The Peloponnese peninsula, set in the heart of the Mediterranean south from mainland Greece, is a multifaceted territory, impossible to fully grasp if you only visit once. Vast and fascinating in equal measures, its landscape changes dramatically throughout the seasons and its sub-regions offer such a wide array of landscapes and interest points that you’ll easily be seduced to return.
Above all, the Peloponnese challenges the easy stereotypes of what Greece offers to visitors: warm seas, sun-drenched white terraces, fresh seafood… Yes, there is all of that, in abundance, but there are also snow-peaked mountains, endless architectural and historical landmarks, tempting local meat dishes, extreme sports havens. And there is, of course, the wine. The Peloponnese is home to the largest number of Greek wine PDOs, and its strategic location and the variety of its terroirs have made it an area of intense and diverse wine production since ancient times.
So how, as a first-time visitor, should you approach the region and start discovering its hidden treasures? The key advice is to trust the locals and stay away from the touristy hotspots that give a pale idea of the region’s true character. As appealing as it might sound to fly to Kalamata and settle on a seaside resort in the south Peloponnese, a more adventurous exploration will have its rewards – especially for the wine-loving traveller.
Fact file: Peloponnese
Area planted 19,400ha, responsible for 31% of total Greek wine production
Indigenous varieties 91% of total plantings
Wineries 180, with plots at altitudes ranging from 30m-1,000m above sea level
(Source: Greek Ministry of Agriculture; Wines of Greece)
Ancient & modern
Fly to Athens instead, rent a car and start your journey by enjoying the less-than-two-hour drive that takes you from the capital, through the Isthmus of Corinth and on to Nafplio, a seaport town perched over the Mediterranean on the north side of the Argolic gulf. Nafplio was, between 1823 and 1834, the first capital of the new-born Greek state, and its picturesque centre is full of both ancient and modern historical cues. A short 30-minute drive from Nafplio is the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, considered one of the greatest architectural achievements of classical Greece – and an absolute must-see.
Both Nafplio and Epidaurus are great places to stay for two or three nights while you explore the eastern Peloponnese. A compulsory day trip is a visit to the city of Nemea, just a 40-minute drive from Nafplio. Nemea is the epicentre of the wine appellation of the same name, one of the most important in Greece, producing intense reds made exclusively from the local Agiorgitiko variety.
Here, you will find no shortage of renowned wineries that organise tastings and tours, including Seméli, Gaia and Lafazanis. And although the Ktima Papaioannou winery doesn’t routinely offer tours, you should also try to pay a visit – it’s a historical producer and the true pioneer of Nemea, Agiorgitiko and organic farming in Greece.
From Nemea, make your way – an easy 40-minute drive – to Mantinia, another lovely town and interesting wine appellation, sitting on the mountainous core of the Peloponnese. The local PDO wines, made from at least 85% of the indigenous pink-skinned Moschofilero grown at high altitude, are aromatic, vibrant and have mouthwatering acidity. Domaine Spiropoulos and Troupis Winery, two of Mantinia’s most prominent estates, are well worth visiting.
After wine tasting, what better than to investigate the local food? The nearby village of Vytina is known for its traditional feta cheese producers and exquisite honey, laboriously made by busy bees in the surrounding hills. From there you can easily reach the quaint Dimitsana, a quintessential stone-built Arcadian settlement, and the nearby Lousios gorge monastery trail. The dramatic canyon along the river Lousios has its quasi-vertical walls dotted with the Prodromou monastery, as well as the ancient and modern Philosophou monasteries. Along the way, you’ll also find the ancient Arcadian city of Gorys, making it one the most beautiful and interesting hikes in Europe.
The central Peloponnese is a great destination for foodies, history nerds and adventure-sports freaks alike. The limestone escarpments around the town of Leonidio offer impressive climbing challenges, the river Ladon is famous for rafting, and the village of Foloi, located in a nature reserve, offers beautifully scenic trekking routes.
After a few days of challenge and indulgence, it’s time to head west to the coastal area of Ilia, where locals go to enjoy the seaside, away from the crowds and the shadows of cruise ships. There, you’ll easily find small, secluded beaches where Greek is the only language spoken. The Kaiafas lake (which has natural sulphur-rich hot springs) and the nearby beach of Zacharo, a long expanse of bright, thin sand, are two of the most idyllic spots to spend a full day simply enjoying the healing powers of the sun and the water.
Ilia is also – and perhaps above all – a historical and archaeological treasure trove. The list of places to visit is almost endless, but among the unmissable is the archaeological site of Olympia, one of the most important complexes of ancient Greece, the cradle of the Olympic games and the backdrop to the iconic altar of Zeus. Also worth visiting are the temple of Apollo Epicurius, part of the Bassae archaeological site, and the Chlemoutsi castle, a medieval fortress on the westernmost promontory of the Peloponnese, offering impressive views of the Ionian sea and surrounded by a beautiful hexagonal keep.
In Ilia, sightseeing is easily paired with great wine tasting. The historic Mercouri Estate, founded in 1864, makes some of the best wines in the Peloponnese and a visit is therefore obligatory. There are also very interesting smaller estates, such as Ktima Brintziki, making delicious bottles while adhering to an ethos of sustainability.
And finally, at the end of each day, there are, of course, the dramatic sunsets over the Ionian sea.
Both easyJet and Aegean Airlines fly to Kalamata in the south Peloponnese (only twice a week September-May, three times a week May-September), as well as Athens (daily flights). The best option might be flying to Athens and driving to the Peloponnese across the Isthmus of Corinth: the approach to the peninsula is beautiful, and you’ll need a car to explore the vast region.
Accommodation and restaurants
A stylish, traditional property at the foot of the imposing Mount Parnon, with carefully built stone guesthouses, this makes an ideal place to stay for all those wanting to explore the best climbing and hiking spots in and around Leonidio.
Lovely self-catering holiday homes amid olive groves and orange trees. The Kaiafas lake and thermal springs (see left) are a stone’s throw away, and the archaeological site of Olympia is just 15 miles to the north. There’s a beautiful, secluded wild beach that you can reach through a pine forest.
Dexamenes Seaside Hotel, Amaliada
A thoughtfully designed boutique resort, located on a converted post-war winery right on the coast. It’s a great base to explore all of Ilia – although you might be persuaded to just relax and stay put…
With a name meaning ‘mulberry tree’, this is a lovely, family-run business with rooms and a fantastic restaurant where you’ll truly feel at home.
Villa Vager, Levidi
The best place to stay in the central Peloponnese. The rooms are beautiful, the breakfast is outstanding and the service is impeccable. They also organise wine tours and cooking lessons.
Kati Psenete, Kakovatos
A great tavern on Kakovatos beach, south from Zacharo, with all the fresh produce you might expect and a vibrant, friendly atmosphere. +30 2625 032 147
Savouras Fish Tavern, Napflio
Beloved by locals, this is the must-go place to make the most of the excellent service and super-fresh fish.
Taverna Hani, Parga
An authentic Peloponnesian taverna (warning: website and menus only available in Greek!). The ideal fuelling point when driving from Nemea to Mantinia. Properly old school and delicious.
Taverna H Klimataria, Vytina
After some feta and honey tasting (and loading up to take home: see p127), you’ll want to visit this outstanding tavern for proper nourishment. Reservation recommended! +30 2795 022 226
This taverna offers comforting, traditional central-Peloponnese cuisine made exclusively with local, seasonal produce. The best place to replenish your energy after a long hike along the Lousios gorge. +30 6932 847 358