Chris Leadbeater explores the unknown Peloponnese region and finds a place of stories and magic
Nero was here before me. It seems odd to think that, ever a man for a publicity stunt, Rome’s most narcissistic emperor stood on this thin spur of land in the summer of AD67 and pretended to sully his hands with manual labour. He took up a pickaxe, struck at the Grecian dirt, filled a basket with soil — and left the rest of the job to a gang of Jewish prisoners.
He knew what he was doing. It would take almost another 2,000 years to reach fruition, yet when the Corinth canal finally emerged in 1893 (Rome having abandoned its construction almost immediately), it would prove an engineering miracle. Loitering on the west bank, I can only marvel at the effort its creation must have required. This four-mile channel offers a short-cut through the Isthmus of Corinth, linking the Gulf of Corinth with the Aegean Sea; it’s a kindred spirit of the Panama and Suez canals and the importance of its change to European trade was such that it had been a dream for centuries.
It’s something else, too. Though now largely obsolete, as it’s too narrow for modern vessels, it’s a pertinent divider separating the Peloponnese from the rest of Greece. Appropriate, really. While in some ways this south-westerly peninsula is a key element of the country’s soul — the remnants of Olympia, the site of the prototype Olympic Games, sit on its west flank — in others, it has always been its own entity.
Sparta, the obstreperous city-state that became Athens’ bitterest rival between the seventh and fourth centuries BC, spread its arms in the south of the landmass. And according to The Iliad, when the Greeks went to war with Troy, it was the kingdom of Mycenae, whose archaeological fragments still lurk in the east of the peninsula, rather than Athens, which led the charge.
This sense of a place that steers its own course extends to tourism. While the Peloponnese is not unaware of its beauty, or the way it rises to 7,900ft at the top of Mount Taygetus, it rarely courts popular opinion. Its two ‘cities’ are not exactly names on travellers’ lips — Kalamata in the south, on what is often called the Costa Navarino; and Patras, the northern capital, a workhorse from which ferries chug across to Italy.
The introduction by EasyJet of direct flights from Gatwick to Kalamata in 2013 has only recently negated the need for British visitors to journey into the region from Athens. A keeper of its own company, the Peloponnese doesn’t need a canal to keep it divorced from its compatriots.
Certainly, crossing the canal at the end of the 52-mile drive west from Athens to Corinth seems like a seismic moment. The peninsula soon displays its range of ridges — not least in the craggy form of the Acrocorinth, which rises above the town it has long protected. The road up to the hilltop fortress is an indirect, urgently slanted thing; wheezy labour for a car, let alone an invading army. I fear my little hatchback will expire before we achieve the peak. But somehow, it doesn’t and we’re rewarded with the sight of a castle that could have emerged from a dark fairy-tale, all unfriendly battlements and thick walls. Largely medieval, expanded and strengthened by a rotation of Crusaders, Venetians and Ottoman Turks, its imposing entrance opens on to a vast interior where grass and leafy foliage have been allowed to reassert their authority.
There is practically nobody else in sight. The gatekeeper stirs from his snooze on a chair in the shade to take my cash; a grass snake slithers away from my approaching feet as I clamber up to the ramparts for a view of the widescreen glory, the canal a straight-cut line far beneath.
It’s also a panorama that contains a cross-section of time. Back at sea level, the ruins of Ancient Corinth recall not just the Romans who ruled here — fat flagstones, broad pillars — but the biblical St Paul, whose two books of letters to the Corinthians were aimed at the people of this settlement. They’re still here, 20 centuries on, stolidly going about life in their pleasant but unremarkable modern town. When I grab a coffee at Miracoli Art Cafe, near to the waterfront, I don’t feel I’m in a place that’s desperate to impress me.
And yet, for all its reluctance to smile for the cameras, the Peloponnese is impressive. My onward route carries me 30 miles south to the ghosts of Mycenae. Whatever the truth behind the fabled Agamemnon who supposedly held sway here, the site still sings of regal might and 13BC warrior kings. The Lion Gate is a statement of prowess, two lionesses carved over the main portal — although they couldn’t do anything to save the citadel’s most celebrated resident. Nearby, the cold darkness of the Tomb of Clytemnestra is, according to lore, the final resting place of the neglected wife who conspired with her lover to have Agamemnon murdered when he eventually trundled back from Troy after 10 years away.
But then, this is a region of stories and magic. A further 30-mile sweep south-east brings me to Epidauros, an enclave that developed as a hotspot of healing and hot springs in 6BC. Travellers flocked here, so many that a giant amphitheatre — 55 rows arcing upwards, with a capacity of 14,000 spectators — was built on the profits. Its 4BC acoustics are still a cause for astonishment in AD2015. From the top tier, I can eavesdrop on anyone talking at the centre of the stage.
From here, the road pulls me west, to Sparta and Olympia. A right turn drops me on to a corkscrew road, at the base of which Korfos does the Greek seafront village stereotype: boats bobbing, tavernas open for a jug of local red wine, the vague promise of whatever the fishermen bring home as dish of the day. It’s recognisable, familiar, and yet everything faces south on to the bay, not east towards Athens, as if Korfos has no love for capital-city complexities. Maybe it doesn’t. The Peloponnese, caught up in its own maze, would rather continue its own conversation.
This feature first appeared in National Geographic Traveller, May 2015.