Though skipped by many visitors to Greece, we feel Peloponnese to be a must-see destination, particularly for those interested in the myths and temples of the many Greek gods, as well as the ancient beginnings of the Olympics. Of special note, culturally-rich Peloponnese includes three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Mycena/Tiryns, Mystras, and Olympia). Using the luxury, 38-pavilion AMANZOE as your base makes for a very comfortable, high touch two to three-night stopover. A nice treat when crossing mainland Greece over the Isthmus of Corinth is the architecturally striking multi-span, cable-stayed Rio Antirio Bridge.
From the 6th to the 2nd-century B.C., Nemea was the ancient site of the “Nemean Games” which attracted participants throughout the Greek world. The 30,000-seat stadium has been restored by archeologist Stephen Miller and his teams from the University of California at Berkley. Here you will see nine sand-colored Doric columns standing on the even ground that served as a gym floor. The clay service running track measured 600 ancient feet. Athletes stripped and rubbed their bodies with olive oil and dust, functioning as both sunscreen and an enhancement for muscular male beauty. Athletes competed in the nude at all athletic festivals. In fact, all men exercised in the nude (the word “gymnasium” came from the Greek word for naked). A second interesting Nemea site is the reconstructed Temple of Zeus. Do not miss the archeological site’s museum. Though small, we found this museum to be quite informative and organized. In Greek mythology, Nemea is the place Hercules overcame the Nemean Lion of the Lady Hera.
In Nemea, you will also see a “secret entrance” from the locker room to the stadium with a unique vaulted ceiling. The athletes waited here for their names to be called for the games, while women were prohibited from competing or even watching the games. Before the rise of Christianity, sexual relations between men were widely practiced throughout Greece.
Mycenae and Tiryns (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
The archaeological sites of Mycenae and Tiryns are imposing ruins representing the two greatest cities of the Mycenaean civilization, which dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for the 15th to 12th-centuries B.C. When we think of Mycenae, we imagine Homer. In the 9th-century B.C., Homer wrote his epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, mentioning well-built Mycenae, rich in gold. We agree with Lonely Planet‘s overview that “both myth and history are inextricably linked in Mycenae.” Agamemnon is one of Mycenae’s principal characters in the Iliad: the son of Atreus and the King of Mycenae, he later led the Greeks during the Trojan War. Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus, married Clytemnestra and Helen, respectively both daughters of the King of Sparta. After Paris of Troy swept Helen back to Troy, the epic Trojan War followed. For 400 years (1600 – 1200 B.C.) this vestige of a kingdom was the most powerful in all of Greece. Compelling sites include the main entrance of the famous “Lions Gate”, The Citadel, and the Treasury of Atreus, noteworthy for its feat of engineering.
Olympia (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
The “Olympia” festival games were first established in 776 B.C., eventually eliminated by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I in the year 393. The games were open to athletes across the Greek empire. Though similar to the stadium of Nemea, Olympia’s is much larger, accommodating 45,000 spectators. Sadly, a series of 2007 bushfires destroyed many of the trees in the area, with the ancient Olympia ruins being thankfully spared. Held every four years until their abolition by Theodosius I, the games were held here for over 1,000 years. Olympia’s complex of temples is still recognizable, including priest dwellings and public buildings. The site’s explanatory boards, with depictions of what the buildings would have looked like, are a big help in fully appreciating this amazing place.
Similar to the Nemean Games, only males could participate. With the exception of the priestess of Demeter, women were not allowed to even be spectators. In effect, the games became a major male religious festival (taking place during the first full moon in August) in honor of the god Zeus (hence Olympia being the site of the games, named for Mount Olympus, where Zeus ruled).
The first games, traditionally held in 776 B.C., were small-scale and local. Apart from sacrifices and other religious rites, it included only one sporting event, a footrace of 200 yards, a distance which the Greeks called a stade (hence our “stadium”), and which took well under a minute to run. The first winner was Coroebus, a young man from Elis, the local city which administered the festival, and the victors in the next 10 games were local, too. But new events were soon introduced, and by the early fifth-century B.C., the Olympic Games had become quite literally the hub of the Greek-speaking world. For the five days in August straddling the first full moon, athletes and their trainers, aristocrats and artists, poets, philosophers, hawkers, and artisans congregated at Olympia to see and be seen, do deals, and exchange ideas. Much of that time was spent in worship: grand processions, the sacrifice of many hundred oxen, and banquets in honor of gods and heroes. But increasingly, competition assumed a more central role.
The stade race, run at the midpoint of the games, remained the centerpiece — so much so that in the fifth-century B.C., when it became desirable to introduce an internationally recognized dating system, the polymath philosopher Hippias hit on the formula, “in the ‘X’th year of the ‘Y’th Olympiad, when ‘Z’ was victor in the footrace.” Like other athletes at the games, runners competed naked. Again, the origins of this tradition were debated, but the most well-known involved Orisippus, a young man from Megara near Athens. Until 720 B.C., loincloths were de rigueur, but that year Orisippus raced so vigorously that his helmet fell off. When he crossed the line to victory, it was seen as a sign from the gods and henceforth any kind of clothing was banned. But the athletes probably didn’t look exactly naked. By Roman times, if not before, it was common first to anoint the bodies of competitors in oil, then to sprinkle them with dust or powder. One treatise recommended the dust of terra-cotta for helping to open pores, asphalt dust for heating the chilled, and yellow earth for softening the skin, commenting that, “Yellow dust also adds glisten, and is a delight to see on a body which is in good shape.” Athletes may well have looked like moving statues. There were no team events in the ancient Olympics. Apart from races over various distances up to 2.75 miles (24 lengths of the stadium), there were two other main types of contests: those involving strength and those involving horses. Some (racing, boxing, and wrestling) featured contests for both men and boys. It was during a boys boxing match that one of the greatest scandals of the ancient Games was unmasked.
Mystras (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Among the most important historical sites in The Peloponnese, Mystras occupies a steep foothill on the northern slopes of Mt. Taygetos, approximately three miles from Sparta. This is where the Byzantine Empire’s artistic and intellectual culture made its last stand before the invasion of the Ottoman army, nearly 1,000 years after its conception. Looking very much like a ghost city today, Mystras uniquely features its castle, churches, and the palatial complex of the ruling Byzantine dynasty. The 13th to early 15th-centuries frescoes of Mystras churches represent the peak that the Byzantine religious painting had reached. After the fall of the Byzantine empire, Mystras was occupied by the Turks and the Venetians, before being abandoned in 1832, leaving only the breathtaking medieval ruins standing in the beautiful landscape. At least a half-day is needed to fully explore the ruins of Mystras. Comfortable shoes and plenty of water are a must!
A Lynch family favorite and well-known by many of our clients and friends, Singapore-based AMAN represents the pinnacle of world-class luxury hotel and resort hospitality. While Peninsula, Four Seasons, and Mandarin may rule the 5-star deluxe hotel category, AMAN alone occupies the elite level: small remarkably high-touch, singular, and personal.
Set on an olive-tree covered hilltop complex of 38 pavilions, AMANZOE is AMAN’s only Greece property and we feel worth the trip from Athens. Similar to other AMAN resorts, the service here is singular and personal, with striking clean architecture, as the Amanzoe is designed to complement the Peloponnese local culture and setting. Each suite contains soaring windows, bedrooms that open onto patios and plunge pools, and ultra-modern bathrooms (think huge showers!) Another added treat at the AMANZOE is its private, full-service Beach Club (10 minutes away by shuttle), including a restaurant and bar and two impressive freshwater pools overlooking the Mediterranean. There is also great food, a spa, and a fitness center!
Just a short ferry ride away (less than two hours), you may wish to consider a Hydra extension to your Grecian private tour. We feel that Hydra, the most picturesque of the nearby Saronic Gulf Islands, is a fun full-day excursion from AMANZOE.
Completely void of cars, roads, scooters and even bikes, Hydra exists in pre-wheel times. Relying on your legs for transportation, donkeys are also omnipresent on the island and available to carry luggage. You may also opt for a water taxi, taking you to and from various beaches and tavernas (small Greek restaurants serving authentic Greek cuisine).
Part of Hydra’s mystique is its location of Sophia Loren’s Boy on a Dolphin, filmed on this exclusive island. Since the 1960’s, its popularity has continued to grow, drawing the likes of celebrities, artists, writers, and musicians.
As yachts, ferries, and private sailboats flock to Hydra’s harbor front daily, tourists seldom venture very deep within Hydra’s mainland, providing an authentic Hydra experience for those who do. Consider noted travel writer Rick Steves’ experience walking through Hyrda’s tranquil streets. He writes, “…the beauty of Hydra is in relaxing at a café and aimlessly wandering its back lanes. Once, I decided to head uphill from my hotel, and my small detour became a delightful little odyssey. While I had no intention of anything more than a lazy stroll, one inviting lane after another drew me up, up, up to the top of the town. Here, shabby homes enjoyed grand views, tired burros ambled along untethered and island life trudged on, oblivious of tourism.”
While water taxis are available to transfer you to nearby beaches, like Mandraki Bay, Kaminia Castello, and Vlychos, you may choose to cool down in one of the various swimming spots along the harbor. Though the beaches here are rather non-descript, the piercing blue water is ideal for fun swimming locales.
In ancient times, Hydra served as a refuge from the various skirmishes between the Ottomans and the Venetians. Filled with a deep history, beautiful harbor sunsets, and a tranquil lifestyle, Hydra is not a stopover point you want to miss.