In August 2020, my friend Florence and I braved traveling during COVID-19 to escape the red zone of Brussels in Greece for 10 days. We signed up for a private tour of the Saronic Islands and Peloponnese (southern peninsula). It began with a guide named Dionysis. With the Greek god of wine, how could we go wrong?
Upon meeting him in Athens, we went straight to the childhood home of his mother on Aegina island, where the world’s best pistachios grow. After sampling all things pistachio, we hopped on a boat to uninhabited Moni island for a swim in the pristine Aegean Sea and taste of marinated anchovies. (Moni was a former hippie hang-out until the Greek government replaced people with deer, declaring it a wildlife sanctuary for day-trippers only.)
In the evening, Dionysis’s mother Argiro gave Flo and me Greek cooking lessons. “It’s easy! It’s easy!” she kept saying as we struggled to roll out dough for onion and feta pie. What was easy was consuming everything we made with Greek wine on her terrace.
The next day began with Argiro’s frothy, iced Greek coffee, which energized us to see Aegina’s mountainous Old Town (Palaia Chora) dotted with Byzantine churches dating to 1200 AD; their modern counterpart, Saint Nectarios monastery; and Aphaia Temple, a 490 BC prototype of the Parthenon in Athens. (This temple makes a Sacred Triangle of antiquity with the Acropolis of Athens and Temple of Poseidon in Sounion). After walking through time, we cooled off at Agia Marina and capped off our day with shopping, a spectacular sunset and waterfront drinks.
There was no time for coffee the next day as we were up with Dionysis and Argiro before the crack of dawn to hike to the top of Aegina’s highest peak, Mount Elanion, for sunrise. By noon, we were ocean-side again. There we met our captain for the day, who took us to stunning swim spots off the islands of Moni (a sea cave where we also tasted fresh sea urchin), Agistri and Aponisos (a tiny island off Agistri).Then we landed on the Peloponnese, where a driver named Christos took us past the island of Poros to the port of Hydra. We sailed across to this mountainous, elegant island just in time for sunset in a cliff-side bar.
The next morning, Dionysis, Flo and I strolled through the rocky hills and charming villas of Hydra before ferrying back to the Peloponnese. We stopped for a seaside souvlaki before visiting ancient Epidaurus to climb a well-preserved amphitheater and other ruins from 350 BC. After sweating all day in 37 °C, all of us went to Nafplio Karathonas, a picture-perfect beach to swim during sunset. Later, Flo and I settled in for the night in Nafplio, a charming coastal town with restaurant tables on pedestrian streets and shops open until midnight. The nearby Castle of Palamidi was a beacon light above our hotel.
The castle was brought more to life the next day by Dionysis’s father George, a mythology enthusiast. He regaled us with ancient stories of Greek gods at various locations, including Tiryns Cyclopean walls and Mycaenae ruins dating from 1500 to 1200 BC. We cooled off with a wine tasting at award-winning Skouros winery before visiting the oldest city in Europe: Argos circa 3000 BC. Its amphitheater still hosts 20,000 people for special events! We continued a mythological path to the Lerna River, where a hydra monster was killed by Hercules and we read poetry about it. Then we beach-hopped from Lerna to Arvanitia in Nafplio, arriving on our hotel terrace for another gorgeous sunset and ouzo before dining in a pedestrian street.
The next morning we said “kalimera” (“hello” in Greek) to the statue of Leonidas, ancient king of Sparta, en route to Mystras, where mystic remains of Byzantine city are nestled in a mountain. In true Spartan spirit, I hiked with Dionysis in new, Greek leather sandals about 5 kilometers to the top for an aerial view. Having lost a kilo in sweat and turning a shade darker, we were relieved to complete the feat and beat the heat in an air-conditioned car … only to discover it had a flat tire! “Oh la la,” said Flo in her beautiful French accent.
Back on track, we drove along the magnificent Peloponnese coast through green mountains to a car ferry to Elafonisos island. It’s a secret gem among Greeks near a sea-sunken, 5,000-year-old city called Pavlopetri. Upon arrival, we had another swim during sunset – this time on stunning Panagia beach, where we saw both the sun and moon sink into the sea! We stayed until dark drinking wine and gazing at bright stars.
Since we were in paradise, we spent the entire next day enjoying it. We divided our time between Panagia and Simos beaches, stopping for a seaside lunch at Elafonisos port in between. Repeat: swimming, beach tennis, sunset, stars. “Oh la la,” said Flo again several times.
The next day we enjoyed one last swim on spectacular Simos beach before taking the car ferry back to the Peloponnese. We drove to Monemvasia rock island (the Greek equivalent of Mont St. Michel), meandering through its charming walkways and sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice at a cliffside cafe. Then we drove through winding roads, quaint villages and green mountains to get to Olympia, home of the world’s first Olympic games in 776 BC. We dined with father and son in the small town, doing justice to the name Dionysis while George spilled out stories of old.
In the daylight, George took us on the footsteps of Olympians in ancient Olympia. Then we hit the road again, stopping at Bertsia springs and Lagadia mountain village for cool water and stunning views, respectively. We had a respite at George’s home in Tripoli, where Argiro had a beautiful lunch waiting for us. Then we hit the road again to visit 600 BC Corinth, Acrocorinth and impressive canal (over which one can bungee jump). Our last stop was Athens, where Flo and I recapped our amazing 10 days on a rooftop terrace bar with a perfect view of the acropolis. “Oh la la!”