Tucked away between Mt Parnonas and the deep blue Myrtoan Sea, Leonidio may seem small to the eye, but believe it or not it’s a busy little town in the eastern Peloponnese with visitors all year long. Getting there is relatively easy, a three-hour drive from Athens but you’ll be rewarded with riveting views of an endless coastline dotted with one perfect beach after the other and quant little fishing villages that are still as genuine Greek as they get.
Home to some 7,000 permanent residents (this figure almost doubles in the summer months), Leonidio is the capital of the Tsakonia region (see below) and despite its small size, it is known worldwide for its unique Easter celebrations, its distinctive stone architecture, its annual rock climbing competition, its citrus fruits, its wild beaches, and of course, its very own locally-grown eggplant, the “Tsakoniki Melitzana”.
Leonidio: Between a Cliff and the Deep Blue Sea
Situated in a lush valley on the Dafnonas River and surrounded by rugged mountains and the alluring sea below, Leonidio is a must for those of you wishing to get a true Greek experience. Its cobbled-stone alleys take you back in time to an era of trade, mansions and traditions that are still alive today.
The imposing stone and wood manors (“archontika”) bear witness to a wealthy past. This is the home of the Tsakonians, direct descendants of the ancient Greek Dorians, who were also renowned for their masonry skills. An example of the area’s unique architectural history is the Tsikaliotis Mansion dating back to the late 18th century, the Archontiko Tsouchlou which houses the Tsakonian Archive as well as other homes or even hotels like the wonderful Archontiko Hatzipanayiotis.
You can still see Tsakonian architecture also in Kastanitsa and Prastos (the village where in the past most Leonidians had their winter homes).
One could easily say the Leonidians are blessed, gifted with the very best of both worlds– sea and mountains and a fertile valley of silvery olive groves and fragrant citrus orchards. That’s why Leonidio is also known as the “Garden of Dionysus” thanks to its fertile soil. And thanks to that, most villagers are employed in agriculture and fishing.
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A Greek Eggplant Like No Other
This fertile soil produces a vegetable (actually, botanically speaking, a berry!) that has made this little-known town famous across the globe… from the simple cook to the elite gastronomy circles. The Leonidians pride and joy? Their very own eggplant, the “Tsakoniki Melitzana”.
The Tsakonian eggplant is a beautiful, slender, light purple, seedless variety appreciated by chefs far and wide for its tender flesh and underlying sweetness. The European Union recognized it as a product of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in 1996. How do you know it’s the one? It should have white stripes, say local producers.
This said, the Leonidians honor the Tsakoniki Melitzana by using it in a wide variety of local dishes and traditional spoon sweets – do try the “melitzanaki”, it is served at coffee shops throughout town – and pay tribute to this versatile vegetable annually with two major happenings the Melijazz Festival in July and the “Giorti Tsakonikis Melitzanas” (Festival of the Tsakonian Eggplant) in August, which due to the pandemic was cancelled. Hopefully this year it will be back.
Every year, thousands head on down to Plaka, Leonidion’s picturesque port, some 4km from the main village, to sample the delicacies ‘featuring’ the homegrown eggplant and to enjoy plenty of music and dance.
In the (Tsakonic) words of the Leonidians: “Kaour ekanate… Oreyi ta Tsakonia e Athripoi ini xerounte na tsouni, na zioi tsai, na glegioi” (Welcome! The people of Tsakonia know how to eat, live and party.)”
If you do decide to visit Leonidio during the Melijazz fest expect lots of music, dance and workshops, a cooking contest with the most innovative use of the eggplant winning first prize as well as international cuisines which use the eggplant in their local dishes.
The festival has taken place for almost a decade with the exception of 2006, due to the theft of the 700-year-old icon of the Virgin Mary from the Monastery of Elona, again following the devastating fires that ravaged the Peloponnese in 2007 and in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.
Leonidio Opens to the World Thanks to a Paver
Leonidio was not always accessible. Until the mid 1960s, the village was almost impossible to get to by sea or land. That’s why down by the river bank you’ll see a paver dating back to 1914. This machine was used to create the first roads to region. So remote was the area that today the Leondians pay tribute to the paver which changed their lives forever. I believe like most places in Greece that the Tsakonia region in South (Notia) Kynouria has preserved its traditional color exactly because it was difficult to reach. And I have to add that it was only fairly recently that the roads were actually good enough to come here. I remember past winters when all of the Tsakonia villages were simply inaccessible either due to snow or destroyed roads as a result of torrential rains.
The Beaches Around Leondio
If sea and sun is your thing – and why shouldn’t it be, you’re in Greece after all – then be prepared to pick and choose. Leonidio is surrounded by dozens of unspoiled beaches: Kyroneri at the start of the coastline with its sparkling waters and pebbly beach, the livelier (in the summer) Plaka, Leonidio’s own beach, Tyros with its deep waters and seaside tavernas, and Poulithra some 9km northwest of the town, at the foot Mt Parnonas where the crystal waters, the peacefulness (up to June and after September) make this an ideal getaway. Come off season and enjoy that carefree feeling of bliss where time just doesn’t matter and life is all about ice cream, swimming and fun in the sun.
Leonidio is also a favorite Orthodox Easter destination. Like all of Greece, on Holy Saturday, when the clock strikes 12, the Greek Orthodox observe the Resurrection of Christ (Anastasi). In Leonidio, at midnight, look up to the sky. Hundreds of colorful mini hot-air balloons are released into the night sky with spectacular fireworks adding to the experience.
Stay for a few more days and head down to the port of Poulithra, where small fishing boats set off for the chapel of Ai Yiorgis (St George) to celebrate the saint’s day with the procession of the icon, food, song and dance.
Leonidio: The Capital of Tsakonia
Leonidion is the capital of the Tsakonia region, notable for its cultural and linguistic particularities said to date back to Byzantium.
The only direct derivative of the Ancient Doric Greek, the Tsakonian or Tsakonic language is spoken to this day in Leonidio and the surrounding region. It is however now considered an endangered language as only very few, primarily the elders in the remote villages of Tsakonia, speak the language and the young (as well as the state) not showing any interest in preserving the dialect.
This said, very few traditional Greek songs (demotika) have come down to us in the Tsakonic dialect primarily due to the small scattered and isolated rural populations. There is also no written documents so everything has been passed on through word of mouth.
Featuring prominently in the region’s tradition is the Tsakonikos dance, also known as a wedding song “Su eipa mana m’” (I told you mother… marry me off). The snake-like dance “Tsakonikos”, also known as the Dance of Theseus, is believed to date back to antiquity and signifies Theseus’ venture out of the Labyrinth. According to myth, Theseus and his companions danced the “Geranos” a similar dance in order to prepare for the feat.
One of the traditions of the Tsakones is a culturally significant craft passed on from mother to daughter: traditional weaving/rug making (textiles) which has been practiced since the 1800s and is still kept alive by a small group of younger-generation Greek artisans in Leonidio and Tyros. In the past, these intricate rugs – art works in their own right – were a necessary part of every girl’s dowry.
Leonidion and its Climbing Fans
Besides being on the wilder side, the wider region is perfect if you’re into alternative sports and experiences. For one, Leonidio is a rock climber’s heaven thanks to the hundreds of routes in dozens of crags of all grades around its massive red stone cliff. Yes the red one you see hovering over the town. Every year in November, the village hosts a climbing festival and championship. Leonidio even has its own climber’s hangout run by climbers: the Panjika cooperative offering everything and anything related to the sport.
Other activities you could (and should) try include going on a fishing adventure or on a climb & sail escapade. Divers will soon have the chance to experience the beauty below as a diving park is being completed at Tyros.
Into nature, cycling or hiking? Then hop on a bike and hit the road. The scenery is breathtaking and the ride demanding. Head to Mt Parnonas on dozens of walking routes along the Parnon Trail. Local tour operators also arrange mushroom hunting, archery practice, and nature treks.
Lastly, don’t miss the annual ParaTyro art fest held in July in Tyros which includes everything from SUP yoga and kayaking to concerts and photography exhibits. And an absolute must for me, the fisherman’s festival in Tyros (“I Giorti tou Psara”) held late August with a fresh catch of fish, local wine and lots of dancing.
Maria’s Tips: Visiting Leonidio, Greece
✓ On the road again… Start off on the Athens to Corinth highway, turn off towards Tripolis, then off to Naflplio. You will see signs to Astros, continue in that direction until you see signs towards Leonidion. Approximately 215km from Athens or about three hours.
✓ Settled down… in Leondio, or better yet for the beach lover, in Poulithra or in the nearby fishing village of Tyros.
✓ Indulge in … any dish made with the sweet eggplant including “papoutsakia” (eggplant with beef), “imam baildi” (eggplant with tomato sauce, onions, garlic and parsley), the famed “mousakas”, and of course, the famous spoon sweet “melitzanaki” offered on a spoon with a crystal cold glass of water to wash it down. You can also try the Tsakonian Melitzana in homemade pizza at the wonderful En Leonidio 1904.
✓ Don’t forget to buy… spoon sweet “Melitzanaki” or jam, homemade pasta (hilopites) as well as Tsakoniki Melitzana and locally-made “paximadia” (rusks) from the Tsakonian women’s cooperative down by the river.
✓ Truth or dare… Make sure to visit the 14th-century Monastery of Elona which is literally dangling from a cliff and the secluded village of Kosmas with its eight plane trees offering summer respite. Make sure to try the delectable homemade sweets at the little shop on the main square.
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♫ I end today’s post with a Greek song that brings the Arcadia landscape to life, the perfect road trip song featuring my favorite singer, Haroula Alexiou in “Synavlia” (Concert) to the lyrics of Lina Nikolakopoulou and the music of the late Nikos Antypas.
Live – Love – Travel – and Enjoy!