It's a difficult year for a travel operator, a year of little travel. Many of our guests, or prospective guests, are longing for the trips we were meant to organise for them - and so are we.
I was meant to spend half of May on our Peloponnese tour. I might still be there in November, but who really knows? I am certainly suffering Peloponnese withdrawal, and so are my colleagues. But the dates for the 2021 Exploring the Peloponnese are now set, and that is something I look forward to immensely, more even than I realised I would.
What am I, what are we, missing? We are missing the many unique experiences the Peloponnese brings us every year, every time we show its wonders to our guests. Some of the things we miss are glorious cultural experiences that make our minds soar and that have attracted visitors for two millennia; some are the flashes of insight that only travel can bring, allowing us an understanding of how place, people and time work together to form history; some are instances of sheer beauty; and some are the unpredictable, haphazard moments that bring texture, intimate meaning and joy to life...
For me, the Peloponnese has been a life-changing source of inspiration and discovery ever since I first set foot there over forty years ago. More recently, it has also been an occasional retreat from the big city, not just a region of spectacular highlights, but a haven of quiet and modest joys. And since 2016, it has been a source of immense pleasure, by allowing us to share our knowledge of the area and our love for it with our guests on Peter Sommer Travels' Exploring the Peloponnese. I was last there as recently as November, when Nota and I prepared some important changes to the itinerary, enhancing the experience and adding to the story, which we hoped to launch in its renewed form this year. Our time will come.
As my mind is on the Peloponnese right now, let me draw on my memories and my photos to share some of those things we miss with you!
The pivotal moment when we stop, just before crossing the Corinth Canal, that miracle of late 19th-century engineering, which now defines the separation between mainland Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula. A long straight trench cut through many layers of limestone, it is as much a geological wonder as it is a technological one. Walking across the bridge crossing it, those of us who are afraid of heights holding our breath (as I am), we enter the Peloponnese on foot, making our approach to this historic region a very tangible one.
The splendid experience of walking through the ancient vaulted tunnel to the stadium of Nemea, knowing that the athletes participating in the sacred games honouring Zeus walked it, too, and recognising the countless graffiti they carved while lingering, recording their names. And then the surprise that follows, as the ancient stadium opens up, pristine in its setting and stunning in its simplicity. It's one of three important ancient stadiums on our tour, and perhaps the most lovely among them.
The joy - and the honour - of showing our guests around the extraordinary wealth of the Archaeological Museum of Nafplio, with its exquisite finds ranging from the Palaeolithic finds of Franchthi Cave, over 30,000 years ago, to the mysteries and glories of the Mycenaean Bronze Age citadel at Tiryns (such as the 3,300-year-old fresco shown here) and, of course, the beauties of the Classical era, and including some of the most famous objects an archaeologist can ever share with travellers. The amazement in our guests' faces when we confront them with all this!
The thrill of the immensely scenic drive along the east coast of the Peloponnese, from the Argolid to the shores of Laconia, introducing us to the more rugged face of the Peloponnese and stopping at bizarrely picturesque places, such as Kosmas, where the Zakonian language, a strange mix of ancient and modern, is still spoken and where local walnut cake is a special treat.
The profound aura of place that pulses peacefully through Monemvasia, the island fastness that the Byzantine Greeks of Laconia chose as their retreat, its labyrinth of lanes, steps, chapels and mansions still surrounded by medieval walls, all of it still squeezed tightly between the sea and the sheer cliffs that once held an upper town, of which only a beautiful church survives. And the privilege of staying, unlike so many groups passing through, in a historic home in the heart of the old town, falling asleep and waking up to the sound of the Aegean waves lapping the shore.
That sense of both recognition and strangeness that overcomes the visitor to Sparta. An ancient superpower for some time, it is a quiet provincial town today, in an extraordinarily dramatic setting below the steep slopes of Mount Taygetos, but not reflecting its past glory until you visit its museum to catch glimpses of an unusual warrior society, characterised by intense harshness and extraordinary piety, that made its city's name echo through history.
The breathtaking beauty and splendour of Mystras, a verdant hill that was the final Byzantine stronghold in Greece, with its ruined palaces and its rich array of churches, each of them elegant in its architectural elaboration and dazzling with painted decorations inside. It is a mosaic put together by our Greek guide, combining the individual monuments into a vivid story of those who lived there and of the stormy fate of the Late Byzantine Empire, when Mystras unwittingly became an intellectual bridge between the last vestiges of the fading East Roman Empire and the beginnings of the European Rennaissance.
The rollercoaster of impressions that we see and feel when travelling through the astonishingly rugged Mani Peninsula, with its harsh rocks, its warlike villages of defensive towers, its windswept shores, and its history of rebellion. And the 'aha' moments when we discover its many secrets, such as the cave lakes of Diros, and the Oracle of the Dead at Cape Tainaron, the southern tip of mainland Greece. Mani sends shivers through our spines at every turn.
The feeling of awe and surprise that a visit to ancient Messene inspires and the shared joy of discovery it brings. An ongoing excavation of enormous scale, the capital of the Messenians, so long enslaved by Sparta before their historic liberation in 371 BC, is an archaeological super-site, where new finds and new reconstructions spring up year by year, amazing even our guides, as they tell the story of this lushly fertile land, its tribulations and its triumphs.
Another elementary delight: the maritime treats served to us at the seafront of Kalamata's old port, enhanced by the region's legendary olive oil, one of so many fine meals we enjoy together!
That childlike pleasure of exploring the perfect seaside castle at Methoni: vast in size, central in the Peloponnese's medieval history and the key Venetian port marking the southwestern tip of the Peloponnese, a hub on the way from Venice to Crete and the Levant. The walk on an age-worn causeway out to the Bourtzi, the outermost island fortification, kissed or beaten by the blue waves of the Aegean, is unforgettable and unrepeatable: depending on wind and weather, it is capable of eliciting different vistas every time we go.
The never-ending wonder of the 'Palace of Nestor' at Ano Englianos, immortalised in Homer's Odyssey as 'Sandy Pylos'. Here, we delve into the details of life in a Mycenaean Palace before its violent destruction 3,300 years ago. Besides its grand and formerly fresco-decorated reception areas and the famous 'throne room', we discover a whole series of storage chambers, where excavations revealed thousands of drinking cups and dozens of large vessels that once held wine and oil (such as the ones shown here, still in situ where they were crushed by the collapsing edifice), allowing us to imagine the great feasts that once took place here.
The fascination of listening to the soap-opera complexities of 'Frankish' rule in the 'Morea, the medieval Peloponnese, while exploring the stunning castle of Chlemoutsi, its walls towering high above the peninsula's westernmost coast. It is a central locale to the long-forgotten drama of the crusader kingdoms in Greece, and it looks the part at every step.
The breathtaking experience of visiting Olympia, with a sense of walking in the footsteps of an entire civilisation, at a place where its constituents were eager to display their most impressive achievements in art and architecture, like a World Fair of Ancient Greece. And the unadulterated pleasure of being in a staggeringly beautiful place, set at the confluence of two great rivers, shadowed by oak trees and containing a plethora of superb monuments, among them the world's first stadium, all complemented by an archaeological museum containing world-class treasures. The sense of sated exhaustion on finishing the visit, our minds brimming with impressions that will become lifelong memories.
And then, the dramatic shift in landscape as we leave the shore and coastal plains behind to enter the deep interior of the Peloponnese, mountainous Arcadia, a place that was always different and still is. The untouched Arcadian landscape contains so many unexpected vistas, from countless perched villages via impenetrable forests to the great and mysterious fifth-century-BC Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, a World Heritage monument slumbering away under its protective tent.
The atmospheric evening, night-time or morning setting of our hotel in an Arcadian mountain village, making us feel as if we're high above the world, with grand views across the southern Peloponnese, lulled to sleep or woken freshly by the sound of a rushing river far below our balconies.
The lush scenery that surrounds us on our walk on the slopes of the deep Lousos Gorge, breathing in the fresh, crisp air of an Arcadian morning, and the barely believable moment when we round a corner to behold the monastery of Agios Ioannis Prodromos, literally hanging from a cliff-face. The pinch-yourself-to-make-sure-you're-not-dreaming time inside the monastery, as we discover a tiny oasis of piety, art and hospitality in a barely believable setting.
That other sense of discovery, as we repeatedly visit local wineries to learn about a tradition going back four millennia or more, and - most importantly - to taste the unique fruit of the land and savour its character together, celebrating the bounty of Dionysos the way it has been done for countless generations.
The utter awe we all experience when we go to admire the Mycenaean citadels of Tiryns and Mycenae, those great Bronze Age strongholds tied up in so many stories. Stories of myth: about the cursed Atreid dynasty and its greatest king, Agamemnon, who was to launch the epic war against Troy, a starting point in global imagination. And stories of discovery, from Schliemann's equally epic finding of the 16th century BC shaft graves with their unparalleled wealth in gold to the still-continuing study of the site by Greek and British scholars. And overshadowing both, the real story of an ancient civilisation that is still shrouded in mystery and that produced so many wonderful things, all crowned by Mycenae's Lion Gate, its silent guardians still lending ceremony to entering the fortress after over 3,300 years. Nearby are the stunning vaulted tholos tombs, the most famous of them known as the 'Treasury of Atreus', resting place of a long-forgotten king who slept under what was the world's largest dome for more than a millennium after its construction.
And then, the enchanting harmony of the ancient theatre at Epidaurus. Set in enchantingly beautiful countryside, the site was a shrine to Asklepios, the god of healing, often worshipped in places of remarkable serenity. Greek theatres are always beautiful, as they tend to harmonise with the landscapes they sit in - but none is more perfect in its proportions than that at Epidaurus.
Before leaving the Peloponnese behind us, the fascination of Ancient Corinth, another super-site, the city that controlled the narrow isthmus linking the Peloponnese to the mainland, thus controlling land-based trade between those regions, but also the sea-link between the Central and Eastern Mediterranean, leading to immense prosperity and influence in many periods, especially the Archaic and Classical eras and the Roman one. Monuments representing them are accompanied by an ever more superb museum and overlooked by the huge massif of Acrocorinth, sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of love, in antiquity, and now supporting a huge medieval castle - thus adding that important period to our final Peloponnesian experience.
At last, the aftershock of seeing the Peloponnesian treasures in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, fulfilling promises made during our tour and finally bringing us close to the famous treasures of Mycenae ("rich in gold" as Homer called it), this exquisite array of extraordinary objects that are now not just beautiful treasures for our guests, but items that can be understood, appreciated and thought about in the context of what they have seen (such as the bronze dagger shown here, inlaid with golden sea-creatures).
That's what we miss. It's a lot (and there's more) and it is not replaceable by anything other than being there.
We invite you to join us in all of these experiences, from local and intimate moments to full-blown archaeological wonders, in the company of our dedicated and passionate guides.
In 2021, Exploring the Peloponnese will run from May 6 May 20 and from October 14 to 21, and it will be glorious - glorious to see the sights of Greece's southern peninsula and glorious to travel again. Come along - we can't wait to share the Peloponnese with you!