The Peloponnese, Greece
Created | Updated Feb 29, 2016
The Peloponnese (Modern Greek Πελοπóννησος - Pelopónnisos) is the giant peninsula to the west of Athens. Connected to the rest of Greece by a strip of land only about six km (four miles) wide at Corinth, the Peloponnese technically became an island in 1890 when the Corinth Canal was built, although both road and rail bridges still connect it to the mainland. At 21,500km2, the Peloponnese is about the same size as Wales or Massachusetts, although a lot more mountainous than either1.
The Peloponnese is a great place to see the 'real Greece', as it has yet to be disturbed by the sort of beach-dominated tourism for foreigners that has changed much of the rest of Greece. Many Greeks spend their holidays in the Peloponnese, but they're not looking for beaches, just good food and somewhere to relax. So the traditional life continues, but there are plenty of places where accommodation can be found and there are lots of good restaurants.
The name 'Peloponnese' means 'Island of Pelops' and it is named after a mythological character who was supposedly one of the first rulers of the area.
The Overall Shape of the Peninsula
The Peloponnese is said to be the shape of a maple leaf. In fact, it is more like a hand with a thumb and only three fingers. Picture your left hand, palm facing towards you and pointing downwards to the right. The whole hand is joined to the rest of mainland Greece, not at the wrist but by a narrow isthmus at the knuckle of the thumb. The fingers are mountainous ridges and between them are sea gulfs. Between the 'thumb' and 'index finger' is the Gulf of Argolis, between the 'index finger' and 'middle finger' is the Gulf of Laconia and between the 'middle finger' and 'little finger' is the Gulf of Messinia.
On the north side of the peninsula, a narrow strait separates the Peloponnese from the rest of mainland Greece. A tectonic fault line runs along this strait - the Peloponnese is on a different tectonic plate from the rest of Europe. This means that earthquakes are common - many of the great cities of the Peloponnese have been reduced to rubble by earthquakes over the centuries.
Within the peninsula, the land is very mountainous. Each of the three southern gulfs has a plain north of it and there is some flat land on the west coast, but other than that it's mountains all the way. The Taygetos Mountains in the south, reaching a height of 2,407m (7,900ft), have been described as 'the sternest and most savage of all Greek mountain ranges'2.
A Brief Taste of History
The area has seen a lot of history: it was home to one of the first civilisations on mainland Greece, the Mycenaeans, from 2000 to 1200 BC. These Bronze Age people lived in walled fortresses and were well-armed with spears, armour and war-chariots. The remains of Mycenaean cities can still be seen in a number of places around the Peloponnese, including Pylos, Tiryns and the city of Mycenae itself. Mycenae was the home of Agamemnon in Homer's Iliad, while Pylos was the home of Nestor in the Odyssey. The massive walls around both Mycenae and Tiryns are impressive to this day.
The Classical Era
In the Classical Era (1st Millennium BC), the Peloponnese was dominated by two city-states, Corinth and Sparta. These fought among themselves but eventually united against the common enemy, Athens, often considered to be one of the most enlightened nations on the planet. The ensuing Peloponnesian War (431 - 405 BC) used up the resources of both sides. Although Sparta was the official victor, it was a shadow of its former self. This left a political vacuum which was soon filled by others, most notably the Macedonian kings, Philip and his son Alexander the Great. During the Classical Era, the Peloponnese was also the site of Epidavros, the sanctuary to the healing God Asklepios, and Olympia, a site sacred to Zeus3 and home of the original Olympic Games.
The Roman Empire
Greece was conquered by Rome in the 3rd to 1st Centuries BC. To gain control of the Peloponnese, the Romans fought long and hard against Corinth. When they had defeated the city they demolished it, destroying everything except the temple of Apollo. A hundred years later, they rebuilt it as a Roman city and Corinth became the biggest city in what is now Greece, with the most renowned brothels. St Paul spent nine months there trying to spread his message, without any noticeable success. The 'Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians' is part of the Christian Bible.
The Roman Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Corinth remained the capital of the Peloponnese.
The Middle Ages
After the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the peninsula was fought over by a number of different groups - the Franks, the Venetians, the last remaining Byzantines and later, the Turks. Cities and fortresses changed hands over and over again. It is impossible to give an overall history of the peninsula, as each area had its own story to tell. This has left the Peloponnese littered with castles and fortifications, particularly in the south. Most worthy of note are the Venetian town of Nafplio, the Byzantine deserted city of Mystras, the rock of Monemvasia and the peninsula of the Mani, where even farmhouses are fortified.
Greece finally gained independence from Turkey in the mid-19th Century. Nafplio hit the headlines as it became the capital of the newly formed country of Greece, an honour it held for only a few years before the role was transferred to Athens.
Touring the Peloponnese
The Peloponnese is only a couple of hours by car from Athens; there's a good motorway that brings you all the way to Corinth, the gateway to the peninsula. But once past Corinth, allow yourself plenty of time. The roads are slow, steep and winding, so you won't make as good progress as you might expect.
The peninsula is divided into seven regions called 'prefectures' or 'nomes'. These look rather weirdly shaped on maps, but make sense because they follow the patterns of the mountain ranges. Arcadia is the prefecture in the centre, and the other six are placed around it as follows: (starting at the isthmus and going clockwise) Corinthia, Argolis, Laconia, Messinia, Elis and Achaia.
Corinthia - the Northeastern Coastal Region
The city of Corinth stood here for thousands of years until it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th Century. Rather than rebuilding the city, it was decided to build a new one a few miles away. Modern Korinthos is a dull city built in grid form; it was itself destroyed by earthquakes a number of times, most recently in 1980.
Ancient Corinth - In ancient times, Corinth was one of the most important city-states; it was demolished by the Romans and then rebuilt in Roman style. There is still a large amount of the remains of the Roman city. The seven pillars of the Doric Temple of Apollo (550 BC) are the only remains of the Greek city. The archaeological site is vast - originally the city had a perimeter wall 15km long, only a portion of which has been excavated, but there's still plenty to see. There's also a small archaeological museum on the site, displaying the finds.
Acrocorinth - Looming above Ancient Corinth is a steep mountain. At the top, about 600m (2,000ft) above the city, stands the fortress of Acrocorinth (High Corinth). This was built in ancient times and rebuilt many times over the centuries by Romans, Venetians and Turks, as it is an important defensive location. Invading armies coming by land to the Peloponnese must cross the isthmus, which is in full view of the fortress of Acrocorinth.
Corinth Canal - Near to Corinth at the narrowest point of the isthmus is the Corinth Canal, an impressive cut which separates the Peloponnese from the mainland and technically makes it an island. This was done in 1890, at around the same time as the Suez Canal. Rather than installing locks, the canal was cut right down to sea level all the way along, so it is dominated by 100m rock walls on either side. The canal is an important shortcut for large ships going from the Adriatic to Athens, but is not big enough to take the largest supertankers. The best way to see the canal is as you are leaving the peninsula. Take the main road from Corinth to Athens (not the motorway) and pull into the car park just after the bridge. There is a pedestrian bridge where you can look at the canal - and with a bit of luck you will be able to photograph a ship going through.
Argolis - the East
Argolis is a plain facing south towards the sea, surrounded by mountains. It is reputed to be the hottest place in Greece. It takes its name from the city of Argos, which was an important city-state in the Classical Era.
In the second Millennium BC, this was the centre of the Bronze-Age Mycenaean civilisation. The city of Mycenae itself is northwest of the plain, in the foothills of the mountains, while the ancient town of Tiryns was originally by the sea, but is now a couple of kilometres or so inland. Nafplio is the fortified Venetian port near Tiryns and is a bustling modern town. Nearby in the mountains stands the ancient sanctuary of Epidavros with its open-air theatre, the best-preserved in the whole of Greece.
Mycenae and Tiryns together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mycenae was one of the most important centres of the Bronze Age civilisation in this area, so it gave its name to the civilisation and the people - the Mycenaeans. Built on a hill, this city is a fortress with walls made from huge stones. The later Greeks could not understand how such large stones could be handled by men, so they concluded these walls had been built by giants called Cyclopes and called them 'cyclopean walls'.
There is one main gate through the walls. Over the gate are carvings of two lions, giving it its name, the Lion Gate. Unfortunately, the heads of the lions have been worn away by time, but the gate is still very impressive. Within the fortress there are remains of many buildings - sadly, only the foundations or the bases of walls remain. The megaron, or great hall, is the central point of the citadel, presumably where the king would have had his court. The view from the megaron out over the plain of Argos is very impressive. Also within the citadel, you can see the place where archaeologists found the graves of the kings of Mycenae.
The Tholos Tombs
Outside the fortress are the remains of nine enormous tombs of the type known as tholos tombs. Two of them are virtually perfect and are open to the public. A tholos consists of a circular room with a hemispherical cut-stone ceiling. This is completely buried underground. At one side is a massive doorway opening onto a long open-air corridor which is lined on two sides with walls built from massive cut stones. The tholos tombs were given fancy names by the archaeologist Schliemann: the Treasury of Atreus and the Tomb of Clytemnestra, are named after two characters in the stories of Homer, although it is thought now that they predate the time that Homer was writing about.
The so-called Treasury of Atreus is the biggest and best-preserved. It is outside the main Mycenae enclosure, but the ticket to the main part will let you in here as well. The entranceway to the tomb is six metres wide and 36 metres long, leading to a massive doorway more than five metres high. Originally this would have had wooden doors mounted in it. Above the door is a giant lintel and above that is a triangular opening which is thought to relieve the strain on the lintel. Originally it would have been blocked by a flat triangular slab. Entering through the doorway, there is a huge beehive-shaped room 13 metres high and 14 metres across.
The Tomb of Clytemnestra is similar but smaller in all dimensions.
Mycenae was fully excavated by the archaeologists. A small museum displays everything that was found - although some are copies, the originals being on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens.
The most important find was probably the gold face mask known as the 'Mask of Agamemnon'. This was the death mask of a king, made out of pure gold and worked to show the features of the king. He had a moustache and beard. The original is in Athens, but the copy on display here in the museum is exact.
Admission to the museum is included in the admission price to the complex.
Tiryns is an ancient Mycenaean town just outside of Nafplio, dating from about 1500 BC. It is mentioned as 'wall-girt Tiryns' in Homer's Iliad. It is built on a small hill and is quite impressive because of its huge walls made from enormous stones. The entrance to the town goes up a ramp and doubles back on itself so that anyone entering the town would have to go up between two high walls with defenders on the top. Once you get into the town itself, though, there is not much to see, except for one remaining passageway which still has its original triangular roofing. It's definitely worth a visit, but probably won't take more than an hour.
Epidavros is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Epidavros, or Epidauros as it was known in ancient times, is situated in the mountains to the east of the Plain of Argos. It was a sanctuary of healing, dedicated to Asklepios, the God of Healing. People came to Epidavros from all over Greece, to make offerings to the God, and for health treatments as well. It served all the functions of a modern hospital, gym, hotel and temple, with entertainment laid on as well. Most of the site was reduced to ruins and very few of the buildings are more than just the bases of walls, but an attempt is being made to rebuild some of it, carefully identifying the positions of the stones and adding new ones to fill in the gaps.
The Theatre of Epidavros
One building which is almost completely preserved is the theatre. When the site was abandoned, it got covered up and completely forgotten about. Up until the 19th Century, it was thought to be just a hollow in the side of the mountain, but when excavated, it was found to be a complete amphitheatre, with seating for 14,000 people and perfect acoustics. A person standing at the centre point of the orchestra (the flat circular part in front of the seats) can be heard clearly in every part of the theatre, providing they speak in a clear voice.
The only part of the theatre which is missing is the skene, the back wall behind the stage. The theatre is in such good shape that it is being used again for performances, which are usually held in the evenings, but during the day the theatre is open to visitors. You can stand at the speaking point and amaze your friends in the back row with your powers of oration.
Nafplio, sometimes spelled Navplio, Nauplio or Nafplion, is a lovely town built by the Venetians when they controlled this part of Greece. As befits any Venetian town, it has tall shuttered buildings, narrow streets and big open squares for sitting and drinking coffee or something stronger. It also has two enormous fortresses on hills looking down on the town.
Lord Byron, the English poet, stayed in Nafplio in the building that is now known as the Byron Hotel. There are plenty of other hotels and pensions as well and the town is full of restaurants, so this is a good place to base yourself for touring the eastern Peloponnese. The old centre of the town around the port is not car-friendly. You may have to park your car in the big car park beside the sea and walk to your hotel, but no worries! The centre is small.
Arcadia - the Central Peloponnese
Arcadia is the central Peloponnese, a mountainous region located mainly away from the sea. In the 19th Century, Arcadia was seen by the Romantic Movement as an idyllic place where shepherds lived a pastoral life, untouched by modern civilisation. The name Arcadia became synonymous with the idea of people living in tune with nature.
The real Arcadia is quite different, being much drier and consequentially much more barren than imagined by the 19th Century Romantics. The main town of Arcadia is called Tripoli.
Laconia - the South-East
Laconia is another plain facing south towards the sea and surrounded by mountains - in this case the Taygetos Mountains, which are the biggest in the Peloponnese. In the Classical Era, the city-state of Sparta ruled the area with an iron fist. Spartan boys were taken from their families and brought up in army-style dormitories, with a harsh training regime. Their army was formidable. They fought with just about everybody over the years, officially winning the long, drawn-out Peloponnesian War in the 5th Century BC, but exhausting the resources of the city in the process. Today, there's not much to see in Sparta, which is now known as Sparti, but there are plenty of other sights around Laconia.
Mystras is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This city was the Byzantine capital of the Peloponnese in the 13th - 15th Centuries. The city was later abandoned and stands intact and deserted, the finest example of a Byzantine city in existence.
The Mani is a remote peninsula covered with castles. Of particular note is the village of Vathia, where every house appears to be a fortress. The southern tip of the Mani is the southernmost point in mainland Europe.
The Caves of Diros lie on the west coast of the Mani. They are the best show caves in Greece, with an amazing display of stalactites, stalagmites and other encrustations. The tour of the caves includes a boat ride on an underground lake.
Monemvasia is a giant rock connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land. The Byzantines built a town on the side of the rock and it became an important sea port, as it was very easy to defend against invaders.
Gythion was the harbour of ancient Sparta, but has no great archaeological remains now. It is, however, a picturesque seaside town which makes a great base for touring around Laconia.
Messinia - the Southwest
Messinia is the third of the south-facing plains surrounded by mountains. The main town is Kalamata, famous for its olives. Dotted around Messinia are various fortifications from the medieval period. In the west are the remains of a Mycenaean palace known as the Palace of Nestor.
The Palace of Nestor - Homer's Odyssey tells that a king called Nestor lived in a palace at Pylos. In the mid-20th Century, the buried remains of a Mycenaean palace dating from 1200 BC were discovered a few miles north of modern Pylos, on the west coast of Messinia. It is assumed that this is the palace that Homer was talking about. Unusually, this palace does not have massive fortifications around it. Buried among the rubble of the palace, the archaeologists found hundreds of baked clay tablets inscribed with the Linear B writing system. These were administrative lists, giving details of all the items stored in the palace; they give a unique record of what life was like for someone living in Mycenaean times.
The picturesque little town of Pylos lies on Navarino Bay, one of the few natural bays on the west coast of the Peloponnese. The long and rocky island of Sfaktiria protects the bay from the Ionian Sea. Here in 1827, there was a sea battle between the allied British, French and Russian fleets on one side and the Turkish navy on the other side. The Turks greatly outnumbered the allies, but they were defeated - the bottom of the sea is still littered with the wrecks of the ships that were sunk that day. Above the town of Pylos stands the fortress of Navarino - the best example of a Turkish fortress in the whole of Greece.
Koroni and Methoni - In the southwest corner of the region, these two towns each are protected by a giant Venetian fortress.
Messene - The ancient city after which the region is named now lies in ruins. This city had possibly the best fortifications of any Ancient Greek city, and the 3rd Century BC wall is still very impressive.
Elis - the West
Olympia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Ancient Greek town of Olympia is the most interesting thing to see in the western Peloponnese. The Sanctuary was sacred to Zeus and was named after Mount Olympos4, the supposed home of the gods. The temple to Zeus in Olympia in ancient times contained one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Statue of Zeus5. In addition to the temple of Zeus, there were temples to many other gods, including Hera. The remains of the sacred site are still very impressive although most of the buildings exist only as foundations or low walls.
Olympia was the site of the ancient Olympic Games, in which male athletes raced for the prize of an olive wreath. The games were held every four years from 776 BC onwards6 for over a thousand years and the name of the winner of each event in each of the games is on record. During the games there was a sacred truce throughout Greece, so that people from all over the Greek-speaking world could travel to Olympia and take part.
Originally the games consisted of just one event, a single straight foot race the length of the Stadion (600 feet), but over the years other events were added, though sometimes only for a few years. These included wrestling, boxing, a form of no-holds-barred wrestling called the pankration, horse racing, mule-cart racing, trumpeting and the pentathlon. The winner received only a wreath of olive leaves at the games, but he could expect to be handsomely rewarded by his fellow citizens when he returned home. One report says that an Athenian who won in the Olympics was entitled to a free meal at the city hall every day for the rest of his life.
You can still see the remains of the buildings where the athletes trained and the stadium where the foot races were held, although the hippodrome where the horse events took place is no longer visible.
The ancient games were for men only; there was a separate competition held every four years for women, which included foot races for unmarried women. It was held in honour of the goddess Hera.
The modern Olympic Games are considered to be the direct descendants of the Ancient Greek ones. To symbolise this, at every Olympic Games since 1928, a torch has been lit from the rays of the sun in Olympia and carried by a relay of runners to the Olympic stadium (wherever it is in the world) and used to light the Olympic Flame. Such torch relays were common in Ancient Greece, although the ancient Olympics did not include one.
High in the mountains that separate the plains of Elis from Messinia stands the Temple of Apollo Epikourios. This is reckoned to be the second-best preserved temple in the whole of Greece7. Bassae is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite being in a very good state of repair, the Hellenic Ministry of Culture is doing restoration to make it even better. To this end, they've constructed a giant tent around the temple which has been there since 1989 and will remain until the work is finished. This does not seem likely to be soon. You can still visit the temple inside its tent, but the essential spirituality of the place does not seem to survive the experience8.
Achaia - the North
The northern Peloponnese is separated from the rest of the Greek mainland by the narrow Gulf of Corinth. Almost at the narrowest point lies the city of Patra, a major port and the third-biggest city in Greece. Patra doesn't have much in the line of ancient ruins, but there is an interesting medieval castle. Patra is probably most famous, however, as the home of Mavrodafni wine, a sweet, strong red wine with a taste something similar to port.
There is a new bridge linking Patra with northwestern Greece. The Rion-Antirion Bridge is the biggest cable-stay bridge in the world, although not the one with the longest single span. It opened on 8 August, 2004.