Image: Rock of Gibraltar
Rick Steves
Like the Rock of Gibraltar, Monemvasia is an ancient fortress town that guards a well-traveled coast.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 5/5/2009 2:54:00 PM ET 2009-05-05T18:54:00

If you want to get away from it all when traveling in Greece, head for the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Studded with antiquities, this land of ancient Olympia, Corinth, and Sparta offers plenty of fun in the eternal Greek sun, with pleasant fishing villages, sandy beaches, bathtub-warm water, and none of the tourist crowds that plague the much-scrambled-after Greek Isles.

When I visited ancient Olympia recently for a new TV show and guidebook, it was worth the four-hour drive from Athens. This sight should be a required pilgrimage for modern tourists. Olympia's once-majestic temple columns — toppled like a tower of checkers by an earthquake — are as evocative (with the help of the excellent museum) as anything from ancient times.

Olympia was a mecca of ancient Greek religion — its greatest sanctuary and one of its most important places of worship. Ancient Greeks came here only every four years, during the religious festival that featured the Olympic Games. The original Olympic Games were more than an athletic fest. Athletes, who were usually aristocratic youth, would stay here to train for months. There were no losers ... except those who quit and cheated. Drinking animal blood —the Red Bull of the day — was forbidden. Official urine drinkers tested for this ancient equivalent of steroids. Today, modern visitors just can't resist lining up on that original starting block from the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C.

A few hours away is the Mani Peninsula — the southern tip of mainland Greece (in fact, of the entire Continent, east of Spain). It feels like the end of the road — stark and sparse. If Greece had a Tombstone and an OK Corral, this is where they'd be. Today's population is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Many were killed in the violent bickering that seems to be a local tradition.

In the days of old, people hid out in the folds of the mountains, far from the coast ... and marauding pirate ships. Empty, ghostly hill towns clamber barnacle-like up distant ridges and are fortified for threats from both without and within.

Only goats thrive here. While mountains edged with abandoned terraces hint that farming was once more extensive, olives have been the only Mani export for the last two centuries.

Image: Ancient Olympia
Rick Steves
Visitors in ancient Olympia line up at the original starting block for the first Olympics.
One of my favorite sights is the awe-inspiring hill town of Vathia a.k.a. Vendetta-Ville. The eighty-some houses were split north/south into two rival camps, which existed in a state of near-permanent hostility. Today Vathia is mostly uninhabited. Once-intimidating towers are now held together with boards and steel cables.

The tragic history and rugged landscape provide an evocative backdrop — making hedonism on the Mani coast all the more hedonistic. Kardamyli, a humble beach town, has a "Bali in a dust storm" charm. This handy base for exploring the Mani Peninsula works like a stun gun on your momentum. On my last trip, I could have stayed here for days, just eating well and hanging out. It's the kind of place where travelers plan their day around the sunset.

Image: Vathia
Rick Steves
In a far-off corner of the Peloponnese, clan wars left the hill town of Vathia in ruins.
More treats line the coast east of the Mani Peninsula. Monemvasia, a Gibraltar-like rock with a stone town at its base, has ruins all across its Masada-like summit. Its little Lower Town hides on the seaward side of the giant rock, tethered to the mainland only by a skinny spit of land that holds a causeway. This remarkably romantic walled town is a living museum of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian history dating back to the 13th century. After visiting the town, take a hike to the top — summiting Monemvasia is a key experience on any Peloponnesian visit.

Although it's famous and "on the way," skip Sparta. Nothing survives of the city that everybody wants to see, the Sparta that dominated Greek affairs in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. The town was abandoned in the 13th century, and its buildings dismantled. In 1834, Sparta was re-established by Greece's new king — Otto — and his court. A royal transplant from Germany, Otto wanted a city of wide boulevards and parks but you wouldn't know it today.

Sparta — where mothers famously told their sons to "come home with your shield ... or on it" — is a classic example of how little a militaristic society leaves as a legacy for the future.

With its multi-faceted history, welcoming people, dramatic ruins, and stunning vistas ... the Peloponnesian Peninsula has it all. Yet it is one of the least explored parts of Greece. Nearly all the tourists are in Athens and the islands, while the rest of the country casually goes about its traditional business.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2009 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Glorious Greece

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  1. Pillars of worship

    Construction on the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens began in 515 B.C., and was completed 700 years later by Emperor Hadrian in 131 A.D. There were originally 104 Corinthian columns, but only 16 remain standing now. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Sandy escapes

    Millions of visitors enjoy sunny days on Anthens' beaches each summer, with warm weather seeming to last longer into fall. Many beaches have a small entry fee that helps pay for keeping the beaches clean. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stunning sight

    An Orthodox bell tower overlooks the port town of Fira on the Greek island of Santorini. With a view to one of the most stunning sunsets in the Mediterranean, Santorini is one of Greece's most popular tourist destinations. (Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ancient attraction

    The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena and perhaps the most famous surviving building from ancient Greece, sits at the top of the Acropolis and overlooks Athens. Construction on the temple began in 447 B.C. and completed in 438 B.C. Today, the temple attracts millions of visitors a year. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Taste of the city

    The Agora on Athinas Street, otherwise known as the Athens Central Market in Athens, is a great place to buy affordable, fresh food. The market is open Monday through Saturday, and everything from meat to fish to vegetables to herbs is available. (Julian Finney / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The modern face

    Concrete buildings typifying Athen's urban sprawl are visible from the Acropolis. The city, which has expanded geographically throughout the 20th century, has had severe problems with urban pollution that have improved in recent years. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Holy refuge

    Monks and hermits have found refuge in the monasteries at Meteora in Athens for more than 1,000 years. The gigantic rock formations in central Greece, which still puzzle scientists as to how they came to be formed, are visited today by thousands of tourists. The Holy Meteora have been maintained and protected as a monument of humanity by UNESCO. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A look at the past

    Visitors view the old winch system that used to bring people and supplies to the monsteries inside the Monastery of Agia Triada at Meteora. The monastery, which is perched atop a pinnacle and is accessible by taking 140 steep steps, may look familiar because it was featured in the James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only." The two monks who still reside there often show visitors around. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Art through the ages

    Frescoes by 16th century Cretan painter Theophanes the Monk have survived over the years and can be seen inside the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos Anapafsas at Meteora. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A sea of tourists

    Tourists stand before a seawater tank containing sea life of the Mediterranean Sea at the Cretaquarium in the city of Irakleion on the island of Crete in southern Greece. This tourist destination, which opened in December 2005, works as a modern-day research, educational and entertainment facility. The aquarium was developed to hold 32 tanks containing around 2,5000 organisms from 200 species. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Climbing the ranks

    The Athens Olympic Stadium was built in 1982 and hosted the European Championships in Athletics that year. The city won the honor of hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics, and after an extensive renovation on the stadium, including a roof redesign, the building reopened just in time to host the opening ceremony on Aug. 13. Today, the venue hosts everything from major sporting events to concerts. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Birthplace of the Games

    In the 8th century B.C., the first Olympic festival was organized in Olympia (tradition dates the first games to 776 B.C.). Ruins of the ancient stadium are still evident at the site, though a fire in August 2007 ravaged the area and scorched the museum that housed some of Greece's great archeaological collections. Still, the Olympic flame of the modern-day games are lit by the reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the stadium. (Petros Giannakouris / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. House of antiquities

    The statue of Sleeping Maenad, which dates back to the time of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) can be seen at the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The statue presumably adorned a luxury residence and was found to the south of the Athenian Acropolis. It is just one of the many important artifacts from various archaeological locations around the country from prehistory to late antiquity. (John Kolesidis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Supporting ladies

    Tourists admire the six caryatids of the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis Hill in Athens. Caryatids are female figures that serve as supporting columns that hold up roofs. Renovation works to restore them were underway for 30 years and finally ended in November 2008. The entire temple was dedicated to Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheus when it was built between 421 B.C. and 407 B.C. The caryatids are on a porch on the north side called "Porch of the Maidens." (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frozen in time

    The Lesvos Petrified Forest on the Greek Aegean island of Lesvos is a UNESCO heritage site. The Petrified Forest numbers around 70 trees of various sizes that are ancestors of today's pines and cypresses, and were fossilized when the area was covered in volcanic lava around 20 million years ago. (Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Healing waters

    Bathers relax in the waters of the hot Loutraki spring near the town of Aridea in northern Greece. Curative tourism is among a series of new products that Greek authorities want to highlight in a bid to diversify the country's usual recipe of sea and sun. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Home of the gods

    A hiker climbs Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the ancient Greek gods in central Greece. The mountain is the country's highest, standing at 9,570 feet. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rich draw

    The Hozoviotissa Monastery on the Amorgos island, built in the 11th century on the side of the Prophetes Elias Mountain at 300 meters above sea level, is reportedly dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Having for decades relied on its archaeological wealth to draw tourism, Greece now seeks to exploit an equally rich religious tradition to entice visitors from fellow Orthodox countries. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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