Greece experts Sunvil tell us about why travellers should discover the Peloponnese.
Viewing the ruins of Ancient Messene from above gives a sense of their immense scale © Panagiotis Karapanagiotis, Dreamstime
The history of the Peloponnese, and that of Greece in general, is long, complex and extremely well covered by an innumerable number of books and, nowadays, websites and podcasts. A generation or two ago it could be assumed that the average, educated, person, knew at least the bare bones of the story from the Persian invasions right up to the Roman conquest. This is no longer the case.
Enthusiasts of the subject will not need yet another history of Greece, but for those less acquainted with its classical past, and for those whose knowledge ends somewhere in the murk of Byzantine times, an unapologetically ‘potted’ history of the Peloponnese might prove useful, at least in placing the various ruins that dot the landscape in some sort of a context.
One of the problems with Greece is that before tackling the history, you first have to deal with the myth. The first thing to learn is that this is a far more complicated subject than it is sometimes portrayed. The Greek belief system was fluid and adaptable, rather than a rigidly defined structure. It also had the nifty trick, common to many religions, of being able to accommodate several contradictory ideas at once. Added to this is a large amount of regionalism; the Apollo worshipped in Delphi probably had a very different character from the Apollo worshipped in Arcadia. That said, it would be useful for any traveller in Greece to have some basic knowledge of the beings to whom all these temples are dedicated, as well as of some of the stories that formed the backbone of Classical Greek thought.
The Peloponnese provides many diverse habitats, from the sea that surrounds it, through its Mediterranean shores, to its alpine slopes. It even has several wetland areas, beloved by migratory birds.
The best time to come to see the extraordinary displays of wild flowers that the Peloponnese puts on is in the spring. They start blooming as early as January and then continue in waves. April is, perhaps, the most stunning month. This is not to say that there is nothing to see at other times of year. While the summer months can seem arid, with bare and dusty hillsides, there are still gems to be found, while the rains of autumn bring on a mini revival of vegetation.
Of 440 bird species recorded in Greece, around 275 occur in the Peloponnese as residents or seasonal migrants from outside Europe. The wetlands of the Peloponnese are an important habitat for migratory birds such as herons, egrets and the magnificent greater flamingo. The best place to view these is the lagoon at Gialova. Other good sites for aquatic birds include the Limenas Geraka, Europe’s most southerly fjord, and the Stymfalian Lake. Up in the mountains you will often spot large birds of prey. Most conspicuous is the common buzzard, but eagles, vultures and kites are also about. Small owls can often be spotted perching on rooftops and in ruins, and their distinctive call can be heard at night. Other conspicuous birds include common hoopoe, Alpine swift, Eurasian jay, Eurasian magpie and common starling.
Lizards are common, mostly smallish and brown in colour. A few species of gecko might be seen scarpering up and down walls in hotels and resorts during summer; be nice to them, as they are harmless to people but devour plenty of mosquitoes.Snakes and tortoises may also be spotted on the road. The former generally leave you alone if you leave them alone, and only one species is somewhat venomous. The Greeks are bizarrely terrified of them and will swerve their cars to run them down – a practice infinitely more likely to kill them than a snake bite. Tortoises are undeniably cute, but can give a sharp bite with far from clean teeth, so you should keep your distance.
For a visitor used to urban life in northern climes the Peloponnese seems to teem with insects, some of them alarmingly large. The vast majority are harmless, if sometimes irritating. The most vocal are cicadas, whose shrill mating call can be a constant background in the summer months. The prettiest are butterflies, around from spring to autumn.
Dolphins are a not uncommon sight in the surrounding waters. Much rarer are the endangered loggerhead turtles, which use the long beaches of the western Peloponnese as a breeding ground.
At first glance the population of Greece is, ethnically, pretty homogenous, especially outside of Athens. Even before the recent refugee crisis, it had the highest proportion of immigrants of any EU country. Estimates put one in ten of the population as having been born outside of Greece, the vast majority of these being Albanian, and these still provide a vital base-level workforce in agriculture and construction. Even in out-of-the-way areas in the Peloponnese, you will see groups of immigrant workers gathering in the early morning, waiting to be picked up for a day’s labour. Recent years in the Peloponnese have also seen an increasing number of agricultural labourers coming from Asia, as well as a scattering of knick-knack salesmen from North and West Africa. While there is some inevitable tension, most Greeks treat the immigrants well. Looked at historically, this is hardly surprising as the Greeks have much experience with immigration, both to and from their country. Most families have also grown up with stories of living in harsh conditions in the aftermath of the various upheavals of the 20th century, giving them a greater empathy with immigrants.
The modern culture of Greece is, in many ways, not much different from that of the rest of Europe and America, with the young absorbing much of their view of the world from the same movies, music and websites as the young everywhere else.
This has to be weighed against the importance the Greeks put on their history, and the customs and culture that have arisen from it. This includes not just the glories of the Classical Age, but also the flowering of Christianity under Byzantium, the 400 years of ‘oppression’ under the Turks, and the events of the 20th century – in which, it would be fair to say, Greece suffered more than any other country that is normally included in ‘Western’ Europe.
This contradiction can be often seen in the Peloponnese, where the people are surrounded by tangible reminders of this past, and the region is known as a conservative one. Everyone, even iPod-wearing teenagers, would agree on the importance of preserving Greek heritage and tradition.
(photo: Orange picking is a popular agricultural pastime in the Peloponnese © Discover Peloponnese, flickr)
The most obvious signs of this, at least for a visitor to the Peloponnese, are likely to come in the form of music and dance. Music is generally based around the bouzouki – an instrument a bit like a mandolin which used to have six paired strings, but now generally has eight strings. Nowadays its players form the backbone of both traditional folk music and of rembetika, the ‘Greek blues’, which started in the hashish dens of Piraeus (the port of Athens), mainly sung by the Greek refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s. Another characteristic instrument for folk music is the clarinet, whose wailing tones often give it a distinctly Eastern flavour.
Traditional Greek dancing is familiar, at least in its basic form, to many of us, but the surface similarities between the various dances actually hide a wide diversity of styles. The kalamatianos, said to have originated in Kalamata, is a classic, with the dancers standing in a row with their hands on each other’s shoulders. Performances of music and dance often take place in touristy areas, but are sometimes of dubious quality. You are better off hunting down a village paneyiri, or ‘celebration’, where live music will be accompanied by spontaneous dancing. You might also keep an eye on the Greek men late at night in a taverna, as occasionally one of them will be possessed by the spirit of the evening and will perform a zeibekiko. This intense, solo dance also originated in the hash dens where rembetika was played.
Finally, as we are discussing music and dance, a word on plate smashing, which outsiders often regard as an essential part of a Greek evening. It used to be a rare expression of celebration, but is now actually illegal because of the injuries it sometimes caused. Nowadays, Greeks confine themselves to throwing flower petals over the heads of the dancers and musicians.