Travel: Pleasing yourself in the Peloponnese
Greece has plenty to offer, beyond Athens and the islands. Sean Sheehan is our guide to the Peloponnese, an alluring mix of ancient and modern
WHAT'S not to like about Greece? Delicious, affordable food, superb accommodation and people with hearts as sunny as their country's weather.
Out of season, the western part of the mainland, the Peloponnese, is near perfect: footfall on the beaches and around the unique archaeological sites is minimal; the weather is balmy and traffic is negligible.
Mystras, an easy drive from Athens airport, is an appealing place to linger for a couple of days. Blink and you could miss this quiet village with bougainvillea adorning its ancient stone walls and lemon, lime and kumquat trees shading its pavements.
The Taygetus mountain range towers dramatically above Mystras and on its slopes stands a Byzantine town that was established in the 13th century. Long abandoned, it stands as Greece's equivalent of a Wild West ghost town but with deserted churches instead of saloons and stone pathways instead of boardwalks.
Pleasant uphill ambles access the ruins with faded frescoes, some of which have figures with eyes scratched out by Ottoman occupiers in fear of the evil eye. One of the monasteries, Pantanassa, remains inhabited by elderly nuns who tend the pretty courtyard with flowers you would love to have growing in your garden back home.
Sparta, a 10-minute drive from Mystras may be a modern, workaday town but citrus trees grace the pavements and its museum of antiquities has some beautiful mosaics. The site of ancient Sparta and its unique culture, a silent place of foundation stones and memories, makes a peaceful spot for a picnic.
The cleverly designed, stone-built Mystras Palace Hotel, on the road between Mystras and Sparta, is set in what was an olive grove, and its creature comforts include a pool and a restaurant with local wines - and a sinful dessert trolley.
If you really want to get into body-and-soul-searching mode, Euphoria Retreat is waiting just minutes away from the village square in Mystras. This is a very high-end destination spa, built in layers and bordered by woodland.
The spa is gorgeous, the meals desperately sensible, and there are treatments and daily organised activities to give you into physical and mental wellbeing.
A few kilometres out of the village is the hamlet of Pikoulianika, where some careful driving along a narrow road will bring you to Mazaraki Guesthouse. Built in a traditional style and with glorious views over the plain where Sparta lies, two excellent restaurants are a stone's throw away.
A trip to Greece wouldn't be the same without a beach stay, and a two-hour drive south from Mystras, through scenic villages and stunning coastlines, is Kardamyli, framed by the Taygetus mountains and the Messenian Gulf.
Popular in the summer, the area is a great base for mountain hikes and the village has supermarkets and bijou boutiques for classy souvenirs, local produce and hand-made clothes.
Liakato, with spacious family-sized rooms with kitchenettes, is the place to stay in Kardamyli, if only for the magnanimous breakfasts brought to your door. There is a pool and sunbathing area, though the sea is so close that from your room's balcony an olive insouciantly hurled away will land on the sea's gently lapping waves. Beachside eateries are dotted along the shorelines, one of the more chic being Tikla, a restaurant and wine bar.
Nafplio is a seaside town in the Peloponnese surging with Athenians at weekends and high season but pleasantly serene when they depart and leave the sandy beaches uncrowded.
The archaeological museum is one of the best outside Athens; there's a castle to visit, plus a promenade and huge square for al fresco wining and dining. Nafplio is also the base from which to visit two outstanding ancient sites.
First, half an hour away, is Mycenae: home of the semi-mythical Agamemnon who organised an army to attack Troy and rescue his sister-in-law Helen of Sparta. The remains of the palace complex are hugely impressive and help explain why a pre-Classical Greek civilisation is named after it.
Reached equally easily is Epidaurus, a complex where ancient Greeks came to be healed, worship Olympian gods and enjoy dramas in the massive amphitheatre. Almost as interesting as the small museum are the stacks of artefacts outside, numbered and waiting to be reassembled like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.
Planning your own Peloponnesian itinerary with a hired car opens up more possibilities than a package trip. It is an easy drive there from Athens airport and, to get around inconvenient flight times and avoid the capital city, Comfort Stay lives up to its name with kitchenette-equipped, spacious rooms, a pretty courtyard garden, restaurant, take-outs delivered from eateries and even a masseuse to ease tired muscles.
FOOD AND WINE
WHAT is good about restaurants in the Peloponnese is that most do not rely exclusively on tourists from abroad.
On a hillside outside Mystras, Chromata has a carefully tended courtyard garden and terrace with panoramic views that appeal just as much to Greek holidaymakers.
The eating area inside clings to the mountainside, one wall being bedrock. Like many Greek menus, shared starters and salad make a delicious lunch.
Come evening, the moon shines down on Sparta in the plain below and a table on the terrace is as romantic as it gets. Nearby, Ktima Skreka is a charmingly rustic restaurant that takes pride in traditional Greek cuisine, suitably serving at tables amidst olive trees and a view of the Byzantine castle behind you.
Nafplio is becoming a foodie's favourite town with Athenian sophisticates and you can see why at Savor, a husband and wife team who organise wine tasting trips, cooking classes and personal crafted meals cooked by the chef as he converses about everything you wanted to know about Greek food but were afraid to ask. 3Sixty Grill and Wine Bar, right in the centre of town, is a steak and grill bar appealing to hungry carnivores.
The Peloponnese, Napflio apart, is not a place for wine snobs. The region, Laconia, is terra incognita for oenophiles but produces an amicable citrus-accented dry white, from the less-than-well-known Kidonista grape. The Mavroudi grape variety, makes a hefty red and goes well with meat dishes.
- Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Aegean Airways fly direct to Athens from Dublin, with other options from British airports, including direct summer flights to Kalamata in the Peloponnese.
- Rhino Car Hire is reliable and offers vehicles to suit all budgets.
- Book online for Mystras Palace Hotel, Euphoria Retreat, Mazaraki Guesthouse, Liakoto and Comfort Stay.
- Check out the restaurants online: Chromata, Ktima Skreka, Savor and 3Sixty Grill and Wine Bar.