As part of our Greentraveller's Guide to the Central and Southern Peloponnese, Richard Hammond and Clare Hargreaves sample adventure activities in some of the most ancient parts of the peninsula
Setting off from a ridiculously idyllic forest-backed sandy beach, we kayaked through crystal clear water with just the sounds of our paddles lapping in the water and occasional birdsong overhead. After a lunch of fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, olives and home-baked bread, the plan for the afternoon was gloriously simple: we just had to slowly kayak along the rocky coastline back to where we’d set out that morning.
The sea was warm, the sun was baking and it was a perfect clear blue sky day. Welcome to autumn in laid-back Kardimili.
Kayaking is just one of many outdoor adventures in the southern Peloponnese provided by Explore Messinia who also run hiking, canyoning, rafting, river trekking and stand up paddleboarding. Away from the coast, there’s also a huge variety of things to do provided by any number of adventure operators: you can explore the Mainalon, the vast massif at its heart, on foot, bike or horseback; test your inner Robinson Crusoe by joining a course in survival tactics - including creating fire with sticks; or raft down spectacular river gorges. Adventurous foodies can enjoy city food tours, olive oil tours and mountain mushroom-hunting – most tours inevitably go hand in hand with learning about the fascinating heritage of this ancient part of Greece.
We started our adventure in the heart of the vast wild and rocky peninsula - in Mistras, six kilometres west of Sparta, which we could see sprawled across the plain below. Above us, its jagged head buried in clouds, is mighty Mount Taygetos, while beside us is an equally staggering sight: a lush 250-metre-high foothill bearing the remarkably intact remains of what was once a thriving walled Byzantine city. With its grey stone fortress dominating its frescoed churches, monasteries, mansions, and streets it’s mind-blowing to picture the 20,0000 people who once played out their lives and faith here.
Leaving the hovering taxis and hawkers selling honey-and-sesame pasteli, we entered the stone arches of the Upper Gate, and tramped an olive-fringed footway up to the remains of the castle. This was one of a trio of fortresses built in the mid 13th century by William II of Villehardouin, the fourth Frankish prince of the Morea, in an attempt to extend Frankish rule over the southern Peloponnese following the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders. Following Mistras’ stone-paved alleyways, we crossed its town square to reach the vast, Gothic-looking Despots’ Palace, a (rare) civic building where the despot lived, adjudicated and received visitors. As we wandered down, we soon lost track of its many Late Byzantine churches, all built on a characteristic cross-plan and topped with multiple terracotta-roofed domes, seen as symbols of the divine and eternal. But getting lost is part of the joy of Mistras - its ancient buildings mingle with olive trees and bushes of vibrantly coloured rock roses through which stray cats wander, and the hill is ample enough for you to escape the crowds.
If Mistras was Byzantium’s spiritual centre, Monemvasia, impregnable on its vast pink rock off the peninsula’s east coast, was its secular counterpart. Founded by the Byzantines in the sixth century to escape the rapacious Avars and Slavs, it remained in Byzantine hands (with occasional interruptions) for almost seven centuries, becoming subject to the Despotate of the Morea from 1349 to 1460. We entered the imposing gate into its walled Lower Town via a causeway from the modern town - the name Monemvasia is an elision of the Greek words “moni” and “emvasis” meaning single and entrance. The locals, though, dub it “kastro”, meaning “castle” - a reference to the citadel that lords it over the Upper Town above.
As we wandered through the Lower Town’s tangle of narrow paved streets, lined with cafes, souvenir shops, and tavernas (one of them owned by relatives of Yannis Ritsos, one of Greece’s foremost poets), we dived into the main street’s Enetiko bar to sample one of the exports from which Monemvasia’s noble Byzantine families made fortunes - its Malmsey or Malvasia wine, so famous it even got a mention in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Two decades ago, a Monemvasia winery started producing the sweet wine once again and in 2010 it even gained a PDO. It’s drunk chilled, which dampens the sweetness, and it makes a welcome aperitif before the steep climb up to the Upper Town.
If that’s not enough to take one’s breath away, the beautiful octagonal twelfth-century church of Ayia Sofia, a few steps up from the gate, certainly is. Its walls bear colourful wall paintings dating from the late 12th and early 13th century. Happily they’re being looked after well - we meet a woman painstakingly restoring them.
Further south, we headed to the famous Dinos caves, which pierce the cliffs near the village of Pirgos Dirou, 8km south of Areopolis. Alepotripa and Vlichada caves (collectively known as the ‘Dinos 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 we took a boat trip in the adjacent Vlichada cave. A short walk from the cave’s entrance leads to an underground jetty from where we boarded a paddle boat for an awe-inspiring 30-minute trip along the silent underground network of waterways, passages and galleries of stalactites and stalagmites lit up against the reflected water.
Emerging in the warm October sun, we then visited the Mani - an area steeped in mythology; a cave on Cape Tainaron, its southernmost tip, is said to be one of the entrances to Hades (the Underworld), from where Hercules dragged Cerberus into daylight. One of the most fascinating sights are the marble-roofed tower houses - many are well preserved, and one has been turned into a stunning boutique hotel. Climbing the steep alleyways winding up between tumbeldown houses, with only the occasional pungent-smelling carob tree for greenery, we marvelled at how its inhabitants eeked out a life in such a challenging landscape. It seemed a far cry from Mistras’ lush mountainsides, Monemvasia’s bustling streets and the coast of Kardimili but such is the variety of things to do in this glorious pensinsula – our advice is to just give yourself plenty of time to see as much as you can!
Words by Richard Hammond and Clare Hargreaves Photos (unless otherwise indicated) by Clare Hargreaves
== Disclosure: Richard Hammond and Clare Hargreaves were guests of the Greece National Tourism Organisation. Richard and Clare had full editorial control of the review, which is written in their own words based on their experience of visiting the Peloponnese in October 2019 for Greentraveller's Guide to Central and Southern Peloponnese.
All opinions are the authors' own.