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Spetses and Porto Heli

Porto Heli

A typical vacation to Greece includes the usual island hopping to the most popular islands, mixed with visits to the must see mainland sites such as the Acropolis in Athens or the ancient site of Delphi close to Arachova. Yet, travelers who prefer a more traditional and off-thebeaten-path experience of Greece, virtually untouched by time, find themselves in locales such as Porto Heli. A coastal town along the Argolic Gulf, directly across from the island of Spetses, Porto Heli is one of Greece’s most beautiful destinations. Not only is it an ideal place to enjoy a relaxing vacation, but it is also perfectly located close to important historical sites such as Epidaurus, Corinth, and Mycenae, while Porto Heli itself is situated on an important ancient site called Halieis.

Spetses

If all vacation destinations could be divided into the ones offering exotic excitement and the ones offering indigenous pleasures, Spetses would be described as the latter. This small island, just off the Greek mainland, has long attracted Athenians as well as foreigners who seek a relaxing holiday; it is a place where history, architecture, and activities evoke a different time. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the fact that most parts of the island have been closed off to cars, and instead the preferred modes of transportation are horse-drawn carriage and bicycle (an ever growing trend in Greece). Hence, rightly so, Spetses is often referred to as ‘the aristocrat of Greek islands.’

Spetses and Porto Heli Area Information

Spetses

Spetses Town is the main settlement of the island and you will definitely enjoy exploring its charming streets or taking a carriage ride around town. Much of the town’s social life is centered in Dapia Square at the new harbor. East of here is the old harbor Baltiza, still a bustling port with its traditional shipbuilding and ship repairing yards, active fishing boats, and marina for international yachts. In addition to the sights in town already mentioned, there is the church of Agios Nikolaos, formerly a monastery where Napoleon’s brother Paul is said to have occupied a monk’s cell. Another interesting excursion is a visit to Bekiri’s Cave, where leaders of the revolution would hide from their Turkish enemies. Also, there are several beaches that are known for being the best on the island – Agioi Anargiri is one and Zogeria another – both are best accessed by water taxi. Also, close to town is the beach of Agia Marina. It’s not a surprise that the island’s most popular restaurants are concentrated in or close to Spetses Town, and there are several to choose from. Spetses has attracted sophisticated visitors since the early 20th century and now, in addition to the Athenians who flock here on summer weekends, it continues to be discovered by an international crowd. The island also has a lively nightlife in Spetses Town, its surroundings, and even in some of the beaches. Yet as it happens with so many places throughout Greece, much of the appeal comes from the setting itself – a spectacular view over the water, the hustle and bustle of the central square, and a perfect balcony for a breathtaking sunset. All of these can be enjoyed in many parts of Spetses and you are sure to find one to your liking!

Porto Heli

Some of the remains of the city can still be seen today, such as parts of the acropolis that stood high in Halieis and a few towers and barracks from the 4th century BC. An open-air sanctuary that was most likely built for Athena Polias, the city’s guardian, also lies in the northern part of the archaeological site. Other ruins lay under the sea and if you look close enough, you may be able to see the submerged walls. While most of the ruins are of Greek origin there is also some Roman influence in Halieis such as the remains of the Roman baths. Today, Porto Heli is a modern town that has become an attraction for Greeks and international travelers alike due to its quaint surroundings, archaeological importance and preservation of its traditional character. We are sure that by the end of your trip you will simply fall in love with Porto Heli and its beauty!

Spetses and Porto Heli History

Porto Heli

Although much of the history of the ancient city of Halieis has been either lost or disputed – what is known is that the city’s name has been mentioned by historians with regard to ancient battles between Athens and Sparta and thus both cities had at one point in time conquered Halieis. However, the layout of the city itself has been recorded in history: the homes and public buildings were organized in a framework where there was enough land for each house to have its own yard. Also, like any other ancient city, Halieis was surrounded by walls, towers, and gates that were meant to protect the city and its more than 2000 inhabitants. Many remains from the old city, including the walls and homes, date back to the Late Neolithic Age while there are temples dedicated to the Greek god Apollo that are from the Late Bronze Era. The old city appears to have been abandoned around the 3rd century BC. Some of the remains of the city can still be seen today, such as parts of the acropolis that stood high in Halieis and a few towers and barracks from the 4th century BC. An open-air sanctuary that was most likely built for Athena Polias, the city’s guardian, also lies in the northern part of the archaeological site. Other ruins lay under the sea and if you look close enough, you may be able to see the submerged walls. While most of the ruins are of Greek origin there is also some Roman influence in Halieis such as the remains of the Roman baths. Today, Porto Heli is a modern town that has become an attraction for Greeks and international travelers alike due to its quaint surroundings, archaeological importance and preservation of its traditional character. We are sure that by the end of your trip you will simply fall in love with Porto Heli and its beauty!

 

Spetses

Although there is little mention of Spetses throughout history, it was described during theClassical Age of ancient Greece as Pityoussa or ‘pine-tree island’ which suggests that the island was sparsely inhabited. Since it is only 1.5 miles (2.4 km) off the coast of the Peloponnese, Spetses’ history has inevitably been tied to that of the mainland. In March of 1821 when an Orthodox Archbishop in the Peloponnese openly called for a revolt against the Ottomans, the first to respond to this call were the people of Spetses, who in April raised a flag with the motto ‘Freedom or Death.’ But this was only the beginning! In addition to the island being the base of a large fleet of ships, there was Laskarina Bouboulina, the daughter of a ship captain from the nearby island of Hydra who had settled on Spetses. She paid for the construction of a warship called the Agamemnon, and following the death of her husband, captained the Agamemnon into several naval battles against the Turkish fleet. Another Spetsian, Kosmas Barbatses, was the hero of a major naval engagement in September of 1822, when a fleet of ships from Spetses and several other Greek islands defeated a superior Turkish fleet in the Spetses Strait. Barbatses is said to have sailed right into the midst of the Turkish fleet and set their ships on fire.

Spetses and Porto Heli Interests

Route 1: Epidaurus & Mycenae

With over 14,000 seats, the ancient theatre of Epidaurus will overwhelm you with its powerful ambiance. You can even stand on the stage that has hosted many plays written by famous Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Built during the 4th century BC, this theater has remained surprisingly intact across the centuries. Watching an ancient drama performed at Epidaurus, even if you do not understand Greek, will invariably be one of the most moving experiences that you can have at an archaeological site. If you are visiting between the months of July and September, do check with your hotel concierge in order to try and secure a seat for one of the performances, if available! Even if you are not lucky enough to see a live performance, a visit to the theater simply to take in its structure and setting will still be among the highlights of your trip. Adjacent to the theater is the Epidaurus archaeological site with the remains of the Sanctuary of Asklepios, which you should also take some time to visit. Next take a tour to the ancient city of Mycenae. Venture into this ancient site by entering the main gate of the city, the Lions Gate. Visitors to Mycenae invariably find the experience quite breathtaking. Here you will be able to admire the remains of the Palace that once glittered with gold and other luxurious materials, the large tholos – or beehive – tomb, and domed structures of colossal dimensions, the most impressive of which is known as the Treasure of Atreus or the Tomb of Agamemnon (the lintel over the doorway is estimated to weigh some 13 tons). Just inside the citadel is the famous Grave Circle that Schliemann excavated in 1867, inside which he found the gold mask that led him – mistakenly – to telegraph the King of Greece: ‘I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.’ The surroundings emit a strong feeling of power and war which pervaded the Mycenaean society and many of you will rightfully wonder about the strength and ability of ancient Mycenaeans, who could move the large stones of the magnificent Cyclopean walls that in some instances were as wide as 14 meters (45 feet)! Mycenae is also the perfect place to learn about the ancient world of the Homeric poems, since from the late 19th century it is here that some of the conquerors of Troy lived. Visiting the Mycenae ruins will leave you with many memories, but if you want to complete your appreciation of Mycenae you should visit the National Archaeological Museum in Athens where among the many artifacts from Mycenae, you will arguably see the best known item, the gold mask that Schliemann associated with the famous King Agamemnon. Without a doubt, you will end this journey with a better understanding of the importance of the once great city of Mycenae.

Route 2: Ancient Corinth

Take a day trip to the epic ancient city of Corinth. As soon as you lay your eyes on this city, you will immediately be swept up by the ambience of this site, which radiates the great importance and power that Corinth once held. After its complete destruction in 146 BC by the Roman legions under Lucious Mummius this former Roman city was rebuilt by the order of Julius Caesar in 45 BC. Your tour guide will give you an insight about this city by pointing out epic ruins such as Akrocorinth, the acropolis of Corinth, the Roman fountain, and much more. You will also learn about the famous people who lived in Corinth, such as philosopher Xeniades, William of Moerbeke who translated Aristotle’s writing into Latin, and of course, Apostle Paul who wrote his famous letters to the Corinthians.

Route 3: Nafplio

Many visitors to the Peloponnese, as they make their way around this great southern region of Greece, are pleasantly surprised to discover that Nafplio is not just a convenient stopover, but also a charming seaside town with its own distinctive attractions. Strolling through the narrow streets of Nafplio is one of the most engaging walks a visitor can experience in Greece, and certainly one of the most famous ones amongst Greeks. So, relax, forget about time, and lose yourself among the wonderful neoclassical houses, painted with beautiful warm, earthy colors, all reflected in the mirror of the deep blue waters of the Argolic Gulf. Walking around Nafplio, many of you may be surprised to feel that life’s simple pleasures are sometimes the most underestimated, surfacing rarely on occasions such as this one. Although at first glance Nafplio may seem like a city where time has simply passed by, in fact it boasts of a long and fascinating history. Once you gain a sense of direction and are able to navigate the town – and this will happen quickly – you will admire the city plan dating back to the Renaissance: the Ottoman fountains, numerous historic monuments, statues, and several buildings that played a role in Greek history, including the former Vouleftika Mosque that served as a site for the first Greek parliament (1827-34). Then there is the Akronafplia, the ‘summit of Nafplio,’ also known by its Turkish name, the ‘Its Kale’. This rocky prominence along the little Bay of Arvanitia has been the site of fortresses since antiquity and what remains is a jumble of ruins now sharing the top with tourist hotels. On the edge of Nafplio is the even more impressive Palamidi – the 18th century castle overlooking the town. Climbing its famous 999 steps or choosing the more relaxing way of a short car drive, you can reach this Venetian fortress that harbors the remains of three other castles! From the top of its fortifications (after catching your breath from the 999 step ascent!), enjoy the spectacular view over the tiled rooftops of Nafplio below, while in the distance you can look either to the great plain of Argolis and the distant mountains or to the horizon of the calm waters of the gulf – it is a view that you will never forget! There are also many interesting churches and public buildings in Nafplio–after all, it was the first capital of modern Greece. In fact, when you visit the church of Agios Spyridon, outside of which Ioannis Capodistrias (considered the founder of the Modern Greek State) was assassinated in 1831, you can see one of the bullet holes by the entrance. Also, there are three museums not to be missed: the Archaeological Museum, with many finds from Mycenae and other Mycenaean-age sites, including a unique suit of bronze armor; the Museum of the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation – among the most important folk museums in Greece, especially strong in its textile displays; and the unique Komboloi Museum, the only one in the country dedicated to the ‘komboloi’, the small string of beads, arguably the most familiar folk item in Greece. Traditionally used by men while killing time at the local cafés (kafeneia), the komboloi is still widely used, although today you will also find many modern Greeks using it as a decoration on their living room tables. It’s not only the historic buildings and the view from the Palamidi that satisfy visitors in Nafplio, while enjoying breakfast at your hotel or coffee at one of the popular waterfront cafés, you cannot help but stare at the idyllic Bourtzi. Built on a rock standing directly across from the Nafplio pier, this 15th century Venetian fortification was constructed in order to protect the city from pirates and invaders from the sea. The Bourtzi served as a fortress until 1865, and has since housed a hotel and a café; today it is a public building that occasionally hosts festivals. Visiting the Bourtzi is highly recommended! Hop on one of the traditional boats along the Nafplio pier and at minimal cost you’ll enjoy a quick and easy ride back in time. Whether taking a cool swim at the nearby Karathona sandy beach or exploring the picturesque streets of Naplfio town, one thing is certain, the almost inexplicable Nafplio feeling is one that will remain with you, and perhaps even more so if you are a romantic, an artist, or simply in love!

Route 4: Spetses Town

When arriving in Spetses by boat, the first picture you will see is the beautiful town with the fine mansions overlooking the harbor waters. You will also quickly notice that there are only a handful of four-wheeled vehicles, as they are not allowed on this beautiful island. Exploring the main town on foot is easy, but if you want to see the rest of the island you should hire a water taxi or cab (there is an exception to the rule for very few cabs), or rent a bicycle or motorbike. Of course the preferred means of transportation for some of you will undoubtedly be the charming and romantic horse drawn carriages! Throughout its history, Spetses has always been an island associated with ships and the sea: its inhabitants acquired enormous wealth from shipbuilding and sea transport. A walk along the waterfront and its wonderful houses will convince you of the glorious past of Spetses. Before you start exploring, enjoy a traditional Spetsiot almond sweet called ‘amigdaloto’ and a cup of coffee at the cosmopolitan Dapia, the central meeting point of the island. Dapia was a harbor fortress filled with cannons used against the invaders during the War of Independence. If you feel a sense of a noble past, it is probably because it was at Dapia that the Spetsiots of the 19th century met to decide the island’s leaders. Near Dapia you will find Orologiou Square and the streets that surround it constitute the commercial center of Spetses. Follow the waterfront road toward the old harbor and enjoy a quiet walk along the blue waters and the beautiful Spetsiot houses; pass by the impressive Agios Nikolaos church – once a monastery where the Spetsiot revolution started – and the beautiful mansions with the whitewashed walls, the tiled roof tops, the beautiful cypresses and palm trees. The road passes small coves – where you may see people swimming – but don’t be in a hurry to jump in, there are far better beaches awaiting you on the rest of the island. Following Agios Nikolaos you will enter the magical world of the old harbor, where you will see a vast variety of boats – from small fishing boats to spectacular luxury cruisers and yachts – anchored in the calm waters in an area that has undoubtedly become the most cosmopolitan spot of the waterfront. The old harbor’s wonderful fine restaurants, tavernas, and bars attest to such a claim. At the old harbor you will see the shipbuilding area, a living part of Spetsiot history, the famous Karnagio. Here you can walk among caiques (traditional Greek boats) that are still work-in-progress, with the flashy orange colored frames and the pungent scent of boat paint and freshly cut wood. At the other side of the old harbor, on the way to the lighthouse, you can see the church of Panagia Armada of 1830. If you are in Spetses on September 8th you will have the opportunity to join the famous Armada firework celebration, a festivity commemorating the famous naval battle between the Greeks and the Turks back in the 1820s. Near the church you will find the house of renowned French writer Michel Déon. As you can see, John Fowles was not the only famous writer this pristine island had attracted. Walking along the northern part of the waterfront although not as interesting as the old harbor, it is worth a visit, simply to see one of the most beautiful buildings in Greece, the astonishing Poseidonion Grand Hotel. After the Town Hall and the Ekonomou Mansion the road drifts away from the coastline, and following it further will take you to the grand buildings of the Anargyreios and Korgialenios College of Spetses. The school was an offering by the wealthy nobleman Sotirios Anargyros, who was a great fan of the British school system. Many English teachers taught here, and you guessed right, John Fowles was among them. While the sea has marked the island’s history so distinctly and the mansions on the waterfront reflect the town’s identity, the inner town exposes the rare charm of Spetses. The streets are not as narrow as on other Greek islands, enabling sunlight to pass through and create hundreds of bright and colorful images. The houses of Spetses have an authentic beauty that you will fall in love with; even the smaller and less luxurious houses shine clean and clear, their courtyards filled with flowers and scents behind their whitewashed walls. Fruit trees, cypresses, and green bushes rise over the yards’ front walls, and beautiful flowers spread around their aroma – reminding you of the origin of the island’s name: Isola delle Spezie (island of aromas!) It is exactly due to the Venetians’ admiration of the island’s wild flowers that to this day big windows and artistic balconies still shine under the red-tiled roof tops.

 

On your inner town walks, you should make an effort to spot some of the magnificent ‘votsalota,’ the rare decorative patterns of the Spetsiot yards. These monuments of folk art are a mosaic made of black and white sea pebbles, present not only on the streets, but also aboard ships, usually depicting mermaids, tridents, flags or historical symbols of the revolution. In one of the finest mansions of the inner town you can explore the Spetses Museum; it is housed in the Hadzigianni-Mexi Mansion, built in the late 18th century and at that time home to the famous noble man and Senator of Spetses after the Turkish occupation. The museum hosts wonderful folk items and plenty of memorabilia from the naval history of Spetses. Another site worth a visit is the Bouboulina mansion, located in the streets behind Dapia, very close to the magnificent Anargyros mansion. At the Bouboulina Museum you can
see artifacts associated with the Greek heroine and the times of the Greek revolution. Moving along, if you follow the streets that lead to the higher parts of town you will find fewer mansions and more ‘common’ houses built around churches. The upper side of town is known as ‘Kastelli,’ or Old Town, and is the exact location of where the first settlement was built – the initial core of the town. Although a relatively tiresome walk, it is appealing as it offers a nice view of the town below.

Route 5: Spetses Beaches

Good asphalt-covered roads run around the island’s coastline and enable you to get a good taste of Spetses’ coasts and beaches. Having your own means of transportation on a warm summer day is always lovely, so you could rent a bicycle or motorbike, or hire a water taxi to take you to one of the lovely beaches, such as Agioi Anargiroi. The price list for each water taxi route is displayed at Dapia harbor; the few cabs are also always an option. At the southern end of town, the paved road leads you to the small sandy and frequently crowded beach of Agia Marina, adorned with a picturesque little chapel. Moving on, you will pass the southeastern coast with its nice villas, and the great view, to the small beach of Kouzounou. The beach is close to the main road, and opposite the private island of Spetsopoula, which belongs to the late Greek tycoon Stavros Niarchos. The winding road, lined with thick pine trees, takes you to seemingly distant beaches that in fact are right next to you, if you choose to take the small dirt roads leading you down the slope. Some beautiful small beaches are those of Xylokeriza and Agia Eleni. Agioi Anargiroi and the neighbor beach of Agia Paraskevi are the most popular beaches of the western part of Spetses, sandy and filled with pine trees that offer some shade – as you’ll probably need it! Right next to Agioi Anargiroi is the famous Bekiri cave, the hiding place of the revolutionists in the 1821 War of Independence. The next sandy beach, Zogeria, is situated at the northwestern end of the island where there are several small, sandy coves around the Zogeria gulf. Before completing the entire loop of the island and arriving back at town, you will come across two nice beaches with calm and shallow waters – Vrellos and Ligoneri.

Route 6: Porto Heli

The picturesque bay of Porto Heli is well connected by road and by sea making it an ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of Athens. Smooth-running services by hydrofoils connect the Agrosaronic islands of Spetses, Hydra and Poros, which lie on the tip of the Peloponnese to the port of Porto Heli. From the capital of Athens you can take one of Greece’s largest roads, the national road, over the Ismuthus of Corinth and onto the scenic route down to Porto Heli. Regardless of how you arrive there, whether for a long or short stay, you are guaranteed to be within a short distance of breathtaking scenery and mesmerizing waters. This seaside town is located on the eastern part of the Peloponnese and is known for being one of the primary summer retreats for Greeks. Its popularity over recent years, for both Greek and international visitors, has grown and without doubt, Porto Heli, has become an exclusive destination on the ‘Greek Riviera.’ Join Athenians on an escape from the city life and relax on this sun-kissed Peloponnese landscape. Take a break on the nearby sandy beach of Hinitsa for an invigorating yet peaceful swim. Continuing with a local’s interpretation, swim on an idyllic beach by stepping into Lake Ververonta. Here you can revel on one of its glistening white-pebbled beaches. Alternatively, swim in the calm waters of Lepitsa beach whose palm trees will provide some welcome shade in order for you to unwind with a good book. The shallow and calm waters of this child-friendly beach will allow children to swim in the indigo colored sea and enjoy a day out at the beach. If you are looking for something a bit more thrilling you can go on an archeological scuba dive and view the remains of the submerged Temple of Apollo, which lies at the bottom of the sea.

 

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