MESSENE, GREECE — The spring water gurgled and flowed silkily down the stone wall out of a water fountain. I walked slowly up to it, glancing around for any signs or mystical symbols. I timidly bent down to catch some drops in my cup. Shaking the water around, it shifted just like regular water. If I were anywhere else in the world, I would have shrugged and walked by the sign but I was in Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula.
As a Greek mythology geek, there was no way I could just stroll by the Clepsydra spring of ancient Messene, where Zeus reportedly bathed and drank. And so, I stopped at every rock, every crumbling gate, every headless statue, because I was actually standing in the land of the gods.
Few destinations offer as much ancient and cultural hallmarks as Greece. This Southern European beauty boasts 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a stunning mountainous landscape framed by the Aegean Sea.
While most of the Instagram glory focuses on the islands of Santorini, Mykonos and Crete, the country is actually composed of 6,000 islands, of which 227 are inhabited. That leaves lots of room for under-the-radar options like the mythology-filled Peloponnese region.
As the largest peninsula in Greece, the Peloponnese is steeped in mythology and tradition and I intended to soak up as many aspects of it as I could.
Left: The column ruins of Messene. Right: The crumbled remains of the Arcadian Gate.
Surrounded by the Arcadian Mountains on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, the ancient city of Messene unfolds like a classic painting.
Stepping through the Arcadian Gate, I felt like I was entering into the private doorway of Greek gods. An air of sacred splendour seemed to float over the sprawling site filled with towering columns and walls. Messene was founded in 369BC and is one of the best preserved in ancient Greece.
This 2,000-year-old city boasts the Temple of Artemis, Sanctuary of Zeus, an agora and a grand stadium. Standing in the middle of the stadium, it was easy to imagine gladiators facing off against each other and the crowds watching a drama at the nearby theatre.
As I strolled by the oleanders that lined the colonnades next to the stadium, I could see why this was one of the most important cities in antiquity, garnering a UNESCO World Heritage Archeological Site designation. Passing through Messene is like roaming through thousands of years of history.
Overlooking the site, Ithomi Taverna is nestled at the foot of Ithomi Mountain, offering spectacular views and equally outstanding food. With traditional dishes served up by a Greek grandmother, I enjoyed heaping platters like Choriatiki salad and eggplant and beef Moussaka as well as the required plates of olives and grilled Talagani cheese with fig jam.
Epidaurus, Nafplio and Mystras Castle
Diving deeper into the region, I was excited about exploring the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. Dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine and built in 330-20 BC, this classical Greek theatre with perfect acoustics is actually part of a complex healing centre.
Hydrotherapy, music, massage, diet, exercise and theatre all played a part of the wholistic therapy and I checked out the ruins for each area. The Greeks knew all about a healthy lifestyle integrated with the arts and it seems like the rest of the world is just catching on centuries later.
The small Epidaurus museum displayed some of the archaic (and scary) medical instruments, as well as Asclepius, with his familiar snake wrapped staff, that still appears on medicine bottles.
Heading to the romantic seaside town of Nafplio, I experienced the essence of Peloponnese charm. Filled with fountains, Medieval castles and olive tree-lined paths, Nafplio was the first capital of the newly formed Greek state from 1823 to 1834.
Taking a sunset stroll around the Arvanitia Promenade, I was lucky to catch a live concert, featuring an unlikely mix of opera and Mariachi music in the Old Town square.
Next, I traversed the hills and old stone streets to the walled city of Mystras. The splendour of the town’s castles and grand churches captivates everyone who enters. Mystras rises above the emerald fields of Eurotas valley with 12th-century arches, churches and the castle where the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI was crowned in 1448.
Left: The remains of Mystras Castle. Right: The flowing waters of the Clepsydra spring that never stop gushing.
Monemvasia, Diros Caves and Kalamata
Located on a tiny island on the Southeastern coast of the Peloponnese, Monemvasia supplies more fairytale allure than any children’s tale.
This hidden Greek castle town dazzles with a natural fortress that skirts the Myrtoan Sea, winding cobblestone pathways, Medieval mansions and a castle established in 582 AD. Monemvasia is Europe’s only historic castle that has been continuously inhabited.
Wandering through the narrow passages, I was thrilled to see a wedding, complete with musicians, making their way to the church. It was the ultimate spectacle for a fanciful landmark.
Changing course, I took an underground trip to Diros Caves, which is one of the most important natural wonders of Greece.
Floating through the caverns on an underground river, I viewed glistening stalactites and stalagmites dating to the Neolithic period.
You can’t visit Greece without sampling Greek olives and wine and there's no place more essential for Greek flavours than Kalamata. I topped off my travels by dropping into a seaside taverna in Kalamata.
I stuffed myself with juicy purple Kalamata olives, tapenade with pita bread and fresh sea bream washed down with local wine, as the sea breeze from the Aegean wafted over me.
Taking in all the beauty and bounty, there was no question that this is indeed the land of the gods. •