known to this day as Sparta.

The spirit of identity under the Hellenic banner of the Polis was, in reality, more conceptual than tangible. In fact, the polis were constantly at odds with each other, often changing alliances and positions. The polis' hegemony quickly fell apart after the terrible Peloponnesian War between rivals Sparta and Athens, which drastically weakened the whole of Greece in a generic sense. This instability was so significant that the Polis could no longer be organised under a single flag and saved from outside invaders, as had previously happened with the Persian wars. Thus, all of Greece and the Peloponnese, including notorious Sparta, fell under a new power, the Macedonian one.

During the 4th century BCE, the Peloponnese became only a small province of the largest empire the known world had ever seen. Alexander the Great, at only 29 years of age, was at the head of a kingdom that stretched from Greece to India. He brought about remarkable changes and developments in various aspects, again transforming the ideals of classical Greece. Such a large empire could not endure for long, and so, with the ensuing war of Alexander's successors, the Diadochi, the empire was divided into kingdoms. The Peloponnese was under the rule of Pella, the capital of the Macedonian kingdom, one of the four formed after the split.

4. Acrocorinth

On the northern coast of the Peloponnese, right on the strait of the same name that joins the latter to the rest of Greece, stands atop a hill the acropolis of ancient and colorful Corinth. Historians describe it as a prosperous city that based much of its wealth on its commercial prowess. Thanks to the city's strategic location, Corinth benefited from the passage of goods for centuries, and it has the distinction of being the homeland of the founders of Syracuse in Italy.

Today it is possible to visit the remains of the ancient city at the base of a real lonely mountain overlooking the strait. It is advisable to climb to the top, known as Agrocorinth, the acropolis of the town located on the rocky outcrop. A unique experience awaits its visitors, where breathtaking views surround a legendary air.

5. Argos

Of Mycenaean origin, the city stands at the foot of a mountain range that closes the plain to the north and terminates in the Gulf of Naufplio to the south. Inserted along important communication routes that linked the Peloponnese to the rest of Greece, the city could rely on agricultural produce from the surrounding plain and maritime trade in nearby coastal ports. The town was the second largest city in the Peloponnese, and for this reason, it was always a bitter enemy of Sparta.

6. Epidauros

Epidauros ancient theatre (Chris ALC, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons)
Epidauros ancient theatre (Chris ALC, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons)
The theatre of Epidaurus dates back to the 4th-2nd century BCE and is one of the best preserved archaeological sites in Greece. According to ancient writings, the theatre was the work of Polikletos, a famous Hellenic architect. The monument is a perfect example of a divided structure consisting of three classical elements: orchestra, cavea, stage building. Spectators in antiquity entered the theatre through the two imposing side entrances formed by magnificent stone arches. The theatre was closely linked to the surrounding archaeological site dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine in ancient Greece. During festivals and games held in the area, celebrations and ceremonies honouring the deities took place in the theatre.

7. Sparta

Famous for devastating military might, Sparta is notable for its absence of significant archaeological remains. Although it emerged victorious in the Peloponnesian War against its all-powerful rival Athens, it has left us with very few remains today. This has an explanation. Sparta based its style on the Legislation of Lycurgus, the city's founding father. The latter had imparted an extreme sense of equality and honour (among those with citizen status) to such an extent that for centuries Spartan culture was distinguished by its brutal simplicity. In Sparta, there was no room for monumental buildings, sumptuous palaces, art, or even walls, for according to the famous Spartan saying, the city walls were the shields and spears of its men. However, this city, precisely because of its legendary past, is a destination that offers great emotions, and despite its humble appearance, it provides a magnificent location in the Eurota Valley. Among the olive trees, forests and woods of the mountains, it is possible to go on many hikes and follow beautiful walks.

8. Temple of Apollo Epicurius

In the mountainous region of Arcadia lies the well-preserved mid-to-late-5th century BC Temple of Apollo Epicurius. Although this temple is geographically remote from the major Polis of ancient Greece, it is one of the most studied ancient Greek temples because of its multitude of unusual features. It was built by Ictinus, one of the architects responsible for constructing the Parthenon and the Temple of Hephaestus near the Acropolis in Athens. According to historian Pausanias, the building was erected between 450 and 425 BCE to express gratitude to Apollo, god of the sun and health, for sparing the city from the plague raging in Greece in the late fifth century BCE. The Temple and the surrounding archaeological site of Bassae were recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. The temple structure, for conservation reasons, has been covered by a protective pavilion. Nevertheless, the visit is awe-inspiring, and entering the structure's interior, one feels a strong emotion due to the grandeur and solemnity of the temple.

9. Olympia

Aereal view of Olympia archaeological site (dronepicr, CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)
Aereal view of Olympia archaeological site (dronepicr, CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Here, between 776 BCE to 393 CE were practised the Ὀλυμπιακοὶ ἀγῶνες, the ancient term of what we call today's Olympic Games. This sporting and religious event was held every four years at the sacred site of Olympia. This site was not only a competitive space but also an important symbol under which all the polis gathered together under a common identity. The sense of belonging to greek culture was so strong that even war and fighting had to stop during the games. Many temples and buildings of the Hellenistic era still stand today, including the symbol of the Olympics, the Stadium. The Games continued through the Hellenistic period and Roman times, only to cease with the roman emperor Theodosios, who stopped the practice of ancient Greece cults, including the Olympic Games.

The Byzantine Age

Empires are known to succeed, and when one falls, another follows. So it is that after a series of significant instabilities left by the Macedonian kingdom, the expansionist power of Rome became unstoppable in Greece and the Peloponnese. The weak defences of the Greek polis could do nothing against the relentless force of the Roman legions, which conquered Greece without much effort. The Macedonian “sarissa” (spear) proved to be ineffective against the Roman “pilum” (famous javelin of legionaries), and in 146 BCE, Corinth fell, followed by the whole Peloponnese. Greece thus became a Roman province, and all Greek identities were subjected to emulation, whereby the Romans made Greek customs and traditions their own, readjusting them to their language and philosophy. As a result, religion, art, and culture remain, in some cases, precisely the same, leaving us to believe that Rome, even as an invading force, indirectly undergoes Greekification.

However, the glorious Roman empire also fell victim to its greatness, and in 476 CE, Rome fell under increasingly intense barbarian invasions. As some know, the eastern part of the Roman Empire, popularly known as the Byzantine Empire, endures with Constantinople (today's Instanbul) at its head.

Nevertheless, the Peloponnese was invaded by Slavic peoples around the 6th century CE. It was not until two centuries later that an imperial army succeeded in reasserting Byzantine powers in the area, beginning a prosperous period.

Meanwhile, crusades raged in the East, weakening the Byzantine Empire's structure. The Mediterranean thus became a hot territory, and gaining control over it was the "Serenissima" Republic of Venice, which at various times exercised its lordship over the coastal cities of the Peloponnese, including Argos, Nafplio, Patras, Lepanto, and Monemvasia. On the other hand, the hinterland was in control of the Franks, Crusader exiles.

Even today, the hills of the Peloponnese are populated with numerous medieval towers and castles. The most flourishing period of Frankish rule coincides with the reign of William II of Villehardouin (1245-1278 CE), who intensified his power in the territory through a feudal division.

10. Monemvasia

In 583 CE the first settlement was built on the rock of Monemvasia as protection for the inhabitants of the mainland. They were, in fact, under attack by Slavs and Avars who had come from the north. The city formed a retreat zone for Byzantine rule in southern Greece in later centuries and was the starting point for the reconquest of the Peloponnese. The town was also crucial in securing the sea route from Constantinople to Venice. This fortified site was considered impregnable and withstood numerous Arab sieges, and the Norman attempted conquest of 1147 CE. It is said that there was a wheat field in the citadel that-along with the numerous cisterns-was enough to feed a garrison of 30 men indefinitely. Thus the citadel was self-sufficient and represented a true fortress. Today you can walk through the ancient streets and admire houses, walls, and small churches that have incredibly survived over the centuries. The city offers magnificent views, and it is a destination not to be missed.

11. Mystras

By the end of the 14th century, most Greeks lived in Ottoman territory, and many more were under the authority of the Venetians or other Italian lords. As it attained the rank of capital of the Despotate, Mistrá attracted the attention of Byzantine intellectuals. In the mid-14th century, the theologian Demetrius Cidon, secretary, prime minister and friend of John VI, settled there and brought the texts of Thomas Aquinas to the Byzantine cultural world. At the end of the 14th century, Mistrá became a cultural capital, which today bears its traces. An evocative perched place where one can breathe history, art and culture. Curious is the community of a few Orthodox nuns who still inhabit the ancient town, living the old-fashioned way by carrying provisions by donkeys and mules up the steep, bristling medieval climbs. The castle atop the mountain crowns the visit with a breathtaking view.

12. Methoni castle

​​Built by the Venetians in the early 13 on a rocky promontory, the castle is among the largest in the Mediterranean. A 14-arch bridge connects the castle to the shore instead of the wooden bridge that stood in its place before the Venetians arrived. As a reminder of Venice's rule, the ominous lion of St. Mark still stands today. Throughout the site stand emblems, coats of arms, inscriptions, and the remains of Ottoman bathhouses. At the southern edge of the castle rises Bourtzi, a floating fortified islet that served as a prison and place of execution during the later Turkish occupation. it was built in 1500 CE and is connected to the castle's Sea Gate by a small paved road.

A greek identity

Constantinople finally fell in 1453 CE, marking the beginning of Turkish expansion. After 1460, the Peloponnese, also known as the “Morea”, was divided between the Venetians and the Turks, and this political situation, amidst ups and downs, continued in such a manner for about two centuries. After an intensification of the Turkish presence, the people of the Peloponnese, and especially from the Laconic province of Mani, began, on the mainland, the anti-Turkish revolt that led to the constitutional charter of Astros in 1823 CE. In 1825, however, an Ottoman army landed at Methoni, a fortress that remained Turkish, recovering the Morea.

The Peloponnese peninsula was the scene of fierce fighting and extensive devastation. Alternate events followed until 1829/30, when the Turks finally left these lands, making way for a Greek spirit and identity. The city of Nafplion, on the peninsula's east coast, became the first capital of the independent Greek state.

In the early 1940s, the Peloponnese served as a bridgehead for Greek and British troops to direct their military operations in Epirus, Phocis and northern Greece in general during the Greek campaign (1940-1941) initiated by the army of the Kingdom of Italy. However, following the intervention of the Wehrmacht in support of the Italians, who were in deep trouble, peninsular Greece ended up largely under German control. Greece was liberated in 1944.

13. Arcadian villages

Dimitsana, Vytina, Stemnitsa and Karytania are places to go. Entering Arcadia, the Peloponnese's wildest and most mountainous region, is a unique experience. The villages are perched on rocks between forests and mountains and enchanted with atmospheric lanes and craft shops. At Karytaina stands a castle known as the 'Toledo of Greece'. Built in the 13th century CE, it features imposing fortifications and is one of the most majestic castles in the entire Peloponnese. This castle, and these inaccessible villages, are said to have sparked the revolution that saw the subsequent expansion throughout the Peloponnese and Greece, driving out the invading Turks. From here, visitors can enjoy fantastic sights, such as the legendary little church Agia Theodora shrouded in mystery. Moreover, due to the beautiful surrounding mountains, these villages represent a great sporting gateway, with many hiking end excursion options.

14. Mani, a pirates' kingdom

Ever since ancient Greece, there has been a wilderness in the region that has not suffered the invasions of conquering peoples. This land is the Mani, the peninsula that forms the continuation of the Taïgetos mountain range, the central spine of the Peloponnese. It stretches between the Gulf of Laconia to the east and the Gulf of Messinia to the west. Human settlements on the peninsula are scattered in tiny and isolated villages, the most important of which is historically Areopolis, traditionally considered the capital of Mani. However, the most populous settlement today is Gytheio, the region's main port. The community settled there is called Maniots (Mανιάτες, Maniátes, in Greek) and is known for a long history of proud autonomy and strong attachment to Spartan culture and ancient Greek culture in general. Part of traditional Maniote culture involved piracy. The Maniots were famous and feared pirates whose ships ruled the coasts of the southern Peloponnese. The origins of the vocation for piracy can be traced back to the poverty of the land's natural resources. Today, one can observe the ancient villages, sometimes still inhabited, characterised by tower-houses that formed complex structures. Each family built its tower to protect from the savage feuds. Over the centuries, none of the 'occupying powers' succeeded in subduing the Maniots: they always remained free, wild, unpredictable and in perpetual dispute with each other.

15. Palamidi (Nafplio Castle)

Located on the crest of over 200 metre high hill, the fortress was built by the Venetians during their second occupation of the area (1686-1715 CE). The fortress was an extensive and ambitious project but was finished in a relatively short period. It is a typical Baroque fortress based on the plans of the engineers Giaxich and Lasalle. It was used to defend the Kingdom of Morea (ancient name of Peloponnese) during the war between the Ottomans and Venetians in the Seventh Turkish-Venetian War. In 1715 CE it was conquered by the Turks and remained under their control until 1822 CE, when the Greeks arrived during the uprising movement.


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