If anybody deserved a stay at a boutique hotel with a nice big bubble bath and an even bigger bed, it’s the Spartans. Life didn’t get off to the best start for the ancient warriors, who were frequently launched from clifftops at birth if they were deemed to be offensively puny. This fate was probably a blessing: the babies that did survive were bathed in wine instead of water (admittedly, this sounds quite nice), ignored when they cried, left alone in utter darkness and denied cuddles and snuggles.
From the age of seven, Spartan boys were instructed in the art of war; aged 12, they were stripped of all clothing (bar a jaunty red cloak) and forced to fashion their own beds from reeds. Unlucky Spartan youths were flogged to death in early versions of The Hunger Games; food was deliberately kept scarce; and a common endearment from your wife/mother when leaving for battle was: ‘Return with your shield, or on it.’ If we could send the Spartans on holiday in their old stomping ground, the rugged East Peloponnese – land of Homeric palaces, ancient theatres, secluded beaches, castle rocks, mediaeval ruins, majestic mountains and a couple of very nice hotels – here’s what we’d tell them to do…
Forget bathing in it; drink it. The East Peloponnese has produced ambrosial wines since antiquity (having a god of wine may have helped). The wine region is bordered by the famous vineyards of Nemea in the north, where fliasios wine has been produced for centuries in vineyards clustered around the Sanctuary of Zeus. (Maybe he’s the reason it tastes so good.) South and east of the Peloponnese, the historical area of Monemvasia is known for its white wine of the same name, plus its famous malvasia wine. Mantinea produces a sparkling white wine that’s well worth trying (Aristotle and Theophrastus were both big fans of the region’s wines). If you want to try a tasting at a winery, opt for Skouras in Argos or Palivou Estate in Nemea.
Pork is the meat of choice in the Peloponnese. Try syglino (cured pork), which is smoked with sage and oregano, boiled with seasonings (and sometimes whole oranges), then preserved in its own meaty fat in a ceramic pot until someone wisely decides to eat it. Alternatively, sit in one of the little hilltop village tavernas and have suckling pig – cooked on a spit in front of you – served in big hefty slices with bread and extras. The region’s food champions dig macho flavours (the Spartans could hardly go around eating Cheerios or Wotsits, given their intense regime). The local olive oil is so delicious, you might find yourself guzzling bottles of the stuff; locals often proudly bring their own home-made blends to tavernas, to douse liberally on pretty much everything.
Gawp at the ancient site of the original Olympic Games on the Peloponnese peninsula and try to imagine 50,000 ye olde Greeks cheering on their champions alongside you. The Games were held here every four years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD; the celebrations had massive religious, as well as sporting, significance. Look out for the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Zeus and the altar area, where 100 unlucky oxen would be sacrificed each year. Note: do not attempt Olympic poses for photographs, as a whistle-blowing jobsworth will shriek at you.
RIDE A HORSE
Try the Spartans’ preferred mode of public transport: a trusty steed. Should you sensibly decide to bed down at Kinsterna Hotel, you can go horse-riding in the hotel’s green-and-gold grounds with a friendly guide and some obliging Greek horses. The hotel has bags of history: it’s built on an ancient Byzantine site and has an ancient olive oil press and traditional winemaking equipment (plus a spoiling spa, buzzing bar, excellent restaurant and Jacuzzi-toting rooms).
We don’t mean with armies; we’re lovers not fighters. All you need for said conquering is a car. East Peloponnese has some stunningly pretty hilltop villages to pause at (Dimitsana, Stemnitsa and Vitina are eye-wideningly pretty), preferably for a potent coffee or a smoked-pork pit stop. Perhaps the most striking village of all is Monemvasia, a perfectly preserved medieval fortress that sits atop a monolithic hunk of rock on the east coast.
Continue your odyssey with the rest of our Spartan-spoiling hotels in Greece.