For the ultimate eco adventure in Greece, forget the islands and head to the Peloponnese on the Greek mainland – home to a remote organic farm where you can really get away from it all, says Christine Fieldhouse
As we bump our way down a rocky road, we wonder if pranksters in the last town have had some fun with the signposts. The signs for our resort certainly pointed the way we’re heading, but with the towering Taygetos mountains on one side of us, and the equally imposing Parnonas range on the other, it feels as if we’re on a road to nowhere.
We’re in the Peloponnese, on the main land, the forgotten part of Greece, which is often overlooked in favour of the islands, yet it has a 1,200-km sandy coastline and it’s the country’s mythical heart. Turn left at Athens, skip over the dramatic Corinth Canal and you’ll find it.
It’s a south-western peninsula – on a map it looks like a giant hand pointing downwards with fingers splayed wide – and it’s joined on to the rest of Greece by a slither of land at Corinth. It’s a large area too. If it were a country, it would rank 151st in size in the world.
Most visitors fly into Athens and do the two-hour drive, though the luckier ones, us included, land in Kalamata, on the doorstep.
We’re heading off in search of the Eumelia eco resort, an organic farm, two kilometres down a bumpy road through olive groves from the town of Gouves. It’s an apartment hotel, with five terracotta houses, which are so literally in the middle of nowhere, that when they come into sight, my husband Ian and I feel we should be riding into town with Clint Eastwood and a pair of mules, not driving a hired Nissan Note. Our son Jack, and his friend George, both 17, are wide-eyed at the remoteness of this eco sanctuary, Eumelia.
The farm has been in Frangiskos Karelas’s family since the 1890s and is now run by him and his wife Marilena. It’s the couple’s aim to ‘not just receive from nature, but also to give back to her’ and they’re passionate about doing just that by not polluting the land and air, not using chemicals or pesticides and creating new soil from compost.
The sanctuary they have created is especially popular among yoga devotees who love the peace and quiet, schools who bring their pupils to educate them about the environment, and people who want to literally get away from it all. We’re welcomed by friendly dogs and equally friendly staff, who show us, via a boardwalk, to our base, Almond Tree House; each house being named after the tree in its front garden.
As expected, there’s a huge emphasis on the environment here, with recycling at source – in the houses there are different bins for recycling plastics, paper and glass, and we’re urged to use the olive oil soaps and shampoos provided, rather than our own. It’s explained to us that the toilet and shower water feed the land where our food is grown so the fewer chemicals, the better.
At first glance our house looks very basic, but sleep here for even just a night, and you’ll appreciate the comfort that comes from pure cotton sheets and natural mattresses and pillows. Bedsheets and towels are changed less often – when they are washed, they’re line-dried. LED lights and low consumption bulbs are also used.
With just top windows opening, even the air is naturally recycled. A mixture of minerals has been used for colour for the walls inside and out to avoid the chemicals in paint. The houses are heated and cooled by geothermal power with heat pumps, and a solar water heating system ensures we have hot water all day and evening. At present, the sewage system can cater for up to 50 people living at the eco resort.
Outside, on the 60 hectares of land, is the produce we’ll be eating during our stay: tomatoes, peppers, aubergine, cucumber, potatoes, melon, courgettes and onions are just some of the 30 different products grown. An olive tree more than 1,000 years old is the grand old gentleman of the garden but, as you’d expect in Greece, there are many generations of olive trees, as well as four extensive vineyards that produce up to 200 litres of grape-based drinks in one year.
Everything has been carefully thought out at Eumelia. The vegetable garden is on raised beds for better drainage. The herbs are grown in a spiral rather than the perfect lines of a rectangular garden. This circular structure, Frangiskos tells us, is thought to bring stability, affluence and strength.
Even the local Greek black pigs that are kept – eventually for food – are chosen for their eco-friendliness; they’re smaller, they have up to seven piglets, they’re more resistant to illness and they need less food. Explained like that, it all makes perfect sense.
Although our house has all the equipment we need to self-cater (a stove, a fridge, pots and pans), we have breakfast and evening meals in the main building, which hosts a reception area, a conference room, a dining area and a living room. There aren’t many house rules but we’re asked to take off our shoes at the entrance and wear the slippers provided to keep the main house clean and make it feel more homely for guests.
There’s no menu for either food or drinks but we enjoy the evening meals, an assortment of stuffed vegetables, along with fried potatoes and pitta bread, with water to drink, and we always finish with melon. Leftover food is served to the cats and dogs while uncooked veg goes to the 25 free range chickens, which provide eggs and some meat.
If you’re used to water parks and banana boat rides, this isn’t for you, but if some gentle yoga on the decking (also used for wedding ceremonies – Frangiskos and Marilena married here), a spot of light gardening or a healthy hike or cycle ride is your holiday style, then Eumelia is perfect.
Visiting children can help feed the animals or plant fruit and veg in the gardens. In September guests can help pick and press grapes, while in November the famous Kalamata olives are harvested. As our visit is in the height of a hot summer we are unable to help with the harvest, but we enjoy a tour of the farm and have several saunters around the estate. Other activities include soap-making, mountain biking, photography, horse riding and sea kayaking.
Whilst Ian and I are happy to relax at our eco sanctuary Jack and George eschew the lack of a swimming pool. They’re keen to find a beach to use up some teenage energy and have some fun, so we drive them to the pretty coastal town of Githio, 30 minutes away by car. At Valtaki Beach we swim in the calm sea and we discover Dimitrios, a shipwreck from 1981, who looks even older than his years. Hungry, we head to Mrs Christina’s seafood restaurant, selected because we share a similar name, is a good choice – the chicken souvlaki (kebabs) and burgers are not only delicious, they’re also cheap as chips at 50 euros (AED 200) for four of us, with soft drinks.
Back at the Eumelia, Marilena hosts an informative evening where she talks about the grape drinks produced by the vineyards. We’re educated in the local specialities, typical of Greece – Asproudi, which is perfect with seafood, and Mavroudi, a rich red drink, that’s excellent with stews, spicy cheese and cold meat. Another activity is the Eumelia cookery lesson. I’m no master chef yet I learn to make two of my all-time Greek favourites, stuffed vine leaves – but this time stuffed with trout, rice and onions – and moussaka, in a group lesson that’s great fun, involves lots of chopping and ends with a big lunch party!
Checkout is more of a friendly wave goodbye and a promise to be in touch, and we drive back up the rocky road, rested, recharged and with just a little bit more respect for our planet than when we arrived.