Nafplio is the stepping stone to three of the most interesting tourist destinations. If you like to commune with the homes of the Gods and ramble through archaic ruins, these are the ones for you!
After an hour of pleasant pottering through attractive mountain villages draped with flowers, and surrounded with lush greenery and gardens, the bus turns into a tree-lined side road and pulls into the entrance of Epidavros. The ruins of this sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine, are hidden in tranquil seclusion. Guarded by gnarled pine trees and sprinkled with cypress pines and olives, back-dropped with rugged wild mountains, the foothills of Mt. Arahnes, the crisp air is redolent with aromatic pine and herbs. Here, the ancient (third century BC) Greeks came to be cured of their illnesses. It’s immediately obvious why Epidavros became the most popular place for a health cure. Just a mere respite in the peaceful surroundings, lulled by the chirruping of cicadas and crickets, the luscious soaring song of the nightingale and the soughing of pines, must have been a perfect restorative. Strangely enough, one of the famous curative treatments given here relied on the “lickings of snakes”, a practice which would have sent me running full pelt in the opposite direction. However, attention was given to special diets and herbal treatments, which sounded slightly more in my line.
The main attraction of Epidavros is, of course, the theater, which is one of the best preserved and restored in the whole of Greece. It still accommodates fourteen thousand patrons for festivities in July/August each year (bring your own cushion). After an uphill climb, one rounds a corner and there it is, just as it was in ancient times, set in a natural amphitheater, almost pristine. The whole semi-circle of tiered limestone seats fills the side of the hill, topped with a crown of dense pines and olives, like a frizzy hairdo. It’s a place of great drama. You can feel the vibes. You can see the ghosts of actors past, not literally, but in your mind’s eye.
It’s also a place of compulsive performance. The acoustics are said to be perfect, with every sound audible at the farthermost seat, and, of course, it is human nature to put it to the test. Last time I was there, with a group of six other Aussies, we performed “Waltzing Matilda” to the applause of other tourists! Tour guides, with various degrees of stage aplomb, proceed to demonstrate the acoustics by calling for hush and then dropping a coin onto the center stone. It’s audible right at the top seats.
Originally, somewhere amongst the ruins stood hostelries for pilgrims and patients, festival and civic buildings, temples, gymnasiums, bathhouses and shrines, but there’s very little except foundations and piles of stones to mark the once vibrant town. However, a considerable amount of excavation and restoration proceeds. The original stadium, a venue for athletic competition, remains, like a dried watercourse lightly dusted with green grass, its perimeter marked by six rows of tiered stone seats, still in situ.
Epidavros seems to stretch away to the far hills, the protruding stones and rocks awaiting another millennium of excavation. Over it all, the soughing pines whisper an accompaniment to the song of the nightingale – a truly blissful performance, worthy of center stage anywhere.
I’m particularly interested in King Agamemnon. From an early age I’ve been fascinated by the Siege of Troy. Here, at Mycenae (Mikines as the Greeks know it) you actually stand on the site where the good King, with his son Menelaus, and ally Ulysses, planned revenge for the snatching of beautiful Helen. Mikines has existed for so long that myth, legend, and history are intertwined, but by 1300-1250 BC and the time of King Agamemnon, it had reached its most powerful period, documented for eternity by Homer in his epic, The Iliad.
Walking up through the entrance of the huge Lion Gate is definitely an awesome experience, not to be missed. That it’s still there at all is fantastic, due no doubt to the inability of subsequent peoples to cart away the building materials. Towering on either side, the huge blocks of gray stone, stacked with superb precision, form the monumental impregnable walls of this Mycenaean citadel. The immense gate is supported by massive pillars and surmounted with the enormous carved stones of two lionesses. This grim fortress was the ultimate in defense. Brooding on top of a flat hill between two towering bald mountains, it commands a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside: a formidable presence indeed.
Very intriguing is Grave Circle A. (Grave Circle B is down the road a bit). It was a royal cemetery, but not Agamemnon’s, and some superb finds were made here. One can gaze into the depths of time, into grave shafts of antiquity. I wondered what those royals would say, if someone were to tell them people were staring into their graves 3500 years later. (A young man next to me was sure they’d say two words – piss off!)
But I was more concerned to climb the main path to the remains of Agamemnon’s palace and the Great Court. I allowed myself to imagine Ulysses and the old King with Menelaus, hatching the plot to rescue Helen from the arms of her seducer, Paris. To achieve this, they would have to sack the court of King Priam of Troy. What clanging of swords, what shouting of curses, what scheming and conniving and swearing of oaths went on in these halls!
The magnitude of the site isn’t immediately recognizable until properly explored. Determined scrabbling discovers dark passages, arched arrow slits, the ruins of artisan’s cottages, the Postern Gate and the piece-de-resistance, the secret cistern that held Mikines’ water supply, thus rendering it impregnable to siege. Water still lay there, deep down, turgid. Enclosing it all was the grim forbidding barrier. No peaceful soughing pines here, and no trilling nightingales. Just dark deeds and suppressed intrigue, fierce sun and bitter cold, somber stone and dreary confining gray walls…
Tiryns is another ruined Mycenaean citadel, only a short distance from Nafplio. There’s not a lot of info about Tiryns. It was purported to have awesome stone walls, in parts some twenty meters thick, constructed of massive stone blocks so large only the giants known as Cyclops could have built it. Indeed, legend said Heracles (Hercules) was born at Tiryns. If so, such sheer power behind those massive grim fortifications must have been inspiration for him.
The site itself is right beside the main road, easy to find. The ruined ancient citadel stands on a rocky hill, overlooking the lush green plain of Argos. In its heyday (1,400 BC) it co-existed with powerful Mycenae – some say it was the port for King Agamemnon’s mighty fortress. If so, the two cities must have been a force to be reckoned with in Ancient Peloponnisos.
Today, all that remains are the encircling walls, huge blocks of gray stone thirty feet high in places, some interesting storage chambers, foundations of buildings, and a gloomy vaulted arched passageway. In lower parts of the citadel, excavation and restoration work is ongoing, but inaccessible. When I stand in the remains of Tiryns I am always overcome with the timelessness of it all.
However, as Tiryns is nicely elevated, panoramic views stretch over the surrounding plain, the fields, olive groves, orange orchards, and scattered farms. Maybe Heracles once joined the Mycenaean guards to stare out over a similar view from the massive ramparts of their fortified town…
Next week we visit Sparta and beautiful Mystras. You can read more about my experiences in my eBook “Make Mine a Moussaka” available from: http://www.amazon.ca/Make-Mine-Moussaka-Helen-Ellis-ebook/dp/B00FQJ0KX2 )