Day 1: Arrival in Athens. Transfer from airport, about 40 minutes away, to our hotel in the centre of the city. Welcome drinks and dinner.
Day 2: Today, we set out from Athens to begin exploring the Peloponnese! Our first stop is the Isthmus of Corinth, the neck of land that connects the Peloponnese and the mainland and places Corinth perfectly astride so many land and sea routes. We admire the mighty Corinth Canal, planned since antiquity and finally achieved just over a century ago, crossing its viaduct to enter the Peloponnese on foot.
We continue to Ancient Nemea, set in a fertile upland valley in the north of the Argolid. Here, we visit the sanctuary of Zeus, where important panhellenic (all-Greek) athletic games were celebrated every other year, the fame of which made Nemea a bone of contention between Corinth and its powerful neighbour, Argos. We pass through the long-vaulted tunnel to the beautifully-positioned stadium, its walls covered in graffiti left by ancient competitors. In the sanctuary itself, we explore the splendid Temple of Zeus and the museum, filled with finds from Nemea, as well as the Mycenaean Aidonia Treasure. Looted from a cemetery nearby, this important Bronze Age material mysteriously surfaced in the New York auction circuit and was eventually returned to Greece in 1996.
Later, we enjoy lunch and a tasting at one of the many Nemea wineries: the region is the oldest established wine appellation in the country, based on the delicious Agiorgitiko grape, producing a dark red wine of great warmth and character. A fine day behind us, we make our way to Nafplio, one of Greece’s most attractive coastal towns for our first Peloponnesian night, in a restored Neoclassical building in the picturesque Old Town.
Day 3: We begin by visiting Nafplio’s superb Archaeological Museum. Drawn from sites all over the Argolid, its displays bring us thousands of years of the ancient story of the region from the Palaeolithic right through to the Roman era. Some of the most famous archaeological finds of Greece are here, including the Mycenaean Dendra Panoply, one of the world’s oldest surviving suits of full body armour.
A scenic drive into the southern Peloponnese begins on the peninsula’s east coast, through the southern Argolid and then following the shore of what was once Kynouria, the buffer over which Argos and Sparta glowered at each other. We stop at Leonidio beneath towering bluffs and russet stone ramparts for a delicious rural lunch and then continue through the extraordinarily beautiful Tzakonian Mountains - ancient Parnon - to the village of Kosmas, a good 1,150m (3,770ft) above sea level, where we stop for coffee and traditional sweets.
Finally, we descend into the fertile hill country of Laconia, the historical territory of Sparta. Our destination is Monemvasia, a medieval fortified town set on a beautifully craggy quasi-island that juts into the Aegean Sea just off the eastern coast. It is our base for two nights, as we stay in a lovingly restored mansion dating back to the Venetian era.
Day 4: Today is entirely devoted to the history of Monemvasia and to the extraordinary beauty of this most unusual place.
Founded as a Byzantine stronghold, perhaps a refuge for Peloponnesians fleeing raiding Goths and Slavs further north, Monemvasia soon became one of the most important towns and hubs of maritime trade in the area, later serving as a vital stepping-stone on Venice’s route to the Eastern Mediterranean. We first explore the Lower Town with its characterful mansions, chapels, lanes and squares, nestling from the blue waters of the Aegean and the enemies they might bring within well-preserved medieval city walls. Next, we ascend the heavily fortified plateau above, crowned by the twelfth century Byzantine church of Agia Sophia, perched precipitously on a clifftop.
As Monemvasia gave its name to Malmsey Wine (also known as Malvasir or Malvasia), exported all over Europe in Venetian times, we visit an excellent local winery after lunch to taste the region’s produce, all based on native Greek grape varieties. This is followed by an easy-going free afternoon to enjoy the serenity of the place or go for a swim if the weather suits. In the evening, you are free to choose among Monemvasia’s dining possibilities.
Day 5: A big day, taking in one of the most important historical centres of the Peloponnese, Sparta, and its medieval successor, Mystras, the finest Byzantine site in the south of Greece.
We first travel westwards through Laconia to reach the modern town of Sparti, beneath which lie the scant ruins of its ancient predecessor, Lakedaimon or Sparta, the dominant power of the Peloponnese for many centuries. Visiting Sparta gives us an opportunity to talk about the ancient Spartans’ unusual organisation of their state and its great emphasis on war, built on their oppression of their helot neighbours. Their rejection of luxury and monumental architecture means we encounter the city’s peculiar character not in buildings but in the fine archaeological museum’s excellent finds, which take us on to the affluence it achieved during the Roman era.
The afternoon holds one of the greatest delights of the entire Peloponnese: Mystras. Founded by Latin crusaders (‘Franks’) after 1204 and the Fourth Crusade, Mystras is nevertheless a key Byzantine site, seat of an autonomously-run despotate within the Byzantine Empire between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. In those dying days of Byzantium, Mystras, with its direct connections to Constantinople, became a major centre of art and learning. Today, the town is abandoned, but its churches and monasteries still stand in great serenity and beauty on their lush green hillside overlooking Sparti below. High-quality frescoes decorate many of these monuments, opening great insights into an important and frequently overlooked part of European heritage, due to which Mystras is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
In the late afternoon, we carry on southwards to Areopoli in the Mani Peninsula, where we spend the next two nights.
Day 6: This day is spent entirely within the Mani Peninsula, the central of the Peloponnese’s three southern fingers and the southernmost part of continental Europe. Mani is a wild, rocky and rugged place, and the harshness of its landscape is matched by the legendary ruggedness of its inhabitants, and by their history and traditions, such as the defensive tower-houses that make up the older settlements.
Our first stop is at the spectacular caves of Diros, entered from a small cove and located just above sea level. Here, nature has spent the last few million years carving out a dazzlingly beautiful labyrinth of chambers and passages. Mostly flooded, they are accessible by boat and decorated with a stunning array of stalagmites, stalactites, draperies and other limestone concretions: a hidden world of dreamlike wonder.
From Diros, we follow the Mani’s coast southwards towards a cove near Cape Tainaron, the southern tip of the peninsula. In antiquity, the waters around here, unavoidable for those crossing from the Central into the Eastern Mediterranean, were among the most feared in the Mediterranean, making the nearby coves and bays welcome places of shelter, to wait out adverse conditions or to recover from harrowing trips. Perhaps as a result of its association with naval tragedies, Cape Tainaron was also believed to be an entrance to Hades, the place where Heracles descended to the Underworld to catch Cerberus, the triple-headed dog, as one of his Twelve Labours. The place operated as an Oracle of the Dead for centuries. We also cast an eye on the nearby ruins of the Temple to Poseidon, god of the sea.
On our return southwards, we stop for a stroll in the famously picturesque and mostly abandoned village of Vathia. In the evening, you are free to choose among Areopoli’s cozy eateries.
Day 7: Travelling northwards along the western coast of Mani, we leave Laconia and enter Messenia. Still on the Mani, we stop (if possible) to visit one of the region’s many tiny Byzantine churches, decorated with elaborate fresco decoration.
Our next stop is , a lovely and very ancient settlement notable for being offered to Achilles by Agamemnon in the Iliad, but also for having been the base and retreat chosen by Patrick Leigh Fermor, the famous British adventurer and travel writer, from the 1950s until his death in 2011. Leaving Mani behind, we head for the mountainous interior of Messenia, to the picturesque village of Mavromati for a rustic lunch, before exploring the vast ancient city of Messene, a site that is still undergoing extensive excavation and reconstruction by the Archaeological Society of Athens and which will surely become a UNESCO World Heritage Site before long. Messene is an unusual site as the result of an unusual history: for centuries, the region was under Spartan control and its inhabitants were not permitted to dwell in cities, depriving them of the most defining feature of ancient Greek societies, namely the city-state. Only after Spartan dominance was broken by the Theban general Epaminondas at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC did Messenia gain independence. The new capital city was thus essentially a Theban gift, but what a gift!
We spend the afternoon admiring this glorious site at the foot of Mount Ithome. We explore its theatre, agora, council chamber, column-lined avenues, gymnasia and stadium, surrounded by the most stupendous Late Classical city walls in all of Greece. In the evening, we descend to the shore and the city of Kalamata, famous for the olives and oil from the surrounding plain.
Day 8: A diverse day, full of lush and inviting landscapes and seascapes.
In the morning, we travel to the southwestern tip of the Peloponnese, to Methoni, Venetian Modon, facing the Ionian Sea. It was here that Geoffroy I of Villehardouin, one of the most fascinating characters in the complex history of Frankish Greece first made landfall in 1204, following the Fourth Crusade and the dismemberment of Byzantium. A few years later, Methoni fell to Venice, and later see-sawed in control between Venice and the Ottomans until 1715. We engage with this turbulent history by visiting the stupendous Venetian fortifications, built upon the remains of Byzantine and earlier predecessors and once encompassing a large castle-town. The peninsular setting of the complex, lapped by deep blue waters, makes the visit unforgettable.
We then continue northwards along the coast, stopping at Pylos, an attractive Neoclassical town set upon its famous nearly fully-enclosed Bay. This was the site of two important battles during vastly different eras: the Battle of Sphacteria in 425 BC, during the Peloponnesian War, remembered as the first time that Spartan warriors surrendered, and the 1827 naval Battle of Navarino, during which an Allied fleet of the ‘Great Powers’ (British, French and Russian) virtually destroyed an Ottoman-Egyptian one, thus enabling the Greek revolutionary troops to strengthen their hold on the Peloponnese.
Later, we reach the site of Ano Englianos, a hilltop surrounded by windswept olive groves, where excavations have revealed an important Late Bronze Age Mycenaean Palace. The well-preserved structure, protected by a modern shelter, is surprisingly well-preserved, making it one of the most revealing buildings of its kind, the centre of the Mycenaean state. Ano Englianos, usually identified as Homer’s Pylos and thus as the ‘Palace of Nestor’ has yielded extensive Linear B archives, providing ample evidence of the Mycenaean ‘palace economy’, a theme we begin to explore here. We also cast a glance at the fine tholos tomb, a ‘royal’ burial monument of the fourteenth century BC close to the palace. Near here, the celebrated fifteenth century Tomb of the Griffin Warrior was discovered in 2015.
Continuing northwards, we leave Messenia and enter Ilia, ancient Elis, the western region of the Peloponnese, heading for the town of Olimbia (Ancient Olympia), our base for the following two nights.
Day 9: A stupendous day, all of it spent in Elis, dedicated to two important sites from very different eras.
In the morning, we drive to Cape Kyllini, the western tip of the peninsula, to visit the mighty castle of Chlemoutsi (originally named Clairmont). This strikingly dominant edifice was constructed by Geoffroy I Villehardouin in the 1220s to strengthen his control over his Principality of Achaea. Unlike Methoni, it was never actually besieged, but came under Byzantine control in 1427, only to be surrendered to the Ottomans in 1460. The impressive complex, with an outer enceinte overlooked by a hexagonal keep comprised of tall Gothic-style halls, is one of the most significant monuments of western-style medieval architecture in Greece. It now houses an excellent new museum devoted to what is known in Greece as the Frankokratia, the period of Western rule following 1204.
We then return to Olimbia to visit the most famous archaeological site in the entire Peloponnese: Ancient Olympia. Set on the confluence of two rivers, the Alpheios and the Kladeos, the great sanctuary of Zeus has been attracting visitors since antiquity, when it was the venue of the famous athletic contents in honour of Zeus that took place every four years, the Olympic Games, supposedly founded in 776 BC. A panhellenic event, they were an occasion for individuals from all over the Greek World as far as southern France, Asia Minor, the Black Sea and North Africa, to meet in friendly competition, maintain contacts and exchange ideas. They were therefore not just a defining aspect of Greek culture, but one of the ways it was transmitted, expressed and reformulated over time.
We do justice to this UNESCO World Heritage Site with a thorough tour. It takes in the training grounds and a hostelry outside the sanctuary proper, and the shrines and altars within. Special highlights are the Temple of Zeus, once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World (the huge gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus), the Workshop of Pheidias where it was crafted, the Temple of Hera, perhaps the oldest standing Greek Temple, and the stadium said to have been set up by Heracles himself.
In the evening, you are free to dine a la carte at your hotel or in the nearby town.
Day 10: In the morning, we continue our exploration of the sanctuary of Zeus, with a thorough visit to the superb site museum - early, before the crowds arrive. The museum contains one of the finest collections of Greek art anywhere in the world, including the breath-taking pediments of the Temple of Zeus, the stunning Nike of Paionios, and the extraordinarily beautiful Hermes of Praxiteles, a rare example of a surviving masterpiece by one of ancient Greece’s most famous sculptors.
We then follow the poets in turning our attention from victors to the ethereal heartland of the Peloponnese: Arcadia. We travel eastwards, climbing into the Arcadian mountains, a landscape of rugged beauty, of seemingly untouched forests and of small villages perched on steep slopes. Our first destination is the famous Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, another UNESCO-listed monument. Standing in a remote mountain setting, 1,130m (3,700ft) above sea level, it is the second-best-preserved Classical Temple in Greece, with all four colonnades and the sanctuary walls mostly in place. We examine the temple’s many unusual features, establishing its exceptional nature and the peculiarities of Arcadian architecture, and see at first hand the challenge of maintaining the now-fragile structure and the ambitious ongoing project to preserve it for the future.
We continue, via the attractive mountain town of Andritsaina, through more stupendous countryside, to spend the first of two nights in our hotel in the historic town of Dimitsana, set high upon the slopes of a deep valley, with the Lousios River rushing far below.
Day 11: A day given over to exploring Arcadia, famed for its out-of-this-world remoteness since antiquity. We start with the most extensive walk of the tour, making our way down the steep side of the Lousios Valley to the monastery of Agios Ioannis Prodromos. It is a unique structure, more or less hanging from a gorge-side cliff face, hidden away from covetous eyes. Its origins are in the fifteenth century, and the strange cave-like chapel bears interesting sixteenth century paintings, a reflection of the continued Christian and monastic tradition that prevailed in the Peloponnese even after the Ottoman conquest. The views from the balcony running outside the monastery are of rugged splendour.
Returning to Dimitsana, the rest of the day is free, allowing you to enjoy the lovely setting, find a nice place for lunch, to explore the lanes of Dimitsana or just to relax before joining your guides for dinner. One site worth visiting is one of the most unusual exhibits in the Peloponnese, the Museum of Water Power. Beautifully presented, its restored watermills illustrate the role of water power in the pre-industrial and early industrial economy of the region not just for grinding grain, but also for fulling and the production of gunpowder. The latter was an important industry in Dimitsana, making the place an important centre of the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s.
Day 12: Leaving Arcadia’s Mountains behind, we explore the region’s eastern plains before returning to the Argolid.
In the morning, we descend from Dimitsana to visit the important ancient city of Mantineia, astride the age-old land road linking Sparta with Corinth and Central Greece. Surrounded by its beautiful remains, we learn of Mantineia’s turbulent history, and of the two great Battles of Mantineia, in 418 and 362 BC. The former saw a crushing Spartan victory over Athens and its allies, the latter a victory of newly-dominant Thebes over the Spartans that also saw the death of the victorious commander Epaminondas.
We move on to Mantineia’s neighbour and great enemy, Tegea and its new archaeological museum. The highlight here are the architectural and figural sculptures from the Temple of Athena Alea. Designed by the renowned fourth century BC sculptor Skopas, they are of extraordinary quality.
After a pleasant wine tasting and lunch, we return to Nafplio in the afternoon for two more nights.
Day 13: Today, we explore part of the Argolid, a region that plays a pivotal role in Greek mythology, prehistory and history, visiting two of Greece’s most famous archaeological sites, both of them listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
First, we traverse the Argolic Plain to reach Mycenae, a place whose name rings through the centuries, its Bronze Age greatness inspiring Greek mythology and especially the Homeric epics. The enormous citadel would be an impressive site even if it had been left half-buried, but 150 years of scrutiny since Schliemann’s discoveries in the 1870s, have added many layers of fascination to this incredible place. Every part of this site has a name that resounds in archaeological history - the Lion Gate, the two Grave Circles that yielded one of the richest treasures in all of European prehistory, the upper citadel with the remains of the Palace, and the extension added to the citadel shortly before its violent destruction in the early twelfth century BC. Outside the imposing cyclopean walls, we admire some of the enormous domed tholos or ‘beehive’ tombs, including the most famous of all, the Treasury of Atreus, with its huge dome, the largest span from its erection in the thirteenth century BC to that of the Roman Pantheon fourteen centuries later. Our visit is capped with a visit to the local archaeological museum, where a wealth of material illustrates all aspects of Mycenaean life.
We cross to the Argolid’s Saronic Gulf coast for a pleasant seaside lunch before visiting our second major archaeological site today: the great sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus. This was the most famous shrine to the god of healing in Greece, and it is from here that his cult spread across the country. Lying in an enchantingly beautiful spot among pine-shaded hills, it was a major centre of faith healing in antiquity, becoming a veritable spa by Roman times. Among the surviving structures serving the cult of Asklepios is the abaton, where the faithful received healing visions in their sleep. The most celebrated aspect, however, is the enormous theatre, praised for the beauty of its proportions already in antiquity. Surprisingly well-preserved, it seats over 13,000 spectators and has remarkable acoustic properties.
Back in Nafplio, you are free to choose from among the town’s countless restaurants.
Day 14: The day begins with a morning visit to the great Mycenaean citadel of Tiryns, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, whose vast Late Bronze Age fortifications crown a limestone outcrop that has been a centre of human activity for millennia. We explore the sophisticated defensive architecture of the site, with its complex gate structure, chambers embedded in the incredibly thick walls, sally ports and extensions, and the remains of the Mycenaean Palace and its throne room whose power they symbolised.
Our time in the Peloponnese draws to a close, but not without a last hurrah as we stop at ancient Corinth, one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. Famed for its wealth, and sometimes its decadence, the city had two golden ages, one during the Archaic era of the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the other during the Roman period. Our visit begins at the museum, where a newly-designed exhibit explains the development of Corinth as a region, a city-state and major commercial power with its own specialised export industry, perfume and perfume vessels, the latter decorated in the characteristic black-figure technique, a Corinthian invention.
Next, we visit the heart of the ancient city itself, discovering both its Greek and its Roman past, by examining the many layers of architectural remains lying under, in and around the Roman forum. A very early Archaic temple and a series of Roman shrines, grand colonnades, a huge fountain house, shops and marble-paved streets give life to the city, along with the bema or speaking platform from which Saint Paul spoke to the Corinthians, all overlooked by the mighty citadel of Acrocorinth.
In the afternoon, we return to Athens, where our final visit is to the National Archaeological Museum, whose collections are among the finest and most extensive in the world. We begin with the prehistoric material, where we admire the treasures discovered in the Mycenaean shaft graves, including the so-called Mask of Agamemnon and an array of gold objects, weaponry, personal ornaments, vessels made from rock crystal and ostrich eggs, so vast that it’s hard to believe they’re from one time and place. We also seek out frescoes and other finds from Mycenae and Tiryns and the Linear B writing that opens up their world.
Afterwards, we stroll through the museum’s unique collection of Greek sculpture, highlighting the development of this singular expression of Ancient Greek creativity with pieces that remind us in particular of our Peloponnesian odyssey.
Day 15: Transfer to Athens airport.