Peloponnese, Greece: Where ancient myth and history collide

The gates of hell are deserted today. On this sunny morning, we are the only people staring at the overgrown hole in the ground that – according to the ancient Greeks – provided an entrance to the underworld. This is the place where Orpheus walked down in search of his dead lover, Eurydice; where the wandering Odysseus consulted with the shades of the dead, and where Herakles captured Cerberus, the fearsome beast with three dog heads, a serpent for a tail and snake heads protruding from its back, that guarded the entrance.

Two thousand years ago, we would have been part of a throng. The gates of hell were a popular place to visit. As well as staring into the mouth of Hades, tourists could visit the temple dedicated to Poseidon, and even consult a death oracle, who could put you in touch with your dear departed.

We know all this thanks to Pausanius, the Greek who was arguably the world's first travel journalist. During the 2nd century AD, this inveterate traveller wandered as far afield as Jerusalem and Rome, also visiting the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of Troy. He left a detailed account of his journeys through Greece which has been a blessing to modern-day archaeologists.

Naturally, Pausanius visited the gates of hell, although he was not overly impressed. "Some of the Greek poets state that Herakles brought up the hound of Hades here," he noted, "though there is no road that leads underground through the cave and it is not easy to believe that the gods possess any underground dwelling where the souls collect."

(Pausanius also noted that the site had a spring that "now possesses nothing marvellous". "Formerly, as they say, it showed harbours and ships to those who looked into the water. These sights in the water were brought to an end for good and all by a woman washing dirty clothes in it.")

We are enjoying our visit more than Pausanius did, but then, we have a remarkable guide. Heinrich is an archaeologist – think Indiana Jones minus the bull whip and with an appreciation of good red wine – and an ace storyteller. As we travel through the Peloponnese, he conjures up one fascinating history lesson after another. Mind you, he has plenty of great material to work with.

The Peloponnese, the long peninsula that juts southwards from the Greek mainland, has an extraordinarily dense history. It has been inhabited since Neolithic times, governed by kings and empires ranging from Mycenaean to Ottoman to Venetian. Its homegrown cultures include the Spartans, ancient Greece's most famous warriors, and the people of the Mani Peninsula, who claim descent from the Spartans. That may explain the Mani's fierce reputation: this was the only part of the Peloponnese never to be conquered by the Ottoman empire. The people of Mani lived off piracy and fought so viciously among themselves that local villages were little more than a collection of heavily fortified towers.

The Mani Peninsula, like much of the Peloponnese, is also startlingly beautiful. There are soaring mountains and sandy beaches, Byzantine churches and Venetian towns. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Peloponnese remains largely undiscovered by tourists. Over two weeks, our intrepid group encounters remarkably few other visitors.

My fellow travellers fall neatly into two camps. On the one hand, there are the ancient history buffs; on the other hand, there are their wives. Fortunately, the well thought out itinerary caters to both, with visits to historic sites interspersed with leisurely alfresco lunches, visits to wineries, and plenty of free time. One of the unexpected delights of the trips is the superb food, with each area boasting its own regional cuisine. In Mani, for instance, they add oranges to almost everything, including stewed pork; in Kalamata, apart from fantastic olives, we feast on local specialities such as burghul risotto and a feta-like cheese called sfella. In the mountains of Arcadia, our carnivorous cravings are sated by delicious wild boar and rabbit.

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IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF HERAKLES

Most of all, however, we listen to stories – some mythical, most of them true. Heinrich is a gifted teller of tales; listening to him, even the least interested wives quickly decide that this history thing isn't so boring after all. Some of the stories Heinrich tells are familiar. The Peloponnese, we discover, was the stomping ground of one of Greece's greatest heroes, Herakles, once known as Hercules. As we pass through towns such as Nemea and Lernea, we are visiting the sites of some of Herakles' famous labours, the killings of the Nemean lion and the Lernean hydra.

Sometimes myth collides with history, as we discover at the Bronze Age cities of Mycenae and Pelos. Both cities feature in the epics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Homer particularly rhapsodised over the "wide wayed" city he described as "golden Mycenae". The true story behind the rediscovery of these cities, which flourished more than 3000 years ago, is as colourful as any of Homer's stories.

When Pausanius visited the ancient city, which was by then already more than 1000 years old, he left descriptions of the colossal Lion Gate, the fortified walls, and the impressive tombs where the city's notables were buried. It was the search for those tombs – and the treasure presumably buried within them – that brought Heinrich Schliemann to Mycenae.

Schliemann – retired businessman, part-time archaeologist, massive self-promoter – had already won international fame by excavating what he claimed was the legendary city of Troy. At Mycenae, he did something smart. Instead of looking for the graves outside the city walls, where graves were usually located, he followed Pausanius' description, which specified that the graves were within the wall.

Although Schliemann's archaeological methods were, as usual, somewhat slapdash – his archaeological supervisor complained that, just as he had done at Troy, Schliemann carelessly destroyed classical antiquities in his search for the grave of the legendary King Agamemnon – Schliemann did find a series of shaft graves, which he immediately proclaimed to be those of Homeric characters, including Agamemnon and Cassandra.

As often happened, Schliemann got his facts wrong; the graves predate the conjectured dates of the Trojan War by several hundred years. However, the 15 kilograms of finely worked gold objects found inside them more than justified Homer's description of "golden Mycenae".

EXPLORING A PREHISTORIC PALACE

Mycenae is one of the few sites in the Peloponnese that draws significant number of tourists. Less visited, but equally compelling, is the nearby site known as Nestor's Palace. Near the modern city of Pylos – in Homer's time known as Pelos – this site only reopened this year after a three-year, $3.5 million restoration. In fact, on the day we arrive, the site is not yet open for visitors. This is where having archaeologists as guides proves invaluable. Our archaeologists talk to their archaeologists – perhaps exchanging secret archaeologist handshakes, perhaps comparing tall tales from past digs – and before you know it, we have been invited to have a sneak preview.

Unlike Mycenae, where Schliemann excavated in the 1870s, this site was only discovered in 1939, but it is the best preserved Bronze Age site in Greece. The ruins date to about 1300BC but the name Nestor's Palace is a piece of Schliemann-esque romance. In The Iliad, Nestor is listed as the king of Pelos who contributes 90 ships to the Greek fleet – the largest contribution after Agamemnon's, indicating that Pelos was among the most powerful states of the time. There is – as yet – no proof that Nestor ever existed.

Nor, as Heinrich points out, is there any evidence that this was actually a palace. The two-storey building included 105 ground-floor apartments, including a spacious expanse dubbed the "throne room", as well as workshops, baths, light wells, and even a sewerage system. Large numbers of olive oil jars have been found, suggesting some sort of storage function. Colourful frescoes covered the floor and the walls. Several vast tombs have also been discovered nearby.

Heinrich talks us through what the evidence tells us about the society that constructed this building. The remnants of thousands of amphorae suggest that pouring, serving and consumption of wine was an important part of the society. The fact that the tombs contain lots of weapons suggests that status as warriors was important. And the fact that high quality craftsmanship was found tells us that this was a stable trading society, rich enough to support the existence of master craftsmen.

"[The palace] is not necessarily a residence; the building probably had mixed functions," Heinrich says. "The fact that we have found written records tells us that this was probably a central hub of economic activity, the place where the central authority gathered taxes."

A FIERY END

The discovery of writing is one of the most fascinating thing about Pelos. Many clay tablets were found covered with a script known as Linear B, a language related to modern Greek. We know the locals also wrote on papyrus: archaeologists have found tools for smoothing papyrus, as well as writing implements. The assumption is that the semi-fired clay tablets were used for jotting down temporary records, much as we would use a notebook today. "They were a running record of accounts – so and so owes this person that much," Heinrich says. "They would presumably have been transferred onto papyrus at the end of the day."

So why have these temporary jottings survived? Because Nestor's Palace, like every other major Bronze Age power centre, underwent a mysterious conflagration about 1200BC, commonly believed to have been the result of widespread war. Buildings containing large amounts of olive oil would quickly have gone up in flames. Almost everything was destroyed – except the clay tablets, which were fired in the blaze, and therefore survived.

We learn more about the culture of Pelos in the local museum. One of the great delights of the Peloponnese is the many museums. Some consist of a couple of dusty rooms, others stretch over two storeys and have high-tech installations thanks to EU grants, but all of them contain amazing treasures. In the Pelos museum, amid vast amphorae and ancient armour, my attention is captured by exquisite depictions of dogs, warriors and dancers, drawn with sinuous lines that suggest a culture that embraces sensuality.

There are plenty of other wonders in store for us, such as the site of Messene, which Heinrich – a man not given to hyperbole – describes as "one of the most exceptional archaeological sites in Greece". This is another relatively new discovery: although its location has been known for about 200 years, excavations have only been under way for the past 20 years.

There is no other city in Greece quite like Messene: a city that was built for its inhabitants by another city. The Messenes had been the first victims of Sparta's growing power. After being defeated by the Spartans in the Messenian War about 600BC, the Messenes lived in servitude, engaging periodically in unsuccessful revolts.

Centuries later, Sparta's decline allowed the rise of rival city states such as Thebes. To keep Sparta's power in check, Thebes helped boost neighbouring cities. Under Sparta's domination, the Messenes had been banned from living in cities, so the Thebans built the Messenians a new city to call their own.

THE SHOWPIECE CITY

By any standard, Messene was a remarkable city. The Thebans built the new city in a fertile inland valley with a high elevation, so any invading army would have to fight its way uphill. The city's walls were the most impressive in Greece, stretching 9.5 kilometres around the city.

As we stand looking down at the parts of the city that have already been excavated, covering about a square kilometre, Heinrich points out the various structures we will be visiting: the agora, where issues were debated, the stadium for athletics, the fountains for water supply. "It's like a checklist for what the Greeks thought a city should be," he says. "You need walls, you need theatres, you need a shrine, you need an agora – these are the defining features of a city."

By now, we are unsurprised to learn that Pausanius got here before us. His descriptions explain how many of the city's key features work – such as the Fountain House, which was fed by an uphill spring. Pausanius also recorded a wonderful description of the extraordinary Sanctuary of Asklaepius, where visitors could walk around a series of shrines, each of which he described in detail. Unfortunately, Pausanius forgot to specify which direction he was walking in: right to left, or left to right. The absence of this one crucial piece of information makes it impossible to identify which shrine is which.

The one major city whose ruins we do not visit is Sparta itself. For such a mighty power, Sparta has left surprisingly few traces behind, but that is just one of the paradoxes of Spartan culture. The entire city resembled a military camp, with citizens devoting all their time to warrior training, while a large class of semi-slaves, known as helots, looked after other tasks. Children were taken from their parents at the age of seven for military training, and mothers farewelled their warrior sons with instructions to come back "with your shield, or on it" (victorious or dead)

Unlike ancient Athens, which we know through its poetry and drama, its sculptures and its vases, Sparta left few artefacts behind. However, it has shaped the language we use today, with not one but two everyday terms. The first is, obviously, "Spartan" – a term referring to austerity or self-denial, inspired by the Spartans' pared-back lifestyle. The second, "laconic", comes from another of their famous characteristic; their succinct way with words.

There are many famous examples, including an exchange quoted by the Roman historian, Plutarch. In the days of Sparta's decline, the rising Greek state of Macedonia – then led by King Phillip II, whose son was to be known to history as Alexander the Great – sent a messenger demanding the Spartans pay him tribute. His swaggering, bullying speech told the Spartans in no uncertain terms that paying tribute would be a good thing, while defying him would be dangerous. "If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground," he threatened.

The unimpressed Spartans sent him back a one-word reply: "If".

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitgreece.gr/

petersommer.com

GETTING THERE

Etihad and Emirates offer one-stop flights to Athens. See etihad.com and emirates.com

TRAVELLING THERE

Award-winning tour operator Peter Sommer Travels specialises in expert-led cultural and archaeological tours for small groups in Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Turkey and the UK. The 15-day Exploring the Peloponnese tour departs May 3, 2017, from Athens. Rates from $6500 twin share. 

Ute Junker was a guest of Peter Sommer Travels.

PICTURE PERFECT

Instagram alert! Have your camera ready at these eye-catching sights.

MONEMVASIA

From the shore, the island of Monemvasia looks like a barren outcrop; only once you have crossed the causeway can you discover breathtaking Monemvasia town, with its car-free streets and its lovely Byzantine and Venetian architecture.

MANI PENINSULA

Well off the tourist trail, the wild Mani Peninsula has some of the most dramatic scenery in the Peloponnese, including picturesque fortified towns which bear witness to the area's turbulent history. A boat trip through the Diros limestone caves is simply spectacular.

THE FORTRESS OF METHONI

This mighty fortress was once known as the "Eyes of Venice" and its ruins remain impressive, from the massive stone bridge connecting the castle and the shore to the fortified islet of Bourtzi.

THE MOUNTAINS OF ARCADIA

The ancient Greeks regarded Arcadia as heaven on earth, and even today this landscape of steep mountains and deep ravines has the power to enchant. Highlights include hanging monasteries such as Agios Ioannis Prodromos and scenic villages such as Dimitsana.

THE CASTLE TOWN OF MYSTRAS

One of the key cultural centres of the Byzantine empire, the World Heritage-listed hilltop complex at Mystras includes an imposing palace and striking Byzantine churches decorated with magnificent frescoes.

CLASH OF THE TITANS

For 3000 years, the Peloponnese has been fought over by competing cultures, some homegrown, some foreign invaders.

MYCENEANS

Flourished during the late Bronze Age (1600-1100BCE). Grand Mycenaen citadels such as Mycenae and Pelos are among the area's highlights.

SPARTANS

Renowned for their militaristic culture and their gift for one-liners. (When the Persian army demanded a heavily outnumbered group of Spartans lay down their weapons, the Spartans retorted: "Come and take them.")

BYZANTINES

For several hundred years, the Peloponnesian Peninsula was an important province of the Byzantine Empire. The city of Mystras was one of the empire's key cultural centres, and the place where the last Byzantine emperor was crowned.

VENETIANS

The Venetians held a number of strategically important ports around the Peloponnese for several centuries. Their distinctive architecture can still be seen today in coastal towns such as Nafplio and Monemvasia.

OTTOMANS

The Ottoman Empire ruled the Peloponnese for hundreds of years. Many Ottoman mosques and bathhouses have now been converted into churches and theatres.

THE HIT LIST

Don't leave the Peloponnese without seeing these heavy-hitting historical sights:

MYCENAE

The most powerful kingdom in Greece from 1600 to 1200BC. From its mighty Lion Gate to the huge beehive tombs, this ancient site projects power and glory.

TIRYNS

Less well-known than Mycenae, the Bronze Age fortress of Tiryns was so well fortified, it was said the work was done by the gigantic Cyclopes.

MESSENE

This ancient city is one of the best preserved in Greece, and unique in being a planned city. Among its highlights are the astounding 10-kilometre walls.

OLYMPIA

The extensive ruins at the birthplace of the Olympic Games include temples, training grounds and a stadium. The on-site museum contains some of the most remarkable ancient art in Greece.

EPIDAURUS

The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus took a holistic approach to healing, with music, theatre and philosophy on the program. It also contains the best preserved ancient theatre in Greece.

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