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Complete Description of the Ultimate Peloponnese Tour PDF Printable Version E-mail


Complete Description of the Ultimate Peloponnese Tour

A 15-Day 1,250-Mile Clockwise Journey by Car (also possible by Motorhome) 

Margaret and Barry Williamson
October/November 2015

In MagBaz Pictures: 52 Photographs of the Ultimate Peloponnese Tour

On this Website: 52 Photographs of the Ultimate Peloponnese Tour

Click: Summary of the 56 Locations on the Ultimate Peloponnese Tour.

A good map of the Greek Peloponnese is essential, rather than relying on a SatNav to know the network of country lanes. The best map is in the 'Road Editions' series, no 5 Peloponnese (purple cover), which includes 13 town plans. Find it at motorway services or good bookshops in Greece, price €7.95. The best sources for further information on the places visited are probably the websites of Wikipedia, Lonely Planet or Rough Guides.

The best time for this tour is spring or autumn – above all, avoid July/August as prices will be higher, hotels may be full, sites of interest will be much busier and it will be too hot for comfort when walking or sightseeing. Most national museums and sites have a reduced entry for Seniors: that is, for EU citizens aged 65 plus. Proof (eg a passport) is rarely asked for unless you're fortunate enough to look much younger!

The tour began and ended in Drepano (8 miles from Nafplio), where we left our motorhome safely parked. Thanks to Christine Kremastioti at Camping Triton II, Drepano Beach (www.tritonii.gr); also to Bounos Rent a Car in Nafplio (www.bounoscarrental.com) who delivered and collected the Ford Focus car we hired.

We stayed in mid-range hotels, empty at this time of year. The cost of a double en-suite room varied from €35 to €50 low season, always with free WiFi, TV and fridge, and usually including a good breakfast. A typical evening meal, in the hotel or a nearby taverna, averaged €10 per person. All payments were expected to be in cash!

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Map of the Clockwise Route in the Southern Peloponnese

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 Map of the Clockwise Route in the Northern Peloponnese

Day 1 - To Nafplio and Ancient Epidavros: Stay at Camping Triton II, Drepano

Barry practised driving an unfamiliar car 7 miles into busy Nafplio, where the ample free parking at the harbour/railway siding is often used by motorhomes. It was a fine morning for shopping (Lidl and Carrefour) or a walk up to the Palamidi Fortress which dominates the city, followed by a Club Sandwich in Goody's.

After lunch we drove 18 miles east to Ancient Epidavros, the site of a major sanctuary of healing – the Asklepion – founded in the 6th century BC. There are the remains of a Doric Temple, which housed the gold and ivory statue of Asklepios himself (God of Medicine, son of Apollo, suckled by a nanny goat and good enough as a doctor to raise the dead, which naturally upset both Hades and Zeus, who were waiting for them). Next to the Temple is the Tholos (a circular building that was the centre of his cult), as well as the foundations of other temples, service buildings and baths around the sacred precinct. The best known monument is the huge 14,000-seat theatre, one of the best preserved of all ancient Greek theatres, with perfect acoustics, and still used for summer performance of classical plays. Some restoration work on the main Temple and the Tholos, undertaken since our last visit, had come to an abrupt halt with winches, pulleys and blocks of stone abandoned. Presumably, sadly, the grant had run out.

The entry ticket (€6, or €3 for Seniors) includes a small museum. It contains meticulous inscriptions recording the miracles and cures of Asklepios, as well as accounts for the building work at the sanctuary. Also a showcase of medical instruments and other artefacts, votive sculptures, and reconstructions of parts of the temple of Asklepios and his daughter, Hygeia. It's always more interesting to see such things in context on-site, but as usual the major finds and famous sculptures are in the national museum in Athens.

Back at the campsite in Drepano we baked pizzas, followed by Margaret's Chocolate-Bread-&-Butter Pudding with cream, eating well in order to leave the motorhome's fridge/freezer empty while away!

Day 2 – To Leonidio, Elonis Monastery and Kosmas: Stay at 'The Maleatis Apollo' Taverna/Rooms in Kosmas (€40, plus breakfast choices from menu)

Packed up the motorhome and set off by car in bright sunshine, leaving a sad little one-eyed cat wondering who else might feed it on this empty campsite! From Nafplio we followed the coast road south for 55 miles as it wound its quiet way via Astros and Ag Andreas to Leonidio.

We love this self-contained little town at the foot of Mount Parnon, just a couple of miles east of the small harbour and beach at Plaka where there is an excellent brand new family-run campsite (www.camping-semeli.gr) by the Myrtoan Sea. The fertile valley stretching from Leonidio down to the sea, known as the Garden of Dionysos, is planted with lettuce, tomatoes, mandarins, lemons and a unique species of aubergine, as well as the ubiquitous olive groves. According to the legend, dolphins brought the infant Dionysos ashore at Plaka, sealed in a casket with his dead mother, Semeli, after they were deceived by his father, Zeus.

There is plenty of space to park on either side of the dry river gorge at Leonidio (even for a motorhome). We walked up and down its narrow main street pressed against the red face of the mountain side. Pies from the bakery went well with coffee at the adjacent Kafenion – normal practice in Greece, where bakeries don't sell coffee and cafes don't sell food. That way, everyone gets some custom! Between the neo-classical houses, there are numerous shops, post office, bank and a hairdresser who offers a good cut for less than €10 a head.

Then it was onward and upward, past the tower with a memorial to the local men lost in the Civil War in January 1949. The well-surfaced road eventually hairpins up 10 miles to the Elonis Monastery, a convent clamped onto the mountainside at 530 m (1,770 ft), where we parked to take in the view and visit the tiny church. The nuns had been moved down to their winter quarters, a more modern convent in Leonidio, but a couple of priests were keeping an eye on visitors viewing the precious icon of the Panagia Elonis (Our Lady of Eloni), which was stolen and miraculously found again a few years ago.

We were equally amazed to watch a pair of Austrian climbers hanging on the rock face. Leonidio has become an international climbing centre, with a winter meeting soon to come over Christmas/New Year (www.climbing-leonidio.com).

Our road climbed higher still for 10 miles to the tiny Arcadian mountain village of Kosmas at 1150 m (3,800 ft), surrounded by chestnut forests. We parked in the lower square behind the huge church – a place where we have spent the night in the motorhome, though in winter we've twice been turned back by snow! In the central square, shaded by a plane tree planted in 1883, we stayed at the 'Maleatis Apollo'. This 18th century traditional stone house has a cosy Taverna with a blazing wood fire and several guest rooms above. Each room does have a small kitchen corner but we dined downstairs to allow the central heating to permeate the chilly bedroom. It had been a warm day but soon cools down at this height after dusk.

Soula and Michalis, the owners, explained that the name 'Maleatis Apollo' refers to a unique small bronze statue of Apollo, god of Maleas (the name of this area in ancient times). The statue, pictured outside the Taverna, was found in Kosmas some years ago and is now, of course, in the National Museum in Athens, only 240 km (150 miles) away!

Day 3 – To Monemvasia: Stay at the Flower of Monemvasia Hotel (€40, plus €6 per person for a good breakfast buffet)

After a breakfast of omelettes, fresh orange juice and coffee by the fire, we walked uphill in a bitterly cold wind to the cemetery. The good folk of Kosmas were certainly long-lived, judging by the informative headstones.

Back in the car we squeezed through the village and paused on the hill-top (at 1195 m or 3,945 ft) to read the memorial to the action of 27 July 1943. Many guerrillas from Kosmas successfully fought one of the first battles in the Peloponnese against the Italian occupiers, during which the Italian Governor of Tripoli was killed. The monument records: 'Italians - 28 dead, 37 wounded, 45 captured, 1 escaped. Greeks - 5 dead.' In retaliation on 29 January 1944, in the depth of winter, the Italian occupiers burned the village of Kosmas completely. It was then looted during the years of the Civil War and abandoned by its inhabitants. The road we now descended to Geraki, crossing the border from Arcadia into Lakonia, was not completed until 1951, at which time the road towards Kosmas from Leonidio only went as far as the Elonis Monastery. How remote these places were, accessible only by donkey track.

Then it was southwest through a land of oranges and olives, past Molai and Sikia, to the harbour at Gefira (meaning 'bridge') after a total of 47 miles. This is the entrance to the causeway (formerly a multi-arched bridge) that leads to the fortified town of Monemvasia (meaning 'only one entrance'). On the harbour - another good overnight place in a motorhome - a strong wind was whipping up the waves, though down at sea level it was certainly warmer than at Kosmas. After hot chocolate and biscuits in a smart bar, we drove over the causeway and parked to explore the intriguing alleys and manifold churches of the walled town, with its history of occupation by Byzantines, Franks, Venetians and Ottomans. See www.monemvasia.gr

No traffic can enter the gates and it was gratifying to see a coach party struggling along the cobbled lane with their wheeled suitcases, to take up residence in one of the fashionable 'boutique' hotels. Once off the main street of cafes and souvenir shops, it was easy to find quiet corners and magnificent views. The sea-facing defensive walls are under restoration, as are many of the stone buildings at all levels. Most of the neo-classical Lower Town houses are renovated and inhabited, while the residences of the Upper Town, abandoned after the liberation of the city in 1821, are in various stages of ruin or rebuilding.

We climbed as high as we could towards the Kastro, the fortress atop the acropolis, which was out of bounds. An official notice declared that renovation is taking place under an EU Programme of 'Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship'. In Greece …?!

Back across the causeway (in Gefira, though most people call the whole area Monemvasia) we chose the Flower Hotel. The room had a kettle (unusual in Greece) and a balcony with sea view. Later we strolled back to the harbour in search of a meal – pastitsio in a simple Taverna. Our hostess presented us with two pomegranates as we left, apologising that it was all she had! (Tavernas often give a small helping of fruit or cake 'on the house' for dessert, though it's never on the menu.)

Day 4 – To Mystras, Apothetes Gorge Walk: Stay at Hotel Byzantio, Mystras, Nr Sparta (€45 incl a good breakfast buffet)

Retraced our route to Molai, then turned off via Skala to Sparta. The town was surprisingly quiet as we drove through to Mystras after 58 miles, the tiny village at the foot of the former Byzantine capital whose remains spill down the hillside. On previous visits we have stayed at the all-year camping in an orange grove, Camping Paleologio between Sparta and Mystras, run by genial Pete Kapetaneas.

Now we checked in at the imposing Hotel Byzantio, negotiating a good deal for 2 nights. The splendid room even had a bath, though a coach party of American students arrived later and soon took all the hot water. Luckily they only stayed one night, after which we had the whole place to ourselves. Two weeks later the hotel closed until March 2016! The Mystras Inn across the way would be a good alternative.

In the afternoon we hiked the Apothetes Gorge, from Parori to Sotiris and back. It was an easy start, rambling along the quiet lane to Parori (meaning 'beside a mountain), a tiny village a mile or so south of Mystras. In the centre, by a row of gushing fountains (the Keramos Springs) under shady plane trees, a pleasant Taverna is open from 7 pm weekdays and for lunch (until 5 pm only) at weekends. Its speciality is live trout, alongside the usual Greek fare.

A track from Parori is signed to the Cave Chapel of Panagia Lagkadiotisa (15 minutes), then the path continues along the gorge to a footbridge by Sotiris Church (a further 45 minutes), where it joins the cobbled E5 footpath linking Mystras with Faneromini Monastery and Anavriti. It is not for those who suffer from vertigo!

After a 5-minute uphill walk to a disused quarry in the rock face, the narrow track of stones and gravel deteriorated, with an unguarded 50-metre fall on our right into the Apothetes Ravine - where the ancient Spartans left any weakling babies to die! Those with a head for heights can photograph the stunning gorge, cleft through towering orange-grey cliffs, where the forces of nature are reclaiming the pilgrims' path.

The increasingly challenging path above the side of the gorge led to the grotto church of Panagia Lagkadiotisa, in a cave decked with icons, lamps and candles (and a No Smoking sign!) From there the rough track climbed precipitously on, occasionally furnished with a hand rail, eventually arriving at the small Sotiris Church where it met the E4 Walking Route. A good place for a break, a drink of water and a bar of chocolate. The sign said 2 km back to Parori (it had felt a lot further)! We could turn right (a longer uphill route back to Mystras), though not left (an even steeper uphill past a monastery to the mountain village of Anavriti). Familiar with both from cycling along E4, we chose to return the way we had come, along the gorge. We only met 2 couples on the way, apparently looking for each other! Total walked = 8 km (5 miles) through dramatic scenery.

The Mystras Inn restaurant/rooms, across from our Hotel Byzantio, looked inviting with a roaring fire. As soon as we had settled in and ordered a well-deserved meal of beef in red sauce with roast potatoes, the American student party invaded the place and filled it with their noise! But the food was excellent, with a little dish of sweet quince and almonds to finish.

Day 5 – Mystras, Camera Museum, Sparta, Olive Museum: Hotel Byzantio, Mystras

The hotel was well placed for visiting the abandoned 15th century Byzantine capital of Mystras (open daily until 3 pm in winter) but we have explored this exceptional World Heritage site more than once in the past. A ruined fortress crowns the 1,000 ft summit, with the Despot's Palace below and remains of houses, churches and monasteries tumbling down the hillside. Entry tickets are on sale at the bottom, or at an upper gate (with small car park) from which it is still a good climb to the castle.

In Mystras village (a couple of cafes, basic supermarket, bakery, souvenirs, pharmacy) we visited the brand new Camera Museum, which has plenty of space to park a motorhome. Open 9 am-4 pm daily, with free entry for all, the two floors contain the world's largest private camera collection, donated by Panagiotis Aivalis, a distinguished photographer who came from Mystras.

The weather remained dry and sunny, encouraging a walk into Sparta (3 miles) to the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil, well-signed in the town centre. This is one of several excellent museums sponsored by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation (as is the Dimitsana Museum of Water Power, see later). Open daily except Tuesdays, 10 am-5 pm, entry is €3 or free for Seniors. There is a small cafι in the basement, where hot chocolate and cake revived us during a surprisingly fascinating 3-hour visit!

The museum has two floors with models, exhibitions and films explaining the traditional production of olive oil and its cultural significance in the Mediterranean area. There is also an outdoor display in the garden with three reconstructed olive presses, from the prehistoric, Hellenistic and Byzantine eras.

We learnt that olive trees originally grew wild and were first cultivated in Palestine (many biblical references). In prehistoric times olive-growing had already reached Cyprus and Crete, from where it spread into the Greek world through the Peloponnese. The Romans introduced the olive throughout their Empire, where it flourished in all lands with a Mediterranean coast – it didn't thrive in Britain! The olive oil was hugely important for lighting, as well as for culinary, medical and religious purposes. It was also used in personal hygiene, a later by-product being domestic soap manufacture.

There is little to see of Ancient Sparta (a city-state that boasted no need of walls) but we have previously visited the small Archaeological Museum and the ruins of the amphitheatre, where young Spartans were flogged nearly to death to prove their worth.

After a return walk to Mystras we enjoyed a quieter meal at the Mystras Inn's Restaurant.

Day 6 – Githio, Kotronas, Areopolis, Diros Caves and Gerolimenas: Stay at Akrogiali Hotel, Gerolimenas (€35, plus €6 per person for a light breakfast)

Drove south 30 miles to the coast at Githio, the port of Ancient Sparta, where we strolled along the waterfront and had hot chocolate and cake overlooking the spot where Helen (wife of the King of Sparta) and Paris (son of the King of Troy) set sail, their elopement launching a thousand ships to fight the Trojan War! Nowadays you might get a ferry to Crete in the summer months if you're lucky!

From Githio we drove a few miles west, then turned down the new coast road for a total of 20 miles to the tiny harbour at Kotronas, on the east side of the Mani Peninsula, where we had a brief pause to admire the statue of a seafaring Hero of the Revolution. The cafι here once saved us from hypothermia when a circular cycle ride from Camping Gythion Bay was overtaken by a terrific storm one April (a memorable date, it was Margaret's birthday!)

Then the road climbed up via Chimera to Areopolis after 10 miles, crossing the spine of the peninsula to its western flank. Areopolis, the delightful stone-built 'capital of the Mani', has plenty of parking space between the bus station and the high school: a good place for a motorhome overnight. We walked round the town, past the statue of 'Black Michael' (another brave Hero of the Revolution) standing proudly in the square, and visited the two tiny churches with early frescoes inside. Sadly the main church with its tall bell tower was locked.

Then it was south down the more developed west coast of the Mani, turning off after about 5 miles down to the Diros Caves. We arrived just in time for the last tour at 3.30 pm. Entry is €12 (€8 for Seniors) for a 20-minute 2-km boat trip through the flooded underground cave system. The guide stern-paddled us with great skill along the tunnels linking vast limestone caverns, avoiding the many stalactites. His English was limited to 'Heads Down' or 'No Problem' but that was enough to see us safely round to the final landing stage, from where we had a 10-minute walk back to daylight. A wonderful and different experience.

We continued south for 10 miles to the picturesque fishing harbour of Gerolimenas and a favourite hotel, the Akrogiali (= end of the land), run by the two Theodorakakis Brothers. We have stayed here when cycling round the Mani, and eaten here with the motorhome parked overnight on the road behind.

We took our usual Room 10, with a balcony view of the clear water to the front and the floodlit cliffs to the side. Note that the more expensive rooms in the new extension, called Hotel Gerolimenas, don't have picture windows or balconies, and they share the same restaurant and breakfast! We dined at the hotel, exchanging greetings with the Brothers and their aged father, who started the business. After dark we took a short walk round the village, noting a plaque on the wall of the only other hotel declaring “Patrick Leigh Fermor (Michaelis) stayed here while writing his book 'Mani' in the 1950s and 1960s”. It was actually published in 1958, at a time when Gerolimenas and other places round the Mani were accessible only by sea.

Day 7 – Cape Tenaro, Areopolis, Messinian Gulf Road, Kardamyli: Stay at The Castle Studios/Apartments, Kardamyli (€40, no breakfast)

After a 'continental' breakfast of fresh orange juice, coffee, bread and jam, we drove for 11 miles southeast through Alika, past the imposing square towers grouped at Vathia and on towards Cape Tenaro - the foot of the Mani and the southernmost point of mainland Greece on a steep and splendid headland.

There is a small rough parking area by the Sanctuary of Poseidon: the remains of a small chapel built on (and using stones from) the pre-Christian site. From here a footpath passes the scant remains of a Roman settlement (look for the mosaic pavement) and continues to the lighthouse at the end of the Cape – about 20 minutes' walk each way. It was a perfect morning, blue sky, clear sea and flowers still blooming (autumn crocus and cyclamen). Could this really be November?

After a side trip to tiny Porto Kagio, we returned to Alika and drove north to Lagia, where the cafι was open for hot chocolate and cake, supplemented with our own crackers, cheese and bananas. The door of the large church opposite stood open, with workmen busy inside. Invited to take a look, we were amazed to see every inch of the walls and ceiling covered in painted Orthodox scenes and saints, all freshly done. In such a remote setting!

Continuing up the rugged and fractured east coast of the Mani Peninsula, we saw more of the unique Mani houses, taking the form of square towers built of stone, some dating from the 15th century. The population of the Peninsula were descended from the Spartans and well suited to live in splendid if bellicose isolation. Many groups, perched on easily defended cliff and hill tops, are abandoned. It's poignant to see villages so well defended from external threat now dead and forsaken from internal decay and neglect. The modern replicas are no substitute, in fact they detract from the atmosphere.

For much of the time the narrow twisting road lies on a corniche, sometimes rising high above the sea before plunging down to a cove, a beach or a tiny fishing port. After passing the larger village of Flomahori we cut across to Areopolis, climbing once again over the road via Chimera, a total distance of 25 miles.

From Areopolis we hairpinned down to the waterfront at Neo Itilo (another good overnight place for a motorhome), then climbed north along the beautiful Messinian Gulf Road, dropping to sea level again at the package holiday resort of Stoupa. Wasting time here in a futile search for a room (the season is over!), we finally reached Kardamyli at dusk after 28 miles. It's a tight little town, tucked between shore and castle, at the foot of the Vyros Gorge. It was here that (Sir) Patrick Leigh Fermor lived for many years, in the house he designed, until his death in 2011 at the age of 96.

Seeing nowhere obvious to stay, Margaret asked in the busy cafι, where she chanced on Mr Spyreas who took her to meet his wife Angeliki and their little twin daughters, all living at the nearby Castle Studios on the steep lane up to the castle! We took a bright modern studio room, with a kitchenette and a view of the medieval castle from the balcony. After a meal at Kiki's Taverna, the only one open, we were ready to sleep. It had been a long day.

Day 8 – Vyros Gorge, Kalamata, Langada Pass, Petalidi, Methoni: Stay at Achilles Hotel, Methoni (€50 incl excellent full breakfast)

Enjoyed a cooked breakfast at the cafι in Kardamyli, sitting outside in the square, before continuing our drive up the scenic Messinian Gulf Road. This splendid route to Kalamata climbs and falls, crossing the foothills of the snow-capped Taigetos range, always in sight of the sparkling sea. After hairpinning up to Prossilio at 1,070 ft/325 m, its white stone church gleaming in the sunshine, we turned along a narrow road (unsuitable for motorhomes!) that ended at Giatraika, where we parked to view the Vyros Gorge, which can be entered on foot from here, in the foothills of the Taigetos range.

Back to Prossilio and on to a maximum of 1,430 ft/434 m before Stavropigi, then down via Kambos to bridge the gorge bottom at 595 ft/180 m. One last climb before the descent to Kalamata – a massive blot on the coastal landscape, where the peace and beauty of the Gulf Road abruptly end in a noisy, congested and badly signed commercial port city. Still recovering from the 1986 earthquake which nearly destroyed it, Kalamata has the kind of narrow streets with tight corners and low balconies that give motorhomers a headache.

The best thing about Kalamata is the way out over the Langada Pass to Sparta, crossing the Taigetos mountain range - not exactly on our onward route, though an old favourite by bicycle or motorhome. We took a side-trip to the top of the Pass, intending to visit the atmospheric tourist cafι on the col at about 4,290 ft or 1300 m, but were shocked and disappointed to find both cafι and hotel completely closed down since last spring. It was sad to see the family of black cats and kittens now abandoned there. Not wishing to descend to Sparta, we returned to Kalamata with a coffee break at the only village along the way, Artemissia. (Those with less time could drive this road from Sparta, omitting Gythion and the Mani.)

The busy road west from Kalamata passes the end of a new motorway extension (E65 to Tripoli and Corinth), then the airport (its international flights restricted to the summer package holiday season). We paused in Messini to shop (Lidl at the roundabout), then drove along the road lined with stalls selling local oranges to the fishing port of Petalidi. There is plenty of parking space a little way along the waterfront, a good place for motorhomes to stay - except on Thursday nights (when the Friday morning market blocks the access road). We took a walk round the square, with a good range of cafes and shops including Barry's favourite cake emporium, and a wonderful view of the pyramid-shaped peak of Profitis Ilias (Prophet Elijah), also known as Mt Taigetos, floating above Kalamata, across the Messinian Gulf.

The coast road continued south through Ag Andreas and Nea Koroni, then turned inland to the market town of Harakopio. From here we drove west up to Iamia, dropped into Akritohori and down to reach the coast at Finikounda (3 of the 5 campsites are usually open in winter).

It was a final 7 miles along the new road to our destination, Methoni, another splendid harbour town with its imposing Venetian Castle – and the town hall where we were married! The newly built Achilles Hotel offered a great deal for 2 nights and we celebrated with an excellent meal at the Kastro Restaurant over the road. The menu included Rabbit Stifado and ended with complimentary cakes.

The nod to Achilles is because Methoni ('rich in vines') was one of the seven cities offered to Achilles by Agamemnon in Homer's Iliad.

Day 9 – Methoni Castle, Finikounda, Mistraki, Koroni Castle: Achilles Hotel, Methoni

The Achilles Hotel served a plentiful breakfast of orange juice, coffee, boiled eggs, ham & cheese toasties, thick yogurt with honey, croissants, bread, jam, cake … After which we needed a good walk, round Methoni Castle. This picturesque and extensive 13th C castle, which changed hands between Venetians, Greeks, Ottomans and others, was an important stop for pilgrims en route from Venice to the Holy Land. It is freely open every day from 8 am-3 pm.

Methoni's campsite, just along the seafront, is officially closed in winter but motorhomes do park by the harbour for a night – or talk to Nikos, the campsite owner, who also runs the small supermarket on the main street near the post office.

At noon we drove round the old road, climbing through olive groves to Evangelismos before dropping towards the little fishing port and summer resort of Finikounda. We walked along the beach between Camping Finikes, Camping Ammos and Camping Thines (all quiet), then strolled round the harbour and along Finikounda's single street, where several of the shops and Tavernas were closed, though not our favourite eating place 'To Kima' (= The Wave).

Driving northeast through the hinterland via the tiny villages of Grizokambos and Kaplani, we followed a familiar cycle route for 8 strenuous miles to the Traditional Village of Mistraki: a cluster of stone dwellings, mostly empty, with a hilltop church and water tower. Leaving the car parked by the family cottage of Greek friends, we clambered up through olive groves and flowery meadows to the home of English friends, perched above Mistraki at the end of a rough track. We knew they were away, sadly, but it's a fine spot for a view across the Bay of Messinia. Back in the village, we paid our respects to those we knew and remembered in the churchyard before leaving.

Country lanes led through Falanthi to Harokopio and thence to the quaint little port of Koroni near the tip of the westernmost peninsula of the Greek mainland. The harbour lies below a ruined Venetian castle, seen through a screen of palm trees. Important building work is underway along the pier and the beach road, where the slopes below the castle are being reinforced with iron beams and cement. We sipped hot chocolate on the waterfront before leaving the car there to climb narrow cobbled lanes and flights of steps up to Koroni Castle – known, with Methoni Castle, as the 'Eyes of the Serene Republic' (of Venice). Parking is difficult (if not impossible) for anything larger than a car, and motorhomers would be well advised to leave their vehicle above the town, perhaps on Koroni Camping, and walk.

The area inside the substantial castle walls now houses a convent, still occupied by a few Orthodox nuns, but visitors to the church and gardens are made welcome if properly dressed (trousered women must don one of the available skirts!) It is possible to climb onto a section of the wall to view a superb seascape, with Mt Taigetos (the highest peak in the Peloponnese) hovering across the water.

Back in Methoni, we had another memorable meal in Andreas's little Taverna on the upper road. His starters include the best and crunchiest Saganaki (cheese coated in breadcrumbs and fried) that we know in Greece, as well as the house speciality of oven-baked feta cheese/onion/tomato parcels. Here we sampled the house olive oil, freshly pressed this very week and slightly spicy, and even bought some delightful cards sold in aid of the Stray Cats of Methoni, made by a local English resident, Penny. Methoni's dentist, Zoe, also supports this cause, selling donated books and films, which can be browsed in her waiting room next to the post office. Some good finds there, at €1 each.

Day 10 – Pylos, Gialova, Marathopoli, Filiatra/Agrili, Vassae Temple, Andritsena: Stay at Archontiko (= Mansion) Hotel, Andritsena (€50 incl excellent breakfast buffet)

A second great breakfast in Methoni set us up for another active day. First stop was 7 miles north in the fine harbour town of Pylos (also known by its Italian name as Navarino), parking on the quayside where motorhomes often stand overnight. A castle (Neo Kastro built by the Turks in 1573) guards the bay: open daily except Monday for a small fee that includes the museum, it is well worth a visit. Navarino Bay is a deep natural harbour, bordered by the island of Sfaktiria, the lighthouse islet of Tsikli Baba and the Gialova lagoon.

Inhabited since Neolithic times, this area was once ruled by the Homeric King Nestor ('wise king Nestor' and 'sandy Pylos' feature in the Iliad). The Mycenean site known as Nestor's Palace, 9 miles NE of Pylos, has been closed for building work since October 2012, though its museum in the nearby village of Hora remains open, with a fascinating collection of finds.

Today we walked round Three Admirals Square, lined with shops and cafes, and topped up our Euro reserves at the bank machine. Greek citizens now have a daily limit for cash withdrawals but there is no restriction on foreigners – just as well, since virtually all payments have to be made in cash (even for fuel at motorway services!) One shop-keeper explained: 'If you pay by card we never see the money, the bank keeps it'!

The square, with its Venetian arches, is named after the memorial to three admirals (British, French and Russian) who are credited with sinking the enemy fleet here in the Battle of Navarino Bay in October 1827, the last significant battle between wooden sailing ships. This decisive naval engagement of the War of Greek Independence against Turkey was fought between an Egyptian-Turkish fleet under Tahir Pasha and a combined British-French-Russian fleet under Admiral Sir Edward Codrington. The Egyptian-Turkish fleet (3 ships of the line, 15 frigates and more than 50 smaller ships) was at anchor in the bay's harbour. The smaller British-French-Russian fleet (totalling 11 ships of the line, 9 frigates and 4 smaller ships) had been sent to aid the Greek forces by intercepting Turkish supplies. Shortly after this fleet entered the harbour on 20 October, the battle broke out. The superior European guns sent three-quarters of the Egyptian-Turkish fleet to the bottom and forced others aground. No European ships were sunk. The Turkish defeat was so complete that within 10 months the Ottomans began to evacuate Greece, an action that led to the creation of the independent Kingdom of Greece in 1832.

A few miles north at Gialova we turned left on the lane along the northern edge of Navarino Bay. This leads past Camping Erodios (good, but closed in winter) to the Voidokilia wetland lagoon and eventually ends in a parking area at the start of a footpath up to Paleo Kastro, the Old Castle. A sign now warns 'Castle closed due to extreme danger', though the path was open when we last took it at Easter 2014: a flowery track climbing up to the vast crumbling fortress, the main entrance archway clearly in danger of collapse. The interior was very overgrown, the walls only accessible to a herd of goats along the top of them! No longer safe to enter, it is still worth the climb for the fantastic view over Navarino Bay and out to sea beyond. It took about one hour return from the car park. The old castle was built by the Franks around 1280, fell to the Venetians and then to the Ottomans c 1500. It was abandoned when the Ottomans built the better preserved New Castle, on the opposite side of Navarino Bay at Pylos, in 1573.

As we drove back along the lane to Gialova, we parked by a sign pointing along a short path to a bird hide on the side of Voidokilia lagoon. Blue sky, warm sun, gum trees and a beach – it could have been Australia! We were impressed that a Greek bird-watching society had erected the wooden hide, complete with bird identification poster, but saw no overwintering flamingo, nor much else except for a few egrets, a great white heron and some coot. Even more surprising was a sign warning of bicycles on the lane. We certainly saw none of those rare birds!

Continuing north via the village of Tragana and up the coast, our next break was at the little fishing port of Marathopoli, another good overnight place for motorhomes, where we drank hot chocolate by the shore with a view of the small monastery on Proti Island. We recalled meeting Geoff, a retired Royal Marine, here many years ago, as he paused briefly in a passage down the coast in his own mobile home, the 30 ft catamaran Gable Moon. He taught us many things - from navigating by satellite to catching, killing, cooking and eating an octopus: we could manage it all but the last.

Further north the road turns inland through Filiatra, the native place of one Aris Fournarakis who made his fortune working as a doctor in America under the name 'Harry Fournier'. He graced his home town with a wrought iron model of the Eifel Tower and a large colourful globe, inspired by one he saw at the World's Fair in Chicago.

Parallel with the coast again, half way between Filiatra and Kiparissia we turned left for a mile to the shore at Agrili, another good overnight parking spot. We couldn't resist a short beach walk to Harry Fournier's idiosyncratic masterpiece – the Castle of Fairytales which he built on his return to Greece in the 1960s. He even raised a family there! When we first found this place some 20 years ago it was freshly painted and had a caretaker and a certain charm. Now it is derelict and neglected, doors hanging ajar and plaster crumbling.

Saddened, we continued through busy Kiparissia ('Town of Cypresses') below its Frankish castle, and on past Lidl, keeping north up the remarkably undeveloped coast to Tholo. The campsite here is seasonal but there are several quiet free-camping spots by the beach along the way, such as Kalo Nero or Giannitsohori.

A magnificent road winds its way inland from Tholo, eastwards via Nea Figalia, Petralona and Perivolia, crossing a gorge or two and climbing into the mountains to the remote Temple of Epicurean Apollo at Vassae standing at almost 4,000 ft (1200 m) – a journey of 29 miles from sea-level. The unique World Heritage 'Temple in the Tent' is shrouded in a protective marquee, a wonder in itself. This magnificent edifice, built around 420 BC and designed by Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon in Athens, stands on the lofty site of an earlier temple. The story is that the people of Ancient Figalia, a settlement lower down the mountain, dedicated the new temple to Apollo Epicurus (the Helper) after their village escaped the plague, but why on this impossibly wild and isolated spot?

The site is normally open for a small entry fee (and we have visited more than once before, climbing up by bicycle from the coast at Tholo on a strenuous 60-mile day ride). Today (Saturday) however, a sign declared 'Closed weekends and holidays' – just the time when a visitor might come! But it would be a simple matter to climb the low stone wall and wander round undisturbed, sneaking a look under the marquee – don't ask how we know!

The empty road twisted along a mountain ridge for another 8 miles before dropping into the village of Andritsena (at 2,400 ft or 730 m), which had been all but snowbound on our previous visit in February of this year. We found a good room at the one hotel open, in a restored traditional stone mansion built in 1865. For dinner we were directed to the single Taverna in the square, inherited by two interesting young brothers who had returned following military service and university to run the restaurant. One of them is also working for his Masters Degree in Egyptian Archaeology.

Day 11 – Karitena, Stemnitsa, Dimitsana, Olympia: Stay at Hotel Pelops, Olympia (€50 incl breakfast buffet)

A wonderful breakfast buffet awaited us in the Archontiko Hotel, a spread laid on for just four guests.

From Andritsena we took the road that wound its way north and east through the mountains of Arcadia, crossing the Alfios River above the remains of a Byzantine bridge before turning left for a 2-mile detour up to Karitena, tucked below the castle which dominates the land for miles around. Parked in the village square at over 1,500 ft/480 m, we admired the lovingly restored Byzantine church of Ag Nikolaos (regrettably locked), then walked uphill towards the ruins of the 13th century Frankish castle perched on the pinnacle above. The steep path was paved as far as a viewpoint, with seats and a pair of canons flanking a statue of the Greek General Kolokotronis, a hero of the War of Independence.

Taking in the wide panorama, we watched two huge coaches disgorge their passengers and turn round with difficulty ready for the descent. Most of the visitors disappeared into the cafι, while a few more adventurous Sunday trippers followed our path. Karitena formed one of the first strongholds of the rebellion in 1821 and Kolokotronis used it as a base of operations against Ibrahim Pasha, as well as a shelter for women and children. The castle was actually pictured on one of the old Drachma notes (and may yet be again!).

Descending from Karitena, we turned north for 10 miles along the sinuous road to the picturesque mountain village of Stemnitsa, at over 3,300 ft/1000 m high - another popular destination for impossibly large coaches which almost blocked the only passage through. After edging along the narrow street lined with cafes, guest houses and souvenir shops (mountain tea, honey or walking sticks, anyone?), it was another 5 miles to Dimitsana. We turned left before reaching the centre, down a steep lane signed 1 km to the Outdoor Museum of Water Power. It led to the huge free car park, where motorhomes are welcome to stay overnight, a short walk from the Museum. It is actually listed in Camperstop Europe, though the co-ordinates given there are at the turning off the main road.

The imaginative open-air museum opened in 1997, co-funded by the Piraeus Bank Cultural Foundation and the EU Peloponnese Community Support Programme (as is Sparta's Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil). It is open daily except Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm, entry €3 or Seniors free, including a leaflet in English - and free loan of a walking stick which we declined! There is a small cafι with lovely hot chocolate and cake, toilets and a souvenir/gift shop.

The whole museum proved an unexpected delight, walking through a series of original buildings that made repeated use of the water falling down the hillside: a fulling mill to make woollen cloth and blankets, a corn mill, a tannery, and finally a gunpowder factory that supplied the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century. There were detailed explanations in Greek and English and interesting films (Greek with English sub-titles), shown in the original fulling mill, tannery and gunpowder factory. We learnt that the men of the region were excused military call-up as their skill was essential to the revolution.

A footpath leads down from the museum into the Lousios Gorge, where we once walked to find the remains of Ancient Gortis and a couple of early Christian monasteries, but that would need another half-day.

Our onward road soon turned west at Karkalou, then went down and down between remote and empty hillsides, through the long villages of Lagkadia and Livadaki, eventually bringing us to the town of Olympia (the home of the Olympics, not the mountain home of the gods on Mount Olympos - that's much further north). It was past closing time at the Sanctuary of Ancient Olympia, the coaches gone, the cruise passengers back on board their ships at the nearby port of Katokolo. We found the streets, shops and cafes depressingly empty and many hotels and restaurants were closed.

We checked in at the Hotel Pelops, the price reflecting location rather than quality. Our Australian hostess recommended the nearby Anesi Taverna, basic and quiet, but we left after being ignored by a surly waiter. Walking round the town in search of a meal, the choice was disappointing and we ended the day with luke-warm moussaka in a simple back-street Taverna.

Day 12 – Olympia, Gastouni, Ionion Beach, Arkoudi, Loutra Killinis, Chlemoutsi Castle, Killini, Patras, Diakofto: Stay at Panorama Hotel, Diakofto (€40 incl breakfast)

Next morning we decided against revisiting Ancient Olympia which was overrun by groups of all nations, their coaches filling the car parks and back streets. Taxis and even horse-drawn carriages were ferrying those who couldn't walk the short distance to the site entrance. Cruise passengers brought from the port of Katakolo looked weary and disappointed, their numbers spoiling the atmosphere of the very thing they had come to see and their time limit precluding the excellent museum. Most took 'selfies' on the starting line of the ancient stadium, then headed for the cafι.

The best time to visit is probably on a weekday afternoon, to avoid tour groups and school parties. Open daily (8 am-3 pm in winter), entrance €6 (Seniors €3) for site or museum, €9 (Seniors €5) for a combined ticket.

The ancient site, developed around the Temple of Zeus, is set at the junction of two rivers, the Kladeos and the Alpheios (this is the one that Hercules diverted to clean out the Augean stables). Although already devastated by an earthquake (massive temple pillars lie where they fell) and robbed for building stone by barbarians and Christians alike, the site was ultimately preserved by river floods providing a layer of silt 12 ft deep.

Our abiding memory is of our first visit here for the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics, attended by Hilary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea. We all watched the ceremonial lighting of the sacred flame and the runner setting off for Atlanta.

We especially love the superb archaeological museum opposite the site, with its stunning sculptures. Highlights are the famous statue of Nike (= Victory) by Paeonius, featured on the medals awarded in the 2004 Athens Olympics; the outstanding statue of Hermes and the infant Dionysos by Praxiteles; the frieze showing the 12 labours of Hercules; and the original pediments from the Temple of Zeus, with a statue of Apollo that graced the 1,000-drachma banknote until 2001.

For those with more time and interest, Olympia also has two further attractions: a 'Museum of the Olympic Games in History' and a 'Museum of the Archaeological Excavations'. There is also a monument to Baron Pierre de Coubertin (who revived the Olympic Games in 1896), outside the Olympic Academy (not open to the general public).

After a stroll round, avoiding hot drinks at double the normal price, we left Olympia to the crowds. Driving west to join the New National Road (E55), we bypassed the unlovely town of Pirgos and continued north past the turning for Katakolo. At the next main crossroads (traffic lights), a right turn leads past Lidl and Carrefour into the busy centre of the market town of Amaliada. Not needing to shop today, we turned left at the junction for 3 miles to take a break at Kourouta Beach, where the large car park next to a long-defunct municipal campsite is a good overnight spot for motorhomers. A few people were swimming in the calm water – in the second week of November!

Further along the New Nat Road, the small market town of Gastouni is another place that we have come to know well. We parked and called on the amiable professional photographer Dionysos Maniatis at his studio – an old friend from the days before digital cameras made our visits purely social. He talked at length about Greece's current financial difficulties, increased taxes and university fees for his two daughters – and yet he kept smiling.

Then we drove west for 2 miles to the smaller town of Vartholomio, regretting that it was not the right time for a meal at the excellent 'Salt & Pepper Restaurant', run by our friends Dimitri Stergiopoulo and his son Michael. It was another 8 miles, uphill past Vranas church to Ligia, then down through Glyfa village to the sea, to reach our all-time favourite Greek campsite Ionion Beach, owned and run by the friendly Fligos family. www.ionion-beach.gr Greeted warmly by the two couples who are regular winter residents, we promised to return soon with our motorhome.

Following very familiar cycle routes, we drove round to Arkoudi for coffee and biscuits by the tiny harbour, then on to the thermal springs at Loutra Killinis to walk round the remains of Roman Baths alongside crumbling 19th century spa buildings, amidst shady forest with an overpowering smell of sulphur. In 1880 the Peloponnese Railways Organisation built a hydrotherapy centre here and a little train linked Lintzi (as it was then known) to Vartholomio and Gastouni. That branch closed in the 1960s and now even the trains from Patras to Kiparissia via Gastouni, which we once took, no longer run. An enormous new hydrotherapy centre has recently been built between Arkoudi and Loutra Killinis, using an enormous amount of EU funding, though we have yet to see it open!

A 3-mile uphill drive followed, climbing through lemon groves to the village of Kastro. Its name refers to Chlemoutsi Castle, a landmark for miles around dominating the port of Killini and the fertile Plain of Elis. This fortress of Chateau Clermont (Chlemoutsi) was built in 1220-23 by the ruling Franks, under Geoffrey I de Villehardouin, to guard the port of Glarenza (Killini) and the capital of the Principate of Morea (the Peloponnese) at nearby Andravida. After the Franks, the castle was variously held by Turks, Greeks, Venetians, Turks again, until the National Uprising in 1821. It finally suffered major damage during bombardment by Pasha Ibrahim in 1825. See http://www.ask.com/wiki/Chlemoutsi for a full history.

Over many visits, usually cycling up from the campsite at Ionion Beach, we've seen Chlemoutsi transformed from a crumbling ruin with free entry (at your own risk) to an impressively restored castle with opening hours (8.30 am-3 pm, closed Mondays) and a small entry fee of €3 (€2 for Seniors). Renovation work is still in progress, with a small museum inside and new information panels and signs in Greek and English. There is a rough parking area but it's easier to stop in the village and take a 10-minute walk up the short steep lane. It is well worth the effort, even when the castle is closed, for the view over the harbour and across to the Ionian Islands.

From Kastro, we dropped downhill for 2 miles through the olive groves to Killini, with ports ancient and modern - another good overnight place for a motorhome. After a walk round the harbour, watching the ferry come in from Zakynthos, it was time to drive east and rejoin the E55 at Lechena. This main road took us north past Kato Achaia, traffic increasing as we approached Patras, Greece's third city and the major commercial and ferry port of the Peloponnese.

A few miles south of the permanently congested city, the E55 becomes a new toll-free motorway which turns inland, bypassing Patras through a series of tunnels. Truly wonderful! There will even be a link to the ferry port one day. Just after Patras, however, the E55 turns off across the graceful Rio-Antirio suspension bridge (with toll) over the Gulf of Corinth to northern Greece. We unfortunately continued along the southern coast of the Gulf on the E65 toll 'motorway' towards Corinth. Immediately after the first toll booth (€2.50 for a car, considerably more for a motorhome) any semblance of a motorway is gone. Work has simply ceased, with tunnelling and bridgework abandoned, heavy plant parked uselessly along the verges. For most of the way it was an extremely busy, extremely narrow and extremely dangerous 2-lane highway, marked out with hundreds of cones and orange plastic fencing. To make matters worse, it was going dark. We wondered if the old main road might be better or safer, but that runs through a succession of small towns along the shore of the Gulf. There is no easy direct way from Patras to Corinth – in fact, even the train involves changing at Kiato.

It was a great relief to leave the E65 after Egio and take the Old National Road for the final 5 miles east to Diakofto, a small seaside town known for the rack railway that climbs inland up the Vouraikos Gorge to Kalavrita. The simple Hotel Panorama by the shore did indeed have a wonderful view of the coastline and the clear night sky held a myriad stars. Though there was only one other guest, the helpful Italian managers summoned the chef to come in and cook us a meal! It was a good ending to a rather difficult journey.

Day 13 – Kalavrita, Mega Spileo Monastery, Corinth, Corinth Canal, Isthmia – Return to Nafplio (Back to Motorhome at Camping Triton II in Drepano)

Over a breakfast of orange juice, fried eggs on toast, bread, jam and coffee we chatted with the young Italian couple managing the hotel: he from Monza (speaking some English), she from Milano (a little Greek).

The 'Odontos' – the rack and pinion electric railway to Kalavrita – runs thrice daily in each direction, leaving Diakofto at 0845, 1115 and 1432 hrs, returning at 0957, 1227 and 1550 (plus two extra departures each way at the weekend). It takes one hour to cover the 14 miles, climbing up the wild Vouraikos Gorge from sea level to almost 2,500 ft (750 m) on the world's narrowest gauge track, over countless spindly bridges and through many a tunnel. Built by French engineers and Italian labour, it opened after 7 years' work in 1896, long before there was a road to Kalavrita from the coast. The original purpose was to serve the mining town (with a continuation line to Tripoli that never materialised) but today the exciting train ride is a major tourist attraction using brand new carriages. It makes one stop on the way, at Mega Spileo station from where there is a footpath up to the monastery.

We made the return train journey a few years ago on the old rolling stock, and highly recommend it. See www.odontotos.com for more detail and photographs. We have also cycled up from the coast, the return ride involving a total of 4,700 ft of climbing. Today however time limits dictated that we drive to Kalavrita up 20 miles of twisting mountain road - an experience in itself.

On leaving the Old National Road at Pouda, a couple of miles east of Diakofto, the road to Kalavrita followed the gorge of a small river, winding its way up the hillside through pine forest until a stretch of new road (wider and smoother) bypassed the hamlet of Ano (= Upper) Diakofto. That was once the summer base for transhumants, who would descend with their animals to coastal Diakofto in winter - village names often go in such pairs. The road then climbed more steeply, crossing to the edge of Vouraikos Gorge, high above the river and railway line. After 12 miles we reached the highpoint at 3,700 ft (1120 m), then dropped 400 ft over the next 2 miles to the turnoff for Mega Spileo which we visited on the way back. The final 6 miles to Kalavrita was mostly downhill, joining the railway line and following it into the village, over 1,000 ft below the top of the pass.

Kalavrita's Holocaust Museum inside the old school tells the town's grim history. On 13 December 1943 the occupying Germans locked all the women and children in this school before killing every male aged over 14 and burning the town – in midwinter, high above the snow line. The church clock in the square still stands at 2.34, the time when all 1,436 men and boys were shot. We walked up to the poignant memorial at the execution site just above the town, where all the names are listed. Such an atrocity is almost impossible to believe, yet we have seen the sites of many such massacres carried out by Germans in Crete, France, Norway … Today, the road past the memorial site goes up to a winter ski station but we did not.

On the return journey to the coast road, we turned off at Mega Spileo (= Big Cave), Greece's oldest monastery, built in 362 AD over a cave at the base of a cliff. The monastic buildings and church were closed but we have seen St Luke's miraculous icon of the Mother of God and the cave where it was found on a previous visit. (You can buy a copy in the gift shop when open!)

Today the courtyard was open, below the monks' quarters and the craggy rock face above. We climbed some way up a track to take in the view, just making out the railway line in the gorge far below. There was a chilling memorial to the 22 monks pushed over the cliff by the Germans, two days before the Kalavrita massacre. The monastery was in the news again in October 2015, when a holy relic (the hand of the founder, St Halambros) was stolen by a small gang of Romanian priests!

Then it was back down to join the dreadful E65 'motorway' heading east for Corinth. We bypassed the busy city, which gave its name to currants and was home to two of our favourite characters: Diogenes the Cynic who lived in a barrel outside the city, and Sisyphus (King of Corinth, condemned to continually push a stone to the top of Acrocorinth from where it rolled back), patron saint of the workaholic.

Taking the last exit before the Corinth Canal, we joined the old main road and parked outside Goody's for a quick bite, where the old high level bridge spans the canal. There are now 5 bridges in total: this one on the original main road, the new motorway, the railway, and a 'sinking bridge' at each end of the canal for light traffic. We walked over to peer down at the 4-mile cut, straight through the isthmus from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf, rendering the Peloponnese an island. The 6th century BC slipway on which boats used to be hauled across can still be seen at the northern end of the canal. Roman Emperor Nero was the first to propose digging a canal but it was not inaugurated until 1893.

We drove down to Isthmia at the southern end and parked by the sinking bridge to watch a cruise ship being towed slowly through the canal. The huge vessel almost touched the sheer sides and we admired the skill of the tug boat captain. When the little bridge was raised again after 30 minutes, a cyclist riding across paused to throw a stranded fish back into the water! Nearby is the site of a Sanctuary to Poseidon, of special importance for the Panhellenic Games of the ancient world (held at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia). It is the least impressive of these four sites, though we have seen the museum and excavated stadium before.

If we had not already explored the Greco-Roman sites in Corinth itself, we would have stayed in the city for a night to visit them next day. There are plenty of hotels, seasonal campsites, and even an all-year Camper Stop (unusual in Greece) near the site of Ancient Corinth. This became the capital of Roman Greece, with the splendid remains of temples, houses, shops, taverns and fountains dating from the 8th century BC. St Paul was judged there after preaching to the Corinthians (and found not guilty).

On a magnificent mountain top 2,000 ft above Ancient Corinth, Acrocorinth is one of the world's largest fortresses, dating from the 16th century BC and used by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, the knights of Rhodes, Venetians and Turks, each adding their stones to the weight of history. There is a car park at the top of the serpentine road – or it makes a splendid cycle climb.

Since we already know Corinth well, we took the new toll motorway E65 (now complete via Tripoli to Kalamata) as far as the Nemea/Mycenae exit, then followed the main road south for Nafplio and Drepano. This route passed by no less than four major historic sites (Nemea, Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos) which can be visited from a base in Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio or Drepano.

Day 14 – Mycenae, Nemea (From our base at Camping Triton II in Drepano)

The Mycenean civilisation spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin from the 16th to 12th century BC and its cradle is a major archaeological site: the fortified Mycenean city and royal tombs at Ancient Mycenae. Described in Homer's Iliad as 'rich in gold', Mycenae was indeed for 400 years the richest kingdom in the Mediterranean world. The massive walls with the famous Lion Gate (Europe's earliest known sculpture) were long thought to have been built by the mythical Cyclops, impossible as it was to believe this was the work of mortals.

Here was the home of legendary King Agamemnon and his queen, Clytemnestra - the sister of Helen who was married to his brother Menelaos, King of Sparta. Helen's elopement with Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy, started the Trojan Wars. The Greeks eventually won (thanks to the Trojan Horse) and Helen was taken back to Sparta, 19 years later. Agamemnon, on his victorious return, was murdered by his wife's lover, then avenged by his son, Orestes, who also killed his mother (who needs 'The Archers'?) For more on the Curse of the House of Atreus, read the trilogy of Greek tragedies by Aeschylus - amazing stories, where myth and history are inextricably mixed.

Whatever the truth, some astonishing royal tombs, with precious jewellery and gold grave goods, were found here in the 19th century by Dr Heinrich Schliemann, a German amateur archaeologist/treasure hunter. Schliemann was the first to locate and unearth the site of Troy, before digging at Mycenae (1874-76) and Tiryns, amongst other Bronze Age sites gleaned from Homer.

For an atmospheric place to stay or eat, there is 'La Belle Helene'– a modest hotel in Mikines (Mycenae) village in what was Schliemann's house during the excavations. The guesthouse has been run by the same family for over 150 years: tavern-keepers with traditional names including Achilles and Agamemnon! The guestbook also contains some famous signatures (Debussy, Sartre, Henry Moore, Hitler and Churchill, to mention but a few).

There are also two campsites in the village: Camping Mycenae (open all year, very small) and Camping Atreus (much more spacious, seasonal).

The archaeological site a couple of miles beyond the village of Mikines stands on a steep hillside 825 ft above the plain. Open daily (8 am-3 pm in winter), it is very popular with coach tours, cruise passengers docked at Nafplio and school parties, and has a large free car park. Tickets (€8 or €4 for Seniors) include the extensive remains of the fortress city, a new museum and entry to the beehive tholos tomb (known erroneously as the Treasury of Atreus) below the site. See www.ancient-greece.org/archaeology/mycenae.html

We really enjoyed exploring Mycenae again, many years since our first visit, with new concrete paths and ramps making access to the palace remains on the summit easier. The museum has a well displayed collection of ceramics etc, as well as replicas of the most important treasures, including the gold mask of Agamemnon found by Schliemann in 1874 in the Grave Circle of royal tombs. (The original is in Athens.) Most impressive was an original fresco showing three women, remarkably similar to Minoan wall paintings we have seen at Knossos (Crete) and Thira (Santorini), clearly Egyptian in style.

On the way downhill back to the village, we paused at the tholos tomb (same entry ticket) to wonder at its amazing structure. Inside, the small side-chamber where we once meditated in pitch darkness is now closed off due to 'danger of falling stones'.

After a picnic lunch we drove a few miles north of Mycenae to Nemea, which lies in a narrow valley about 1,100 ft above sea level. Easily accessible from Corinth by motorway, this area is famed for its red wine, as well as its link with the 12 Labours of Hercules (one was to kill the Nemean Lion). There are rock-cut tombs here from the age of the Mycenean civilisation (16th-12th century BC) but the site rose to greater importance from the 6th to 3rd century BC when its Sanctuary of Zeus was home to the biennial Nemean Games, ranking alongside the Panhellenic Games at Olympia, Isthmia and Delphi.

Ancient Nemea (open 8.30 am-3 pm, entry €4, Seniors €2) is usually much quieter than Mycenae; in fact today we had the site and museum all to ourselves – a nice contrast with the American cruisers, French students and noisy Greek children we'd encountered earlier. The architectural remains are dominated by the impressive Temple of Zeus, built c 330 BC on the site of an earlier temple. Three of its columns have never fallen since originally built, while several more have been re-erected from column drums around the site. Other remains include the bath house and shrines.

A road links this sacred complex to the stadium, built 330-320 BC, accommodating up to 30,000 spectators. The track, accessed through an arched tunnel, is the usual 600 ancient feet in length (178 m) and the starting line is still in situ.

The museum displays finds including bronze sporting equipment (javelin tips and a discus), as well as votive statues, coins and pottery. The University of California continues to excavate and manage the site and since 1996 they have revived the tradition of the Nemean Games, with foot-races held in the ancient stadium every four years. Anyone can register free of charge to run in the 2016 games (barefoot but not naked!). See www.nemeangames.org/ Now that beats the highly commercialised Olympics!

As historical sites close at 3 pm in the winter, we returned to our base at Drepano. The pub on the side of the square there is a good place for a meal, with a friendly guitar-playing host, and sometimes live music in the evening.

Day 15 – Tiryns, Argos (From our base at Camping Triton II in Drepano)

With the November weather still perfect for outdoor exploration, we headed west into Nafplio to shop at Lidl (7 miles), then north along the Argos road for another 4 miles to revisit the Mycenean palace fortress of Tiryns, a favourite site with us.

Homer's 'wall-girt Tiryns' is unmistakeable, its massive Cyclopean ramparts rising high above the road on the right. We turned off into the large car park and had an interesting chat with the young woman in the ticket office (open daily 8 am-3 pm, entry €3, Seniors €2). She regretted that the new building, destined to be souvenir shop/cafι/etc, would not open due to Greece's financial situation. At least work to preserve the ancient remains continues, with a small team at work. We were just delighted to have the World Heritage site to ourselves: no tourist infrastructure means no coach parties, no lines of school children, no official guides droning on … So much quieter, and therefore more atmospheric, than Ancient Mycenae.

Set on a low hill, Tiryns was inhabited from Neolithic times. In the Late Bronze Age (14-13th century BC), the hill was fortified, enclosing within its massive stone walls the three-tier palace complex of the ruling family. An earthquake and fire in the late 13th C BC damaged the buildings of the upper citadel, gradually bringing the palace system of government to an end here. The acropolis was abandoned, though a settlement grew up on the lower levels. Tiryns was finally destroyed by the rising power of nearby Argos in the 5th C BC; the famous Roman traveller Pausanias found the site deserted in the 2nd C AD. It was never Romanised or overbuilt, remaining a colossal testament to the architectural prowess of the Mycenean period. See www.ancient-greece.org/archaeology/tiryns.html

Historical significance aside, it's a wonderful site to explore. We climbed to the Upper Citadel, through the remains of the great gate (identical in structure to the famous Lion Gate at Mycenae itself). You can imagine the ruler up here in the Megaron (throne room), frescoes on the floors and walls, receiving his subjects and performing ceremonies - or just take in the view of Nafplio Bay, seen between the hill-top castles of Nafplio and Argos.

Galleries built into the upper walls link a series of store rooms with pointed arches. Below, the Middle Citadel housed palace workshops, while the Lower Citadel was a self-contained settlement with houses, stores and workshops, 28 rooms with pointed entrances in the inner walls, access to two underground springs and another monumental gate. Only stones remain – but what stones! How was it built, how were they lifted? Keeping the stones that remain upright seems challenging enough today!

It was then 3 or 4 miles into the busy town of Argos, home of Jason's Argonauts and a city of great antiquity. It was another significant Mycenean centre, important throughout the Greek and Roman periods until its destruction by Visigoths in 395 AD. Our favourite site here is the freely open 4th C BC marble theatre, the largest in ancient Greece seating 20,000, carved out of the rock face of the hillside. A good place to sit with a picnic lunch imagining the spectacles enacted here before wandering in the ancient Greek agora (the assembly and market place).

The history of Argos, like that of Greece, has been one of occupation by different factions for millennia. The 12th century Frankish castle above the town on Larissa Hill, the site of the ancient acropolis, was captured by Crusaders in the Fourth Crusade (1202-4), sold to Venice in 1388, then seized by the Despot of Mystra who sold it again to the Venetians in 1394. It was taken by the Ottomans in 1463, after they had plundered Argos and taken much of the population to sell as slaves. The city was to remain in Ottoman hands, with the exception of a period of Venetian domination (1687-1715), until the start of the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

We drove up and parked outside the castle, visible for miles around, to take in the panorama. Entry to the ruins is free, open mornings only. The monastery of Agia Marina on the way up appeared to be closed.

And so back to base at Drepano, after the 15-day circuit of the Best of the Peloponnese.

Conclusion - Ithaca

It has to be emphasised that this tour could take longer, with more walks (the whole area is riven with limestone gorges, waterfalls and mountain paths), or more museums and galleries, or side-trips to the offshore islands, or so much else. We had to prioritise, limiting ourselves to two weeks by car.

In fact we have spent the best part of 20 years exploring the Greek Peloponnese. Although we know most of the Ionian Islands, we have yet to visit tiny Ithaca, lying just to the east of Captain Corelli's island of Kefalonia - Ithaca, where Homer's 'wily Odysseus' left 'the faithful Penelope', returning after many adventures on his 20-year Odyssey. 

Using Ithaca as a metaphor for 'the journey', the modern Greek poet C P Cavafy wrote:

"When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca, pray that your journey may be long, full of adventures, full of knowledge. Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind, to arrive there is your ultimate goal but do not hurry. Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage, without her you would never have taken the road."

And so it was. Long may it continue.

Margaret Williamson

December 2015