It has been said that instead of trees, in Laconia, towers grow. Legends, myths and fairytales have circulated around Laconia for centuries. The compelling sacrifice of 300 men is now one of the most heroic stories in world history, and Sparta was recognised as a leading force in the Ancient Greek world. The Homeric ‘Lacedaemonian valley’ stretches below the Taygetos mountain, where, according to the myth, King Eurotas created and gave his name to the river in the valley of modern Sparta. To pass into the Regional Unit of Laconia is to pass into at least 8 000 years of history, despotates and imposing castles, a rare wealth of mountains and breathtaking beaches, all of which make it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole of Europe.
The coastal areas of the Regional Unit of Laconia have a dry Mediterranean climate, while in the interior and mountainous areas of the Unit, winters can be harsh. The urban centres of the Regional Unit with the most tourism are Sparta, Gytheio and Neapoli. At the apex of the Laconian Gulf, the Eurotas Delta is one of the few remaining important wetlands in southern Greece, and is, at the same time, a migratory point for many migrating birds, while the area of eastern Laconia is a permanent shelter for wildlife.
Sparta, the capital of the Laconia Regional Unit, lies in a green valley between the Parnonas and Taygetos mountain ranges, near the right bank of the Eurotas River. It is the seat of the Municipality of Sparta, with a population of around 35 000, and is a hub for the various areas of the Unit. It is rich in culture. The most important cultural attractions are the tomb of Leondias, the archaeological museum, the Museum of the Olive and Greek Oil, the Koumantareios Art Gallery, the archaeological site of the ancient city, with its Roman theatre and great ancient temples, ancient Amykles, and the Socha area, where the ‘Spartathlon’ is organised on the last weekend every September, with keen marathon runners from all over the world treading in the footsteps of Pheidippides. A short distance from Sparta are the mountainous regions of Taygetos. Northwest of the capital, Mystras, the last bastion of Hellenism before the Ottoman conquest, encloses within its proud walls four abandoned settlements with impressive post-Byzantine churches, homes and palaces of the Palaeologus family, and is included in the UNESCO’s catalogue of World Heritage Sites.
Gytheio is the seaport of Sparta, and is the place where Heracles and Apollo, to demonstrate their reconciliation, gave it the name ‘Gi Theon’ [land of the gods]. High up near the apex of the Laconian Gulf, Gytheio is the seat of the new Municipality of East Mani, and the second largest urban centre in the Laconia Regional Unit. Built amphitheatrically, with traditional architectural characteristics, it offers all sorts of touristic activities before the necessary passage into Laconian Mani, one of the best-known complexes of traditional settlements, famous throughout the world. Standing near Gytheio is the Frankish Passavas Castle. Beyond the town, one encounters as well the famous cavern at Diros, as the road takes the traveller toward a deeper acquaintance with Inner Mani. From Gytheio, local car ferries carry visitors from Neapoli and Elafonisos to Kythira, Crete and Piraeus.
From Gerolimenas, the traveller goes through Areopoli, the capital of the Municipality of East Mani. An old fortified settlement with atmospheric pathways, stone buildings and imposing towers, such as the Pikoulakis Tower House, in which there is the Byzantine Museum, it constitutes the doorway into encountering the heart of Inner Mani. Oitylo, yet another beautiful traditional settlement, with its stone Manian tower houses, overlooks the great bay, with a wonderful view of Neo Oitylo. The ports of the town are the picturesque fishing village of Limeni, and Karavostasi, on the north side of the bay.
A little further to the north, in eastern Peloponnese, another transition into beauty and history awaits us: Monemvasia. The famous castle and the traditional settlements there are regarded as being among the top tourist destinations in the world. The whole of this castle-state is a unique gateway to the medieval past, providing romantic tours of Byzantine monuments, hiking routes to the famous Aghia Sofia, from where one can enjoy a panoramic view as far as the mountains of Crete, and, from there, take a swim off one of the many beaches on the Myrtoo coast or explore the little-known gorges of Talanta, Koulentia and Larnaka.
Off the southern tip of the Lacedonian peninsula, the visitor will find a miniature paradise, the island of Elafonisos with Simos Beach in the Sarakinikos Bay, a transition into nature that is almost exotic. With its unique sand dune complex and a cedar forest protected by the Natura network, every summer, the island fills with visitors and attracts many pleasure craft. There are rooms for rent there, but most choose the organised campsites, found behind the paradisiacal beaches.
Passing on to the second most southerly point of continental Greece after Cape Tainaro, Cape Malea, has been described as a transcendental experience. At the point where three seas meet, the medieval Cape of Angles, known also as the Aghios Oros of the Peloponnese, is decorated with the ruins of temples and deserted churches, with ships passing constantly by in the dark, stormy seas, and a view of Kythira in the distance. Cape Malea is surrounded by a dense network of footpaths, the main ones, those leading to the lighthouse, one of the most important in Greece, which has been declared a listed historical monument. It is well worth wandering around the fishing villages of Elia, Plytra and Archangelos, with their beautiful beaches, the sunken city of Pavlopetri, the geopark at Kavomalia with the fossilised forest, and Kastania Cave in Neapoli, the Strongyli Lagoon and the Gerakas Wetlands, for unforgettable ecotourism tours.
At the southern tip of the Manian peninsula, just before Tainaro Bay, stands the imposing Vatheia, also known as the ‘Parthenon’ of Manian architectural tradition. Built into a wild and impressive landscape on the top of a Manian hill, is the most famous and most photographed site in the whole of Mani. Many of the heavily fortified tower houses have been restored and operate as hotels.
For the ancients, the journey to the underworld began at the edge of Mani, the very edge of continental Europe. Tainaro Bay is the southernmost tip of Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, while for modern Greeks, it provides an unforgettable walking experience, surrounded by a unique energy.