Greek legend

Ancient wonders, white sandy beaches – and no crowds? It’s not a myth, finds Adam Edwards. Get ready to uncover Greece at its most storybook-like in unspoilt southern Peloponnese

Dogs! In the middle of the motorway!” My friend Dee points to the curve in the road where three butterscotch-coloured bodies lie slumped on the tarmac. “Are they dead?” I ask. “No,” she replies, tooting the horn and steering around them.

“Just sleeping.”

We may have landed only a few hours ago, but so far, the Peloponnese is everything I’d hoped for. In one morning, Dee and I have wandered the ruins of ancient Sparta with little more than ghosts for company; we’ve got lost down ever-narrowing avenues of cypresses; and we’ve accidentally driven right through an olive grove that was clearly never meant to appear on the sat-nav’s ‘fastest route’. Ahead of us is the abandoned Byzantine city of Mystras, creeping like honeysuckle up vertiginous cliffs, all crumbling churches and tumbledown palaces. And it’s all but deserted.

It was here that the successors of Rome’s purple-robed emperors clung to power after both the Eternal City and New Rome (Constantinople) had fallen to the Barbarians. Yet, despite being one of Europe’s most important historic sites, the place is near-empty. There are just a few nuns, a couple of ginger tomcats and a dozen or so Greek tourists, chests swelled with pride beneath Mystras’ incense-dimmed frescoes. This is Greece – but not as you know it. If you’ve ever ‘done’ the Acropolis or watched the sun set behind Santorini’s blue domes, you’ll know that tourist experiences are usually about as exclusive and serene as a World Cup Final.

It was a Greece that neither I nor Dee recognised: a land of hidden coves and crumbling towns

But Dee – a one-time Greece resident – and I were after something different from this Greek holiday. We wanted the ancient ruins and white, sandy beaches we’d experienced elsewhere in Greece – but with the crowd free tranquillity that had thus far eluded us. In short, we wanted somewhere so off the radar that stray dogs can sleep in the middle of the road without fear of being run over. And we weren’t going to find that on the islands.

Could the southern Peloponnese be the answer? I’d been tempted by this peninsula ever since Joanna Lumley visited for her Greek Odyssey TV series a few years back. It was a Greece that neither I nor Dee recognised: a land of hidden coves and crumbling towns, where just a handful of devout grannies kept the church lights burning – and the town names from being wiped off the map.

So here we are – less than half a day in – and we’ve ticked off two ancient ruins on the drive from the airport to our hotel. As we share a bottle of the local grape on our terrace, we tick off a third – watching the sun set over the medieval fortress of Monemvasia, across the bay.

Kinsterna House is shrouded in eucalyptus
Kinsterna House is shrouded in eucalyptus

We’re staying just outside Monemvasia town at Kinsterna Hotel, a grand manor house shrouded in eucalyptus that – we later discover – was planted to screen the villa from pirates in centuries past. This threat of piracy is also the reason for the hotel’s cooling, fortress-thick walls and near-self-sufficiency: Kinsterna’s terraces bloom with grapes, olives and melons planted in the days when even a simple trip to the market might have been your last.

We learn more about this region’s untold history over dinner, eaten beside the lily-filled cistern around which this ancient villa was built.  “There used to be 45,000 people living within Monemvasia’s walls,” our waiter, Yanis, tells us, as we tuck into courgette and yoghurt goggles (pasta). “Just nine people live there now.” War, siege and vendettas have been the bane of the southern Peloponnese. So much so, few dared live beyond Monemvasia’s protective walls until after World War II – by which time most of the region had already left for Athens, America and Australia.

Dee and I spend the next few days exploring Monemvasia’s knot of narrow streets. We dine at paper-tableclothed tavernas, eating spinach pies under a canopy of geraniums. We laze until lunchtime around the infinity pool, then spend the evening in a buzzy, Old Town lounge.

“Take your time”, the waitress instructs us. “I’mgoing to take mine.”

We take steams in the hotel’s spa, and scenic drives through sleepy hilltop villages, rounding corners to find half the citizenry sitting drinking coffee in the middle of the street,as if every day’s a jubilee celebration.

After almost a week here, we’re ready to experience something even further off the radar. And we think we may have found it — on Mani, the middle ‘finger’ of the three Peloponnese peninsulas: a place of ghost towns, blood feuds and crumbling, castle-like tower houses, on the next slither of land. If you thought Monemvasia sounded far removed from the resort-clogged islands, wait until you get to Mani. The government slapped a preservation order across southern Mani in 1958. The result? No high-rises, no concrete,not even swimming pools. (They are considered too eco-unfriendly, but who needs them when flawless beaches are so plentiful?)

If you thought Monemvasia sounded far removed from the resort-clogged islands, wait until you get to Mani

We’re staying at Citta dei Nicliani, a small, family-run hotel set in an 11th-century tower house (from where burning oil was no doubt once thrown, catapults once fired and guns once shot at neighbouring families). All around, stone towers lie abandoned. The village, Kita, was a thriving hub of more than 2,500 (feuding) people a century ago. Today, fewer than two dozen remain.

Panos, who runs the hotel with his sister and their parents, reckons fewer than 200 people are left in the whole southern half of the Mani peninsula. “There are three in that village,” he says, pointing to a city-sized blob on the map. “That one has nine.” It seems Mani isn’t merely devoid of tourists. We watch an owl come in to roost in the adjacent tower house’s window, listening to jackals howl and wild cows clip-clopping through the dirt street. “No-one eats them,” Panos explains of the feral herd. “Keeping cattle proved too costly, so the locals set them free.”

Narrow streets in Monemvasia Town
Narrow streets in Monemvasia Town

The sun barely has a chance to unsnag itself from the aloes the following morning, before Dee and I are on the road once more. We’re keen to explore all the tiny coves we’d spotted on the two-hour drive over here. We skirt nearby Gerolimenas’s teal shallows, but don’t stop. “It’s very popular,” Panos had warned (we count just three local families there). Instead, we make for ancient Kyparissos a few bays round, where we wade up to our shins until Dee spies the glinting altar of a long-submerged temple to Poseidon, its delicate marble filigrees washed with fine white sand.

Soon after, we’re lunching on stuffed tomatoes, roast potatoes and a mammoth-sized block of feta in Porto Kagio, another slither of a beach town nearby, on a horseshoe bay surrounded by mountains.

Porto Kagio is the sort of place timewarp travelogues are made of

wooden boats bob just offshore, kids run up and down the rickety town jetty, while a local family sits around a table half-submerged in the sea, waves lapping at their navels, playing cards and drinking Anise-flavoured beverages.

We contemplate joining them after lunch — but there are even better beaches to be discovered. We’re on the lookout for Alypa. “It’s the perfect one from the famous ad,” our waiter had told us. “You know: white sands, no people?’ He had us from the word ‘perfect’ — this was Greece’s answer to the Bounty bar beach: a fantasy so improbably hidden that only the most tenacious TV location scout had managed to track it down. Tourists had yet to sully its sands.

And, judging by the difficulty we’re having finding it, they’re unlikely to any time soon. We miss the sign and end up in a neat-and-tidy town, with a much less neat name — and a population of at least two. “Go 8km back in the direction you came,” says one half of the town. “You’ll see a sign,” adds the other.

I drive for 20km and see nothing. But Dee does spot an old man who, leaning through the driver’s window, spits directions up my arm. “There’s a sign,” he sprays. There isn’t. But we do spy a track leading down to the sea. “Let’s just see where it takes us,” says Dee.

At the end of the asphalt we find a sun-bleached cove and marinate in its cool waters, a dozen empty inlets swimmable in every direction. It may not be the beach, and chances are we’d never stumble across this beach again either. But it doesn’t matter. This isn’t Santorini or Crete; we don’t need a guidebook full of tips on where to find the least-crowded sands or best moussaka. There’s no point. There aren’t any tourist traps in the first place. Armed with this revelation, Dee and I spend the rest of our week experiencing the place properly – like laid-back locals. We breakfast for half the morning, playing with the hotel’s marmalade kittens between mouthfuls of chin-dripping preserves, semolina cake and light, feta omelette. We spend afternoons with Panos, buying cherries for his mother’s jam between tours of Mesolithic ruins and ancient temples, letting ourselves into a 12th-century house of worship in Vlacherna, its marble pillars stolen, its dome bereft of bricks. “People still use it,” says Panos, pointing to the icons and gilded incense burners hung proudly above the half-exposed nave.

“But let’s get out before it falls down.”

Best of all, we even find our own private ghost town, where just one solitary widow, her face creased like vellum, is all that remains of a hamlet of 50. “Aunt Chiona”, as she is affectionately known, is still working in her garden, aged 88, tending her olives and catching snails for the pot. She invites me and Dee in for tea and Turkish Delight, regaling us with tales of Mani’s ‘glory’ days – before the roads (in the ’70s), the electricity (in the ’80s) and the mains water (in the 2000s). We listen intently, as she remembers wartime hijinks, hiding British airmen in her father’s water tank, and serenades us with songs.

This is what the best holidays are all about. We’ve had near-private tours of ancient cities, and we’ve stumbled across pre-Christian relics paddling on the beach. We’ve become experts on the real Greece – without even trying.

Chiona’s mobile phone begins to ring. She pauses, elegantly moving her headscarf behind her ear to take the call. Dee and I are happy to hold. This is our hotline to another world.

Adam Edwards/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing