It has been a while since our group embarked on a major travel expedition since our last one to Crete nearly three months ago. On this fifth trip we explored the Argolid and Corinthia, with brief stops in Achaea and eastern Arcadia. Unlike the previous trips where we found ourselves checking in and out of a new hotel every other day, this trip had two “home bases.” The first was a five-day stay in Nafplio (the first capital of modern Greece from 1829-1831), followed by another five days in Corinth. In all, the sites and surroundings of this region of ancient Greece revealed a world literally caught in the middle, a crossroads of the Balkan peninsula from the Bronze Age to today.
Our first stop got us in a revolutionary mood by visiting a monumental statue of Theodoros Kolokotronis in the hills near Dervenakia. This white marble statue imposes itself in the surrounding pine and cypress forest (you can easily see it from miles away). Kolokotronis led the Greek revolutionary army to a landslide victory against the Ottomans at the Battle of Dervenakia in 1822. We continued on southward toward the Argolis plain and stopped at a curious “block house” at Phyktia. This square building made of polygonal masonry (indicative of the 4th century BC) is too small to be a tower—and not built on high ground—and too big and well-built to be a farmstead. It has puzzled scholars since excavations in the 1920s. This building bears a strong resemblance to another block house we visited that afternoon, dubbed the Hellenikon Pyramid. Pyramids in Greece? Not so fast. This building was constructed with a similar type of masonry, but it has added sloping sides. The fairly sharp edges indicate that the design was intentional, but the motives are uncertain. Like the Phyktia block house, its exact purpose is unknown. An ominous sign occurred at the Hellenikon Pyramid during our visit. Since we are at the end of the olive harvest season, farmers prune the trees of various branches and burn them in small heaps in and around their orchards. You can see (and smell) smoking towers on roadsides just about anywhere in the countryside. One particularly eager farmer must have lost track of his smoldering pile. A fiery dragon flame fanned by the brisk winds grew so tall that we felt it necessary to get back to the bus. After getting some 3 miles away, a fire engine “rushed” to the scene—emergency vehicles in Greece do not travel with the same urgency as their US counterparts. Between our two blockhouse sites, we visited the Bronze Age settlement at Lerna. The main attraction of this site is the so-called “House of Tiles.” The extant foundations are covered today by a large shed in order to protect the soft stone and mud brick structure. This former two-story building had wood door frames and flooring and plastered walls. Many ceramic pots and seal impressions were discovered in greater concentration in a south room. After destruction by fire around 2200 BC, it was soon thereafter built over by a large circular tumulus—in a way providing a burial for the building. Like many Bronze Age sites, the exact function of the building is uncertain, whether it was an administrative center, an elite residence, a public facility, or some combination. After a quick lunch and the Hellenikon Pyramid, we ascended the Larisa, the acropolis of Argos. Perched high above the Argive plain, the Larisa has been a stronghold since the Bronze Age. The fortification walls are a palimpsest of phases from the Mycenaean period through the Ottoman occupation. The remains of a large cistern take up a large part of the central courtyard. We stumbled upon two ancient Argive inscriptions built into the interior of the fortification walls. We could see the entire Argive plain from this vantage point, including Nafplio along the opposite end of the bay. After checking-in at the hotel in Nafplio at the early time of 3:30pm, a group of us made for the Palamidi fortress. Situated on the higher of the two hills in Nafplio, the trip up to the Venetian fortress is only 997 steps! (Some say 999.) The effort is well worth the trouble. To call the view breathtaking is an understatement. If this was not enough, after walking back down we then walked around the tiny horn-shaped peninsula on which Nafplio sits. We made it back to the hotel just after sunset and prepared for dinner. The food experience in Nafplio was transcendental and sublime, and I will devote an entire section to our various culinary adventures now.
I want you, the reader, to get a taste of what is possible in Nafplio (even in the winter ‘off-season’). I want you to get hungry and go to Nafplio yourself! (NB: This is not a paid advertisement, but an honest testimonial.)
Night 1, Scuola: The Italian influence in Nafplio is strong due to the combined 190 years of Venetian influence in the city. Scuolo is a wood-fire, brick-oven pizza place on the water front. The “school” theme implied by its name is reflected in the décor—chalkboard walls for customers to doodle on and an entire wall with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I split a Bellagio pizza (red sauce, cheese, yellow corn, sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto, drizzled with a basil pesto) and homemade gnocchi (gorgonzola crème sauce, mushrooms, thin-sliced salami, and crushed walnuts). It was absolutely decadent.
Night 2, To Omorfo: We stumbled upon To Omorfo (“The Beautiful”), while wandering Nafplio’s narrow streets in search of a good dinner. We ended up with a great one. The staff was in the middle of putting up their decorations for Carnival—the last major party occasion before Orthodox Lent (think Mardi Gras). We were the only people there since it was a bit early for Greek dinner, and we got first-class treatment. The food was superb. I had some of the best horta of my life (horta refers to various types of leafy greens sautéed in olive oil with lemon juice). The zucchini balls were top-notch—crunchy, savory with onion and feta inside. The main dishes blew us away. The pork tenderloin with quince and chestnut sauce was so unique and tasty—and the sauce made for good dipping with bread. We also had oven-roasted leg of lamb with potatoes. The owner treated us with post-dinner glyka (sweets): pears and apples with honey and cinnamon. The owner was genuinely happy to serve us, and went out of his way to make our meal the best.
Night 3, Karima Kastro: A reconnaissance report informed us that this place was a Turkish restaurant. It is definitely not, BUT it was still fantastic. I highly recommend the baba ganoush (a spiced eggplant dip common in the eastern Mediterranean) and their roasted beets in yogurt. These delectable appetizers only set the stage for the main event. For some reason, Greeks often have schnitzel on their menus. We tried two different types—one was a traditional, thin chicken schnitzel topped with a tomato-basil sauce and mozzarella cheese (a bona fide chicken parmesan). The other, however, was much more adventurous—a chicken schnitzel coated with finely crushed nuts and came with an avocado dip. These schnitzels were so delicious that we ordered another of each to indulge our gluttonous appetites.
Night 4, Pedalio: This Cretan restaurant is just beyond the old part of the city, but it is worth the fifteen-minute walk. From the moment we arrived, we were treated like family. Fitting in with the taverna’s nautical themed interior, we opted for more seafood dishes like octopus (grilled with a delicious, smoky sauce) and calamaraki (fried), but also the daily sausage special, apaki (smoked pork medallions). To finish off the meal, our host again treated us to homemade mosaiko—a terrific “log” of creamy chocolate and crushed biscuits. We sometimes get this awesome desert back at Loring Hall, but this was an extra special treat.
Night 5, O Kepos: Our last night in Nafplio was the group dinner. Some of our other colleagues found this place on the water front that made a very tasty pasta treat dubbed “pastagons” (a special not on the menu). They were similar to gnocchi in a simple cream sauce with veggies. Among the other mezes we sampled were Pleurotus mushrooms (my favorite type, grilled and smattered with olive oil), the house “Kipos” salad (arugula, basil, feta with black cumin-fennel seed dressing), fried saganaki, and tzatziki. Since this was already plenty to eat, we got four “mixed grills” for the entire group. Mixed grills are somewhat bizarre things to order—it’s a platter of grilled sausage, chicken filets, bifteki (an herbed, ground beef patty), and think pork chops called panseta, all on top of a mountain of french fries. Usually restaurants will say that they serve 2-3 people. False. They always end up being enough for at least 4 people. I remember having to eat so much food so that nothing went to waste. Also, in the fashion of all our other group dinners, there was plenty of wine to go around.
Every day in Nafplio: Gelato and loukoumades.
Returning now to the rest of the trip, day two was devoted completely to some of the most famous Bronze Age sites in the Argolid. First, however, Peter and I wanted to do an easy morning run along the water. This plan was cut short within two minutes of running. As soon as we got to the boardwalk where restaurants have their large tents for outdoor seating, a pack of ten or so street dogs came out to greet us. They barked with a fury. Of course, this is not the first time that this had happened to us. We got close and stayed our ground. The alpha male got pretty close; any closer and I would have had to take action. As I checked the others, I noticed that one in the back had started scratching an itch. Another two laid down in boredom. One by one they became less threatening. Our deliverance arrived when a rival pack of three dogs came close, prompting our assailants to chase more interesting prey. Peter and I took our leave cautiously and ran a pity-mile before returning to the hotel. This was certainly not an auspicious start to the day or the trip, nevertheless, it all went rather smoothly. Our first stop was at a cemetery of Agios Georgios near a Mycenean bridge to see the tombs of George Mylonas (famous excavator of Mycenae in the 1950s) and Humfry Payne (who became the director of the British School at Athens at the early age of 27, but died suddenly at age 34). There was not much to see of the Mycenaean bridge, but it is still a testament to the Mycenaeans’ engineering abilities. Just up the road was the Bronze Age palace of Mycenae. This site gave its name the Bronze Age peoples of mainland Greece, the Mycenaeans. Our first stop was at the so-called Treasury of Atreus outside the citadel, built in the middle of the 13th century BC. Atreus was the legendary father of Agamemnon and Menelaus of the Iliad. This often-photographed tholos tomb has a massive 36 meter dromos (entryway) and a 1.2 ton lintel block above the doorway. Continuing on, we entered the palatial center. Its massive citadel walls dominate the landscape on this low-lying hill (unlike most Mycenaean citadels which were perched high-up on mountain tops). The entrance to Mycenae is the famous “Lion’s Gate,” and it stands as impressive as ever. Mycenae is perhaps most famous for the archaeological finds in Grave Circle A, which contained the famous “Mask of Agamemnon,” as Schliemann termed it. Both Grave Circle A and B are massive royal burial grounds filled with many wealthy burials. Beyond the grave circles is an area called the “Cult Area” because many votive statues were found in the so-called “House of the Idols” (probably a workshop area), as well as a shrine room. Ascending the hill is the palace proper with an identifiable megaron (throne room), although part of it have fallen off into the valley below. During the Hellenistic Period, a Doric style temple was built on top of the old palace area. You cannot see this temple today since it was removed during excavations to reveal the Mycenaean layers. Access to water was a critical component of a fortified city, and Mycenae enclosed within its massive walls many wells and cisterns. The Museum of Mycenae contains many archaeological finds from the site (although most of the “good” ones are in Athens in the National Archaeological Museum. One of the coolest objects on display here was a fragment of a bronze shield found in the sanctuary of Enyalios (Ares) just north of Mycenae. After Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, was killed in a battle at Argos in 272 BC, the Argives dedicated the shield whose fragmented inscription today reads: “From the Argives…to the gods… (from the spoils of) King Pyrrhus.” The last major adventure of the day was an 8km walk to the modern city of Prosimna stopping at various Mycenaean sites along the way. We left the site heading out past the museum near the south sally port along the ancient Mycenaean road. After climbing up the saddle between the two hills behind the citadel, we descended into a sea of olive trees. We stopped at a Mycenaean tholos tomb hidden in an olive grove. Our next stop was the site of Berbati, a Mycenaean pottery production site nestled against a jutting gray rock formation on the western edge of the valley. The Swedish Institute began excavations here in the 1930s, and you can read a good synopsis here (http://www.sia.gr/old-field-projects/berbati/). Continuing on, we passed by the ruins of a Roman bath complex before meeting our bus at a local, modern cemetery outside of Prosimna.
The next day began with a visit to the rock-cut statue of a sleeping lion on the edge of Nafplio. This was a monument to the comrades of the officers and soldiers of the Royal Bavarian Brigade who died between 1833 and 1834 of tropical illnesses. The monument was dedicated by King Ludwig of Bavaria, that is, “Mad” Ludwig II (the one who built Neuschwanstein castle after which Disney modeled Sleeping Beauty’s castle). The Bavarian prince Otto, who was the first King of modern Greece from 1832-1862, was the nephew and godson of Ludwig II. After this short stop, we headed for Merbaka (mod. Agia Triada, east of Argos), where there is a church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This church was built in the 13th century AD with various spolia from the Argive Heraion (which we visited next). The church was built by the Catholic Bishop of Corinth, William of Moerbeke, and so the church displays a mixture of Western Latin and Eastern Greek architectural influences. Most intriguingly there are Byzantine bowls built into the outsides walls as decoration (which have contributed to the debate surrounding the dating of the church). The local priest showed up and let us inside to see the paintings and ancient spolia. Next we drove to the Argive Heraion, an Archaic sanctuary dedicated to Hera. The Heraion occupies a commanding position over the Argive plain. This terraced site was covered with blooming yellow wildflowers and swarms of bees. The site was excavated by the American School, and our trip leader Chris Pfaff did his dissertation on the Argive Heraion, so there was plenty of knowledge to be bestowed on us Regulars. This site had a long life, spanning from the 8th century BC to the Roman Period. It was administered by a priestess of Hera who served a life term. One infamous priestess, Chrysis, alleged caused the temple of Hera to burn down during her tenure in 423 BC when she flew asleep after having lit a torch, according the ancient historian Thucydides (Histories, 4.133.2-3). The successor temple was built on the terrace below. In addition to this temple on the middle terrace, there were various colonnaded buildings, a hestiatorion (a dining hall), and stoa beside a grand staircase on the third terrace below. Next we drove to Argos to visit the ancient city. We first went to the Roman baths which have a large portion of a vertical brick vault construction. This was one of fifteen baths found in Argos (a remarkable number). Then we walked a few meters to the ancient theater built in the early Hellenistic period. Unlike most ancient theaters which have a distinctive U-shaped seating arrangement, the theater at Argos had a rectangular one, as if the wings had been forgotten, cut-off, or lost. This plan, however, fits the contours of the hillside, and yet it was one of the largest in ancient Greece, holding nearly 20,000 spectators. Nearby to the south was a Roman Odeum, as well as an archaic sanctuary of Aphrodite. Across the street from the Roman Bath was the ancient agora of Argos. The landscape was marshy in antiquity, and so the land had to be drained in the late Archaic Period and maintained through a system of channels and pipes. In this area were various buildings of many periods, including a bouletarion (assembly hall), nymphaion, race track, a raised, colonnaded Tholos podium, a small theatral area, and a heroon (a hearth dedicated to the Argive warriors known as the “Seven against Thebes,” but was later associated with Phoroneus, the legendary founder of Argos). Our last site of the day was the Aspis Hill, located on the northern border of the modern city of Argos. Its name comes from its shield shape (aspis). There is a completely confusing sanctuary of Apollo and Athena on the western slope. It was a bit overgrown and difficult to make sense of. There is a humongous cistern, a stoa, and a Peloponnesian-style long altar. That is about all I could glean from the site. Up the hill further is a Mycenaean cemetery and fortification walls. On the walk back down Dr. Pfaff shared the story about how he broke his leg bowling (he will later come to join us for bowling in Corinth).
Day four was dedicated to the sanctuary of Asclepius near Epidaurus, but before getting on the bus, we walked a minute away from our hotel to the Nafplio Archaeological Museum. Here they have many of the great finds from the Argolid, including the Dendra Panoply, a complete Mycenaean suit of armor with boars tusk helmet (there is a debate regarding whether or not the armor was typical for battle or for ceremonial purposes [I subscribe to the latter]). After we arrived at Epidaurus, we hiked up to the sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas. The site contained evidence of occupation from the Neolithic Period through Bronze Age, but most of the extant architecture is dated to the 2nd century AD when a wealthy Roman senator from Asia Minor refurbished the site (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.27.6-7). Once we got back to the sanctuary of Asclepius, we first went to the theater. The theater at Epidaurus is, in my opinion, one of the best. It was built during the 4th century BC when most of the site was architecturally developed. It could accommodate around 14,000 spectators, and today it is host to the annual Epidaurus Festival during the summer months when they put on ancient and contemporary plays. Next we journeyed quickly across the whole site to reach the main north entrance where pilgrims would have entered in antiquity at the Propylon. Once inside the site, an ancient pilgrim would have stopped at fountain on the right and continued onward past many votive dedications and altars on their way to the ‘healing” parts of the sanctuary: baths, fountains, the abaton, the Tholos, and the temple of Asclepius. Asclepius was a son of Apollo and patron of medicine and healing. Part of the ritual of healing involved sleeping in the abaton (lit. “not to be crossed,” “inaccessible”) along with snakes sacred to Asclepius. Patients would then tell their dream to a priest of Asclepius who would then prescribe a treatment plan. Apparently, the process worked because numerous anatomical votive dedications of arms, legs, feet, ears, and breasts have been found indicating a successful recovery and homage to the god. In addition, several dedicatory inscriptions have been found that describe in detail the experience of several patients. These ought to be taken with a healthy pinch of salt, however, considering some of the shocking details (such as a woman giving birth after being pregnant for five years or a man being both healed of a headache and learning how to do pankration from the god and eventually winning at the Nemean Games). The Tholos is a large, circular, colonnaded building with an underground “maze” thought either to be an area for the healing rituals (i.e snake pit) or a simple storage area. The Tholos is currently being restored). From the nearby Temple of Asclepius an inscription recording a list of building accounts for its construction has shed light on the process of how ancient Greek buildings were designed and built. The last building we saw on our way out was the Katagogeion, a hostile of sort for pilgrims to rest during their stay at the Asclepeion. This massive building was two stories tall and had rooms surrounding four adjacent courtyards in a square. Lastly, we spent a few minutes in the site museum to lay our eyes upon inscriptions, statues, dedications, and architectural components of some of the ancient buildings. On the drive back to Nafplio, we pulled off the road for a brief stop at a Mycenaean bridge. It was more impressive than the one we had seen two days before. You could even walk under the bridge where an ancient river once flowed.
The next day was devoted almost entirely to more Bronze Age sites of the eastern Argive plain. First we stopped by the Tiryns dam. This massive earthen dam diverted a river that flowed through the Argive plain around the major Mycenaean palace of Tiryns. Because this dam changed the river flow, it also affected the way in which the ancient shoreline silted. I am still impressed by the level of engineering capabilities of the Mycenaeans. The next site was the Mycenaean acropolis of Midea. The site is perched on the top of a pointy mountain top. Bronze Age Midea was architecturally developed, not on the scale of Mycenaean, but it clearly shows a high level of organization as a settlement. The question remains whether or not Midea was subordinate to Mycenae. One of the excavation trenches remained open revealing a megaron-type room with a central hearth surrounded by four columns in a square. One of the most famous finds from the site is the so-called “Lady of Midea” figurine. Down about three kilometers away in the plain is the Mycenaean cemetery at Dendra. There are sixteen tholos tombs dotted over a small, low-lying hillside around the corner from a little church in the modern village of Dendra. The tombs date primarily to the late Bronze Age, but show evidence of destruction during the Geometric Period about six hundred years later. There are two fabulous finds worth mentioning here. The first is the Dendra Panoply which is on display at the Nafplio Museum (mentioned above). The second is the collection of horse burials. Three pairs of horses were found that date to the Early Mycenaean period. They were found in the dromos to a tholos tomb, and they were likely sacrificed in order to accompany their owner into the afterlife. Our next stop was the Mycenaean citadel called Tiryns near Nafplio. After enjoying a sack lunch in the parking lot, we entered the site. Despite the cloudy and rainy conditions all week, the sun came out for our Tiryns visit (there was no refuge from the sun at this site). During this toasty tour, we saw the massive fortification walls which range from four to seventeen meters thick. Overall, when viewed from above, Tiryns looks like a pointy bowling pin—two bulbous sections, one larger, one smaller, with a cinch at the neck. There are many preserved foundations for the various rooms of the citadel within the fortification walls. Our last visit of the day was a coastal site called Asine, a twenty-minute car ride southeast of Nafplio. Its harbor used to jet inland protecting the site on three sides from the water, but due to silting the land just to the north is now an orange grove. There were prehistoric (Neolithic and Bronze Age) materials found, as well as later fortifications from the Hellenistic Period. Most interesting, however, is that this little promontory was used by the Italians during WWII as a coastal fort. At the summit of the little site was a cave-turned-exhibit on the Italian occupation. It was another good reminder of the struggle of modern Greece and Europe more broadly.
We turned our focus on day six away from the Bronze Age to the Archaic and Classical Period. We drove north to ancient Nemea, the site of one of the four Panhellenic Games. The site has been excavated primarily by UC Berkeley’s Stephen Miller, an authority on ancient Greek athletics. Nemea was the site of one of the four Panhellenic Games in antiquity, probably the least famous in my opinion. Nine columns (six reconstructed) of the northeast corner of the temple of Nemean Zeus stand amid the ruins of various athletic, bathing, and lodging facilities. The temple was built around the mid-sixth century BC, and it can be associated with the traditional founding of the Nemean Games in 573 BC. We saw a well-preserved bath complex with stone bathing basins in situ, as well as various houses and a Xenon—a hostel for travelers visiting the site. To the west of the baths was the hippodrome where horse-racing took place. In between these two complexes was the open-air sanctuary of Opheltes. The myth of Opheltes is not as well-known as others from antiquity, and it is worth recounting here. Opheltes was the infant son of the king of Nemean. According to a Delphic oracle, Opheltes was not to touch the ground until he learned how to walk. One day men from Argos on their way to attack Thebes (the famous “Seven against Thebes”) stopped to ask the boy’s nurse, Hipsipyle, where they could find water to drink. She put Opheltes down onto a patch of wild celery and was subsequently killed by a snake. The Seven against Thebes killed the snake and held funeral games in his honor, thus inaugurating the Nemean Games. Thus somewhat strange story places legendary Argive kings at the center of a foundation myth for one of the Panhellenic Games, so this story can be understood as a propagandistic account legitimizing Argive control over the sanctuary during the Classical Period. The museum contains many great finds including one spectacularly graphic curse upon a man named Aineas from an angry former lover named Euboula. Just down the road from the site is where the stadium is located. This is where they recreate the Nemean Games very four years—the next one should be in June 2020. To enter the stadium, you walk through a tunnel about twenty meters long. It is quite dramatic to emerge from the tunnel into the middle of the race track. We held a race of our own, and I came in second again to my swift-footed friend Peter. Next we drove northwest to the polis of Phleius, or at least what little is left of it. All that remains of this site is some sort of colonnaded building with an open courtyard. The American School excavated in 1892. The fourth-century BC historian Xenophon once described the harrowing bravery, loyalty, and endurance in the face of great odds when the city warded off a series of attacks in the 360s BC (Xenophon, Hellenica, 7.2). The next two sites were a departure from our Classical-themed day. We first stopped to see some Mycenaean chamber tombs at Aidonia. We hiked about 15 minutes up a pleasant trail overlooking Aidonia. The tombs did not disappoint. There were several dozen scattered across the hillside. Some of the chambers had cist graves cut into the floor; others were connected to each other. Next we drove to the Zaraka Monastery near the ancient polis of Symphalia. All that remains are some portions of the walls standing over five meters high. This 13th century AD monastery exhibits features characteristic of a “western” style seen in the fragments of pointed arches. There were lots of bees nearby, which were perceptible from the buzzing in the distance. After having a brown bag lunch in the church, we quickly stopped at the remains of a monumental entrance that used to be a part of the defensive fortifications. The last site of the day was Stymphalia, a polis in Arcadia that dominated the same plain in which the Zaraka monastery stands. The acropolis occupies a large, spearhead shaped outcrop that overlooks what used to be a sizable lake. Now that lake is mostly dry, and during this time of the year the marsh grasses were all yellow. These waters were associated in antiquity with a labor of Heracles, who had to kill these birds who terrorized the Stymphalian countryside. The acropolis is overgrown with trees and sharp-leafed bushes, but there are several archaeological remains that are visible, such as a temple (of Hera? Athena Polias? Artemis Eileithyia?), sections of the 4th century BC fortification walls, a domestic quarter in the southeast, and outside on the plain below are the rock-cut outlines of the agora and the foundations of the Phleius Gate. This was easily one of our longest days, and by the end of this site the group was ready to get to our next hotel in Corinth. The food paradise that was Nafplio was unfortunately paired this trip with its opposite. Our tired and hungry minds and bodies were duped by Trip Advisor into thinking that the number one restaurant. The irony was that the number two restaurant in Corinth is named “Number 1.” It was a glorified Greek fast-food joint. Sure the food was affordable, but the quality was low. The boardwalk leading to the water and Number 1 was quite alive since Greece was gearing with for its Carnival celebrations which mark the end of the ordinary period and the beginning of Lent. Much better times were in store for us in Corinth.
The following morning brought gray skies and more rain that any of us wanted. We had been quite spoiled for our Regular year with great weather and only a hand-full of rainy days (p.s. this would turn out to be true for the remainder of the year). Our first site was the Hexamilion, a wall so-named for its supposed six thousand foot length that spanned the Isthmus of Corinth. It was built in the first half of the fifth-century AD by the Emperor Theodosius II. It was intended to keep roving Gothic tribes from entering the Peloponnese. It was constructed out of building materials taken from the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia, the Heraion at Perachora, and the part of Ancient Corinth. The wall was overrun several times in its history, although many leaders up to the mid-fifteenth century believed in its ability to keep enemies out. Rain began to fall during our stay, so we made our way back to the bus to drive to the nearby Sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia. Then the rain really began to pour. Our group leader graciously agreed to allow me to give my report of the Isthmian Games from inside the museum. The museum staff kindly offered seat pillows for the group to sit on while I talked. Isthmia was the last of the four Panhellenic sanctuaries which hosted games that were part of the Olympiad cycle. Games at Isthmia were held every two years like Nemea, alternating every other year alongside the Olympic and Pythian Games at Olympia and Delphi, respectively. Like the other games of the periodos (circuit of stephanic games), the early history of the Isthmian Games are fuzzy. The Isthmian Games were founded after the death of a child named Melicertes who drowned in the sea. His body was carried to the shore on a dolphin. Various accounts of the founding state that either Sisyphus, the legendary king of Corinth, the Corinthian tyrant Cypselus, or Theseus (of Athenian fame) founded the games in honor of Melicertes, who was later renamed Palaimon (“the Wrestler”). At the Isthmian Games in 196 BC, the Roman consul Titus Quinctius Flamininus proclaimed freedom for the Greek cities from Macedonian rule. The proclamation so shocked the audience that the herald who delivered the message was brought back out for it to be repeated. It was only a short fifty years later that the Roman consul Lucius Mummius destroyed Corinth in 146 BC. From then until Corinth was refounded in 44 BC by Caesar, the Isthmian Games were held in nearby Sicyon. The museum is somewhat small but contains many great things to see including a large, marble perirrhanterion (a round water basin from the 7th century BC), three gold coins of Darius I of Persia (likely spoils dedicated at the sanctuary from the Persian Wars), and terrific glass mosaic panels found at Kenchreai (a harbor on the Saronic Gulf near Corinth) dated to the 4th century AD. Many of the glass panels depict scenes of the Nile. These glass panels, which still have their color, were found in their wooden crates submerged in the harbor of Kenchreai. They testify to the artistic capabilities and scientific know-how of the ancient world. After the museum we drove to Kenchreai to see what remains of the harbor (the answer is not much). The rain was unrelenting, and this dramatically shortened our time near the water. There are a few remains of foundations that are half-submerged. Lastly, we drove south down the coast to Korfos, where there was a Neolithic settlement on the hillside. Group morale was low by this point, and our leader Chris knew that the drive to this remote site would not be worth the long drive. We stopped at a cliffside road across the Sofiko Bay to see the site from afar. The decision to return to Corinth was well-received by the group. Upon returning, I changed into dry clothes and rested a bit. That night we celebrated one of group member’s birthday by going out for bowling in New Corinth. The bowling alley was on the basement floor of an entire entertainment complex that they a billiards room and bar, an arcade, and a café. They served beer in a “beer tower”—a 3 liter beer dispenser that was a much fun to look at as drink from. I ended the night with the highest scores from our three rounds, as well as a sore glute for a week.
The rain clouds had cleared away by the next morning. This eighth day was devoted to the sites of the northern Peloponnese along the Corinthian Gulf. Our first stop was Sicyon, an ancient polis and modern town on the northwest end of the Corinthian plain, twelve kilometers away. The site beamed with fresh green among patches of brown dirt from recent excavations in the morning sun. Sicyon was known in antiquity for its kings and later tyrants, but perhaps most famously Aratus of Sicyon, who was a leader of the Achaean League and capturer of Corinth from the Macedonians in the mid-3rd century BC. Ancient Sicyon today has several archaeological remains worth seeing, including a theater (which you cannot get into), a stadium up above where the Isthmian Games were likely held from 146 to 44 BC, a gymnasium, fountain house, a large stoa, a bouletarion, and an Archaic temple in the agora. The site’s museum was built into an ancient Roman bath, and it is easily one of the best presented museums we visited all year. There were lots of tasty inscriptions in the courtyard to feast on. On a wall in the doorway between the first and second room is a 4th-century BC bronze table with a brief description of the myth of Melampus, Proetus, and the death of Iphinoe involving “maddening drugs” and the “wrath of Hera.” Ancient Sicyon was famous for its artists and sculptors in the 4th century BC, and many statues found in Sicyon are on display. A large mosaic floor lies on the floor of the third room, which also had many small objects such as an inscribed discus, pottery, and other finds. The next site was ancient Aigeira, a site occupied from the Bronze Age. The traveler Pausanias records a famous story in which the Hyperesians defended their city from an attack by putting torches on the horns of their goats which scarred off the enemy. They subsequently renamed their city Aigeira in honor of their four-legged friends. On the hill of the site there are several visible foundations of houses and other buildings. Nearby is the ancient theater which has its rock-cut seats and skene (stage building) well-preserved. While standing around the fence outside the theater, I wandered down the path a bit and found a marble inscription in modern Greek. It reads, “In honor of the Olympic victors of Aigeira – Ikarios – Kratinos – Nikostratos. The people of Aigeira. 9-8-2004.” Ikarios, Kratinos, and Nikostratos are known Olympic victors from Aigeira in antiquity. This monument was set up just a few weeks after the modern Olympic Games were held in Greece. This is a great tribute to Aigeira’s ancient past—I’m not sure why it has been placed on the ground in a place where few people tread. Our last stop of the day was the museum in Aigion, a seaside town a few kilometers from Aigeira. The only thing of note in the museum is the colossal statue of a male (Zeus?). You are not allowed to take photos of anything in the museum, as I was reminded after trying to take a picture of an inscription from the Hellenistic period. In any case, we lunched at a taverna just around the corner called “The Old Agora of Aigion.” It was a very homey place in the best way, with its fireplace and romantic and artistic decoration. The restaurant got its name not from being the ancient agora, but simply an old one built in 1890. After lunch we drove back to Corinth. Peter and I went for a six-mile run before the sun went down. We aimed to reach the Corinth canal, but the threat of wild dogs prompted an early turn-around. The prospects for dinner we bleak, and no one wanted to risk another less-than-awesome dinner. At the recommendation of the friend of one of our colleagues, we went to a fish taverna perfectly named Palai Istoria (“Ancient History”). Here we met our good friend Φανης (pronounced, fah-knees). Phanes and his wife cooked up the perfect seafood: horta, panzaria, skordalia, gavros, sardelles, kalamarakia. This meal was so good that we went there the next two nights in a row. It was the best possible thing that could have happened.
Day twelve began with a short drive to ancient Corinth where we spent the entire day. The first place we ventured was Acrocorinth—the acropolis of ancient Corinth. The steep ascent was no problem for Spyros, our crafty bus driver. The parking lot is not that big, and the cobblestone steps leading to the gate provide a magical entrance to the site. The fortifications walls that are still visible date back to the 4th century BC, but there were many additions and repairs made by the later Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans. These later occupants removed (or perhaps, rather, repurposed) much of the ancient building materials inside the walls. What remains today are three churches, two mosques, a fountain house of the Roman Emperor Justinian, and a few other architectural features. At the summit of the mountain is the Temple of Aphrodite. There is an ancient tradition related by several authors suggesting that there were sacred prostitutes in the Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth. We had a long discussion on this mountain top about the historicity and problems of the ancient sources for this much-debated topic. We all got back on the bus for the descent. The road going up and down Acrocorinth lies on the north side of the mountain, and it presents a wonderful view of the Corinthian Gulf and ancient Corinth below. Halfway down, we stopped at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore. This site has evidence of occupation since the Mycenaean period, but it flourished as a sanctuary for Demeter and her daughter Kore (Persephone) during the Greek and Roman periods. The sanctuary is most notable for its ritual dining spaces, blocks of houses on three terraces. Eighteen Roman-era curse tablets were found dating to the 1st century AD. Our guide for the sanctuary was Nancy Bookidis who led us through Olympia on Trip II and has published much scholarship on the sanctuary. She showed us a beautiful mosaic (which is normally covered for protection) bearing an inscription by one Octavius Agathopous who commissioned the floor. Having finally made it all the way down to the mountain, we entered the main site of ancient Corinth. Right away, you are struck by two things, the Fountain of Glauke and the Temple of Apollo. The Fountain of Glauke is notable because of how striking it is to behold—today it looks like a bizarre, cube-shaped rock with a doorways. This current look is due to later quarrying of the fountain. The Temple of Apollo has seven standing columns today, but as with many buildings and monuments in ancient Corinth, it dates to the Roman period (although the temple was built on the foundations of the older Greek one). There is some debate regarding the identification of the temple as that of Apollo. Rival theories include Athens and Aphrodite (but there is not enough space or time to discuss this debate here). To the north of the Temple is the road which leads to Corinth’s main harbor, Lechaion. At the end of the road nearest to the Temple is the famous fountain house called Peirene. This fountain taps into a nature source of water that originates near Acrocorinth which was used since the Neolithic period. Later architecture was added during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It consists of a series of six different chambers than open up to what was a colonnaded courtyard. These chambers were mapped by one of the former directors of the Corinth excavation as a means of coping with insomnia—he would go out in the middle of the night into the tunnels. The last site of the day was the Asclepion just a little north of the theater. Much like the Asclepeion at Epidaurus, the one in Corinth contained many anatomical votive offerings of human body parts (about 150 found so far). This sanctuary flourished during the late 5th and 4th centuries, but there was a period of revival during the Roman period. With that, we hoped back on the bus to New Corinth. Peter and I went for a run and got rained on a little bit. We consoled ourselves with another visit to our friend Phanes for another awesome fish dinner.
The last full day of the trip was full of more Corinthian delights. Our first stop was the Lechaion harbor. Not much architecture from antiquity remains here since the shoreline has changed so much. The now marshy area is still home, however, to a Christian basilica that is 180 meters long. We attempted to reach the basilica, but we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on the wrong side of a fence. We could see the foundations of the basilica, but it was clear that the water level would have prevented up from getting very close anyway. We returned to ancient Corinth to explore the Roman forum. As mentioned above, Corinth was completely destroyed by the Roman general Mummius in 146 BC, but it was refounded in 44 BC by Julius Caesar, so most of what is visible today dates to the Roman colony. The Roman forum contained many small Roman temples, eight to be exact. The identities of these temples is a matter of dispute since modern scholars are unsure how to exactly assign names to the temples based on Pausanias’ description from the 2nd century AD (Description of Greece, 2.2.6 – 2.3.1). On the eastern side of the forum is the Julian basilica where many statues of the Julio-Claudian family were housed (now on display in the museum).In front of the basilica are the remnants of the starting block system (hysplex) of an ancient Greek racetrack—one of the few architectural remains to be found that predate the Roman destruction. The South Stoa formed a southern border for the forum, but curiously there are also a row of central shops that face north. In the middle of this line of shops was the bema (speaker’s platform) where the Christian Saint Paul gave an address to the Corinthians sometime in the middle of the 1st century AD. Christian pilgrims often visit to have services and sing hymns at the bema. After this we went somewhat quickly through the museum, and I did not take any pictures (maybe it was not allowed?) and could barely pay attention from the hunger of my stomach. The museum is definitely worth a visit. There are rooms full of pottery from the Neolithic period through the Byzantine and Frankish eras. In the central courtyard there are some fabulous inscriptions. The museum website is exceptional and can give more detailed info for my readers. We broke for lunch at the dig house of the Corinth Excavations, and they filled us up with delicious pastichio, that magical pasta, meat sauce, and béchamel flavor combination explosion. Despite the strong desire to take a nap, we pushed on and returned to see more things on site. The next stop was the so-called Frankish quarter—a complex of buildings from the period of Frankish settlement in Corinth during the 12th century AD. This area is just south of the museum, but it is usually roped off, so it was a special treat for us to get in and check it out. There are many foundations of houses and workshop buildings, nice cipollino marble slabs, and a large open, paved courtyard. This area also contained what is thought to be either an apothecary or hospital of sorts. This theme of Corinth being a healing center continues off of what we saw the day before at the Asclepeion down the hill. Out of the site proper to the northwest, a five-minute walk from the entrance of the main site, is the theater and odeon. The theater dates back to the 5th century BC and underwent renovations in the Hellenistic period and during the 2nd century AD. The odeon was built during the foundation of the colony, but it was refurbished by the wealthy, eccentric, billionaire-of-his-day, Herodes Atticus, during the 2nd century AD. It was later converted, as so many odeons were, into an arena for gladiatorial combat. Before the sun was going to set on us, we drove on the bus about five minutes to the site of Korakou. Located in between the western edge of New Corinth and the ancient Lecheion harbor, Korakou was a Neolithic and Bronze Age site on top of a small hill overlooking the Corinthian Gulf. The material discovered there by Carl Blegen and Alan Wace in the 1910s was central in the formulation of the pottery chronology of the Greek mainland during the Bronze Age. Beams of light pierced through the gray clouds, illuminating the blue waters below. Thankfully we made it back to the hotel before it rained. Peter and I snuck in one last run through New Corinth.
The last day finally arrived, and we had two objectives for the day: the Corinth canal and the sanctuary of Hera at Perachora. The Corinth Canal has an interesting history of failed attempts to achieve what some ancients believed was an impossibility. Indeed, it proved to be impossible until the canal was successfully completed in 1893, but not until hundreds of thousands of francs were dumped into this seemingly bottomless pit. The French investors went bankrupt in the process. Only a few years later, however, the canal had to be closed intermittently due to the dangers posed by possible landslides and erosion. Several ancient dreamers allegedly considered making a canal: the Corinthian tyrant Periander, the Macedonian king Demetrius Poliocetes, Julius Caesar, and the Roman emperor Caligula. There is an amusing story told that the Egyptian engineers of Caligula feared that the canal could not be completed, for they believed that since the Corinthian Gulf was higher than the Saronic Gulf, water would flood into the Saronic Gulf and the island of Aegina would be submerged! Such a theory did not deter the Emperor Nero, who was actually the first person to initiate its construction in 67 AD, but he too did not complete it (mostly because he was assassinated). We examined some architectural remains on the south-western corner of the canal, including what appears to be an ancient dock for ships and part of a tower. As we explored, a container ship approached the canal and safely passed through, much to the chagrin of cars on either side of the canal that had to wait almost fifteen minutes for the maneuver to be completed and the submersible bridge to be raised. Perachora is a remote sanctuary located on the westernmost tip of a promontory north of Corinth that forms the northern boundary of the Bay of Corinth. It took almost an hour and a half for the bus to reach the sanctuary, and the winding roads made a perfect storm for a nap. Once on the site, you are immediately taken by the beauty and solitude of the sanctuary looking south at Corinth. The sanctuary is near the water, and the view from above is breathtaking. There are two main areas of the sanctuary. The first, lower portion nearest to the water contains a western paved courtyard, the 6th century BC Temple of Hera Akraia, an altar, and an L-shaped stoa from the Hellenistic Period. These three buildings face a tiny little bay that looked great for swimming but was far too cold for anything enjoyable like that. The upper part of the sanctuary had several large cisterns, a hestiatorion (dining hall), various series of walls, and a hearth building. One of the most curious finds at this site were various Egyptian objects from the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt (ca. 1650-1550 BC). The hundreds of scarabs and faience objects were found in Iron Age contexts at Perachora, meaning that these precious items circulated for over six hundred years before being deposited in a Greek sanctuary. At the very tip of the promontory is a lighthouse which was where a Greek TV series called Faros (“Lighthouse”) was filmed. It is no wonder that a lighthouse was needy for this part of the Isthmus since the wind can get very strong, as it was for us during our visit. The walk to the lighthouse is short and very worth the photo opportunities of the site and the gulf. We left the site and stopped at a fish taverna on the small bay called Limni Vouliagmenis to celebrate the end of the trip before going back to Athens. We saw a worker tenderizing octopus tentacles on a rock and then hanging them to dry on a line just outside. Mahlzeit.
We made the two-hour drive back to Athens. It sure was nice to be back in Athens again. Clean Monday was a few days later. Before we knew it, it was back to the regular schedule of the winter term, but there were more great trips in store for us.
One Comment Add yours
This is a really nice and very informative post. Thanks for sharing.
Also, may I suggest and interesting hike from Epidaurus (Epidavros) till the ancient theatre of Epidaurus/Sanctuary of Askplepios?
Check this link: