Every year, almost without fail, one or more of the following messages will show up in my inbox/messenger :
“Hey, I’m heading to Greece! What should I do?”
Usually, these requests are followed up by questions almost exclusively about the islands, with one or two inquiries about Athens (because of course one must trek up to the Acropolis at least once), and although I’ve been to several islands and enjoyed my visits there, my heart still lies firmly in that large peninsula to the south : the Peloponnese.
I suppose it partly has to do with the fact that both my parents grew up/have roots here – my mom comes from a small village near Kalamata, and my dad, although he grew up in Athens, spent a good part of his childhood in the seaside town of Finikounda – , and consequently, my trips to Greece when I was younger were almost exclusively confined there. But with the financial crisis, as well as the many conversations around tourism in Greece that it inspired, I felt my affinity for the region grow stronger.
Because although the islands – especially this year – are boasting record levels in tourism, the mainland has sort of crept along slowly, seemingly left behind for promises of wild parties, picturesque white houses, and idyllic beaches, which is a shame.
And so, I’ve sort of taken it upon myself to try and convince as many people as possible to stay on the mainland a while.
Although summer 2017 is coming to a close, I figured I’d write a “Peloponnese appreciation” post anyway, partly to convince people to reconsider just sticking to the islands, partly because every year – and especially this year – that I come here, I always leave with a new sense of vigor, the kind of calm yet present energy that only comes after you’ve disconnected from the world for a while. Or, in my case, after you’ve been almost obligated to withdraw into yourself for a bit and just let the world encompass you, interact with you, make its presence felt on you.
The Peloponnese I know and tangentially grew up with has two faces. On the one are the mountains, basically the cradle of the Greek Revolution. The villages used to be more lively here, but what with many families having left – opting either for a life in Athens or, as with my family, in America – over the years, things are pretty quiet. The landscape is wild, rugged, with hills that almost dare you to climb them, and the occasional monastery that seems to be hanging on to the side of a cliff within an inch of its life.
Oh and the olive oil. You can’t really go wrong with some excellent, cold-pressed olive oil from Kalamata. If we can talk about terroir (a taste of place) with wine, then we certainly should be talking about it when it comes to olive oil, and especially Greek olive oil. I have a soft spot for oil from Kalamata. It’s slight greenish tinge and olive flavor is pronounced where others are neutralized. Let me put it this way : when I step outside in my mom’s village in the late afternoon, there’s a certain crisp, comforting smell of dry grass, pine, and a hint of oregano in the air. If I can taste that in my olive oil, I know I’ve found a good one.
My mom’s particular village is located in the region of Arcadia, where the closest city of note (other than maybe Kalamata), is Sparta. While I would not necessarily enthousiastically recommend anyone visit Sparta – the Spartans, as their name suggests, did not leave much behind in the way of ruins or artefacts -, if you are ever lucky enough to be invited to a village panigyri (celebration) in the immediate area, and especially for one held on or around August 15, go. Stuff your face full of salad, cheese (usually graviera but sometimes feta), and the ubiquitous roast pig that always accompanies the August festivities. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Greeks eat a good amount of pork. The souvlaki pictured above? Pork. Indeed, pork souvlaki and gyros are pretty much standard here, with chicken oftentimes being the only alternative option.
After you’ve had your fill of pork, cheese, salad and beer comes the dancing where you can work all of it off. If you’re lucky, there will be a live band. Unfortunately, this year our village had to make due with a DJ, although this did mean we got a quick, if very random, disco break a little after midnight (prepare yourselves, these things can go until 2 or 3 in the morning).
The second face of the Peloponnese is one that is perhaps more in line with the clichéd, though not entirely fictitious, images of Greece that dot tourists’ imaginations. It’s where the ‘fingers’ of the Peloponnese reach out and meet the Aegean Sea, that impossibly blue body of water where I honed my swimming and sandcastle building skills, where I got lost in Hemingway, Vonnegut, Genet, and Hugo, and where I developed a seasonal addiction to atherina – small white bait that’s fried and eaten whole like french fries. Pop a couple in your mouth, crunch the thin, flimsy bones down, and take a sip of ouzo. All thoughts of those emails you really need to send out (at some point) eventually begin to fade away.
And of course, the advantage of having our summer home where we do – at least for me – is its proximity to the ancient theatre at Epidauros. Now, this may come as a surprise to some of you, but even as someone who studies contemporary French theatre, I have never been to the famous summer theatre festival at Avignon (yes, I know, shame on me). Why? Because I’ve always been here, in Epidauros, watching performances in a theatre that was initially built as a sort of therapeutic outlet for patients at the nearby hospital (yes, even the ancient Greeks had the sense to realize theatre’s potential positive effects on mental health, although their citing of it as a cure for physical ailments is…dubious). Performances are held here on Friday and Saturday evenings during the summer Athens/Epidaurus theatre festival, but even the tours during the day/off season are worth it for a chance to explore the space and witness first hand its amazing acoustics (yes, you really can hear a pin drop on the center of the stage even if you’re sitting on the top row). If you do choose to see a performance here, know that they can be hit or miss depending on the play/company performing, but friendly ticket prices means you won’t be grumbling about having had to throw down $100+ for a dud. Another plus is that surtitles in English have become standard at Epidaurus in the last few years, so don’t worry about not being able to follow along (although, if the performance is exceptionally good, you might just end up ignoring them).
We were lucky this year in that the show we saw – Aeschylus’ The Persians – was an incredibly engaging, well-paced, production, whose recalling of an almost ritualized performance style served to create an almost trance-like environment where I found myself at once wanting to draw closer to the center of the stage, into the actors’ energy, as well as acutely aware of the scent and rustling of the surrounding pine trees, nature cocooning and encroaching on us. A final bit of advice though : see a tragedy. Comedy, even when done well, can very much get lost in translation, and when done poorly (looking at you, 2012 production of The Clouds) can be so dull it almost makes you wish you were watching a rock grow. Not grass. A rock.
But before I end this somewhat rambling post, I want to go back to the sea. There’s something rather special about the particular beach I grew up going to. It’s not the sand, nor the warm, calm waters, nor the fact that it was (and still somewhat is) a locals only spot. It’s the fact that I can walk about 50 yards – yes half a football field – before I have to start treading water. And I’m 5’3″. I generally feel very comfortable swimming out in open water in the Agean, but here it’s almost like being home again. There’s a certain freedom that comes with diving down under water and instead of tiles all you see is sand and a tantalizing expanse of gradiante blue. It almost makes you want to float on your back and let the sea carry you where it may, dropping below the surface every so often just to catch a glimpse of that impossible blue color again.
Because then your stomach rumbles. And you remember there may be atherina or at least a choriatiki or ‘village’ salad waiting.
At the time of writing this, I’m winding down on my time here, as well as a little over one month out from the official split. To be honest, this vacation was not nearly as carefree as my trips to Greece usually are, nor was I expecting it to be. There were enough high points to counteract the (very) low ones, and though I am not magically healed, I can at least feel myself working towards something that could be called ‘healing’. Time is helping. Distance, perhaps even more so. There is still a feeling of dread that creeps in every so often, but it’s starting to grow fainter.
And I’m not sure, but I think that it may have something to do with the fact that I was in the ‘homeland’ for a month.
So ends my love letter to the Peloponnese.