AFTER a couple of days in bustling Athens, my wife and I rented a car and headed out to find the "real" Greece.
We investigated the spectacular ruins at Delphi; we experienced ancient Mycenae and the famous Lion Gate; we listened to the perfect acoustics at the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus. While driving, we got lost and happened upon two huge meteor craters created in the 19th century near the Peloponnesian town of Didama. This was real adventure.
Yet we felt there must be something more than ruins, museums, and meteors. We had seen and talked to a lot of Greeks, but most were English-speakers whose job it was to cater to tourists. There must be an everyday Greece out there, the "soul" of Greece.
We spent a day visiting the beautiful Byzantine ruin at Mystra high above the city of Sparta, inland on the Peloponnese Peninsula. It was the off-season, drizzly and cold. We wanted to spend the night somewhere on the coast where the weather would be warmer. But we came to the Gulf of Messinia only to find that the hotels in the small towns were still closed.
As dusk approached, the scenery grew more and more striking: Dramatic vistas of ocean and mountain stretched away on either side of us. But with no place to stay, we faced the prospect of going all the way to Kalamata, the next large city, where we would surely find a hotel. That meant we would pass through this scenic part of Greece at night.
In a last-ditch effort to find lodging, we turned off the main road toward what showed on our map as a small zero with no dot in the middle: Nikolaos. But, as in the other towns, every pension and hotel was closed. We drove back to the town square and pondered what to do next. A local, sensing our problem, pointed toward the sea. We drove down a road to the water's edge. On the left was a hotel called Faros. All the windows were dark. I went next door.
It was the hotel owner's home. He knew what we needed. Quickly, he opened the small hotel and took us to our room. He brought space heaters from his home, lit a fire in the fireplace in the dining area, and made us a dinner of pork chops, potatoes, salad, and bread. Here was a Greece that, for cold and hungry travelers, wasn't far from paradise. Using snatches of English, German, and Greek, we managed to converse.
Our effort to stay in Nikolaos was rewarded. By daylight, the town was a living postcard: the Mediterranean a pristine blue; colorful fishing boats bobbing in the small harbor; white buildings with painted shutters seeming to rise to snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The western shore of the Mani peninsula, where Nikolaos is located, surely must be one of the most beautiful coastlines in all of Greece. The winding road follows the base of the Taygetos Mountains, which are dotted with small towns at the water's edge. The rough terrain limits farming mainly to growing olives. Fishing and tourism predominate. The history of the region survives in Byzantine ruins and churches.
We spent that morning wandering through Nikolaos, then headed north in the knowledge that we had discovered a part of Greece that cannot be found in the ruins. It predates them, in fact, and lives on: Greek hospitality.