This self-guided walking itinerary takes you from remote mountain villages to cliff-top monasteries, via the world’s deepest gorge. Set out on foot to explore this lesser-known region of northern Greece… ‘I want you to try everything,’ says Elli Papageorgiou, emerging from the kitchen of her small café in the cobbled square of Kapesovo. She sets down a jug of sour cherry juice on a table heaving with food: cured sausage cut into rounds, fat green olives, garlic toasts heaped with tomatoes, and tiny cakes drenched in syrup. The jug lands with a clatter that startles a pack of sleeping dogs. ‘Besides, walkers need energy,’ she says. Philoxenia, meaning ‘love of a stranger’, isn’t just a word but a way of life in Greece – a deeply ingrained culture of hospitality that manifests, mostly simply, as an offering of food. Though the practice is perhaps a little strained in the popular islands, those who seek out the remote northern region of Zagorohoria tend to leave it as friends. For centuries footpaths were the sole routes connecting its 46 sandstone villages, and these ancient thoroughfares are still the most atmospheric way to get around. The area’s outstanding natural attraction, the Vikos Gorge … Continue reading Walk this way: exploring Greece’s lesser-known north

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With visitors to Macedonia making a beeline for Lake Ohrid and the capital Skopje, Bitola is still waiting for its moment in the spotlight. But this charming city rewards curious travellers with some heavyweight historic sights and effortless cafe culture. Add to that a renowned international film festival, burgeoning local wine production and excellent hiking nearby, and Bitola makes a worthy stop on any Macedonia itinerary. A stroll through history Bitola’s architectural elegance won’t come as a surprise once you learn that the town was the diplomatic and cultural centre of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. This earned it the moniker ‘city of consuls’: 19th-century European cultural influences are evident in neoclassical-style townhouses built by the local aristocracy. The 16th-century Yeni, Isak and Yahdar-Kadi mosques, as well as the imposing Saat Kula (Clock Tower), bring further echoes of Ottoman rule. The lively Stara Čaršija (Old Bazaar) flourished in bygone days as an important trade centre in the Balkans, cramming in more than a thousand crafts shops. While less than a hundred different wares are sold today, wandering around the cobblestone streets is a fun time-warp experience  – as well as an opportunity to grab some bargains and authentic souvenirs. Not to be missed is the Museum of … Continue reading Four reasons to visit Bitola, Macedonia’s ‘city of consuls’

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Any tour of the Peloponnese isn’t complete without stops at some of the spectacular World Heritage–listed ancient ruins dotting the land.Ancient Olympia in the west is the birthplace of the Olympic Games, which were held there from 776 BC to AD 394. The site comprises a giant stadium and many of the ruined buildings of the games complex, while the excellent Archaeological Museum holds monumental sculptures such as the Hermes of Praxiteles. The fortified citadel atMycenae was home to the mythical king Agamemnon; for 400 years it was the most powerful kingdom in Greece. Fairytale Mystras is an evocative tumble of Byzantine palaces, churches, libraries and strongholds spilling down a spur of the Taÿgetos mountains, 7km west of Sparta. It was the last great capital of Byzantium before its overthrow by the Ottomans.

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What makes crossing the Corinth Canal into the Peloponnese even more worthwhile is knowing that on the other side awaits the Nemea wine region. The construction of the canal was started by Roman Emperor Nero and completed centuries later. Today as you cross you can see the locks far below, and the brilliant teal waters plied by passing ships. Then you reach the Nemea region, in the rolling hills southwest of Corinth, one of Greece’s premier wine-producing areas. Nemea is famous for its full-bodied reds from the local agiorgitiko grape and a white from roditis grapes. Wineries such as Skouras, Ktima Palivou andGaia Wines offer tastings.

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Greece and, in particular, the Kalamata region in the Peloponnese are well known for olives and olive oil. To find out more about this essential element of Greek cuisine, head to the modern Museum of the Olive & Greek Olive Oil in Sparta, which has displays on the history, cultivation and use of olives through the ages. Then step outside and sample some of the locally cured delicacies in the restaurants and markets of the Peloponnese.

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Slip out along a narrow causeway, up around the edge of a towering rock rising dramatically from the sea, to reach the exquisite walled village ofMonemvasia. Enter the kastro (castle) – separated from mainland Gefyra by an earthquake in AD 375 – on foot through a narrow tunnel, and emerge into a stunning (and carless) warren of cobblestone streets and stone houses. Signposted steps lead up to the ruins of a fortress, built by the Venetians in the 16th century, and the Byzantine Church of Agia Sophia, perched precariously on the edge of the cliff. The views are spectacular and wildflowers are shoulder-high in spring. Beat the throngs of day trippers by staying over.

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The bustling port city of Patra (Patras) hosts not only ferries to Corfu and Italy, but also one of Greece’s pre-eminent Carnival celebrations. Greek Orthodox Easter includes a Carnival similar to the Mardi Gras festivities that precede Catholic Easter. Patra’s festivities see giant floats rolling raucously through town, accompanied by throngs of costumed locals and visitors. The date changes every year and usually differs from the date of the Catholic Carnival, but it’s worth planning your trip around.

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In the north of the Peloponnese, the tiny rack-and-pinion railwaybetween Diakofto and Kalavryta takes travellers on a dazzling ride through dramatic Vouraïkos Gorge. Sienna cliffs surround the train as it climbs the canyon, clinging to a narrow ledge with rushing rapids below. The line zigzags through leafy canopies of plane trees and passes through seven curving tunnels along the way to the quaint hamlet ofKalavryta, before descending back to the coast.

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Between September and March birdwatchers flock to the lush Gialova Lagoon to take in the migration of 271 bird species. Just north of the Bay of Navarino, this lush lagoon is the southernmost major wetland in Greece and an important stopover on the migratory route between Africa and Europe. About 20,000 birds including flamingos, ibises and herons take up residence in this protected area during the season.

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The World Heritage–listed Theatre of Epidavros is one of Greece’s true wonders. Beautifully preserved and situated amid pine groves and rolling hills, this enormous ancient Greek theatre seats 14,000 spectators. Taking in a performance during the annualAthens & Epidavros Festival is an incomparable experience that sweeps you back to the origins of Europe’s theatrical tradition. Epidavros can also be visited by day, when you shouldn’t miss the adjacent Sanctuary of Asclepius. These are the ruins of an important healing centre from the classical age, dedicated to Asclepius (god of healing). It used to host both musical performances and athletic competitions.

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Historic Nafplio is tucked into an azure bay fronted by a small island fort and topped by an enormous stone fortress. The town itself is a cascade of elegant buildings constructed under Venetian rule. Festooned with crimson bougainvillea, they’re filled with creative boutiques and galleries and restaurants serving Italian-influenced cuisine. TheFougaro Cultural Centre fills a slickly renovated factory and provides a programme of visual and performing arts throughout the year. Lodging is a breeze, with boutique hotels in renovated mansions throughout the old town.

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Travellers to Greece tend to flock to the myriad islands or marvel at the iconic Acropolis, but one of the country’s most diverse, vibrant regions is often forgotten: the Peloponnese. It remains an affordable enclave of magnificent ancient sights like Olympia, Mycenae and Mystras, which are scattered across a rich landscape of stone villages, teal seas and snow-capped mountains. 2016 brings the chance to hike the Peloponnese’s new Menalon trail or take a tipple in the Nemean wine region, with its vintages gaining prominence around the globe. You can dive shipwrecks off the Navarino coast or visit the wild and remote Mani, home to ancient stone towers converted into boutique luxury lodgings. Beautiful Nafplio blends contemporary art with atmospheric architecture and classic town squares, ideal for a long, lazy lunch. Now more than ever the Peloponnese is the perfect destination for absorbing traditional Greek life, compelling history and inspiring landscapes. Download your free PDF guide to the Peloponnese to find out for yourself.

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