Ancient Athletics – The Events

The modern Olympics have a raft of events that would have had the ancient Greeks discombobulated. There were no aquatic events, ball games or team sports. Racewalking and beach volleyball would have been a mystery.

That said, the ancient Greeks had a few events and customs that would seem equally utterly bizarre in Rio 2016. For a start, all athletes competed naked unless stated otherwise. No brightly coloured team shell suits or lycra shorts, but some athletes did wear a kynodesme (“dog leash”) to compete in. This consisted of a leather cord that was tied around the protruding tip of the foreskin (the akroposthion) and pulled up to be tied to a waistband or the base of the penis. The idea was to prevent the foreskin riding up and exposing the glans of the penis. That was an absolute taboo, only slaves and barbarians didn’t worry about flashing their glans accidentally. Regular use of a kynodesme possibly permanently stretched the akroposthion which would have pleased the wearer as a large akropisthion was considered highly desirable. There may have been some practical aspects of wearing a kynodesme whilst competing but comfort seems to have been very much the secondary purpose. They were also worn by men of other professions whilst in public, such as actors. Even in private situations like drinking parties, respectable men would be wearing their kynodesme, so seeing athletes wearing them during their events would not only have been unremarkable but expected.


Races were the oldest events at the Olympic Games. In fact, the first 13 Olympics consisted of a single foot race called the stadion. It simply involved sprinting from one end of the track to the other. The length was standard across all Greek games and was set at 600 feet (mythically determined by Heracles.) The length of a foot varied from region to region; the tracks at Olympia and Isthmia are 192 modern metres long. At Nemea the track is a more gentle 178 metres and competitors in the Pythian Games at Delphi had a mere 177 metres to run. The word stadion not only referred to the track but as a standard of measurement for 600 feet.

At the Olympics the winner of the stadion gave his name to the entire Games and of that Olympiad period of four years. Everyone in the Greek world knew that Coroebus of Elis was the first Olympic victor (776 BC.) If you were to ask an ancient Greek when the Battle of Thermopylae took place, he would tell you it was the year when Astyalus of Croton won the stadion race for the third time in a row at the 75th Olympiad (480 BC.) Even late into antiquity a Greek would think that dating everything by the birth of an obscure eastern preacher would be a bizarre idea.

The diaulos was added at the 14th Olympic Games in 724 BC and simply doubled the length of the stadion requiring the athletes to turn at the far end and run back to the starting line.

At the 15th Olympics four years later the dolichos race was added to the programme. This race was not a sprint, lasting a whopping 20 stadia (10 full laps clocking in at 12,000 feet.)

So far, so recognisable. One race that is quite odd to modern spectators is the hoplitodromos race added in 520 BC at the 65th Olympic Games.

Each runner wore a helmet and greaves and carried a shield, elements of the full armour of a hoplite infantryman. The race made perfect sense to the ancient Greeks; armies were made up of citizen soldiers who needed to be able to display speed and agility in heavy armour. Shields weighed 7 kg alone (standard weight shields were kept at Olympia in the Temple of Hera to prevent cheating. The helmet and greaves would add another 3kg and the weight was not exactly conveniently distributed for running long distances in scorching summer heat. The race appealed to the war mongering Greeks who, when they weren’t fighting invaders like the Persians were constantly squabbling with rival city states. The race had what modern HR managers would call ‘transferable skills;’ with Greek hoplites fiercely charging at a Persian army at Marathon only three decades after the first hoplitodromos race.

Contact Sports

If the runners were lean and agile, the wrestlers and boxers were enormous. With shaven heads (to prevent hair pulling,) and flaunting scars from previous fights, these men were formidable. After qualifying rounds before the Games began, the cream of the crop would fight in out before the braying crowds. At Olympia, 16 athletes qualified for each event meaning that the victor would have to win four fights in a single hot, summer afternoon. There were three contact events and two classes, men and boys.


OK, so the modern Games have boxing. What the boxing in our Games also has is a long list of rules. Not so much in Greece.

There were no boxing rings to fight in, the contenders used the entire stadium. Bouts ran until a boxer signalled defeat (by raising his middle finger of his right hand,) or until someone was knocked unconscious. Greek boxers only aimed for the head and were allowed to strike in any way, whether it be a fist, open palm or jabbing fingers. A good boxer would use a mixture of punches to keep his opponent on the back foot, only gouging is forbidden. If a boxer fell to the ground, his opponent was allowed to keep punching him. All holds were banned.

There were no weight classes and it was entirely possible to see a wiry, lean man take on a human mountain, although Greek boxers were generally thickly built with broad, muscled shoulders and huge arms. Opponents were drawn at random, so tactics played an important part of each bout. A smaller, faster man may try to tire out a larger foe and wait to land a knock out punch, a heavy man may attempt to get his opponent down onto the ground and simply punch him repeatedly until he surrenders.

Ancient boxers didn’t fight their bouts in rounds with a short break for a drink and a pep talk from their trainer. Fights were continuous and lasted as long as they needed to. Neither did they use large, padded gloves. Ancient boxers wound 4 metres of leather softened with oil called himantes around each hand and wrist, leaving the fingers free. This protects the hands of the wearer but certainly not the skin of the opponent. Himantes caused such stinging cuts that they were nicknamed ‘ants.’ Certain boxers boasted that their faces were still unmarred because of their great skill. One, named Meloncomas of Caria,  remained undefeated for his entire career without ever throwing or receiving a punch, relying on nimble footwork and the ability to keep his guard up for up to two days at a time. Otherwise, veteran boxers would have been instantly recognisable from their cauliflower ears, broken noses and numerous scars, perhaps with a few teeth knocked out for good measure. Eurydamas of Cyrene lost every single one of his teeth in a single fight. Apparently an aristocratic Roman entered the Olympic Games and when he got home was disowned by his family, losing his inheritance. He was so badly disfigured during his bout his family didn’t recognise him.


The fact that all blows were aimed at the head made boxing the most deadliest of all ancient contact sports. There is a memorial at Olympia from the 1st century AD to a boxer known as the Camel of Alexandria. It reads

He prayed to Zeus, “Give me victory or give me death!” And here in Olympia he died, boxing in the Stadium at the age of 35. Farewell!”


After oiling their hulking bodies and dusting themselves with coloured powders (to provide grip,) ancient wrestlers entered the stadium for their chance at glory. Wrestling was generally quite sedate in comparison with boxing and pankration, with far more rules to ensure a graceful(ish) match. Victory was earned by throwing an opponent three times so that either his shoulders, back or hip touched the ground. Punches were forbidden as were kicks, although tripping up opponents was allowed (unlike modern ‘Greco-Roman’ wrestling.) There were several throws and above-waist holds in the repertoire and skill was just as important as brute strength. Perhaps moreso, as conserving energy was essential if an athlete was to have the stamina to succeed in successive rounds.


Pankration was a mixture of boxing and wrestling with more possibilities and fewer rules. To a modern eye, pankration is utterly savage. To the ancient audience it was a highlight of the Games and a masterful display of skill, strength and determination.

Pankration needed a special court as the stadium floor was too hard. Instead it was played out on freshly turned earth, muddied with water until it was sticky, nicknamed keroma – ‘beeswax.’. Pankratiasts fought naked and didn’t bother with the leather himantes. 

A bout didn’t end after three throws. The only way to win is for your opponent to concede, although sometimes even the death of a opponent did not secure a victory. Holds (including below waist,) arm and head locks, punches to the body as well as head and kicks were all allowed. Throws were used liberally and strangulation was seen as a perfectly logical way to ensure an opponent submitted. Genitals were a legitimate target not only for punches but for twists. The only forbidden moves are biting and eye-gouging.

With such freedom came a host of fighting styles within the event and the random lots must have made bouts between famous pankratiasts with differing techniques a must-see event. Determination and the endurance of pain were seen as honourable in the eyes of spectators and, as we often do now, crowds would sometimes cheer for underdogs if they showed fortitude.

To die fighting was often seen as preferable to admitting defeat and those who chose to die rather than give up were greatly admired. It was a brutal sport for men who lived in brutal times and pankratiasts were among the most revered of the celebrity athletes.

There have been several attempts to get a watered down version of pankration introduced as an event in the modern Olympics in recent years, hopefully with fewer broken bones and dislocated limbs…


Little has changed from the ancient pentathlon to the modern. Athletes of diverse talents competed in the discus, long jump, javelin, stadion race and wrestling.


This is a mid 2ndC AD marble copy of the c. 450 BC bronze original #Discobolus ("Discus thrower") statue by #Myron. Many copies were made, this is the most complete. Adolf #Hitler loved this very statue so much that he bought it in 1938 and displayed it in the Munich Glyptothek as a symbol of Aryan perfection (it was returned to Italy a decade later.) It shows a #Greek #athlete drawing back his #discus just before he starts his throw. Myron was famous for his sculptures of athletes and his style was part of an art revolution in ancient Greece, moving away from stiff poses and simple bodies to show something more fluid and idealised. Now on display at the #MuseoNazionaleRomano at the #PalazzoMassimo #igersrome #igersroma #ig_rome #ig_roma #olympics

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The ancient discus event was not the same as our modern revival.

Firstly, ancient athletes had to be far more accurate with their aim. A modern stadium has a looped track that echoes an ancient hippodrome, the stadiums at Greek sanctuaries usually had straight tracks where sprinters simply turned around a post at the far end.

So in modern stadiums there is a large space in the middle of the track where it’s possible to hold other events and discus throwers have a 35° wedge of field to throw into. Ancient pentathletes had to throw far more accurately as they had only the straight track to aim for, otherwise they risked lobbing a huge piece of metal into the crowd (which wasn’t unheard of.)

There were no standard weights across Greece and athletes needed to adjust their technique for their location. Olympia apparently had the heaviest although none of the three official Olympic discuses have been discovered, so we can’t know exactly how heavy they were. Discuses found across Greece range from 3 to 9 pounds, making the modern discus look modest at 4.4lb.

You wouldn’t see an ancient pentathlete spin as he started his throw. He would stand with his right leg back and raise the discus to eye level in his right hand. He would then twist his body backwards to the right with his weight on the right leg. As he swung his right arm to throw the discus he would transfer his weight to his left leg for extra propulsion. The ancient method allows more control but a shorter distance, perhaps half that of an Olympic discus thrower today.

Competitors would have a few attempts (some Games allowed three, others 5) and their best distance would be marked. Distances don’t seem to have been measured and recorded for posterity, only being the best on the day mattered.


Most Greek men would have been somewhat proficient with a javelin. Javelins were used for hunting and also were a standard aspect of military training in a world where all male citizens were expected to fight for their polis. Athletic javelins were smaller, about 2 metres long and thinner.

Unlike the discus, ancient pentathletes threw their javelins far further than modern pentathletes. This is because they used an ankule, a thin leather thong that was wound around the javelin at the middle with a loop at one end. When the athlete held the javelin he hooked two fingers into the loop. As he threw the javelin the ankule, tethered to his hand, would cause the shaft to spin as it flew forward. This improved aim in the same way a gun with a rifled barrel will shoot straighter than one that is smooth.

The competitors each took a run up being careful not to cross the starting line of the track. Again, the best attempt was marked.

Long Jump

A skamma 15 metres long was created on the stadion floor close to where the judges were seated by raking up and moistening the hard ground. Historians are apparently at odds as to whether ancient long jumpers took a run up or jumped from a standing position. Two things make me plump for the latter:

  • Vase paintings depict long athletes mid-jump with their feet both together.
  • Ancient long jumpers held weights (called halteres,) which they swung backward and forward before they leapt to gain momentum.

Modern athletes have tested these weights and they only give an advantage when used from a standing jump, usually hindering a running one.

The weights weren’t apparently regulated and each athlete had his own personalised pair, carefully weighted to suit his strength and technique. Halteres have been found in stone, lead and bronze. Some are highly decorated, some smooth and basic. Most had finger grooves or were shaped a little like an old fashioned telephone to ensure a firm grip. The weight of halteres recovered by archaeologists vary wildy with some apparently as heavy as 10lbs, so either some athletes were enormous of halteres were also used as dumbbells.

One thing missing from the modern long jump is musical accompaniment provided by a flautist, presumably to help the athletes settle into a rhythm.

So how far was the average jump? As usual, the annals are mainly silent, but two boasting athletes may hold the answer. Chionis of Sparta managed a 52 foot jump. Phayllus claims to have jumped a whopping 55 feet. To put that into perspective, Greg Rutherford won a gold medal at the 2012 London Games with a 8.31 metre jump, just over 27 feet, using the modern run-up method.

Was the ancient long jump more like the modern triple jump? Modern records do surpass Chionis and Phayllus, but again it uses a run-up. Also, halteres have been shown to be actually detrimental when using a running start.

I’m inclined to believe that ancient athletes jumped from standing  3 or perhaps 5 times, either in succession or repeatedly from the edge of the skamma with their distances being totalled.

If one athlete came first in the discus, javelin and long jump, he was immediately declared the victor.

Otherwise, athletes without a win were eliminated, leaving either two or three athletes to run the stadion sprint.

If after 4 events an athlete triumphed in three of them, he was victorious. Only if two athletes were left with 2 wins each did they advance to the wrestling round.

The pentathlete was admired for being versatile as the Greeks loved an all-rounder, but they never achieved quite the celebrity of sprinters or wrestlers.


Forget show jumping and banish all thoughts of dressage, there were no prancing ponies in ancient Greece. Equestrian events were frequently the most lethal events of the Games. They took place in hippodromes, of which few traces survive. We do know that hippodromes were large, flat and had a turning post at each end.


The four-horse chariot race consisted of 12 full laps of the hippodrome which is equivalent to 72 lengths of the stadium. There was fencing around the course to protect the spectators from loose horses or flying bodies. At most Games there were simple starting lines which gave chariots on the outer side a disadvantage, being farther from the turning post. At Olympia there were elaborate starting gates called the aphesis that allowed for staggered starts, ensuring that each chariot reached the turning post at roughly the same time. Deliberate crashing and other acts of sabotage were against the rules, but there were so many accidental crashes that the chance of every chariot finishing was incredibly slim.

There are arguments about how many chariots competed and ancient sources are rarely forthcoming. At the Pythian Games at Delphi in 462 BCthe tethrippon had 41 chariots compete and yet only one, owned by King Arcesilas of Cyrene, managed to finish the entire course.

The chariots were lightweight for speed and quite slim, constructed from wood with wicker panels and tied together with leather thongs. They were similar to ancient war-chariots, though the Greeks had long ceased to use them, considering them old-fashioned and by then, somewhat barbaric on a battlefield. Chariots were often brightly decorated with vivid paint and metal inlays, horses wore decorated reins. Charioteers wore an ankle length chiton.

The inner pair of horses called zugoi were harnessed to the chariot yoke whereas the outer pair, known as seiraphoroi, were harnessed with leather straps. Each horse had a rein and the charioteer had to maintain control of all of them, using one hand to control the zugoi and one hand to control the seiraphoroi.  Some tied the ends of the reins to their belts so as not to drop them, however there was a risk that if a charioteer fell from the chariot he would be dragged along the ground.

Charioteers were sometimes slaves bought by wealthy chariot owners for the purpose. Whereas some were bought and trained by their owners, no doubt trained slave charioteers could fetch a high price. Other charioteers were free men who could be hired out for a single Games or longer. It rarely mattered which city the charioteer was from, it was the owner who won the victory and had their names recorded in victory odes. This is firstly because buying and maintaining a chariot and four thoroughbred horses was cripplingly expensive to all but the very aristocratic, but also because chariot racing had such a high mortality rate that few nobles wanted to risk their lives in pursuit of glory when someone else was willing to do it for them for a handful of drachma. Occasionally a thrill seeking aristocrat would insist on driving their own chariots but they were a rarity. Owning a slave or hiring a driver also allowed women their shot at Olympic glory. The first woman to compete was a Spartan princess named Kyniska and she won not once, but twice in 396 and 392 BC.

Most spectators wanted to be close to the turning posts where there was a greater chance of a multi-chariot pile up. It would have been a brutal, violent, noisy race that claimed several victims and whilst it was never given the same prestige as the stadion sprint, the tethrippon was hugely popular and highly anticipated.

There were also races with two-horse chariots (synoris,) that were 8 laps long and for a short time at Olympia, chariots drawn by mules (apene,) that were 3 laps long. There was a horseback race of 2 laps known as the keles (a name also given to an energetic sexual position offered by the better class of  prostitutes plying their trade at the Games!) In Olympia the equestrian events were important enough to be the first events of the Games, at Delphi they were the grand finale.


Olympia only held the athletic events above, but Nemea, Isthmia and particularly Delphi had further events in music.

There were prizes for playing a pair of auloi, which was a reeded instrument not unlike a modern oboe, and the kithara which was a type of lyre. There was also a prize for playing the kithara with a vocal accompaniment.

Over time more disciplines were added for the writing and recitation of poetry and prose, acting, dancing and even painting.

Olympia held a competition among their own trumpeters and heralds (sent across Greece to announce each Games,) as to which would be the trumpeter and herald of the Games. The trumpeter would perform fanfares to get the attention of the crowds, the herald would announce events and introduce the athlete by stating his name, his father’s name and his hometown. The trumpeter and herald were also indispensable at prize giving ceremonies.


The Prizes

The Panhellenic Games offered a ceremonial crown called a stephanos, becoming known as stephanitic Games. Until the prize giving ceremonies athletes wore ribbons around their heads.

  • Olympia – an olive wreath from a sacred tree in the sanctuary of Zeus
  • Delphi – a wreath of bay-laurel from Thessaly which was a sacred tree of Apollo
  • Nemea – a wreath of wild celery
  • Isthmia – originally celery, later wreaths of pine leaves

Bragging rights were more than a worth prize, along with any gifts showered upon you by a grateful city and your admirers. There were no prizes for second or third.

‘Prize’ games across the Mediterranean offered the chance for financial gain, (Sybaris in Italy once tried to hold a prize Games at the same time as the Olympics in a fit of pique,) with prizes being rather extravagant. At the Panathenaic Games in Athens the victor of the chariot race were given 140 amphorae (about 5,000 litres) of expensive olive oil pressed from Athena’s sacred olive trees.

Another prize was fame that could endure for centuries (and in some cases, millenia,) if an athlete was endowed with (or could afford,) a victory statue in his home town or the sanctuary where he won his event.


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Games in Ancient Greece

This summer millions of sports fans will be watching the Olympic Games, broadcast from Rio to televisions and radios all over the world. There will be huge opening and closing ceremonies and athletes from every continent will compete in a vast array of sports. Hundreds of medals will be won and celebrity status achieved.

Much of this is inherited from the original Games in ancient Greece, but an awful lot would leave ancient Greeks completely baffled. I also imagine that Greek sports fans would be haughtily calling us a bunch of barbarians and finding some of our modern habits ans customs rather perplexing. 

So just how different were the Games in the ancient world? And why were they so phenomenal that we resurrected them over a millennium after they were closed down?

In posts over the next few weeks I’ll talk about a few aspects of athletics in the ancient world;  the recognisable parts that we love to feel familiarity with as well as the events and customs that shock our modern sensibilities and challenge our conceptions about how civilised ancient civilisations actually were. For now, here is a crash course in the most famous sporting events in ancient Greece.

The Olympics were one of four sets of Games held in Greece that collectively were known as the Panhellenic Games, ie Games of the Greek speaking world.

The Olympics were held at a sanctuary of Zeus called Olympia near to the city of Elis and they are the oldest of the four, the first Games being held in 776 BC. There were also Games dedicated to Zeus at Nemea. The Pythian Games were held at Delphi and were sacred to Apollo and the Games at Isthmia near Corinth were dedicated to Poseidon. Whilst undoubtedly highly entertaining, the Panhellenic Games were religious festivals first and foremost. 

These events were open to any competitors from a Greek city or polis. The only prizes were symbolic crowns and there were no prizes for anything but first place; to come second was to lose. A winning athlete may not have won an expensive prize but could expect to be showered with gifts and benefits from his proud home city.

There were other athletic events to compete in; some cities had their own, smaller sacred Games open to their own citizens and many cities also hosted prize games that did offer huge piles of cash to victorious visiting athletes. Success on the professional circuit could make a talented Greek rich for life.

Athletes tended to be affluent anyway, poorer men could not afford to stop working long enough to spend hours each day training or schlepping around on the Games circuit. Families who left the grunt work of their business to slave labour were more likely to have the spare time necessary to dedicate to a proper career in sport. Poorer boys who showed promise could still rise to the top if they were talented enough to secure state funding or handsome enough to catch the eye of an older man with cash to burn. 

But for the rarest of exceptions, athletes were male, the only (respectable) role in public life open to free women being that of a priestess. Competitors were also free, although slaves usually drove in chariot races (and their minted owners were named as victors!) 

The Greeks did not consider team sports of any kind to be a competitive event. If you were to say to an ancient athlete that “there is no ‘I’ in team,” it’s likely that he would assume you were joking or wonder if you were mentally sound. Or worse, that you were a barbarian. Balls were for exercise only and ballgames were merely recreational. There were no aquatic events although swimming pools did exist for athletes to exercise in and soak their tired muscles. The idea of Games being held in winter would have made a Greek shudder. 

The Games drew in spectators from the entire Greek speaking world, and since the Greeks really loved to found colonies that meant athletes and sports fans travelled to central Greece from as far away as North Africa, Spain and the shores of the Black Sea. Cities from southern Italy and Sicily were particularly good at producing star athletes.

The modern Olympics travel, hosted by a different city in a different country each time. The hosts compete to build the cleverest, most attractive stadiums etc to show off their architecture and art to the world (some being more successful than others…) The ancient Panhellenic Games stayed put, so city states erected their buildings at the sanctuaries instead, along with statues of their victorious athletes and greatest military victories. To tour Delphi or Olympia was a little like taking a miniature tour of Greece itself. Visitors to the Games could admire art and architecture from all over the Mediterranean, all in the same place.

Greek men considered it an ambition to attend a Games at least once in their lives, those with enough time and money spent as much time as possible travelling to the sanctuaries to spectate. It’s estimated that nearly fifty thousand people would visit Olympia each Games. Travelling to a sanctuary could sometimes take weeks, but the Panhellenic Games were so culturally important and considered so sacred that sports fans were seen as religious pilgrims. To harm them on their journeys was forbidden. Whilst wars between city states didn’t pause, spectators from every city were expected to travel together in peace and leave their rivalries for the battlefield. Like the terrible events at some of the modern Games, those rules were sometimes broken, but then as now the Games were the perfect time to forget differences and celebrate what we have in common. 

All sanctuaries in Greece were closed down in 394AD by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I and so the Games were by extension shut down due to their pagan core. 

For nearly twelve centuries, the Panhellenic Games provided the greatest spectacle in the ancient world and continue to inspire today.

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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Ferrara

15/16 April 2016

I’m taking a detour from the Veneto and briefly crossing into Emilia-Romagna to spend a night in Ferrara. It’s a city not often on a tourist must-see list but I’ve read so much about events there and famous past inhabitants that it’s easily made it onto my itinerary.

Ferrara is only 90 minutes from Venice by train. I’ve lucked out with my hotel, spending a few extra euros to stay in the block next to the Castello Estense. After a shower (living on a boat in Venice was lovely, but it is heavenly to have a proper bathroom again!) and a quick catch up with loved ones at home, it makes sense to head to the Castle first. I love a good fortress and this one is particularly attractive. It’s worth walking around the castle before heading inside. If you’re strapped for time/cash it’s possible to go inside and see the courtyard without paying to see the apartments and prisons. I instead plump for a ridiculously bargainous MyFE Ferrara tourist card, sold at numerous sites. It means I pay one price for access to everything that I want to see in the city as well as receive various discounts. Cards are available for various lengths of stay, I recommend them highly! Card purchased, time to enter the Castello.

The stronghold of the Este family in the heart of #Ferrara. #ig_ferrara

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Niccolo II d’Este, Marquess of Ferrara commissioned the castle in 1385 following an uprising in the city in which his tax advisor Tommaso da Tortona was murdered by the mob.

The stronghold of the Este family in the heart of #Ferrara. #ig_ferrara

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If you read as many books and historical novels set in Renaissance Italy as I do, chances are you’ve read about the Este family in Ferrara if only because Lucrezia Borgia married an Este and lived and died in Ferrara. Visiting her home here is a thrill. I’ve visited the Vatican but the crowds prevent the feeling of intimacy that it’s possible to feel here. There is much more to the Castello than Lucrezia and I really do recommend a tour so that you can see the wonderfully decorated rooms and read about Renaissance drama.

castello estense (52)castello estense (161)

After a few rooms with introductory maps and information boards, visitors pass through the kitchens and arrive in the dungeons.

The cell pictured above is situated in the basement of the Torre dei Leoni – the Lion’s Tower. The tower was transformed into the most fortified section of the castle having been a watchtower before the castle was constructed.

castello estense (12)

Torre dei Leoni

The castle dungeons were specifically created for high ranking prisoners. This cell housed the brothers of Alfonso I (future husband of Lucrezia Borgia.)

Giulio and Ferrante d’Este were the younger brothers of Alfonso and Ippolito, who at the time of these events had recently become Bishop of Ferrara.

It seems that Giulio and Ippolito had always had a rather stormy relationship. In particular, one event stands out. In the year that their brother Alfonso succeeded their father as Duke, both Giulio and Ippolito were attracted to a cousin of their sister-in-law Lucrezia, a lady named Angela. Angela Borgia had been brought to live in Ferrara when Lucrezia had married Alphonso in 1502. She was incredibly beautiful and graceful and the Este brothers were not alone in falling in love with her.

Being bitter rivals already, the brothers competed for her affections. Angela seemed to favour Giulio, which infuriated Ippolito who saw himself as the obvious choice. Angela must have been unaware of the tension, for she publicly mentioned in 1505 that Giulio was so handsome that his eyes alone were worth more than the entire body of Ippolito.

Within a few days Ippolito met his brother outside of Ferrara at the Delizia di Belriguardo , an estate known as the ‘Versailles of the Estense family.’ Gamers among you may recognise it as a location in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Others may know it as a museum.

Ippolito brought his henchman, Giulio arrived alone and powerless. Ippolito ordered his men to kill Giulio and rip out the eyes that were supposedly so bewitching. Giulio survived, but only just. He was covered in scars and permanently lost the sight in one eye. The beating was so severe that he never gained full use of his other. Ippolito seemed content that his brother was alive as he had lost his good looks and could hardly seduce the beautiful women at court anymore.

When their brother the Duke did nothing to punish Ippolito, Giulio was enraged. Giulio recruited their other brother Ferrante into a plot to murder both Alphonso and Ippolito. The plot was hasty and clumsy and easily discovered. Alphonso sentenced them both to death, only to commute their sentences to imprisonment as the brothers mounted the scaffold.

Giulio and Ferrante were kept in the cells of the Lion Tower. Ferrante died there in 1540 having been a prisoner for 34 years, more than half of his lifetime. Giulio was released after 53 years of incarceration by his grandnephew Alphonso II. Giulio was 81 years old. He stunned the people of Ferrara by strolling confidently from the Castello dressed in clothes half a century out of fashion. Giulio had only two years of freedom before his death in 1561.

As an interesting footnote, Giulio had outlived his jealous brother by over four decades. Ippolito had died in 1520 after eating some bad lobsters. Ippolito had fathered two illegitimate children and married his daughter to the son of no other than Angela Borgia.

Other cells are open for viewing.

castello estense (79)castello estense (82)Signage in the first cell gives the information for the entire dungeon complex, but from what I can tell from a little digging is that the top cell housed Laura ‘Parasina’ Malatesta and the cell pictured below it was for Ugo d’Este. Their story would inspire poems and operas.

80 years before Giulio d’Este was spared execution, Parasina and Ugo were not to be so lucky.

Parasina Malatesta came to Ferrara in 1418 aged 14 from her home in Ravenna to marry the Marquess of Ferrara, Niccolo III. Her new husband was in his mid thirties, keen to make an strategic alliance with a grand marriage. Niccolo had been married before to Gigliola da Carrara. In their 15 years of marriage, Gigliola had never had children. She had died of plague in 1416.

That’s not to say that Niccolo was childless. He had many illegitimate children by several mistresses. His chief mistress had been Stella de ‘Tolomei, known as the Star Assassin. Stella had borne Niccolo three sons and no doubt hoped for marriage when Gigliola died.

It must have been galling for Stella to watch Niccolo marry a much younger woman. Stella died shortly after the wedding.

Parasina had been raised to marry a noble and would have been coached on what to expect when she arrived at the Court in Ferrara. She was introduced to nine of her illegitimate stepchildren, some nearly as old as herself.

By all accounts Parasina was bright with a solid education and a passion for horses and travel. She bore Niccolo twin girls Ginevra and Lucia within a year of marriage and a long awaited legitimate male heir in 1421; a boy named Alberto who sadly died aged 39 days.

Parasina was admired by all, except from her step son Ugo.

Ugo was the eldest son of Niccolo and Stella the Star Assassin and seemed to be the favourite child. One year younger than Parasina, he resented her for taking the place he felt belonged to his mother. Any male heir Parasina produced would be also be a threat to Ugo. Parasina returned his hostility. The two constantly fought making life at court particularly tense.

By 1424 Niccolo was desperate for the two teenagers to cease bickering. When Parasina travelled to Ravenna to visit her family, Niccolo sent Ugo as well in order for the pair to get to know each other and hopefully learn to become friends. Ugo was now 18 years old and was no longer a sulking youth, Parasina might even find she had things in common with him.

Niccolo’s plan worked a little too well. Away from Ferrara, Ugo and Parasina not only grew closer, they fell in love. They began a passionate affair. After the pair returned to Ferrara they could not bear to call their clandestine relationship off and continued to meet for secret trysts in the Castello and at a country residence called the Delizia di Belfiore. Niccolo had not had any more illegitimate children since his second marriage but it’s unlikely that he was faithful. It also doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Parasina might enjoy a relationship with a handsome young man, rather than her husband who was twice her age.

The stress of keeping her secret apparently caused Parasina to become irritable and one of her maids, stung by some slight, told Niccolo that his wife and son were cuckolding him within his own castle. Refusing to believe the betrayal, Niccolo spies on his wife’s bedroom himself to catch the lovers together.

Parasina and Ugo were thrown into the cells shown above. Parasina reportedly begged her husband to spare his son, urging Niccolo to punish only herself. Niccolo however was so furious that he ignored her pleas for mercy and the counsel of his advisors. A mere three days after they were discovered, the lovers were taken from the cells to the basement of the Marchesana tower. Parasina was still screaming for mercy on behalf of Ugo, becoming silent only when she was told he had already been beheaded. She also was then led to the block and decapitated.

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The Marchesana Tower (with the clock…) and the Lion Tower further along the walls

The executions in 1425 shocked the citizens of Ferrara and other Italian cities. Niccolo showed some remorse if only for the death of his son.

As an epilogue, Stella de ‘Tolomei would not only provide Niccolo with an hier after all, she would provide two, even if she never lived to see it. After Ugo, Stella had given birth to Leonello and Borso. Niccolo had remarried for a third time and had two sons and yet both illegitimate sons were given precedence.

Leonello became Marquess upon the death of his father in 1441 and died in 1450. Despite the fact that Leonello had a legitimate son (named Niccolo for his grandfather,) power passed to Borso. Borso became the last Marquis and first Duke of Ferrara. Borso tried many times to poison his nephew Niccolo but failed. Borso died childless in 1471. 21 years after the death of Niccolo III his legitimate son, Ercole, became  Duke. His nephew did  try to wrest power away in 1476 (Leonello’s sons had been named heirs in Niccolo II’s will, Borso disregarded this but the younger Niccolo never forgot his stolen inheritance,) and so Ercole had him beheaded in the castle courtyard.

Interestingly, Parasina’s mother had been poisoned by her father and her daughter Ginevra was supposedly poisoned by her husband Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the cousin of Parasina. Three generations of women, all killed by their husbands.

If the lower floor is a testament to a violent past, the upper floors indicate that Ferrara also became a centre for art and beauty.

If the prisons are a bit claustrophobic, there’s almost immediately a chance for some fresh air at the Orange Loggia on the first floor of the Lion Tower and built under Alphonso I.

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The Marchesana Tower #ig_ferrara #igersferrara #grandeviaggio

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As well as Lucrezia Borgia’s marital home the Castle was the childhood home of her glamorous sisters-in-law Beatrice d’Este (who married Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan) and Isabella d’Este (who married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had an affair with Lucrezia that only ended when Francesco caught syphilis from a prostitute.) Both sisters were famous for their taste, intellect and love of art and fashion. Their names rightly pop up repeatedly in history books and it’s wonderful to come to their first home.

It’s a short walk from the Castello Estense to the Piazza della Cattedrale. The Cattedrale di San Giorgio was begun in 1135. Work continued for some 500 years. The campanile was never finished even after 42 years of construction in the late 1400s.

Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio #igersferrara #ferrara #grandeviaggio

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The Loggia of the Merchants runs along the side of the Cathedral and has housed shops since the medieval era.


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The unfinished campanile


The Loggia of the Merchants

The interior was overhauled in the 17th century.

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The Cathedral Museum is housed a short walk away in what was the church of San Romano.

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Heading back to the Cathedral, I can concentrate on the buildings around it.

Opposite is the Palazzo Municipale.

The statue is a copy. In 1796 Napoleon’s troops melted the original down to make artillery.

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The courtyard of the Palazzo Municipale and the Stairway of Honour


Torre dell’Orologio

Time for a historic house. The Casa Romei is an aristocratic residence from the mid-15th century. It was built for a banker named Giovanni Romei and is suitably decorated in lavish style for his marriage to Polyxena d’Este.

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Decorated ceiling at the Casa Romei in #ferrara #ig_ferrara #casaromei

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The house was left to neighbouring nuns and was incorporated into the Corpus Domini convent to accommodate high ranking guests.

Speaking of the convent, it’s sometimes possible to enter and see the d’Este tombs including the grave of Lucrezia Borgia. Sadly, I missed out. Each website and guidebook I looked at had conflicting instructions and opening times. To save you the same disappointment I felt, here are the official opening times, as nailed to their own wall.


After a lazy dinner I want to try my new tripod out with some night time photography. Ferrara was perhaps not a good place to choose. Tourists from outside Italy seem fairly rare and as a woman alone with a camera I didn’t feel particularly welcome or safe. I gave up before I got to the Cathedral, thank goodness the Castello is two doors down from my hotel.




Never mind, a good night of sleep and some sunshine and I’m ready to go again.

There are a few places I will always be tempted by, archaeological museums are near the top of the list.

On the walk to the museum I make a brief detour to glance at the Monastery of Sant’Antonio in Polesine, which inspired a novel by Sarah Dunant called Sacred Hearts. Nuns still sing here just as they do in the novel, set in the Renaissance.IMG_0241.JPG

The Palazzo Constabili AKA Palazzo di Ludovico il Moro was built beside a lost branch of the River Po in the late 15th century. It seems to have been built by Antonio Constabili, the Este ambassador to the Sforzas in Milan on behalf of Ludovico, who wished to have a home in his wife’s hometown. Today the marvellous palace houses the National Archaeological Museum in Ferrara which holds the treasures of the nearby lost Etruscan city of Spina.

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Spina was founded by the Etruscans in the late 6th century BC in the delta of the Po river. It was an important Mediterranean trading post and may have been Hellenised to a degree. There was certainly a lot of Greek pottery imported to the town. Within three centuries however, Spina was in irretrievable decline. The town was rediscovered in the 1920s.

When not looking at the exhibits, it’s easy to be enchanted by the decor.

There’s also a beautiful garden for when fresh air is required.

The highlight of the Palazzo is the Treasure Room which has a stunning ceiling fresco painted by Benvenuto Tisi in 1503-6.


Onwards to another Palazzo. The Palazzo Schifanoia started out as a single storey banqueting hall but was extended by Duke Borso d’Este (he who tried to poison his nephew.) in the 1460s. ‘Schifanoia’ means to escape from boredom. There is now a civic museum here but most visitors are here for the famous murals. The Room of the Months is a mural cycle was painted by Cosimo Tura and his students. Each month has a column of three sections. The top section features a pagan god in their triumphal chariots. In the centre is a sign of the zodiac. The bottom section features a scene from Borso’s life.

The next room is the Hall of Virtue painted by Domenico di Paris.

Ferrara is a city of red bricks and bicycles. It’s not often that I walk around an entire town able to count my fellow tourists on the fingers of one hand, it makes a lovely change. Anyone wanting a cultural city break would do well to consider Ferrara.

After a walk soaking up the atmosphere I collect my bags and head to the train station. Next stop, Padua.


#igersferrara #ig_ferrara

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Ferrara, city of bicycles

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Sicily comes to Blighty

As some readers of my travel journals may know, I visited Sicily in the spring of 2015 for an exhaustive study trip. Sicily is a ridiculously easy place to fall in love with despite her flaws. I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with the rich history of the island and I’ve been lapping up stories from her history since I returned. It’s a place of stark contrasts, irresistable food and dramatic landscapes. However, for my money the main draws are the archaeological sites. In particular, Greek colonists took their homegrown architecture and supersized it, everything seems bigger and ever so slightly flamboyant. A temple on Sicily is a Greek temple on steroids.

Come to Sicily for the temples, stay for the multi faceted history of the peoples who erected them.

Whether you have a penchant for military history, naval warfare, underwater archaeology or even (whisper it) a secret flirtation with medieval history, Sicily draws you in with a warm, lemon scented hug.

I was therefore very pleased to learn that two major museums on my home turf were to have Sicilian themed exhibitions this summer. The British Museum has an exhibition called Culture and Conquest running until August 14th and the Ashmolean has Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas until September 25th.

I decided to visit both in two days with a lecture thrown in for good measure to fondly reminisce and hopefully see some of the pieces that I missed due to the Palermo museum closure. If only Maria Grammatico could also make the trip north my 48 hours would be complete!

And so to the British Museum (as if I ever need an excuse…) for a dose of wide eyed wonder and lots of contented sighs.

The larger exhibition space was taken up by Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (which I’ll describe later,) and so the Sicily exhibition was rather restricted in scale.

Last year I was cursing the temporary closure of the Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo. At every archaeological site on the western side of the island were signs declaring that the statue/frieze/metope from this temple/sanctuary/city could be found on display in Palermo. I was denied entry to an Aladdin’s cave. This London exhibition would be, I hoped, my chance to catch up on missed treasures.

Not so much…

The exhibition had large posters of Sicilian sites that made me long to return but was, for my insatiable appetite, a little light on actual exhibits. Call me greedy, but the sheer volume of artifacts in even the teeniest of provincial Sicilian museums can spoil a girl. What British museums do increasingly do well is signage. The BM had lots of large maps and info boards to give context to what was on show. Cohesion was sometimes lacking on my trip with some Italian museums preferring to group artifacts by type rather than giving a chronological narrative. I also don’t have to worry about my abysmal grasp of the Italian language…

I would have loved to take a few photos but they were forbidden. I find this policy a bit strange, there were no restrictions on the exact same pieces when they were displayed at their homes in Sicilian museums. For blogging purposes I’ll use my photos from last year.

I enjoyed seeing a few familiar friends like this marble statue of a warrior from Akragas (Agrigento.) The BM has beautifully lit this piece, (far better than Agrigento Archaeological Museum, if I’m honest…) so it was a shame not to be able to photograph him this time around, but for nostalgia purposes it was great to see him again.

Temple of Concord #valledeitempli #agrigento #sicily

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The exhibition is a perfect introduction ti Sicilian history so while I didn’t learn anything new at the BM this time around, I did get to see a few nice pieces that I hadn’t managed to get to last year. In particular there were some lovely exhibits from Gela.

This snake-headed bracelet (one of a pair) and gold ring were discovered on Sicily with hoards of gold and silver coins. All were deliberately buried by their owner, who intended to recover them but never returned. Around this time, about 330–300 BC, there was political unrest on the island and the added threat of attack from invading forces. For much of its history, Sicily was admired and envied for its wealth and fertility. In Greek Sicily, wealth was displayed through sumptuously decorated homes and gold jewellery like this. Learn more about the rise of Greek Sicily and its lasting impact in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Gold bracelet and ring. Found at Avola, Sicily, about 330–300 BC. #jewellery #bracelet #Sicily #gold #ancientGreece

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These 2,000-year old terracotta figures depict the gods of #love. Scantily clad and casually poised, Aphrodite and winged Eros are typical of the terracotta and pottery workshops of the town of Centuripe in Greek Sicily. Terracotta modellers and potters in Centuripe favoured large, flamboyant, brilliantly coloured figures. Although sometimes found in graves, these may originally have been made to decorate the houses of the rich. Rivalling the most culturally dynamic Greek regions, Sicily became an arena for artists and intellectuals during this period. See these wonderful objects in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Terracotta figures of the gods of love, painted after firing. Centuripe, #Sicily, about 200 BC. #Italy #history #ancientGreece

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The highlight of the day instead came from the accompanying lecture given by Dr Michael Scott. I had high expectations having been so impressed with his book about Delphi (as I reviewed here) that I eagerly devoured in the weeks running up to my trip to Delphi in May 2014 (insert shameless plug for my travel journal here…) Modern historians can so easily over simplify their subject to patronise their readers/viewers (mentioning no names of course!) or conversely wrap themselves up in a dense fug of academia in an arrogant attempt to repel the casual audience members. Dr Scott mercifully does neither in his books or broadcasts.

Dr Scott chose to talk about ancient Sicily not from what they left behind them at home, but abroad. As an expert on Delphi it was not a surprise that the sanctuary featured heavily along with Olympia. Personally I was thrilled to learn of the many ways my two favourite places in the ancient world were linked.

It’s important to remember that Delphi was the centre of the world for Greeks and if Sicilian cities wanted to make an impression on the world they needed to head to Delphi to do it. One could never set foot on Sicilian soil, but by visiting Delphi they would have been able to see Sicilian art and architecture, read of the exploits of Sicilians tyrants, watch Sicilian athletes, listen to Sicilian musicians and have a chat with any Sicilians also making a pilgrimage.

I visited Delphi 12 months before Sicily, otherwise I may have noticed just how many Sicilian connections are there.

For instance, I didn’t pay that much attention to this base before and I can’t recall reading a sign about it. Even if I had, Gelon was a name that had popped up in my reading but I probably wouldn’t become well acquainted with the tyrant of Gela and Syracuse for another year.

The base once supported a bronze column topped with a statue of Nike with a tripod above her. Gelon had erected this close to the temple of Apollo within a stone’s throw of the serpent column and tripod celebrating the Greek victory over the Persian invaders at Plataia in 479BC. Gelon’s structure was a celebration over his victory at Himera over the Carthaginians. Gelon was apparently very keen for the Greek world to know that his victory over a worthy foe was just as important and deserving of respect as a victory over Persians (which was a war that Gelon coincidentally refused to contribute to…)


On the right, (which to my shame, I did not bother fitting in the frame) can be seen another base of another tripod dedicated by Gelon’s brother and successor, Hieron I. According to Dr Scott, Hieron made sure his monument was ever so slightly more impressive that of his brother, today only the slightly larger base leaves a clue.

Hieron left a greater impression on Delphi than his tripod, however. It seems a little strange that one of the highlights of the Delphi museum should be Sicilian.

Four years after defeating the Etruscans in naval combat at Cumae (initiating the decline of Etruscan dominance in Italy,) Hieron balanced his tyrant duties with being a top ranking athlete. He won the the chariot race in the Pythian Games at Delphi in 470BC, inspiring Pindar to write his 1st Pythian Ode. Hieron continued to compete at Delphi and Olympia picking up further prizes.

Hieron commissioned the bronze statue to commemorate his athletic prowess and installed it close to the temple of Apollo. It originally also featured four bronze horses along with slaves holding their reins, now sadly lost.

The lecture was fascinating and I am now pining to return to Sicily AND Delphi. I could write far more, instead I urge you to keep an eye on the Hellenic Society YouTube channel as everything was filmed.

Should anyone spot a lecture by Dr Scott, I urge you to grab a ticket. Watching anyone talk about a subject they so evidently love is always a joy to watch and Dr Scott is so effortlessly engaging it is impossible not to be swept up with him. I only wish I could persuade him to actually guide me around Sicily and Delphi instead of a lecture room in London.

Should you be brazen enough, Dr Scott was also gracious enough to chat with a few of us afterwards and was a delight to talk to. I left the museum with a spring in my step.

The following day it was the turn of the Ashmolean. I have a deep love of underwater archaeology as I find a certain romance to things being found where they were never meant to be. Little stirs my soul like a shipwreck does, so the Ashmolean exhibition called to me like a siren.

Again, no photography, again, no one in Sicily cared…


Hercules has made the journey from Catania to Oxford for a holiday…


This statue was brought up from the sea floor off the coast of Lilybaeum, now known as Marsala. It’s possible to tell which side of the statue was safely buried and which side was exposed to currents and sea life.

It was lovely to see part of the exhibition dedicated to the work of underwater archaeoligy pioneer Honor Frost. I’d had the pleasure of viewing the jewel of her maritime excavations when I went to Marsala to see the remains of a Carthaginian warship sunk off of the Egadi islands.



The Ashmolean exhibition added to my excitement by including several bronze rams found on the seafloor. One Carthaginian ram displayed the dents made by bashing into a Roman ship, a Roman ram still had a chunk of Carthaginian ship wedged in. It’s strange to think that had they not fallen into the sea, these rams would have been carted off to Rome to adorn the rostrum in the Forum.

The Ashmolean puts on a good show, but so far I’ve yet to see anyone (including the Underwater Archaeology Museum in Bodrum!!!) put on a better exhibition about shipwrecks than the 2014 Antikythera show at the National Archaeology Museum in Athens. I fear I’ve been spoiled for life…


Statue from the Antikythera shipwreck

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Veneto Adventure Travel Journal – Venice Day 1


12 April 2016

In the weeks before I became a parent last October, my husband and I started hearing about ‘push presents.’ Apparently some men buy their partners gifts to thank them for tolerating 9 months of pregnancy and labour. Some women receive designer handbags, diamonds or even a new car.

Thankfully my husband not only knows me very well but also understands that I have come to rely on a couple of weeks a year with no responsibilities and plenty of museums. He is enough of a feminist (although he would probably call himself an equalist!) not to expect me to be trapped at home under a mountain of nappies without a small break when he himself gets to continue his career uninterrupted and leave the house without the baby. So when it came to a push present, my superstar husband gave me the independence and support to travel solo for a short trip just as I used to before baby arrived. It may be considered unusual to crave leaving my baby behind for seven days, but I bet that if every woman had a partner as supportive as mine, many would at least consider a trip. A week of no poops, 2am feeds, as much sleep as I wanted and adult pursuits was just what I needed after six months of being a new mum, and so I booked my tickets to explore the Veneto region of Italy.

And so, with baby at home being spoilt rotten by her Daddy and an assortment of doting grandparents, I flew in to Venice.

There are none of the ancient ruins that I usually insist upon visiting, in fact when I’ve been travelling elsewhere around the Mediterranean I’ve often found that the Venetians have plonked a fortress on top of the ancient site I’m interested in. The Parthenon, everyone’s favourite Greek temple, was bombed by the Venetians, leaving the temple iconically ruined. Other sites have had artifacts plundered to beautify Venice (although us Brits probably shouldn’t judge them too harshly on that…)

In spite of this, Venice is unique and undeniably alluring despite her decline and fading grandeur. I can sacrifice seeing a few ancient theatres and sanctuaries if it means I see Venice once.

After landing in the early afternoon and after taking an age to leave the airport I headed to the Alilaguna pontoon to catch a water bus to Murano; a small clutch of islands nearly a mile north of Venice which is famous for glass production. The main group of islands can wait awhile, as Murano cannot be missed.

#igersvenezia #ig_venice #murano

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Settled as early as the 5th century AD, glass making didn’t come to Murano until 1291 when the Venetian Republic banned furnaces from Venice in an attempt to prevent fires in a city built mainly of wood. The artisans were set up as a community on Murano and have been creating beautiful glass objects ever since.

The story of glass making is explained at the Museo del Vetro so it makes sense to head there first. It is situated in a palazzo previously occupied by the bishops of neighbouring Torcello and exhibits include displays of ancient glass as well as glass produced on the islands.

I already had my ticket as the museum is included in the Venice Museum Pass that can be bought online in advance. It’s well worth getting as you’ll save a heap of cash and queue times.

The genius off the glass blowers was such that they were given certain privileges within Venice such as immunity from prosecution and the right to carry swords. They could charge astronomical prices as they held a monopoly, the price they paid was a ban on ever leaving the Republic lest they share their secrets abroad. Any glass blowers who did leave the lagoon were condemned to death as traitors in absentia.  Conversely, when a glassblower fled the city after murdering a man in 1524 he was offered a full pardon on the sole condition that he return to his work on Murano.

Murano is ridiculously pretty to stroll around, but for a more colourful experience I headed over to the Faros water bus stop to take a pretty vaporetto ride to Burano.

If you can’t walk along a canal without passing dozens of glass shops on Murano, then you can’t help but pass a myriad of lace shops on Burano. The Venetian Republic took control of Cyprus in the 16th century and brought back the delicate and intricate skill of making lace using needles. The demand for Burano lace has ebbed and flowed since, but the lace makers are determined to keep the tradition going and have set up a school. The population has shrunk from 8,000 at Burano’s height to 3,000 today, but tourists keen to photograph the candy colour houses of the island make up for it. The splashes of colour are not as whimsical as you may imagine with each house having a small choice of colours and shades of paint allotted to it by the government.

#burano #ig_venice #igersvenezia

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Sadly, the need to check in to my accomodation on time (and dump my huge backpack…) cuts my time short and forces me to abandon my hopes of visiting nearby Torcello. I’m not too worried, it’s already very clear that I will be returning to Venice again and again…

A ferry to Lido as the sun sets is a wonderful way to spend a hour with plenty to see on the way,

and from there it is a short vaporetto ride to Sant Elena, the quiet, leafy corner of Venice where few tourists bother to explore. I’m staying on a gulet in the marina; what could be more fitting for a stay in the watery city?

The sleep deprivation of life with an infant has ruined my stamina, Venice can wait for the morning…

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Twenty Travel Tips!

I’ve always believed that there is no point in visiting a city or island unless you’re planning on really squeezing as much into your trip as possible. This style doesn’t suit everyone, but even if you prefer to really chill out when abroad you may find that some of this advice will still apply. I’ve travelled for business and leisure, in large groups, with family or my partner and alone. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. Whether you’re taking a long weekend away or backpacking across a country, hopefully I can help you enjoy yourself as much as possible.

I’ll be prepping a lot of the following tips myself as I plan for my next adventure this April.

1) If you haven’t already, download an app that lets you call or text home for free. I use WhatsApp as hotel wifi can make Skype sluggish. Your phone company is rich enough already without charging you a small fortune for a text message.

2) Nowadays you’ll be hard pressed to find a hotel or café that doesn’t have free wifi which is brilliant. Out and about, most cities now have wifi hotspots dotted around busy districts. However, some require a mobile number for authentication. You won’t be able to get online until the company texts you a password. Since a lot of phone companies charge you to receive texts while abroad as well as send, it may well be worth picking up a cheap pay-as-you-go local simply to put into your phone. You can get online and if necessary, call local numbers for a fraction of what your provider would charge for calls abroad and extortionate data roaming. Regardless, always tell your provider that you’re travelling before you fly to avoid any surprise charges.

3) Speaking of your phone, it can be really helpful to have a few bits and pieces preloaded and ready to go upon arrival. Knowing that guidebook streetmaps can be a bit rubbish (if the book even includes the area that you’re staying in,) bring up your hotel on Googlemaps and screenshot the map so that it’s always to hand. I also always download a photo of the hotel. Walking up and down a street with no visible house numbers looking for a B&B with no sign is no fun…

I also get a route from the station to my hotel and screenshot the map and step by step directions.

At the very least, make sure you have the name of your hotel and the full address written down somewhere, preferably in your wallet. Your taxi driver may not understand your pronunciation and you don’t know how many hotels have similar names in the area. My parents still shudder about landing in Orlando late at night in ’91 with two small children. They instructed the taxi driver to the Best Western hotel only to hear “which Best Western?” Not a fun way to start the trip.

4) Even the shabbiest kiosk will demand extortionate prices for a can of soda if they’re close to a popular attraction. Far better to grab a medium sized bottle of water at a corner shop or vending machine. Choose somewhere that is filled with locals who aren’t willing to pay inflated prices for necessities. Keep the bottle after you’ve drank your water to refill throughout the day (as most sports bottles can bulk out your luggage.) The wonderful thing about warmer countries is the abundance of public water fountains. I also carry a small bottle of concentrated squash or cordial with me such as these. They are hand luggage friendly and will last an entire trip. That way if the potable water tastes a bit odd to you the squash will mask the flavour. If you really can’t stand the idea of foreign water fountains then simply stick to supermarkets and mini marts for cheap sodas and juices.

5) Speaking of ridiculous mark-ups, don’t even get me started on the €10 cling-wrapped panini with sweaty cheese, wilted lettuce and cheap ham lining those kiosk shelves.

Watch the locals and follow them when you want to snack. Look for small, independant shops a little way off of the tourist track and for a fraction of the price you can eat like a king. I have happy memories of feasting on a €1.50 fougasse from a Parisian boulangerie. I had a different filling every morning that trip, stocking up on baked treats for rest of the day and always having change from a €5 note. A deli full of local charcuterie and cheeses will provide a brilliant picnic on the cheap.

You will undoubtedly see the usual global fast food chains in major European cities but the only locals you’ll see inside tend to be young teenagers. Why travel across the world to have the same flaccid burger you can have at home? Each country tends to have a fast food far better than that. In Italy even the cheapest pizza-by-the-slice joint will beat most pizzas at home, and my favourite food in the entire world is a Greek gyros wrap that rarely costs more than €2. I would genuinely prefer to eat gyros than dine at any fancy restaurant. If that means queueing for a while behind the hordes of Greeks crowding out the souvlaki shop, so be it.

6) If and when you do choose to sit down for a more relaxed meal there are a few pitfalls to avoid that should be obvious but are often ignored.

If the restaurant has a view of a monument expect to pay through the nose for average food. Locals don’t eat here and tourists rarely bring repeat custom, so the owners can afford to charge what they like for lazy interpretations of national dishes. They don’t tend to look kindly on leisurely meals, either. Expect to be hurried so that the table can be freed up.

Ditto for if the restaurant has a large, plastic menu in English displayed prominently outside. They usually come in garish colours and have photos of the most popular dishes. These photos are from a stock catalogue and haven’t been taken anywhere near what the chef plates up. Do yourself a favour and memorise the names of a few local dishes that interest you before you travel or highlight them in the cuisine section of your guidebook. Most of the time the best dishes aren’t even offered on the tourist menus anyway. Each city or district usually has a speciality dish or two depending on the local landscape and agriculture. When I discovered how wonderful Sicilian aubergines were I insisted on eating them every day I was there.

My rule of thumb is the fewer frllow tourists you see in a busy restaurant, the better the food and service will be.

Tripadvisor is for once not reliable here, the diners most ready to be vocal about the food and experience they receive tend to be the complainers, sadly they are also the diners who have unimaginative palates and no clue about local cuisines. If you do read a really negative review of a restaurant that had really tempted you, do a few profile clicks. If they gave a generic chain or fast food restaurant a glowing review for a basic dish, you know that they are not to be believed.

Diving in at the deep end and trying something new can’t hurt. My husband and I often giggle and impersonate a group of northern english middle aged couples we encountered on our honeymoon on a Greek island. They were marvelling, very loudly and appreciatively, at their first taste of Greek food.

“Try this beef stifaaaado, Beverley! It’s just like ‘otpot but with green bits!”

“Ee, this chicken souvlaki tastes right lemony, Reg!”

I smile to think of a Greek restaurant somewhere in Sheffield earning a new set of regulars.

7) This is mainly directed at my fellow Brits. Booze is cheaper on the continent and generally (apart from real ale,) better. Enjoy a drink, but don’t be the paralytic, sunburnt cretin yelling into the night and vomiting into a bin. We seem to be the only European nation to binge drink and if you do so abroad I can promise that the locals will detest you. Stiff upper lip, chaps.

8) Build an intinerary.

Buy a comprehensive guidebook and read through it a few times. Highlight what you definitely want to see in one colour and things you might like to see if you have enough time in another. Circle these places in the city map that is usually found inside the cover. It should make it pretty easy to work out how to organise each day by clustering nearby museums and galleries to each other. Check their opening times to decide which is better to see first and which to leave for last. If any of your must-sees have a weekly extended opening or reduced price scheme you can then plan accordingly to ensure you won’t miss out.

It’s also worth tweeting or emailing ahead to see if staff can recommend which are their quietest days so you won’t spend your hard earned holiday queueing for tickets and battling the crowds.

If you like you can write an afternoon or even entire day into the schedule that’s dedicated to getting purposefully lost and idly wandering around, but you’ll be confident knowing that you won’t miss anything that you really wanted to see.

9) There are a wealth of hotel sites now but my travelling experience improved greatly once a friend told me about

There are all the usual features of finding hotels by area/budget/type but my favourite aspect is frequently being able to book without a deposit and paying is cash upon arrival. Nearly all hotels also have a free cancellation policy, usually merely 24 hours in advance. It makes life a lot easier if you need to change your plans.

Above all, you can find some brilliant and quirky hotels and B&Bs. In April when I go to Venice I’ll be staying on a Turkish gulet for the same price as a bed in a 15 person hostel dorm.

10) Landmarks and monuments tend to be beautifully illuminated after dark which can be a temptation for even the most amateur photographer.

Rather than risking your safety by wandering around an unfamiliar city at night wielding expensive gadgets, look for an evening walking tour.

There’s safety in numbers and your guide will know the best places to stop for photos and can advise on interesting viewpoints and angles.

Even better, google your destination for photography tours led by someone who can help you get phenomenal, professional looking shots.

11) Speaking of tours, a highlights tour that lasts an hour or two is something really worth booking for your first day away to give you a great introduction to your destination. Many don’t cost much and some are even free. You can get your bearings and note down any landmarks or restaurants that catch your eye for later. As a bonus, as well as being a font of historical and architectural knowledge, your guide will have plenty of tips about events, places to eat and where to shop.

If you’re travelling to satisfy a particular passion (Renaissance art, classical sculpture, Norman castles…) it’s always worth seeing if there is a local guide who specialises in your subject. Whilst a full day private tour can be pricey if you’re on your own or in a small group, most specialist guides will have a morning or afternoon tour on offer. Sometimes they will accompany you into a gallery or museum to help tailor your visit to your particular interests. It’s worth contacting your guide a few weeks in advance to see what styles of tour they can offer. If you’re paying that bit extra for a private tour, you deserve a bespoke experience.

If you don’t mind joining strangers on a tour there are an increasing number of quirky guides with an array of funny, weird or even scatalogically themed walks (like mine!) Even if you’re visiting a city you know well, these guides will still be able to teach you something new. Ghost walks, crime scenes, graveyard tours and more all offer a memorable experience away from the well-trodden tourist path.

12) Be kind to your feet! Ancient cobbles and stiletto shoes are not a good combination and it mystifies me every time I see a woman sacrifice comfort for fashion. Flip flops were designed for sandy beaches, not sidewalks. I once saw an American girl nearly break her ankle trying to scale the rocky acropolis of Mycenae because of her dainty but useless sandals. Come on, guys, be sensible!

There is no need to wear clunky hiking boots and unless you buy the really high end boots it’s a false economy anyway. 9 days in Rome murdered my brand new midrange walking boots! Admittedly I walk a lot when abroad but I’d hoped they’d last a fortnight at least!

Thankfully I happened upon Skechers GOwalk range with memory foam soles. I usually end a trip with aching, swollen, blistered feet. 15 days of hiking and pounding pavements in Sicily didn’t faze the Skechers trainers at all. My feet never felt tired, even after 12 hour excursions, and I didn’t even get a hint of a blister. I love them and now rely on them, if you walk a lot you NEED them.

13) Invest in a spare camera battery. Off brand ones are fine and can be found cheap on Amazon. Take one more memory card than you think you’ll need. Invest in an introduction to photography book and memorise the basics to help you get shots so pretty you’ll want to have them printed and framed. The book will teach you how to get great photos even at night and in places that ban the use of tripods.

14) Take dress codes seriously. When going to any place of worship make sure shoulders and knees are covered; if you dress like you are headed to the beach you have no reason to complain when you are turned away.

15) From day long excursions to backpacking across continents, Rome 2 Rio will tell you the quickest and/or cheapest method of transport to get you from A to B anywhere in the world and usually can link you to the relevant booking sites with a mere click.

16) Definitely make the effort to learn a few key phrases of the local language. Don’t bother taking a bulky phrasebook though. Download a translation app to your phone or tablet. Some don’t even require an Internet connection. Simply type what you want to translate (in either direction) and click. This saves any embarrassing attempts at communicating through mime…

17) Type your destination into your app store. You can find maps and guides for nearly every city. Triposo are pretty comprehensive. Several museums and attractions also have apps with preloaded highlights or suggested routes. Many have an audioguide function to save you having to rent a clunky handheld speaker.

There are some brilliant city apps now that have old photos or anecdotes connected to places of interest tagged onto a map. All you need is to turn on your location function to find a hidden gem around the corner. For instance, I recommend downloading Black Plaques if you’re coming to London.

18) Always print out booking confirmation emails or QR codes before you travel in case you can’t get wifi or your phone dies. Similarly have a print out of your boarding pass. I print out a second copy to put in my suitcase in case my wallet gets stolen.

19) Make a list of what you intend to pack. Read it twice through and I bet you could halve it. Roll clothes, don’t fold. Pack a plastic carrier bag to keep your dirty laundry separate. Decant some Febreze into a small travel bottle for emergencies, you can usually also find travel sized bottles of hand wash detergent. Spending half an hour washing some clothes in the sink before bedtime is preferable to excess luggage charges and an aching back from lugging half your wardrobe to another country. It is entirely possible to travel using a cabin sized bag only. This saves money and faffing at baggage carousels. Read this article if you don’t believe it can be done.

20) Take a small notepad and pencil to write down a few thoughts and experiences while you are away. I often jot down funny conversations I accidentally eavesdrop into or the names of people and buildings to research when I get home. Then, when you get home, write up a travel journal. You don’t have to put it online as I do, but the act of recording your adventure is a great way to beat the post-holiday slump after returning home. I keep ticket stubs and leaflets to scrapbook and print my favourite photos cheaply at the supermarket. Documenting your trip helps the memories remain vivid for longer and it’s such a pleasure reading them years later.

If you have any tried and tested tips that I’ve forgotten, please leave a comment!


Filed under musings

The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 15 – Conclusion and Epilogue

19th May 2015

I’m packed and on my way to Catania airport for my 11am flight.

A fortnight in Sicily has been overwhelming. I’ve learned that moving from place to place independently using only public transport can be incredibly rewarding yet equally frustrating and can require precision planning on a scale I’ve never encountered before. It also needs a level of discipline and concentration that ended up leaving me so tired I could have really appreciated a holiday when I got back to the UK. The kind of holiday that only involves beaches, novels and tavernas.

Temple of Concord #valledeitempli #agrigento #sicily

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Temple of Concord #valledeitempli #agrigento #sicily

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Sicily in particular was a good place to start this new, more adventurous style of travelling. It’s a land of sharp contrasts. You can be surrounded by decay, neglect and poverty (mainly in the main cities,) and within half an hour on a bus or train you’ll be transported to some of the most beautiful places you’ll have seen (Noto, Erice, Taormina, Valley of the Temples…)

The Egadi Islands and Trapani as viewed from Erice #sicily

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On the whole Sicilians are friendly, helpful but speak less English than on the mainland. They’re fairly tolerant of tourists although I don’t think they do nearly enough work to welcome and encourage tourism. As a solo, female traveller there were a few moments when I felt genuinely scared, something that I’ve not encountered travelling alone elsewhere in Italy before, but there is always a Sicilian ready to put your mind at ease and show you kindness.

Spring at the Temple of Hera #sicily #agrigento #valledeitempli

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Whilst the power and dominance of the Mafia seem to be waning, Sicily has a long way to go to regain the beauty it was renowned for in the past. I’ll be back sometime in the future and I’ll be looking out for a positive change with interest, because Sicily has so much potential as a tourist destination. It starts with simple changes such as better, more frequent and more detailed signposts and information boards, a bloody thorough tidy up and a some TLC for the sadly neglected older buildings and an effort to keep the quality of hotels and restaurants a little more consistent. I’m of the opinion that Sicily could be on the brink of a new golden age of prosperity and beauty if someone has the courage to spearhead sensible change. A tourism boost could give Sicily the economic kick up the butt she apparently needs so desperately.

Infiorata #infiorata2015 #noto #sicily

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Public transport is cheap and plentiful here if you are willing to plan in advance and organise your itinerary to accommodate waiting around at stations and bus terminals in between journeys. A good book and an iPod will make travelling so much more bearable. All that you need to remember is that buses are timetabled and routed with locals in mind. Prepare to leave early each day and return at strange seeming times. Your cheap ticket often comes with a slightly longer journey than a tourist tour coach.

Taormina theatre #sicily

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Mazzaro #sicily

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The view from Piazza IX Aprile, Taormina #sicily

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Public buses will often treat their timetables with a very Sicilian informality. Always plan to be at the bus stop early, particularly if your stop is half way along a route. If the bus driver is making good time and running ahead of schedule he will not wait at stops for you. That said, try to be patient when buses are late. The Sicilians don’t seem to get stressed by it, there is no point you losing your temper if no-one else is.

Temple of Concord (and Icarus!) @ Agrigento #sicily

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The view from Erice #sicily

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I made the conscious choice to sacrifice comfort for price/location on some of my hotel/B+B choices. My advice is that you can go bargain basement in the smaller towns and still be comfortable. If staying in Palermo, Syracuse or Catania try not to budget too tightly on accommodation. If you do, you will be faced with toilet brushes left in the toilet bowl, dirty fridges, thin walls that have not been painted in years and (twice, in my case,) broken air conditioning units that will inevitably drip water all over your luggage.

Bella Isola #sicily

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Sicily boasts some of the most outstanding ancient sites in the Mediterranean. Sicily also boasts the most random, numerous and frustrating attraction closures I’ve yet encountered. I estimate that I was forced to miss at least one museum or sight for each day of the trip. Don’t expect explanations, reopening times or sympathy. Try just to be grateful that hopefully the closure means that something is being restored or improved…

I prepare to leave Sicily exhausted yet with the nagging feeling that I was not as industrious as my earlier solo trips. Still, looking back at what I’ve achieved and seen, it was nevertheless a hugely rewarding trip.

Early morning rays @ Segesta #sicily

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View from the ancient town of Solunto

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At Catania airport my exhaustion has caught up with me as I haze a scary dizzy spell in the baggage drop queue, just as I did at Gatwick on the way out. Weak and dripping in cold sweat, I cheer myself up with an almond filled cornetto (don’t you dare call it a croissant in Italy…) in an attempt to boost my blood sugar and idly think about my next trip. Following my pattern of travelling at the edges of tourist season (a necessity, my crippled kidney prevents travel during the hottest months,) my next trip is due in October 2015. I can’t decide between the Croatian coast or a Turkish road trip.

Sicilian food is something I’ll miss greatly. I have devoured more aubergine in two weeks than in the rest of my existence combined. Please, please, please avoid tourist menus whilst in Sicily. I uncharacteristically wasn’t tempted by gelato at all, but when I go back I shall make up for lost opportunities. Your taste buds will be grateful even if your waistline isn’t. I should apparently know, because I’m struggling to do up my seatbelt on the plane…

IMG_457420150512_191810 20150512_192848 20150512_193437 IMG_4309 - Copy IMG_20150508_172329


One flight delay later and I am back in Blighty in the loving arms of my husband, Croatia and Turkey guidebooks already being read and annotated.

I still feel weak and nauseous, cursing the Sicilian heatwave I have endured for punishing my poor, crippled kidney. Concerned, my husband searches for an explanation and cure for my discomfort.

That’s when we discover, 48 hours later, that I wasn’t in Sicily alone after all. I had a tiny little stowaway who insisted on coming along for the adventure. Unfortunately, I have to wait until a while for a formal introduction…


Suddenly so much makes sense…

  • The dizzy near-fainting spells when stood in hot, airless airport queues for long periods of time,
  • the strange aversion to sweet foods and ice cream whilst in Sicily, the spiritual home of sweet things and ice cream,
  • feeling so exhausted each day and having to vomit at Segesta and the morning of Villa Romana del Casale,
  • Feeling frustrated a little quicker than normal,
  • battling with my seatbelt on the flight home…

So now my plans have changed. In October 2015 I won’t be in Croatia. Or Turkey. I’ll be on a labour ward in Berkshire meeting my next adventure. Croatia and Turkey will simply have to wait until 2016 when I’ll be visiting, this time with my stowaway in a harness!


Tourguidegirl Jnr - born 6th Oct 2015


Filed under Travel Journals

The Acropolis (Athens Travel Journal – Day Seven)

14th May 2014

My final day in Athens. I have saved the iconic for last as I plan to see the Acropolis this morning.

The lovely staff at my hotel agree to keep my bags for the day after I check out. I’m happy I chose a chain hotel and I don’t even regret the proximity to Omonia Square, the warm welcome I’ve received from everyone here has been worth it.

I’m up early, I plan to be the first one through the gates at the Acropolis.

On the metro I am admittedly distracted by how much I don’t want to go home. There is so much about Athens to love. Even the metro stations play music on the platforms, something you’d never get in London. I’ll also miss the 70 cent journeys, which make me increasingly resentful of the ridiculously prices charged by TfL at home.

My favourite part of the Athens metro system has to be the mini museums. At various stations archaeological finds have been found during construction. Where other cities may have bulldozed such finds out of the way, Athens has kept them, preserved in situ, with signs explaining what the remains consist of. I doubt the locals notice much, but it’s a  nice touch that I appreciate.

Emerging at Akropoli station, it’s a pleasant walk down the pedestrianised Diontsiou Areoagitou street towards the Acropolis entrance. I’ve so far seen it thronged with people, it’s wonderful to be here so early in the morning and be practically alone.

I’m excited for today. The first (and until now, last) time I was on the Acropolis I was ten years old. My family were staying on Kefalonia and my parents had booked us on an overnight coach tour to the capital. My memories of the trip are a little hazy, but I’d never forget the Parthenon. My mother still remembers the tour guide asking the group if anyone knew any of the Greek myths and being amused that a precocious little girl began reciting them back to her. Now, having grown up a little and read dozens more books I’m more in love with ancient history than ever and I’m looking forward to appreciating my surroundings from an adult perspective.


Me, my incredibly mid 90s leggings and my Dad


Seriously, the leggings were fashionable at the time…


I’m still incredibly early, even though the Acropolis opens at 8am. I therefore attempt to sneak a peek into the Odeon of Herodes Atticus which never seems to be open for tours, only performances.

The back of the skene (background behind the stage areais easily viewed, marking this out as a theatre built with Roman influence. Greek theatres rarely had any permanent buildings behind the performance area, letting the landscape provide most of the scenery. Over time small buildings were constructed to allow for costume and prop changes, but it was the Romans who really kicked skene building up a notch. The fact that it was built by Herodes Atticus will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited archaeological sites in Greece or Italy either, as he was an illustrious builder.


Born in Marathon in 101 AD, Herodes Atticus came from a Greek family with a political background in Athens and Rome. He was educated in Greece and Italy, becoming a great politician himself. He was Archon of Athens in 140 AD and Consul of Rome in 143 AD, naming several emperors among his close friends. He had a penchant for building wherever he went. Already on this trip I’ve seen the stadium at Delphi which was rebuilt for the final time by Herodes Atticus, as well as a nymphaeum I saw a couple of years ago at Olympia.


You can peek at the seats from behind the skene…

Heading up the path to the Acropolis entrance, I’m still really early, so I take the opportunity to climb the Areopagus again when it is practically empty. Only one other person is up there, we share a conspiratorial smile.

IMG_8923 IMG_8927

One of the unexpected bonuses of being the first to arrive at the Acropolis is that I get to witness the Greek soldiers perform the ceremonial raising of the national flag above the city, which they do every morning and return to take it down each evening.



I’m smug to be literally the first tourist following them up, greeted by the virtually empty Acropolis.

People started to inhabit the Acropolis about 6,000 years ago, being easily defendable. Buildings and temples started to crop up but the entire hill, along with the city below, was razed by the invading Persians in 480 BC. The Athenian statesman Pericles ordered the destroyed buildings on the Acropolis to be rebuilt, bigger and grander than before. He moved the treasury of the Delian League (a group of city states who had allied with each other to fight off the Persians) from Delos to Athens and essentially used the ‘keep the Persians out of Greece’ fund to pay for his elaborate building project whilst asserting greater and decidedly imperialistic dominance over the other members of the League.

Pericles employed the very best architects and craftsmen to build his grand vision. Mnesicles was chosen to design the Propylaea, Ictinus and Callicrates were the architects of the Parthenon and the designer of decoration was the superstar sculptor, Pheidias. Pheidias also personally created the huge statue of Athena that stood within the Parthenon.

Critics, (of which there were many,) condemned the building programme as unnecessarily expensive, a misappropriation of the defence budget and as a vain display of egotistical arrogance on the part of Pericles. One complained that Pericles was “dressing up Athens like a painted whore.”

Nevertheless, jobs were created for thousands of labourers, skilled and unskilled alike.The results were undeniably impressive.

The Propylaea was the only gateway to the Acropolis, the steep gradient of the slopes leaving only one side of the hill suitable for an ascent up to the flat top of the Acropolis. It is built with the same Pentelic marble as the Parthenon. There were two wings, the one on the left acting as an ancient art gallery.

On the right, as you approach the gate, there is a bastion on the defensive wall that is crowned with a small but beautiful temple to Athena Nike. The temple was erected in thanks for victory over the Persian invaders and housed a wooden statue of the Goddess that was saved from their destruction of the city. Honey cakes and flowers would be left as small sacrifices at the altar within.

Approaching the Propylaea

Approaching the Propylaea

Sunrise through the Propylaea

Sunrise through the Propylaea

Temple of Nike

Temple of Athena Nike

Monument to Agrippa

Monument to Agrippa, originally built to commemorate Eumenes II of Pergamon in 178 BC

Temple of Nike

Temple of Athena Nike

The altar to Athena Nike dates from 566 BC, the year of the inaugural Panathenaic Festival. The temple was build to house it during the middle of the Persian Wars (490-480 BC,) and was remodelled and rebuilt later by Kallikrates in 425 BC.

Once through the Propylaea the Parthenon looms on the right and the Erechtheion on the right.


The triangular space between the Propylaea, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon once featured a colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos by the superstar sculptor, Pheidias. It was placed in 456 BC and was made from bronze melted down from Persian armour and spoils seized after the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The statue was 9 metres tall and could apparently the sun shining on the spearpoint could be seen by sailors approaching from Cape Sounion. The statue stood over Athens for a millenium before it was moved to Constantinople in the middle fo the 5th C AD where it was eventually destroyed.

The Parthenon basks in the early morning sun

The Parthenon basks in the early morning sun

The Erechtheion was completed in 406 BC on the site of an earlier temple and various shrines. The necessity to preserve these sacred areas, situated over various levels, resulted in a multi-level temple with several dedications.

The Erechtheion viewed from the southwest

The Erechtheion viewed from the southwest

An olive tree stands where the sacred olive tree of Athena once stood in the Pandroseion, an open sanctuary dedicated to Pandrosos by the Erechtheion

An olive tree stands where the sacred olive tree of Athena once stood in the Pandroseion, an open sanctuary dedicated to Pandrosos by the Erechtheion

It stands on the site of the home of Kekrops, the half-man half-snake mythical king of Athens. Legend records that Poseidon and Athena both wished to become patron deity of the city. Athena suggested that they both present the city with a gift and Kekrops would judge the contest and choose who was most worthy. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and a spring appeared which he named the Erectheis Sea. The citizens were thrilled with the source of water until they tasted it and realised that Poseidon, God of the Oceans, and made it salty. Athena created an olive tree that would produce olives for eating, oil for cooking, heating and lighting and wood for building. Kekrops duly declared Athena the worthy victor for her practical gift and the city is named after her to this day.

The Erechtheion

The Erechtheion

Erechtheion - the entrance to the western portion of the temple that was divided into three sections, dedicated to Poseidon Erectheus, Hephaestus and a hero named Boutes.

Erechtheion – the entrance to the western portion of the temple that was divided into three sections, dedicated to Poseidon Erectheus, Hephaestus and a hero named Boutes.

detail of the Erechtheion

detail of the Erechtheion

The Erechtheion - this entrance led to the eastern part of the temple that was dedicated to Athena Polias, protectress of the city. It housed the cult statue carved of olive wood that received a new set of clothes each Panathenaic Festival.

The Erechtheion – this entrance led to the eastern part of the temple that was dedicated to Athena Polias, protectress of the city. It housed the cult statue carved of olive wood that received a new set of clothes each Panathenaic Festival.



Porch of the Caryatids

Porch of the Caryatids

The circular remains of the Temple of Rome and Augustus stood at the eastern end of the Parthenon, completed in the 1stC BC.

The circular remains of the Temple of Rome and Augustus stood at the eastern end of the Parthenon, completed in the 1stC BC.

The pinnacle of the Periklean building project is obviously the Parthenon. Designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates, the temple building was finished in 438 BC after 9 years of construction. The decorations were concluded six years after that with the pedimental statues by Pheidias. The temple is the largest Doric temple to ever be completed in the Greek world (two would be attempted to dwarf it in Sicily, both would never be finished.) It was built to replace an older temple that was razed by the Persians, Perikles ensured that this new temple would be larger, grander and far more beautiful.

The Parthenon famously has no straight lines in the architecture. Instead, every line is a graceful, subtle curve. This creates an optical illusion that each line is perfectly parallel when seen as a whole.
IMG_9038 The temple housed a gigantic chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Athena designed by Pheidias and completed in . At 12 metres tall, it was an entire 3 metres taller than the Athena statue just outside the Parthenon. The statue would be the downfall of Pheidias. The enemies of Perikles tried to hurt him through his friendship with Pheidias, whom they charged with stealing gold designated for the decoration of the statue and that Pheidias was blasphemous enough to create portraits of himself and Perikles in the decoration on the shield of the statue. Whilst he was able to prove he stole no gold, Pheidias was thrown into prison for impiety. Some believe he died there, although some scholars now theorise that he was exiled to Elis, where he completed an even bigger chryselephantine statue of Zeus which would later be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Historians can’t seem to decide which statue was completed first, shedding no light on the fate of Pheidias which will apparently remain a mystery.IMG_9066 IMG_9090

Ongoing restoration work

Ongoing restoration work


Restoration workers

Restoration workers

The temple, along with all other pagan temples within the Byzantine Empire, was closed by decree of Theodosius III in 435 AD. The cult statue was removed along with the bronze Athena Promachos to Constantinople where it too was eventually destroyed. The temple was then converted into a Christian church in the 6thC AD, undergoing some structural changes. Ottoman Turks invaded Athens in 1456 and the building soon became a mosque, complete with minaret.

The Venetians were next to attack Athens in 1687. The Ottoman Turks used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. On the 26 September the Venetians fired mortar rounds from the Hill of the Muses toward the fortified Acropolis. One scored a direct hit on the Parthenon, igniting the powder stores and destroying much of the building which had, up until now, managed to survive practically intact.

The Venetians eventually gave up and left and the Ottoman Turks remained, their power eventually declining in the 18thC.   In 1801 the Sultan allowed the British Ambassador, Lord Elgin, to collect statuary from the ruins and transport them to the UK, a decision of which the legality has been debated furiously ever since.

When Greece gained independence in 1832 all traces of the mosque and other medieval structures were slowly removed from the Acropolis. In 1975 a grand scheme of restoration began, which is finally nearing completion. Fallen stone blocks are being slowly rearranged and moved back to their original positions, rebuilding as much of the Parthenon as possible from what remains.

The massive fortification walls of the Acropolis

The massive fortification walls of the Acropolis

The Theatre of Dionysus viewed from the Acropolis

The Theatre of Dionysus viewed from the Acropolis

The Odeion of Herodes Atticus viewed from the Acropolis

The Odeion of Herodes Atticus viewed from the Acropolis

The crowds entering through the Propylaea are getting a lot busier than an hour previously...

The crowds entering through the Propylaea are getting a lot busier than an hour previously…

I'm glad I visited first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds...

I’m glad I visited first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds…

The western gate

The western gate

Temple of Nike

Temple of Nike viewed from the Peripatos road

Visitors descend the Acropolis down the southern slope with another set of gorgeous ruins.


The Asklepion was built in the late 5thC BC, encouraged by Sophocles who was an active worshipper of the healer God.

Choregic monument of Nikias. Nikias won the honour of teaching the chorus of boys for theatrical performances in 320 BC.

Choregic monument of Nikias. Nikias won the honour of teaching the chorus of boys for theatrical performances in 320 BC.

The Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus is one of the earliest theatres in the Greek world, dating from the 5thC BC. Originally a set of wooden benches surrounding a beaten earth orchestra, it is believed that stone seating was installed and the seating area enlarged in the 4thC BC.

An ancient festival to Dionysus was refounded here in 534 BC by the tyrant Peisistratus and rapidly grew in importance. Theatrical plays were performed here in competition in the month of Elaphebolion (late March.) Over five days the festival celebrated the God of Wine, Dionysus. After processions and sacrifices, the plays were performed. Three writers would each produce a three tragic plays and a satyr play for some bawdy relief. Comic plays were introduced in 487 BC allowing five comic playwrights to submit a single play and compete for a separate prize. In  449 BC a prize was introduced for best dramatic performance.

The first recorded winner is a man named Thespis who entered the winning tragedy in the inaugural 534 BC Dionysia. He performed in his own play and is apparently responsible for characters having their own lines rather than having the chorus explain events to the audience. Thespis would become so famous that all actors would forever be known as thespians in his honour.


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It’s very special to stand in the same theatre where Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles all debuted their tragedies that are still being performed regularly two and a half millenia later.

Aeschylus won in 484 BC with an unknown tragedy, in472 BC with The Persians, in 467 BC with Seven Against Thebes, in 463 BC with The Suppliants and again in 458 BC with the Oresteia.

Sophocles wrote 123 plays of which only seven have survived. It’s believed that Sophocles won the Dionysia about 18 times and never came lower than second. His trilogy of Theban plays following the life of Oedipus were not written for a single festival, but spread out over several years.

Euripides only won on five occasions but has nevertheless secured his place in theatrical history with Alcestis, Medea, Electra, The Trojan Women, Orestes and The Bacchae which won Euripides a posthumous first prize in 405 BC.

It’s amusing to imagine Euripides watching tight lipped from the cavea seating as the comic poet Aristophanes skewered him in at least three comedic plays. It must have been quite the experience to be a renowned tragedian and have to sit through watching yourself as the character in a comedy written to poke fun at you whilst thousands of Athenians laughed to see your satirised and parodied.

If it was any consolation to Euripides (and it probably wasn’t,) Aristophanes was infamous for taking aim at prominent Athenians in the thirty comedies he penned. Plato accused him of slandering Socrates so badly in The Clouds that he considered the play instrumental in Socrates’ trial and subsequent execution.

Tragedians and comedians alike used their plays as a platform to discuss politics and current events, offering morality tales and provoking discussion. Playwrights helped shaped Athenian history, right here in this theatre.

The festival continued for around 300 years.

After a break in the shade for lunch, I decided to head to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and enormous structure that took a mammoth 638 years to complete. The Arch of Hadrian marks where the ancient road led from the centre of Athens to the sanctuary.


The Arch of Hadrian was built circa 132 AD, either to welcome him on a visit to the city or to thank him for patronising the city with his building projects


The Acropolis viewed from the sanctuary

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The temple was probably started by Peisistratus or his son, Hippias in the 6thC BC. They never got near to finishing it and in the Classical period it was deliberately left uncompleted to warn against hubris. In the 3rdC BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to continue with the building work when Athens was under Seleucid control. Under the Romans, Sulla stole two columns in 86 BC and sent them to Rome to incorporate into the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill. Hadrian finally managed to complete the temple in 131 AD. The temple didn’t stay pristine for long, being seriously damaged in the Herulian sack of Athens in 267 AD and there are no signs that attempts at repairs were made. The temple turned into a medieval quarry and remnants are scattered amongst the walls of many a medieval Athenian church.

None of the tourists surrounding me seemed to bother with the lower half of the site which includes sanctuaries erected along the banks of the Ilissos river. A shame, as the ruins are quite atmospheric and the area was a popular haunt of Socrates. It was a notorious ‘pick up’ spot in Athens for men seeking men, and whether Socrates indulged in homosexual activities with men he met here or not (and he probably did,) he definitely enjoyed spending considerable time here striking up philosophical conversations.

Parilissia Sanctuaries

Parilissia Sanctuaries

Temple of Apollo Delphinios - mid 5thC BC

Temple of Apollo Delphinios – mid 5thC BC

Final stop of the day before my flight home is the Panathenaic Stadium.

A stadium has stood on the site since about 565 BC, rebuilt in marble in 329 BC by Lycurgus and enlarged by Herodes Atticus in 140 AD bringing the spectator seating area to a capacity of 50,000.

The ruins of the stadium were rebuilt in 1870 and used in the first modern Olympics in 1896. Olympic events were also held here in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

It’s fabulous seeing a building in situ, looking as fresh as it did to ancient eyes.

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With a heavy heart, the time has come for me to reluctantly return home to the UK.

I’ve fallen in love with Athens, no longer the smoggy, congested mess that I vaguely remember from the mid nineties. I will be back…

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The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 14

18th May 2015

5.30 am

Oh sweet baby Jesus, that alarm is early. My bus to Piazza Armerina leaves in one hour. Thankfully I deliberately sacrificed a nicer hotel for a spartan one situated a short walk from the bus terminals. This gives me ample time to puke in the bathroom sink, apparently. Terrified that I’ve caught some horrible disease from my mosquito bites the day before my flight home, I nevertheless decide to drag myself to the bus terminal and force myself to Piazza Armerina, refusing to spend another afternoon cooped up in the hotel watching Grey’s Anatomy dubbed into Italian like I did yesterday afternoon. It will be worth it. I hope. And the weather seems to have cleared up, the storm clouds having spent themselves out overnight.

The journey from Catania to Piazza Armerina takes 1 hour and 45 minutes. Arrival at Piazza Aremina can be confusing, especially as everyone else on the bus was a Sicilian using the service to commute. Don’t expect an announcement that you’ve arrived at the right place and don’t assume that the stop is at a terminal. I miss my stop and have to walk back to it, if you’re going to Armerina as a tourist, get off at the large square that has a yellow petrol station.

From there you can catch a minibus service that shuttles you to arguably the only reason to visit at all, the Villa Romana del Casale.

The villa is late 3rdC AD and evidently belonged to someone with wealth and status. Landslides covered up the entire complex in the 12thC and it wasn’t rediscovered until the 1920s. What archaeologists found was a collection of mosaics so beautiful and masterfully created that they’ve become world famous.

When I visit, only the triclinium seems to be closed off. Not bad considering how many things I’ve been blocked from so far on the trip…


The octagonal frigidarium, the cold pool of the private baths

The octagonal frigidarium, the cold pool of the private baths

Slaves depicted on the floor of the massage room where they would have worked.

Slaves depicted on the floor of the massage room where they would have worked.

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The Palaestra. The floor is designed to show a chariot race featuring the four teams competing in the Circus Maximus

The peristyle

The peristyle

The highly decorated floors of the porticoes around the peristyle

The highly decorated floors of the porticoes around the peristyle

Mosaic floor of the 'Room of the Dance' - a guest bedroom

Mosaic floor of the ‘Room of the Dance’ – a guest bedroom

The Room of the Fishing Cupids - part of the guest wing

The Room of the Fishing Cupids – part of the guest wing

The Diaeta of the Small Game Hunt - a south facing winter living room

The Diaeta of the Small Game Hunt – a south facing winter living room

Detail of the Small Game Hunt depicting a wild boar. I adore the expression of the man at the top...

Detail of the Small Game Hunt depicting a wild boar. I adore the expression of the man at the top…

The Ambulatory of the Big Game Hunt separates the peristyle from the Basilica and the private quarters of the owners

The Ambulatory of the Big Game Hunt separates the peristyle from the Basilica and the private quarters of the owners. It depicts exotic animals from all over the empire being captured and transported to Ostia

Ostriches being loaded onto a ship at Carthage

Ostriches being loaded onto a ship at Carthage

A rhino being captured on the Nile Delta

A rhino being captured on the Nile Delta

An  elephant being loaded onto a ship at Alexandria

An elephant being loaded onto a ship at Alexandria

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A tiger and a gryphon are caught in India

A tiger and a gryphon are caught in India


The Vestibule of the Little Circus - an amusing image of chariot racing, only with birds instead of horses. The four factions are represented by child charioteers

The Vestibule of the Little Circus – an amusing image of chariot racing, only with birds instead of horses. The four factions are represented by child charioteers

A semicircular atrium with an impluvium for collecting rainwater

A semicircular atrium with an impluvium for collecting rainwater

The portico around the semicircular atrium depicts cupids fishing

The portico around the semicircular atrium depicts cupids fishing

Vestibule of Eros and Pan

Vestibule of Eros and Pan

The Diaeta of Arion - the private living room of the mistress of the house features a beautifully intricate depiction of the myth of Arion. Arion was a bard from Lesbos who, whilst travelling by sea, was robbed and beaten by the sailors. They granted him one last wish and Arion asked to play his lyre one last time. The music he produced was so beautiful that dolphins were attracted to the noise. Arion threw himself into the sea where the dolphins saved him and took him to safety on the Peloponnese.

The Diaeta of Arion – the private living room of the mistress of the house features a beautifully intricate depiction of the myth of Arion. Arion was a bard from Lesbos who, whilst travelling by sea, was robbed and beaten by the sailors. They granted him one last wish and Arion asked to play his lyre one last time. The music he produced was so beautiful that dolphins were attracted to the noise. Arion threw himself into the sea where the dolphins saved him and took him to safety on the Peloponnese.

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Arion doing his thang

Arion doing his thang

This vestibule depicts Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus,) offering the cyclops Polyphemus wine. Once drunk, Ulysses  will blind Polyphemus in retribution for devouring some of his shipmates.

This vestibule depicts Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus,) offering the cyclops Polyphemus wine. Once drunk, Ulysses will blind Polyphemus in retribution for devouring some of his shipmates.

The Basilica, the largest room in the house, is where the master would conduct official business

The Basilica, the largest room in the house, is where the master would conduct official business

Cubicle with an erotic scene

Cubicle with an erotic scene

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The villa has a shop and cafeteria area, it’s well worth buying the hefty guidebook by Luciano Catullo to help you make sense of the villa and the mosaics. Otherwise there is a little collection of stalls and food trucks by the coach car park for small, cheap souvenirs and panini.

If, like me, you’re travelling independently, the shuttlebus back to Piazza Armerina will pick you up at the same bus stop as you were dropped off. A nice little touch is that it also has a little stop outside the cathedral of Piazza Armerina for your daily dose of Baroque.

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The Sicilian Expedition Travel Journal – Day 13

17th May 2015

After a blissful daytrip visiting Noto yesterday from Syracuse, I’d returned to Catania in the evening for the final hotel.

I’d planned to wake early today and ascend Mount Etna, but I feel horrifically nauseous and tired. I desperately hope I’m not falling ill… Besides, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and even if I make it up the volcano, I won’t be able to see anything more than three feet in front of me. After attempting to sleep in for a while longer I’m loathe to waste and entire day, so I venture tentatively out into rainy Catania to sample some ancient delights.

The Roman amphitheatre is largely covered by urban sprawl, but at least I can see some of it which is more than I managed in Syracuse. There is a sign that suggests that it’s possible to go down onto the arena floor, but the chain and padlocks on the gates indictae that once again Sicily has thwarted me. Still, what’s left does give an impressive hint at what the 16,000 seater amphitheatre would have looked like.

IMG_5098 IMG_5093 IMG_5101 IMG_5104 There is also a theatre. It’s thought to be originally Greek, but the Romans renovated it in the 2ndC AD. It survived by the gradual covering of medieval houses that used the seating as foundations. They’ve since been slowly removed.

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Looking sideways at the staging area, the remains of the skene (backdrop building) on the left

The aditus (in Greek) or vomitorium (in Latin,) - the entrance tunnels for the audience to reach the seating in the cavea

The aditus (in Greek) or vomitorium (in Latin,) – the entrance tunnels for the audience to reach the seating in the cavea

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I don’t know if the orchestra area dries out in high summer, but I’m rather pleased to see it partially submerged like this. It’s definitely atmospheric!

The weather worsens and I’m forced to retreat to my hotel before the skies open. Just as well, I have a ridiculously early morning wake up call for tomorrow, my last full day, and I am still feeling strangely peaky. An early night will have me feeling better, surely…

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