Arriving back in Athens' airport on an only slightly delayed Olympic Airlines flight,
we rented a car and headed out to do battle with the traffic of Athens and Piraeus.
It wasn't actually that bad as we only skirted the city and headed south towards
Corinth and the Peloponnese. Hertz actually gave us an automatic transmission (we
didn't even ask) which was nice because then I could still eat Pringles while driving
in the mountains. The impending election day led to a particularly colorful drive,
in stark contrast to the countryside which varied only in shades of brown. The three
major parties of Greek politics had each staked a claim to a primary color and they
were all busily attempting to spread more of their hue than their opponents could. At
toll booths on the highway we were generally bombarded with pamphelets, flags, posters
and other paraphenalia. The communist party seemed particularly adept at painting the
concrete dividing walls for miles of remote stretches of road. We passed through Corinth,
over the canal and into the Peloponnese. We headed straight for Argolis, a province which
makes up the eastern section of the Peloponnese peninsula.
Argolis takes its name from the central city of Argos, which claims to be the oldest
continuously inhabited city in Greece. Originally founded as the port city for inland
Argos, Nafplio is where we planned to stay while in Argolis. Nafplio is an amazing town
surrounded by three fortresses and situated on a narrow bay amongst mountains. The
Venetians held the city for some time (Nafplio is a Greek form of 'Naples') before the
Turks had their turn. In the 19th century, Nafplio became the first capital of the
independent country of Greece, a title it held for 5 years before it was moved to Athens.
We consider Nafplio to be the nicest town we stayed in while we were in Greece. The
enormous mass of stone perched above the town is Palmidi Fortress. We didn't manage to
make it up there but it supposedly has fantastic views of the region. We stayed in the
Hotel Byron which is quite possibly the best hotel value in all of Greece. Here I
actually successfully conquered a Greek laundromat without injuring myself or any of the
Dominating the waterfront of Nafplio despite its relatively small size is another
fortress - the island of Bourtzi. Built by the Venetians, it sits just offshore in the
Bay of Nafplio. We had a very pleasant evening in Nafplio doing most of our souvenir
shopping a bit off the main tourist route. We don't really understand why, considering
the number of major archeological sites in the region but the tour buses just don't seem
to stop in Nafplio. We also sampled 'gigantes' for the first time, which is translated
into English as 'broad beans'. They're basically enormous lima beans cooked in some
sort of dill sauce which was quite tasty. While at dinner we were treated to a quality
low-budget American vampire movie translated into Greek. Nothing goes with gigantes
like a low-budget vampire movie in Greek.
Not far from Nafplio lies the site of Epidaurus. Today it is best known for its
spectacular theater which is the finest surviving example from the ancient Greeks. In
the summers, the theater hosts performances of a mix of ancient Greek tragedies and
comedies along with more modern works. It seats up to 14,000 people, although the second
tier was added by the Romans a few hundred years after the original was built. The
acoustics are superb. Tour groups leaders insist on dropping small objects in the center
of the stage to prove it can be heard anywhere in the theater. However, this is equally
effectively demonstrated by any small children who might be screaming at each other in
the vicinity. Epidaurus is definitely on the main tourist route.
The statues which decorated the stage area of the theater can be found in a museum nearby
now. While the theater is definitely the most-photographed piece of Epidaurus, the site
itself is actually a sanctuary to Asclepius. Asclepius was a son of Apollo who became an
exceptional physician. After his death he became worshipped as the God of Medicine. The
sanctuary was considered to be sacred to Asclepius and those in search of miracle cures
came here to pray to him. Stone tablets in the museum are covered with tale after tale
of such miraculous recoveries.
Set back from the theater are the ruins of the sanctuary. Mostly in the process of
reconstruction, the foundations of bath houses and several temples remain. Shown here
is the remains of the stadium with stone benches for spectators along either side.
Anyone looking for new vocabulary words could have quite the time at Epidaurus. Among
the specialized buildings are the Kategogeion - where patients would stay, the Abaton -
where patients were supposed to dream of being cured, and the Adytum - the innermost
room of the a temple - in this case the temple of Asclepius.
Long before the Greek culture was thriving, Argolis was the center of a major
civilization. The Myceneans called this area home. Archeologist Heinrich Schliemann
brought a whole new light to Homer's 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' when he discovered Troy and
Mycenae in the 19th century. Previously thought to be complete myth, we know now that
the Myceneans thrived in the second millenium B.C., reaching their peak around 1500.
Mycenae is the best known remains of their kingdom although just a couple kilometers
from Nafplio lies Tiryns, another of their great cities. Tiryns is literally on the
tour bus route. In fact, from the top of Tiryns' walls you can watch bus after bus zip
past on its way from Epidaurus to Mycenae. However, none of them stop at Tiryns
presumably because they consider it to be a smaller version of Mycenae. Also from the
walls of Tiryns you can look back to the Bay of Nafplio and the fortress of Bourtzi.
Here Melanie stands along the main entrance into the acropolis of Tiryns. Homer referred
to Tiryns as 'wall-girt'. You might be able to see why, some of the larger stones here
weigh as much as 14 tons. In places, the walls are as much as 20 meters thick. They are
so imposing that the Greeks believed they must have been built by the Cyclops - also
mentioned in Homer's legends.
As impressive as the walls are the arched halls or galleries. These stones are just as
large and they've been leaning inwards at precarious angles for well over three thousand
years. The exact causes of the eventual decline of Tiryns are unknown. It was at
approximately the same time as the decline of Egypt and the Hittite Empire. Some versions
of history blame Dorian invaders. The frescos and art work which adorned Tiryns has all
been removed to the Archeological Museum in Athens.
What do you see in this picture? Not what you might expect when looking at the greatest
city of the Mycenaen Empire. However, Mycenae was built entirely with defensive purposes
in mind. If you look closely you'll see the stone wall encircling the top of the hill.
The picture quality might not be great, but it isn't any easier to spot when driving up
to it along the road. If not for the parking lot full of air-conditioned buses you could
drive right past it. Well, actually you couldn't because the road ends there.
The entrance to the ancient city of Mycenae is through the impressive Lion Gate. So named
because of the two lions carved over the entrance. The lion insignia is that of the royal
house of Atreus, rulers of Mycenae. The most famous of the Atreus line is Agamemnon,
immortalized by Homer for his role in the Trojan War. Agamemnon was a real King of
Mycenae though the veracity of his exploits is unknown. Further back in legend it is
said that Perseus was the founder of the city of Mycenae. It's thus entirely possible
that Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Orestes and the rest of the family sat on this
very doorstep at some point in history. It very unlikely however that a Homeric epic will
be written about our visit. Alas.
Just inside the Lion Gate is the largest of the circular tombs of the city. The pit in
the center was used as a mass burial site. As citizens were added to it, a stone tablet
commemorating them was added to the concentric rings around the tomb. The enscriptions
have worn away for the most part though segments of them are still legible. Others are
found in the Archeological Museum in Athens (of course).
Mycenae is a pretty big place and if you ignore the main tour circuit and climb over a
few walls, you'll come across this. Known as the secret staircase it leads down through
the hill to a hidden resevoir for use during sieges. The stairs go down a tremendously
long way but you need to bring your own flashlight and a bit of courage to explore it.
The steps are uneven at best. There is also a back gate to Mycenae but it is not as
elaborate as the Lion Gate. The hill drops away sharply on the far side of the city and
the walls are hardly needed to keep invaders out.
Nearby in another hillside is the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon.
Tombs of this shape are known as tholos tombs. Inside it is empty now (guess which
museum everything is in) and it is shaped much like a traditional beehive.
After touring ancient Mycenae we stopped at nearby old Mycenae for lunch. New Mycenae is
farther down the road and is the normal working town. Old Mycenae is basically a clump of
hotels and souvenir stands, and the ruins are referred to as ancient Mycenae. Pottery is
the souvenir of choice and every major road intersection in Argolis seems to have at least
one store offering reproductions of Mycenean, Greek, Dorian and Minoan pottery. There are
several other sites of interest in Argolis including the acropolis of Argos and the
ancient city of Troizen, but we decided to share our time with some of the other provinces
of Greece as well.