What's special about the Peloponnese? It's tempting to answer, "Everything." Virtually every famous ancient site in Greece is in the Peloponnese -- the awesome Mycenaean palaces of kings Agamemnon and Nestor at Mycenae and Pylos (Pilos); the mysterious thick-walled Mycenaean fortress at Tiryns; the magnificent classical temples at Corinth, Nemea, Vassae, and Olympia; and the monumental theaters at Argos and Epidaurus, still used for performances today.
But the Peloponnese isn't just a grab bag of famous ancient sites. This peninsula, divided from the mainland by the Corinth Canal, is studded with great beaches, boutique hotels, fine restaurants, and two of Greece's most impressive mountain ranges: Taygetos and Parnon. Tucked away in the valleys and hanging from the mountainsides are the villages that are among the Peloponnese's greatest treasures. This is especially true deep in the Mani peninsula and in the mountains of Arcadia, where traditional Greek hospitality hasn't been eroded by busloads of visitors. An evening under the plane trees in Andritsena, where the sheep bells are usually the loudest sounds at night, and where oregano and flowering broom scent the hills, is every bit as memorable as a visit to one of the famous ancient sites. Even the most avid travelers do not live by culture alone, and one of the great delights of seeing the Peloponnese comes from the quiet hours spent in seaside cafes, watching fishermen mend their nets while Greek families settle down for leisurely meals. Leisurely is the word to remember in the Peloponnese. And what better place to watch shepherds on the hills or fishing boats on the horizon as you wait for dinner?
Peloponnesian culinary favorites include kouneli stifado (rabbit stew) with a surprising hint of cinnamon; and fish a la Spetsai (baked with tomato sauce). In summer -- when it seems that every tree on the plain of Argos hangs with apricots and every vine is heavy with tomatoes -- Peloponnesian food is at its freshest and best. If you're here in spring, look for fresh artichokes and delicate little strawberries. The fresh lettuce grown here during the winter months is superb, and Greek hothouses produce excellent tomatoes year-round. Don't forget to sample the local wines; the vineyards at Nemea, Patras, and Mantinia are famous. You can find out more about local cuisine at www.kerasma.gr and wines at www.greekwinemakers.com and www.greekwine.gr.
A few suggestions for your trip to the Peloponnese: While many of the islands sag under the weight of tourists from May until September, the Peloponnese is still relatively uncrowded, even in midsummer. That doesn't mean that you're going to have Olympia all to yourself if you arrive at high noon in August, but it does mean that if you get to Olympia early in the morning, you may have a relatively quiet hour under the pine trees. It used to be that if you were traveling with a car and could set your own pace, you could avoid the crowds at the most popular tourist destinations of Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus, and Olympia by visiting early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Now, lunch time or late in the afternoon is best -- unless you really are there just before the site opens sprint in while the tour groups are finishing their breakfasts.
So, kalo taxidi (bon voyage) on your trip to the Peloponnese, the most beautiful and historic -- and fun -- part of Greece.