After enjoying Greece’s charming old port town of Nafplio, we’ll time-trip through the ruins of Olympia, take center stage at the remarkably preserved theater at Epidavros, and explore the ancient capital of Mycenae. Then we’ll wander off the beaten path along the rustic, rough-and-tumble Mani Peninsula, relax in the idyllic beach town of Kardamyli, and marvel at Greece’s Rock of Gibraltar: the fortress town of Monemvasia.
The three main sightseeing areas at Mycenae are a few minutes’ walk from one another. The archaeological ruins consist of the walled city of Mycenae atop the hill called the acropolis. Here you’ll find the famous Lion Gate entrance, Grave Circle A that yielded precious artifacts, and the ruins of the palace. Below the site is the museum, housing artifacts that were found here. Finally, as impressive as anything here, is the Treasury of Atreus — a huge domed tomb, located about 300 yards away from the main site (along the main road). Allow an hour for the site, a half-hour for the museum, and a half-hour for the Treasury of Atreus. It makes for a handy half-day side-trip from Nafplio, and can be combined conveniently with the Theater of Epidavros for a full day of ancient sight-hopping (best by car).
Nafplio(n)’s Palamidi Fortress
This imposing hilltop fortress, built between 1711 and 1714, is the best-preserved of its kind in Greece. Palamidi towers over the Old Town, protected to the west by steep cliffs that plunge 650 feet to the sea. From its highest ramparts, you can spot several Aegean islands and look deep into the mountainous interior of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. The mighty outer walls enclose a sprawling complex of interconnected bastions that are fun to poke around in. If you plan to go in the afternoon, call first to confirm the closing time (+27520-28036). Allow at least 30 minutes up top, and wear sturdy shoes.
Epidavros’ theater is its star attraction. It’s the finest and best-preserved of all of Greece’s ancient theaters — and that’s saying something in a country with 132 of them. Epidavros also has some (far) less interesting sights. The once-great sanctuary is now just a lonely field of rubble. The small Archaeological Museum displays a few crumbled fragments of statuary. But the theater alone makes Epidavros worth the side-trip. Budget two to three hours for the round-trip excursion from Nafplio. You can see the entire site in an hour, but it’s delightful to linger at the theater.
There are three parts to an Olympia visit: The Sanctuary of Olympia archaeological site, the Archaeological Museum, and the smaller Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity (with the tiny adjacent Museum of the History of Excavations). If you have all day for sightseeing, first hit the small Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity, which provides background on the ancient games that’ll help enliven your visit to the site. I recommend walking the archaeological site next (while your energy is still high), then touring the Archaeological Museum to reconstruct what you’ve seen. Try to visit in the early morning or late afternoon (though the site can be very hot in the afternoon). These sights are most crowded between 10:00 and 13:00 (especially the Archaeological Museum). If you’re here off-season, it’s best to visit the site and the big museum in the morning, in case they close at 15:00.
As at the rest of Greece’s ancient sites these days, opening hours can change without warning. Recommended local guide Niki Vlachou (see next) is your best resource for up-to-date hours for the town’s sights: Check her website, which she updates regularly with the latest opening times (or contact Niki directly; she happily answers my readers’ questions at no cost and no obligation to hire her as a guide). Staff answering the phone at the site and museum don’t always have the latest info, may not speak much English, and are unlikely to be much help.
Consider hiring fantastic Niki Vlachou to show you around the ruins and museums (reasonable and negotiable rates, contact for exact price; also arranges wine tastings, cooking classes, and meals in local homes). Don’t count on finding a local guide to hire once you arrive in Olympia — unlike at many other popular ancient sites, the Sanctuary of Olympia is not surrounded by hopeful guides-for-hire.
Botana Herb Shop (Kardamyli)
Owner Yiannis Dimitreas offers free tastes of his organic produce — marinated olives, fresh olive oil, and local honey — and also sells homemade herbal teas, soaps, and skin creams (tel. +27210-73367, mobile +69726-90170).
Kastania’s Church of St. Peter
This tiny chapel, which dates from around 1200, appears to be cobbled together using bits and pieces of antiquity. If it’s open, go inside — it’s richly adorned with frescoes that have told Bible stories to this community since the 14th century. While the lighting may be jerry-rigged, and a destructive mold has hastened the aging of its precious art, the spiritual wonder of the place remains intact. (Enjoy it before some archaeologist scrapes off what’s left of these frescoes and sends them to a museum in Athens.) The olive-oil lamp burns 24 hours a day, tended by a caretaker family. Even if the church is closed, stop to enjoy the views over town from this perch.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re in Greece, climbing 999 steps to bring you the best of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Thanks for joining us.
Peloponnesia was the heartland of ancient Greece. Its wild and mountainous landscape has hosted the interminable rise and fall of cultures, which makes for fascinating sightseeing today.
The peninsula is dotted with striking ruins, from ancient Mycenaean domes, to Golden Age temples, to imposing Venetian fortresses. And we’ll also see stunning seaside scenery…a Greek Orthodox service… and the breathtaking remains of a Byzantine citadel.
In the extreme south of Europe is Greece. And in the south of Greece, a short drive from Athens, is the Peloponnese, a peninsula barely hanging from the mainland. Our tour includes Mycenae, Nafplion, Epidavros, Olympia, Kardamyli, the rugged Mani Peninsula, and Monemvasia.
Peloponnesian history is Greece’s history: warring tribes, pan-Hellenic games, Golden Age Greeks, Roman rule, centuries of Byzantine rule. Then, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century, the Peloponnesian Peninsula became part of their Ottoman Empire. Finally, in the 19th century, after 400 years, the Greeks threw out their Turkish overlords and established an independent, modern nation.
Greece — with a relatively sparse population and a fine road system — is easy to cover by bus or car. We’ve rented a car in Athens, and in 90 minutes, we’re crossing the Corinth Canal.
The Corinth Canal cuts the Peloponnesian peninsula off from the rest of Greece. Two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Nero broke ground for this canal. But the four-mile-long ditch wasn’t actually dug until about a century ago, by modern Greeks.
Our first stop is ancient Mycenae, the oldest sight you’re likely to see in this land dotted by so many ruins. The Mycenaeans, who dominated the Greek world between 1600 and 1200 B.C., were the first Bronze Age society to emerge on the European mainland.
As the torch of civilization moved westward, they picked it up from the Minoans, an even earlier civilization that thrived on the Greek island of Crete. While the Minoans enjoyed the luxury of peace on their remote island, the Mycenaeans were a militaristic society surrounded by enemies.
Their capital was heavily fortified and stood on an easy-to-defend hill, flanked by steep ravines, with views all the way to the sea. Mycenae flourished because it was ideally situated for trade by both sea and land.
In its day, the mighty Lion Gate would have been awe-inspiring. Standing strong here for over 3,000 years, it was the symbol of Mycenaean power.
These were the early Greeks Homer wrote of in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Keep in mind these people lived a thousand years before the rise of Athens. They were as ancient and mysterious to Socrates and Plato as those Golden Age Greeks are to us.
While the ruins are stark and scant, with a little imagination, you can envision life here. For example, to fetch water, residents would descend into this cleverly constructed mine-like shaft and climb way, way, way down.
I’m 60 feet below the surface. This is the cistern where the water was collected — piped in from a spring that was 500 yards outside the walls. Even back then, you couldn’t have a good fortress without water.
Mycenae was at the peak of its power around 1300 B.C., after which it and its empire seemed to disappear virtually overnight.
A circular wall of stones defined the cemetery. Mycenae lay unappreciated until the 19th century, when a treasure trove of gold was unearthed in this necropolis.
Today, those treasures are the star attractions back in Athens at the National Archaeological Museum. This discovery affirmed the archeologists’ theory that Mycenae was Homer’s fabled city “rich in gold.” And the elaborate detail makes the sophistication of the Mycenaeans clear. These golden cups are exquisite. The so-called Mask of Agamemnon was a death mask placed on the face of a dead king in his coffin.
The Mycenaeans took good care of their dead — at least their important dead. This passageway leads to an underground royal tomb.
The corbelled stonework was an engineering feat. Designed like a stone igloo, this tholos (tomb) was the biggest dome of its day.
This remarkable structure remained the king of domes until the Romans built their Pantheon about 1,400 years later.
One way to judge a society’s architectural finesse is by the distance it can span with no internal supports. By today’s standards this structure’s not much. But back then, it was a wonder.
Nearby on the coast, the city of Nafplion [Nafplio] is the perfect base for exploring the northeast corner of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
Nafplion is a striking reminder that this part of Greece was for centuries an outpost of Venice. The island in the harbor was the first line of local defense. The second line was the Palamidi Fortress capping the hilltop high above.
Climb 999 steps above Nafplion and you reach this early-18th-century fortress. Your reward, along with a great view, is a chance to appreciate the far-reaching power of the Venetian empire in its day.
The Palamidi Fortress, regarded as the best example of Venetian military architecture, saw plenty of action. It fell to the Ottomans in 1715, played a role in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, and was occupied by the Nazis during World War II.
Nafplion is one of Greece’s prettiest towns. Its narrow streets are lined by elegant Venetian houses and graceful Neoclassical mansions. Like the big square in Athens, Nafplion’s main square is called Syntagma (or “constitution”) Square.
A constitution was the dream of many in the 1820s as the Greeks were creating their newly independent nation. As this town was one of the first liberated from the Ottoman Turks in 1822, Nafplion became the new country’s first capital city.
This square is a delightful mix of architecture revealing the many layers of local history: The old Venetian arsenal still sports the symbol of Venice: the winged lion of St. Mark. The domed mosques are a reminder of centuries of Muslim Ottoman rule. This mosque was converted to house independent Greece’s first parliament.
At the top of the town, our hotel’s stony courtyard fits right in. The breakfast room comes with friendly service and a commanding view. And the bedrooms are a tasteful mix of stone and wood.
The harborfront promenade features inviting bars and couch-filled cafés which attract a relaxed crowd. The sofas encourage locals and visitors alike to stay awhile. And, if you stay long enough, nearby tavernas — as rustic restaurants are called here — serve the fish dish of your dreams.
An hour’s drive east is the sanctuary at Epidavros, with the best-preserved theater in the ancient world and the scant remains of its city.
In 400 B.C., Epidavros, with a sprawling complex of hospitals and sick wards, was the most famous healing center in the Greek world.
It was a place of miraculous cures — and comfortable benches, where the sick came to be treated by doctor-priests doing the work of Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine.
The highlight of Epidavros is its fine theater, which provided entertainment for those who made the pilgrimage here from all over Greece. It continued to operate until 426 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius II — who was a Christian — closed it down, along with all other pagan sanctuaries. Given its size — over 12,000 seats — and obvious lack of modern amplification, the acoustics needed to be perfect…and they still are.
Rick: Friends, Greeks, wayfarers, in these times of discord, fear is rampant in our society. I contend that the flip side of fear is understanding…and those who travel will reap great understanding — by meeting people who find other truths to be self-evident and God-given…
The rugged, sparsely populated terrain of the Peloponnese, evokes ancient times, when Greeks considered this a mysterious and frightening land…a mythic world of terrifying creatures. No wonder it was here that Hercules was sent to perform most of his daunting labors.
Ancient athletes were tested here as well. The Sanctuary of Olympia was the birthplace of the Olympic Games. Despite the tourist crowds, it remains an evocative place, nestled among the shady trees. Wandering its extensive ruins, it’s clear Olympia was much more than a stadium.
Local tour guide Niki Vlachou helps explain.
Rick: So it’s called the “sanctuary” of Olympia?
Niki: Yes but it was primarily a religious place dedicated to Zeus and the rest of the gods with temples all over and it was only open to people during the games for over 1,000 years.
The Temple of Zeus was magnificent in the fifth century B.C. and reminds us that the games were held in honor of the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon (or “world of gods”).
Niki: Inside this temple was that amazing statue of Zeus, which was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. Gold and ivory towering in the temple that made the Greeks lose their minds by seeing Zeus alive in front of them. This was one of their chances to meet the god in person, as they thought.
Six centuries after Christ earthquakes sent its columns tumbling. Today they lie here as if to illustrate how Greek columns were stacks of fluted limestone drums held together with square pegs.
The popularity of the games grew rapidly, attracting athletes from throughout the Greek world to compete in an ever-increasing number of events — there was javelin, discus, boxing; there was a sprint of one stadium length, the two stadium sprint, even two-stadium sprint naked with all your armor. The last of the ancient games were held in 393 A.D., not to be started again for 1,500 years.
Rick: So why the games?
Niki: To unify the Greeks, strengthen the Greek culture, and to also teach these young boys the military skills they needed. Plus they had all these classrooms here to teach them the Greek philosophy.
Rick: So the Olympic Games actually made the Greek culture stronger.
Niki: The idea was that if the Greeks are to fight they better fight in the stadium and be united against the rest of the world.
Rick: It’s brilliant and this worked for 1,200 years.
The most vivid remnant of the games is this — the original Olympic stadium. Visitors just can’t resist the chance to line up on the marble starting blocks and imagine athletes from around the Greek world doing this same thing at those first games back in 776 B.C.
While most visitors get to the four Peloponnesian sites we’ve seen so far, a three-hour drive gets us off the beaten path and to the south coast. This is where the rugged charm of this remote corner of Greece is most apparent.
The town of Kardamyli, gateway to the Mani Peninsula, is one of the oldest names in the annals of Greek history, even mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. This unassuming little seaside getaway is a fine spot to relax and settle into the pace of Greek country life.
The remains of the tiny fortified old town are a reminder that Kardamyli was deserted in the Middle Ages, when pirates forced the inhabitants to retreat up into the hills. Most remained there until the 18th century, when tower houses like these allowed a safe return.
Yiannis Dimitreas runs a delightful little shop that showcases the organic riches of this corner of Greece.
Rick: You know, this room to me is just a celebration of everything you can find in the hills here in the Peloponnese.
Yiannis: Well, that’s how we feel about it actually, and that’s why we are running this little store.
Rick: So you find everything here essentially up in the hills.
Yiannis: Up in the hills.
Rick: Just in your backyard.
Yiannis: Next door. Well should I show you what I picked now Rick?
Yiannis: Well this is it. This is chamomile, or chamomile. This is a beautiful chamomile, as you can see, white and yellow flower. It is the flower that we are after.
Rick: All the good stuff is in the flower.
Yiannis: The good, yeah the good stuff inside the flower that make you rest, sleep easily at night, calm down your stomach. If you’ve got a cold it soothes down your sore throat and everything. Doctors recommend it.
Rick: This is like a pharmacy!
Yiannis: You’ve got it. Let me show you the olives now.
Yiannis: We have many different types of olives. But what it is about olives is is the way we make them. You don’t go off the tree of course and pick them, like you pick any other fruit and you eat it. They have to be picked and then go through a process of being marinated, cleaned up, washed, and after seven times they’ll be ready to eat.
Rick: What do we have here?
Yiannis: This are the kalamata, kalamata. There’s the town Kalamata, that’s the name of the olives. Now this is made very simply. This is made with sea salt, wine vinegar, and olive oil. As simple as that.
Rick: Now what’s in this one?
Yiannis: Well this is kalamata, and green ones, mixed together and marinated with more herbs. Sea salt, wine vinegar, six herbs, olive oil, and garlic.
Rick: I have to try one.
Yiannis: Of course; it’s my pleasure.
Rick: So this is the herb version. These are the same kind of olives as these and these but with more herbs.
Yiannis: Yes, with more herbs.
Rick: This is good. And all of those herbs were found in the hills?
Yiannis: On the hillsides.
Rick: By you?
Yiannis: By me.
Rick: You must feel very personal about these olives.
Yiannis: I, I’m almost in love with it. I love doing it.
The charm of Kardamyli is its low-key atmosphere…especially lunch or dinnertime overlooking the coast. We’re here before the tourist season hits, and it’s mostly locals enjoying the scene. It’s Sunday, and two goats are roasting on the spit as we settle in for a taste of the local cuisine…starting with ouzo — the Greek anise-based aperitif. Then a fresh Greek salad, stuffed peppers, and tzatziki — the yogurt dip that accompanies most meals. And, when goat’s on the spit…why choose anything else?
Kardamyli is a good springboard for exploring the Mani Peninsula. This southeastern tip of the European mainland feels as wild as its history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this godforsaken corner of Greece was known to travelers as “the land of evil counsel.” That’s because of its reputation for robbery and piracy — a more reliable way to survive here than trying to eke out an honest living by farming this barren land.
The town of Vathia is one of the region’s characteristic tower settlements. The best-preserved of all the Mani villages, its deserted, fortified houses are a poignant reminder that these harsh conditions forced the population to seek protection in clans.
In its day, the population was swollen by an influx of refugees fleeing whatever crisis was gripping Greece further to the north.
Looking around at the stark landscape of the Mani Peninsula, which barely supports 5,000 people today, it’s hard to believe that 200 years ago it sustained a population of almost 60,000.
Just up the coast, wedged in a ravine, the village of Kastania is more inviting, and offers a rare opportunity to explore a traditional Mani village. While it feels pretty sleepy today, Kastania was once a local powerhouse. During the 19th-century Greek War of Independence, it boasted no less than 400 “guns” — as Mani people called their men folk. They were gathered under a warlord whose imposing family tower still stands over the town square.
Along with many guns, the towns had many churches. The tiny Church of St. Peter, thought to have been built during the 12th century, is a fine example of Byzantine church architecture of the time.
The inside is richly adorned with frescos that have told Bible stories to this community for centuries. While it feels unkempt and ramshackle, and a destructive mold has hastened the aging of its precious art, the spiritual wonder of the place remains intact. It’s amazing to think that in our age there are still remote corners where centuries-old art is tucked away…where virtually no tourist goes…and where the curious traveler can be alone with a fragile yet surviving bit of a bygone age.
Neglected as this chapel seems, when a local drops by to light a candle and say a prayer, you realize this is still very much a living place of worship.
Back down in the town square, the local priest calls his flock to worship. Whether 30 or just three show up, he performs the service with the same enthusiasm. Like people in Russia, Serbia, and some other Balkan countries, most Greek Christians are Eastern Orthodox. Orthodox churches follow the earliest traditions of the Christian faith — from a time before reforms created today’s Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions.
The iconostasis — the icon-covered screen in the middle of the room — separates the material world (where the worshippers stand) from the heavenly one. Orthodox priests do the religious “heavy lifting” behind this screen, where the Bible’s kept.
Orthodox icons — stylized paintings of saints — are packed with intricate symbolism. Cast against a gold or silver background, they’re meant to remind viewers of the spiritual nature of Jesus and the saints, rather than their physical form.
Traditional Orthodox worshippers stand through the service, as a sign of respect.
Orthodox worship generally involves chanting, and the church is filled with the evocative aroma of incense. Through these elements, the Mass attempts to create an actual religious experience, to help the worshipper transcend the physical world and enter into communion with the spiritual one.
A short drive eastward through the mountains takes us to the magnificent island fortress of Monemvasia. Often referred to as the “Gibraltar of Greece,” this is a virtual showcase of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian history, dating back to the 13th century.
Its historic causeway is still the only one way on or off this burly chunk of land.
The town’s fortified gate opens into Monemvasia’s narrow, cobbled main street, which meanders uphill past an assortment of tourist shops and cafés with terraces overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
In the 14th century, the fortress of Monemvasia was also a prosperous trading center. In its day it was one of the great commercial centers of the Byzantine world, with a population of about 40,000. A key strategic holding, it was occupied back and forth between the Venetians and the Turks until modern times.
Monemvasia then slipped into a decline that lasted until tourists rediscovered the place in the 1970s. Many of the town’s houses have been restored and are used as weekend retreats by wealthy Athenians.
A steep zigzag path leads up and up out of the lower town. Passing through the old-town gate, you enter the fortified upper town. Its ruins sprawl across the broad summit of the rock. In its day, Monemvasia was considered the mightiest fortress in Byzantine Greece.
Not surprisingly, it was never taken in battle. But it was susceptible to siege: Its greatest weakness was its reliance on the mainland for food and water.
The fortresses’ only surviving building is the 13th-century Byzantine Church of St. Sophia. Hanging precariously to the edge of a sheer cliff, it strikes me as a metaphor for the resilience of traditional culture in our modern world.
A multi-faceted history, welcoming people, delicious food, and dramatic vistas…the Peloponnesian Peninsula has it all. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’.
So Yiannis: There’s olives everywhere in the Mediterranean. What makes these grapes special?
A multi-faceted history, delicious people [laugh].
[Phone rings] Yeah. / (We’re in the middle of a take, Rick…We’re ready to roll, Rick.)