Travel to the rarely visited Mani Peninsula in The Peloponnese and you will be greatly rewarded with an authentic Greek experience (away from the clubs and wild nightlife found on its famous islands).
The best way to explore The Peloponnese is by renting a car and driving the coastline stopping along the way to experience a taste of authentic Greek life. Arriving in the port of Patras my husband and I hit the road for a two week Greek Road-Trip. Driving south along the lovely coastal road, through hundreds of kilometers of orange trees and olive groves amongst ruins from the 13th Century BC we saw more goats than tourists. We past Kalamata & Olympia with the gods high above on the snow capped mountains and made our way to the rugged Mani Peninsula. South of Kardamili the terrain changed drastically from fertile land to nothing but arid rocky hills with dozens of tower houses that almost blend-in to its surrounding. (This was done on purpose to protect against pirate attacks!)
The people are known to be rough and close-knit like Napolitiani but are incredibly kind and happy to see tourists (most speak English as well). Every inn-keeper, market vendor, barista and even gas station attendant welcomed us with a warm smile, funny story and helpful advice. With a few Greek words memorized we were able to get along just fine.
From lamb and olives, fish soup with lemons and yogurt with honey everything is fresh, local and steeped in tradition. On a Sunday drive we passed more than one farmer roasting a lamb on the side of the road with friends in tow. Sit in a cafe and feel like a local by ordering a greek coffee (it’s extra strong and delicious), just don’t stir it or in the afternoon ask for an ouzzo before your meal.
Kardamili is a quaint village written up in many guide books. It’s a nice stop for a stroll. Continue farther south to the livelier Areopolis with its statue celebrating the Greek War of Independence in the main square reminding you of Mani’s volatile past. This is where all the locals come to eat, shop and get gas. The picturesque village is filled with delicious bakeries and cozy coffee shops to while away the afternoon.
Visit the caves of Pirgos Dirou for a memorable trip on a paddle boat, slowly entering the dark mouth of the massive cave that glows inside from thoughtfully placed lanterns. Float serenely just above the tops of stalagmites while keeping an eye out for the stalactites above your head. It’s worth the few euros even if you don’t understand Greek for the breathtaking & peaceful boat ride inside.
Gerolimenas is a sleepy fishing village that invites you to linger just a bit longer with your feet in the sea and a drink in hand. It’s a tiny cove at the end of the world where the village dogs are free and friendly and the people are as salty as the sea.
The fishing village of Gythio is the perfect place for a night stay or a good meal of fresh fish. Gythio has the feel of a more Mediterranean village than most others. Just ask the fisherman docked along the seaside where they go. A tiny antique shop in town is home to a world of curiosities and greek treasures. It’s worth a visit just to chat with the outgoing shopkeeper.
The most famous class “Mani” village is Vathia and worth a visit on your drive along the coast. Stop and take photos, exploring the restored but empty ancient village.
Continuing farther east we arrived at Monemvassia, a rock island attached to the coast with a short bridge. At first glance it is nothing more than a beautiful coastline with a huge rock just barely attached. However drive across the bridge, continue around the edge of the rock and you will discover there is castle hidden on the island.
Passing through the old city walls you are transported back in a time when a donkey passes you transporting goods for a painter. Spend your day getting lost within the walls, wandering down crooked streets and be rewarded with breathtaking views of the sea around every corner.
Driving north we stayed in the mountains above Sparta visiting it’s colorful fruit & vegetable market that stretches through the city. Mystras the ruined Byzantine city was amazing, bring a picnic because you can spend hours visiting all the ruined churches, palaces and homes – it is expansive and worth the time of exploration.
From there we drove North West to Nafplio, the wealthiest village we visited in The Peloponnese. Yachts docked along the beach, touristy shops lined the promenade and even the dreaded summer train for tourists was seen for the first time. That being said, it’s picture-perfect and I would return. The city is guarded by three spectacular fortresses (including one in the sea).
For a mind-blowing lesson in history – visit Mycenea one of the oldest civilizations in history where their city walls still stand built by Cyclopse. (Well so the legend says, the size of the stones are so massive it’s the only logical possibility). Feel like Indiana Jones as you walk through the Lion’s Gate and imagine what life would have been like here in the 13th Century BC when it was a thriving civilization. The Treasury or the Tomb of Atreus was no less than amazing and is the first dome built and still stands. The mouth of the tomb swallows you whole as you creep closer, with the cyclopean walls towering above you.
A holiday in the Peloponnese offers a wonderful taste of Greece. The prices are low, the food is amazing, the people are kind and I can’t wait to visit again!
Places to Stay
Citta dei Nicliani
Kita (Mani Peninsula)
Ilaeira (Mountain Resort)
outside of Sparta
Where to Eat
Diethnes (Sparta) – filled with hungry locals, this is the best place to eat in Sparta run by a lovely family
Marianthi (Monemvassia) – fresh seafood & wild greens, the best calamari I’ve ever eat, go with whatever the owner recommends – she knows what’s fresh & good!
I Gonia Taverna (Gythio) – It’s where the fishermen sell their fish, enough said. The fish soup with lemon is out of this world.
Bakeries in Areopoli – I suggest popping in and buying a few things at each one!
To Omorfo Tavernaki (Nafplio) – A tiny corner spot filled with locals enjoying a mix of seafood, meat dishes and plenty of wine.