I left Athens with a heavy heart, but excited to continue my odyssey into the cradle of civilization and keen to discover the ancient land that inspired Greece’s most famous legends and myths.
The Peloponnesian peninsula is separated from the south of mainland Greece, by the Isthmus of Corinth Canal, and covers an area of nearly 26,000 Kilometres Square. With it’s varied landscapes and temperate climes; the Peloponnese is a perennial destination that offers everything from ancient Unesco World Heritage Sites, to sandy bays and ski resorts. There are eight regional units within the peninsula, so with limited time, I decided that Arcadia (birthplace of Pan) would be the perfect place to start.
I based myself at the mountain village of Vytina, in the municipality of Gortynia, which lies at the foot of Mount Menalon. The journey from Athens took approximately two and half-hours by car, and was a wonderful experience in itself. The beautiful scenery became more dramatic and epic with each minute, and by the time we had reached the majestic Mainalo mountain range, my love affair with the region had begun. I stayed at the Art Mainalon boutique hotel, which is conveniently situated in the village square and features breathtaking mountain views, an outdoor pool, spacious lounges and bar areas, as well as a large restaurant serving seasonal local specialities. Contemporary furnishings are used thoughtfully to contrast with original carved stone and wood, the walls are adorned with an eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures by local artists. Luxurious bathroom products are made on site using local ingredients and make for great gifts or keepsakes. All staff members I met were courteous and friendly.
Vytina has an array of accommodation options to suit every budget, though should you prefer to stay deeper in the countryside, but remain within easy reach of the village, I recommend the Aiora. With only twelve rooms, this intimate family run guesthouse offers home from home comforts and will indulge your every whim.
The Menalon Trail is a 75km. long walking route through the ancient and historic mountains of Arcadia. The trail follows old mule paths and joins nine villages. It is easy to divide the hikes in to manageable sections and there are rest areas with conveniences at four-hour intervals. The trail is wide, safe and well signposted. There is also a local taxi number at each rest point. It takes approximately five days to complete the whole trail. Expect beautiful landscapes, cliff hanging monasteries, ancient churches, friendly people and delicious home-style food served in cosy restaurants at villages along the way.
It is the first trail in Greece (amongst only ten in Europe) to earn an international certification in accordance with the European Ramblers Association for “Leading Quality Trail- Best of Europe”. Devoted volunteers from the local community proudly maintain each section of the trail.
My paths of culture lead me to the stunning heritage trail of Elati Vytina along the banks of the Myalon River and its gorge. I marvelled at the natural beauty of the lush forest, with its babbling brooks, fragrant fir scented air and unique flora and fauna. This was the very place that I dreamt of a child, the scene of some of my favourite myths. A fertile forest of gods and wars, fear and fights, punishments and love.
Our terrific guide, Panagiotis Panagopoulos, from “Explore Manalon” answered all of our questions and through many years experience was intuitive to when we became weary. Sensing that we were not your average ramblers, he had quad bikes waiting for us to complete our trek after only a couple of hours. With helmets fastened and seat belts secured, Panagiotis drove us deep into the forest for a fun filled tour of Menalon’s hidden beauty spots, which were inaccessible by foot.
Later that evening we headed to the pretty village of Nymfasia to join in with the Whit Monday celebrations. The entire village attended mass in the tiny ornate stone Basilica Aghia Triada, to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit. I have never experienced theatre like it and felt genuinely moved by the deep-rooted rituals that appeared to be woven into the fabric of the congregation. After the service, the priests filed onto the streets and walked around the square, to bless the village. After a final prayer, the festivities began, music played, food appeared out every doorway and wine flowed freely. Within minutes the whole village was transformed into an open-air taverna. The priests beckoned to me and welcomed me at their top table. Wherever I turned, plates of food and glasses of wine were being thrust in front of me. As night fell the priests took me by the hand and guided me onto the dance floor. Dumbstruck, clueless and drunk I grasped two sweaty palms and formed a circle. The crowd stared over and as my faced flushed, one could hear a pin drop. Suddenly and without warning, a bouzouki blared and we were off! I was Greek dancing cheek by jowl with a gaggle of wailing orthodox priests, in the birthplace of Pan, brimmed to the hilt with Souvlaki, Stifado and Retsina. Eventually, in the best interests of the village, I made a hasty exit, leaving the brotherhood to dance the night away.
I spent my next few days enjoying the countryside and touring the Menalon villages, all of which had something special about them. Tripolis, the biggest town in the region, had a much hipper vibe than it’s more traditional neighbours. It’s a great place to shop with a large square to relax in and people watch. “Barrack” is a terrific bar offering both imaginative cocktails and innovative food with contemporary flair. It’s soave owner Nikos Petropoulous runs a slick operation and plans to expand his establishment and culinary repertoire this summer, the thought of which has me salivating with anticipation.
For decades Vytina has been know as a charming and picturesque village, popular with winter sports enthusiasts, and families who do not wish to travel far afield to enjoy nature. With it’s close proximity to Athens, central location within the villages of the Menalon Trail and many sports facilities, it easy to understand why. There is so much on offer in this compact utopian enclave, a museum of folk culture, a municipal library, an array of tavernas serving delicious traditional food, a couple of sophisticated bars and numerous artisan shops selling locally produced honey, soaps, dairy products, oils, herbs, wood carvings and inebriating Tsipouro. It is also home to the best baklava that I have ever tasted at the superb family run Maestro bakery, and the lively Dhriades bar, in which I spent far too much time propping up the bar with its charismatic owner Kostas.
There is much to be learned from the people of Vytina regarding the art of living, loving thy neighbour, respecting ones elders and appreciating nature’s gifts. Everyone I met was kind and generous. They are living the life that most of us can only dream of.
GEMISTA – STUFFED PEPPERS
2-3tbsp olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 medium red finely diced
3 cloves garlic minced
500g minced beef
250g roasted mixed peppers ( bottled, in olive oil) strained and roughly chopped
100g fennel finely chopped
1tsp dried oregano
1tsp dried thyme
1tsp dried basil
400g chopped tomatoes ( tinned )
2tbsp tomato puree ( double concentrate)
250g Italian carnaroli rice or long grain
500g beef stock
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
9-12 capsicum/bell peppers combination of red,green and yellow ( depending on size)
Pre heat oven to 190 degrees
Start by preparing the peppers. Wash the peppers, cut of the tops of the peppers and set aside to use as lids.
Remove the seeds and the white parts from inside the peppers. Place the peppers in rows, in a large baking tray.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Saute the onion and fennel until translucent, add the garlic and cook for another minute.
Crumble in the minced beef, and stir until cooked through. Season with salt and black pepper, stir in the tomato puree and cook out for a minute stirring frequently. Add the dried herbs, chopped tomatoes,roasted mixed peppers and rice, stir and combine well. Add the stock and stir well. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat to a gentle simmer.
Stir occasionally to make sure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the saucepan. As soon as the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked to al dente, the filling mixture is ready. (The mixture should be the consistency of risotto)
Spoon the filling into the empty peppers, put the lids on, drizzle with olive oil.
Bake for about half an hour until the peppers are charred and beginning to sag.
Serve on a bed of lettuce and garnish with finely chopped parsley and mint.