The first of my travel tales! I went to Greece for 5 days in the beginning of April, co-supervising a field-trip of tourism students (yeah, I know, my job sounds awful…). We went to mainland Greece, to the peninsula of Peloponnes, which is only separated from Northern Greece by the Gulf of Corinth. It is rich in cultural heritage with historic sights such as Delphi, Mycenae (Agamemnon, anybody?!), Sparta (yes, this IS Sparta), and Corinth.
We based ourselves in the sea side town of Loutraki, a mere 1 hour drive from Athens, and a stone throw from the Corinth canal. Loutraki has been popular with the people from Athens for a long time. The old Greeks discovered thermal springs where the town is located now, and even 1,000 years ago they fancied a spa retreat. The modern town is only about 150 years old, but was mostly destroyed in an earthquake in 1928. So unfortunately if you look for old buildings there – none to be found. Instead, lots of concrete. Loutraki has been THE seaside resort for Athens since the 1950`s, and the building style (unfortunately) reflects that. The town looks like a mix between Costa Brava and Brighton, with hotel blocks lining the small (gravel) beach front, with the biggest casino in Europe at one end. Still, at least in April, the town has something calming and relaxing. There is a modern new spa, where I wouldn’t mind spending a day or two, lovely family-run hotels (we stayed with Aris and Maria at Hotel Segas – they speak very good English and if Maria is around, also German), and of course hearty Greek tavernas.
We frequently went to “The Five Brothers” taverna which is run – you guessed it – by five brothers and their mom, who is cooking. It is right at the sea front, has an open fireplace, and a tree growing in the middle of the room. It is very down to earth and nothing fancy, but this is the “real Greece” if you are looking for that, with home-cooked dishes and red wine served in those little water glasses. My favourite dish there was a stew made from potatoes, carrots and artichoke hearts, topped with dill, olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice (it is called aginares a la polita and I made my own version of it here). Also, I never knew they use dill in the Greek cuisine.
If you are looking for a more modern approach to Greek cooking, Mihalis at Agios Efrosinos is your man. His place is only open for lunch and he cooks whatever he fancies and is available at the market. He prepared me some lovely vegan dishes (I called beforehand), ranging from hummus (ok, not Greek), aubergine salad, a fantastic bean salad to a main dish of stuffed peppers and tomatoes, filled with rice and dill. Great food and a lovely atmosphere, as he decorated his place with old knick-knack and homemade preserves. It is about two blocks up from the beach front, across the street from Hotel Segas.
Apart from the food, Loutraki makes for a great base to explore the Peloponnes. One day we did the classic circuit of the Eastern Peloponnes. First stop was the Corinth canal, then in an early morning arrival in Mycenae. To get there you drive along winding roads, through plantations of orange trees, and pass lonely houses. Once in Mycenae, on the top of the hill, it is a really nice site of a 3,000 year old bronze-age civilization (actually Europe’s first major civilization at all), with a great museum attached to it. It is really worth being there at 9 am when they open – an hour later the big busses arrived and too many people were on the site, and that was in April, I imagine it is even more crowds in the summer. Also, don’t miss out on the site a few metres down the street from the main entrance, which are more or less the first dome buildings made by humans at that scale.
We pushed on to Nafplio on the coast, which used to be an old Venetian port city centuries ago. Therefore you get to see some lovely Italian architecture and piazzas there. You can wander in the little streets of the old town, enjoy some ice cream and maybe climb up to the old fort. I wouldn’t want to spend my holiday there, but for an afternoon stroll it makes for a nice break in between the ancient sites.
We continued to the ancient site of Epidaurus, which has an amazing amphitheatre – unfortunately that is about it. The museum is uninspiring and where the old healing centre used to be there is just a field of rocks with very little explanation. The drive by the coast back up to Loutraki was beautiful though, lush green mountains rolling into the blue sea.
One morning we also went to nearby ancient Corinth, a lovely managed site and well-preserved, although a bit hard to find in the middle of a housing area (I know, right?!). I generally think it is pretty impressive what people built 2,000 or 3,000 years ago already. It humbles you a bit that they already had running water, bath houses, streets and libraries. In Corinth there is an old shopping arcade to look at and you can see a huge defense fort on the top of a table mountain nearby.
All in all it is a nice trip, especially if you are into history. There is lots more to see on the peninsula if you have more time (Sparta, Delphi, Olympia,…). But here is my short summary for you:
Historic sites: ++ (some are not so well managed, don’t be too disappointed)
Food: + (hearty and homemade, nothing fancy, but vegan-friendly)
Beaches: – (better go to the Greek islands)
Best time to go: spring (less crowds, lush vegetation, temperatures in the 20’s °C)
Transport: fly into Athens, then rent a car for getting around; limited access by train
Money: pay in Euro; medium value-for-money (not cheap, not expensive)
Edit: One of my Greek friends has pointed out that on the Southern Peloponnes there are beautiful beaches and also some medieval forts and monasteries to see. A nice beach would be just South of Nafplio, in a huge bay, and on the islands of Spetses (further South of Nafplio) and Elafonisos (in the very South of the Peloponnes).