A smooth arrival into Athens! Time to sit on a bus for four days and be told where to be and when. I was looking forward to the rest from the logistics of travel!
Our Greek guide, Joy, was very knowledgeable and entertaining. We learnt early that six of the 11 million people in Greece live in Athens (explained the traffic) and that it’s the 3rd most mountainous country after Norway and Albania. As a consequence it is very picturesque.
Our first stop was at the Corinth Canal. Was once a widely used commercial passage but not wide enough these days for the large ships so mainly used for touristic purposes. I was surprised to hear that Greece has the largest commercial fleet in the world. The Canal had essentially created one more of the more than 3 000 islands of Greece the Peloponnese. This one being part of the 10% that are inhabited!
The next stop was to the Acropolis of Mycenae (13 to 15 century BC). The king lived in his palace at the top while the people of the community lived around it. Unlike most arrangements the necropolis (burial place) was built inside the walls of the Acropolis – most likely because it contained a fair amount of gold (14kgs recovered in masks, etc). We entered through the well preserved Lion’s Gate which was mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (his writings had helped archaeologists identity the site).
On the other side of the field we found the Treasury of Atreus; a Mycenaean tomb believed to belong to the last royal dynasty (Agamemnon) it was the last tomb built. The inside was shaped like a cone, achieved by building the blocks around a hill before excavating the internal dirt. The capstone was obviously the most critical component holding it all together. I was getting lovely memories of helping Paula build the earthbag house back in Colombia!
Back on the road until we reached Epidaurus – birthplace of Apollo’s son Asclepius – the healer – featuring the ancient theatre that accommodates up to 14 000 people and the former healing centre of classical Greece. The limestone construction was just one of the methods that were used to help project the voices of the performers.
Our last stop for the day was Nafplio, a lovely seaside town surrounded by three fortresses – one at sea and two on the hills. A mark of the occupation of the Venetians.
Day two started early for a trip to Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games. It was quite surreal getting an overview of the Olympic village, gymnasiums and hotels. The Olympics started as a festival to Zeus in 770 BC and ended in 392 AD when devout Christians banned the non-Christian festival. They were held every four years, lasted for five days and included the sacrifice of 100 oxen, which were served to the spectators. As a consequence of the athletes conducting their sport nude there were only male participants and spectators!
The modern Olympic Games were started again in Athens in 1896 on the suggestion of a French baron after Olympia was re-discovered. It wasn’t until 1924 that women joined the Games!
The stadium was more like the old Gabba Hill! Seating capacity of 45 000 on the grass hill (no stone seating, which would have been too hard and heated up too much).
The site was an impressive 13 000 square metres.
There were strict rules of the Games including fasting for a week before your event (no eggs, meat, etc). The alternative for drug testing of the day was faeces testing to confirm athletes hadn’t broken their fasting rules! Another rule was that there were to be no wars for 3 months before the Games. A heavy price was paid if not complied with – city would be banned from the Games forever.
Leaving the Peloponnese we headed for the earth’s bellybutton – Delphi. Considered such by the ancient Greeks based on what they knew geographically to exist at the time. To get there we drive through Greece’s largest olive grove – 1.2 million trees in the grove.
Before reaching the Apollo sanctuary we visited the shrine of Athena Pronea. A place for Goddess Athena to protect her half brother Apollo. Said to have been achieved when a well timed earthquake prevented the Persians from reaching the area.
The large site further up the hill containing the Sanctuary of Apollo dates back to 1600 – 1100 BC but the buildings standing today are mainly from around 6th century BC. It was at this site that the Oracle was sought out to predict or read the future. The prophecies were communicated through the priestesses who would be in a trance-like state as a consequence of the natural gas (presence of Mother Earth – Gaia) leaking from within the temple. The prophecies were said to be read though the clouds, water, wind, flames or other such mediums.
The site included the place occupied by nine goddesses (called muses) who received the art presented to the god Apollo…museum!
The Treasury of Athens was reconstructed to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 BC (the one where the barefoot and naked soldier ran non-stop to announce the victory to the king and then dropped dead!).
The site contained a wall that was more than 2 600 years old – surviving numerous earthquakes as a result of its ingenious design of interlocking rocks.
We left this important historical site with the message of Apollo that the most important thing in life was ‘To know thyself’. Nothing much has changed there!
Last day of the tour directed us away from the ancient Greeks towards the monastic communities of Meteora.
Monastic communities had been established in the north of Greece more than 2 000 years ago. The communities we were visiting had existed in some form or another for about 700 years. There were only six of the 24 of Meteora monasteries left operating and two operated as convents.
They were nothing short of spectacular perched on top of the 400m high rock pinnacles. It was hard to believe they were accessed by removable ladders or windlass (pulley system) until the 1920s when stairs were cut into the stones. Just a few challenging safety issues presented during construction and use! Might explain why they only had about ten monks/nuns in each monastery/convent!
The churches were brightly decorated internally with religious frescoes depicting the rather gruesome tales of the saints
It had been quite a packed four days and I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. The tour group was larger than I generally preferred to travel with but it had been a good mix of nationalities. South Australian farmers Lisa and Neil and Dan and Claudette from Canada had been particularly lovely travel companions. The other added bonus was that I’d had my grandfather travelling with me as I recalled all the Greek mythology he’d shared with us as kids.
The ultimate dedication to Athena, the Acropolis! There was a strike scheduled for the day of our departure to Amorgos Island so our wonderful yogi, Craig, had arranged for us to leave a day early to avoid it. So I decided to visit the 4 000 year old site before heading to the port for our island break.
Having been first inhabited 4 000 – 3 000 BC in Mycenaean times, it’s fair to say a very important ancient site in the western ancient world. I got goose bumps walking through the site and listening to the stories from my guide.
At the time of its construction it took 13 years to build the Parthenon and 37 years the complete set of temples. A respectable result from a city of only 160 000 inhabitants.
Now onto Amorgos Island…