North of Megalópoli, the best of Arcadia lies before you: minor roads that curl through a series of lush valleys and below the area’s most exquisite medieval hill towns. The obvious first stop is lofty Karítena. Then the route to the northwest winds farther up around the edge of the Ménalo mountains to the delightful towns of Stemnítsa and Dhimitsána, from either of which you can explore the Loúsios Gorge, including the remote site of ancient Gortys and the stunning eleventh-century Ayíou Ioánnou Prodhrómou Monastery (commonly abbreviated to Prodhrómou), as well as additional ancient monasteries on up the gorge. To the west there’s the hill town of Andhrítsena and nearby the ancient Temple of Bassae. Having your own transport is pretty essential here, though there are limited buses from Trípoli and Megalópoli. The hill towns also offer plenty of great places to stay.
Most picturesquely set, watching over the strategic Megalópoli–Andhrítsena road, KARÍTENA provides one of the signature Arcadian images. Like many of the hill towns hereabouts, its history has Frankish, Byzantine and Turkish contributions. It was founded by the Byzantines in the seventh century and had attained a population of some 20,000 when the Franks took it in 1209. Under their century-long rule, Karítena was the capital of a large barony under Geoffroy de Bruyères, the paragon of chivalry in the medieval ballad The Chronicle of the Morea, and probably the only well-liked Frankish overlord.
These days the village has a population of just a couple of hundred, but as recently as the beginning of the nineteenth century there were at least ten times that figure.
Up steps off the platía is the Froúrio, the castle built in 1245 by the Franks, with added Turkish towers. It was repaired by Theodhoros Kolokotronis and it was here that he held out against Ibrahim Pasha in 1826 and turned the tide of the War of Independence.
Medieval bridge and river
Don’t miss Karítena’s medieval bridge over the River Alfiós (Alpheus). To find it, stop on the south side of the modern bridge and follow a short track down, almost underneath the new span. The old structure is missing the central section, but is an intriguing sight nonetheless, with a small Byzantine chapel built into one of the central pillars. River rafting is organized by the Alpin Club (alpinclub.gr), near the bridge.
Stemnítsa and around
STEMNÍTSA (Ypsoús on many maps), 16km north of Karítena, is a winter resort at an altitude of 1050m. For centuries this was one of the premier goldworking centres of the Balkans. Although much depopulated, it remains a fascinating town, with a small folklore museum, an artisan school and several quietly magnificent medieval churches. Across the way from the folklore museum, the seventeenth-century basilica of Tríon Ierarhón is the most accessible of the town’s Byzantine churches; its caretaker lives in the low white house west of the main door.
The town is divided by ravines into three distinct quarters: the Kástro (the ancient acropolis hill, worth the walk up for the views), Ayía Paraskeví (east of the stream) and Áyios Ioánnis (west of the stream).
The folklore museum is just off the main road in the Ayía Paraskeví quarter. The ground floor is devoted to mock-ups of the workshops of indigenous crafts such as candle-making, bell-casting, shoe-making and jewellery. The next floor up features re-creations of the salon of a well-to-do family and a humbler cottage. The top storey is taken up by the rather random collections of the Savopoulos family: plates by Avramides (a refugee from Asia Minor and ceramics master), textiles and costumes from all over Greece, weapons, copperware and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century icons.
Ancient Gortys, 8km southeast of Stemnítsa, is a charming site, set beside the rushing river known in ancient times as the Gortynios. The remains are widely strewn over the hillside on the west bank of the stream, but the main attraction, below contemporary ground level and not at all obvious until well to the west of the little Byzantine chapel of Áyios Andhréas (by the old bridge), is the huge excavation containing the remains of a temple to Asklepios and an adjoining bath, both dating from the fourth century BC. The most curious feature of the site is a circular portico enclosing round-backed seats, which most certainly would have been part of the therapeutic centre.
Like Stemnítsa, 11km to the south, DHIMITSÁNA has an immediately seductive appearance, its cobbled streets and tottering houses straddling a twin hillside overlooking the Loúsios River. Views from the village are stunning, and though quite a small resort, there is an excellent accommodation selection, making Dhimitsána a prime base for exploring the centre of the Peloponnese.
In the town, a half-dozen churches with tall, squarish belfries recall the extended Frankish, and especially Norman, tenure in this part of the Moreas during the thirteenth century. Yet no one should dispute the deep-dyed Greekness of Dhimitsána. It was the birthplace of Archbishop Yermanos, who first raised the flag of rebellion at Kalávryta in 1821, and of the hapless patriarch, Grigoris V, hanged in Constantinople upon the sultan’s receiving news of the insurrection.
Open-Air Water-Power Museum
About 2km south of Dhimitsána, the excellent Open-Air Water-Power Museum has a reconstructed watermill, tannery and gunpowder mill, with exhibitions on the processes involved.
Andhrítsena and around
ANDHRÍTSENA, 28km west of Karítena along a beautiful route, is a traditional hill town and the base from which to visit the Temple of Apollo at Bassae (Apollo Epikourios) up in the mountains to the south. Though very much a roadside settlement today, it was a major hill town through the years of Turkish occupation and the first century of independent Greece. It remains quite untouched, with wooden houses spilling down to a stream, whose clear ice-cold headwaters are channelled into a fountain set within a plane tree in the central platía.
The Temple of Apollo Epikourios
Some 14km into the mountains south of Andhrítsena stands a World Heritage Site, the fifth-century BC Temple of Apollo at BASSAE (Vásses), occupying one of the remotest, highest (1131m) and arguably most spectacular sites in Greece. In addition, it is one of the best-preserved Classical monuments in the country and is considered to have been designed by Iktinos, architect of the Parthenon and the Hephaisteion in Athens.
There’s just one problem: nowadays to protect it from the elements during its complicated restoration, the magnificent temple is swathed in a gigantic grey marquee suspended from metal girders; and what’s left of its entablature and frieze lies dissected in neat rows on the ground to one side. Panels make clear that the work is badly needed to keep the whole thing from simply tumbling, stone by stone, into the valley it overlooks – and the marquee is quite a sight in itself – but visitors are likely to feel a bit disappointed, at least until you enter the tent and are awe-struck by the sheer scale and majesty of the thing, even more so as you walk all around it.
Hiking near ancient Gortys
Hiking near ancient Gortys
The farmland surrounding ancient Gortys belongs to the monks of the nearby Prodhrómou Monastery, who have carved a path along the Gorge of the Loúsios between Áyios Andhréas and the monastery. It’s about a 40min walk up a well-graded trail following the stream. The monastery, stuck on to the cliff like a swallow’s nest, is plainly visible a couple of hundred metres above the path. There are no more than five monks here, and one of them will show visitors the tiny frescoed katholikón (closed 2–5pm). Strict dress rules apply, with blanket-like clothing provided if necessary. The monastery is also accessible by an asphalt road that makes a circuitous 7km descent from the Stemnítsa–Dhimitsána road to a parking lot and newish chapel, and then it’s a further descent on foot along a steep path.
Beyond Prodhrómou the path continues clearly to the outlying, well-signed monasteries of Paleá and then Néa Filosófou on the opposite side of the valley. The older (Paleá), dating from the tenth century, is merely a ruin and blends into the cliff against which it is flattened. The newer monastery (Néa, seventeenth century) has been restored and recently expanded considerably, but retains frescoes from 1663 inside; there is a permanent caretaker monk. From here, paths follow the west then east banks of the river, to reach Dhimitsána via Paleohóri in under two hours.
Bassae’s missing metopes
Bassae’s missing metopes
Many of the Bassae temple’s stunning metopes, the marble frieze sculptures, as well as other fine pieces, were removed and installed in London’s British Museum in 1814–15. Reportedly, an English archeologist bribed the local Ottoman pasha, who evidently did not consider preservation of the works of any importance. The metopes powerfully depict the battles of the Amazons, Lapiths and Centaurs, and they are on display in a special room with the controversial Elgin Marbles, which, under similar circumstances, were boxed up and shipped to Britain in 1812.