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TRAVEL TIPS

Undiscovered Greece

A revealing road trip through the unexplored Southern Peloponnese

Despite being the desire of many invaders throughout its long history, in more recent years, the Southern Peloponnese has rarely received the attention it deserves. Even its location seems an afterthought, stretched over three peninsulas, from historic Pylos and Methoni in the west, to the central mountains and clans of the Mani, and over to the Byzantine wonders of Laconia in the east. It is a landscape as dramatic as its history, and perfect for discovering on a road trip. Here are just some of the highlights...

Make a base in Kalamata

Kalamata has an easy charm about it, which most travellers miss as they breeze through. The city is famed for its olives, but there’s plenty more to savour here.

The city’s ‘old town’ is a maze of Technicolour backstreets and traditional tavernas, over which its 13th-century kastro (castle) still looms. It even played a memorable role in Greek history, with March 23 Square – now a caffeinated hive of kafenios – being where Greek independence was declared 200 years ago, after the clans of the Mani marched up to take back the city from the occupying Ottomans.

South of here, shopping and dining take over the centre of Kalamara. Yet, beyond the café terraces of Vasileos Georgiou runs the last thing you’d expect to see — a long strip of parkland filled with old railway engines and carriages. It’s as much an outdoor museum as a park, and flush with promenading locals soaking in the cool night air.

From there, stroll south to the harbour where a boardwalk wraps the coast as it morphs into a vast stretch of restaurants and Blue Flag sands to the east, curving the bay and gazing out to the inviting green hills of the Mani.

A drive into history

A 30km drive inland from Kalamata yields more surprises, as the road rises out of a sea of olive trees to the rocky hillside village of Mavromati. On the face of it, little differentiates this from any other rural stop yet below, scattering the plain like discarded Lego, lie the ruins of an entire city.

This is what remains of Ancient Messene, built by the Thebans in 369BC to keep the defeated Spartans in check. Defensive walls run the valley for miles, but the city soon outgrew its roots, becoming a centre of culture, politics, religion and art in the ancient world before falling out of favour.

What marks out Messene today, as much its size, is just how untouched it is. Not only has it avoided being cannibalised by other settlements, but compared with other ancient sites such as Olympia or Corinth, not many visitors make it here. Exploring its stadium and cascading ruins is a stirring experience, as you gaze to a horizon unchanged in millennia.

Just coasting

From Messene, a 90-minute drive to the west coast reveals a history just as engaging. It’s here, just off the modern town of Pylos, where an ancient Mycenaean settlement centred on the immaculately preserved palace of King Nestor can be found. It’s one of the most well-preserved palaces of its kind in Greece – even the king’s terracotta bathtub still stands.

The area was dubbed ‘sandy Pylos’ by the poet Homer, and its scenic Voidokilia beach certainly bears that out. Its crescent shore wraps an iris of turquoise waters, with a walking trail skimming dunes where you may see chameleons.

Follow the trail to discover the Frankish-built Pylos Castle, sat atop the much-storied Nestor’s Cave. From there, you can gaze over to the island of Sfaktiria.

This sandy outcrop caps Navarino Bay, its southern entrance guarded by modern Pylos and its fortress. In 1827, British, French and Russian forces entered Greece’s War for Independence here. When not roaming the streets and boutique shops of the town, kayaking trips into the bay offers a new perspective on Pylos’ history.

South of Pylos, visit another coastal town, Methoni, where its 13th-century Venetian kastro rises on a promontory just south of its modern streets. Below it, a crumbling stone causeway reveals a remarkable offshore bourtzi (fort), its octagonal walls skittering on the edge of a rocky islet. It’s an unforgettable sight in the burnt orange of a setting sun.

Entering the Messinian Mani

Driving the coast east, back past Kalamata, takes you to the edge of one of the region’s best-kept secrets: the Mani peninsula. Resident Maniots claim to be descended from the Spartans, and this was, for centuries, a land of clans and blood feuds, with castlelike ‘tower houses’ growing more abundant as you filter further south.

There is little fierce about the village of Kardamyli, however, the rather bijou entrance to this other world. Today, its streets are filled with artsy shops, and it’s here that the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor built his family home, now a museum with a whole host of events. During the summer, the house is open as a boutique hotel.

Venture into the town to find a tempting selection of locally-owned taverns where you can sample the food from the region such as the famed Mani sausage, which is oak-smoked and flavoured with orange. Don’t forget to taste the crumbly feta cheese.

But this is as much a hiker’s town as one for gourmets. Marked walks lead out along the rocky Viros Gorge, as towering cliffs rise either side, with trails branching off to old clan towers, monasteries and tiny villages conveniently hidden in the hills, a relic of the days when pirate raids on ships crossing this busy trade route were a vital source of income.

For the adventurous, Mount Taygetos is the real challenge, with early morning starts and local guides required to reach its over 2,400m peak and return before the sun bakes the slopes. Cool off at the nearby beach village of Stoupa, kayaking hidden coves, tumbling into the water to swim into caves and following the rocky coast back up to Kardamyli.

Clans, caves & a ghost town

As you leave the Messinian Mani, the land starts to change. Further south, the lush foothills of the Taygetos start to fade as you head to the southernmost tip at rocky Cape Tenaro (Matapan), once said to have hidden a gateway to the underworld in its caves.

The winding coastal drive is dizzying but magnificent. Be sure to stop at Mani-capital Aeropolis, a small-but-beautiful stone village laced with tavernas where you can feast on local produce including a variety of fresh seafood. Aeropolis was the home of Petrobey Mavromichalis, once chieftan of the most powerful clan here. In the nearby fishing village of Limeni you can stay in his family stronghold, a waterside stone tower run by Petrobey’s ancestor.

As you trickle south, there are endless distractions. The Caves of Diros, a cathedral of flooded caverns that were once inhabited, can be explored by boat. Beyond, the Bay of Mezapos has a walk to the ruins of an old Frankish castle jutting out on a thin piece of land, while the ghost town of Vathia, a village of crumbling, mostly abandoned ‘tower houses’ makes an eerie yet scenic stroll.

Discover a Byzantine wonder

Looping up the east Mani coast brings you up past Gythio, a port town with a metropolitan zest. Continue inland north and you’ll reach the modern city of Sparti, the land of the Spartans. Not much remains from their fierce era; they were warriors and built little but conquered much. Yet, nearby lies one of medieval Greece’s greatest sights: the remains of Mystras.

The most thrilling way to reach this hilltop ruin is to drive the winding roads up to the mountaintop village of Anavryti and walk from there. The (mostly downhill) four-hour hike follows the E4 European Trail through little-trod forested roads and paths, and you can easily get a taxi back.

Mystras is well worth exploring, a ruined fortress town spilling over two sections of a Taygetos foothill. From below, it looks almost impossible to reach, but as you wind your way up, it seems to loom out from the maquis.

The town was built around a 13th-century Frankish castle, and later became the centre of Byzantine power in Southern Greece during its golden age. Wander mansions, a palace, and churches wrought with frescoes before summiting its fortifications for fine views.

Monemvasia

Having gained a taste for Byzantine wonders, drive 90km south-east to the citadel of Monemvasia. Raised up on a great crest of rock, severed from the mainland by an earthquake, the town nestles on the far end, entirely cut off but for one road. A causeway links the mainland, after which there are a few different routes in on foot. The path circling the northern side via the old lighthouse rewards with its views over the Myrtoan Sea.

Upon entering the lower town, you’ll spill through narrow medieval streets lined with boutique stays, churches and waterside terraces. There’s little development here, and stumbling aimlessly down hidden alleys and crumbling steps is all part of its charm. Finding the hidden portelo, for example, where you can slip into the water for a swim, feels like a lost secret.

True gasps are to be reserved for the upper part of town, however, reached via a series of switchbacks leading to iron-riveted gates. This was where the town’s nobles and wealthy merchants set up, and among the ruins of their mansions are the remains of the 12th-century Agia Sophia church, an octagonaldomed beauty. A fitting finale is the climb-up past scratchy scrub and wildflowers to the wind-battered acropolisto to gaze at the wild coast.

An island escape

South of Monemvasia, the peninsula tapers away into rural roads inching down to its heel and the port of Pounta. It’s here you’ll find 10-minute ferries to the island of Elafonisos, a remote, beachy escape wrapped in iridescent waters and hidden coves.

It’s a stark gear-shift from the rugged Mani or historic west, with its pinkish sands and a submerged isthmus that gives the water its Caribbean hue. Life is slow here, and there is little to do but hit the beach of Simos, strap on a snorkel, then fill up on seafood in the harbour. The perfect finish.

GNTO UK & IRELAND OFFICE / WANDERLUST | Wanderlust website