Exploring the Peloponnese (Athens Travel Journal – Day Two)

9th May 2014

Another day, another 8am pick up.

Dmitri from PK Travel is back, this time to drive me south from Athens to the Peloponnese.

Today is going to be even jam-packed than yesterday, mercifully Dmitri keeps dozens of bottles of mineral water in the car. I’ve asked if they can tweak their route ever so slightly for me, and we’re dropping Napflion so that I can do both Nemea and Epidauros. I’ve found PK to be incredibly accomdating to requests like this.

We drive past Megara as the E94 road hugs the coast. We stop briefly so that I can admire the Corinth Canal which I vaguely remember from my visit as a ten year old girl. The metal bridge has a footbridge on each side allowing for a good view, although the whole structure wobbles whenever a heavy vehicle crosses, terrifying the proverbial out of me.

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The canal was started in the 1880s and turned the Peloponnese from a peninsula into an island. Many ancient leaders including Julius Caesar, Caligula and Nero all attempted construction of a canal but all failed.

So how did the ancient Greeks solve the problem of getting ships from the Ionian sea to the Aegean without spending valuable time circumnavigating the Peloponnese?

The Diolkos was a 4 mile paved path that crossed the narrowest part of the Corinth Isthmus. Ships were pulled across from coast to coast. Remains of the Diolkos are still visible.

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Time to head to Corinth, one of the most famous and powerful ancient Greek cities. Modern Corinth is actually not on the site of the ancient city as so many others are, but was founded in 1858 after the original site suffered an earthquake. If you wish to visit the archaeological remains you should instead head for Ancient Corinth inland.

The acropolis is visible for miles and forms a gorgeous backdrop for the ancient city. If I was able to travel in a leisurely fashion I could easily spend a day in Corinth, but in order to stay on schedule Dmitri informs me that I have 45 minutes here. It may seem counterproductive to spend a short time at many sites instead of a couple of sites at length, but I have longed to view the places on this itinerary since I was a little girl and would rather see as many as possible now than go home and regret what I had to miss. Thankfully, having been a tour guide for so long I have been able to develop a swift approach to museums and sites that could be described as ruthlessly efficient. I will spend the next 45 minutes rushing around the site and museum like a woman possessed but I’ve trained myself to take everything in as if I had been at the site twice as long. Weeks of Trip Prep also mean I have the site mapped out in my mind and know where to make a bee-line for. One day I will return to all of these places with all the time in the world, for now I am satisfied I managed to get here at all. And it is worth it.

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The Temple of Apollo

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The Temple of Apollo, the acropolis in the background

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The bema (elevated platform designed for public oration) in the agora. When Saint Paul spoke during his time in Corinth, it was probably from here. A quote has been inscribed on a stone in memory of this.

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The Lechaion road which led from the agora to the port.

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Temple E

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Corinth was a formidable power that faced up to the Persian forces, yet spent most of the following years oscillating between supporting Sparta and Athens, benefitting from neither. Occupied by the Antigonid kings for over a century, Corinth finally reasserted independence and worked hard to reverse her decline, only to be brutally slapped down by the Romans. Lucius Mummius razed the city to the ground in 146 BC and carted countless Corinthian treasures and artworks back to Rome for various aristocrats to decorate their villas.

A century later, Julius Caesar ordered the rebuilding of the once great city, work that was continued by several emperors. Much of what survives is therefore Roman and not Greek.

The huge acropolis was once crowned by a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of love. According to Strabo, the temple used to employ courtesan-priestesses. These women (and some men) were available for sex, as an act of worship to the goddess. Strabo reports that the money earned by the courtesans at the temple was one of the reasons the city was so prosperous. Over the centuries the acropolis has been fortified by successive occupying powers. We don’t have time to enter the fortress but we do drive up for a beautiful view.

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Onwards to Nemea.

Everyone has heard of the Olympic Games. Athletic events held by the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia in antiquity every four years, resurrected in the 1800s and becoming the international mega event that we know and love. I’ve visited ancient Olympia and it is a beautiful place.

In antiquity there was more than one set of sacred games however. There were actually four main centres for competitions. As well as Olympia, games were held at Delphi in honour of Apollo, Isthmia in honour of Poseidon and Nemea, also in honour of Zeus. All four sites have archaeological remains and I intend to knock another two off of my list on this trip.

Nemea is not well known to most tourists and as such, the athletic section of the archaeological site was delightfully empty. It was a surreal experience to walk up and down the track imaging the cheering of the spectators. The crowds would have been nearly entirely male, nearly all events were performed nude and married women were not permitted to watch the games.

I visit the stadium first, and visitors enter through the same path as the ancient athletes.First, we pass the dressing room.

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The Apodyterion – the locker rooms

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The tunnel beneath the spectator seating which the athletes would pass from the Apodyterion to the stadium

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First view of the stadium

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Athlete’s eye view

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Spectator’s eye view

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The Balbis – starting line

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Such a beautiful setting!

Not far from the stadium is the sanctuary and museum. The museum is excellent but I am drawn outside to the archaeological site itself, which is beautifully kept. The gardener should be justly proud of his beautiful lawns and roses!

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With a setting this lovely, it is a while before I remember what Nemea is most famous for.

The hero Heracles murdered his wife and children (a story that Disney skipped…) and the Oracle at Delphi ordered him to complete 12 labours set by King Eurystheus in order to atone for his sins.

The first was to slay the Nemean lion, a huge, unconquerable animal that used the maidens of Nemea as bait with which to lure in young men to a cave. Every man who had set out to kill the lion had died in the attempt.

Hercules attempted to kill the lion using arrows, which bounced uselessly off of the golden fur. Hercules then tried to club the lion, eventually throttling it with his massive hands. Athena advised Hercules to skin the dead animal (with one of the lion’s claws – the only thing sharp enough to penetrate the pelt) and Hercules took to wearing the fur as a cloak. If you see a Greek or Roman statue carrying a club and wearing a lion skin, it will always be Hercules.

No lions in sight, but a rather lovely temple dedicated to Zeus.

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This is the first time that I’ve been to temple where visitors can climb up on to the stylobate and stand where the naos would have been. It is admittedly a thrill to stand within a temple instead of merely in front of it.

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A collapsed column. Originally only 3 columns remained standing, six more have been re-erected since 2002 with plans to restore more.

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The temple dates from 330 BC, standing on top of the foundations of a much earlier temple

We’re going even further back in time with our next destination to the days of the Trojan War.

Mycenae was a settlement from the Neolithic period, growing to such prominence it lent its name to an entire era of Greek history. Mycenae was already ancient by the time of Pericles and Socrates, and it was a tourist attraction by the time of Imperial Rome.

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The blocks of stone used to build the fortification walls are so immense that Classical Greeks believed that they could only have been built by giants or cyclopes. The walls of Mycenae and nearby Tiryns are therefore known as Cyclopean.

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The iconic Lion Gate was built in the 13th century BC.

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Peering down into Grave Circle A, a royal burial place dating back to the 16th century BC. Heinrich Schliemann famously found a golden death mask here and excitedly proclaimed it to belong to Agamemnon, the famous Mycenean king who fought the Trojans. Archaeologists now believe the mask to pre-date the Trojan War.

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The Royal Palace certainly had a gorgeous view…

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The views are stunning but the paths are steep and uneven in places. There is no shade to be found on the entire acropolis and I saw a lot of people get sun burnt and desperate for a bottle of water. I also saw a teenage girl try to climb the acropolis in a pair of flip flops. She fell and hurt her ankle. I’m not joking when I saw you need sturdy walking shoes in Mycenae!

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The iconic Treasury of Atreus just outside the ancient city is actually a tholos tomb dating to 1250 BC. Being iconic, it is uncomfortably crowded. Try to time your visit in the short gaps between coach tours…

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No time to dawdle, the final stop of the day is Epidaurus. Famous now for the large theatre, Epidaurus was better known to the ancients as a Sanctuary of Asclepios, the god of medicine and healing.

20140509_155805IMG_6815 IMG_6832 IMG_6833The theatre has a seating capacity of 14,000 people and the acoustics are so perfect that the audience can hear every word spoken from the stage, even from the back row. I can attest to this, an american man is insisting on reciting Bible verses for a solid half an hour. I would have preferred some Aeschylus, if I’m honest. When he finally finishes, he invites someone else to the stage area to recite from the Bible. Dear tourists of any religion, please refrain from preaching in Greek theatres. It makes me wish I could murder you. If you can’t quote a Greek play, at least try some Shakespeare.

The sanctuary itself was almost entirely silent, I suspect that most coach tours include the theatre and perhaps, at a push, the small museum and ignore the less dramatic ruins of the Asclepion. The site would be clearer to imagine if the grass wasn’t so long, but I’ve gathered that gardeners descend on most archaeological sites the week after I’ve chosen to visit. I am, after all, visiting before peak season.

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Hellenistic baths

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The stadium at Epidaurus

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Dormitories

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The Tholos getting some TLC

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I had secretly hoped that we may have had time to make a small detour to Isthmia on the way home, having seen Nemea and with Delphi planned for later this week it would mean that I could complete my list of Panhellenic Games centres this week. It wasn’t to be, Isthmia is a small site with conservative opening hours and time had already, not surprisingly, flown by.

I have time to rest on the car ride back to Athens but my day is far from over. On fridays the Acropolis Museum is open until 10pm. Once again I ask Dmitri to drop me off in town rather than at my hotel. By visiting the museum this evening it frees up time in the following days to see other places. Luckily I arrive before seven, so I won’t have to rush as I am starting to get a little weary.

The museum is custom built for the collection and whilst I’m not overly enamoured with the external architecture of the building, I have to congratulate the designers and curators for their excellent use of space. The museum is relatively quiet, devoid of coach and cruise groups, making the spacious galleries incredibly relaxing and pleasant.

The museum was designed to also house the “Elgin” marbles, currently displayed at the British Museum, should they ever be returned to Greece. I was on the fence in this heated debate before my visit, the Acropolis museum and the conspicuous gaps in the Parthenon Gallery there haven’t managed to move me from it. Still, I enjoyed my visit and will return.

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