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Another side of Greece

The Peloponnese and Crete

The small islands of Greece attract sun worshippers to their beautiful beaches,lively tavernas and old-fashioned villages but larger islands like Crete and thePeloponnese, which is attached to the mainland by a tiny thread of land, have many surprises on offer.

Deep down in the cave the water lapped around our boat as we gently rowedourselves through an arch of stalagmites. We were deep in a subterraneanlake system at the cave of Viychada, in the Peloponnese in Greece. Inspiredby the novels of Patrick Leigh Fermor who lives in a quiet bay south ofKardamyli we had come to explore this cradle of ancient civilisation. A landthat is central to myth and legend, also houses the sites of Olympia, Spartaand Mycenae.

We had found a haven south of Kardamyli staying in a small hotel surroundedby olive trees whose welcome shade made it a paradise even in the heat ofthe midday sun. The olive grove ended at the cliffs and there below, reachedby a tiny path that cut between trees and was barely wide enough to walkalong, laid the sea. From the cliff top you could count the various hues ofturquoise until the sea drifted into the horizon. To the left another wider path led beyond the back of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house to a long crescentshaped beach, a favourite with the locals who come on a Sunday to laze onthe pebble beach and bask in the shallow water.

This area in the south of the Peloponnese where mountains dip into the sea,is a walker’s heaven. You can walk down majestic gorges, take a two hour trekfrom Kardamyli to a beautiful old church at Ag. Sophia, walk along the beachand tailor your excursions to time, strenuousness or inclination. There is so much to do that you barely need to leave the sea. But with so much history so close, we tore ourselves away to tour the Mani and found ourselves underground in the caves at Viychada. The underground lake system there is so huge that to date only 5 kilometres of passages and tributaries have been explored. The public are allowed to visit some of it accompanied by a guide and you glide through great tunnels of stalagmites in a maze of water passages. At some points the water is 100ft deep. Fossils of over two million years old have been found here.

The Mani area is large and divided into two – the outer Mani where we werebased which includes the town of Kardamyli and the inner Mani best known forthe tower houses that dot the landscape that is part of Laconia. Both parts of the Mani have very different landscape – the outer is hilly with lovely bays and seaside villages, the more inland inner Mani is much more barren but both have had inhabitants since Neolithic times.

Intrigued by Sparta, on another day we set out to see this ancient town.Modern Sparta is set on the original site of the old town and is now primarily an agricultural centre for products such as honey, figs, tomatoes and oranges. It is largely disappointing. Most of the Roman theatre on the south of the acropolis has gone and the acropolis itself is nice for a walk but there is not much to see. Far more inspiring is the Byzantine town of Mystra less than 10 kilometres away. Mystra is worth exploring on foot – indeed it is the only way to see it. It is divided into three levels and the top is very steep. It has many beautiful churches with lovely 14th century Byzantine frescoes, many of them intact. It is worth getting a comprehensive guide to make the most of the churches.

CRETE

If you want to explore the cradle of civilisation the most popular site in Crete isthe extraordinary Palace of Knossos, the largest of the Minoan palaces excavated by Sir Arthur Evans at the turn of the century. Knossos is only a few kilometres from one of the main Cretan airports, Iraklion. It was thought that Knossos was a mythological place ruled by King Minos. His wife Pasiphae, legend says, gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature that was half bull and half man. The excavation of the palace and the vast intricacies of its structure is one of the most amazing stories in archaeology today.

Knossos is the top attraction in Crete, followed by the Samaria Gorge, andreached most easily from Crete’s second city, the attractive port of Hania.If you feel compelled to tackle this demanding 18 kilometre gorge, beprepared. Europe’s longest gorge that leads from the mountains to the clearturquoise waters of the Libyan sea over dry river beds and trickling streamsthrough a forest of scented pines and the "Iron Gates", the narrowest pointwhere the rocks on either side are 600m high, is beautiful – but demanding.You don’t want to be one of the unfit and inappropriately footed visitors who have to be rescued by mules situated at strategic points in the gorge.

At the end of the gorge walk that starts from Omalos is the welcome harbourof Agia Roumeli. From here you take the ferry back to waiting coaches atHora Sfakion. But rather than travel back to Hania why not take the time toexplore Crete’s lovely South Western coast, leaving the tourists behind totake the ferry in the opposite direction to Paleohora, a small town built by the Venetians in 1279 where you can windsurf off a long sandy beach lined with tamarisk trees. This beach is rarely crowded but watch out for your sun lounger. A rather vicious pelican that refused to get off invaded mine.

From Paleohora you can head to the tropical lagoon area that is Elafonisi. Justhop on a boat – two go daily during the summer and you will find yourself ona pink beach, so coloured by the hundreds and thousands of pink shells.Elafonisi is a small island where the sea is shallow and warm and you canwallow in rock pools.

If you take the ferry eastwards from Paleohora you may want to get off atLoutro, a small collection of white houses with blue shutters built along the coast. Friendly tavernas line the sea and there are no cars, so once the ferry leaves there are never any crowds. From here you can explore manydifferent walks, such as the Aradena gorge. This is just as scenic as theSamarian with jungles of oleander in the spring but very few other walkers.This gorge finishes at the coast at Marmara, a one tavern town. If you timeyour walk right you can get the 4.30pm fishing boat that collects people from the beach and takes them to Loutro. From the sea, you can see the silhouettes of the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) deep inland that look white against the sky.

Sitting on your balcony in the small village of Loutro, watching the sun set behind the mountainous coastline is not a bad way to start your evening.

* pictures supplied by AA World Travel

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