The Peloponnese is part of the Greek mainland but all but separated from the rest of it by the Gulf of Corinth. Only the narrow Isthmus of Corinth attaches it to the rest of the mainland – or used to, until the four-mile Corinth Canal was cut across the isthmus in 1893, making the Peloponnese virtually an island.
Named for Pelops, son of the mythical Tantalos, whose descendants dominated the half-legendary Mycenaean centuries, this southernmost part of Greece is home to an astounding variety of imposing ruins, situated in equally varied and beautiful scenery – massive mountains covered with low evergreen oak and pines surround coastal valleys and loom above rocky shores and sandy beaches. Over the millennia this rugged terrain nourished kingdoms and empires and witnessed the birth of modern Greece. Ruined Bronze Age citadels, Greek and Roman temples and theaters, and the fortresses and settlements of the Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Turks – endure as traces of these lost realms.
The Northern Peloponnese consists of the Argive peninsula, which juts into the Aegean east of the Isthmus of Corinth and continues westward past the isthmus and along the Gulf of Corinth to Patras and the Adriatic coast. The oldest region is the fertile Argive plain (Argolis), the heart of Greece in the late Bronze Age and the home of the heroes of Homer’s Iliad. A walk through the Lion Gate to Mycenae, Agamemnon’s citadel, brings the Homeric epic to life, and the massive walls of the nearby citadel of Tiryns glorify the age of might. Olympia, the sanctuary of Zeus, is the site of the famous contests that the Peloponnese gave mankind, the Olympic Games.
In the Southern Peloponnese, those who penetrate the forbidding mountains of the Taygettus range discover not only the forgotten stone towns of Arcadia – including medieval Karitena – but also the remote Temple of Apollo in Bassae. Beyond the Taygettus lies Laconia, where the ancient Spartans practiced their famously disciplined armies and where Byzantium’s final flourish has left us the astonishingly well-preserved Mystras. Except for the foundations of Artemis’s sanctuary and some fragments of Apollo’s shrine at Amyclae, nothing remains of nearby ancient Sparta. On Laconia’s southeast peninsula sits the inhabited medieval city of Monemvassia, known as Greece’s Mont-Saint-Michel. And, at the very tip of continental Europe dangles the Mani peninsula.
Besides its illustrious historical heritage, the Peloponnese is the heart of modern Greece, with the largest population and area of any region. A large portion of Greece’s emigrants to the United States in the 20th century have roots here; almost all dreamed of returning to their Greek villages after they had raised their families and accumulated a sufficient nest egg to allow them to retire – and quite a number have done just that. Time seems to have stood still in the smaller towns here, and the joy of exploring this region comes as much from the languid afternoons and evenings of lively question-and-answer sessions (Greeks have an insatiable curiosity about everything, especially foreign guests) as it does from seeing the impressive ruins.
The Northern Peloponnese comprises several distinct geographical areas: on the eastern side are the Argolid plain and the Corinth area, including Mycenae, Tiryns, Epidauros, and Nauplion. On the western side are the provinces of Achaea and Elis, home of ancient Olympia and the bustling port city of Patras.
In the Southern Peloponnese, massive mountain ranges sweep down like fingers into the sea; the beaches are some of the finest and least developed in Greece. The area is considered somewhat isolated from the rest of the country, especially politically, but its people have a great respect for filoxenia (hospitality). For the traveler, there are essentially four areas: Arcadia, Messinia, Laconia, and the Mani, part of which is administered by Messinia, the other by Laconia.
THEATER AT EPIDAUROS. The Sanctuary of Asklepios remains world renowned for one thing: the best-preserved Greek theater anywhere. Built in the 4th century BC with 14,000 seats, it was never remodeled in antiquity, and because it was rather remote, its stones were never quarried for secondary building use. Its extraordinary qualities were recognized even in the 2nd century AD. The theater’s Festival of Ancient Drama is definitely worth a visit from late July through August (Fridays and Saturdays) – the theater, the setting, and the productions are outstanding.
The rest of the site – the ancient shrine of the god of healing – does not match the standard set by the theater. The temple of Asklepios is not well preserved; some copies of its sculptures are in the site museum, but the originals are in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. An exhibit of ancient medical implements is of interest, as are detailed models of the sanctuary and blueprints. The reconstruction of the tholos, a circular building, is noteworthy. A large-scale restoration is taking place that includes reconstruction of the temple of Hygeia. Epidauros, PHONE: 0753/22009. COST: 1,500 dr. Summer daily 8-7; winter 8-5.
Oraia (beautiful) is the word Greeks use to describe Nauplion, which fell to the Venetians in the late 14th century, was held by the Turks from 1540 to 1686, again by the Venetians until 1715, and then again by the Turks to 1822, when it was finally captured by the Greeks. The town’s old section, on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Argos, mixes Greek, Venetian, and Turkish architecture; narrow streets, often just broad flights of stone stairs, climb the slopes up to the walls of the Acronafplia citadel; statues honoring heroes preside over tree-shaded plazas surrounded by neoclassical buildings; and the Palamidi fortress – an elegant display of Venetian might from the early 1700s draped over the high cliff – guards the town. Nauplion is indeed beautiful and deserves at least a leisurely day of your undivided attention.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. This red stone building on the west side of Syntagma (Constitution) Square was built in 1713 to serve as the storehouse for the Venetian fleet. To say that it is “well constructed” is an understatement; its arches and windows are remarkably well proportioned. Since 1930 it has housed the regional archaeological museum, and artifacts from such sites as Mycenae, Tiryns, Asine, and Dendra are exhibited here. Of special interest are a Mycenaean suit of armor, jewelry from Mycenaean tombs, and 7th-century Gorgon masks from Tiryns. West side of Constitution Sq., Nauplion, PHONE: 0752/27502. COST: 500 dr. Tues.-Sun. 8:30-3.
BOURTZI. The sight of the Bourtzi, Nauplion’s pocket-size fortress on an island in the harbor, will captivate you. Built in 1471 by Antonio Gambello, an industrious Venetian, it was at first a single tower on a speck of land generously called St. Theodore’s Island. After Francesco Morosini captured it for Venice in 1686, a tower and bastion were added. Since then, besides serving its defensive purpose, it was the residence of the town executioners, and from 1930 until 1970 functioned as a hotel. It is beautiful sight at dusk.
You can take a small boat out to the island for spectacular views of the old part of Nauplion and the Palamidi fortress. Extending from the extreme end of the quay across from the Bourtzi is a large breakwater, the west mole, built by the Turks as the anchor point for a large chain that could be drawn up between it and the Bourtzi, blocking the harbor completely. In the harbor, Nauplion.
CHURCH OF AYIOS GEORGIOS. This church, the showpiece of its square on Plapouta Street, is a Byzantine-era monument set at an angle, with five domes dating from the beginning of the 16th century and a Venetian arcade and campanile. Inside is the throne of King Otho. Around the square are several high-quality neoclassical houses – the one opposite the church is exceptional: note the fine palmette centered above the door, the pilasters on the third floor with Corinthian capitals, the running Greek-key entablature, and the end tiles along the roofline. This house is matched perhaps by the one at the intersection of Plapouta and Tertsetou streets, whose window treatments are especially ornate. Nauplion has many other fine neoclassical buildings. 2 blocks west of Syngrou on Plapouta, Nauplion.
NAUPLION PROMENADE. This promenade around the entire Nauplion peninsula, once a simple gravel pathway, is now paved with reddish flagstones and graced with an occasional ornate lamppost. Here and there a flight of steps goes down to the rocky shore below. (Be careful if you swim here, because the rocks are covered with sea urchins, which look like purple and black porcupines whose quills can inflict a painful wound.)
Just before you reach the very tip of the peninsula, marked by a ship’s beacon, there is a little shrine at the foot of a path leading up toward the Acronafplia walls above. Little Virgin Mary, or Ayia Panagitsa (At end of promenade) hugs the cliff on a small terrace and is decorated with an array of icons. During the Turkish occupation it hid one of Greece’s secret schools.
Two other terraces, covered with rosebushes and shaded by olive and cedar trees, are restful places to sit. Along the south side of the peninsula, the promenade runs midway along the cliff – it’s 100 ft up to Acronafplia, 50 ft down to the sea. All along there are magnificent views of the cliff on which the Palamidi fortress sits and the slope below, known as the Arvanitia.
CHILDREN’S MUSEUM. The old Stathmos (train station), with a steam engine and vintage freight and passenger cars, has been renovated and is now used as a museum, with a playground and sandbox in front. 25 Martiou, Nauplion, PHONE: 0752/28947.
PALAMIDI. Built in 1711-14, the Palamidi consists of three forts and a series of freestanding but connecting defensive walls. Sculpted in gray stone, the lion of St. Mark looks outward from the gates. The Palamidi fell to the Turks in 1715 after only eight days, and if you climb the stairs, you’ll be able to feel the desperation of the fleeing defenders racing down them with Turks in hot pursuit. After the war, the fortress was used as a prison, and its inmates included the revolutionary war hero Kolokotronis; a sign indicates his cell. Above town, Nauplion, PHONE: 0752/28036. COST: 800 dr. Weekdays 8:30-7 (8:30-3 in winter), weekends 8:30-2:30.
PELOPONNESIAN FOLKLORE FOUNDATION MUSEUM. This exemplary, small museum focusing on textiles should be on your not-to-be-missed list. Exhibits change periodically and feature outstanding costumes, handicrafts, and household furniture from the museum’s collection, many of them precious heirlooms donated by leading Peloponnesian families. The gift shop has fascinating books and handicrafts, such as weavings, kilims, and roka (spindles) and wooden koboloi (worry beads). Vas. Alexandrou 1, on block north of Amalias, up Sofroni, Nauplion, PHONE: 0752/28379. COST: 1,000 dr. Mar.-Jan., Wed.-Mon. 9-2.
SYNTAGMA (CONSTITUTION) SQUARE. This is the center of the old town and one of Greece’s prettiest platias (squares), distinguished by glistening multicolored, marble slab-paving bordered by neoclassical and Ottoman-style buildings. In summer, the restaurants and patisseries along the west and south sides of Constitution Square – a focal point of Naupliote life – are boisterous with the shouts and laughter of children and filled with diners well into the evening. Along Amalias and Vasileos Konstantinou Sts., Nauplion.
TIRYNS. Partly obscured by citrus trees just past the suburbs of Nauplion are the well-preserved ruins of the Mycenaean acropolis of Tiryns. Homer described Tiryns as “the wall-girt city,” and Pausanias gave its walls his highest praise. Made of gigantic limestone blocks, they are of the type called “cyclopean,” because the ancients thought they could have been handled only by the giant cyclops – the largest block is estimated at more than 15 tons).
The citadel was entered on the east side, via the cyclopean ramp, through a gate leading to a narrow passage between the outer and inner walls. One could then turn right, toward the residential section in the lower citadel (now usually closed to the public) or to the left toward the upper citadel and palace. The heavy main gate and second gate blocked the passage to the palace and trapped attackers caught between the walls. After the second gate, the passage opens onto a rectangular courtyard, whose massive left-hand wall is pierced by a http://www.greekhoneymoon.com/gallery of small vaulted chambers, or casemates, opening off a long narrow corridor roofed by a corbeled arch. This is one of the famous galleries of Tiryns; another such http://www.greekhoneymoon.com/gallery at the southernmost end of the acropolis also connects a series of five casemates with sloping roofs.
An elaborate entranceway leads west from the court to the upper citadel and palace, sited at the highest point of the acropolis. The complex included a colonnaded court; the great megaron (main hall) opened onto it and held the royal throne. Surviving fragments suggest that the floors and the walls were decorated, the walls with frescoes (now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens). Beyond the megaron, a large court overlooks the houses in the lower citadel; from here, a long stairway descends to a small postern gate in the west wall. At the excavated part of the lower acropolis a significant discovery was made; two parallel tunnels, roofed in the same way as the galleries on the east and south sides, start within the acropolis and extend under the walls, leading to subterranean cisterns that ensured a continuous water supply. On low hill 5 km (3 mi) north of Nauplion, PHONE: 0752/22657. COST: 500 dr. Summer daily 8:30-7; winter weekdays 8:30-5, weekends 8:30-3.
MYCENAE. The ancient citadel of Mycenae, which Homer describes as “rich in gold,” stands on a low hill, wedged between sheer, lofty peaks but separated from them by two deep ravines. At the apex of its power from 1500 to 1100 BC, the fortress city of Mykines (Mycenae) ruled a large portion of the Mediterranean world. Destroyed in 468 BC, it was forgotten until 1874, when archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who had discovered the ruins of ancient Troy, uncovered these remains, vindicating his belief in the veracity of Homer’s accounts and bringing the ancient Mycenaean civilization back to the light of day.
Ancient Mycenae, stronghold of the Achaean kings, was the seat of the doomed House of Atreus – of King Agamemnon and his wife, Clytemnestra (sister of Helen of Troy), and their ill-fated children, Orestes and Elektra. When Schliemann uncovered six shaft graves (so named because the kings were buried standing up) of the royal circle, he was certain that the most famous object from this treasure trove, a golden mask, was the “Death Mask of Agamemnon.” The mask, now known to date from a period earlier than that of Agamemnon, and the other treasures found in the graves can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Lion Gate. The citadel is entered from the northwest, through the famous Lion Gate. The triangle above the lintel depicts in relief two lions, whose heads, probably of steatite, are now missing. They stand facing each other, their forepaws resting on a high pedestal representing an altar, above which stands a pillar ending in a uniquely shaped capital and abacus. Above the abacus are four sculptured discs, interpreted as representing the ends of beams that supported a roof. The gate was closed by a double wooden door sheathed in bronze. The two halves were secured by a wooden bar, which rested in cuttings in the jambs, still visible. The holes for the pivots on which it swung can still be seen in both sill and lintel.
Granary. Just inside the Lion Gate on the right stands the Granary, so named for the many pithoi (clay storage vessels) that were found inside (holding carbonized wheat grains). Between it and the Lion Gate a flight of steps used to lead to the top of the wall. Today you see a broad ramp leading steeply up to the palace.
Grave Circle A. Beyond the granary are six royal shaft graves, encircled by a row of upright stone slabs interrupted on its northern side by the entrance. Above each grave stood a vertical stone stele. The “grave goods” buried with the dead were an array of personal belongings including gold face masks, gold cups and jewelry, bronze swords with ivory hilts, and daggers with gold inlay.
Palace. The palace complex covers the summit of the hill and occupies a series of terraces; one entered through a monumental gateway on the northwest side and, proceeding to the right, came to the Great Courtyard. The ground was originally covered by a plaster coating above which was a layer of painted and decorated stucco. East of the Great Courtyard is the megaron (main room) with a porch, vestibule, and the throne room itself, which had four columns supporting the roof (the bases are still visible) and a circular hearth in the center. Remains of an archaic temple and a Hellenistic temple can be seen north of the palace, and to the east on the right, on a lower level, are the workshops of the artists and craftsmen employed by the king.
Treasury of Atreus. On the hill of Panagitsa, on the left along the road that runs to the citadel, lies the most imposing example of Mycenaean architecture, the Treasury of Atreus. Pausanias tells us that the ancients considered it the Tomb of Agamemnon, its other name. Its construction is placed around 1250 BC, contemporary with the Lion Gate and after Grave Circle A was no longer used for burials. It consists of a passageway built of huge squared stones which leads into a domed chamber. The facade of the entrance had applied decoration, but only small fragments have been preserved. The tomb was found empty, already robbed in antiquity, but it must at one time have contained rich and valuable grave goods.
Mycenae archaeological site, 21 km (13 mi) north of Nauplion, PHONE: 0751/76585. COST: 1,500 dr. (includes admission to Treasury of Atreus). Weekdays 8:30-7 (8:30-5 in winter), weekends 8:30-3.
ANCIENT CORINTH. Ancient Corinth, at the base of the massive Acrocorinth peak (1,863 ft), was blessed: it governed the north-south land route over the Isthmus of Corinth and the east-west sea route. The fertile plain and hills around the city (where currants are grown – they are named for Corinth) are extensive, and the Acrocorinth afforded a virtually impregnable refuge. The city came to prominence in the 8th century BC, became a center of commerce, and founded the colonies of Syracuse in Sicily and Kerkyra on Corfu; it was, at one time, the chief city of Greece and later became the capital of Roman Greece (after it was sacked by the Romans, was abandoned for a century, then refounded by Julius Caesar in 44 BC). The Apostle Paul lived in Corinth for a period of 18 months.
The ancient city was huge. Excavations, which have gone on since 1896, have exposed ruins at several locations: on the height of Acrocorinth and on the slopes below, the center of the Roman city, and northward toward the coast. Most of the excavated buildings are from the Roman era; only a few from before the sack of Corinth in 146 BC were rehabilitated when the city was refounded.
Glauke Fountain. The fountain is just past the parking lot on the left. According to Pausanias, “Jason’s second wife, Glauke (also known as Creusa), threw herself into the water to obtain relief from a poisoned dress sent to her by Medea.”
Museum. Beyond the fountain is the museum, which displays examples of the pottery decorated with friezes of panthers, sphinxes, bulls, and such, for which Corinth was famous; some fine mosaics from the Roman period; and a variety of marble and terra-cotta sculptures.
Temple of Apollo. Seven of the original 38 columns of the Temple of Apollo are still standing, and it is by far the most striking of Corinth’s ancient buildings as well as one of the oldest stone temples in Greece (mid-6th century BC).
Forum. South of the Temple of Apollo, this was the main Forum of ancient Corinth. A row of shops bounds it at the far western end, and a long line of shops runs lengthwise through it, dividing it into an upper (southern) and lower (northern) terrace, in the center of which is the bema (large podium), perhaps the very one where the Roman proconsul Gallio refused to act on accusations against St. Paul.
South Stoa. This 4th-century building, perhaps erected by Philip II to house delegates to his Hellenic confederacy, was the Forum’s southern boundary. There were originally 33 shops across the front, and the back was altered in Roman times to accommodate such civic offices as the council hall, or bouleterion, in the center. Farther along the South Stoa were the entrance to the South Basilica and, at the far end, the Southeast Building, which probably was the city archive.
Julian Basilica. In the lower Forum, below the Southeast Building, is this former law court; under the steps leading into it were found two starting lines (an earlier and a later one) for the course of a footrace.
Fountain of Peirene. In the northeast corner of the Forum is this fountain building. Water from a spring was gathered into four reservoirs, from which it then flowed out through the arcadelike facade into a drawing basin in front. Frescoes of swimming fish from a 2nd-century refurbishment can still be seen.
Odeon. Northwest of the parking lot, cut into a natural slope, this was built during the AD 1st century, but burned down around 175. Around 225 it was renovated and used as an arena for combats between gladiators and wild beasts.
Theater. Just north of the Odeon, dating from the 5th century BC, this is one of the few Greek buildings reused by the Romans, who filled in the original seats and set in new ones at a steeper angle. By the 3rd century they had adapted it for gladiatorial contests and finally for mock naval battles.
Asklepieion. North of the Theater, just inside the city wall, are the Fountain of Lerna and the Asklepieion, the sanctuary of the god of healing, with a small temple (4th century BC) set in a colonnaded courtyard and a series of dining rooms in a second courtyard. Terra-cotta votive offerings representing afflicted body parts (hands, legs, breasts, genitals, etc.) found in the excavation are displayed at the museum; similar votives of body parts can be purchased and blessed at some Orthodox churches in Greece today. A stone box for offerings, complete with copper coins, was found at the entrance to the sanctuary. Off the lower courtyard are the drawing basins of the Fountain of Lerna. 5 km (3 mi) west of modern Corinth, PHONE: 0741/31207. COST: 1,200 dr. Summer daily 8-7; winter daily 8-5.
OLYMPIA. The first Olympic games are thought to have been held here in 776 BC, and thereafter took place every four years (an olympiad, or four-year period) over five days in the late summer during a sacred truce, observed by all Greek cities. Initially only native speakers of Greek (excepting slaves) could compete, but Romans were later admitted. Foreigners could watch, but married women, Greek or not, were barred from the sanctuary during the festival on pain of death. The events included the footrace, boxing, chariot and horse racing, the pentathlon (combining running, jumping, wrestling, and both javelin and discus throwing), and the pankration (a no-holds-barred style of wrestling in which competitors could break their opponent’s fingers and other body parts).
By and large the Olympic festival was peaceful, though not without problems, and the games continued to be held every four years until AD 393, when the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, banned these “pagan” rites.
Gymnasion. Essentially a large open practice field surrounded by stoas, this is south of the entrance, along with the remains of a small Roman bath.
Prytaneion. This large complex opposite the Gymnasion was where the prytaneis (magistrates in charge of the games) feted the winners and where the Olympic flame burned on a sacred hearth.
Heraion. The Heraion (circa 600 BC) is a large Doric Temple of Hera constructed from the local shell limestone. At first it had wooden columns, which were replaced as needed, so although they are all Doric, the capitals don’t exactly match. A colossal head of a goddess, possibly from the statue of Hera, was found at the temple and is now in the site museum.
Bronze Statues of Zeus. At the bottom of the steps leading to the Treasuries and outside the entrance of the Stadium, were 16 bronze statues of Zeus, called the Zanes, bought with money from fines levied against those caught cheating at the games. Bribery seems to have been the most common offense. Olympia also provides the earliest case of the sports-parent syndrome: in the 192nd Olympiad, Damonikos of Elis, whose son Polyktor was to wrestle Sosander of Smyrna, bribed the latter’s father in an attempt to buy the victory for his son.
Treasuries. The city-state Treasuries, which look like small temples, were used to store valuables, such as equipment used in rituals.
Stadium. Just off the northeast corner of the Altis, or sacred precinct, this at first ran along the terrace of the Treasuries and had no embankments for the spectators to sit on; embankments were added later but were never given seats, and 40,000-50,000 spectators could be accommodated. The starting and finishing lines are still in place, 600 Olympic ft apart.
House of Nero. This 1st-century villa off the southeastern corner of the Altis, was hurriedly built for Nero’s visit. Nearby was found a lead water pipe marked Ner. Aug.
Hippodrome. Beyond the House of Nero, running parallel to the Stadium, the Hippodrome was where horse and chariot races were held. It hasn’t been excavated, and much has probably been eroded away by the Alpheios river.
Bouleterion. Beyond the Altis’s large southeastern gate, appended to its southern wall, is the Bouleterion and, just south of it, the South Hall. The Bouleterion consisted of two rectangular halls on either side of a square building that housed the Altar of Zeus Horkios, where athletes and trainers swore to compete fairly.
Temple of Zeus. In the southwestern corner of the Altis is the Temple of Zeus. Only a few column drums are in place, but the huge size of the temple platform is impressive. Designed by Libon, an Elean architect, it was built from about 470 to 456 BC. The magnificent sculptures from the pediments are on view in the museum at Olympia. A gilded bronze statue of Nike (Victory) stood above the east pediment, matching a marble Nike (in the site museum) that stood on a pedestal in front of the temple. Both were the work of the sculptor Paionios. The cult statue inside the temple, made of gold and ivory on a wooden frame, showed Zeus seated on a throne, holding a Nike in his open right hand and a scepter in his left. It was created in 430 BC by Pheidias, sculptor of the cult statue of Athena in the Parthenon, and was said to be seven times life size; it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was removed to Constantinople and destroyed by fire in AD 475.
Pheidias’s workshop. West of the Temple of Zeus, this large hall was where the cult statue of Zeus was constructed. Tools, clay molds, and Pheidias’s own cup (in the museum) make the identification of this building certain. It was later used as a Byzantine church.
1/2 km (3/4 mi) outside of modern Olympia, Olympia, PHONE: 0624/22517. COST: 1,200 dr. Weekdays 8-7, weekends 8:30-5.
“NEW” MUSEUM AT OLYMPIA. Officially opened in 1982, this museum across from ancient Olympia has in its collections the sculptures from the Temple of Zeus, the head of the cult statue of Hera from the Heraion, as well as a statue of Hermes by Praxiteles himself, which was found buried under the fallen clay of the Temple or Hera and is one of the best-preserved classical statues. The pedimental sculptures and metopes from the Temple of Zeus, depicting Herakles’ Twelve Labors, among the greatest sculptural achievements of classical antiquity, are in the museum’s central http://www.greekhoneymoon.com/gallery. There’s also a notable terra-cotta group of Zeus and Ganymede; sculptures of the family and imperial patrons of Herodes Atticus; and bronzes found at the site, including votive figurines, cauldrons, and armor. Of great historic interest are a helmet dedicated by Miltiades, the Athenian general who defeated the Persians at Marathon, and the cup owned by the sculptor Pheidias. Unfortunately the famous Nike of Paionios is in the old museum, which is closed, so it can’t be seen by visitors. Southern end of main road, Olympia, PHONE: 0624/22529. COST: 1,200 dr. Mon. noon-7, Tues.-Fri. 8-7, weekends 8:30-3.
TEMPLE OF APOLLO EPIKOURIOUS AT BASSAE. This temple, splendidly isolated amid craggy, uncompromising scenery, is elegant and spare, and untouched by vandalism or commercialism – although it is sadly “protected” by a make-shift canopy. Pausanias believed it was designed by Iktinos, the Parthenon’s architect. Although this theory has recently been disputed, it is one of the best-preserved classical temples in Greece, superseded in its state of preservation only by the Hephaistion in Athens. Made of local limestone, the temple has some unusual details: exceptional length compared to its width; a north-south orientation rather than the usual east-west (probably because of the slope of the ground); and Ionic half-columns linked to the walls by flying buttresses. Here, too, are the first known Corinthian columns sporting the characteristic acanthus leaves – only the base remains now – and the earliest example of interior sculptured friezes illustrating the battles between the Greeks and Amazons and the Centaurs and Lapiths. The friezes now hang in the British Museum. 14 km (8½ mi) south of Andritsena, Bassae, PHONE: 0626/22254. COST: 500 dr. Daily 8:30-3.
NESTOR’S PALACE. This palace belonged to Nestor, king of Pylos and the commander (according to Homer) of the fleet of “ninety black ships” in the Trojan War. Nestor founded the town around 1300 BC – only Mycenae was larger – but the palace was burned a century later. It was here, the Iliad tells us, that Telemachus came to ask for news of his father, Odysseus, from Nestor, who welcomed the young man to a feast at the palace. Most of the rooms are clearly marked, but it’s a good idea to buy the guidebook, available at the site, prepared by the University of Cincinnati, whose archaeologists excavated the site; the illustrations will help you imagine the palace in its original condition. In the main building, a simple entrance gate is flanked by a guard chamber and two archives, where 1,250 palm leaf-shape tablets were discovered on the first day of excavation. The tablets – records of taxes, armament expenses, and debts in Linear B script – were the first such unearthed on the Greek mainland, thus linking the Mycenaean and Minoan (Crete) civilizations, because the writing (like that in Knossos) was definitely Greek.
The entrance gate opens into a spacious courtyard with a balcony where spectators could watch the royal ceremonies. To the left are a storeroom that yielded thousands of tall-stemmed vases and a waiting room with built-in benches. Beyond the courtyard a porch of the royal apartments and a vestibule open onto a richly decorated throne room. In the middle of the room is a ceremonial hearth surrounded by four wooden columns (only the stone bases remain) that probably supported a shaft. Now completely destroyed, the throne once stood in the center of the wall to the right. Each frescoed wall depicted a different subject, such as a griffin (possibly the royal emblem) or a minstrel strumming his lyre. Even the columns and the wooden ceiling were painted. Along the southern edge of the throne room were seven storerooms for oil, which together with the one on the floor immediately above fueled the fire that destroyed the palace.
Off a corridor to the right of the entrance are a bathroom, where the oldest known bathtub stands, along with jars used for collecting bathwater. Next to it are the queen’s apartments: in the largest room a hearth is adorned with a painted flame, the walls with hunting scenes of lions and panthers. Other rooms in the complex include the throne room from an earlier palace, a shrine, workshops, and a conduit that brought water from a nearby spring. Several beehive tombs were also found outside the palace. On the highway 4 km (2½ mi) south of Chora, PHONE: 0763/31437. COST: 500 dr. Tues.-Sat. 8:30-3, Sun. 9:30-2:30.
For those who have read about ancient Sparta, the bellicose city-state that once dominated the Greek world, the modern city is a disappointment. Given the area’s earthquakes and the Spartans’ no-frills approach – living more like an army camp than a city-state – no elaborate ruins remain, a fact that so disconcerted Otto, Greece’s first king, that in 1835 he ordered the modern city built on the ancient site.
The Spartans’ relentless militarism set them apart from other Greeks. They were expected to emerge victorious from a battle or not at all, and for most of its existence Sparta was without a wall, because according to Lykourgos, its leader, who wrote Sparta’s constitution, “chests, not walls, make a city.” From the 9th to the 4th centuries BC, Spartans trained for a life of war.
From the age of seven, boys in the reigning warrior class submitted to a strict regimen, eating mostly herbs, roots, and the famous black broth. Rich foods were thought to stunt growth. Forbidden to work, they trained for combat and practiced stealing, an acceptable skill unless one was caught. One legend describes a Spartan youth who let a concealed fox chew out his bowels rather than reveal his theft. Girls also trained rigorously in the belief they would bear healthier offspring; for the same reason, newlyweds were forbidden to make love frequently.
TEMPLE OF ARTEMIS ORTHIA. At this temple, the young Spartan men underwent krypteia (initiations) that entailed severe public floggings. The altar had to be splashed with blood before the goddess was satisfied. Traces of two such altars are among sparse vestiges of the 6th-century BC temple. The larger ruins are the remains of a grandstand built in the 3rd century AD by the Romans, who revived the flogging tradition as a public spectacle. Tripolis Rd., outside Sparta, down the path to the Eurotas River.
ACROPOLIS. Ancient Sparta’s acropolis is now part archaeological site, part park. Locals can be seen here strolling, along with many young couples stealing a romantic moment amid the fallen limestone and shady trees. The ruins include a theater, a stadium, and a sanctuary dedicated to Athena. North end of Sparta.
STATUE OF LEONIDAS. Stop a moment and contemplate the stern Leonidas. During the Second Persian War, with 30,000 Persians advancing on his army of 8,000, Leonidas, ordered to surrender his weapons, jeered, “Come and get them.” For two days he held off the enemy, until a traitor named Efialtes (the word has since come to mean “nightmare” in Greek) showed the Persians a way to attack from the rear. Leonidas ordered all but 1,000 of his army to withdraw. When they were forced to retreat to a wooded knoll, he is said to have commented, “So much the better, we will fight in the shade,” before his entire troop was slaughtered. End of Konstantinou St., Sparta.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. The eclectic collection of the city’s archaeological museum, tucked into a cool park, reflects the turbulent history of the surrounding Laconia region: Neolithic pottery; jewels and tools excavated from the Alepotripia cave; Mycenaean tomb finds; bright 4th- and 5th-century Roman mosaics; and objects from Sparta, including an expressive clay woman’s head, a Parian marble statue of Leonidas (490 BC), prizes given to the Spartan youths, and ritual dance masks. Most characteristic of Spartan art are the bas-reliefs with deities and heroes; note the one depicting a seated couple bearing gifts and framed by a snake (540 BC). Ayios Nikonos between Dafnou and Evangelistria, Sparta, PHONE: 0731/28575. COST: 500 dr. Tues.-Sat. 8:30-3, Sun. 8:30-12:30.
At ethereal Mystras, with its abandoned gold and stone palaces, churches, and monasteries lining serpentine paths, the scent of herbs and wildflowers permeates the air, goat bells tinkle in the distance, and olive trees undulate in the gentle breeze. An intellectual and cultural center where philosophers like Chrysoloras, “the sage of Byzantium,” held forth on the good and the beautiful, it seems an appropriate place for the last hurrah of the Byzantine emperors in the 14th century.
In 1249, William de Villehardouin built the castle in Mystras in an attempt to control Laconia and establish Frankish supremacy over the Peloponnese. He held court here with his beautiful Greek wife, Anna Comnena, surrounded by knights of Champagne, Burgundy, and Flanders, but in 1259 he was defeated by the Byzantines. As the Byzantines built a palace and numerous churches (whose frescoes exemplified several periods of painting), the town gradually grew down the slope.
At first the seat of the Byzantine governor, Mystras later became the capital of the Despotate of Morea. It was the despots who made Mystras a cultural phenomenon, and it was the despots – specifically Emperor Constantine’s brother Demetrios Palaiologos – who surrendered the city to the Turks in 1460, signaling the beginning of the end. For a while the town survived because of its silk industry, but after repeated pillaging and burning by bands of Albanians, Russians, and by Ibrahim Pasha’s Egyptian troops, the inhabitants gave up and moved to modern Sparta. A combination ticket for all of the sights in Mystras costs approximately EUR5. AYIOS DEMETRIOS. Among the most important buildings in the lower town (Kato Chora) is this mitropolis (cathedral) founded in 1291. Set in its floor is a stone with the two-headed Byzantine eagle marking the spot where Constantine XII, the last emperor of Byzantium, was consecrated. The cathedral’s brilliant frescoes include a vivid depiction of the Virgin and Child on the central apse and a wall painting in the narthex of the Second Coming, its two red-and-turquoise winged angels sorrowful as they open the records of Good and Evil. One wing of the church houses a museum that holds fragments of Byzantine sculptures, icons, jewels, decorative metalwork, and coins. Lower town, Mystras. COST: 1,500 dr. combination ticket. Summer daily 8-7; winter daily 8:30-3.
VRONTOKION MONASTERY. In the monastery are Ayios Theodoros (AD 1295), the oldest church in Mystras, and the 14th-century Church of Panagia Odegetria, or Afendiko, which is decorated with remarkable murals, including scenes of the miracles of Christ: The Healing of the Blind Man, The Samaritan at the Well, and The Marriage of Cana. The fluidity of the brush strokes, the subtle but complicated coloring, and the resonant expressions suggest the work of extremely skilled hands. Lower town, along path to the right, Mystras. COST: 1,500 dr. combination ticket. Summer daily 8-7; winter daily 8:30-3.
PANTANASSA MONASTERY. This monastery is a visual feast of intricate tiling – rosette-festooned loops mimicking frosting on a wedding cake – and myriad arches. It is the only inhabited building in Mystras; the hospitable nuns still produce embroidery for sale. Step out onto the east portico for a view of the Eurotas River valley below. Lower town, Mystras. COST: 1,500 dr. combination ticket. Summer daily 8-7; winter daily 8:30-3.
PERIVLEPTOS MONASTERY. Every inch of this tiny monastery, the name of which means “attracting attention from all sides,” is covered with exceptional 14th-century illustrations from the New Testament, including The Birth of the Virgin – in a lush palette of reds, yellows, and oranges – The Dormition of the Virgin above the entrance (with Christ holding his mother’s soul represented as a baby), and immediately to the left of the entrance, the famous fresco of the Divine Liturgy. Lower town, southernmost corner, Mystras. COST: 1,500 dr. combination ticket. Summer daily 8-7; winter daily 8:30-3.
PALACE OF DESPOTS. In the upper town (Ano Chora), where most aristocrats lived, stands a rare Byzantine civic building, the Palace of Despots, home of the last emperor. The older, northeastern wing contains a guardroom, kitchen, and residence. The three-story northwest wing contains an immense reception hall on its top floor, lighted by eight Gothic windows and heated by eight huge chimneys; the throne probably stood in the shallow alcove that’s in the center of a wall.
In the palace’s Ayia Sofia chapel, the Italian wives of emperors Constantine and Theodore Palaiologos are buried. Note the polychromatic marble floor and the frescoes that were preserved for years under whitewash applied by the Turks when they transformed this into a mosque. Climb to the castle and look down into the gullies of Mt. Taygettus, where it’s said the Spartans, who hated weakness, hurled any malformed babies. Ano Chora, Mystras, PHONE: 0731/93377. COST: 1,500 dr. combination ticket. Summer daily 8-7; winter daily 8:30-3.
The Byzantine town of Monemvassia clings to the side of a 1,148-ft rock that was separated from the mainland by an earthquake in AD 375. Like Gibraltar, Monemvassia once controlled the sea lanes from western Europe to the Levant. The name moni emvasia (single entrance) refers to the narrow passage to this walled community. If you come from Athens by ferry or hydrofoil, you’ll get the most spectacular view; if you walk or take a taxi down the causeway from the adjoining town of Gefira, the rock looks uninhabited until you suddenly see castellated walls with an opening only wide enough for one person.
The town was first inhabited in the 6th century AD, when Laconians sought refuge after Arab and Slav raids. During its golden age under the Byzantines in the 1400s, Monemvassia was home to families made wealthy by their inland estates and the export of malmsey wine, a sweet variety of Madeira praised by Shakespeare. When the area fell to the Turks, Monemvassia ended up under the Pope’s control and then came under sway of the Venetians, who built the citadel and most of the fortifications.
Well-to-do Greeks once again live on the rock in houses they have restored as vacation homes. Summer weekends are crowded, but off- season Monemvassia is nearly deserted. Empty houses are lined up along steep streets only wide enough for two people abreast, and remnants of another age – escutcheons, marble thrones, Byzantine icons – evoke the sense that time has stopped. It’s worth a splurge to stay overnight here.
CHRISTOS ELKOMENOS (Christ in Chains). This is reputed to be the largest medieval church in southern Greece. The carved peacocks are symbolic of the Byzantine era; the detached bell tower – like those of Italian cathedrals – is a sign of Venetian rebuilding in the 17th century. Platia Tzamiou, along main street, Monemvassia.
AGIOS PAVLOS. The 10th-century Agios Pavlos, though converted into a mosque, was allowed to function as a church under the Ottoman occupation, an unusual indulgence. Across from Platia Tzamiou, Monemvassia.
AGIA SOFIA. For solitude and a dizzying view, pass through the upper town’s wooden entrance gates, complete with the original iron reinforcement. Up the hill is Agia Sofia, a rare example of a domed octagonal church, founded in the 13th century by Emperor Andronicus II and patterned after the Dafni monastery in Athens. Follow the path to the highest point on the rock for a breathtaking view of the coast. Top of mountain, Monemvassia.