As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the Central and Southern Peloponnese, Clare Hargreaves picks out a selection of cultural and heritage visitor attractions.
With its rich history, thick with myths and legends, and its magnificent landscapes, you’re never short of places to visit in the Peloponnese. Explore the peninsula’s Byzantine past with trips to the coastal rock-city of Monemvasia or to the ruined hilltop settlement of Mistras, beneath mighty Mount Tagyetos. You can see remnants of the earlier Mycenaean period too, as well as the peninsula’s occupation by the Franks, Venetians and Ottomans. Folklore and costume museums, ancient libraries and churches illustrate different stages of the region’s turbulent history, while wineries and festivals show that Greek culture is still very much alive today.
Like the other 50-odd wineries in the Peloponnese’s Nemea region, this winery, established by Argos-born George Skouras in 1986, grows not only indigenous Agiorghitiko and Moscofilero grapes but also international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay. The winery is also working on a sweet red made with the little-known Mavrostifo (meaning “black astringent”) grape that’s dried in the sun to concentrate its aromas, flavors and acidity - watch this space! Visits (bookable in advance) include a tour of the winery and the cellar and then a tasting of its wines, including Megas Oenos (meaning Big/Great wine!). skouras.gr
Open-Air Water Power Museum, Dimitsana This unusual museum in the woods overlooking the Lousios river on the edge of Dimitsana, illustrates the importance of water power in pre-industrial Greece, showing how it was used to produce various goods, from gunpowder to flour and leather. You visit a fulling-tub and a watermill - throw corn into the hopper and watch it being ground by the millstones. Beyond are a tannery, which used water to process skins, and a gunpowder mill where inhabitants of Dimitsana manufactured powder during the Greek War of Independence. “We had powder,” wrote Arcadia-born revolutionary leader Theodoros Kolokotronis. “Dimitsana made it.” Tel: 30 279 50 31630
The Library, Dimitsana
Dimitsana’s ancient library (and folk museum) is housed in the Municipal School building opposite the church of Agia Kyriaki, at the top of the village. Founded by two monks in 1764, it started life as a theological school and its library was one of four that existed in Greece at that time, with almost 5,000 volumes. Sadly, during the Revolution, many of the library’s books were used to create ammunition, and in 1864 it closed. Today it has over 35,000 books, which include Ottoman decrees, ecclesiastical books dating from the 16th century, and documents from nearby monasteries. Tel: +30 27950-31219
Folklore museum, Stemnitsa Design-built as a “traditional dwelling” by the Savopoulos family in 1995, this museum recreates daily Stemnitsa life in the 18thand 19th centuries. The ground floor has workshops of different traditional professions (including shoemaker, candlemaker, bellmaker, silversmith). The next reproduces the interior of a 19th-century mansion, complete with authentic furniture, weavings, embroideries and loom. The top floor houses the Savopoulos’ family collection of local costumes, Byzantine icons, jewelry, wood carvings, ceramics, and weavings. And in the New Wing, you can admire a collection of ecclesiastical silverware, weavings and home utensils. Well worth a visit. Tel: +30 27950-81252
Mystra is a hauntingly beautiful, ruined fortress-town that covers a steep, 250-metre-high foothill of mighty Mount Taygetos, to the west of Sparta. It was founded by the Franks in 1249, who built a castle here, but they were soon driven out by the Byzantines who by the mid-14th century had turned this isolated region into the Despotate of Mystra - effectively the last outpost of the Greek Byzantine empire. Explore the hill’s magnificent terracotta-domed churches, many lined with wonderful frescoes, and you can also visit the Pantanassa convent, still inhabited by nuns who sell their handicrafts.
Agii Apostoli church, Kalamata
This tiny honey-coloured Byzantine church, in the lively heart of historic Kalamata, just below its 14th-century Frankish castle, was built in 1317. Look closely and you’ll notice that the church is lopsided: the larger section was added onto the original core in 1626, and the bell tower was added a bit later. On 23 March each year the city’s liberation is re-enacted here - always an emotional occasion.
Ypapanti Cathedral, Kalamata
Kalamata’s Byzantine-style apricot-and-cream Ypapanti church was built on the site of an earlier church in 1839 and consecrated in 1873. Inside it holds the ancient icon of Panayia Ypapanti, the protectress of the city of Kalamata. On 2 February the city celebrates the Festival of the Ypapanti, during which the icon is paraded around the vast marble-lined square in front. There’s another leafy square to the side, with an impressive line-up of statues of its previous bishops.
Standing proud and impregnable on its salmon-hued eruption of rock, mighty Monemvasia was the medieval seaport and commercial centre of the Byzantine Peloponnese, the secular counterpart of Mystras. Founded in the sixth century, at its zenith Monemvasia accommodated almost 60,000 people within its walls. After Byzantine rule, it was controlled by the Venetians and then the Ottomans. Both the lower town, with its shops, bars and museums, and the upper town, with its castle and 12th-century fresco-painted Agia Sofia octagonal church, a replica of the similarly named church in Constantinople, are fascinating. Allow yourself a day to take it all in. monemvasia.gr
It’s hard not to be moved by these famous magical caves, which pierce the cliffs near the village of Pirgos Dhirou, 8km south of Areopolis. Alepotripa and Vlichada caves (collectively known as the ‘Diros Caves’) were used in the late Neolithic period (4000 - 3000 BC) as shelter, dwelling, and place of worship. You can walk in the Alepotrypa cave but the main attraction is the boat trip in the adjacent Vlichada cave. A short walk from the cave’s entrance leads to an underground jetty from where you’ll board a paddle boat for an awe-inspiring 30-minute trip along the silent underground network of waterways, passages and galleries where you see the stalactites and stalagmites lit up against the reflected water. Highly recommended. visitgreece.gr/en/nature/caves/diros_caves
The Victoria Karelias Collection of Traditional Greek Costumes, Kalamata
The elegant neo-classical building containing this private collection gives a taste of what is inside - beautifully presented traditional Greek costumes from all over the country, including lavishly-embroidered overcoats and magnificent pieces of jewelry. Costumes date from the mid-18th-century to the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition explains how Byzantine and Western influences merged in people’s clothing, and how regional costumes were also affected by factors such as raw materials, climate and production techniques. There’s good explanation in Greek and English, and plenty of interactive exhibits, so it’s a good bet for children too. vgkareliascollection.com/en/
Kalamata International Dance Festival - July
This jamboree has been going since 1995 and now attracts contemporary dancers of all ages from all over the world, some of them making their debuts here. Come here to watch anything from hip hop to Indian kathak to contemporary acrobatics, it’s all here! Outdoor performances are held in the scenic setting of Kalamata’s Central Square (around the cathedral) and workshops are inside the city’s Municipal Stadium. The festival also comissions works from talented Greek choreographers. Alongside the performances, there areworkshops, photo exhibitions, talks, and film screenings aimed at dance students and professionals alike. kalamatadancefestival.gr