MYSTRAS, Greece — “Son of a biscuit!”
The clock read 8:20 a.m. and I groggily came to the realization that I had overslept and missed the first group hike on the very first day of my stay at the Euphoria Retreat, a hotel and “unique healing environment.” This wasn’t just any hike; it was a trek to the best-preserved example of a medieval walled town in Greece in one of the country’s most gorgeous regions.
What a way to start the week. Before I arrived at the health-focused hotel in the mountainous town of Mystras, I had resolved that I would be a participant in each of Euphoria’s robust slate of health-centric activities. There was yoga, pilates, tai chi, meditation, and circuit training. I was here for it all — well, all except for the hike I had just missed.
I threw on some clothes and ran to reception.
“I’m sorry, the hike left at 8. I don’t think you’d be able to catch up,” the kind clerk said as she examined the unsightly pillow lines fanning across my face.
I smiled, took a map, and started following the directions for a self-guided walk to a church she suggested as an alternative. I reminded myself that one missed group hike would not ruin my trip. I would return to the medieval mountain-side town solo. Besides, I was in a part of Greece I had longed to visit for years: the Peloponnese.
Before the pandemic, I devoured details about how this peninsula, which is due south of Athens and dangles from the mainland by an isthmus, was the antithesis of the islands. Tourists swarm upon Mykonos and Santorini like yellow jackets on baklava. That’s not the case here. The Peloponnese offers beautiful, expansive beaches, snow-capped mountains, and important archeological sites. One thing you will not find are fleets of cruise ships.
I’m not one to drop accolades or compliments easily, so I won’t. But I was so smitten with the peninsula that I came within a keystroke of adding several days to my trip. I was on Delta’s website about to hit “enter” to change my flight, but another trip was getting in the way. Specifically, a guilt trip coming from my husband back in Boston.
When you plan your trip to the Peloponnese, don’t believe what you read in the travel guides. To experience the peninsula properly, give yourself about a week, more if you can spare it. This is not a weekend jaunt from Athens or even a four-day side trip. Also, don’t let your husband make you feel guilty if you decide to stay longer.
Getting to the Peloponnese is relatively easy once you land in Athens. I rented a car at the airport and drove on a very efficient and pristine highway system. It took about an hour to reach the top of the peninsula, which begins at the man-made Corinth Canal (connecting the Ionian Sea with the Aegean Sea). I drove another two hours to the my hotel in Mystras, the tiny village best known for the well-preserved Byzantine city that was built on the very steep slopes of the Taygetus Mountains. You know that annoying expression “Pictures don’t do it justice”? Well, I’m going to use that expression now, but please don’t hold it against me.
I decided I would use the Euphoria Retreat as a base camp. I’d do healthy things every morning and then spend afternoons and evenings exploring other towns and attractions.
My plan was terribly shortsighted (if I only had a drachma for every time I wrote those words). First, I didn’t want to leave the soothing environs of Euphoria and its delicious spa. I booked treatments such as a session to quiet “busy minds” and halotherapy, which entailed sitting in a warm room while breathing air filled with tiny salt particles. Its purpose was to clear maladies such as asthma and bronchitis. I also booked a massage. Before the masseuse laid a hand on me, I told him in my usual tactful and polite manner that I didn’t like massages. At the end of the massage, I apologized and promptly booked another. There was no way I could properly report this story without a second massage.
Making matters worse, I had underestimated the amount of time I needed to see other parts of the Peloponnese. I forgot that time slows down in Greece. The pace of life here is not conducive to running from town to town or grabbing quick meals, which is easy to forget when you’re sitting back in the States compiling lists and schedules. There was only one thing I could do. I hesitantly pulled myself out of the infinity pool, told Christos there would be no more massages, and put on my walking shoes.
The most important stop in Mystras is the Fortress of Villehardouin (also called the Mystras Castle) and its accompanying city on the mountain, which are the biggest draws here. The fortress was built in 1249. The city below it was conquered and passed around among medieval superpowers for another 400 years until the Greeks gave up and deserted it in the early-19th century. Now it’s a pristinely preserved archeological site.
It is a stunning slice of history, particularly the Monastery of Pantanassa, which was built in 1428. It’s still inhabited by nuns, although I saw more cats than nuns as I trudged from one level of the mountainside city to the next. The frescos in the monastery are all museum-worthy, but fortunately, they’re still here. Guests trickled in and lit candles as the sun streamed through the windows of a dome above.
A quick word about hiking up the archeological city and the fortress in Mystras: I would only recommend a full visit for those who are sure-footed and in moderately decent health. It seems that William II of Villehardouin was not interested in installing handrails or ramps in the 13th century. Also, 1,000 years of foot traffic has made many of the steps on the uneven stairs quite smooth. This isn’t meant to discourage adventure, it’s just something to keep in mind before you climb 1,000 feet up the hill. You can also easily see parts of the city and the fortress from various vantage points around town.
I split my Mystras mountain archeological exploits into two parts, both in the late afternoon when the sun was lower in the sky and the tour buses had disappeared. I spent a bit too much time visiting the cats that loitered around the archeological sites, supplying them with treats and giving them proper, culturally sensitive names, such as Purrcules, Pawcretes, Helluva Troy, and a vociferous kitten who I dubbed Zorba the Squeak. Go ahead and judge, but every cat should have a proper name.
After a few days focused on Mystras’s ruins and cats, I found myself in a true Peloponnesian predicament. I had to start making some hard decisions and start cutting locations that I knew I wouldn’t have time to visit. I blame Zorba the Squeak for being so cute. She delayed my departure.
Beyond Mystras, my first stop was the highly recommended Limeni, which is a small port in the town of Areopoli. The Peloponnese peninsula has three “fingers” at the southern tip, and these are where you’ll find some of the most scenic beaches. I had to choose a finger, so I went with the middle one. The region is known as Mani. I held on for dear life and drove my tiny rental on narrow, zig-zagging roads down precarious hills to Limeni. The reward was preternaturally clear, blue water. There are a few cafes that sit directly on the harbor. I settled in, sipped wine, and stared in disbelief at the beauty of it all.
I had a day in Mani, but I chatted with a couple who were spending a week beach-hopping here. My brain immediately began working on the logistics of my next trip. I drove back up the hill to the main town of Areopoli. Narrow streets were lined with restaurants and taverns, with the mountains looming in the distance.
Slightly less scenic was Olympia, which is located in the northwest corner of the peninsula. I felt obligated to come here because it’s where the Olympics were held from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD. Olympia features the remains of ancient temples, a stadium, and an Archaeological Museum. I found the contents of the museum more interesting than the remaining columns and stone outlines of long-gone temples and buildings. But if you’ve come all the way here, I think Olympia is required. If you do come, first download the Ancient Olympia app on your phone, which uses your location to show you what the ruins in front of you would have looked like more than 2,000 years ago.
Driving up the west coast of the peninsula I noticed signs for beaches almost every 5 miles. Curiosity got the better of me, and I pulled off the small highway several times to investigate. What I found were charming, tiny towns with several vans and RVs parked near the beach. There are no strict rules here about camping, so when I officially begin my #vanlife, I’ll launch it here. I found the Peloponnese to be less expensive than the islands, and I imagine renting a van and camping along the beach would be incredibly economical.
I saved what I hoped would be the best for last. Back on the eastern side of the peninsula is the seaside city of Nafplio. This was another location where I quickly realized I needed more time. I was here for two nights and could have used at least two more. I met a pair of very inebriated Australian women who were spending six weeks (!) on the peninsula and decided they liked Nafplio so much they were spending two weeks there.
Think of Nafplio as a Greek greatest hits album. There is history (more archeological sites and fortesses), plus beautiful beaches and great food. I slathered myself in sunblock and walked up the 999 steps to the top of the Fortress of Palamidi. Let me just point out that the Greeks invented democracy, maps, and alarm clocks, but did not think of installing handrails along the 999 stairs at Palamidi. Oh, wait, never mind. The Venetians built this fortress. Sorry, Greeks. For those not able to take the stairs, you can hire a cab to take you around the hill and park at the top.
The other fortress in Nafplio is much more accessible. It sits in the harbor and you can see it from a jetty off the main boulevard. I parked myself at the end of the jetty one evening at sunset to watch the sky change around the Bourtzi Fortress. In the back of my mind, I knew I should be exploring the narrow streets or responding to e-mails, but instead I sat transfixed as the sky turned from blue to pink to lavender.
The next morning I would run around Nafplio and explore some more, but on this particular evening I decided I would let the peninsula tell me what to do. So I watched the sunset at the fortress, petted a cat that came up to sit alongside me (leaving a trail of treats down the jetty helped lure a few cats), and had the best meditation session of the week. The relaxation helped clear my brain and relax. I was left with only one nagging concern.
“When can I come back?”