24 Apr 2017

Vast, beautiful, and rich in history and culture, the Peloponnese is a destination in its own right, a place where you could stay for weeks, come back to again and again, and still feel you’ve barely scratched the surface. Yet with it being just an hour from central Athens to the famed Corinth Canal, the Peloponnese also makes for a fabulous getaway—whether you want to treat yourself to a week in its idyllic southern peninsulas or just want to make the most of a day off and explore its northeastern region, which is steeped in history and boasts some of the world’s most celebrated ancient monuments.

 

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Ancient Corinth in spring

With the sun shining and the weather getting warmer, excursions and getaways are on everybody’s mind. It’s the perfect season to get out, enjoy the sunshine, and explore the best of what Greece has to offer, whether it’s the capital’s tucked away gems, the magnificent archaeological sites around the country, or some of the world’s best and most popular islands.

For anyone based in Athens, or even Central Greece, the Peloponnese is simply the perfect destination for a day tour. Accessible by road via the Isthmus of Corinth in the East and the Rio-Antirio Bridge in the West, the Peloponnese is technically an island, since it was separated from the mainland with the construction of the Corinth Canal in 1893. Yet for centuries before that, its mountainous interior meant that its different regions developed distinctive folk cultures and customs, characteristic architecture and art, and superb local gastronomic traditions. And what better time to get a taste of it all than Easter, the greatest of all Greek festivals.

The village of Valtessiniko in the Peloponnese nestled amidst forested slopes

Fiery and ethereal Greek Easter traditions

A fantastic time to be in Greece, Easter is best enjoyed in the countryside, in the villages and small towns where old traditions keep strong and communities come together to enjoy the springtime weather and celebrate the most important Great Feast of the Orthodox tradition. The religious ceremonies are moving and a sight to behold and the ensuing feasting and celebrations are bound to stay with you forever.

On the evening of Good Friday, people go to church for the procession of the Epitaphios—an embroidered religious icon that is solemnly paraded through the streets on a funeral bier that parishioners lavishly decorate with flowers earlier in the day. The procession is particularly moving on the medieval island-fort of Monemvasia, where the bougainvillea-lined streets, surviving unchanged for centuries, are too narrow for cars, giving the town a calmness that amplifies the effect of the procession. Here, locals follow the Epitaphios through the cobbled alleyways, holding lit candles and chanting, creating an almost otherworldly spiritual ambience that is seldom seen elsewhere.

Greeks gather at the church again for the midnight service on Holy Saturday, bringing with them special tall candles called lambades. At the stroke of midnight, all lights are turned off, plunging the congregation into darkness until the priest produces a flame and begins chanting “Defte lavete Fos”—literally, “Come and receive the Light”—pronouncing the Resurrection of Christ. The lampades are then lit from this flame and carefully carried home; tradition has it that if they arrive with the flame still burning and mark a cross on the doorway with its smoke, the household will be blessed with good luck. From the lighting of the flame on and throughout Easter Sunday, people use the Paschal greeting “Christós anésti” (Christ is risen), to which you can reply with “Alithós anésti” (truly, he is risen).

In addition to fireworks, which are practically de rigueur as soon as the Resurrection is announced, beautiful local customs survive across the Peloponnese, including the release of hundreds of colorful sky lanterns in the coastal town of Leonidio, and the infamous—and controversial—saitopólemos, the fire dance of Kalamata, in which participants dance with lit saites (long, often homemade, cardboard tubes filled with gunpowder) in their hands, in a tradition that dates from the Greek War of Independence.

Colorful sky lanterns in the night sky. Easter in Leonidio, the Peloponnese

The arrival of the Holy Light and the pronouncement of the Resurrection also signal the end of the Great Lent and the seven-week long period of fasting that many still observe. No surprise then, that from the stroke of midnight, Easter Sunday is a day of feasting, when families come together to celebrate and break bread. The fast is traditionally broken with a bowl of mayiritsa, a soup made of lamb offal and vegetables, which is consumed upon returning from church. The main feast follows on Easter Sunday proper, with traditional Easter dishes that include roast lamb, typically cooked on a spit over an open fire; tsoureki, a sweet, egg-enriched bread that is flavored with mahleb and mastic; and of course, dyed red eggs, which are not just eaten but also used for tsougkrisma—the Easter game of egg tapping.

Fantastic activities and fabulous attractions for every taste

If you’re looking to burn off some of the extra calories after the feast, the Peloponnese offers plenty of active outdoor options that will also give you a chance to enjoy the lovely spring weather: rock climbing in Nafplio, sea kayaking in Monemvasia, horseback riding in Kalamata, parasailing in Epidaurus, and some of the best hiking trails in Europe, including the award-winning Menalon Trail. Boat tours, while not quite active, are a great way to gain a different perspective on the Peloponnesian countryside, and the more daring among us might even want to take their chances swimming.

Plump grapes hanging on the vine under the Peloponnesian sun in Nemea, GR.

Of course, with its rich history and cultural heritage, the Peloponnese is also a great destination for travelers wanting to immerse themselves in Greek culture whether it’s by visiting breathtaking ancient monuments, wandering through majestic medieval fortresses, taking in the history and romance of Nafplio, indulging in winery tours, exploring (more) local gastronomy, or combining some of the best elements in a fabulous wine and history tour that brings together world-class monuments Mycenae or Epidaurus, wine tasting, and gastronomy.

Ideal for a longer holiday and just as perfect for a quick getaway, it’s a great destination for anyone looking to enjoy something different and enjoy spectacular nature and captivating history this Easter break. One thing’s for sure: Whatever your interests, the Peloponnese has just the right thing for you— and then some.

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