Porto Heli: Greek beach culture at its finest

Off the beaten path in Greece Photo: by John Stringos

PORTO HELI, Greece, September 16, 2013- While not as internationally celebrated as Mikonos or Santorini, Porto Heli nonetheless enjoys a certain degree on local fame as a popular summer destination for Greeks and other Europeans. With a rich history stretching back to ancient Greece and a vibrant restaurant and café scene, Porto Heli has managed to retain some of its small fishing village charm.

Located in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece, Porto Heli can be reached from Athens via car, bus, or ferry in around two and a half hours. 

Archeological surveys show that the area now called Porto Heli or Porto Cheli has been inhabited by humans from as early as the Middle Paleolithic period, close to 50,000 years ago. Located directly across the bay from the modern town, the ancient city of Halieis dates back to the 7th century B.C.

At its most powerful, around 500 B.C., Halieis was a city enclosed by walls, accommodating around 2,500 residents in 500 houses. It appears that the city was large enough to have territorial rights and mint its own coins. 

Besides the Sanctuary of Apollo, currently underwater in the Bay of Halieis, the ancient city also had a stadium for athletic competitions, a mint that produced coins with the head of Apollo, an industrial site for the production of dyes, and an acropolis located on a strategic vantage point overlooking the harbor and Argolic Gulf. 

The inhabitants of ancient Halieis fished, kept goats, and grew olives, grapes, and cereal. Several olive presses can still be seen among the ruins of the ancient city.

Halieis was abandoned in 300 B.C. and resettled by the Romans and Byzantines between 400 and 600 A.D. There are underwater ruins of Roman baths from the period that can be seen when the bay is calm.

The site was then abandoned after 600 B.C and not disturbed for over 1,000 years. Modern archeological excavation of Halieis began in the 1960s.

Excavation on the site of Ancient Halieis was performed mainly in the 1960s and 70s. The project was led by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens with help from the Department of Classical Studies and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania and by the Department of Classics of Indiana University.

Tourist interest in the area grew in the 1980s, when many hotels and resorts were built around the fishing village of Porto Heli, across the bay from Halieis, leading to a boom of restaurants, shops, and the tourism industry in general.

Recently hit by the economic crisis in Greece, Porto Heli seems to be doing better that most of the rest of the country. Just last year Aman resorts opened a new multi-mullion dollar property a few kilometers from the town, and renovations have begun on several abandoned hotels in the area. New shops, restaurants, and bars have popped up in the last year, a hopeful sign of better financial times to come.   

The residents of the town still practice fishing and farming, the two main industries in the region. The area is know for the high quality of its wine grapes and the low acidity of its olives, producing a superior olive oil which is poured liberally on the delicious Greek salads and the numerous vegetable dishes that form the main portion of the local diet.

There are several theories about the origin of the name Porto Heli. The name roughly translates to “Bay of Eels,” so named for the abundance of these creatures in the surrounding waters at one time. 

Porto Heli is also very close to several points of interest, including the ancient theater at Epidaurus, the islands of Spetses and Hydra, and the city of Napflio, the first capital of modern Greece.   

Beaches around Porto Heli are fantastic, with a beach for every taste. From sandy beaches that make you think you are on a Caribbean island to pebble beaches that are nothing if not Mediterranean, Porto Heli and its surroundings have a bit of everything. There is a beach club with a DJ, parasols, and waiters, as well as deserted coves that require a little exploration.

Beach culture is an essential part of daily life in the Peloponnese. Young, old, and everyone in between, swim in the ocean during the summer months. Children are good swimmers from a young age, and the older people take early morning or late afternoon swims in the calmer waters of the bay. It is not unusual to see three generations of a family out for a day at the beach.

In all, Porto Heli is a place to disconnect, relax, and eat really good food. The world goes slower here, with late afternoon siestas and even later night dinners among friends and family. In Porto Heli Greek culture, ancient and modern, is alive and well, and here for everyone to enjoy.  

 


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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.

 

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