GREECE: THE PELOPONNESE: History in Your Hand ; the Glove-Shaped Peloponnese Is Home to Thousands of Years of Civilisation. by Tim Salmon

Article excerpt

The Peloponnese is that big upside-down hand-shaped lump of land that forms the southern part of mainland Greece. We all have a map of it. Just hold your left palm in front of your face, rotate it until it points to the ground, spread your fingers and thumb, and there you have it.

Your thumb is the Argolid: Corinth, Mycenae, Epidaurus. Your index finger is the wild and craggy east coast from Argos to Monemvasia, the Gibraltar of the Aegean. Your middle finger is the long promontory of the Mani, with its distinctive tower houses and cruel landscape of rock and cactus. Your remaining fingers are fertile Messenia, site of Messene, finest of the ancient fortified towns, and of Pylos, home of Homer's wise king Nestor. In your palm lies Olympia, cradle of the Games; Arcadia, with its mountains and castles; Sparta, whose memory lives more in the ethos of discipline it bequeathed the world's military castes than in the few poor stones that are its physical legacy; and the ghostly town of Mistras, jewel of Byzantine Greece. And along, as it were, the chopping edge, the western shore, lies more sandy beach than in the rest of Greece put together.

The Peloponnese is a compendium of all that is wonderful about Greece: history, culture, landscapes of mountain and shore, with the same variety of local, regional identity that you find in the islands.

MESSENIA

The best place to arrive is Kalamata, at the base of the Messenian finger. That lands you in the rural midst of things and makes a clockwise tour, Kalamata to Kalamata, a satisfying and logical way of organising your visit. The alternative is Athens, which gives a greater choice of flights. Also, if you have never been there, a quick visit to the National Archaeological Museum will put a great deal of flesh on the bare bones of some of the archaeological sites.

Nowhere is this more true than at the 3,000-year-old Palace of Nestor. Its situation among groves of ancient olives is beautiful, but you might wonder at first glance what all the fuss is about: a maze of crumbly-looking walls hardly more than a metre high huddled under a tin roof. But if you can people those rooms with the figures of Homer's stories: Telemachus, son of Odysseus, come in search of news of his father so long delayed in returning from the Trojan war, received at the great hearth, bathed by Nestor's lovely daughter in the painted tub that still survives, anointed with oil from the great earthenware jars still sunk in the ground at the back of the building, then nothing could be more evocative. And here too was found, in 1939, a great cache of Linear B, the earliest form of European writing.

Down at the sea, by the modern port of Pylos is the perfect ring of beach " Voidokilia or Ox-Belly Bay " where Telemachus must have beached his ship. There is nowhere else. Above it is a castle, clogged with undergrowth, built in 1278 by an obscure French nobleman. And thereby hangs a long, improbable and romantic tale of a handful of Frankish adventurers who carved themselves Peloponnesian estates in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, built over a hundred castles on impossible crag-tops and lived in the sun for a couple of hundred years. From its overgrown walls you look down on the glassy waters of the Bay of Navarino, where in 1827 a combined fleet of English, French and Russian warships destroyed the naval power of the Turkish Ottoman empire, thus ensuring the survival of the fledgeling modern Greek state.

Fifteen minutes down the coast lies Methoni, with its sea-girt castle and exquisite island keep. It was built by the Venetians to guard their commercial and pilgrim routes to the Levant and the Holy Land. There is a wide, shallow beach. Then, nearer to Kalamata, there is the ancient city of Messene, whose 4th-century walls stride impressively down the slopes of Mt Ithome. From the top you can see practically the whole of Messenia and, to the north, the mountain barrier that marks the beginning of Arcadia. …