Best known for the site of Ancient Olympia – where the first Olympics took place, Ilia (also spelled Helia or Ileia) is a treasure trove of history and natural beauty. Lying between the Alfeios river and the woods Mount Kronos, the area in recent years has been ravaged by forest fires. Consequently, the latest Greek government has promised to make it a model of green development and eco-tourism in the years to come.
While Olympia is magnificent, it is highly touristic and there is much more to the prefecture of Ilia beyond Olympia. The nature here is indeed spectacular, with hills, rivers, beaches and lakes dotting the terrain. The Alpheios river, considered the largest in the Peloponnese, flows directly into the Ionian sea. There are also three lakes, those of Loutra, Kaiafa and Killini, in addition to the artificial lakes of Pineos and Ladonas.
The capital of Ilia is Pyrgos, which may not offer much for the eco-tourist apart from two neoclassical buildings by Schiller and the marketplace. It's tavernas and cafes are a good spot for a break.
Ileia has great beaches that are among the longest in the country and beautiful, such as those around Amaliada. Noteworthy too are Kaiafa – famed for its healing properties – and Zaharo. There are also three modest lakes at Kaiafa, Mouria and Agoulinitsa, as well as artificial lakes at Pineos and Ladonas. Most are habitats for migratory birds, eels and many species of fish.
Exploring Ilia can be exhilarating and intriguing. If you head from Olympia to Lala, a village that is 600 meters above sea level, you will be in the heart of the Folois mountains surrounded by an oak forest, near walnut trees and cherry trees. Higher up at 800 meters lies the green Lambia or Divri with seven built-up areas, each with its own fountain and church. Beyond Lambia lies the picturesque village of Tripotama, among several other gems.
On another route that heads to Andritsena and Bassae, you will encounter the market town of Krestena in woods of pine, where the temple of Athena Skillountia lies on a hilltop. The stone-walled and red-roofed houses of Andritsena are next, with cobblestone streets and quaint local architecture that stand out in the Peloponnese. Visit the Monastery of Isova, old churches, library with rare books and the folk museum once there.
Andravida, once the most important city in the historic Principality of Morea, once had great walls all around it, along with turrets and bastions. Only six kilometres away lies the Clairmont Castle (Hlemoutsi) constructed by Geoffrey I Villhardouin around 1220, and perhaps the best preserved in the Peloponnese. (The springs of the Kilini natural spa are not far off).
On a culinary note, this fertile prefecture is known for its farming, particularly of grapes, citrus fruits, pistachios, watermelons and potatoes, giving rise to a healthy Mediterranean cuisine that will delight you. Nature wise, there are forests, lagoons and rivers that offer a myriad of activities from kayaking and hiking to birdwatching and natural spas. Combine all this with archaeological sites, historical significance and natural attractions, and you get a spectacular part of the world that is well worth the visit.