Greek mythology is having a moment
Exploring The Peloponnese, Greece’s Hidden Gem
When tourists think about Greece, their minds tend to wander to the islands: Kefalonia, Corfu, Crete, Chios, Samos, Hydra – they are so many and so varied that one could spend a lifetime visiting the country and never have to go to the same island twice. ‘Yet people always forget about the largest and most mythical island of them all,’ says my guide, pausing for effect before she explains: ‘The Peloponnese!’
The Peloponnese, for the uninitiated, is the South Western part of mainland Greece – the fingers that reach out from Greek landmass into the Mediterranean towards Crete. Hold on though, if it’s part of mainland Greece, how can the Peloponnese be an island? Well, the guide eventually admits, ‘it’s technically an island and has been since 1893 when the Corinth canal opened, cutting it off from the rest of Greece.’ The canal is only 70ft across but it does link the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf, so yes, on some level, the Peloponnese is an island.
Whether or not the Peloponnese can really be considered an island, there’s no doubt that for enthusiasts of Greek history it is a treasure trove, which is often forgotten by visitors to Greece.
Though its most famous warriors were the mighty Spartans, made famous by films like 300, the Peloponnese also has some right to call itself the birthplace of modern Greece. It was here that Theodoros Kolokotronis banded together with freedom fighters to plot Greek independence from the Ottoman empire in 1821, giving us the country we know today.
For me though, the most exciting reason to visit the Peloponnese is its mythology. Greek mythology is having its moment right now. London’s West-End 2023 has seen revivals of ancient plays including Medea and Phaedra, along with new reimaginings such as The Burnt City and the upcoming Hadestown. Mythological reimagining in literature such as Madeline Miller’s Song Of Achilles, Constanza Casati’s Clytemnestra, Bea Fitzgerald’s Girl, Goddess, Queen and Natalie Haynes’ Stone Blind are perennially in the best-sellers charts too. ‘It’s in the Peloponnese where you can see how history and mythology connect,’ explains Edith Hall, a professor of Classics at Durham University.
Hall is leading a cultural retreat I’m on to explore the mythological and real history of the Peloponnese. From our base in the coastal town of Nafplio, we’ve visited criss-crossed the plains of Nemea where Heracles legendarily battled the lion in the first of his twelve iconic labours, we’ve explored ancient Corinth where Jason abandoned his wife Medea and suffered her ultimate wrath, and spent our evenings gazing out over the seas where the Greek fleet set sail for Troy.
These cultural retreats, hosted by Greek tour company Travelgems, attract fans of the classics from all over the world with exclusive access to world-renowned experts like Hall and Glypti (Haynes and Miller have also hosted these trips in the past) who conduct talks and tours around some of the country’s most renowned historical landmarks.
From students to retirees, Australia to America, family groups to singletons; there’s no one ‘type’ who finds themself on the annual adventure – the only prerequisite is a passion for ancient Greece and its mythology.
‘Our cultural retreats nurture the minds and souls of our customers, as well as my own,’ explains Niki Smirni, the Athenian who founded the retreat company and makes it her mission to showcase her country to the world. ‘It is my personal passion to share with the world the wisdom of ancient Greek culture and how it can be applied to our modern world, a need that is more pressing than ever before. I hope every participant feels a transformation in their daily life, and they subsequently share their newfound wisdom with their communities when they get home, making the world a better place through our cultural retreats.’
Of course the stories of heroes and gods are fictional. Still, when you’re swimming the seas that Theseus supposedly grew up by, and exploring the ruins of the city of Mycenae where arrogant Agamemnon was slain by his treacherous wife, Clytemnestra, you get a real sense of the reality lurking just behind the stories. Touching the stones, seeing the mountains, feeling the dust beneath your feet reminds you that real people with real lives told these stories, the question is – why?
As part of Professor Hall’s research, she has worked with psychologists and criminologists to explore the reality of the events depicted in Greek myth. She points to the playwright Euripides who, despite living in a fundamentally patriarchal society displays extreme empathy for displaced and devalued women in plays like Medea and Antigone. ‘The things he writes about in Greek tragedy are exactly the same as the things that go on in the world today,’ she says.
The mythological and the real come crashing together at Epidaurus, an ancient amphitheatre –though the Greeks would have used the term ‘odeon’ – where Bronze Age Greeks performed the same stories that we still love today.
We’re here because each year the National Theatre of Greece hosts its two-month-long summer festival hear, playing the exact the plays (those that survive at least) which would have entertained the ancients when the 14,000-seater arena was first constructed in the late 4th Century BC (two and a half thousand years ago) the theatre.
The play we see is The Wasps, a comedy by the playwright Aristophanes which was made to poke fun at people obsessed with visiting the law courts. Modern Greek playwright Lena Kitsopoulou’s adaption of it aimed to poke the same fun at trial-by-social-media.
‘The point is that even two and a half thousand years ago, the Greeks were using the same stories to ask questions about themselves and the way they lived as we are still asking today,’ explains Hall. ‘The way they lived, the way they thought; a lot has changed since then, but there’s a common thread that has travelled all the way down through humanity.’
Here in the Peloponnese we can see that thread everywhere we look. At the ruins of Tiryns where Heracles’ features of daring made the king hide in a pot in fear we see our potential. In Corinth where Medea scorned Jason we see our wrath.
The Peloponnese might be an island, but its history proves that man never has been, as long as our stories bind us together.
The Travelgems Cultural retreat offers a five-night retreat at a five-star hotel in Greece, excursions, and dinners starting at £2,890 per person. The 2024 trip starts booking spring 2024 from travelgems.com