One of the primary strongholds and battlefields of the 1821-31 Revolution, the Peloponnese is the kernel from which the modern Greek state grew. The region boasts a wealth of ancient and medieval ruins, from Bronze Age Mycenae to the Byzantine town of Mystrás. As popular as its vast array of historical sites is the Peloponnese’s spectacularly varied landscape. The breathtaking scenery of places like the Loúsios Gorge attracts walkers and naturalists in the thousands.
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A settlement since Neolithic times, Ancient Corinth was razed in 146BC by the Romans, who rebuilt it a century later. Attaining a population of 750,000 under the patronage of Roman emperors, the town gained a reputation for licentious living, which St. Paul attacked when he came here in AD 52. Excavations have unearthed the extent of the ancient city, which was destroyed by earthquakes in Byzantine times. Among the most impressive remains are the Lechaion Way and the Temple of Apollo with its striking Doric columns. The temple was one of the few buildings preserved by the Romans when they rebuilt the city in 44 BC.
Discovered in 1874, the fortified palace complex of Mycenae is an early example of sophisticated citadel architecture. The Mycenaeans were a Bronze Age culture that existed between 1700 and 1100 BC. Only the ruling class inhabited the palace, with artisans and merchants living outside the city walls. The tombs at Mycenae are one of the most famous attractions of the site.
Active from the 6th century BC until at least the 2nd century AD, the Sanctuary of Epidaurus was an extensive therapeutic and religious center, dedicated to the healing god Asklepios. The site is most renowned for its magnificent Theater, whose cavity is 374 feet across and surrounds a 66-ft diameter stage.
One of the most elegant towns in mainland Greece, Náfplio emerged in the 13th century and later endured many sieges during the struggles between the Turks and the Venetians for ports of the Peloponnese. From 1829 to 1834, it was the first capital of liberated Greece. The town has two museums of note: the award-winning Folk Art Museum and the Archaeological Museum, which houses mainly local pre-Mycenaen artifacts.
This fortified town is built on two levels on a rock rising 1,150 feet above the sea. A town of 50,000 in its 15th-century halcyon days, Monemvasía was for centuries a semi-autonomous city-state, which prospered thanks to its strategic position astride the sea lanes from Italy to the Black Sea.
The harsh and remote Máni Peninsula is divided into two areas, Outer Máni and Inner Máni, separated by a ravine at Oítylo. The main places of interest are Oítylo, with its elegant 19th-century mansions, and Kardamýli, the lair of the Troupákis family, one of the most important Maniot clans. Mount Taÿgetos is one of the area’s beauty spots, while Gýtheio is one of the most attractive coastal towns in the southern Peloponnese.
Majestic Mystrás occupies a panoramic site on a spur of the severe Taÿgetos range. Founded by the Franks in 1249, the town soon passed to the Byzantines, under whom it attained a population of 20,000 and, after 1348, became the seat of the Despots of Morea. Now in ruins, Mystrás consists of an upper and lower town, with a wealth of churches, monasteries, palaces, and houses lining its narrow, winding streets.
Although merely a tributary of the Alfeiós River, the Loúsios stream boasts one of the most impressive canyons in Greece. Scarcely 3 miles long, the Loúsios Gorge is nearly 985 feet deep at its narrowest section. A number of hiking trails connect the area’s highlights, which include several churches and monasteries clinging to the steep cliffs of the gorge.
The sanctuary of Olympia enjoyed over 1,000 years of renown as a religious and athletics center. Though it flourished in Mycenaean times, its historic importance dates to the coming of the Dorians, at the beginning of the first millennium BC. The most important ruins here are the Temple of Zeus, of which only the column bases and tumbled sections remain, and the partly reconstructed Palaestra, which was a training center for athletes.
Also not to be missed is the Archaeological Museum, one of the richest museums in Greece, with exhibits from prehistory through to the Classical period and the Roman era. The central hall houses the pediment and metope sculpture from the Temple of Zeus. There is also a small museum dedicated to the Olympic Games.