Every place we have visited so far has felt somehow familiar; images we’ve read about or seen of a Greek island or the Acropolis or Athens. But nothing prepared us for this other side of Greece – the Peloponnese Peninsula (“the best part of Greece“), according to our Santorini host.
This peninsula is positioned south and east of Athens and like much of Greece, is mountainous and surrounded by water. Unlike other parts of Greece, it is green and lush and forested.
We picked up our rental car (a silver Opel) in the Athens port of Piraeus, where our ferry from Santorini landed. After a rather hair-raising escape from the city (uncooperative GPS leading us the wrong way up hilly one-way streets), we were soon sailing east along excellent toll roads.
We then found ourselves on equally excellent mountain roads, on our way to Olympia. Forests of deciduous trees and such a green landscape – definitely a different climate here.
And then we got lost – our GPS misled us, and ignoring our better instincts (sign pointing straight to Olympia), we dutifully turned right and followed a pretty road that we thought might be a shortcut. After three kilometres, it announced that “You have arrived.” Well, heck – sitting in the middle of a forest that was clearly not Olympia – now what to do? Luckily, a car pulled up behind us. He set us back on our way, but not before asking us if we wanted to go mushroom picking with him. Another time perhaps!
Sure enough, 20 minutes later, we pulled into the photogenic town of Olympia, and met the host of our Airbnb, Kostas.
He was passionate about his town and its obvious main attractions, and began quizzing us if we knew anything about Olympia. “Um, it’s the site of the ancient Olympic Games?”, I offered lamely.
Sorry, Canada, for letting the team down – yes, of course, it is the site of the ancient Olympic Games, but it is so much more than that – it is one of the most important religious centres of antiquity. Zeus, the father of the the Olympian gods was worshipped here, and the area is steeped in history and mythology. SO much to study and learn when we get back home.
Undeterred, Kostas went on to tell us many fascinating things – some of them possibly even true. The town of Olympia has 600 souls, and 100 of them are policemen. “To protect our precious antiquities.” Hmmm…
Tokyo has the dubious distinction of missing out twice on their Olympic bids. Their first Games were to be held in 1940… and then WW II took care of that. Their second Games were to be held in 2020… and COVID-19 happened. True story.
If you have ever admired the perfectly round marble buttocks of Michelangelo’s David, they were in fact fashioned after the rounder female form. Likewise, the statue of Hermes, anatomically correct in the front, has the enhanced rounder butt in the back. Is this true? Judge for yourself.
The ancient sculpture of Hermes and the infant Dionysos, 340-330 B.C.
The Olympia Archaeological Museum was where we began our exploration of the area. It is a magnificent museum, filled with many treasures and sculptures.
The statue of Nike of Paeonios, offered to Zeus. 421 B.C.
Statue of a bull. 2nd half of 2nd century B.C. The detail was remarkable – you can see the muscles and sinew and skin of the animal.
We spent over an hour wandering the museum and then headed for the archaeological site of the ancient Games. Since so many archaeological sites are bald, hot and treeless, we were prepared to be fighting for a patch of shade.
But no, this was the first sight that greeted us:
I apologize for being a little fuzzy about some of the sites. There were many sites that looked just like this one.
The Philippeion was the only circular building, encircled by a colonnade. Restoration on this finished in 2005.
The entrance to the Stadium. How remarkable that these stones simply balanced one another to form the arch. We watched this little girl as she and her family wandered the site. She was in her own little world, jumping and running, so we imagined she was absorbing what she was being told about past glories.
She made her way through the same arch that ancient Olympians had entered, centuries ago.
And then she ran this track – she made it the whole way around. We cheered her on from our shady perch on the grass.
These young men cheated. They trotted for a while, then stopped for a Usain Bolt photo.
Nero’s house. He lived here during his participation in the Olympic Games, The mosaic floors and baths are still in good condition, although they are roped off from visitors.
The Temple of Zeus was destroyed by earthquakes of 522 and 521 A.D. Partial reconstruction was carried out for the Athens 2004 Olympics.
It was easy to wander these grounds and imagine how it must have looked in ancient times. Although one day was enough time to see everything, we could have spent another day in this beautiful area.
But, time to move on to the medieval seaside town of Momenvasia. It was founded in 583 and from the 10th century developed into an important trade centre.
While it is possible to stay right on “the castle”, we stayed at a hotel about a kilometre away on the mainland.
This was the sunrise view from our hotel room:
This ancient town is almost exactly as it was centuries ago. The island structure is a steep cliff, with the buildings built on one side, on a large plateau that is just one kilometre long and 300 metres wide.
In 1971, Momenvasia linked to the outside world through a causeway and tourism began to develop after that. Although you can park your car on the road outside the fortress, the town itself is entirely car-free.
The name Monemvasia is derived from two Greek words – mone and emvasia – meaning “single entrance.”
Everybody and everything comes through this one tiny entrance – visitors, hotel guests, clean laundry, food, alcohol, bags of ice. Everything comes out as well – departing guests with their luggage on dollies, great bags of garbage and recyclables – it is quite remarkable to comprehend how it all operates.
The walls and remains of Byzantine churches are from the medieval period.
This cross-in-square church was built in 1703 upon the ruins of two Byzantine churches. It never actually functioned as a church – it was once an armory and then as a primary school.
To wander through the tiny alleyways of this town is a magical experience. Red tiled roofs, cobbled lanes, old houses, arches, ruins, piles of old stone, stray cats, pots of flowers – it could be the 6th century.
You are never quite sure if a public laneway ends with private property.
One of many ruins on the island.
A small patio in front of one of Momenvasia’s delightful hotels.
One of a few open spaces or squares.
Some alleyways barely wide enough to walk through.
The lighthouse, built in 1896
Two views of the town, as it appears hugged into the hill.
We finished our time in Momenvasia in dramatic fashion. On our last night there, we woke up to a fierce thunderstorm, which we watched from the comfort of our balcony. The sky put on a quite a show – pitch black, then lit up. The water pounded on the shore, and every once in a while, we would see headlights of a car making its way carefully around the curves of the road.
By morning, the road had dried, the sun was out and we were on our way to our second-to-last destination – Nafplio.