This mountainous peninsular, jutting out into the Med below Athens, is home to some of the best classical sites, but it has also recently seen an upsurge in both rural tourism and adventure travel. This was something I was keen to explore.
Having said that, I hadn’t really intended to go rafting. The only time I had tried the sport before I’d managed to fall out on a grade one rapid. This is like falling off your bike while using stabilisers, wearing a safety harness and holding your daddy’s hand. I’ve never really got on with water, especially when it’s deeper than me. I had heard, however, of the burgeoning adventure sport scene in Arcadia, a beautiful region of gorges and mountains in the middle of the Peloponnese just to the south of ancient Olympia, where the Olympic flame is still lit every four years.
Back in Greece after a gap and enjoying a drunken reunion with old friends, I decided to phone Trifonas, who owns a company called Trekking Hellas. I really only wanted a chat and a chance to catch up, but Trifonas had a better idea. They were taking some Athenians rafting the next day – if I could make it to the start point to meet Christos, the guide, by 10.30am I could join in. In a slightly inebriated state, I weighed the opportunity against my innate fear of drowning. Trifonas assured me I would barely get wet, but with the expectation of a thorough soaking I scribbled down the details and continued celebrating.
Somewhat hungover the next morning, and rather put off by the early spring rain, I eventually found my destination. Christos was waiting for me, along with his colleagues Tasos and Thanassi, who despite being the oldest of the three was the rookie, learning the rafting trade. There were eight others, two of whom were assigned to my boat, which was to be led by Christos along with Thanassi. Tasos was to take the others in a second boat. We got kitted out and then, wetsuited and helmeted, piled into an old Land Rover and set off.
We were starting off on the Lousios, a river said in legend to have been used to wash Zeus’ nappies. It was also said to be the coldest river in the world; not a happy thought. We joined it next to a 200-year-old stone bridge, below which we sat to get our first lesson in the art of rafting. We learned the commands Christos would shout at us (“all back”, “back left”, “back right”, “stop”, “down!” – the last of these meaning it would be a good idea to duck or risk being decapitated by a passing tree). Most importantly we were told how to float and head to the side if we fell in. With that, the rain still drizzling, we set off down the river surrounded by a green corridor of trees.
The gorge of the Lousios soon closed in around us, bare limestone cliffs poking through the sloping forest. After about 10 minutes, the rain stopped and a spring sun shone down onto the river, completing the idyllic wilderness. It turned out to be not so bad, in fact even rather pleasurable. The grade three rapids were choppy enough to be exciting, but not too scary.
Christos let Thanassi take over at the back of the boat. He cheerfully told us he shared his surname, Charos, with the mythical ferryman of the River Styx, who took the dead to the Underworld. I wasn’t entirely encouraged by this, but he seemed confident enough. As we talked a huge heron flapped lazily overhead.
After an hour of paddling we stopped on a pebbly beach for cups of tea laced with Metaxa, Greek brandy. Christos explained we were about to join the Alfios, the river that flows down past Olympia, and would soon face the three most dangerous rapids of the trip. These were all full grade three rapids; if I was going to get my dunking, it would be here.
First in line was the “toilet”, an aptly named whirlpool of whitewater that we spun around and popped out of backwards without a problem. Next came the “S-aki”, an S-shaped bend in the river with a prominent and vicious-looking rock in its centre. We back-paddled hard, moving us sideways across the river until we could finally shoot onwards through the gap between rock and cliff.
Last of all came the rather unimaginatively titled “fall”. This was a 1.5m drop from a rock over which the water rushed only inches deep. Both rafts stopped, with us clinging to the cliff side. Christos and Tasos let some of the air out of the rafts to give them extra flexibility and I tried to remember how to survive the river when I was thrown in.
Tasos went first. Despite some furious paddling, his raft stuck fast on the rock, leaning at a dangerous-looking 45-degree angle. Tasos took the opportunity to jump out onto a nearby ledge and take several ‘action’ photos as the Athenians mimed excitement and horror. After some bouncing and pushing, the raft eventually fell down to the pool below and it was our turn. I was still convinced I was going to fall in, but I was also, along with the rest of my companions, determined that we would not get stuck like our predecessors. Putting our shoulders into it, we dug deep and fast with our paddles, and with a scraping sound shot over the rock into space. The raft seemed almost to fold in half and then popped back into shape as we hit the river again. I bounced upwards, but then was caught by my foot, wedged into a strap at the bottom of the boat. The raft spun sideways and then floated out into the calm water, all of us still aboard.
We pulled up on the shore shortly afterwards, and while the waiting Land Rover hauled the boats along a steep track we walked up a nearby stream. Here in a shaded hollow lay a churning pool of water into which dropped a 15m waterfall. It was a scene of beauty and power, hidden miles from any house or road, and in those secret, pounding waters I finally allowed myself to get absolutely soaked.
Thrills and hills
Adventure tourism is an ever-expanding field in Greece as people come to want more from their holidays than just a perfect beach. Part of the attraction is that the adrenaline rush is combined with the laid-back Mediterranean attitude to life, so a morning abseiling down cliffs is rounded off by a picnic lunch with wine in a mountain meadow. Here are a few more ways to get off the beach:
» Bungee jump 78m into the spectacular and historic Corinth Canal.
» Go canyoning down the Tavropos River in Central Greece.
» Mountain bike through the fir forests of Mount Parnitha near Athens.
» Climb the towering rock pinnacles of Meteora.
» Scuba-dive in the crystal blue waters of the Aegean.
» Hike the beautiful mountains of the remote Mani region.
» Sea kayak among the islands of the Ionian.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Greek holiday unless there was some sun and sand involved. The beauty of the Peloponnese is that it combines spectacular mountains, world-famous ancient sites and some of the best beaches in Greece.
1. Finikounda This long beach in Messenia is noted for its windsurfing.
2. Voidokilia On the other coast of Messenia, this picture-perfect shallow bay overlooks where the combined navies of Britain, France and Russia defeated the Ottomans in 1827, ending the Greek War of Independence.
3. Tolo The biggest resort in the Peloponnese, this pretty beach is lined with buzzing tavernas, bars and clubs.
4. Elafonisos Take the short ferry ride over to this island just off the south-east corner of the Peloponnese for gorgeous crescents of secluded white sand.
5. Kalogria In the popular resort of Stoupa, this is where the writer Nikos Kazantzakis allegedly got the inspiration for Zorba The Greek.
6. Skoutari Another isolated gem among the tower houses of the Mani.
7. Epidavros After visiting the ancient theatre it’s worth stopping at the less known, but also lovely, nearby beach.
8. Mavrovouni A long stretch of sand near the fishing port of Gythio, with plenty of bars and tavernas.