Day 7 was the start of our two-day out-of-town trip to cover the Peloponnese region. Our ambitious plan was to cover Epidaurus, Mycenae and Olympia on day one. Stay overnight in Olympia and then visit Kouroto beach on way back to Corinth and then onwards to Athens. Of course, our trip while long, would be helped immensely by the opening of the newly constructed Patra-Corinth highway that would make travel much safer and make it possible to cross the northern Pelopponese border from west to east in under two hours, apparently a remarkable time saver by Greek standards.
As with our other trips, Makis showed up by 7:30 am and we were packed and ready to go. Day One was the longer of the two days but we were gung-ho about the itinerary. Makis first took us on a detour to another of the local bakeries, this time stopping to buy warm bougatsa pastries. He then stopped by his home to drop off some for his kids and then drove us up a steep hill in his neighborhood from where we enjoyed views of the Athenian sprawl and the delectable pastries. The topography put me in the mind of a San Fransisco street. I could not imagine driving up and down this street during a winter snowstorm.
As we left town, we drove past the Bay of Salamis, Makis told us of the famous battle that occurred here in 480 BC when Themistocles outwitted the Persian emperor Xerxes using his magnificent triremes. A major turning point in the Greco-Persian wars, it was marvelous to hear about the battle, the predictions of the Oracle at Delphi that helped Themistocles come up with the plan and its part in the ultimate defeat of the Persians.
As he drove, Makis explained that 20 years ago, there had been a huge fire on the road between Corinth and Epidaurus that burnt a large section of the trees and caused loss of life, we saw many hill slopes along the way that were showing new growth but lacked the dense vegetation normally seen in other areas.
As we neared Epidaurus, we stopped first for coffee at Stork’s coffee bar. Being coffee lovers, we definitely appreciated a hot cup of coffee but also the wonderful views from Stork’s terrace overlooking the calm waters and the mountains in the distance. The place has a full service restaurant as well and clean toilet facilities.
Next we headed to the main attraction, the Great Theater of Epidaurus. Built to keep the patients and their loved ones at the Sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus entertained, the theater is beautifully built and very well-preserved. Easily seating about 12-13,000 spectators, the acoustics in this open air theater is what all the talk is about. A person standing in the middle of the stage and whispering or clapping gently, without a microphone, can be heard clearly by a spectator in the top rows of the semicircular theater. We tried it and its true! What an amazing accomplishment for people who lived nearly 2300 years ago! Climbing the steep steps to the top of the theater is an achievement in itself and must have kept a lot of the ancients happy and healthy.
Having enjoyed the theater to our heart’s content, we moved on to first explore the small museum of Asclepius and then to delve into the actual sanctuary ruins. Asclepius is the son of Apollo and the God of Medicine and as such his Sanctuary was the center of the healing arts in ancient Greece. People came from far and wide to seek cures from various illnesses. So the Sanctuary complex boasted rooms where patients would stay for prolonged periods as they recovered, the kitchens and cafeteria where appropriate and healthy foods would be served, baths for fulfilling the rituals of healing and the actual hospital areas. The entire area was served by a complex network of water supply and sewage systems that were way ahead of their times. There were all kinds of entertainment provided for the patients such as books in libraries, the magnificent theater complex and sports and games. A holistic approach to healing, indeed! This Sanctuary is now considered a UNESCO world heritage site and a definite must see!
We met Makis at the parking lot entrance and he drove us to our next stop, Nafplio. The first capital of Greece, it has a Syntagma square of its own, made out of marble and very stately in appearance. Nafplio sits on the waterfront and is a colorful collection of buildings that appear timeless. Flanked by the walls of the Acronafplio as well as the Palamidi fortress, the city has been occupied by Franks, Turks, Venetians and eventually by the Greeks, all because of its strategic location. It boasts a small island fortress called the Bourtzi that once served as a prison. The area is famous for olives, apricots and specifically the Valencia oranges that are harvested in winter. There is a military training base here for young Greek adults. According to Makis, Nafplio is a good city to base out of during off-peak travel from Sept to mid June. After viewing the city from the Akronafplio walls, we drove back down to enjoy another “home cooked” meal of salad, briam, pasta and gemista at the old Nafplios restaurant overlooking the harbor front.
After a wholesome meal, we spent some time walking off the calories along the waterfront, enjoying the breeze blowing off the waters and the activity all around us with tourists and locals stopping for lunch. The Bourtzi fortress in the distance was a compelling sight.
Having to cover another two cities, we bid goodbye to Nafplio and headed west towards Mycenae. As we took a much deserved nap, Makis sped us towards the grand citadel of the Mycenae. The Mycenaeans lived in the 12-16th century BCE and yet the ruins live on to this day, attesting to their advanced civilization. Many of the artifacts recovered from the excavation of this citadel are preserved in the National Archeological Museum. The beauty of the intricate works, the precision and the artistic nature of these artifacts drive home the fact that this was a group of people with a well-organized society that was prosperous on all fronts, be it political, social, cultural, commercial or economic.
Makis gave us about 90 mins to tour the fortress and we worked hard to stick to the time limit. It was a hot and sunny afternoon and with the fortress situated on a hilly slope, it was good exercise walking all the way around and to the top of the ruins and then back down and to the front gates. The journey started with admiring the construction of the famous Lion Gate at the entry to the citadel. The architectural ingenuity of the triangular lionesses supported on a horizontal lintel is remarkable. The walls of the citadel are stacked up with heavy, large boulders neatly lined and reminded me of Sachsay Huaman in Peru. From there we moved onto the Grave circles from where many artifacts were recovered. As we proceeded slowly up to the remains of the palace, we had to applaud the positioning of the citadel, on a high-rise, flanked by the natural defense of mountains and with the Argolis plains ahead providing a clear view of any incoming travelers. And off to the distance the sparkling waters of the Gulf. How the Mycenaeans were able to build a fortress on this high a land is still shocking to me.
Another thought that struck me as I labored along the path to the palace was that everywhere in Greece, the ruins were easily accessible, yet there wasn’t a huge explosion of population in nearby areas to mar the unique settings and topography of the land. Living in one of the fastest growing cities in the US, I was just thrilled that all these unique sites had not fallen prey to “urban sprawl”. And very thankful for that, too!
It was, in reality, hard for me to imagine the palace rooms as described in the Rick Steves’ guide but I hoped that the people who lived here appreciated the natural beauty around them every morning as they woke up to face another new day! Or did they take such things for granted, as we do many times?
Walking down to the bottom of the hill, we went to examine the underground cistern. There was a system of underground pipes that supplied water from the nearby springs to the citadel’s cistern. The access pathway is dark and slippery and was closed off after a short distance. We used flashlights that we had carried to traverse that little distance.
Emerging out into the bright sunlight, we walked down to the Museum that is on site and spent some time there. We were getting close to the end of the allotted time, so we used the toilet facilities, freshened up and took a few minutes to admire one of the many Tholos tombs nearby. We had watched a video en route that explained the architectural highlights of these rounded tombs and it was highly educational and thoroughly fascinating. I think spending some time to visit and study one of these tombs would be a worthwhile way of understanding the Mycenaeans.
Back in the car, Makis gave us plenty of fluids as we flew towards Olympia, our last stop for the evening. One of the issues with the whole day trip is that a single driver can only log about 8 hours of driving per day. Each driver has to maintain a log for distance and time travelled and produce such documentation as requested. Makis always ensured that each day’s trip was done within this safe window. In a country known for narrow highways, poor traffic discipline and many accidents, we felt comfortable knowing he was always alert and watchful. He ate little at lunch so as not to be sleepy while driving. We were thankful several times during the journey that we had not decided to risk driving. We could not have covered as much ground driving by ourselves and we would have been the slowest ones on the road as we tried to steer clear of traffic and follow the speed limits (which most natives didn’t do).
We reached Olympia around 5 pm and the site would open until 7:30 pm. Makis advised us to finish visiting the site and the Olympic stadium that evening, if the kids felt up to it. His reasoning was that most tour buses would have left the site by then and the entire place would be less crowded making for a more pleasant experience. He recommended going back the following morning to visit the two nearby museums as the tickets were good for 24 hours. He would drop off our luggage at the Hotel Pelops where we were staying for the night. Now the town of Olympia is very small with a couple of main streets and plenty of shops, restaurants and hotels and a church. Quaint and entirely walkable and safe.
Missy JJ and Sonny JJ were well rested from all the power naps they had grabbed on the way to Olympia. So off we went, exploring the ruins of one of the grandest sites in world history, the home of the Olympic games. With out omnipresent audio guides educating us, we delved into the world of the original Olympians, the places where they trained, the luxury hotel where the rich and powerful stayed at, the temples to Zeus and Hera, the winners’ podium. But what was truly exciting was the path leading to the original stadium where we imagined being announced as a competing athlete and the roaring of the crowds as we made an entrance and the huge number of spectators that would have graced the grassy knolls and the festivity of the moment. Disappointingly, for me and Missy JJ, women (except for one priestess) weren’t allowed as spectators to these games. Hmm!!
We took turns racing one member of the family, while another filmed. I ran against Missy JJ. While I did not win, I did finish the entire distance of just under 200 m or 600 feet and felt proud for having run on such hallowed ground. We are now (un)official Olympians!!
Many other families lounged around on the grass or ran against each other. The day was drawing to a close, the shadows elongating with cool breezes wiping away a long day of hard travel and historic sightseeing. There was a sense of contentment as we sat there imagining the races that had transpired there, the years of arduous labor and training that made one an Olympian then and still does, to this day and the glory that such accomplishments bring.
As at the Parthenon, the monitors on the site were ever vigilant, ensuring that everyone respected the culture of the place. We saw kids doing hand stands that attracted a sharp whistle and a quick visit from one of the monitors.
As the sun grew lower in the sky, we slowly made our way out of the site and walked the distance back to our hotel. It took us a while to get registered and finish the check in process as the owner couldn’t locate us in his system for several minutes. The booking had been done through George Kokkatos’ office, and eventually he figured it all out. We were assigned two rooms (two people per room) and both were comfortably appointed and clean.
After freshening up, we made a short trip down the main street to find a restaurant that Makis had recommended. The Aegean Restaurant did not disappoint. We were amongst the first guests and had excellent service as the evening progressed and the place attracted more crowds. The food was flavorsome, the setting on the outer terrace under the awning was welcoming and it was simply enjoyable to sit at the dinner table and rehash the events of the day, just like at home!
Following a wholesome meal, we walked around Olympia a bit before purchasing some souvenirs at the local stores and then headed back to the hotel. All in all, a very satisfying day, long but satisfying!