Sunday, May 18, 2008

Backpacking in Greece: Attica, Peloponnese, Northern Greece, Islands (Part III)

Leaving Athens, there are two major bus stations and they are sometimes confused. Once you realize which one goes to mostly Peloponnesian destinations (the station at 100 Kifissou-take bus 51 from Omonia Square and it takes 15 min. to get there), get there early enough to make it to where your going quickly so you'll have some time the rest of the day.

Beyond Eleusis, the main highway splits right toward Thebes and left towards Megara and then Corinth. Megara was a city of great strategic importance and the city's favors were hotly fought over by the Athenians and the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. Archaeologically little has been found here though. Some city wall remains as well as some towers have been discovered, but the archaeological collection is contained in the local High School.

Passing through the Plain of Megara, the Yerania Mountains are skirted, but a wonderful view of the Saronic Gulf is seen to the left. On the pennisula that juts out to the north before you reach the canal, you can turn towards Perachora (there's a German reconstruction of a "housemodel" online that is from there). You soon approach the Corinth Canal and the ancient Diolkos of Corinth, where the hauled ships across the isthmus over a stone roadway. Unfortunately most of it was dug up when the modern canal was constructed. Ancient attempts to cut a canal were begun, but none ever made it very far. Pausanias (2.1.5) described some of the undertakings. (Here I bypassed Corinth at first and headed straight for the Argolid, which we will skip for now, since it doesn't make sense geographically to do it first).


Isthmia: Just to the east of Corinth is the ancient site of Isthmia, which is worth a visit if you can get there, as Pausanias (2.1.7) recommends. The archaeological museum of Isthmia is quite good, but not as frequented as the one at Corinth. Isthmia was the site of a sanctuary of Poseidon and every two years Reconstruction of the sanctuary at Isthmiagames were held there similar to those at Olympia and Delphi. You can learn more about their theater online. The Thanks to the Classics Department at Ohio State University and our friends at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the excavations have been placed online. The Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia have proven to be a model online site for excavations across the world. But they are not just for scholars. Take a look and see if you can learn something here. I can't leave out the University of Chicago Excavations at Isthmia. Though not as extensive as those of OSU in some areas, they have done some really nice work here also. Of interest to many might be the Computer Generated Reconstructions of the Sanctuary of Poseidon.

Corinth: (22,658 inhab.) Here is a word to the wise, if you are ever taking the bus from Pirgos to Athens and plan to get off in Corinth, know what you're doing! They just dropped us off on the side of the main highway ("Corinth here!" said the driver), a couple kilometers from the main part of town! Again, here is when asking children questions paid off (it's much more likely that they'll know English). The town wasn't that bad, but the accommodations we wound up with (the Hotel Belle-Vue, "central if a little shabby" according to the Rough Guide) were the worst I saw in all of Greece. I really was worried that every step I took could have ended up with my leg hanging down into the next room, shouting, "a little help here." It is a tip-off that you better go elsewhere when the hotel clerk answers all your questions with "yesno."

Ancient Corinth Temple of Apollo at Corinthwas worth the trouble though. It's a short ride up the hill from the modern city so you'll have to go to the right station and take a bus up to the site (through some very narrow streets). The archaeological site of Ancient Corinth is amazing (the entire site is photographed and explained here) and the archaeological museum of Ancient Corinth has some great sculpture and mosaics. The layout of the Roman city is not too confusing (here is the Corinthian Bouleterion). Take your time though. Be sure and see the Peirene Spring (Pausanias 2.3.3) and the theater on the other side of the road. I wish I had gone up to the Acrocorinth too. The ancient fortress atop the mountain supposedly has a cafe, the Acrocorinthos, which has some rooms to let. But you had better call ahead since there are not very many available. From the top of Acrocorinth, and on a clear day, you can see all the way to Aegina and the Athenian Acropolis as well as the entire Gulf of Corinth to the west. Strabo visited this site and described it almost two millenia ago, but you can still read what he wrote (8.6.21) about the view and the city below. There is also a scholarly electronic journal about Corinth and the surrounding area that is available online, the Korinthiaka. You can find a plan to reconstruct the Roman city of Corinth, online of course, at the Corinth Computer Project located at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kenchreai: Kenchreai, the eastern port of Corinth which is a little south of Isthmia, is also an important archaeological site (Pausanias 2.2.3) whose excavations are available online thanks to Kathryn Conners, though in a more abbreviated format than some of the other sites. It was important during the classical period due to the walls that ran from Corinth to the Saronic Gulf here and in Roman times it served as an important port for the area.

Sikyon is also nearby and it has a nice but small theater (Pausanias 2.7.5). One final stop is the Ancient Sanctuary of Hera at Perachora.

Once the heights of Acrocorinth have passed from view, the bus rides along the side of a valley (crossing the same set of train tracks numerous times), eventually passing the ancient village of Tenea, and then the major site of Nemea, famous for its sanctuary of Zeus. Though I didn't get a chance to stop, I wish that I had time to go to the archaeological site of Nemea, its stadium and its museum (Pausanias 2.15.2). The Nemea Valley Archaeological Project has information available online thanks to the people at Bryn Mawr and the American School of Classical Studies.


Mycenae: "If you go back to the Tretos (pass) and take the Argos road again, the ruins of Mycenae are on your left." - (Pausanias 2.15.4) The bus from Athens will drop you off in a little town called Fikhthia where you have toThe Lion Gate walk 2km down a lovely tree lined road through orchards to the town of Mycenae. There you'll want to arrange accommodations (the Youth Hostel here is not recommended by me) before going on to the archaeological site of Mycenae (here is a picture tour of Mycenae). It is another 2km walk up to the site (walk slowly and you'll be sure to see the entrances to many other small vault tombs, but I wouldn't wander inside without being prepared). Before you get to the site, if you look closely enough, you'll see a Mycenaean bridge traversing a ravine to the right. Once at the site, which has a great view of the Plain of Argos, hopefully you can find a place to park (if in a vehicle, of course), but sometimes it's very crowded. Taking pictures of the 13th century B.C. Lion Gate (shown here in the picture), you'll want to make sure the shadows don't mess the photo up too much because every picture I've ever seen taken by tourists here (and even some professional ones) wind up with the gate being too dark to see the lions. You can see another example of this photo-hazard at the Dilos Travel site's page on Mycenae. Be sure to go down and see the tholos tombs below the acropolis (which can take alot of your time in itself) and a guidebook of some sort at this site is really a must. You can go down the 99 steps inside a cistern at the other end of the citadel or admire the royal palace. You should also note Grave Circle A, where Heinrich Schliemann in 1874 found the burials of 19 bodies and 31 lbs. of gold items. Upon seeing a gold death mask, Schliemann wired the famous line that ran in papers across the world, "I have gazed upon the face of Agememnon!" The items are now kept at the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens. Also the big tholos tomb across the street is a good stop. It is also known as the Treasury of Atreus and you can go inside this one (the only one at the site like this).

The town of Mycenae is very nice but small. There is the actual home of the original excavator, Heinrich Schliemann, which is now a hotel. At one point I could have sworn that I saw Anthony Quinn ride down the road on a scooter. There are also a few good small restaurants. Nice place, but I'd rather stay in Nauplio, which is not a bad idea, taking day trips to the other sites. This is actually what most people do, especially if you have rented a car.

An imposing complex of ruins is found at the Argive Heraion, just to the west of the main road from Mycenae to Argos. Classical and archaic temples of Hera and buildings line the site which was the ancient religious center of the Argives. Pausanias (2.17.1) gives a good description of the site.

Argos: (20,700 inhab.) Argos today is a mid-size, quiet town that sits on the edge of the plain of Argos (described by some guide books as "a rather shabby market town). The modern city lies at the base of the two large hills, Larissa and Aspis, and covers the site of the ancient city (Strabo 8.6.7 describes it). It is a common stopping point for buses from Mycenae to Nauplio, though you normally wouldn't have to switch here. The bus stop is on the edge of the large and open town square and it is a pleasant place to spend a few minutes waiting on the incoming passengers.

There is plenty to see of archaeological interest too. The most prominent site is the huge classical theater (picture) - no one has to pay here - where occasional performances are infrequently staged (Pausanias 2.20.6). The theater stretches up a very steep hillside and parts of the stage still remain. Many renovations occurred during the Roman period and there is also the remains of a large Roman Bath (picture) still standing to its original roof height at places - can't miss it. Mosaics on the floors can still be seen and there is even some sarcophagi visible down in a lower level of the bath. Also see if you can find the remnants of the hypocaust heating system below the floors of some rooms. The Argive Agora is not readily accessible (here is the Argive Bouleterion though), but you can wander around the edge of the theater to see some more Roman remains, including a small odeion (picture). If you're in Argos and you have a little time, they also have a very nice, but small, archaeological museum which houses finds from Argos and the nearby site of Lerna. The museum has some great mosaics outside, which have the months (pictured: March and April )and seasons (pictures: Winter, Summer) personified. Also of note are the krater fragment depicting Odysseus and the Cyclops (picture) - at another exhibition when I was there!! - as well as an 8th cent. B.C. bronze suit of armor (picture).

Tiryns: After you've left Argos, and if you have time, stop in Tiryns (described by Pausanias 2.25.8). Since the buses run regularly down the main road near the site it shouldn't be too long between visits. The only thing to really see here Tiryns is the acropolis, but it shouldn't be missed. Take a guidebook since the foundations of the palace (picture) are confusing. You can still see the hearth, column bases, and even a bath recessed into the floor in the royal quarters. The entire fortress was inhabited from around 5000 B.C. on, and the most extensive constructions are Mycenaean. The walls of the fortress are spectacular. Huge pieces of rock are wedged together to form Cyclopean walls (picture) that surround the entire acropolis. Strabo (8.6.10) tells us that seven Cyclopes helped to build these walls; I guess we'll just have to take him at his word.

From on top of the palace you can get a great view on to Nauplio. The entire complex seems very strange, rising up abruptly from the plain just about a mile from the gulf. The lower section of the fortress (seen to the left in the picture) has now been closed off as has some of the upper level due to some of the stones falling from their places.

Nauplio: (10,609 inhab.) This is one of the most enjoyable towns I stayed in on my entire trip. You may have to look around for a good deal on a room, but mine was terrific with a rooftop patio. I met some very nice people (Chong, Rick and Myriam) in Nauplio and we had a great time while we were around each other. You can also go to Chong's Greek Rendezvous, her version of her trip to Greece. Nauplio, the first capital of liberated Greece (from 1829-1834), has a great little town square and some good restaurants, as well as a decent, small archaeological museum (or here for another site of the same museum). The museum is located on the second floor of a Venetian arsenal and houses items from Mycenae, Tiryns, Dendra, Asine, Halieis, and of course Nauplio, which served as the naval base of the Argives in archaic and classical times. Some of the more notable items include a bronze cuirass and a helmet made of boars' tusks - not matching (picture), Figurine of an Asine Lordand numerous pottery displays (including the clay figurine depicted here). The Castle of Palamidi at Nauplio is quite high but worth the climb once you get to the top (999 steps!). It looks impregnable, and it was designed by LaSalle in 1711, but in battle it fell after only an eight day seige.

There is a beach and you can take a boat out (5 min.) to the island fortress, Bourdzi, where the wildflowers growing from the walls of the building are quite stunning. Try taking a walk around the promontory, Its Kale, on the path just above the water's edge. Also in Nauplio, though I didn't go there, is the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation. You can also catch a bus to almost all the other sites in the region from here. Some big cruise ships put in here with day trips to Mycenae or Tiryns or even Epidauros. For some strange reason, I had even better phone connections while I was there than in many places in Athens. Cheaper and fresher fruit than in the cities can be found here too.

Epidauros: An hour bus ride east of Nauplio you'll find the remarkable sanctuary and theater at Epidauros (described by Pausanias 2.26.1). The Theater at Epidauros As Pausanias comments, "The Epidaurans have a theater in their sanctuary that seems to me particularly worth a visit." The Ancient Theater of Epidauros is the best preserved (or restored) in all of Greece and it has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its acoustics are amazing also. At the very top you could hear someone dropping a nickel at the bottom like they were five feet away, and I'm sure countless tourists and tour-guide leaders will demonstrate this for you time and time again. The theater itself now hosts several theatrical performances each year, though few are in English. There is an ambitious site online that tries to create an animation of one of Aristophanes' plays, played out on a 3-D model of the theater at Epidauros. I had a good connection and decent computer but couldn't get it to work quite right. You will also have to load a plug-in. It might be worthwhile since the snapshots from the finished model look terrific. They also have a photo gallery of Epidauros.

Quite some time could be spent at the site since it also includes a large archaeological site of Epidauros. The reason the theater was built in the first place is due to the healing sanctuary dedicated to the god Asklepios, known as the Asklepieion. People came from across the Greek world to the classical city-state of Epidauros and stayed in large "hotels" where they underwent treatment for their various ailments. Dedications from healed people were found abundantly throughout the site and the archaeological museum of Epidauros has many small statues as well as some amazing marble work that is still in excellent condition. Several main buildings at the site are currently under reconstruction also. Don't forget to notice the fairly large stadium recessed into a hillside near to the theater where games were held dedicated to Asklepios.

It's common for cruise ships to put in at New Epidauros, where there is also a smaller Theater of Epidauros, on the other side of the peninsula. Then tour buses take them overland to the archaeological site detailed above.

Though I didn't go there, there are also good archaeological sites at: Lerna, Asine, Halieis, & Midea. There are also numerous small resort towns along the bay. Some of them are quaint and some more commercial.

If you are going from the Peloponnesian. on to Northern Greece as I did, you'll have to change bus stations in Athens. There is a connecting bus that runs often between the two main stations, you'll just have to find out the number and buy a ticket beforehand like any other city bus. It is very inconvenient, but anything to keep me from staying another night in Athens was worth it.


Sparta: (11,911 inhab.) Laconia - Topographical MapThe ride from Argos to Sparta (through Tripoli) is something else. Hairpin turns in the Kleisoura Pass and great views make it worth your while as long as your not driving. The modern town of Sparta (est. 1834) is a little south of the ancient one, of which there is very little left. It sits below Mount Taygetos and is described by Strabo (8.5.1). ISparta didn't make it out to the archaeological museum of Sparta, but they do have a collection there with some pottery, mosaics, and sculpture. The archaeological site (on the bus in, after passing over the Eurotas River, you'll veer to the left and then back to the right, thereby avoiding the edge of the Acropolis), is reached via a beautiful tree-lined road just north of the modern town. It might not seem that remarkable to a modern visitor, but Pausanias visited there and gave a good description (3.11.1). The Acropolis of Sparta is not what you might expect, though there the remains of a Roman theater do exist there (Pausanias 3.17.1). If you do visit, note the drawings of the ancient stage in the Blue Guide, the scene would be decorated and rolled on metal rods out of a shed adjacent to the theater. Also in Sparta, you can find the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia and (just south of town) the Menelaion. If you're interested you can find most of the course of the city walls, which were only needed after the ancient city began its decline.

Mistras: A few miles to the west is the monastery town of Mistras (now only a few buildings are still used) from the middle ages. Founded in 1249 A.D., the main castle was an attempt to give the Franks a good position with which they could control the local Greeks. They soon were forced to give the site to the Greeks and then the Byzantine State of Mistras thrived until modern Sparta was repopulated in the 19th century. It is quite large and the last emperor of Byzantium was even crowned here. Mistras isMistras, Palace of the Despots worth the visit if you are in the neighborhood. The site was also designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1989. They also have a small, but cramped, Archaeological Museum of Mistras. The biggest structure, the Palace of Despots (pictured here), was being roofed while I was there and once covered it might make an excellent museum.

The mountains around Sparta (really just on the west) are amazing when you are first arriving. The site of Mistras is located near the bottom of their eastern slope. Most spectacular is Mount Taygetos (shown here behind the Menelaion). They also prove no small feat in getting over them. The area from Sparta to Kalamata is one of the most desolate stretches of road in the Peloponnese, reaching some extremely high peaks along the way. The Langadha Pass is no easy feat to cross even on clear days and should be approached with care in inclement weather.

Other Laconian cities worth mentioning include ancient Amyclae (Pausanias 3.18.6) and modern Monemvasia (also known as the "Gibraltar of Greece.".


I didn't make it to Tegea, but for some crazy reason, I have a whole page dedicated to Megalopolis, even though I didn't go there. Read on if you dare. (Follow the link.)


I did stop in Kalamata, which houses the Benakeio Archaeological Museum, but my stay was only for an hour till the next bus left. Still, the bus station is right across the street from the old castle.

Pylos: (2,107 inhab.)Messenia - Topographical Map The modern town here (Navarino to some) is far away from the sites, which Strabo (8.4.2) describes. The island of Sphakteria (the long, thin island pictured to the right of the bay below), Pyloswhere some famous naval battles (Battle of Navarino) and a siege were fought (Thucyidides 4.27 tells the whole story) dominates the bay, which is in itself quite beautiful. The north end of the bay is the site of the classical town and the fort, but the modern town sits at the other end of the bay in this picture. The town is quaint, has a Venetian Castle of Pylos - Niokastron which is attempting to acquire a collection centering around underwater archaeology, and really quite nice for a stopover (it does have most of the necessities). There is also a small archaeological museum, the Antonopouleion Museum, which I did not get a chance to see.

Miles north of the bay at Englianos, modern Chora, is the Palace of Nestor, a Mycenaean site which draws most of the tourists to this area. The finds from the site are exhibited at the nearby archaeological museum of Chora. Unfortunately the general rule that sites and museums are closed on Mondays was not excepted here (as the French guidebook claimed). So I missed this site after traveling this far. But the views are really nice and I enjoyed a couple hours sleeping by a spring next to the olive orchards while I waited on the next bus. The excavations at Englianos have proven to be a treasure mine of information for archaeologists. Today, the excavations and findings are available online, just waiting for those enterprising individuals out there like yourself. You can access them at the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project, Internet Edition. Don't be intimidated by all the information at this site, the summaries and reports of the digs are the easiest to handle. There's plenty people to thank for this information, but the folks at the University of Cincinnati have been the leaders of the digs here since its early days. If you can deal with a little German, there's a great site with a computer reconstruction of the Palace of Nestor online at the Antikensammlung Erlangen Internet Archive.

Spots I wish I had made it to include: Ancient Messene or here. The University of Minnesota keeps an online site on their digs at Englianos and Messene, which can be reached at the Minnesota Archaeological Researches in the Western Peloponnese.

Bassae: I really tried to make it to Bassae (really on the border of Messenia and Elis), but the Ancient Temple of Epicurean Apollo there is just too far out of the way unless you have your own transportation or an unlimited amount of time. It also is currently under extensive renovations and a huge tent has been erected around the entire temple (picture).


Olympia: (1,063 inhab.) The major attraction for the entire region is Olympia. The town itself is Olympic Stadium at Olympiavery tourist friendly and rooms and meals can be found fairly cheap. (Hotel Praxilities was ok). (The picture to the left is of the Olympic Stadium which seated 40,000 people)

Wake up early and just walk to the archaeological site of Olympia (described by Strabo 8.3.30). It is not very far at all. The area has also been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and the honor is definitely not without due! The site is huge and you'll again need a guidebook to identify all the buildings and archaeological remains (the Palaestra is pictured here, and you can see the Olympian Bouleterion here). The site can be crowded though since there are usually tour buses full of people lining the parking lots and roads back to town during the spring and summer. The stadium is one of the easiest sites to recognize, but the Temple of Zeus should merit close attention. It held one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the statue of Zeus. The archaeological museum at Olympia is modern and though it is expensive (it's worth it) it is the best in the Peloponnese. Take special note of the statue of Hermes and the baby Dionysus (picture here at the Dilos Travel site) as well as the statue of victory. Though I visited in May, the trees had just finished blooming, and I've heard it really is a beautiful sight.

Also, be sure and take a look at the Perseus site on the Ancient Olympics. It is very thorough and well designed. But if that isn't enough for you, you can also try this site. The Palaestra at Olympia

Pirgos: The nearby town of Pirgos is the main station for the buses so you'll have to pass through there a couple of times. Not very picturesque there though.

Patras: On the way to Corinth, we switched buses at Patras, once a Roman colony but now a thriving seaport (the bus might pass right through the port). It is the largest city in the Peloponnese and its archaeological highlights include a Roman Odeion and Roman artifacts in the archaeological museum.

If you are going from the Peloponnesian. on to Northern Greece as I did, you'll have to change bus stations in Athens. There is a connecting bus that runs often between the two main stations, you'll just have to find out the number and buy a ticket beforehand like any other city bus. It is very inconvenient, but anything to keep me from staying another night in Athens was worth it.

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