DELPHI, GREECE - My professor friend had just returned from visiting the Greek islands, but didn’t have enough time to see Delphi as she had hoped. I was departing the next day for mainland Greece — the Corinthian Gulf, the Peloponnese Peninsula and central Greece — and made it to Delphi. I thought of Rita as I stood amongst the ruins on Mount Parnassus where ancient Greeks trekked to seek sacred counsel of the Oracle — a “Wow-I-can’t-believe-I’m-here” moment. This journey through a magical region of roads less travelled had become my own Greek odyssey.
Northwest of Athens, the gulf, also known as the Corinthian Riviera, is dotted with a string of resort towns within easy driving distance of one another. My small tour group discovered Loutraki, Corinth, Xylokastro, and Aigio on the Peloponnese coast; and Dorida, Arachova and Thiva across the gulf in central Greece.
I embraced the slower pace of this sophisticated region where Athenians escape the capital for the weekend and where I got a peek into the rhythm of authentic Greek life.
Here, churches and monasteries surrounded by sandy beaches, forests, vineyards, olive groves and farmland have been the landscape since antiquity; where fishing, winemaking, agriculture, olive oil and cheese-making still thrive.
Healthy farm-to-table and sea-to-table meals are not trendy here, but a way of living. We were the beneficiaries of this wealth of natural resources as we broke bread over gastronomic and gregarious family-style meals made with lots of love and the reason why the food culture of the Greeks is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
These common characteristics are what tie the vast gulf region together. Just as vast was the richness of each town as we connected with warm and friendly communities and their local culture.
An hour’s drive west from Athens, the spa town of Loutraki was our gateway to the gulf, where the mainland and the Peloponnese meet. This visit had set the bar high, from an overnight at the Club Hotel Casino designed like an ocean liner, tastings at Kalielaion Olive Oil Press and Loukami candy maker, lunch at a lakeshore fish tavern as octopus tentacles dangled overhead, a soak with locals at Loutraki Thermal Spa, and a seaside dinner at the upscale Paladar restaurant.
Ancient Corinth is home to the famous ruins of the Acrocorinth, the Temple of Apollo, and the Corinth Canal. During a tour with business-minded nuns at the secluded Monastery of the Holy Cross (they run a high-tech dairy farm in the mountains), and surprised us, on their day of fasting, with an exquisite buffet and performed for us a mesmerizing Byzantine chant. Back on the coast for dinner, we burned off calories with Greek dancing between courses (and lots of Greek wine) — with the town mayor and his family.
Xylokastro is where the beach and pine forests meet. In a single day, we strolled the marina and restaurant-lined quay, visited the awe-inspiring Church of Agios Vlasios, spontaneously erected a two-table roadside “pop-up café” in the ski centre of Ziria (yes, there’s skiing in Greece), took cover from the rain under olive trees in Melissi, then indulged in tastings of award-winning Ladolea olive oil and local wines at Hotel Lido on the beach.
In Aigio, we drove deep into romantic wine country to the mountain winery of RIRA and met its two female winemakers, visited a factory at the Agricultural Cooperative Union where tiny Corinthian currants bursting with flavour — a nutritious food since ancient times — are packaged for international distribution. We visited the Archeological Museum housed in the historic marketplace, then salivated as our lunch of fresh-caught fish and shrimp was cooked table side.
By evening we clinked glasses with the winemaker at mountain-top Tetramythos Winery, and back down at the beach al fresco under the stars, chowed down on scrumptious gyro sandwiches, Greece’s original street food.
We reached Dorida on the other side of the gulf by way of a short ferry crossing with close-up views of the Rio-Antirio Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge that opened in 2004.
A huge municipality, Dorida’s extraordinary offerings include remarkable collections at the folkloric and nautical history museums, the Monastery of Trikorfo, Trizonia (the only inhabited island in the gulf), the noble seaport village of Galaxidi, Mellin apiary where fir and thyme honey are produced, the mountain village of Loidoriki, and a modern cattle farm (sheep and goats, too) operated by two young brothers who invited us to enjoy freshly-made yogurt, cheese and breads.
From Dorida we climbed in elevation to cosmopolitan Arachova, a year-round mountain resort built on dramatic cliffs and one of the most picturesque ski towns I have seen.
Famous for its proximity to Delphi, it is Greece’s top winter destination. Prides of the town are the four-faced clock tower and its protected Formaella cheese made and sold only in Arachova. Our lunch (rather, feast) at Taverna Kaplanis, Arachova’s oldest and most authentic tavern, fortified us for a mushroom-hunting trek in Mount Parnassus National Forest and a visit to the ancient port village of Antikyra.
Back down at sea level the final leg of our grand tour took us to Thiva where we met more local producers and their lovely families — bakers, pasta makers, and cheese makers. And at Terra Thiva winery in the city we sat for an elegant evening of wine tasting led by winemaker Yiannis Flevianos, who studied viticulture and enology at the prestigious University of California, Davis.
Once the powerful city-state rival of Athens, Thiva is where legends inspired classical literature — Hercules (“the strongest of all mortals”), Dionysos (god of wine), and Oedipus (he answered the riddle of the Sphinx and became the mythical king of Thebes). At the magnificent Archeological Museum of Thebes that opened to much anticipation last summer, their stories came to life.
And unexpectedly, while walking the museum’s shiny marble floors, my mouth dropped in awe when a glass case displaying thousand-year-old relics automatically lifted open and our guide invited us to hold the precious objects.
It wasn’t long before the museum’s treasure trove of artefacts discovered around Thebes whisked my imagination to the magical world of Greek gods and goddesses, rituals and lore.
For complete information about attractions and lodging around the Corinthian Gulf, see www.visitgreece.gr