Over the millennia the rugged terrain of the Peloponnese—a vast region that hangs like a large leaf from the stem of the Corinthian isthmus—has nourished kingdoms and empires. The stony achievements of these ancient achievers litter the ground liberally, from Epidaurus to Olympia to Ancient Messe. This, indeed, is the fabulous Greece of history and myth: if Hercules walked the earth (some historians now believe he was an actual early king of Argos or Tiryns), his main stomping grounds—from the Argolid to Nafplion—were here.
Traces of these lost realms—ruined Bronze Age citadels, Greek and Roman temples and theaters, and the fortresses and settlements of the Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Turks—attest to this land’s historical richness. Four thousand years of history are more fully illustrated in this region than nearly anywhere else in Europe. No wonder visitors who spend less than a week here wind up asking themselves why they didn't allot more time to this fascinating area of Greece, the country’s most ruin-packed terrain, ground zero for anyone even remotely interested in the ancient past—with Byzantine wonders entering the mix at Monemvasia and Mystras. Plus, if you wish to forgo clamoring over ruins for a day or two, it’s easy to find a mountain path or isolated stretch of sand on which to relax.
Despite the waves of invaders over the centuries this land is considered the distillation of all that is Greek, with its indulged idiosyncrasy, intractable autonomy, and appreciation of simple pleasures. A large portion of Greece's emigrants to the United States in the 20th century (12%–25% of the male population) have roots in the Peloponnese (their family names are often identified with an ending in poulos, meaning "son of"); almost all dreamed of returning to their Greek villages when they had raised their families and had accumulated a sufficient ekonomies (nest egg). Quite a number of them have done just that, so if you find yourself unable to convey what you need through phrase-book Greek and body language in one of the remote villages here, an elderly Helleno-Americanos (Greek-American) may be called upon to assist. Time seems to have stood still in the smaller towns here, and even in the cities you'll encounter a lifestyle that remains more traditionally Greek than that of some of the more developed islands. The joy of exploring this region comes as much from watching life transpire in an animated square as it does from seeing the impressive ruins.
"Pelopónnisos" means "Island of Pelops," though only the narrow Corinth canal separates it from the mainland. Pelops was the son of the mythical Tantalos, whose tragic descendants dominate the half-legendary Mycenaean centuries. The myths and legends surrounding Pelops and his family—Atreus, Agamemnon, Orestes, and Electra, among others—provided the grist for poets and playwrights from Homer to Aeschylus and enshroud many of the region's sites to this day.
A walk through the Lion Gate into Mycenae, the citadel of Agamemnon, brings the Homeric epic to life, and the massive walls of nearby Tiryns glorify the age of might. Eastward lies Corinth, the economic superpower of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, and also Epidauros, the sanctuary of Asklepios, god of healing, where in summer Greek dramas are re-created in the ancient theater, one of the finest and most complete to survive.
In the western side of the Peloponnese is one of Greece's greatest ancient sites, Olympia, the sanctuary of Zeus and site of the ancient Olympic Games. Ancient Messene, with its mammoth fortifications from the 4th century BC, is on the sandy cape of Messinia, in the south of the region.
Fast forward almost two millennia. By the 13th century the armies of the Fourth Crusade (in part egged on by Venice) had conquered the Peloponnese after capturing Constantinople in 1204. But the dominion of the Franks was brief, and Byzantine authority was restored under the Palaiologos dynasty. Soon after Constantinople fell in 1453, the Turks, taking advantage of an internal rivalry, crushed the Palaiologoi and helped themselves to the Peloponnese. In the following centuries the struggle between the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks was played out in Greece. The two states alternately dominated the Peloponnese until the Ottomans ultimately prevailed as Venetian power declined in the early 1700s. The Turkish mosques and fountains and the Venetian fortifications of Nafplion recall this epic struggle. Rebellion against Turkish rule ignited in the Peloponnese, and after the Turks withdrew in 1828 in the wake of the Greek War of Independence, Nafplion was the capital of Greece from 1829 until the move to Athens in 1834.