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 was ravaged by forest fires but has almost rebounded back to its former glory.

While Olympia is magnificent, it is quite 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.

Photo: Mstyslav Chernov

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.

Photo: Carole Raddato

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.

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Location - Ilia

Erymanthos River

Spectacular canoeing and kayaking adventures take place on the Erymanthos (or Erymanthus) River during spring and summer. Those with experience may want to negotiate the Erymanthos gorge between Tripotama and Nemouta. Rafting is also possible.

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Kourouta Beach, Amaliada

This 20-kilometer sandy beach might be in a populated area but is very clean, dotted with trees and shrubs nearby. Water sports abound, so do eco-activities such as cycling races, hiking in the Marathia forest and more.

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The Kotychi lagoon and Strofylia area are a haven for birds. The area ranks top in Greece for migratory Glossy Ibises (Plegadis falcinellus) with up to 1000 birds a day, Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) may be seen up to 9000 birds a day, Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola) up to 1150 a day and Marsh Sandpipers (Tringa stagnatilis) up to 200 a day).

One of the most important nesting sites for the Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus, 150-180 pairs), the Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola, 70-90 pairs) and the Little Tern (Sterna albifrons, 100 pairs). The area is a nesting site of protected songbirds such as Bearded Tits (Panurus biarmicus), Short-toed Larks (Caladrella brachydactyla) and Olive-tree warblers (Hippolais olivetorum).

An all-year round shelter for significant numbers of all nine European heron species, there could be up to 1000 birds a day. The area is also a birdwatching paradise for the following: Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), Cream–coloured Coursers (Cursorius cursor), Dotterels (Charadrius morinellus), Great spotted Cuckoos (Clamator glandarius).

Erymanthos River

Spectacular canoeing and kayaking adventures take place on the Erymanthos (or Erymanthus) River during spring and summer. Those with experience may want to negotiate the Erymanthos gorge between Tripotama and Nemouta. Rafting is also possible.

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Peneios lake

The artificial Peneios lake, which is always calm, provides the perfect place for canoeing and kayaking. It is also a wetland with an interesting variety of birds. Visit the small villages of Souli, Xenies, Roupakia and Agrapidochori for an intimate experience with local culture.

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In Ilia, you must try the citrus fruits, grapes, pistachios, watermelons and potatoes. Manolada and Lehana in the northern part of the prefecture are known for their watermelons, as well as for their delightful cheeses. The Corinth raisin is well known here and had been the economic engine of the area in the 19th and early 20th century. It is cultivated now in the highlands and still forms an important part of the economy, so help yourself to a handful. In Krestena there is a raisin fair that takes place during the first ten days of August.

Ilia claims its vineyards produce grapes and wine of exceptional quality, making a visit to its wine estates a must (see section on wine tours in Ilia). Olives are also particularly tasty here and so is the olive oil that has an acidity of close to zero! Extra virgin olive oil and organic olive oil abound, considering that efforts for organic olive-tree planting have been quite successful.

Oranges and mandarin oranges will delight you, and come early on in the season compared to other regions of Greece. The land of Ilia also claims that it grows some of the best quality tomatoes worldwide. Strawberries are also a prime fruit of the area, especially around Vouprasia. Meat-wise, you will find many pork dishes that are noteworthy, with roast pork featuring heavily during local celebrations.

Ilia is known for its hot springs and natural spas. The best known are the springs of Kilini (or Loutra Kilinis) that gush with water that is an amiable 25 C, reputed to alleviate many ailments. Decent accommodation, camping grounds and facilities are found around the springs, among pine and eucalyptus trees in a spectacularly natural environment. The springs are just 3 km from the Kyllini Castle in an area dotted with forests, beaches and some cultivated land. The natural springs were famous in ancient times as the mud and vapour are said to help arthritis, asthma and skin afflictions.

Photo: Travel Book / ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ ΜΗΛΑΣ

The lake of Kaiafas near mountain and sea also features therapeutic baths, offering spa therapy and hydrotherapy. Asthma, skin diseases, liver diseases and arthritis are supposedly alleviated by the waters of the springs. The spa area was used for the same purpose in ancient times, with a rich and complex history.

There are several Blue Flag beaches in Ilia, some dominated by big hotels with sporting facilities, others more quiet.

Photo: www.picturesque-peloponnese.com

Kastro/Chrysi Akti

Located in Kastro Kyllinis this clean sandy beach boasts different fauna and flora. It is home to the Robinson Club Kyllini which offers water sports, including wind-surfing and catamarans. Mountain biking is also offered. The resort is eco-friendly, and there is also a camping site nearby.

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Kourouta Beach, Amaliada

This 20-kilometer sandy beach might be in a populated area but is very clean, dotted with trees and shrubs nearby. Water sports abound, so do eco-activities such as cycling races, hiking in the Marathia forest and more.

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Kyllini Golden Beach

These coastlines boast kilometres of fine white sand with clear, azure waters.

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Loutra Kyllinis 1, Kastro Kyllinis

This sandy beach – about two kilometres in length – is dominated by the Grecotel Olympia Riviera Oasis Hotel. The Grecotel hotel chain is known to be environmentally aware. Water sports and bicycle renting are available

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Loutra Kyllinis 2, Kastro Kyllinis

Another blue flag beach with sandy shores and clean beaches. Please keep in mind the importance of maintaining the beaches clean, and leaving it in better shape than they were (e.g. go ahead and pick up any leftover trash).

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Zacharo Beach, Zacharo

A sandy beach that is long, clean and magnificent. There are many small hotels of different categories around.

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Erymanthos River

Spectacular canoeing and kayaking adventures take place on the Erymanthos (or Erymanthus) River during spring and summer. Those with experience may want to negotiate the Erymanthos gorge between Tripotama and Nemouta. Rafting is also possible.

Find Out More

Kourouta Beach, Amaliada

This 20-kilometer sandy beach might be in a populated area but is very clean, dotted with trees and shrubs nearby. Water sports abound, so do eco-activities such as cycling races, hiking in the Marathia forest and more.

Find Out More

Photo: www.patrisnews.com

Kaiafa or Kaiafas is known for its sulphurous springs that emanate from two caves in a beautiful setting. While the springs are somewhat odorous, the two caves – Anigrides and Geranion – are worth visiting. They are where the nymphs lived in mythology and where Nessus the centaur tended to his wound.

Lakes, mountains, forests and pristine seas. This is what Ilia was known for before recent forest fires (many suspect arsonists) in 2007 ravaged the area. Luckily Olympia and the ruins were spared, although the fire came very close. Now, there are efforts to replant the trees and protect the environment, encouraging green development and tourism as well. The Gulf of Kyparissia and the countryside of Ilia are stunning. There are dedicated hiking paths around Olympia and ancient Elis as well as around the Erymanthus and Kladeus rivers. Also important are the oak forest of Pholoe-Kapeli, the waterfalls of Figalia and lake Kaiafa.

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