Thursday, December 04, 2008

Around Greece in 7 Days - The Peloponnese

Having crossed the Corinth Canal we entered the Peloponnese, a remarkable part of Greece with a history of over 5000 years and a profusion of ancient and medieval sites and monuments. The landscape is dominated by forested mountains and the economy relies on rural produce such as the olive, the vine, citrus fruits and honey.
The first Olympic Games originated in the region and it is where the modern Greek revolution began and ended with an independent Greek state.

We had fine views over the Saronic Gulf during our drive down the eastern coast of the Peloponnese on our way to Nea Epidaurus. There is little cultivation in the coastal strip just Aleppo pines and maquis interspersed with olive groves. The harbour at Nea Epidaurus is one in which we may stay next year. Our room with its balcony in the Hotel Marilena overlooked the sea and the islands to the northeast. The accommodation was inexpensive and comfortable and we eat supper of homemade burgers and chips at the adjoining Taverna Ta Kymata on the beach.

In the cool of the morning and with few other tourists through the sweet fragrance of pines on a hillside below Mount Arahneo emerged the magnificent 3rd century theatre of Epidaurus, the most celebrated and complete ancient theatre in Greece. It is a miracle of architecture built with limestone with the semi circular auditorium 114 metres across at the front arranged around a circular stage. The 55 tiers of seating (the top 21 being a Roman addition) are divided into blocks by 36 staircases. The near perfect acoustics are such that a whisper from the stage can be heard by the person in the 14,000 audience most remote from the stage. Miggy was here over 25 years ago and actually helped make the scenery for and watched ancient Greek drama here. The theatre is a place that will remain vivid in our memories for a long time.

The road from Epidaurus toward Nafplio passes through vineyards and age old olive groves with the mountains looming hazily in the distance. Nafplio with the huge Venetian fortresses of Palamidi and Akronafplia, the island fortress of Bourtzi, its marble pavements, neoclassical buildings and wooden balconies with cascading bougainvillaea is the most elegant town in Greece. After enduring many sieges during the struggle between the Venetians and the Turks and occupation by both, the town was the first capital of liberated Greece from 1829 to 1834. The first Greek parliament (Vouli) was held in the Vouleftiko mosque!

The site of Mycenae was inhabited as far back as the 3rd millennium BC although the remains today reflect early citadel architecture of the Mycenaean or late bronze age from 1700 to 1100BC. Only the ruling class inhabited the hilltop palace, the townspeople living outside the walls. The city was abandoned in 1200BC after disruption and a devastating fire. Much of the complex is remarkably intact considering how long ago it was abandoned and the Mycenaeans buildings were clearly technologically advanced with stone walls in the lower storey and timber framing in as many as two storeys above. The defensive ‘Cyclopean’ walls enclosing the town are constructed with enormous boulders and measure up to 14 metres thick. How these early peoples transported stones of this size and weight from the quarry to this site let alone how they hoisted them in to place in the walls is a feat of unimaginable proportions that has been attributed with some justification to the mythical Cyclops.

The 13th century carved ‘Lion gate’, the main monumental entrance is exquisite for its age. Mycenaean rulers were entombed, along with weapons and enough food and drink to last the journey to the underworld, in grave circles and later in ‘Tholos’ (‘beehive’) tombs examples of which can be seen within and nearby the walled town.

Mycenae was the most powerful city state in Greece until 1100BC and its destruction by fire. The House of Atreus who ruled here had an interesting if not macabre history: King Atreus slaughtered his Brother Thyestes’s children and fed them to him, for which outrage the gods laid a curse on Atreus and his descendants. Thyestes surviving daughter, Pelopia, bore her own father a son, Aigisthos murdered Atreus and restored Thyestes to the throne of Mycenae but Atreus also had an heir, Agamemnon, who seized power. Agamemnon raised a fleet to punish the Trojan Paris who had stolen his brother’s wife, Helen (of Troy fame). He sacrificed his daughter to obtain a favourable wind. When he returned he was murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra, and her lover, - none other than Aigistros. The murderous pair was then disposed of by Agamemnon’s children, Orestes and Elektra. And we think we have family feuds!

Githio, an unremarkable seaside resort looking tired at the end of the season, was once the naval base for Sparta. Linked to the seafront by a causeway lies the islet of Marathonisi, thought to be Homer’s Kranai Island where Paris of Troy and Helen spent their first night together. Githio is also the western gateway to the ‘Mani’, an extraordinary if not unique region on and around the middle peninsular at the south of the Peloponnese. The barren, rocky ‘Inner Mani’ occupies the peninsular itself whilst the more fertile and quite beautiful ‘Outer Mani’ lies to the north. Both are dominated by the dramatic 2400 metre limestone summits of the Taygetus Mountain range densely clad in black pine and fir on the lower slopes.

Feuding between Maniot clans over inadequate land was rife and once started could last for months or years although they agreed truces every now and then to tend to the crops. The fortified ‘tower’ houses characteristic of this area were built so that clansmen could fire at each other, raising them up to five storeys so as to be able to catapult rocks onto opponent’s roofs. Villages full of such houses, now desolate and strangely quiet, are scattered throughout the ‘Inner Mani’ nestled among acres of abandoned terracing where crops, probably vines or olives, used to grow. The population fled from their homes in 1920 to settle in the United States. Why no one seems to know but could it be famine due to crop failure?

Vatheia at the southernmost extremity of the peninsular is typical of the neglect and decay but rich Athenians and, perhaps, Americans of Maniot descent are returning to restore the famous towers, some as hunting lodges for the brief autumn shoot of quail and turtle dove. Mani’s main town, Aeropolis, is delightful. We had coffee there accompanied by a light, crispy, doughnutty thing with feta cheese which was absolutely scrumptious.

Lunch of delicious whitebait and Greek salad outside in the rain on the waterfront at Koroni, one of the ‘eyes of Venice’ was delightful. The stepped streets of the town, lying below the 13th century Venetian castle and the houses with their wrought iron balconies have changed little since the town’s origin in 1830.

Our base for the night, Methoni, is the other ‘eye of Venice’, named as such for the protection afforded to Venice against hostile Ottoman fleets entering the Adriatic from the east. The walls of the rambling Venetian castle at Methoni, later modified by
the Turks and the French, enclose the remains of two hamams, a Venetian church and minaret bases. The Turks however had the final say by building a fort on the islet of Bourzi beyond the Venetian sea gate.

Surprisingly on an island just south of the town Greece’s first lighthouse was built in 1896 by order of Queen Victoria of England!

We spent an uncomfortable night in Methoni due to Mosquito attack but the Hotel Castello was clean and inexpensive. Supper at the ‘Klimateria’ restaurant was of typical Greek cuisine and excellent and we enjoyed a nightcap in the ‘local’ down the road. Although the Pub was packed with mostly young people drinking, the drunkenness that is prevalent in the UK was not apparent.

The Geek Revolution and the 1821 to 1831 War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire were fought in the Peloponnese and so modern Greece grew from the battlefields of this region. Independence was decided at Pylos at the naval battle of Navarino, the town’s former name. A fleet of 27 Russian, French and English ships entered Navarino Bay where the Ottoman fleet of 89 ships lay at anchor. The intention was merely to intimidate the Ottomans into leaving the Bay but the allied fleet was fired upon and a full scale battle ensued. By nightfall three quarters of the Ottoman fleet was sunk with negligible allied casualties. Greek independence followed. The bay of Navarino now looks a beautiful, safe and sheltered place to anchor!

The Peloponnese has a varied landscape dominated by forested mountains between which the fertile river valleys and plains host cultivation of all kinds including citrus trees and vegetables and fruits. Olive groves abound around Kalamata and the south west of the region and the west coast between Methoni in the south and Patra in the north is given to tourism and boasts some of the Mediterranean’s finest beaches. Ancient archaeological sites are profuse the most renowned of which, Olympia, lies at the confluence of the rivers Alfeios and Kladeos in the pine and cypress clad foothills of the Folios Mountains in the Eleia (Ilia) region.

A religious sanctuary on the site of Olympia flourished since Mycenaean times and there are indications that Games were being held on the site in 1000BC. In 776BC the leader of the Eleians, Iphotos, rededicated the Games to Zeus and named the site Olympia after the god’s abode on Mount Olympus. This date marks the first Olympiad and from then on every four years Pan-Hellenic contests were held attracting athletes from all the Greek city states. During the games the Olympic Truce, still honoured in the modern Games, was in force and all hostilities between states were suspended.

The stadium where the Games were held was 212.5 metres long by 28.5 metres wide. The 45,000 spectators sat on raised grass terracing all round and the stone exedra (enclosure) of the Hellanodikai or Judges opposite the altar to the goddess Demeter Chamyne are still evident. Women were not allowed to take part in or watch the Games, perhaps because the men competed naked! The Romans took control of the Games, which included sprinting, wrestling, boxing and equestrian events, until they were banned by the Christians as being pagan in 393AD. The institution of the Olympic Games had flourished for twelve centuries and had made a brilliant contribution to the history and development of sport.

Fifteen centuries later in 1896 the Games were revived in their birthplace, Greece and since then every four years a torch bearer starts out from Olympia bearing the sacred flame to the venue of the Games, the next of which, fittingly, is of course London.

The monuments or remains thereof at Olympia, both Greek and Roman, dating from as early as the 6th century BC are truly impressive and survive in such completeness as to give a good idea of the grandeur of the buildings and the form of the layout of the entire complex. The 5th century BC Temple of Zeus, the centrepiece of the site, with its massive Doric columns some standing and some laying where they collapsed as a result of an earthquake is magnificent and the various Gymnasia where the athletes trained are of enormous proportion. The Council House where the athletes swore the oath before the Games and the Guesthouses are all quite outstanding. Even the Roman Emperor Nero’s enormous house, built for the single year that he competed here and won every event by cheating, impresses.

Achaia, the extreme north western region of the Peloponnese, embraced Christianity earlier than the remainder of Greece and the Apostle St Andrew preached and was martyred in the capital, Patras.

As well as its fine beaches, the west coast of Achaia in the vicinity of Kalogria and its lagoons ranks as one of Europe’s largest wetlands. Rare wildlife abounds there and areas of sand dunes support Aleppo pine and valonea oaks. The area is clearly extremely fertile and, as well as a wide variety of salad and vegetables, gourds and pumpkin are plentiful.

The 13th century AD Frankish Chlemousti Castle was on a hill overlooking the plain around Kalogria and the port of Killini. A good view can be had from the castle ramparts of the surrounding area and as far as the Ionian Islands.

Patras, the capital of the Peloponnese and Greece’s third city and second port is no beauty and had no interest for us so we bypassed it on a magnificent motorway that ran mostly through tunnels. We emerged from the end of one of these tunnels to see the magnificent Rion-Andirrion suspension bridge completed in 2004. This impressive structure is the longest cable stayed bridge in the world at 2.252 metres. The narrow straight over which the bridge spans and the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth is a windy place that we will have to negotiate next spring.

The final leg of our 2000 mile tour of mainland Greece found us driving along the west coast the Sterea Ellada overlooking the beautiful Ionian Islands. We lunched on the waterfront at Astakos. On the lagoon entering Lefkas the first of the Flamingos welcomed us back to our winter home.