Despite topping Lonely Planet’s “Best In Europe 2016” list, the Peloponnese is a region often overlooked by travelers to Greece who tend to have their hearts set on certain islands (Santorini I am looking at you!) and Athens itineraries centered around the Acropolis. However, the Peloponnese – a large region in southern Greece surrounded by the Ionian Sea on one side and the Aegean on the other – is said to be the place where the gods walked the earth. And if that doesn’t sound like a place you want to include in your Greek travels, then I don’t know what does. Home to diverse landscapes ranging from rugged mountains to sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, the region also boasts ancient temples, Byzantine and Venetian ruins, and fortresses. (I am telling you, you gotta go here!) There is a lot to see and do, enough to comprise a whole trip on its own; but, if you don’t have time in your itinerary for that, at least make sure to take a day-trip there.
One Saturday morning, I woke up bright and early (although not too bright thanks to a nasty cold I had received the day before) and headed out on this tour to do a day-trip to Mycenae, Epidaurus, and Nafplio. Armed with a hefty amount of suggestions from people who had been there before (and my actual tour guide’s knowledge), I did my best to see as much as possible of the region. So, here ya go, my recommendations for Mycenae, Epidaurus, and Nafplio in the Peloponnese!
Dating back to the Bronze Age, Homer wrote that the ancient citadel of Mycenae was “rich in gold and once ruled much of the Mediterranean world.” In addition to being close to the main route of goods flowing through Greece, Mycenae stood wedged between sheer, lofty peaks on the edge of two ravines which made it inaccessible and hard to detect. In other words, an EXTREMELY strategic location. In 1876, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann brought to light the importance of the Acropolis of Mycenae. After all, it was said that the mythical Perseus built the city and that kings such as Atreus and Agamemnon ruled it. Its timeline went a little bit like this: 1600BC – developed a thriving civilization, 1400BC- reached its peak, 468BC – destroyed by the Argives. What’s more, the city’s great stone walls were long believed to have been constructed by Cyclops. CYCLOPS WALLS!
In addition to being totally awe-struck over these walls, make sure you also see the Lion Gate of Mycenae (the entrance to the Acropolis), the two Burial Enclosures (part of an extensive prehistoric cemetery), the Vaulted Tomb of Clytemnestra, the Royal Palace, the North Gate, the Temple, and the Underground Tank. I was surprised by how freely you were allowed to roam about this ancient city because (apart from the Burial Enclosures) almost nothing is blocked off. There aren’t too many ancient sites that you can say that about!
Treasury of Atreus
Constructed around 1250 BC (the last century of Mycenaean prominence), the Treasury of Atreus is a burial monument that consists of a passageway that is cut into the hillside. Built of huge squared stones, leading into a large domed chamber, the facade of the entrance would once have had excessive decoration. The tomb was thoroughly robbed in antiquity; but, at one time, it would have contained rich and valuable grave goods. Pausanias (a Greek traveler and geographer of the 2nd century AD) wrote that the ancients considered this to be the Tomb of Agamemnon (King of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army in the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad). While no-one can say for certain if this is true or not, if you (like me) spent many years of your life studying the Trojan War/Homer/Classics, then it is pretty damn amazing to think there is even a slight possibility that this was his tomb that you are standing inside. ~Immediately e-mails Classics teacher~
Known for its healing abilities, Epidaurus saw the arrival of people from all over Greece and the Mediterranean who were looking to be cured. The sanctuary had hundreds of spas and structures devoted to the gods Apollo, Asklepios, and Hygeia which, when combined with its serene location within the mountains and springs, made for the ideal location for patients suffering from both mental and physical illnesses. While there were hostels, a gymnasium, and baths there, the main draw of Epidaurus’ is its impressive theatre – the best-preserved ancient Greek theatre. Built in the 4th century BC, with seating for 15,000 people, it is so well preserved that it is still used for events today. Mind-blowing. It has perfect acoustics. A person speaking at an average volume in the center of the stage can be heard perfectly from the top row of the theatre. We tried it. My guide ripped up pieces of paper in the center, and I could hear her from the top row. CRAZY!
Located in the eastern Peloponnese, Nafplio boasts narrow, bougainvillea-covered streets, rich-hued neoclassical mansions, wrought-iron balconies, and cobblestone streets. In addition to being a popular weekend resort for Athenians (yay for waterfront cafés & restaurants, fresh seafood, and beautiful boutiques), it also happens to be the perfect base to explore all the nearby ancient ruins. The first capital of Greece after Independence (between 1823 and 1834), Nafplio, has been a major port since the Bronze Age. So strategic was its position, that it had three fortresses and was coveted by a series of empires. Today, you can still see traces of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman influences in its old town.
SYNTAGMA SQUARE. The heart of Nafplion’s town center, this is where locals and visitors come to relax, drink coffee, and watch the world go by. A beautiful spot to take photographs, you can also visit the Archaeological Museum, the Trianon mosque, and the Ethniki Trapeza building (a bank) that was built in 1930 and which is designed in the “New Mycenaean” style—an architectural school unique to Greece.
PALAMIDI FORTRESS. Built by the Venetians between 1711 and 1714, the Palamadi Fortress is considered a masterpiece of military architecture. (Despite that one time in 1822 when Greek troops successfully stormed in, forcing the Turkish to surrender without a fight.) There are two main approaches to the fortress – via the road (taxis cost about €10 one way) or the steps that begin southeast of the bus station; 576 steps to the outer gate, 901 steps to the entrance to the castle.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM. Reopened in 2009 after years spent repairing damage caused by an earthquake, the Archaeological Museum includes artifacts from many significant periods (Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Helladic, Mycenaean, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman). The building itself is a treasure. Built in 1713, it was initially a Venetian arsenal, with the museum currently located in the old barracks.
VISSINO KAI NERATZI. A warm, simple shop, Vissino kai Neratzi has lovely fresh-baked pastries for sale alongside Peloponnese art and other gifts like magnets, olive wood kitchen products, and hand-painted liquor decanters. Women make the olive oils and preserves in neighboring villages.
WHERE TO EAT. Considered the go-to Greek restaurant in Nafplio, Alaloum has a menu filled with a large selection of traditional Greek Mediterranean foods. Slightly more contemporary, 3Sixty is known for its creative cuisine and signature cocktails. If you are in the mood for sitting outside (DUH!), To Kentrikon is a lovely café to sit in for hours drinking coffee and munching on a delicious breakfast, while Sokaki Cafe is a firm favorite of both tourists and locals due to its outdoor terrace and extensive wine list.
Nafplio is situated in Argolida County in East Peloponnese and is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Greece. It is a top-rated destination for a day or weekend excursion from Athens. You can reach Nafplio easily from Athens either by car, by bus, or by organized tour (this is the one that I did). The distance between the two cities is 150 km (93miles), and the journey should take you 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic.