The Peloponnese: The Perfect Day-Trip From Athens You Didn’t Know About
It topped Lonely Planet’s “Best In Europe 2016” list, yet the Peloponnese is a region often overlooked by travellers to Greece, who tend to have their hearts set on certain islands (Santorini I am looking at you!) and Athens itineraries centred around the Acropolis. However, the Peloponnese, a large region in southern Greece surrounded by the Ionian Sea on one side and the Aegean on the other, is said to be the place where the gods walked the earth. And if that doesn’t sound like a place you want to include in your Greek travels, then I don’t know what does.
The area is home to diverse landscapes ranging from rugged mountains to sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, and the region also boasts ancient temples, Byzantine and Venetian ruins, and fortresses. (I am telling you, you gotta go here!) There is a lot to see and do, enough to comprise a whole trip on its own; but, if you don’t have time in your itinerary for that, at least make sure to take a day-trip there.
This past weekend I woke up bright and early (although not too bright thanks to a nasty cold I had received the day before) and headed out on this tour to do a day-trip to Mycenae, Epidaurus, and Nafplio. Armed with a hefty amount of suggestions from people who had been there before, and of course my actual tour-guide’s knowledge, I did my best to see as much as possible of the region while also feeling sick af (not in a cool way, but in a “I really should be in bed” kind of way). But that was what Sunday was for, and so I am pleased to give you my recommendations for Mycenae, Epidaurus, and Nafplio.
Here is what to do, see, eat, and buy to have the perfect day-trip to the Peloponnese!
The ancient citadel of Mycenae, which Homer wrote was “rich in gold and once ruled much of the Mediterranean world,” stands on a low hill, wedged between sheer, lofty peaks on the edge of two ravines. The archaeological site, one of the most famous ancient Greek sites, dates back to the Bronze Age. Built near two mountains that made it inaccessible and hard to detect, but also close to the main route of goods flowing through Greece, it is safe to say that Mycenae was constructed in the most strategic of locations.
It was the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who in 1876 brought to light the importance of the acropolis of Mycenae. The city, which was built by the mythical Perseus and ruled by kings such as Atreus and Agamemnon, developed a vigorous civilisation from 1600BC, reached its peak in 1400BC, and was finally destroyed by the Argives in 468BC.
The city’s monumental stone walls were long believed to have been constructed by Cyclops. In addition to being totally awe-struck over them, the other most important parts from the preserved remains for you to see are the Lion Gate of Mycenae, which was the entrance to the Acropolis, the two Burial Enclosures that were part of an extensive prehistoric cemetery, the Vaulted Tomb of Clytemnestra, the Royal Palace, the North Gate, the Temple and the Underground Tank.
One of the most fascinating parts of your experience at Mycenae will be how freely you can roam about this ancient city. Apart from the Burial Enclosures, almost nothing is blocked off, and you can even have a poke down into the Underground Tank if you so wish. (I don’t recommend this, I am just pointing it out!) Another thing I want to point out, look in my last photo – can you see King Agamemnon in the mountains?!
Treasury of Atreus
Located just by the ancient city of Mycenae is the Treasury of Atreus, a burial monument. The construction of the Treasury of Atreus took place around 1250 BC, during the last century of Mycenaean prominence. Like other Mycenaean burial monuments, it consists of a passageway cut into the hillside that was built of huge squared stones, leading into a vast domed chamber. Originally, the facade of the entrance would have had excessive decoration, but only small fragments have been preserved, and traces of bronze nails suggest that similar decoration once existed inside. The tomb was found empty, already robbed in antiquity, but at one time it would have contained rich and valuable grave goods.
Pausanias (a Greek traveler and geographer of the 2nd century AD) wrote that the ancients considered this to be the Tomb of Agamemnon (King of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army in the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad). No-one can say for certain if this is true or not; but, if you (like me) spent many years of your life studying the Trojan War/Homer/Classics, then it is pretty damn amazing to think there is even a slight possibility that this was his tomb that you are standing inside. ~Immediately e-mails Classics teacher~
Epidaurus was once a major city, well-known for its healing qualities. Serving as a sanctuary, with hundreds of spas and structures devoted to the gods Apollo, Asklepios, and Hygeia, people from all over Greece and the Mediterranean arrived there to be cured. Due to its serene location within the mountains and the many springs, it was the ideal location for patients suffering from both mental and physical illnesses. Covering a massive area, the sanctuary offered hostels, a gymnasium, and baths.
However, Epidaurus’ main draw is its impressive theatre, the best preserved ancient Greek theatre. Built in the 4th century BC, with seating for 15,000 people, it is so well preserved that it is still used for events today. What is even more incredible about the Ancient Theatre is its perfect acoustics. A person speaking at an average volume in the centre of the stage can be heard perfectly from the top row of the theatre. Trust me, we tried it. In fact, my guide ripped up pieces of paper in the centre and I could hear her from the top row. Very, very impressive.
Located in the eastern Peloponnese, Nafplio boasts narrow, bougainvillea-covered streets, rich-hued neoclassical mansions, wrought-iron balconies and cobblestone and marble streets. It is a popular weekend resort for Athenians due to its waterfront cafes and restaurants, fresh seafood, and pretty boutiques, and it also happens to be the perfect base to explore all the nearby ancient ruins.
Nafplio was the first capital of Greece after Independence (between 1823 and 1834) and has been a major port since the Bronze Age. So strategic was its position that it had three fortresses (the massive principal fortress of Palamidi, the smaller Akronafplia, and Bourtzi on an islet west of the old town) and was coveted by a series of empires. Today, traces of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman influences can still be seen in its old town.
Syntagma Square, the heart of Nafplion’s town center, is where locals and visitors come to relax, drink coffee and watch the world go by. It’s also a beautiful spot to take photographs, thanks to the well-preserved neoclassical buildings and marble paving surrounding the square. Visit the Venetian arsenal built in 1713 (now the Archaeological Museum) as well as the Trianon mosque built in the 1500s and now a cultural venue. The interesting bank (Ethniki Trapeza), built in 1930, is designed in the “New Mycenaean” style—an architectural school unique to Greece.
Built by the Venetians between 1711 and 1714, the Palamadi Fortress is considered a masterpiece of military architecture. (We will forget about that one time in 1822 when Greek troops successfully stormed in, forcing the Turkish to surrender without a fight.) There are two main approaches to the fortress. You can go via the road (taxis cost about €10 one way) or tackle the steps that begin southeast of the bus station. It’s 576 steps to the outer gate and 901 steps to the entrance to the castle! Get those Fitbits charged.
The Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum in Nafplion reopened in 2009 after years spent repairing damage caused by an earthquake. Its exhibits include artifacts from many important periods, including Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Helladic, Mycenaean, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman. The building itself is a treasure; it was originally a Venetian arsenal, and the museum is located in the old barracks.
Vissino kai Neratzi
A warm, simple shop, Vissino kai Neratzi has wonderful fresh baked pastries for sale alongside Peloponnese art and other gifts like magnets, olive wood kitchen products and hand-painted liquor decanters. The olive oils and preserves are made by women in neighboring villages.
Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation Museum
The excellent Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation Museum examines life in Nafplio in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum, located inside a neoclassical house, has collections of folk costumes, everyday household items, beautiful textiles and looms. Take note of the rare sperveri tents, embroidered tents that were once draped around the beds of married couples to provide privacy in small houses with shared spaces.
Where To Eat
Alaloum – Considered the go-to Greek restaurant in Nafplio with a menu filled with a large selection of traditional Greek Mediterranean foods.
3Sixty – The trendy, contemporary option in Nafplio, 3Sixty is known for its imaginative cuisine and signature cocktails.
To Kentrikon – A lovely café to sit for hours drinking coffee and munching on a delicious breakfast.
Sokaki Cafe – Popular for its outdoor terrace and extensive wine list, Sokaki Cafe is a firm favourite of both tourists and locals.
How to get to Nafplio, Peloponnese from Athens
Nafplio is situated in Argolida County in East Peloponnese and is considered one of the most beautiful towns in Greece. It is a very popular destination for a day or weekend excursion from Athens. You can reach Nafplio easily from Athens either by car or by bus, or by organised tour (this is the one that I did). The distance between the two cities is 150 km (93miles) and the journey should take you 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic.