Giant slices of chocolate Swiss roll. That’s exactly what the tumbled pillars of Olympia’s Temple of Zeus reminded me of. Granted, it was a hot, mind-frazzling day in the Peloponnese, the large, spiky peninsula that clings to mainland Greece like a stubborn maple leaf. But it wasn’t the temperature that sent my mind into the realms of culinary hallucination. The simple truth is that all ancient ruins need a healthy dollop of imagination – not to mention a certain amount of squinting, head-scratching and a good guidebook.
Fully prepared to indulge in each of these essentials, I had flown to Kalamata to begin a fortnight exploring some of the most important and antiquated monuments in Greece. When I arrived, my knowledge of archaeology was limited to a 50-50 chance of spelling it correctly, while my grasp of Greek mythology was based entirely on the 1963 film, Jason and the Argonauts. Nevertheless, the mind was willing and the hire car was waiting.
Driving west to Pylos, a coastal town overlooking Navarino Bay, I parked in the shade of a large plane tree and found an outdoor café in the central square. There was a calm, end-of-season feel about the place. A few local men sat at tables, sipping coffee and fondling worry beads, while a priest with formidable eyebrows ambled back and forth across the square. But they were not the reason I was here. My sights were on Nestor, a Mycenean king who ruled during the 13th century BC.
Further along, at the northern end of the bay, I followed a footpath that skirted the reed-fringed wetlands of Giálova Lagoon. A kingfisher flashed past, while dozens of crabs performed armoured manoeuvres in the shallows. The path entered sand dunes spiked with tall grasses (the only location in Europe where you can find African chameleons) before scaling a rocky slope covered in scrubby juniper and summer-baked herbs. It was like wading through chest-high pot-pourri. After 20 minutes or so, I reached the entrance to a large cave – supposedly the place where Nestor kept his cows.
As far as cow shelters go, Nestor’s Cave was impressive. It offered fine views along the Ionian coast of the Peloponnese – the circular bay of Voidokilias stamped like a disc of turquoise in the rocky shoreline. But hard as I tried, the concept of cows-in-caves just didn’t get me that excited about Greek ancient history. What I needed was a good old-fashioned ruin.
Fortunately, Nestor himself lived in a fine royal palace – the remains of which can be found 14km north-east of Pylos on a rocky bluff surrounded by olive groves. As you would expect from a building over 3,000 years old, Nestor’s Palace is now little more than an architectural outline of crumbling walls and column bases.
Wandering through this stony maze, I found myself in what used to be the throne room – a place that demanded some lateral thinking to bring it to life. While my brain registered ‘rocks, rocks and more rocks’, I tried to imagine fluted columns and walls covered in frescoes of lions and griffins; a round hearth and a throne inlaid with ivory.
There was one relic at Nestor’s Palace, however, that even I could interpret with ease. How comforting to discover that, even back in 1200BC, a bathtub was a bathtub – albeit a rather elaborate painted terracotta one.
Being small and compact, Nestor’s Palace was an ideal ruin for a novice, such as myself, to take the plunge into Greek antiquity. Ancient Messini, next on my list, proved far more challenging. It didn’t help that I frivolously chose a cross-country ‘shortcut’ from Pylos to reach the remnants of this vast walled city, which dates from the fourth century BC. I squandered valuable ‘ruin-roaming’ time trying to find my way through a tangle of back roads in the mountains of Messinia. I knew I was lost when traffic dwindled to an occasional donkey and the roadside verges became more verge than road. If nothing else, however, my laboured journey to Ancient Messini proved one thing – Tarmac is no match for time and nature.
The fact, then, that anything remains of 2,000-year-old Ancient Messini is testament to the extraordinary design and engineering skills of the early Greeks. Not only were the foundations of the settlement clearly visible from the lofty vantage of Mavromati village, but I could also make out some of the nine kilometres of wall and 30 watchtowers that once surrounded it.
Suitably inspired, I scrambled down the slopes of Mount Ithomi to take a closer look. Every footfall sent grasshoppers flickering through the herb-rich brushwood like electric green sparks. A buzzard drifted overhead in lazy circles, while lizards flaked out on sun-warmed slabs of limestone. Otherwise, I had the place to myself.
Ancient Messini is still undergoing excavation and, like most of the monuments in the Peloponnese, on-site visitor interpretation is virtually non-existent. I paused to consult my guidebook, then half wished I hadn’t. A map provided useful orientation, but the terminology describing the various buildings was all Greek to me. Soon, I was getting my ekklesiasterion mixed up with my bouleuterion; the Sebasteion looked like the heirothysion (or was it actually the Asklepieion?), and I was having great trouble with my propylaias, stoas and hecataions. Thank Zeus for stadium and gymnasium, two Greek words that I could understand. Ancient Messini has particularly well-preserved examples of both.
When it comes to sporting prowess, however, there is one site in the Peloponnese that wins hands-down. Ancient Olympia was inhabited as early as 4000BC, but only achieved esteem as a religious and athletics centre in 776BC when the first Olympic Games were held. Over 2,500 years later, the Olympic flame for the 2004 Games in Athens will be kindled here.
Reaching the birthplace of the Olympics involved a three-hour drive from Pylos. At first the road switchbacked through hills cloaked with olive plantations, punctuated by the elegant spires of cypress trees. Then, at Kyparissia, it dipped down to the coast and sped northwards, passing the sulphurous waters of Lake Kaiafa where, according to Greek myth, Heracles paused to clean his knife after slaying the Hydra.
Legends are also firmly ensconced in the origins of Olympia. One story describes Zeus and Cronus wrestling for the fertile prefecture of Elia in which Olympia stands. Of course, supergod Zeus wins and decides to celebrate by founding the first Games. Another legend has Heracles marking out the Sanctuary of Olympia and introducing the wild olive – a wreath of which became the Games’ traditional crown of victory.
Apparently Olympic champions achieved considerable power and glory. Even today, Ancient Olympia is pervaded by a certain sense of strutting bravado and male supremacy where few men can resist the temptation to ‘strike a pose’ atop a statue plinth or prostrate themselves at the starting line in the stadium. I was relieved, though, to see that no one went the full ‘Olympic Monty’ for the sake of a photograph. The custom of competing naked probably arose from a scandal involving an athlete’s mother infiltrating the men-only games disguised as his coach. Of course, she was promptly dispatched (probably off a cliff) and testosterone levels were restored. How prudish even the skimpiest of Lycra shorts worn by today’s athletes would seem to those original Olympians!
Despite the fact that Ancient Olympia has been stripped of many of its treasures (a magnificent collection of its statues, reliefs and weapons is displayed in the Archaeological Museums at Olympia and Athens), the site still conjures a vivid sense of the past. I couldn’t help but imagine the roar of a crowd as I walked beneath the archway leading to the stadium, while the reconstructed colonnade of pillars surrounding the palaestra (a training centre for boxers, wrestlers and jumpers) instilled a height and perspective rarely found in such antiquated, levelled ruins.
That, at least, was my impression before I went on to visit Ancient Mycenae. Driving across the Argive Plain in the north-east of the Peloponnese, the Bronze Age citadel reared from a rugged mêlée of mountains and ravines. Even 3,300 years after they were built, the city’s astounding Cyclopean walls left little to the imagination. In places, they still towered 12–15m above me. Post-Mycenaean generations, who had lost the ability to move such massive rocks (weighing an average of six tons), believed the giant, Cyclops, must have had a hand in it.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Ancient Mycenae once stood at the epicentre of the Mycenean world between 1400 and 1100BC and gave its name not only to a period in history, but an entire civilisation that spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean. It was here, in 1867, that archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, proclaimed, “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon!” – moments before it crumbled to dust as he lifted the gold death mask. Schliemann was actually mistaken (the mask has since been dated to 300 years earlier than any historical Trojan warrior), but nothing can detract from the overall feeling of nobility and robustness that Ancient Mycenae emanates.
Just when I’d finished grappling with one hefty statistic, another one sent me reeling. Take the famous Lion Gate, for example. The pair of sculptured (now headless) lions that adorn the main entrance to Mycenae are set on a lintel raised three metres off the ground and weighing 12 tons. An unsurpassable feat you might think – until, that is, you visit the nearby Treasury of Atreus (actually a tomb for a Mycenaean king) where the lintel spanning the entrance is no less than nine metres long and weighs 120 tons! The heaviest rock at Stonehenge (raised around the same time) is less than half this weight.
After the somewhat brutal solidity of Ancient Mycenae, the neoclassical ambience of Nafplio was like a soothing balm. Widely regarded as the most elegant city in mainland Greece, it is a fusion of airy squares and narrow streets choked with bougainvillaea and jasmine spilling from wrought-iron balconies.
I was tempted to while away my last few days delving into the coastal town’s craft shops and galleries and unearthing some edible treasures from the numerous pavement restaurants. But there was one last ancient ruin that I couldn’t miss.
Snug in a cluster of hills clad in pines and oleanders, the sanctuary of Epidaurus was established around the sixth century BC as a therapeutic centre dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing. As well as numerous remains, including baths, temples and a stadium, Epidaurus boasts the best preserved theatre in Greece. Ideally, you should visit with just one other person who can demonstrate the theatre’s near-flawless acoustics by dropping a coin on the stage while you sit 54 rows up in the spectacular scoop of tiered seats. Try not to visit, as I did, with a pursuing coach-load of Austrian tourists eager to practise their repertoire of Bavarian folk songs.
In just a couple of weeks roaming the Peloponnese, I realised with a guilty start that I had become something of an archaeological anorak. Yodelling just didn’t fit my newly acquired appreciation of ancient Greek history. Where was Zeus and his thunderbolt when you needed him?
When to go: During spring and early summer it is usually warm and sunny, wild flowers are plentiful and tourists are few. However, nights can be cool in April and May, and tavernas, shops and local tour operators may be closed. July and August are hot, busy and sometimes windy – although this period also coincides with the Epidaurus Festival when Greek dramas are held at the ancient theatre. By September the high season rush is over, but the weather and sea are still warm. October experiences changeable weather, but still a good deal of sun, making this a quiet and inexpensive time to visit.
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