Gortynia (Γορτυνία) is a province of the Arcadian (Αρκαδία) prefecture, in the very middle of Peloponnese, which took its name from the city of Ancient Gortys.
The area is of exceptional natural beauty: high mountains covered with beautiful unspoiled forests, fertile little plateaus, stone-built bridges, wealthy villages with admirable mansions and elaborated bellfries, archeological sites and byzantine monasteries hanging on the edge of deep gorges, long trails and roaring rivers.
Lousios (Λούσιος), Alfeios (Αλφειός) and Ladonas (Λάδωνας) are the three main rivers that cross the area creating deep gorges. No surprise that rafting is very popular in the area.
Mount Mainalo (Όρος Μαίναλο) is the main mountain of the region and its ski resort attracts many tourists during winter.
On the slopes of the deep gorge of Lousios River hang the byzantine monasteries: of Philosofou (Φιλοσόφου), of Agios Prodromos (John the Baptist) and of Aimialon (Αιμιαλών).
But, the main beauty of the area rests with the wealthy in architecture and beautifulness villages: Vytina, Dimitsana, Stemnitsa, Lagadia, Karytaina, Zatouna are some of the villages worth visiting. The well-preserved, stone-built villages, that were once supplying the emigrational wave, are now reborn and host masses of visitors in accommodations that combine tradition with modern standards.
The area is mainly a winter destination, but the beauty of the forests, the bloomed dales and the grazing lands is astonishing.
During the antiquity the ancient Arcadian towns of Gortys, Tefthis, Helpousa and others grew up in the area.
During the 7th-8th centuries AD settled in the region Slavic tribes, which either abandoned the region in 807 AD, a year in which they were defeated by the Byzantine army, or were assimilated from the local Greek element. This is the reason of the existence, even today, several Slavic place names in the region.
In the 10th century AD the Orthodox monasticism was developed in the region, and in 963 AD Ioannis Lambardopoulos, Philosopher and Proclaimer of Byzantine Emperor Nikiphoros Fokas, founded the old Monastery of Panagia Philosofou, which is known in popular tradition as Krifo Scholio (underground or secret school).
Later, other monasteries were founded here, such as the Monastery of John the Baptist in the 12th century AD.
During the Frankish domination, there was an economic and cultural flourishing in the area, which was divided into two weights: of Akova and of Karytaina.
During the Ottoman domination, a big population fled from the lowlands and settled in the area because of its mountainous and inaccessible territory. Due to this particularity, several armed bodies of Kleftes (=thieves, illegal armed combatants) also acted in Gortynia.
The province, as well as the entire Peloponnese, passed into the possession of the Venetians in the period 1685-1715.
During the Orlof Revolt in 1770, Gortynia suffered looting from the Albanian troops of the Ottoman Empire, while similar was the disaster caused by Ibrahim Pasha in 1825, whose army burned several villages. During the Revolution of 1821, the region has led the way under the leadership of powerful families like Kolokotronaioi, Plapoutaioi and Deligiannaioi-Papagiannopoulaioi.
The area is scattered with monuments commemorating heroes, fighters and battles of the liberation struggle against the Οttoman Τurks. Thus, Gortinia dwells in every Greek’s heart.
During my recent trip in the area, I chose to stay in Vytina (Βυτίνα) village (650 inhabitants) and from there to explore as much as possible during a long late-July weekend.
Dimitsana is a better choice to stay, as it is located at the center of Gortynia, but I chose Vytina because it is flat and one of the co-travelers had some mobility issues.
Vytina is the closest to Athens town (Levidi is closer, but it is not considered to be in Gortynia), some 180 km away. The roads are good, so one can reach the area in just over two hours. The closest town to Vytina is Tripolis (40 km), while the famous Ancient Olympia is only 80 km away on a reasonably good road.
Vytina is located at an altitude of 1033m, in a verdant plateau on Mount Mainalo, dominated by pine, fir and chestnut trees. It is one of the most valued mountain resorts in the Peloponnese and more widely in Greece.
Based on Vytina, one can easily visit Dimitsana, the gorge of Lousios, Stemnitsa and Lagadia, while ascending the slopes of Mainalo on a good asphalt road one reaches the plateau of Ostrakina, at an altitude of 1600m, where there is a small ski resort center.
The town has several restaurants, cafés and shops with traditional products (artifacts made of wood, cheese, pasta, herbs, fruit, honey, etc), all located around the main square and the main road. We had dinner at two of the restaurants, “to Archontiko tis Athinas” (Το Αρχοντικό της Αθηνάς) and “Kokkina Pitharia” (Κόκκινα Πυθάρια), both next to the main square. This is a stockbreeder’s area, so most of the dishes use pork or beef: try the roasted piglet, the omelet with cured pork and the beef cooked into tomato sauce served with handmade lasagna.
The problem with food in the area is the quantity of salt they put into all dishes. Most probably it is what customers ask, but I believe the overdose of salt spoils food's taste. Oh well... I know I am strange...
Langadia used to be famous in Greece mainly for its builders, fine stone-craftsmen who made stone-built houses all over the Peloponnese peninsula, and especially in Mani.
Restaurant “Maniatis” is on the main road and has wonderful views of the gorge beneath. If you are lucky enough, you will get a seat at the two couches outside of café “In café”, where you can watch people pass by while enjoying your greek coffee.
Dimitsana (Δημητσάνα) is only 20km from Vytina. The road is very good and the landscape along the route rewarding. You can admire the wild beauty of the town approaching by car from the north: the road forms a bend just before entering into the town giving the visitor the opportunity to stop the car and enjoy the views. From this point you can also see the old three-arched stone bridge (under the new one that supports the main road to town), which once used to be the main entrance to the town for the visitors coming from the north.
The town is built on the ruins of an ancient town, which is supposed to be the town of Teuthis (Τεύθις) . Ancient Teuthis has participated in the Trojan War and was visited by the famous Greek traveler Pausanias in 174 AD who gives us valuable information about the city.
The story says that, during the war, the King of Teuthis (called by the same name) injured Goddess Athens with his spear. The Goddess punished him by giving him an incurable disease. Ruins of the ancient city walls are still preserved.
During the Greek Revolution of 1821, Dimitsana was an important supply center of gunpowder, which fueled the fighters of Peloponnese. Many residents were engaged in the production of gunpowder and the town had the largest warehouse, which is known as the "repository of the struggle for liberation". There are still around six powder mills saved in the area.
Dimitsana is the birthplace of two of the prominent figures of the Greek struggle against the Turks: a) Germanos III Metropolitan of Old Patras (who, according to tradition, on March 25 1821, proclaimed the national uprising against the Ottoman Empire and blessed the flag of the revolution at the Monastery of Agia Lavra) and b) Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople (at the onset of the Greek War of Independence, as ethnarch of the Orthodox Millet, he was blamed by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II for his inability to suppress the Greek uprising, and thus he was hung from the main gate of the Patriarchate). Both their houses can still be admired, while the Patriarch’s house accommodates the Ecclesiastical Museum.
The most prominent landmark of Dimitsana is the clock (ρολόι) located close to the center of the town market, next to the church of Agia Kyriaki. The magnificent tower holding the clock is made of fine marble and can be seen from afar. The clock was shipped from New York City in 1900. The foundation was set in 1928, and the tower was completed in 1934.
The famous library of Dimitsana, which founded in 1764 by the monks Gerasimos Gounas and Agapios Leonardos, is located opposite the church of Agia Kyriaki. During the Ottoman domination, it was among the four libraries that existed in Greece and contained 5,000 volumes. It is housed in the beautiful building of the old Primary School (1845) at the location where the Dimitsana Ecclesiastical College used to be and from which many hierarchs graduated from in the years of Ottoman rule. The building combines elements of neoclassical style and the traditional architecture of mountainous Arcadia. During the Revolution of 1821, however, it suffered great damage, since much of its books were used in the manufacture of cartridges.
Today, of the old books survive about 700 volumes, including handwritten codes, 16th century books and a rich historical record. The library building also houses a folklore collection as well as an archaeological collection with findings from Ancient Teuthis. Among the exhibits there is the bronze larnax containing the bones of the Germanos III Metropolitan of Old Patras.
Do not forget to try some of the Greek homemade pastries while visiting Dimitsana. "Cafe Lousios" on the main road (in the very center of the town) is a traditional beautiful cafe-patisserie with dark wood furnishing and marble round tables.
Cafe Lousios serves excellent Greek coffee and “galaktoboureko” (milk cream pie with filo pastry in syrop) in a fine old-style ambient environment. Check the cakes of the day and try them all! I had some nice “portokalopita” (orange pie with filo pastry).
Monastery of Panayia of Aimialon
Not far away from the Open-Air Waterways Museum, in the Gorge of Lousios river and in an impressive landscape, stands the Monastery of Panayia of Aimialon (Emialon - Παναγία Αιμυαλών), which has a guesthouse for travelers wishing to spend the night in the tranquility of the monastery. It is built at the foot of a rock in a fertile and green area, at an altitude of 900 meters. It is dedicated to the birth of the Virgin Mary.
The access to the Aimialon Monastery is easy: park your car at the parking lot outside the main gate and then descent some steps to reach the entrance of it. The entrance leads to a shady courtyard with beautiful flowers.
The view of the balcony of the archondariki (reception room, where coffee and cold water is offered to the visitors) is gorgeous.
The monastery was built in 1600, perhaps on the ruins of another earlier monastery from the Byzantine period. The katholikon (church) of the monastery and its frescoes (hagiographies) were made in 1608 by the brothers Dimitrios and Georgios Moschos. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take pictures in the church, unless you are fast and silent enough… Originally, the Monastery had the form of small hermitage with few monastic cells wedged into a cave. Of particular interest is the wood-carved iconostasis of the katholikon.
The imposing stone church of Panagia (Dormition of Virgin Mary) dominates the beautiful central square of the village. Next to it stands the stone building of the primary school.
It is also worth visiting the little church of Agios Georgios with its impressive stone bell-clock tower (the main road separates the church from the bell tower) next to the recently renovated and turned into a hotel, Archontiko Anyfanti.
During the liberation struggle of 1821, Zatouna brought out remarkable historical figures, fighters and many eminent clergymen. In more recent years, Zatuna, being isolated and on high grounds, served as a place of exile. From August 1968 till October 1969, the famous music composer Mikis Theodorakis was displaced here by the Junta regime (dictatorship). During his exile in the village, he was inspired and wrote his work "Arcadies" and the music of Kosta Gavra’s film “Z” with Yves Montand in the leading role.
Lousios (Λούσιος) is a small river which originates in the area of the Karkalou Plateau at an altitude of 1,000 m. The river is about 23 km in length and flows into the Alfeios River close to the town of Karytaina.
According to ancient Greek traveler Pausanias and the local tradition, the river was named Lousios because the father of the gods, Zeus, was bathed (λούζομαι) in it when he was born. The springs located in the area of ancient Gortynia gather an impressive volume of water. Lousios water is famous for its coldness, which it maintains during the summer months, as well as its purity.
Many mountain activities and sports take place here all year round, such as rafting, trekking, canyoning and kayaking.
Throughout the area that Lousios crosses, it forms one of the most beautiful gorges of the Peloponnese, the Lousios Gorge. This is a gorge with great history and rare natural beauty. Impressive lush vegetation spreads across all the gorge area, while the spotless landscape on its wooded slopes acts as a natural mechanism for cleaning the environment, providing the perfect conditions for the growing of variform flora and the sustainability of rear fauna.
The visitor can access the river via the many well signed trails of the gorge, but also by car at two points.
The first point is where the road (Lousios Rd) from Dimitsana to Philosophou Monastery crosses the river. About 200 m after exiting Dimitsana from the south you take the narrow road on the left towards Dimitsana Open-Air Waterways Museum. The road is narrow but reasonably paved.
The second, and most interesting, point is further south next to the location of Ancient Gortys. To arrive there: from Dimitsana south exit follow the road to Stemnitsa village, cross it and at about 1,5 km at a road fork, follow the road to the right towards Elliniko and Megalopolis. After driving for 8 km you arrive at the beautiful village Elliniko. The place is very well signed and there is no way to lose the central road fork where you have to turn right for the final 6km towards Ancient Gortys and Lousios River.
You leave the car at the parking lot and walk under the bridge where the river forms a small but beautiful beach. This is the perfect spot for swimming and for cooling down in a hot summer day.
Cross the bridge on foot and on the other side of it you can visit the ruins of Ancient Gortys (Αρχαία Γόρτυς) as well as the little byzantine church of Agios Andreas (Αγιος Ανδρέας).
There is another road leading to this spot starting just before entering Stemnitsa from the north, but that road is narrow and has lots for sharp turns.
Ancient Gortys was an important Arcadian town in antiquity. Even today its ruins continue to attract the interest and admiration of the visitor, combined with the natural beauty and tranquility of the landscape. According to mythology, Gortys, the son of Stymfelos and great grandson of the king Arcadas, built it. From its founder, the city took its name. The city had a sanctuary of Asclepius (ναός του Ασκληπιού), large healing baths, two strong fortifications (citadels), other sanctuaries and fine public buildings. Balneotherapy was also directly connected with the worship of Asclepius. Today, the visitor can see the remains of the temple of Asclepius and the baths.
While being in the area, it is a very good opportunity to visit the splendid town of Karytaina (Καρύταινα). Drive back to Ellinikon and follow the signs. Karytaina is only 10km to the south. Karytaina is built on the slopes of the hill of Achreiovouni, some 550 m above sea level, on the right bank of the Alfeios river, near its confluence with Lousios river. Driving up the hill towards the town you have a full view of the impressive town.
The village dates back to the Middle Ages, but its history is unknown before the crusader conquest ca. 1205. Karytaina became the seat of a barony under the Frankish Principality of Achaea, and the Castle of Carytaina was built in the mid-13th century on a steep rocky outcrop (hill of Saint Elias) by Baron Geoffrey of Briel. The area returned to Byzantine control in 1320, and came under Ottoman control in 1460. After a brief period of Venetian rule (1687–1715), Karytaina returned to Ottoman control, and prospered as an administrative and commercial centre. Karytaina and its inhabitants were among the first to rise up during the Greek War of Independence of 1821–29.
Today Karytaina is a protected by law traditional settlement (like several other in the area: Dimitsana, Vytina, Stemnitsa, etc) and has, alongside the remains of its Frankish castle, several other medieval and Ottoman monuments.
Its unique townscape has earned Karytaina the moniker of the "Greek Toledo", and was depicted on the reverse of the Greek 5000 drachmas banknote of the period 1984–2001.
The view from the town over the plain of Megalopolis is magnificent, especially from atop the castle. We had a coffee and an ice-cream at the best-view balcony in town and certainly one of the best I have ever seen: “Café Toledo”.
The famous Greek writer Nikos Kazatzakis wrote about Karytaina in his book «Ταξιδεύοντας (στο Μοριά)» (traveling in Peloponnese):
«H Kαρύταινα είναι αληθινά το Τολέδο της Ελλάδας… τα κάστρο έρημο, σταχτόμαυρο σα γεράκι, σηκώνεται στην κορφή και βιγλίζει. …..τα σύννεφα είχαν πληθύνει και περνούσαν γρήγορα, ρίχνοντας τεράστιους ίσκιους απάνω στα βουνά και κάτω στον κάμπο. Κι όταν αντικρίσαμε πάνω από το λόφο το ξακουστό κάστρο της Καρύταινας, νιώσαμε πως σήμερα, σε τέτοιο ανήσυχο φωτισμό και με τέτοιες σύγχρονες έγνοιες, το κάστρο τούτο το άγριο, το πολεμικό, το απότομο, διατυπώνει πιστότερα από κάθε ελληνικό ναό το τοπίο γύρα μας και μέσα μας».
The town is full of stone multi-storey mansions and beautiful churches. From its churches stand out Zoodochos Pigi, in the central square, built in the 16th century, with its marble three-storey bell tower, the 17th century church of Agios Nikolaos with very interesting frescoes inside. On the south side of the castle hill lies the "Panagia in the castle" church, bearing remarkable marble capitals.
Upon Alfeios River, near Karytaina, two old stone bridges are preserved, the bridge of Koukou and the bridge of Karytaina. The first is a single-arched bridge, built in 1880 and is preserved in good condition. The second one is a five-arched bridge, of which, during a battle of the civil war (late 40s-early 50s), the main arch was destroyed and thus remains to this day ruined. The chapel of Virgin Mary’s Birth is built inside one of its arches. The Karytaina bridge is located under a modern arched bridge on the main road going to Megalopolis. From the new bridge one has a view of the Alfeios Gorge, but not a good view of the old Bridge bellow. To approach the old stone bridge, take the unpaved road which starts 10-20m before the modern bridge (on your right coming from Karytaina). You can drive down the bridge, but it is better to walk there as the road is muddy at some point and you may get stack there.
Drive back to Elliniko and then to Stemnitsa, which is only 6km from Dimitsana. Built on Mount Mainalo at about 1050 m elevation, Stemnitsa has been identified with the ancient Arcadian city Hypsous (Υψούς). It was already ruined in the 2nd century AD, when it was visited by Pausanias. Hypsous was founded by a son of Lycaon.
In Greek mythology, Lycaon (Λυκάων) was a king of Arcadia, son of Pelasgus and Meliboea, who, in the most popular version of the myth, tested Zeus' omniscience by serving him the roasted flesh of Lycaon's own son Nyctimus, in order to see whether Zeus was truly all-knowing. In return for these gruesome deeds, Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf (wolf=lykos, in Greek), along with his offspring. Nyctimus was restored to life.
In the 7th and 8th century Slavs settled in the Peloponnese. The name Stemnitsa has Slavic roots and means "woodland". Due to its remote location, Stemnitsa served as a relatively safe haven from the Ottomans, and it became a centre of Greek culture and religion during the Ottoman Era. Many old churches have been preserved. The Panagia Bafero church was built in 1185 and the Zoodochos Pigi churche in 1433. The two larger churches are Agios Georgios (17th century) on the main square and Agia Paraskevi on the eastern part of the town.
Stemnitsa was a shelter for many fighters of the Greek War of Independence. After the Revolution, from the end of May to mid of June 1821, it served as the first seat of the "Peloponnesian Senate", the temporary government of the liberated Peloponnese. The first Peloponnesian Senate conferred here in a cell of Zoodohos Pigi monastery. Stemnitsa was known for its gold and silversmiths, as well as other crafts. Since the 1970s, the Technical School of Silvery, a gold and silver smithery school, operates here.
The central square of Stemnitsa is the heart of all activities and entertainment. Relax in one of its beautiful cafés sipping slowly your Greek coffee or have lunch and dinner. Here in the central square, one can see the clock tower made of carved stone and the beautiful belfry of Agios Georgios church, which dates back to 1877 and is made of white stone.
We had lunch at “Stemnitsa Tavern” located by the clock tower, which serves all local specialties: mainly pork, wild boar, game, lamp, etc.
The Philosophou Monastery