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The Peloponnese - The author’s take
Boats in the harbour of Koroni © Florin Stana, Shutterstock
Forget the islands. This statement will come as a shock to most travellers to Greece, and rightly so. The Greek islands contain some of the most stunning destinations on Earth, and consistently feature in bucket lists and polls of where to visit ‘before you die’. Their fame, however, means that mainland Greece is oft en ignored, and this is unjust. In fact, parts of the mainland could make a claim to beat the islands in scenery, history, wildlife and culture. The Peloponnese, a distinct area the size of Wales, is the best place to experience this.
If you want the white-sand beaches lined with azure water, or the sleepy, whitewashed villages, then the Peloponnese has them, but it also has so much else: towering mountains in which you can hike, and even ski; some of the most famous classical remains, from Olympia to the theatre at Epidavros, as well as countless ‘minor’ sites, where you might find yourself alone in the ruins; olive groves that produce the finest fruit and oil in the world; medieval castles and churches from several different civilisations; hills covered in wild flowers; villages that vary from modern, farming communities to stone-built, mountain retreats; inland gorges with whitewater rivers running down them… the list could go on and on.
For habitual travellers to Greece the Peloponnese offers something of a time machine.
The Peloponnese also off ers something of a time machine. Twenty years ago in Greece you could still see old men going to their fi elds on donkey back, old women clad in black preparing vegetables on their doorsteps, main roads blocked by herds of goats, olives being picked with no more aid than a triangular wooden ladder and a big stick, tractors made from converted lawnmowers, and village shops seemingly unchanged since the 1940s. Th is Greece has
This is not to say that nothing has changed. In fact the Peloponnese has been at the forefront of an important shift in the emphasis of Greek tourism. As people realise that ‘beach holidays’ are available more cheaply elsewhere, Greece has had to concentrate on its other strengths, and also realise that its old standards of cheap and cheerful accommodation, and food, can no longer apply. Fundamentally this is a rethinking of what the country has to offer, a concentration on ‘art and nature’ rather than ‘sun and sand’. Greece, and particularly the Peloponnese, has always had these aspects, but they have been limited to the more adventurous traveller. Now it is slowly being opened up to all, with due care that it is not spoilt in the process.
When researching the first edition of this book in 2008 I often found myself having to justify why I thought Greece needed another guide. Pausanias had started the whole industry back in the 2nd century, and since then Greece has remained one of the most written about, and travelled, countries on Earth. On top of this the perceived wisdom was that Greece had had its day as a destination. It was a staid country where nothing much would now change apart from steadily rising prices. Things have changed since then, of course, and Greece has shown that it is a country with plenty more to offer history.
The economic and political crises of the last few years, however, have not changed the reasons I gave for writing this guidebook in the first place. In 25 years of travelling around the Peloponnese I never found the guidebook of my dreams; the book that would lead me from secret coves to unexplored ruins via vibrant festivals in mountaintop villages. I still haven’t found that book, but I hope I have written something that comes close.
I first visited the area, in particular the Mani, as a 15-year-old backpacker, inspired equally by my mum and the author Sir Patrick (Paddy) Leigh Fermor, and slept under the stars on beaches, in ruined tower houses and olive groves. My love for the place has continued, and is fortunately shared by my partner. Jemima, our daughter, was born in Kalamata in 2006; not strictly the Mani, but close enough, at least according to Paddy himself.
My small family lived in the Mani whilst the first edition of this book was researched and written, a sometimes problematic decision, but ultimately rewarding. I drove over from the UK with a carload consisting of Greek history books stuffed down footwells, a doll’s house, a cot, and a Fisher Price garage. A full-sized garage would have been more appropriate; in the course of two years exploring, my car went through a passenger door, a full set of tyres, brake pads, an exhaust, and a clutch.
This second edition was researched on an extended return trip to the Peloponnese, with Jemima keen to show the country of her birth off to her new younger brother. I drove over in a slightly larger car, but still stuffed with books and children’s toys, and I managed to keep it fairly intact this time around. These are what they call ‘interesting times’ in Greece, but in many ways it felt like not much had changed. In fact, in many ways, the economic and political crisis has only served to emphasise those aspects of the country that I fell in love with 25 years ago. It was good to be back.