Rick Steves: Greece’s underrated Peloponnese Peninsula
Since we had to postpone our trips due to the pandemic, I believe that a weekly dose of travel dreams can be good medicine. Here is a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
In a beach restaurant with my chair and table in the sand, I hear a repetitive thump and feel a faint but refreshing splash. When I look around for the spring, I see a tough young Greek in a swimsuit the size of a rat hammock. He tenderizes an octopus by repeatedly whipping it like a damp rag on a large flat rock. This octopus will be featured for dinner soon … someone else’s dinner.
I order moussaka and – to be emphatically Greek – a glass of Greece’s infamous resin-flavored retsina wine. It makes me throw a blot over one eye and say, “Argh!” It’s like drinking wood. A winemaker once told me that there is no such thing as a $ 50 bottle of good Greek wine. I asked him, “What should I buy if I want to spend $ 30?” He paused, shrugged and said, “Three bottles.”
With another sip of retsina, I think the Peloponnese, like its wine, is rough but has a complex history. I’m wondering where to go next. Hordes of tourists flock to the Greek islands unaware of the salty joys waiting for you here on this peninsula – with no ferry ride or flight involved. This ancient land extends southwest of Athens and is full of antiques. It offers a lot of fun in the eternal Greek sun with pleasant fishing villages, sandy beaches, bathtub-warm water and none of the tourist crowds.
I could go to the charming port city of Nafplio. It’s small, cozy, and walkable, with great guest houses, appealing restaurants, a thriving evening scene, and inviting beaches nearby. As the first capital of an independent Greece, it is historically important and a convenient base for visiting the ancient sites of Mycenae and Epidavros.
To the east of Nafplio, Epidavros has the most magnificent theater of antiquity. It was built for 15,000 people almost 2,500 years ago. Today it is busy with tourists during the day and enlivens the greatest pieces of antiquity at night. The wonderful acoustics of the theater can best be enjoyed near solitude. On my last visit, I was sitting in the farthest seat when my partner was on stage. I could practically hear the retsina rumbling in her stomach.
North of Nafplio are the ruins of Mycenae. This was the capital of the Mycenaeans, who won the Trojan War and ruled Greece 1000 years before its Golden Age. This means that for 3,000 years people have been standing in front of this stony citadel and looking at the legendary Lion Gate. It was made with stones so huge that it was long believed no one could have built it. It must have been the work of the Cyclops – hence it was called “Cyclopean architecture”. Nearby is the 1500 BC. Built in BC Tholos Tomb like a giant stone igloo with a sleek underground dome nearly 50 feet high and wide. Standing alone under this dome, I realized that the people who built it were just as old and mysterious to Socrates and Plato as Socrates and Plato were to us.
Another option is the old Olympia. Modern tourists simply cannot resist stepping onto the original starting block of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. To be hired for photos. The games took place as part of a religious festival, but also served a political purpose: the development of a panhellenic (“cross-Greek”) identity. Every four years wars between disputed Greeks were halted over a sacred one-month truce as leaders from all corners of the world gathered to watch the athletes compete. It was a highly competitive competition with strict rules. Drinking animal blood – the Red Bull of the day – was forbidden. Official urine drinkers tested for this age-old equivalent of steroids.
There are impressive remains of Byzantine rule in the Peloponnese. Monemvasia, a colossal Gibraltar-like rock jutting out of the sea, has a romantic city wall at the base and ruins that stretch over the summit. In its heyday in the 14th century, the remarkably well-preserved city wall of Monemvasia was one of the great trading centers of the Byzantine Empire.
I wipe the salty spray off my glasses and find that I haven’t made much progress in deciding where to go next. I’m worried: the retsina is starting to taste good. I finish my third glass and enter the danger zone. If I drink more, I’ll stink of it tomorrow … and never get to try the other charms of the Peloponnese.
This article was adapted from Rick’s new book For the Love of Europe.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guides, hosts travel programs on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.
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