Menelaion

Sights in Lakonia

Map Lakonia

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.

Lakedaemon Valley: a mythical landscape

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.

Sparta

The remains of the famous classical city of Sparta (Spárti in Greek) lie hidden between ancient olive trees against the impressive backdrop of the Taygetos Mountains. The modern city is within walking distance and is a vibrant agricultural centre with a well visited vegetable market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The small archaeological museum and the informative olive oil museum are well worth a visit.

The city of Sparta was inhabited from ancient times till the 11th century AD, when its inhabitants moved to the hill of nearby Mystras to protect themselves against the Franks and other invaders. Sparta was rebuilt by – the Bavarian – King Otto in 1831, hence the very ungreek grid-patterned layout of its streets.

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.

Vrontamas – The Old Monastery or Paleomonasteri

Old Monastery VrontamasClose 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.

Mount Taygetos

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.

Mt Taygetos

Manganiari Springs and hiking route to the Taleton

A scenic route, starting in the village of Anogeia, takes you to Toriza and further uphil to the Manganiari Springs. In Toriza, a visit to the small Byzantine church of Saint George is worth the detour. You can also stop for an – expensive – coffee at the Ilaeira Resort.

Drive back to the main road and continue till you arrive at the springs. The paved road ends here. Cool water flows between massive plane trees. It is a favourite picknick spot on hot summer days. If you would like to hike all the way up to the Taleton – the 2406 m. high peak of the Taygetos – this is where you can start. The path is marked and well maintained. Please check the weather with your local host, as the conditions can change fast. The challenging hike takes about 7 hours. You can also book a local guide.

Arna

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.

Arna
Arna, the mountain village with a 2000 year old plane tree on the square, is a great place for coffee or lunch.

Xirokambi

Xirokambi is a lively village with impressive stone houses in the valley of Sparta.  The village features a true stone arch bridge dating back to the 1st century, the remains of a Mycenean palace, a 1000 year old olive tree, and easy access to the Taygetos via the beautiful Anakolo gorge.

There are several guesthouses and great restaurants, thus making it a perfect place to stay while visiting Lakonia.

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.

Hiking routes
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.

Gythio – harbour town

Gythio is a beautiful harbour town, with neocolonial houses on the waterfront – some clearly in need of maintenance – built against a hill. You can take a nice walk via small alleys and steep stairs to upper Gythio. From here you have great views over the harbour and the Lakonian Gulf. Back on sea level there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to quench your thirst and eat fresh seafood.

From the small island of Kranai – attached by a dam to the mainland – you have a great view towards the town over the water. The Mani Museum is located in the Tower of Tzanetakis.

Gythio is famous for its sandy beaches. Follow the directions for Mavrovouni beach if you love high waves. Drive east along the shore for smaller and less crowded beaches, and to see the shipwreck of the Dimitrios.

Mani peninsula

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.

To Gerolimenas with a detour to Mezopos Beach

Wandering of the main road is definitely worth your time on the Mani. One of our favourite detours is the route via Mezopos through a part of Mesa Mani to Gerolimenas. You will come across desolate villages, towerhouses and tiny churches. Mezopos Beach is a great stop for lunch and/or a swim.

On the main road from Areopoli to Gerolimenas, take the small road to Mezopos. Take the turn towards the beach just before the village. After your stop, return to the road through Mezopos and continue your to Gerolimenas via Stavri (Σταυρι) and Kypoula – stop here to take a look at the church hidden behind a facade.

Gerolimenas
Gerolimenas – literally meaning the Old Harbour – remains a lovely spot, regardless if the amount 0f visitors (in summer). Take a stroll along the harbour and take some time to relax before you continue all the way to the southern tip of the Mani.

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.

Mount Parnon

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.

Geraki – Byzantine Castle

The castle – a smaller version of the famous castle of Mystras – is built on a low hill, at the south-west slopes of mount Parnon, near the village of Geraki. The church of St. George and remains of urban dwellings are preserved inside the castle, while ruins of other buildings and churches have survived outside the fortified area. The castle was founded in 1209 by the Frankish baron Guy de Nivelet and remained under Frankish occupation until 1259. After the Franks were defeated in the battle of Pelagonia (Northern Greece) in 1259, the castle was handed over to the Greeks in 1262 and supported the Despotate of Mystras (1262-1460). At the end of the 17th century the castle was captured by the Venetians, occupied by the Turks in 1715, and finally abandoned at the end of the 18th century.

MenelaionMenelaion

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.

Tsintzina – Mountain Village

Tsintzina or Polydroso is a beautiful mountain village, tucked away in a valley in the Parnon Mountains. You can explore the surrounding area by following the numerous hiking paths that start in the village. The oldest monument of Tsintzina is the cave church of John the Baptist – located high above the village. The church dates back to 1335, while the wall was erected in 1826 to protect the inhabitants who took shelter there against attacks by the Ottomans.

Monemvasia – Fortress Town

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.