Monday, 26 March 2012

In Search of the Perfect Greek Village

An early morning glimpse of the village of Vamvakou

We have spent many hours in the car these past six months travelling the roads of the Peleponnese, visiting villages and finding the hidden gems among them.  I am hard -pressed to choose my favourites but I have been thinking about what makes one village more impressive than the next.

the mountain road to Kalamata

We have found some villages along impossibly difficult roads through the mountains where the hairpin turns are enough to put the fright into anyone. As a passenger I have often closed my eyes and prayed that lunch would not embarrass me by coming up.

encountering sheep on the road

In the mountain valleys you can hear the bells of the sheep and the goats and you sometimes find yourself in the middle of a herd of them before you know it.

goats milling about on the road

Gerolimanis, in Mani, the wild middle finger of the Peleponnese

The coastal villages stretch lazily along a strip of sandy beach.  Small fishing boats bob just offshore  and a taverna with a covered verandah beckons you to stop, to sit, to eat and to drink for at least a while.

But the good ones have a few things in common. I like a village with a central platia - not one that is strung along the main highway. I like to see life in the village with cafes and tavernas open and busy in the central square, and a pedestrian area of shops or houses where cars do not venture. My favourite villages have a certain aesthetic with cared for houses and shops, trees and flowers planted in many places, signs and statues, colour and ..... it has to be really Greek - not too touristy and not bought up by foreigners.

Minas and "that store" with the honey  in Aghios Petras

And the best villages have something unique to offer - something special - something that the others don't have: so that you can easily recall them with ' "Oh that was the village with........."

Stoupa beach from the taverna

 I could easily choose Stoupa, with its sliver of sand, its trees hanging over the water and its lively taverna but no..... it is swarming with the Brits that have bought up all the houses.

the large and elegant platia of Napflion

Then there is Napflion with its old buildings, its gracious and huge central platia, its well defined pedestrian area with hundreds of tiny shops but no --- it is really more of a town and besides there are too many tourists.

What about Monemvasia?
inside the upper walls of Monemvasia

Who can resist its cobbled streets, the s-shaped entrance that lets only humans and horses pass through - definitely no cars here. And you can walk for miles up to the very top of the ruined medieval town and castle, feeling the ghosts of citizens long gone. At the top you can see for miles in all directions and realize how very much of an island was this old town. But no..... the tiny main street is lined with souvenir shops to catch the hordes of tourists that descend from the buses.

the entrance to a home in Kastanits

For me, Kastanitsa is my favourite mountain village to date. Its peculiar charm lies in its white-washed walls, blue woodwork and authentic slate roofs. The main village has its central road along a narrow ridge that falls away on either side. The ridge runs to a mountain peak upon which sits the ruins of a castle and a well-preserved Byzantine church. From the peak there is a severe drop off to the valley below.  Kastanitsa has always been able to protect itself  from its enemies!

narrow streets and white-washed walls of Kastanitsa

Luckily,  visitors are welcomed on the tiny narrow streets of Kastanitsa that are accessible only to pedestrians. Of course there may be the occasional crazy local who drives their truck through the central platia when you are having lunch at the outdoor restaurant, forcing you to move your chair, but that just adds to the story.

Kastanitsa has the aesthetic, the central platia and the taverna. There is a ruined castle and a Byzantine church. The cars are kept out of its tiny streets both by edict and by circumstance and it is so far off the beaten path that there are few tourists.

the old style slate roofs of Kastanitsa
It is the only village I have seen where every house has the old style slate roofs. This could be its unique feature. But more importantly, it sits amid forests of chestnut (KASTANA) trees from whence it gets its name. Kastanitsa's best feature is the chestnut pudding cake made and sold in late fall when the chestnuts are picked and celebrated at the village Chestnut Festival. That is a sweet treat like no other!

Kastanitsa, Peleponnese

So there you have it, the most perfect Greek village in the Peleponnese by my book!

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