My favourite Place is the Mani region on the west coast of Greece
The one question I ask every guest on my Travel Tales with Fergal Podcast is "If you close your eyes and take four deep breaths and think of your happy place. Where is that and why?”. My latest podcast episode is a collection of my guests favourite happy places.
My guests pick places all over the world with Verbier in Switzerland and the Maldives getting the most mentions. We hear about secluded beaches in Bali and Brazil, walking the Camino in Spain, the mountains of Patagonia, the Zambezi in African. But unsurprisingly after over a year in lockdown several guests picked places in Ireland and close to home including Inis Oirr, Lough Gur and Dalkey to name just a few.
When I am asked where is my happy place I now say the Suir Blueway which never fails to delight on my daily walk. If I choose somewhere abroad I pick Agios Nickolas in the Mani region of the Peloponnese peninsula on the west coast of mainland Greece.
When we see a Greek tourism promotional photo it is usually a Greek island like Mykonos with white-washed towns and beautiful people around a chic pool admiring an Aegean sunset. But I seek out a small village by the sea, with a great local restaurant with friendly staff that you don't mind going to most nights and an area full of history with lots of adventurous day trips. I think I found that place with Agios Nickolas which is the most beautiful, idyllic small fishing village surrounded by a gorgeous turquoise sea and stunning mountainous scenery.
My first holiday abroad as an adult was to the Cyclades islands in Greece in 1996 and I returned with my family a few years ago. The islands like Paros and Naxos are still as beautiful as ever, but I was surprised by how busy with tourists they have become. I would recommend the Peloponnese peninsula for its history and beauty but also because it feels much less crowded and more like the Greece I knew and fell in love with 25 years ago.
There are daily flights from Ireland to Athens. It is worth spending a few days in Athens at the start or the end of your trip. The city has recovered from the recent financial crash to become a vibrant, modern culinary capital which is full of ancient Greek landmarks like the Acropolis, the hilltop citadel dominating the city, dating from the 5th century BC.
The Peloponnese peninsula is an hour’s drive from Athens passing over the historic Corinthian canal which technically cuts it off from mainland Greece and it does feel like you are entering a new land. This region has an abundance of historic sites which were considered old to even the ancient Greeks boasting many ancient civilisations including the Spartans, Corinthians and the Mycenaeans.
Nafplio is on the east coast and was the first capital of Greece when it became independent from Turkey around 1821. This city is quite different from Athens in architectural style reflecting its Venetian heritage. It is a great base for history lovers as it is surrounded by ancient sites including the amphitheatre Epidaurus dating from the 4th century BC. Greece’s best preserved ancient theatre can hold 14,000 spectators and is world famous for its amazing acoustics. Epidaurus still holds concerts throughout the summer.
Just an hour down the east coast from Nafplio is the glitzy beach resort of Porto Heli, popular with the glamorous, trendy set from Athens. It is a great base to visit the stunning islands of Spetses and Hydra, made famous by Leonard Cohen in the 1960’s.
The drive from Port Heli to Agios Nickolas passes through the Laconia region where the famous Spartans once ruled and the word laconic was coined. The modern capital Sparta has few ruins remaining from that ancient fighting race but the nearby abandoned ancient town of Mistras is worth a visit. Atmospheric Mistras was the final capital of the Byzantian empire and is full of history.
The drive from Mistras to Mani on the west coast is considered one of the greatest drives in the world passing along deep river gorges and crossing over steep mountain passes. It is easy to see why Sparta was never successfully invaded when driving along these spectacular narrow winding roads.
You will arrive after an hour at Kalamata, home of reputably the best olive oil in the world. There are now direct flights to Kalamata from the UK. Then an hour’s drive over more mountains reveals the beautiful coastline of the mystical Mani region where legend says the Spartans are said to have ended up.
The Mani was once a very remote part of Greece that few Greeks visited but with EU money new roads were built to open access to some of the most gorgeous resorts in Greece including Agios Nicolas, Stoupa and Kardamyli, the location for the film “Before Midnight” and the recent SKY TV show “The Trip to Greece”.
Mani is famous for the friendliness of the locals, many stunning beaches dotted along the coast and the nearby mountains which are great for hiking. The famous seaside town of Limeni is one of the most picturesque in Greece and unsurprisingly is often used in Greek tourism adverts. The whole of the Peloponnese region is full of natural wonders and ancient historic sites like Olympus, the site of the ancient Olympics.
I chose diving off the rocks, with my kids, into the warm turquoise sea at the edge of Agios Nickolas as my happy place and I loved it so much I made it the logo photo for my podcast.
The Travel Tales with Fergal Podcast is now listened to in 75 countries and the Happy Place special and all the episodes can be listened to on www.traveltaleswithfergal.ie