Lakonia (or Laconia) is a – historical – region in south-east of the Peloponnese, with Sparta as its capital. The region is dominated by the high peaks of Mt Taygetos in the west and the lower Mt Parnon in the east. Popular places to visit are the byzantine town of Monemvasia and the Mani with its barren landscape and tower houses. There are also many small archeological sites, mountain villages and beaches that remain hidden from the large crowds.
Nowadays dominated by olive and orange groves, the Lakedaemon (or Evrotas) Valley was once the heartland of Ancient Sparta. Above the valley rises the Taygetus mountain range. Here the Spartans offered to Helios, the God of the Sun. The mountains were also their hunting grounds, as deer, bears, and wild goats wandered through the forest-covered hills. Taygete was a beautiful nymph and the master of these wild animals. She was hunted by Zeus and bore his child, Lakedaemon, founder of Sparta. Evrotas, the river that finds its way through the Lakedaemon Valley, was his brother. The beautiful olive groves, traditional villages and small ancient sites in the valley offer great opportunities for sightseeing, walking or photography.
Mystras – Byzantine Castle
The famous and stunning Byzantine castle of Mystras is built on a steep hill. It was here that the inhabitants of Sparta took residence when life in the Lakedaemon valley became unsafe after the intrusion of the Franks. Mystras is a fascinating place, where you can wander around for hours amidst its churches, monasteries and ruins.
The site is open all year and has two entrances. If you would like to climb to the fortress on top of the hill, starting at the second entrance is adviced.
Close to the small town of Vrontamas there is an old monastery, dating back to the 13th century. The monastery is built into the rocks. Inside the tranquil space one hears water slowly dropping in a stone basin, while one admires the beautiful restored wall paintings of equestrian saints in a mock tournament. The Paleomonasteri is a monument of the Struggle for Independence: on August 15, 1825, people from Vrontamas refused to surrender to the army of the Egyptian warlord Ibrahim, which took part in the Turkish invasion. The young families of Vrontamas (possibly 500 people) hid inside the monastery. Unfortunately, one of the people went out and was followed back by a soldier without knowing. The Turkish army then blew a hole in the rock and exposed the monastery; they then burned alive all the people inside. A family that had some kind of illness was hiding in a cave on the other side and witnessed the whole event. A memorial service is yearly held on September 15.
The Taygetos (Taýgetos in Greek) is a paradise for lovers of nature and hikers. The mountain range – 100 km long and 2,407 meters at its highest point – stretches from the central Peloponnese (Arcadia) all the way down to the Mani peninsula (Cape Tainaro). The peaks dominate the skyline of Sparta. Numerous small streams wash down from the limestone mountains. The Anakolou gorge above Xirokambi alone accounts for 64 springs. The slopes are heavily forested, primarily with Greek fir (Abies cephallonica) and black pine (Pinus nigra). The mountain is a popular hiking destination and is part of the European walking route E4.
Detailed maps, including hiking trails, are available at bookstores in Sparta and at the Taleon Guesthouse in Xirokambi.
The mountain village of Arna is one of the most beautiful villages of Lakonia. Dominating the village square is a 2000 year old plane tree. It is a great place to drink coffee or have lunch, with a view over the lush hills. Just off the square you find a small shop with herbs from the Taygetos and other local products. When you find the shop closed, check at Anna’s Tavern if the owner, Vasilis, is around.
The Chestnut Festival of Arna is yearly held in the last weekend of October. The E4 long distance path passes Arna. Follow the yellow signs to walk part of the trail.
On your scenic drive from Xirokambi to Arna, make sure you stop at the large outcrop just before Arna. From here you look towards the Mani. On clear days the island of Kythira is visible.
Anakolo Gorge & Koumousta
The Anakolo Gorge starts above the theater in Xirokambi. Pass the first two bends and you find yourself in awe: highrising cliffs – including a stone arch – dominate the view. The winding road leads through the Anakolou gorge, all the way to Koumousta (6 km). To the left mount Stefani rises up steeply to a height of 1026 m. With more than 6o springs, there is water in abundance in the gorge.
At the end of the paved road to Koumousta, you arrive at the village square. Here you can park your car and continue on foot. Explore the village via its cobbled paths or take one of the marked routes starting here.
The Mani is the central peninsula jutting out of the south of the Peloponnese and a fascinating area. Towering houses dominate the historic villages, while the bleak and rocky scenery, surrounded by the sea, makes it a great place for landscape photography. A trip to the Mani requires at least one full day. Visit the old cobble-stoned town of Areopolis, the Diros Caves, the intimate harbour of Gerolimenas, the tower houses of Vathia or walk to the Cape Tainaro Lighthouse.
For further reading we refer to the excellent online Mani Guide by John Chapman.
Cape Tainaro & Walk to the Lighthouse
Cape Tainaro is the most southern point of mainland Greece. It is one of the places in Greece mentioned as having an entrance to the Hades. A small temple houses the death oracle (necromanteio) of Poseidon Tainarios. Via a narrow path you can walk to the lighthouse on the cape in 45-60 minutes. Look for the remains of Roman houses, including mosaic floors, along the path.
The 90 kilometre long Mount Parnon (Párnonas in Greek) separates the Evrotas Valley around Sparta from the Argolic Gulf. The predominantly limestone mountain continues all the way to Monemvasia and ends at Cape Malea in the south-east of the Peloponnese.
In this isolated area some of the inhabitants still speak Tsakona – a descendant of Doric Greek. The Spartans were Dorians who – coming from the north of Greece – conquered the Peloponnese. According to tradition, the Dorians are descendants of Hercules.
The slopes of Mt. Parnon are covered with pine forests (black pine and fir). In the summer of 2007 however, large stretches of forest, olive groves and maquis were destroyed by wild fires. The maquis and agricultural land have recovered, while destroyed forest area turned into more maquis – dense growing evergreens like stone oak, erica and laurel.
Outside Sparta, in the lower hills of Mt Parnon, you can visit an archeological site with a superb view. The Menelaion is a temple built in the honour of King Menelaos and Queen Helena of Sparta. The pyramid shaped temple, built around the 7th century BC, in itself is not that impressive, but its location definitely is with views over the valley, the Evrotas river and on the imposing Taygetos. If you are an early riser, a visit around sunrise is worth the hike.
The Menelaion is signposted along the road from Sparta to Skoura on the east side of the Evrotas river. Al small paved road leads to a church, weher you can park your car. From here a dirt road continues to the site and another small church.
The medieval fortress town of Monemvasia, built on a strategic rock just off the south eastern coast of the Peloponnese, is an awe-inspiring place. The city has but a single entrance, hence its name (mone – one; emvasia – entrance), and dates back to the 6th century AD. The lower town, with its narrow and winding alleys and stone buildings, is almost completely restored. Restauration work on the upper town is ongoing.
Take a full day to visit Monemvasia. Depending on the weather, it is advised to take the cobbled path to the upper town first. If you want to visit the church of Aghia Sofia, ask if the church is unlocked before starting your climb.
Inspriration for poets and writers
Monemvasia is the home town of the great modern Greek poet Giannis Ritsos, who was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize. You can read some of his translated work on the Poetry Foundation website. The town also features in the novel ‘The Guardians of Time‘ by Damian Lawrence.