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Greece is the word for culinary vacations.

With its stunning whitewashed islands and some of the best beaches in the world, it is easy to forget that Greece is also home to lush forests, vast mountains, gorges and largely undiscovered wildlife.

Just over three hours' drive from Athens, one finds the southeastern Peloponnese prefecture of Laconia dominated by the verdant mountain ranges of Parnonas and Taygetos.

It has ancient sites, monuments, museums and traditional villages where it seems time has stood still. Opportunities are opening up here for return-to-the-land holidays where visitors can savour the relaxed Laconian lifestyle.

Flanked by endless olive and almond groves and hillsides covered with pine trees, Eumelia, an eco-conscious retreat in the village of Gouves, offers travellers the traditions of rural Greece year-round.

Eumelia is the creation of Frangiskos Karelas who gave up a career in the European Parliament to invest in his family estate. He expanded it five years ago to comprise 1,000 organic olive trees, hundreds of fruit trees, vineyards, organic vegetable and herb gardens and farm animals. Five traditionally styled houses accommodate guests looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination.

The farm is managed according to the principles of bio-dynamic agriculture. The accommodation was built from environmentally friendly materials and exploits ecological technology, such as geothermal heating and cooling.

It is worlds away from Greece's old-style package tourism.

Karelas, who named Eumelia from the ancient Greek word for "harmony", offers his guests the opportunity to mingle with villagers, take part in seminars and workshops, visit wineries, make soap and learn about organic farming methods.

"People need to get back to nature and find themselves again. Everyday stress can really be overwhelming, so it is important sometimes to just get away from it all and relax," says Karelas, who treats guests to home-cooked meals, preserved jams and freshly baked bread.

Guests also have the option of taking part in farming activities, such as harvesting olives, grapes, fruit, vegetables or herbs or participating in yoga, tai chi and photography classes.

The de-stressing process, however, would not be complete without sumptuous food. The nearby mountain villages of Koupia, Kosma and Kremasti are a gastronomic paradise.

In the quaint village of Koupia, 64-year-old Eleni Grigorakou, who runs the rustic Pyrostia taverna, specializes in mouthwatering pies made with fresh mountain greens and cheese, traditional hand-made pasta or "gogges," and oven-baked lamb and pork.

Grigorakou, who also teaches traditional Greek cooking, preserve- and pastry-making to guests staying at Eumelia, says you only need a few basic but top-quality ingredients to make a good dish.

"People here in the mountain villages of Greece still cook traditionally, but sadly this is not true for many places around the country, namely in the cities," says Grigorakou, who picks all the mountain herbs and greens that she uses for her recipes herself.

"I learned how to cook from my mother and I still follow her recipes --but whether the next generation will follow traditional recipes remains the great unknown," she adds.

Maintaining ancestral recipes is not only important for cooking, but for traditional soap making as well.

Using locally produced olive oil, Zoe Sergiadis, 48, still uses the same ingredients and follows the same technique passed down from her grandmother when creating her natural handmade Sapouni Zwis soaps in the nearby village of Skala.

"I started making soap with my grandmother when I was 10 years old and continued to do so when I grew up--so my hobby also became my work.

"I make my products with the cold process of saponification, which is a natural method that retains all the vital ingredients of the olive oil and local herbs such as rosemary, lavender and chamomile," she says.

The estate also serves as an excellent base for one-day excursions where guests can hike along kilometers of trails across Taygetos and Parnonas. More adventurous holidaymakers can try out sea kayaking and mountain biking.

"The Peloponnese and especially the entire southeastern area is full of natural beauties such as canyons, waterfalls, rivers and secret beaches," says guide Giannis Patriarchias, who runs X4Guide, a company that specializes in off-road expeditions in the region throughout the year.

"Greece is a nature lover's paradise and much of its mainland still remains unknown to many travellers."

Caption: The Peloponnese is a large expanse of land south west of Athens, which is considered an island although part of the mainland.

Caption: Eumelia, an eco-conscious retreat in the village of Gouves
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Asian Pacific Post
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Dec 11, 2014
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