Bicycling Along the Treasures of the Pelopónnesos
Biking on the Pelopónnesos is getting to know a whole range of different mountainscapes, one even prettier than the other. But it is also an introduction to ancient cultures: Venetian and Turkish houses and forts; Maniotic tower houses; Byzantine cities and churches. And then there are the remains of ancient Greece: the famous Epidaurus amphitheater, the Cyclops fortress of Tyrins and the citadel of Agamemnon in Mycene, where the dead, covered in gold, were buried in domed tombs.
Travelogue & photos: Piet de Geus
To our left the green mountains of Kefaloniá glide by. In front of the bow lies Kilíni. We enjoy the afternoon sun on the upper deck. Is there a better way to approach the Pelopónnesos than by ferry? Flying to Zákinthos, we found a good way to begin our trip.
Touring the Pelopónnesos by bike in three weeks means having to be very selective.
Unabashedly we pass the exit to Olympia. We planned our trip to include sights from different historical periods, with in between beautiful routes through varied landscapes. A bicycle vacation means after all that the trip is as important as the destination.
After two long legs we descend to Pílos on a road with hairpin turns. Only the docks and the square of this town are level. Streets with stairs wind up in all directions. At the end of the port an old man sits below a sign 'domátia/rooms for rent', gazing at the water. He has more than a room to offer: we can also use a living room with terrace. A little later we sit on the terrace and look out over the beautiful Navarínou Bay.
Methóni and Koróni
The eyes of Venice
The next morning we climb mountains behind the coastal ones. Our reward: a long descent to the beach of Methóni. There we first have coffee in a kafeneíon. All other guests are fishermen. Every now and then one arrives on his moped, hangs a bag full of fish on a tree, drinks coffee, chats with his colleagues and then takes his moped and moves on.
Methóni and Koróni were strategically important to Venice, which built strong fortresses there in the twelfth century. A long bridge leads over two dry moats to the fortress in Methóni. We park our bikes behind the gate and walk to the Bourzi Tower, an octagonal warehouse for gunpowder.
We cross some high hills on our way from Methóni to its sister town of Koróni. Donkeys are the most common means of transportation here. Their riders greet us warmly, stop for a moment, ask where we come from and where we are going.
After another climb of a few hundred meters, the Messenian Gulf lies deep below us. A little later we descend via Koróni, where octopuses are drying on racks on the quay.
We're in luck again: near the beach at the end of the quay a room is available. Sitting on our terrace, our feet almost touch the sea. To celebrate, I get ouzo, cold water and sausage 'from Kalamáta, with pork and orange, very spicy, very nice,' according to the old man who runs the messy store where I buy the stuff.
Streets with steps, where fishing nets are stacked in piles, lead to the fortress. Within its walls are churches, a nunnery, a cemetary and little houses with big gardens. When I wander along the port later, a fisherman calls me. He is repairing his boat on the quay. Quickly he moves a few wood blocks. If I could help him by pushing... the boat creaks and then rolls over to its other side. At the other side of the Gulf the snowy peaks of the Taígetos mountains are vaguely visible.
Tower houses in a wild mountainscape
Clasped between Taígetos and the sea lies a region with its own unique character: the Máni. The typical tower houses were built from the early 1600s as fortresses that protected the pirate population both from outside enemies and from feuds between family clans.
The way there leads us through the impressive Kámbos gorge. After we have left the gorge, hairpin turns take us several times to 500 meters, only to make us descend to sea level again. Sometimes it seems as if the mountain peaks (up to 2,407 meters) are just around the next turn. In a last descent, we ride leasurely down Mt.Taígetos to the beautiful blue bay of Limeníou.
On the other side we climb the first slope of the Sangiás mountains, the heart of the Máni region. The mountains are not as high as the Taígetos mountains, but they are wilder. At an altitude of 250 meters we enter Areópoli. The signs old city lead us to narrow streets with tower houses. In one of those we rent a room, straight across the street from the Taxiarhis church with its six-floor belltower.
In an alley near the church we find the ultimate Greek restaurant. A cage with a canary hangs from the ceiling. Father is lighting the charcoal in his undershirt, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.
"Wine?" He greets us. Withouth waiting for an answer, he fills a red copper decanter from an enormous wooden barrel.
Mother, at the stove, lifts lids from pans and pots to show us what's for dinner today. The meat that will be broiled is taken from a 1950s model freezer and flattened on a large wooden block with a copper pestle. When we order patates, the peel-machine is set in motion: two grannies dressed in black, who keep an eye on everything from their corner and provide comments like an ancient Greek chorus.
We leave our luggage in our room in Areópoli and take a bicycle tour of the Máni. Roads and the scarce olive groves are lined with walls made of stacked stones, up to altitudes where nothing but herbs grow. Little clouds float around the mountain peaks. Every now and then we have to make way for a turtle who leasurely crosses the road. Lizards and snakes scuffle on the roadside. Apart from that, it's quiet, very quiet.
Robust tower houses stand scattered in the landscape. Some solitary on a cliff or hill top, others more or less in groups. Kíta is a wonderful tower village, hidden behind tall cactuses.
Váthia lies on a 280 meters high rock. It's not a big town, but the towers reach up to 20 meters and stand close together. The alleys are only a little wider than the handlebars of my bike. Again and again we are treated to new vistas and see more towers. Many towers are deserted and dilapidated, but they are being restored to be rented out to tourists, like everywhere else in the Máni region.
Byzantine town on a rock in the sea
A little over a hundred kilometers east lies the Byzantine town of Monemvasía on a bare rock in a deep-blue sea. A long bridge from the mainland leads to the lower city, which lies behind high walls. Via a dark gate, we arrive in a medieval alley with shops, cafés and restaurants.
Monemvasía is again proof that tourism doesn't necessarily have to ruin the Mediterranean coast. In the 13th and 14th centuries 8,000 people lived in what was then the commercial center of the Pelopónnesos. In the 19th century the rock became depopulated, but in the 1980s a group of artists settled here and restored houses.
They were followed by tourists and shopkeepers and now the town lives again. In the evening you can have dinner outside, under a roof of grapevines, and it's wonderful to wander through the maze of alleys and paths. Buildings are being restored everywhere. The building materials are transported on horses and donkeys: cars can't get through the gate. A long staircase with walls on both sides leads to the upper city. Excepts for the 13th century Ágia Sofía church, there are only ruins here, but the views of the lower city make the climb worthwhile.
A city of Byzantine ruïns against a mountain
Mistrás is also Byzantine. On our ride there we pass a series of villages on the slopes of the Parnon Mountains. When we bicycle through Goritsá, two kids who are playing with a ball, shout: 'toeristí, toeristí'. All of a sudden curious faces appear from every corner. The girl in the mini-market almost fight over who can sell me a bottle of cold water and cookies.
When we finally arrive in Mistrás, my bike's computer tells me we have bicycled 108 kilometers today, so this is the longest leg of this tour. Against a scarily steep rock outside the village lies the ancient city, which in ancient times had a population of 42,000 and competed with Constantinopel (currently Istanbul) as the political, religious and cultural center of the Byzantine Empire.
A narrow path of uneven, slippery stones leads to the Frankish castle up on the rock. From there we descend along ruins of houses and gates, enjoying the view of the Spárti plain. Numerous churches, monasteries and palaces are in good condition, others are being restored. Ceilings are covered with unique frescoes.
In the afternoon I have a conversation with the manager of a nearby camping site, while a worn-out washing machine sputters doing our laundry. Renting out rooms is a way for widows and the retired to supplement their meagre benefits, he tells me.
In comparison with the Greek isles, tourism here is underdeveloped. There is only one airport in this large region, while even the smallest Greek isle has its own airport.
There isn't a lot of entertainment either, and that actually is a good thing: this helps avoid the vicious cycle of competition in prices and vulgarity which rages in all those exchangeable vacation destinations. Tourists don't go here for beach, booze and clubbing, but for the landscapes and excavations. They are often university educated and want to see with their own eyes the backdrops of the ancient Greek myths.
Venetian and Turkish buildings
Before we can visit some of those places, we have to take a few hurdles, like a twenty kilometers long climb to a mountains pass at 1,000 meters. It is 34 degrees centigrade and there isn't even a light breeze.
When we rest in the shade in Voutiáni, an old man brings us four oranges and a rose. For the 'kiría', he says with a charming smile to my girlfriend. Meanwhile a beautiful procession passes: first a man on a donkey that carries a huge bundle of sticks, followed by three goats and then another donkey, carrying a woman who sits in sidesaddle style and holds a little lamb. Funny, all of a sudden we stop feeling the ache in our legs and the heat doesn't bother us anymore either.
A day later we bicycle through the rough mountainscape of Arkadía with the lovely green valleys that give the region its heavenly image. Echoes of bells fill the air, the sounds come from mostly invisible herds of goats and sheep. When we hear someone whistle, we look round. A shepherd waves at us friendly. We hadn't noticed him and didn't greet him when we passed. After rounding a 1,150 meters high peak, we descend along endless hairpin turns to the bay of Náfplio. Our fingers cramp up because of the many times we have to brake in turns.
Náfplio is overwhelmingly beautiful with its Venetian and Turkish houses. Many outside cafés are covered with the stunning purple of bougainvillea.
Through narrow streets and over little squares we slalom slowly upward. We can only take the streets that run parallel to the promenade: the connecting alleys are steep stairways and we don't feel like dragging our bikes with luggage up all the way...
Through a gate we arrive in an alley where we find a room right below the walls of the fortress. From our private terrace we look out on the bay and the fortress island of Bourtzi. From this operating base we take the bus to visit the world- famous theater of Epídavros and the citadel of the legendary Agamemnon in Mycene, with its domed tombs in which the dead were covered in gold. The walls around the citadel are made of stones that are so large that the ancient Greeks couldn't believe they were built by humans. According to myth, Perseus - a son of the upper god Zeus - called in the cyclops to pile up the stones.
We ar running out of time. We speed north via the Cyclops fortress of Tiryns and below the Akropolis of Árgos.
On our way to the excavations in Arhaía Kórinthos we sit down in a kafeneíon. We chat with the innkeeper. He is shocked to hear we havent' visited Olympia. Without it, we haven't seen the Pelopónnesos!
When we are on the ferry to Zákinthos the next afternoon and see the contours of the coast fade away, we tell ourselves that he is at least a little wrong about that.