January in the Peloponnese
Mistra: took the highway to Sparta through snow-capped peaks. Mistra is a real World Heritage Site, gloriously rich in churches, palaces, houses and simple 13th-century street scenes. 7000 steps in 2 hours. Magic, especially the Church of the Peribleptus with its serene but vividly painted saints and packed biblical scenes worthy of Giotto.
The Peribleptus, Mistra
Monemvasia: two hours onwards, the huge rock connected by its thin causeway cannot be more inviting. Parking is the challenge, as is weaving through the unexpected throng inside the Venetian gate, and then there’s the zig-zag climb to the upper town and its far Byzantine citadel. Few places in the Mediterranean are more magical: the Aegean on three sides, a hilltop of ruins, and redstarts chirping in the new violet and yellow flowers. The little museum in the main square below is a treat, again tightly arranged with good graphics.
The once great port of Monemvasia
Mani - Gerolimenas: we ate well at the Hotel Gerolimenas where Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed when writing his classic about this barren peninsula with its villages of tower-houses. Stopped at Hanouda overlooking the sea to visit a primitive church. Supposedly 11th century in date, inside the Cyclopian walls a regular chapel has been inserted. Is it an after-thought? It is a wild version of the Gallerus oratory in Kerry.
Methoni: a Byzantine peninsula town that was transformed into a sprawling late Frankish, Venetian and Ottoman port. This is Corfu without a modern town, blessed by a pervasive smell of sea salt. Glorious.
Methoni's sea gate
Navarino castle: no less glorious is the next castle to the north, reached by a cliff walk from Goulava bay. Heavenly, the ground littered with pottery, the viewshed simply staggering. No signs, just a ruined Frankish castle that was ceded to the Ottomans who built the colossal fortress at Pilos. They wanted proximity to the bay and port. Now partly concealed by pines, it witnessed the end of Ottoman in the region when the Great Powers thrashed the Turks in a sea battle here in 1827. The little museum is a treat, full of finds from excavated Mycenaean and Roman cemeteries on these shores. As memorable as the musicology is a bottle of a local Chardonnay, 1827, served in the quayside restaurant, To Spitiko, at Pilos.
Pilos, of course, has great ancestry. The Homeric king Nestor had his palaces 14 Kms. north of the port. Excavations by Carl Blegen and Spiros Marianatos carried out in the 1950s exposed the great house and its forebear. Until 2015 the ruins on the crest of the first hills overlooking Navarino were marred by a perfunctory tin shed protecting the site. Now, with help from the University of Cincinnati, the authorities have worked magic. The text-book cover and walkways not only protect the site but allow you to look down on the regal rooms. This is the place to start any tour of the Mycenaean golden age. Sad only that the little museum in Chora hasn’t benefited from the same treatment,
The new Nestor’s palace is a rare example of truly imaginative treatment of a great archaeological site. Kudos to all involved.
Nestor's palace - looking south from the throne room
Corinth could do with the same treatment. Yes, part of the museum - it’s Ancient Greek section - has had the hallmark facelift found elsewhere in this part of Greece, but the old Roman section, as well as the ruins belong to an older museology. Tour groups of Chinese and Americans amble through the museum then the forum area in search of St.Paul and the Corinthians, but mostly intent, being puzzled, on taking selfies beside the carpet of brilliant budding yellow flowers.
Greece's road signs (or lack of them) test one’s patience and google maps have yet to get granular here. But that aside, what a supreme pleasure to see the Peloponnese escaping austerity, investing in good archaeological site management and keeping restaurants open for winter visitors. Greece in January is every bit as much a pleasure as at the height of summer, if not more so.