Greece's Peloponnese

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.

Travel Details

Ancient Mycenae

There are three main sightseeing areas at Mycenae, a few minutes' walk from each other. 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). There are a handful of other ruins and tombs scattered around the area, but stick to these three to start your visit. Allow an hour for the site, a half-hour for the museum, and a half-hour for the Treasury of Atreus. Mycenae is 18 miles north of Nafplio (on the way to the major E65 expressway) — it's easiest to drive there. Tel. 275-107-6585 (at Mycenae) or 275-202-7502 (in Nafplio).

Epidavros Theater

These days the famous theater is Epidavros' 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. A small Archaeological Museum displays a few crumbled fragments of statuary. The stadium is under renovation and closed to visitors. But the theater alone makes Epidavros worth the side-trip. It's a 40-minute drive east of Nafplio, along winding roads. 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 (tel. 273-502-2009).

Olympia

There are three parts to an Olympia visit: The Sanctuary of Olympia archaeological site, the Archaeological Museum, and two smaller museums on a nearby hill (the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity, and the Museum of the History of Excavations). While you can see these in any order, I recommend walking the site first (while your energy is high), then touring the Archaeological Museum to reconstruct what you've seen. If you have time left, hit the two smaller museums and poke around the town (which has yet another museum — a very humble exhibit about the modern Olympic Games). Allow 90 minutes for the site, an hour for the Archaeological Museum, and another hour for the two smaller museums. Try to go early in the morning or late afternoon (though the site can be very hot in the afternoon). The Sanctuary of Olympia sits in the fertile valley of the Alphios River in the western Peloponnese, nine miles southeast of the regional capital of Pyrgos. The site curves along the southeastern edge of the tidy modern village of Archaia (Ancient) Olympia (tel. 2624-022-517).

Monemvasia

Monemvasia, a gigantic rock that rockets improbably up from the blue-green deep just a few hundred yards offshore, is a time-warp to the medieval Peloponnese. Its little Lower Town hamlet hides on the seaward side of the giant Rock, tethered to the mainland only by a skinny spit of land. This remarkably romantic walled town — with the remains of an even bigger Upper Town scattered along the rock's peak high above — is a living museum of Byzantine, Turkish, and Venetian history dating back to the 13th century. Summiting Monemvasia is a key experience on any Peloponnesian visit. Monemvasia means "single entry" — and the only way to get here is to cross the narrow causeway. At the mainland end of the causeway is the nondescript town of Gefyra, a smattering of hotels, restaurants, shops, and other modern amenities that offer a 21st-century escape from the Rock. It takes only a few hours to "do" Monemvasia — a stroll through the Lower Town, a hike to the Upper Town, and you've seen it all. Consider seeing Monemvasia as a side-trip. but remember that spending the night here — especially on the Rock — allows you to linger on the floodlight cobbles, and makes the long trip down here more worthwhile.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

[1] 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.

[3 ] Peloponnesia was the heartland of ancient Greece. Its wild, mountainous landscape has hosted the interminable rise and fall of cultures which makes for fascinating sightseeing today.

[4] The peninsula is dotted with striking ruins, from ancient Mycenaean [my-sih-nee-in] 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 Byzantine citadel.

[5] 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.

[6] Peloponnesian history is Greece's history: warring tribes, pan-Hellenic games, Golden Age Greeks, Roman rule, and centuries of Byzantine rule. Then, with the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks in the 15th century, the Peloponnese became part of their Ottoman Empire. Finally, in the 19th-century, after 400 years, Greeks threw out their Turkish overlords and established an independent, modern nation.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] Our first stop is Ancient Mycenae the oldest sight you'll see in this land dotted by so many ruins. The Mycenaean's, who dominated the Greek world between 1600 and 1200 BC, were the first Bronze Age society to emerge on the European mainland.

[10] As the torch of civilization moved westward, they picked it up from the Minoans, an earlier civilization that thrived on the Greek island of Crete. Unlike the Minoans, who enjoyed the luxury of peace on their remote island, the Mycenaeans were a militaristic society surrounded by enemies.

[11] 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.

[12] In its day, the mighty Lion Gate would have been awe-inspiring. Standing strong here for over 3000 years, it was the symbol of Mycenaean power.

[13] These were the early Greeks Homer wrote of in The Iliad, and The Odyssey. Keep in mind that the Mycenaean's 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.

[15] 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.

[16] I'm 60 feet below the surface. This is the cistern where the water was collected — piped from a spring 500 yards outside the walls. Even back then, you couldn't have a good fortress without water.

[17] Mycenae was at the peak of its power around 1300 BC, after which it and its empire seemed to disappear virtually overnight.

[18] 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.

[19] 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.

[20] The Mycenaeans took good care of their dead — at least their important dead. This passageway leads to an underground royal tomb.

[21] The corbelled stonework was an engineering feat. Designed like a stone igloo, this Beehive or "Tholos" tomb was the biggest dome of its day.

[22] This remarkable structure remained the king of domes until the Romans built the Pantheon about 1,400 years later.

[23] 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.

[25] On the nearby coast, the city of Nafplion is the perfect base for exploring the northeast corner of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

[26] 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.

[27] Climb 999 steps above Nafplion and you reach this early 18th-century fortress. Your reward, along with a grand view, is a chance to appreciate the far-reaching power of the Venetian empire in its day.

[28] 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 roll in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, and was occupied by the Nazis during World War Two.

[29] 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.

[30] A constitution was the dream of many in the 1820s when the Greeks were creating their newly independent nation. As this town was one of the first liberated from the Ottomans Turks in 1822, Nafplion became the new country's first capital city.

[31] The 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.

[31a] 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.

[32] The harborfront promenade features inviting bars and couch-filled cafes 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.

[33 ] An hour's drive east is the sanctuary at Epidavros, with the best-preserved theater in the ancient world and the scant remains of a city around it.

[34] In 400 BC, 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.

[35] 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 AD, 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.

[38] Friends, Greeks, way-farers, 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 — meeting people who find other truths to be god-given and self evident....

[39] The rugged, sparsely populated terrain of the Peloponnese, evokes ancient times when Greeks considered this a mysterious and frightening land...the mythic land of terrifying creatures. No wonder it was here that Hercules was sent to perform most of his daunting labors.

[40] Ancient athletes were tested here as well. The Sanctuary of Olympia was the birthplace of the Olympic Games. Despite the crowds, it remains an evocative place, nestled among shady trees. Wandering its extensive ruins, it's clear Olympia was much more than a stadium.

[41] Local tour guide Niki Vlachou helps explain.

Rick: So it was a sanctuary? Niki: It's a sanctuary because it was essentially a religious site dedicated to Zeus and was only open during the period of the games. It's home to an extensive complex of temples, public buildings, and sporting facilities that played host to ancient Greece's Olympic Games for more than a thousand years.

[43] The Temple of Zeus was magnificent in the 5th century BC and reminds us that the games were held in honor of the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon or world of gods.

This temple housed on of the seven wonders of the ancient world — a towering statue of Zeus with gold and ivory. It gave people a chance to actually see the god. They saw it and ran.

[45] In the 6th century AD, earthquakes sent its columns tumbling. Today they lie here as if to illustrate how Greek columns were stacks of fluted limestone disks held together with square pegs.

[46] The popularity of the games grew rapidly, attracting athletes from throughout the Greek world to compete in an ever-growing number of events — such as boxing, discus, javelin, sprinting the length of a stadium, the two stadium sprint, and even the two stadium sprint naked with all your armor. The last of the ancient games were held in AD 393 not to be started again for 1500 years.

[47 transcribe] Niki, so why the games? They made the Greek culture strong. It was for practicing military techniques. People came not only to compete in the games but to take classes. This was a classroom. They made it clear, if Greeks are to fight it is better in the stadium so they can be united to fight the rest of the world.

[48] 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 in 776 BC.

[50] While most visitors get to the four Peloponnesian stops we've seen so far, a three-hour drive takes us off the beaten path and to the south coast. This is where the rustic charm of this remote corner of Greece is most apparent.

[51] 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 get-away is a fine spot to relax and settle into the pace of Greek country life.

[52] 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.

[53] Yiannis Dimitreas runs a delightful little shop that showcases the organic riches of this corner of Greece.

[55] The charm of Kardamyli is its low key ambience...especially lunch or dinner time 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 anis-based aperitif. Then a fresh Greek salad, stuffed peppers, and tsatzike — the yogurt dip that accompanies most meals. And, when goats on the spit...why choose anything else.

[56] Kardamyli is a good springboard for exploring the Mani Peninsula. This southernmost point of the European mainland feels as wild as its history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this god-forsaken 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 than trying to eke out an honest living by farming the barren land.

[57] 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.

[58] In its day, the population was swollen by an influx of refugees fleeing whatever crisis was gripping Greece further north.

[59] 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.

[60] 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.

[61] 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.

[62] 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...where the curious traveler can be alone with a fragile yet surviving bit of a bygone culture.

[63] Neglected as it 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.

[64] Back down in the town square the local priest calls his flock to worship. Whether thirty 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.

[65] The iconostasis — the icon-covered screen in the middle of the room — separates the material world (where the worshippers stand) from the spiritual one. Orthodox priests do the religious "heavy lifting" behind this screen, where the Bible is kept.

[66] 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.

[67] Traditional Orthodox worshippers stand through the Mass, as a sign of respect.

[68] 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.

[69] 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, Turkish, and Venetian history dating back to the 13th century.

[70] The historic causeway is still the only one way on or off this burly chunk of land.

[71] The town's fortified gate opens into Monemvasia's narrow, cobbled main street, which meanders uphill past an assortment of tourist shops and cafes with terraces looking out to the Mediterranean Sea.

[72] 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 Turks until modern times.

[73] Monemvasia slipped into a decline that lasted until tourists re-discovered the place in the 1970s. Many of the town's houses have been restored and are used as weekend retreats by wealthy Athenians.

[74] A steep zigzag path leads up and up out of the lower town. Passing through the old 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.

[75] Not surprisingly, it was never captured in battle. But it was susceptible to siege: Its greatest weakness was its dependence on the mainland for food and water.

[76] The fortresses' only surviving building is the 13th-century Byzantine Church of St Sophia. Hanging precariously close to the edge of a sheer cliff, it strikes me as a metaphor for the resilience of traditional culture in our modern world.

[77] 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 traveling. 

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