History in your hand

The glove-shaped Peloponnese is home to thousands of years of civilisation. By Tim Salmon

The Peloponnese is that big upside-down hand-shaped lump of land that forms the southern part of mainland Greece. We all have a map of it. Just hold your left palm in front of your face, rotate it until it points to the ground, spread your fingers and thumb, and there you have it.

The Peloponnese is that big upside-down hand-shaped lump of land that forms the southern part of mainland Greece. We all have a map of it. Just hold your left palm in front of your face, rotate it until it points to the ground, spread your fingers and thumb, and there you have it.

Your thumb is the Argolid: Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus. Your index finger is the wild and craggy east coast from Argos to Monemvasia, the Gibraltar of the Aegean. Your middle finger is the long promontory of the Mani, with its distinctive tower houses and cruel landscape of rock and cactus. Your remaining fingers are fertile Messenia, site of Messene, finest of the ancient fortified towns, and of Pylos, home of Homer's wise king Nestor. In your palm lies Olympia, cradle of the Games; Arcadia, with its mountains and castles; Sparta, whose memory lives more in the ethos of discipline it bequeathed the world's military castes than in the few poor stones that are its physical legacy; and the ghostly town of Mistras, jewel of Byzantine Greece. And along, as it were, the chopping edge, the western shore, lies more sandy beach than in the rest of Greece put together.

The Peloponnese is a compendium of all that is wonderful about Greece: history, culture, landscapes of mountain and shore, with the same variety of local, regional identity that you find in the islands.

Messenia

The best place to arrive is Kalamata, at the base of the Messenian finger. That lands you in the rural midst of things and makes a clockwise tour, Kalamata to Kalamata, a satisfying and logical way of organising your visit. The alternative is Athens, which gives a greater choice of flights. Also, if you have never been there, a quick visit to the National Archaeological Museum will put a great deal of flesh on the bare bones of some of the archaeological sites.

Nowhere is this more true than at the 3,000-year-old Palace of Nestor. Its situation among groves of ancient olives is beautiful, but you might wonder at first glance what all the fuss is about: a maze of crumbly-looking walls hardly more than a metre high huddled under a tin roof. But if you can people those rooms with the figures of Homer's stories: Telemachus, son of Odysseus, come in search of news of his father so long delayed in returning from the Trojan war, received at the great hearth, bathed by Nestor's lovely daughter in the painted tub that still survives, anointed with oil from the great earthenware jars still sunk in the ground at the back of the building, then nothing could be more evocative. And here too was found, in 1939, a great cache of Linear B, the earliest form of European writing.

Down at the sea, by the modern port of Pylos is the perfect ring of beach - Voidokilia or Ox-Belly Bay - where Telemachus must have beached his ship. There is nowhere else. Above it is a castle, clogged with undergrowth, built in 1278 by an obscure French nobleman. And thereby hangs a long, improbable and romantic tale of a handful of Frankish adventurers who carved themselves Peloponnesian estates in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, built over a hundred castles on impossible crag-tops and lived in the sun for a couple of hundred years. From its overgrown walls you look down on the glassy waters of the Bay of Navarino, where in 1827 a combined fleet of English, French and Russian warships destroyed the naval power of the Turkish Ottoman empire, thus ensuring the survival of the fledgeling modern Greek state.

Fifteen minutes down the coast lies Methoni, with its sea-girt castle and exquisite island keep. It was built by the Venetians to guard their commercial and pilgrim routes to the Levant and the Holy Land. There is a wide, shallow beach. Then, nearer to Kalamata, there is the ancient city of Messene, whose 4th-century walls stride impressively down the slopes of Mt Ithome. From the top you can see practically the whole of Messenia and, to the north, the mountain barrier that marks the beginning of Arcadia.

Arcadia and Olympia

Distances are not great in these parts. Just 56km north of Kalamata you come to Megalopolis, where the road branches over the mountains to Andritsena and the temple of Bassae and on down to Olympia and the sea. On the way you pass medieval Karitena, where old stone houses slumber on the steep hillside below the ruins of another Frankish fortress. For a real taste of pastoral Arcadia, there is nothing to beat an afternoon's excursion to nearby Gortys, site of a 4th-century BC spa, and the monastery of Prodromou. Just where the river Lousios rushes out of its gorge, a well-marked path winds up to the monastery. It is an idyllic spot, well-watered and fanned by the breeze.

Olympia, home of the Games, lies further west. It is a huge site, at its most beautiful in March when the Judas trees are in blossom. Don't miss the museums. Because of the wealth and renown of the Games in ancient times, all sorts of fascinating objects have been found here: from the signed helmet of Miltiades, the general who defeated the Persians at the battle of Marathon, to Praxiteles' fine marble statue of the god Hermes.

Corinth and the Argolid

In the north-east corner, where the narrow isthmus holds the Peloponnese to the rest of the country, ancient Corinth lies at the foot of its 600-metre acropolis. It was renowned in antiquity for its cheek-hugging helmet, its currants and the beauty of its girls. St Paul lived and preached here around 50AD. A stone's throw lies the impressive 19th-century Corinth canal, too narrow for big modern ships.

The other great sites of the Argolid lie to the south and east: Epidaurus, with its fabulous amphitheatre; the Homeric fortress of Tiryns, with its huge Cyclopean walls; the now-fashionable seaside town of Nafplion, first capital of the modern Greek state and the best base for exploring this part of the Peloponnese; Argos, pleasant but perhaps missable; and, greatest of all, Mycenae, home of Agamemnon, commander of all the Greeks at the siege of Troy, whose vast walls enclose a treeless rocky hill strewn with the tumbled masonry of 3,000 years.

South from Argos

The road winds above sleepy seaside villages to Leonidhi. Keep your eyes open for the secluded coves of black sand where you can take a private swim. Behind Leonidhi the scenery changes dramatically as you climb to the mountain village of Kosmas, surrounded by firs, where you can sit in the plane-shaded square eating walnut cakes and forget the heat of the lowlands. But the respite is brief, for the descent begins at once, into the dusty valley of the Evrotas backed by the great barrier of the Taÿgetos. It is surprisingly small given its imperial past as the virtual capital of the Byzantine empire after the sack of Constantinople. It too sports a romantically ruinous castle, built by the Villehardouins, most powerful of the Frankish potentates, crowning its slopes above a wealth of Byzantine remains, including the church where the last of the emperors was crowned.

The Mani

Driving south from Sparta you enter the Mani at Yithion. It is one of the most distinctive parts of Greece, studded with tiny frescoed chapels and gaunt tower houses, built not for habitation but defence against the neighbours. The Maniotes were dedicated feuders. In this respect they were like the Corsicans, among whom many of them sought refuge from the Turks in the 17th century. Areopolis, the attractive regional capital, is the best base for the southern end, the delightful village of Kardhamili for the northern end, home of Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of some of the best modern books about Greece. Its many pebbly and sandy coves and inter-village paths make it great country for swimmers and walkers (see Landscapes of the Southern Peloponnese by Michael Cullen, Sunflower Books).

Traveller's tips

Opening hours

Summer hours for major sites are generally daily 8am-7pm (slightly shorter hours for museums), admission €3-€6 (£2.20-£4.40), but always check first.

Useful websites

www.culture.gr - Ministry of Culture website, listing museums and archaeological sites.

www.gnto.co.uk - Official Greece tourism website, which lists tour operators.

www.i-escape.com/greece.php - Internet resource and booking service.

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