Mainland Greece in October-November 2020

Old Nov 17th, 2020, 08:48 AM
  #1  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Mainland Greece in October-November 2020

Trip Summary

We’re an elderly but still adventurous Canadian couple who have always traveled a lot. We’re cautious about Covid but unwilling to let it curtail what we most enjoy in life, which is exploring other countries. We felt that with careful planning and constant vigilance, we could minimize risks and travel through Greece in comparative safety.

We flew from Montreal to Athens and back on Aeroplan points and spent close to three weeks (October 15 to November 3) traveling the Greek mainland. We traveled mostly in the Peloponnese but with stays in Delphi (one night) and Athens (four nights).

We picked up a car on arrival at Athens airport and dropped it off before proceeding to our rental in the downtown Monastiraki district.

While our trip was an overwhelming success, we had some sharp lessons in the unpredictability of travel in Covid times. Both our outbound and inbound flights on Swiss airlines were cancelled, presumably for lack of passengers,

Happily, the fact that it was an Aeroplan rewards flight meant it was easy to find new flights with Star Alliance partners. We were rebooked on Air Canada both times; our departures on both outbound and inbound trips were delayed by a day. As well, the EU dropped Canada from its “Safe Countries” list while we were abroad, which meant we could not have entered Zurich on our return trip. (Switzerland is not EU but follows EU guidance.) The Swiss airlines cancellation made that moot, as we were re-routed through Paris CDG.

Takeaway lesson: If your circumstances are not flexible or you’re unwilling to make adjustments with zero notice, it’s probably better to stay home until things settle down.

We enjoy dramatic landscape and historic sites. After a delightful experience in September in the Canadian Rockies, we were both keen to try some safe but (to us) challenging climbs. The Greek mainland and Athens itself fulfilled all our expectations on those scores. We were also blessed with great weather – only one real day of rain in nearly three weeks, a rarity in that season. Daily high temperatures averaged 22-26 C, which is low to mid-seventies on the Fahrenheit scale.
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 09:13 AM
  #2  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Where we stayed

Our accommodation was a mix of short-term house/ apartment rentals, booked through Booking .com and Air Bnb, plus high-quality resort hotels. The rentals allowed us to provide our own meals rather than relying always on restaurants – just one element of our strategy of minimizing unwise contact with strangers.

The hotel bookings were generally made direct with the hotel, which is where I found the best prices and the greatest ability to specify the precise accommodation I wanted. In one case, I found a lower price on Booking .com than on the hotel’s own site, though the latter offers a “best-price guarantee”, I didn’t bother arguing that one with the hotel management – I just went ahead and reserved through Booking.

Here’s the list of where we stayed. I’ve attached a detailed description of each property at the end of this Report:

Fri Oct 16, Sat Oct 17, Sun Oct 18:

Meli Seaside Villas, Eparchiaki, on the Odos Rizomilou-Koronis, near the village of Khránoi (between Koroni and Kalamata, in the far western part of the Peloponnese)

Mon Oct 19, Tues Oct 20, Wed Oct 21:

Akrolithi Boutique Hotel, Suite Petrobeys. Technically in Oitylo but overlooking the better-known resort town of Limeni, on the western shore of the untamed Outer Mani

Thurs Oct 22, Fri Oct 23, Sat Oct 24:

Mystras Grand Palace Resort, Premium Double Room w/ mountain view + half-board. Just outside the town of Sparta, 15 minutes from the historic Byzantine site of Mystras

Sun Oct 25, Mon Oct 26:

Kinsterna Hotel. Agios Stefanos near Monemvasia. Junior Suite.

Tues Oct 27, Wed Oct 28:

Lestel 1 Eco-chic Apartment, Moschonisiotou 3, Nafplio

Thurs Oct 29:

Nidimos Hotel, Dimou Fragkou 10, in the core of the small town of Delphi

Fri Oct 30, Sat 31, Sun Nov 1, Mon Nov. 2:

Air Bnb: Apartment “Groovy”, 8th floor, Plateia Agion Theodoron 6, Athens. Managed by Stylish Stays: Akadimias 4, Athens

tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 09:15 AM
  #3  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Day 1- Arrival at Athens airport and drive to Meli Seaside Villas

We flew direct to Athens from a very empty Montreal airport (YUL) on a very empty Air Canada dreamliner. It’s a great plane and its business class seating is the best Air Canada offers. During the pandemic, however, business class flying is a pretty stripped-down affair. YUL lounges are closed. Meal and drink service on-board is Spartan – food comes in a cardboard box and table linen and metal cutlery are a thing of the past. With flights being so empty in all classes, I queried whether there’s enough difference in the business class product – apart from the lie-flat seat – to justify the huge premium one pays.

Greece has adopted the Personal Locator Form for controlling arrivals. You fill out your electronic form, one per family or group of travelers, and submit it online at least a day before traveling. At midnight of the day of your arrival (it was 5 PM Montreal time), the system generates a unique code that you present on arrival. Codes starting with an odd number mean you are likely to be sent for a test; even numbers mean you likely won’t be.

As we were among the first off the plane, there was no line-up when we reached the control point. My husband R was sent for a throat-swab test – it took about 3 minutes – and then we proceeded swiftly and smoothly through Immigration. If your test result is negative, you never hear your result. If it is positive, you will be contacted and required to quarantine, which the government pays for.

I was sure we were not infected, since we were living virtually “in quarantine” at our remote lake house, so I had no fears on that score. But I admit I’d never considered the possibility that a fellow passenger who tested positive could ruin our holiday. Greece’s websites aren’t clear on the subject. On a traveler forum, I’ve read that the government normally quarantines the members of the infected passenger’s group of travelers, MAY quarantine passengers seated in the passenger’s immediate vicinity, and has discretionary authority to quarantine the entire planeload of passengers.

Inside the secure zone, ATH was as empty as YUL had been. In a deserted baggage hall, our luggage arrived almost instantly. In the main arrivals hall, things were busier. We made our way outside to the car rental area, where we collected our little Toyota Yaris. From the airport, which lies east of the city, you quickly pick up the toll road that arcs around the city.

Soon we were in the suburbs and heading west on the A6 motorway through a flat landscape of light industry, oil refineries, distantly glimpsed tanker vessels and jumbled human settlement, toward Corinth, the first urban centre of the Peloponnese. Here, a narrow isthmus, bisected by the Corinth canal, is all that separates the Gulf of Corinth from the Saronic Gulf. Beyond lies the huge land mass of the Peloponnese peninsula, home of the Mycenaean civilization, ancient Sparta and much more.

My original plan was to spend a few hours near Corinth visiting the ancient hilltop fortress of Acrocorinth. However, the last-minute cancellation and rebooking of our outbound flights meant we had lost 3-4 hours of sight-seeing time that day. We moved our Acrocorinth visit (it is not to be missed!) to the return leg of the trip.

Beyond Corinth we picked up the four-lane A7 motorway. The Moreas Motorway, which runs SE toward the port town of Kalamata, is recently completed; it is smooth, empty and very scenic. There are toll plazas every few miles; the individual tolls are modest but there are a lot of them and the cost does add up. In our jet-lagged state, we were glad to pay for the convenience and ease of the drive.

Though you pass close to Corinth/ Acrocorinth and Mycenae, the road largely skirts the key tourist sights and urban centres, of which there are few anyway. We were anxious to get past the uncertainty of traveling in a new country and to settle in at our destination. We did stop a couple of times to savour the view of rolling hillsides, dense pine forest and distant, barren mountains. Overall, we were content to do most of our sightseeing through the window that day.

At Kalamata, we left the motorway and took the small coastal road in the direction of Koroni. This is not a glamourous part of the coast; development is higgledy-piggledy (villas, smallholdings and olive groves, nondescript modern villages, the occasional shuttered seafront hotel).

Though I had plotted our destination on Google Maps and had even checked it out on Google Street View, we simply couldn’t spot Meli Seaside Villas. At a local grocery store, an obliging English-speaking employee called the owner for us and in a few minutes, Stavroula was there in her car to lead us to the Villas (they’re sited on an angle and tucked away from the road).

We settled in happily to our sparkling modern villa, admired the array of local products Stavroula had kindly supplied, then moseyed down to the deck overlooking the pebbly beach and the sea. Later on, we headed to the seaside tourist village of Agios Andreos for my birthday dinner – eaten outdoors at the well reviewed, unpretentious Akroyali hotel. We made an early night of it.
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 09:17 AM
  #4  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Day 2 – Koroni, Methoni and Pylos

Think of the Peloponnese as a hand with four fingers. Each is a long spine of rock. (The space between the fingers is like the webbing on your own hand – it’s a featureless, flat plain.) We were staying on the eastern side of the western-most digit. The region is generally known as Messenia.

The western coast of the Peloponnese, of which we saw only a small portion, is a well developed tourist destination. Along its northern stretch, the most famous destination is Olympia, site of the ancient games. In principle, you could see Olympia in a day trip from our base. My notes for the southern part of the coast state:

Located 17 km north of Pylos, the archeological site called Nestor's Palace is site of a possible Mycenaean palace. Nearby at the village of Hora/Chora is a small, very fine archeological museum.

See dramatic crescent-shaped Voidikilia Beach in Pylos.

Hire a boat to visit bay of Pylos/ Gialova.

Off the Pylos-Kalamata road: Polylimnio waterfalls with 15 small lakes. Tough hike down and back.

Koroni, Methoni and Pylos have Venetian castles

Special ticket package: €15. Valid for three days for: Archaeological Museum of Chora, Archaeological Museum of Messenia, Castle of Methoni, Castle of Pylos, Kalamata Castle, Palace of Nestor.

Castle of Pylos (plus related Pylos institutions)Full: €6, Reduced: €3. Open 8-20h daily except Tuesday. Methoni castle: € 3, Reduced: € 2. Open 8-20h daily except Tuesday.


The hours given are for October 2020. There’s a LOT of seasonal variation. Check times!

This was more sightseeing than we wanted to attempt in our limited visit of three nights/ two full days. My priorities were the fortified Venetian sites of Koroni and Methoni, the “two eyes of Venice” that safeguarded the Serene Republic’s local holdings.

Though these two sites are commonly referred to as Venetian creations, there were settlements here in ancient times and fortifications from Byzantine times onward.

The Franks under Geoffrey of Villehardouin seized the region from the Byzantines (some Crusaders found it more appealing to plunder the lands of their fellow Christians than to fight the infidels in the Holy Land). In fact, the region of Messenia had already been awarded to the Venetians, who eventually showed up to claim it. Many of the surviving structures date from their time. At the start of the 16th C., the Ottomans seized these lands and held them with occasional interruptions (1685-1715) until the Greek war of Independence in the 1820s, in which this area figured as the site of a major naval battle won by the French fleet.

We encountered these names – and this pattern of conquest and re-conquest – over and over again in our travels through the region.

The two sites, though they were linked militarily and are only a few miles apart, could not be more different. Koroni stands on a sheer precipice above a bustling and prosperous port town. You climb though the town streets to reach an ancient gate into the enclosure, which is accessible free at all hours.

It is large in area; within its lofty walls, there are large stretches of open land including olive groves. There is a small monastery that you can visit if you’re properly dressed. The views from the walls are spectacular and the comparative emptiness of the space makes it all the more atmospheric, I found.

Methoni, by contrast, is at sea-level and completely dominates its tiny village. It is more compact, more uniform in its Renaissance handsomeness and very romantic. From a village street, you take a 14-arch bridge to the castle gate. Inside the walls, much has been destroyed but there are remnants of Ottoman baths and various military structures. Climbing the battlements yields impressive sea views.

The real gem of Methoni, however, lies outside these walls: it is the Bourtsi, a romantic circular structure – a place of ultimate refuge and sometimes a prison – that is connected to the main fortress’s sea gate by a stone causeway.

We did drive as far as the pleasant resort town of Pylos, whose fortified castle stands amidst fragrant conifers above the town, but we didn’t tarry there. As a shortcut, we headed home via a small back road that climbed and wound over the stony limestone spine of this westernmost “finger”, then unwound on our deck, facing the sea.
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 10:48 AM
  #5  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts

Koroni castle viewed from the town

Methoni land gate.

Methoni - the Bourtzi
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 11:14 AM
  #6  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Day 3 – Ancient city of Messene

For our Sunday day-trip, we drove inland – away from the tourist haunts on the coast – on well-marked roads to one of the region’s neglected gems, the ancient city of Messene.

Founded in 369 BC, Messene is nearly unique among ancient Greek cities, in that it was never destroyed nor covered by subsequent settlements. There have been losses with age, naturally, but the original grid pattern of the city is still clearly visible and the extent of and condition of the remains, especially in the huge stadium, is remarkable. Additions from the era of Roman rule blend seamlessly with the original Greek structures.

There were only a handful of other visitors the morning we were there. Visitors can wander at will – there are few cordoned-off areas and you’re welcome to clamber over the ruins. As the site is large, you may often find yourself alone, in silence, with these striking relics of the past. The view over the green Messenian plain to the distant sea reinforces the feeling of tranquility, dignity and peace.

My notes read:

Messene: € 10, Reduced: € 5. Open 8-18h. About one hour NE of our base.

One of the best preserved Greek cities of the Hellenistic period, from 370 BC. High valley, views to the sea.

Site + small museum: well preserved Amphitheatre and small Roman theatre, a large Agora with surrounding buildings, several temples and a host of smaller buildings, a Roman House with good mosaic floors, Asclepeion (healing temple) complex.

Two distinct parts, upper and lower (huge stadium in lower part).

One visitor commented: “I didn’t realize at first that we hadn’t seen it all.

Long walk back up to car park. Museum is outside the gate – it is small, can be visited in 15 minutes. Allow 3 hours overall.”


tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 11:22 AM
  #7  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts

The stadium, Messene.

Family mausoleum in the stadium.

Stoa of Messene

tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 11:41 AM
  #8  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Day 4 – via Kardamyli to Oitylo

On Day 4, we moved from Messenia to the second “finger” of the Peloponnese – the wild and mountainous region known as the Mani. This in turn is sub-divided by latitude into the Outer Mani and Inner Mani, the latter being the remote tip of the finger. The further you descend on the peninsula, the sparser and poorer the settlements and the more desolate the landscape. At the very tip is Cape Tainaron, the southernmost point of mainland Europe. The ancients built a stone structure here to shelter the entry to Hades – the point beyond which all human life ceased.

The culture of Mani reflects the harshness of this remote region. Over the centuries of nominal Byzantine control, there was no central public authority or government. Even the Ottomans, who ruled the rest of Messenia and Laconia regions for over three centuries, never really managed to assert control over the Mani. Kinship was the source of patriarchal power: local warlords, supported by their extended families, wielded a cruel authority over their local zone. Even in the 19th C., the size of a settlement was not reckoned by the number of inhabitants but by the number of guns it possessed.

Because of the general lawlessness of the region, where prosperity often depended not on commercial or agricultural success but on piracy and success in pillaging others, the architecture of the Mani leans heavily to fortified structures. In the north of the region, fortified tower complexes were the homes of the local lord, in which his extended family could take refuge whenever needed. In the south, the towers were communal structures, built by the whole family group to provide collective shelter.

Fifty years ago, there was no tourism here. Roads were primitive and most villages were connected by the sea, not by land. Today, Athenians boast of their little weekend place in Mani, and foreign tourists abound in a good year. But for many Maniot youth, there is still no year-round professional future here and departure to the city is the norm.

My notes on the Mani peninsula read:

Kardamyli has nice walking trails plus Old Kardamyli & the strenuous Vyros Gorge. Stoupa is very British, upscale. Further on, Areopoli (Oitylo) is start of the “real” Mani.

Diros caves – Popular in normal times but many complain that boat trip + underground walk is now severely truncated due to Covid restrictions, thus not worth doing.

In central Mani is hill town of Kastania (frescoes - R Steves).

Ruined tower village of Vatheia.

Entire Mani peninsula loop takes 8 hours.

After skirting the small sea-level city of Kalamata – whose hilltop castle looked intriguing but wasn’t on our plan – we started our climb into the coastal mountains. After forty minutes, we abruptly descended into Kardamyli, a quaint seaside village.

Kardamyli is known as the home of the late British travel writer, scholar, bon vivant and ex-commando Patrick Leigh-Fermor. His “Mani: Travels in the southern Peloponnese” is considered a classic. He left his home to the Benaki Museum as a writing centre. In normal times, it is open weekly on Mondays at 11 AM. Due to Covid, it does not currently open to visitors. The house is also rented occasionally, through Aria Hotels, to millionaires.

Thwarted by this closure, we settled for walking the cobbled streets of the old village, then visiting “old Kardamyli” – a local lord’s fortified dwelling, complete with Byzantine chapel. The chapel was locked but we were welcome to explore the old tower house, the olive mill and the various restored outbuildings. There is a lot of explanatory material on display: I leaned a lot about the region’s political history, architectural traditions, domestic life and social organization.

Back on the road, we bypassed Stoupa and headed to Oitylo and the Akrolithi Hotel. It was early afternoon and after settling in, I was restless and keen to explore. Did I know about the monastery just up the road? The owner, who lives in an attached building, would open it – if I found her in – for a modest tip.

Dekoulou monastery, now part of a modest farm property, is of uncertain date. Its foundation is traditionally ascribed to the prominent Dekoulos family; we know it was renovated in the 1760s. Its chapel walls are entirely painted with traditional religious imagery in the Byzantine style, though there is also a surprising circular work in one dome: Christ, at the centre, is ringed with the signs of the zodiac. I didn’t have a lot of time to look around the dusky walls, as the owner lounged in the doorway.
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 11:44 AM
  #9  
 
Join Date: Jun 2008
Posts: 24,561
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Very interesting TR, tedgale.... please keep it going! Good thoughts about possible covid "wrinkles" when traveling.
TDudette is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 11:49 AM
  #10  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts

Old Kardamyli
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 11:52 AM
  #11  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts

De Koulou monastery

tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 11:57 AM
  #12  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Originally Posted by TDudette View Post
Very interesting TR, tedgale.... please keep it going! Good thoughts about possible covid "wrinkles" when traveling.
Thanks. I think we have to be prepared for all sorts of surprises nowadays when traveling. In early October, Greece's numbers were still low, though gradually rising. By the time we left Athens, restaurants and museums were shut. A few days later, the city went into total lockdown. You need permission to leave your residence.
Our timing worked out providentially!
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 12:00 PM
  #13  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Days 5 & 6 – Exploring Inner Mani

We spent two days wandering the coastline of the Mani peninsula, both east and west. Traffic was light and, in the small tourist villages we passed, many hotels and restaurants were already closed for the season. To us, this was a plus.

There are few block-buster destinations on this route. Most of the charm lies in the drama of the mountainous landscape, the rapid changes of elevation and the constant shifting of perspective, as the turquoise sea vanishes, then reappears around the next hairpin bend. We were happy to turn spontaneously off the coast road, to swoop down to an enticing cove or a picturesque huddle of houses – or to check out a herd of goats grazing on a stony hillside.

Kelefa Castle, high above Limeni Bay on the inland route to Areopoli, was one of our first stops. This Ottoman structure marked the border of the regime’s control over the region; it may have served to keep the fiery Maniots in, rather than keeping others out. Today, it’s a picturesque ruin whose thick walls enclose a jumble of crumbling stone remnants and a wilderness of prickly vegetation.

From here, the road runs inland for a while – not much to see, apart from the picturesque village of Mezapos – then emerges spectacularly at the stylish seaside tourist village of Gerolimenas.

From here on, the sea views are dramatic. We veered inland briefly to visit Vatheia, a mysterious ghost-village of many high stone towers. Some of these are in an advanced state of dereliction but others, though empty – and herein lies the mystery – show clear signs of occupation and even modernization in recent years. How could a place so recently occupied be abandoned now?

Beyond Vatheia lies Cape Tainaron, the wind-swept furthest outpost of mainland Europe. In addition to the gate of Hades mentioned above, it has the remains of a mosaic floor, exposed to the elements, whose wave pattern denotes a sanctuary to Poseidon. A footpath leads the intrepid hiker to a remote lighthouse; we didn’t venture that far.

As well as dividing Mani into “outer” and “inner”. Maniots distinguish between Mani of the Sun – the eastern coast – and Mani of shadow, on the western side. The sun-baked east was drier, less productive and therefore (even) less prosperous than the western coast. Population on that coast is sparse and elderly. We enjoyed poking into villages nestled at the foot of steep, bare hillsides but facing a sparkling turquoise cove.

tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 01:24 PM
  #14  
 
Join Date: Mar 2007
Posts: 3,092
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
It's been lovely to reminisce about my last trip, which included many of these stops, in May 2019. I was planning on returning to the northern Greek mainland this May, alas no travels this year (the first year I have taken no trips since 2003). I definitely have it in my plans to return to the Peloponnese one day!
yorkshire is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 02:12 PM
  #15  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Days 7. 8, 9 – Laconia and Ancient Mystras

In choosing our route from the Mani peninsula to our next stop (outside the modern town of Sparti AKA Sparta), I made my only bad choice of the entire trip. We drove north toward Kardamyli, then branched off toward Kastania, an intriguing village much praised by Rick Steves for its many small Byzantine churches.

After some miles, it became plain that the route prescribed by Google maps had directed us onto a road that switched from asphalt to gravel – and then dwindled to a washboard surface suitable only for mountain goats.

As there was no other route east to Kastania across the limestone spine of the peninsula, we had to retrace our steps all the way back to the hotel, an hour’s drive, then continue southward to the main W-E route across the peninsula, which runs from Areopoli to Gytheio. It was a good, fast road through hillsides horribly scarred by recent wildfires.

Once out of the hills, we headed northward a second time, planning to make a half-hour detour NW to Kastania before resuming the road to Sparti.

We climbed a series of mountain roads – slow but scenic – to reach Kastania. And found it a tightly shuttered mountain village of no architectural interest whatsoever. Maybe there were Byzantine churches somewhere but I couldn’t find a single one. I learned later that “Kastania” (it means “chestnut”) is a popular village name in these parts. There are several. You’ll read about another Kastania we visited in a few pages, in fact.

I subsequently researched the place further but online descriptions of the town are coy about its precise location. Someday I mean to solve this mystery. But that day, we just climbed in the car and headed dejectedly to our destination at the Mystras Grand Palace resort outside Sparti.

What we should have done, I realize now, was to ditch the mythical Kastania and drive north from our hotel almost to Kalamata, then take the main Kalamata-Sparta road through the Langada Pass. We had balked at this itinerary because the owner at our hotel said that road was too frightening to drive. I also read the road has some unpaved bits.

Later on, when we had a free afternoon at our Sparti hotel, we decided to take a sundown drive on that road from the eastern side. After a slow climb through the dreary outskirts of Sparti, we entered a mountain wonderland. It was absolutely spectacular and the road was generally in extremely good shape.

It’s not a route for those prone to car-sickness and it’s a bit disquieting to have to swerve around small rock-falls in the middle of the highway. But the scent of mountain pines, the cool, crystalline air and the views of mountain heights, golden in the rays of the setting sun, were unforgettable.

Our priorities for the three nights/ two days of our stay were two Byzantine treasures, the famous Mystras ruins and its little-known twin-in-miniature, the ruins of Geraki. My notes read:

Mystras: €12, Reduced: €6. Open 8-18 h daily. Two entrances: Lower town and upper town. Start at the upper part and park your car there. Return to your care and drive to the lower city to finish visiting the site. Show your ticket at each entrance.

From the upper gate, climb to the top, the Frankish castle built in 1249. Within about 20 years, the castle had fallen to the Byzantine Empire. Walking downhill you pass through centuries of history. The site was the seat of the Byzantine kingdom “Despotate of Morea”. The last Byzantine Emperor was crowned here in the 15th C. Then it was occupied by the Ottomans and was liberated by Greeks in 1821.

“The recently restored Palace of the Despots, downhill from the Castle, is the finest example of royal Byzantine architecture left in Europe. Some Byzantine churches are in ruins but others still hold icons and iconographic wall paintings. The Pantanassa Monastery still has a convent. No uncovered knees for men, no bare arms for women.

“Also Peribleptos Monastery; Metropolitan Church of Hagios Demetrios; Brontochion Monastery; the Church of Agios Teodoros.”

“Geraki: Free. Open 8-15h.On a hilltop above modern Geraki village. Note that village also has Byzantine churches, which may/ may not be open.

“Exceptionally polite guards. Watch an 8 minute video at ticket office/ welcome centre, to grasp the basics. Byzantine atmosphere and glory. Meticulously renovated churches, with frescoes. Churches are locked and guards must climb from the entrance to open them for you – if/when they are free to leave their post at the ticket office.”

Mystras is huge and nearly vertical. The hilltop castle, which is still a fair climb from the upper parking lot, comprises little more than the old defensive walls and the shell of a few buildings. Views across the Spartan valley are exhilarating, however. From this point, you descend along well marked paths through a series of ruins. It may be by simple chance that most of what survived in the lower town are medieval churches and religious institutions. These have been painstakingly restored and are splendid.

The mid-point of your descent is the royal palace which, we were disappointed to discover, is closed for further restoration until at least 2022. You either love the palace reconstruction or you hate it. While it’s painstakingly accurate, I found the effect of the restored exterior a bit Disney – too perfect, with a consequent loss of atmosphere.

I felt only briefly cheated that the centrepiece of Mystras was closed to me. I decided afterward that I didn’t care in the slightest. There was more than enough splendour and mystery in the rest of Mystras. We spent six hours in total on this huge and labyrinthine site, yet were frustrated at the end when we found ourselves too exhausted to explore any further.

Geraki, 45 minutes away on a hilltop in the far eastern side of the plain, is Mystras writ small. (There are some minor sites to visit en route, in the bustling town of Sparti and elsewhere along the road, but we didn’t bother with them.)

A lot of money and effort have been poured into the restoration and development of Byzantine Geraki, we learned, though they average only eight to ten visitors a day in October. We were the only visitors when we arrived that Saturday morning, though we spotted a young hiker on the ramparts later on.

There’s a handsome new structure at the entrance, where you watch the explanatory video. Then the guide accompanied us on the long, slow climb to the fortified hilltop settlement, where she opened a couple of small churches and pointed us to a third, which stands open. (There are excellent explanatory panels in English and Greek at all the major buildings.) The richness of the Byzantine frescoes contrasted sharply with the austere and dusky interiors of the small churches. The guide, a very personable middle-aged woman, then returned to her office, and we spent a lazy hour or two clambering over the city walls, exploring a subterranean cistern (essential in case of siege) and wandering outside the walls into the scrubby, stony landscape around the site. There’s a second fortified area on an adjacent hilltop, where there is at least one other church to view, but we were satisfied with what we’d already seen. Nor did we try to see the ancient churches in nearby Geraki village, though they are apparently admirable.


tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 02:14 PM
  #16  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Originally Posted by yorkshire View Post
It's been lovely to reminisce about my last trip, which included many of these stops, in May 2019. I was planning on returning to the northern Greek mainland this May, alas no travels this year (the first year I have taken no trips since 2003). I definitely have it in my plans to return to the Peloponnese one day!
Glad you enjoyed it as much as we did!
tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 02:16 PM
  #17  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Days 10 & 11 – Monemvasia

On Sunday, we departed for Laconia, which encompasses the whole the third “finger” of the Peloponnese. From Sparti, we took the main road SE in the direction of Monemvasia, then diverted southward toward Kastasnia caves, our main site for the day.

We had earlier skipped the famous Diros caves, which are hugely popular but have drastically cut back on what you can see, due to Covid concerns. Kastania is less well known and certainly more remote from a tourist hub but proved a true high point.

The caves, in a mountain valley near the seashore, are open only at weekends in October. The usual alternation of English and Greek tours is replaced by a single tour on the hour, in whatever language(s) are required. Maximum group size is 10. We arrived to discover a Greek group of about 12, parents and children, waiting for a tour. That meant a wait of an additional hour until our turn. Remarkably, the guide asked the family group to wait while he gave a tour to us and a lone German. As the tours take only 40 minutes, I suspect he sandwiched in the Greeks between us and a subsequent group.

The Kastania caves were discovered in the early 1900s by a local farmer, who observed that bees disappeared down a hole in the ground during the driest weather. He reasoned that they had found a subterranean water source and enlarged the hole to get access. What he discovered was a vast underground cavern, full of stalagmites and stalactites formed by the accretion of minerals from dripping water. To avoid having to share the precious resource – the area is bone-dry – he kept his discovery secret until 1960. It took another 40 years for the local authorities to acquire the caves and develop them into a tourist site.

Development has been extremely sensitive: you walk on gangways that seem to float above the cavern floor. The effect is of a pristine, unspoiled natural wonder. Dramatic concealed lighting heightens the grandeur of these huge, ancient and colourful formations – some are translucent, too. Our guide, a former airline employee who spoke brilliant English, was a fount of scientific knowledge, which he stitched together into a varied, informative, entertaining talk that had us spellbound.

From there, we headed via scenic back-roads to the Kinsterna hotel, our base for two nights. We could have headed straight into Monemvasia, only 15 minutes away, but decided to spend the afternoon by the pool. You can see Monemvasia in a couple of hours but we wanted to do it full justice. Besides, a Sunday afternoon wouldn’t be the best time to visit this extremely popular tourist site.

The next morning we headed out after breakfast. Monemvasia is situated on a high mesa or table-top of rock, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. My notes indicate:

“The island was a refuge during the Barbarian Invasions in the 6th century AD and then during the many wars against the Franks and the Turks. Medieval city is divided in 2 parts: touristy Lower town – paved alleys, seafront and the main street, by which you reach the central square, with its church and cathedral. From there, follow one of the walking trails to reach the Upper city and the remains of a Crusader castle (the Kastro, with Agia Sofia church, old houses, cisterns and citadel) built by a Frankish prince. The path to the upper town is slippery so good footwear is a must. Lovely Agia Sofia church (closed on Tuesdays) sits right on the cliff edge with stunning views. Walk further up to reach cisterns and citadel.

You have two options when visiting: Park on the mainland and take the shuttle bus to Monemvasia; or try your luck at finding a parking spot on the causeway or right outside the walls of Monemvasia itself. We did the latter, aiming for a 10 AM arrival to coincide with guests’ departures from hotels inside the walls. It was still a 10 minute walk to the town’s gate. I’m not sure whether the shuttle bus is still running, now that Greece has gone into lockdown, but my notes indicate it runs every 30 minutes and costs € 1.20.

No private cars can enter the village’s narrow alleyways. The local deliveryman runs a shuttle service – a heavily-laden donkey – from the medieval gate where trucks discharge supplies to his business customers in the town.

In peak season in a normal year, the steep and narrow lanes of the picture-postcard town could be oppressively congested. On a Monday morning in the off-season, we found it delightful. There is remarkably little honky-tonk and tourist tattiness. Somebody has obviously exercised a severe restraint on the colours and materials used when restoring buildings, as there’s a harmonious visual unity to the town. A lot of money has also been spent in restoring the original defensive seawall and the stone walls that climb the steep hillside from the Lower to the Upper town.

While the Lower town is densely settled, all that drops away as you climb one of the steep, stone-flagged paths to the Kastro. You enter the Upper town via a medieval gateway whose stout oak door retains its original medieval cladding and spikes. Comparatively few tourists made the tough climb that Monday to this airy plateau. Inside the upper walls, we found a dense network of ruins near the gateway, but the development dwindled and low brush took over as I wandered further over the plateau. By the time I reached the domed Ottoman mausoleum, I was alone. The sea views from the sheer cliff-face were terrific.


tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 04:41 PM
  #18  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Days 12 & 13, Nafplion (often transliterated as “Nafplio” or “Nauplio”)

The fastest route to our next stop, Nafplion, was the least direct: Retrace our route to Sparti, then take the A7 toward Corinth and Athens. Before hitting Corinth, we would drop down to Nafplion, a seaside town tucked into the NW (nearest) edge of the fourth “finger”.

Retracing our route did not appeal. But neither did attempting the shortest route, which meant creeping along the steep and mountainous east coast of the Laconian peninsula on a series of small roads, some of them unpaved.

The solution was a compromise: Retrace our path as far as Geraki, then cut eastward through the mountains to the seaside town of Leonidio, from which point the coast road was modern and fast. This turned out to be an inspired choice. The road through the mountains, though twisty, was smooth and uncrowded. We had some spectacular vistas. The road took us past the 19th C. monastery of Elonis, which clings like a limpet to the sheer cliffside. Beyond Leonidio, the road rose and dipped; we zipped past the occasional opulent villa among the otherwise empty hillsides.

Modern Greek towns do not tend to the picturesque but seaside Nafplio is a real charmer. After the Greek revolution of the 1820s, it was briefly the capital of the new Greek state. In that era, it acquired some distinguished public buildings. It also developed – perhaps because of the influence of the French military, which supported the Greeks against the Ottomans – a decidedly French tone, reinforced by the “grid” pattern of the streets and by broad avenues and handsome squares. Even today, in the pedestrian-ized historic district, you could imagine you were in a large town or small southern city in France – say, Arles.

There are smart modern clothing and specialty shops and a lot of restaurants. The town’s international appeal is evident in the home ports of the massive yachts in the harbour: Athens, London, Stockholm. High above the town’s core is the Palamidi, a largely Venetian fortress that has guarded the town for centuries. My notes read:

A charming Venetian harbor town overlooked by two castles with a third, mini-castle (Bourtzi) on an island in the middle of the bay. Above the flat, seafront pedestrian zone, the old town is a series of ladder-like streets. Archaeological Museum, housed in a Venetian mansion, c. 1713, in Syntagma Square.”

Our one full day in Nafplio was the national holiday of October 28, known as “Ohi Day”. “Ohi” (“No”) commemorates the “emphatic No” delivered by the Greek government to the outlandish demands of Mussolini in October, 1940. The Greek refusal furnished Mussolini with an excuse to invade. The Italians experienced a surprisingly fierce resistance from the Greek army, whereupon Hitler waded in to relieve the faltering Italians. This ushered in a harsh and bloody Italo-German occupation of Greece that lasted four years (and, incredibly, until June 1945 on a few German-occupied islands.)

On October 28, all museum and archaeological sites are open free, so we resolved to make this our “big” day of visiting the historic sites that abound in the region. Unfortunately, it was also our one rainy day on this trip – but that didn’t greatly deter us.

We chose four sites: the Palamidi fortress, which stood just above our heads, though 1000 steps up from where we were staying; the fortified Mycenaean ruins at Tiryns, just outside town; the great city of Mycenae; and the famous healing centre at Epidaurus, home of the cult of Asclepius. If time and energy had permitted, I would gladly have added the ancient city of Argos and the Byzantine-Venetian castle of Larissa, both located near Mycenae in the modern town of Argos.

Mycenae and Epidaurus are so famous that I won’t waste much time describing them or assessing their importance. Here are my notes:

“Mycenae: € 12, Reduced: € 6 for EU citizens 65+ Daily, October 16-31: 08-18:00

Unique Bronze Age site, from 1000+ BC. Mycenae’s golden age was between 1600 and 1200 B.C. A great fire completely destroyed it. You will see:

The Cyclopean Walls – in legend, built by Cyclops;

Lion Gate, fortress’ main entrance, Europe’s first representational monumental sculpture.

The Grave Circles and 6 tombs, including Treasury of Atreus. The Golden Mask (wrongly attributed to King Agamemnon) was found here.

Also: Royal (Agamemnon) Palace; Tombs of Agamemnon & his wife Clytemnestra; Archaeological Museum (Many of the originals are in Athens)

Combined ticket €20 is valid for Mycenae (the Archaeological Site, Museum and the Treasury of Atreus), Tiryns (massive walls, masonry tunnel), Asini, Palamidi (8 bastions; normally €8), Museum of Nafplio, Byzantine Museum of Argos. Valid 3 days from issuance.

“Epidaurus: €12; same hours as above. 4thC. BC theatre for 14,000, plus the Gymnasium, Stadium, Tholos and Temple of Asclepios. All part of an ancient health spa, dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine. His sanctuary is considered the birthplace of medicine. Mostly in ruins. Small museum.”

On a purely personal note, I was less than overwhelmed by Mycenae. I recognize the city’s historical importance and its importance to archaeologists as one of the most extensive of surviving Bronze Age sites. It was 1000 years old when Athens was at its height. I was duly impressed by the gargantuan (“Cyclopean”) stonework of its walls: I can’t imagine how (or why) the ancients built with such massive boulders. The shaft tombs, Circles A and B, were intriguing examples of how seriously the ancients viewed death and the afterlife.

But on a dreary day, in a landscape badly scarred by September’s wildfires, the massive walls, enclosing a settlement and palace that are little more than a heap of stones, did not lift the spirits.

The big exception was the Treasury of Atreus, a massive, beehive-shaped tomb built with materials of immense scale. The doorway’s lintel was staggeringly huge: Imagine the builders of Stonehenge deciding to take one of that circle’s stones and raise it 15 feet into the air, so they could install it as part of a perfectly shaped dome.

Epidaurus has a much more appealing setting – lush and undulating meadows amidst pine groves – but relatively little remains of the original cult centre, apart from the beautiful ancient theatre. Again, a site whose historical and cultural importance outweighed its appeal to my simple human appetites.

Tiryns is Mycenae in miniature. Not much remains beside the massive Cyclopean walls, whose construction still baffles me. The Palamidi fortress, which is far more recent than the other things we saw that day, remains my favourite.

If I recall correctly, this massive Venetian fortress, which the Ottomans extended and improved, had a rather chequered military history. It capitulated to attackers more often that it succeeded in defending itself and the community that depended on it.

The Palamidi sprawls over a vast area, and the sea views from its eight bastions – each very different from the others – are tremendous. We watched in awe as a lone swimmer, far below us, swam tirelessly along the coastline, well out from shore. Fit travelers can climb 1000 steps from the centre of town, but we drove to a parking lot just outside the castle gates. I did, however, walk down from the castle, enjoying great views on the way.


tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 04:50 PM
  #19  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Day 14 – Acrocorinth & Hosias Loukas to Delphi

This was a busy day for us, with almost four hours of driving and two important sites to view. From Nafplio, we retraced our steps past Mycenae to pick up the road to Corinth and Athens. Just before Corinth, we exited the highway to take a small suburban road toward Acrocorinth. This ancient fortress – the acropolis of Corinth – commands the narrow isthmus that separates the Peloponnese from the rest of the Greek mainland. From its heights, you can view both the Gulf of Corinth on the north and the Saronic Gulf on the south.

Signage to the site was poor – we were well aware that Acrocorinth is the poor cousin to the more famous Corinth site. But Corinth was virtually destroyed by the Romans circa 170 BC. (From a distance, we spotted a few standing columns and some low walls and not much else.) I’m certain we made the right choice between the two.

Eventually, we found the twisty road that winds up and up to reach the site’s parking lot, from which the real upward hike begins. My notes read:

Acrocorinth: Free admission. Open 8:30 to 15:30. From Ancient Corinth, the winding mountainside road to the Acrocorinth car park measures 4 kms.

The site was fortified by the Romans and the Byzantines, occupied by the Venetians, held by Frankish Crusaders and, until 1821, a base for the Ottomans. Accessible only on its Western side, where there is a triple wall with three successive fortified gates. Most defensive towers and walls are medieval.

From the small car park, take the narrow access pathway to the first outer gate. There is a moat before the first outer gate, with cannon enplacements on the first and second gates.

Once past the giant third gate, one sees a multitude of buildings, sanctuaries, mosques and a Christian church, which has three wall frescoes showing through Ottoman clay plaster.”

On a mid-week morning, we were almost alone with the whistling winds on the dramatic, vertiginous site. The scale of the complex is enormous. The walls, which clearly show the hands of several different occupiers over the millenia, are generally in fine condition. Once through the three gates, we wandered freely through the ruins. Very little of the site is off limits, though it would be easy to do yourself a mischief climbing on some of the walls, which abut sheer cliffs. I was resolved to make it up to the citadel at the very summit, and I did. We spent about 2.5 hours here.

Back on the motorway, we left the Peloponnese and drove almost to the outskirts of Athens, then took a series of small roads northward toward Delphi. We passed through a great variety of landscape, from verdant hills to flat, open plains (imagine a straight, flat two-lane road with a 120 kmh/ 75 mph speed limit, on which cars drive four abreast!)

Eventually, we reached a modern highway through the mountains, which we presently exited at the sign for the 12 km drive to Hosias Loukas:

Monastery of Hosias Loukas: Open 10-5 daily but perhaps closed Mondays. Entry € 4; Reduced € 2. Near Distomo, 35 km SE of Delphi.

UNESCO site of 10th C with remains of St Lukas, plus important mosaics in two connected churches. See also the decorated crypt and the museum in the reconstructed Refectory. Instructive displays in the former cells of the monks, Other outbuildings to visit as well, eg olive mill. Hospitable staff.”

Hosias Loukas is a historic walled Byzantine monastery sheltered in a remote and peaceful valley; it is the largest of Greece’s three surviving Byzantine monasteries. The tranquility of the valley site was, to me, a large part of the monastery’s appeal. It remains a religious house today (so dress appropriately!)

It was founded in the early 10th C by the hermit Venerable Lukas, whose relics were believed to exude a sort of healing oil or perfume. Pilgrims would sleep beside the relics, hoping to absorb the healing effusions. The great wealth of the monastery came from the offerings of these pilgrims.

The first church in the complex, built in a mixture of warm-coloured brick and cool, grey stone, can be dated definitively to the 10th C. The attached cathedral church (Catholikon) likely dates from the 11th C. Both are highly decorated with marble, inlaid Cosmatesque floors and mosaics. The mosaics in the vaults and domes – some of the finest in Greece – have all been restored to their former brilliance. I found the effect of all this restoration a bit jarring but others might dismiss that view.

The monks’ refectory was badly bombed during World War II and has been reconstructed on the original plans. It houses a good museum, where you can study fragments from various original structures – in the rehabilitation of the monastery complex, these have been replaced with modern copies.

It was only half an hour from there to our evening’s destination, Delphi.


tedgale is offline  
Old Nov 17th, 2020, 05:10 PM
  #20  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 4,494
Likes: 0
Received 0 Likes on 0 Posts
Days 15, 16, 17, 18 – Delphi and four nights/ three days in Athens

As Delphi is on virtually every tourist’s itinerary, I won’t spend much time in description. This was certainly one of the most important places in the ancient world, an international draw even 2000 years ago. Very few major decisions were taken without consulting the oracle, whose obscure and often incoherent pronouncements were “interpreted” by a host of priests. This was also the site of many related events, including the periodic stadium games that rivaled Olympia’s in importance. The site flourished for a millennium, even into an era when Christian rites were practiced alongside the pagan ones. Eventually, though, the practice of consulting the oracle died out and the Christian emperors finally suppressed all activities at the site.

From my notes:

Delphi Archaeological Site: From 16/10 to 31/10: 8 - 18 (Last admission 17:45) € 12 full price. Includes the museum, which you can return to visit the next day.

Delphi was the “omphalos” – the navel of the world, as proclaimed by Zeus. It was also the site of the Delphic oracle and the home of Apollo, whose temple is the principal remaining structure. Rich and powerful petitioners flocked to Delphi, from the 8th century BC onwards, bringing fabulous gifts and erecting opulent monuments along the Sacred Way, a route lined with grandiose structures that climbed to the temple of Apollo.

There is an adjacent, very modern Museum, 500m east of town. See this first, to give context to the ruins? Best known objects displayed are the monumental stone statues of two brothers and the bronze charioteer. Museum hours may vary from the site’s hours.”

The mountainside setting of Delphi is magnificent. In cultural and historical term, this is a religious site of the first importance. Though many generations and many cities contributed to its construction, Delphi is a unity, with a single focus. That alone makes it unique. But what is visible today is fragmentary: a few columns of the temple of Apollo, the base of various monuments erected on the Sacred Way to commemorate victories or celebrate the donor’s importance; and the stadium high above the rest of the site.

Excellent panels in English and Greek explain what you are seeing and what it looked like in its heyday. The effect, though, is to compound the sense of loss: of so much grandeur, so little remains. This is also the only place we visited where the staff seemed irritable and bored. No doubt their patience is often tried by the hordes who visit in season. I’m glad we went back (my previous visit was in 1972, my partner’s was in 1961). I was duly impressed but the impact was cerebral rather than emotional.

It was time to get on the road to Athens, since we had to drop off the car at the airport, then find our way to the city centre. We retraced our steps through the picturesque tourist town of Arachova, cut across country after Livadia, then picked up a motorway north of the city. Refilling the car at the airport, we dropped it off in a matter of minutes and made our way to the Metro and suburban-rail station that is connected to the airport.

A word about the Metro link to the airport. In principle, this is a great way to travel that avoids any risk of traffic jams. It is reasonably priced, too – if you buy two tickets, they are € 9 each.

The M3 (Blue line) train is supposed to depart from Track 2 every 30 minutes, on the hour and half-hour. Ours did not: when the departure time came and went, the train’s listing simply vanished from the board, with no announcement. About 12 minutes later, the train showed up and speedily departed again for the city. It was a further 5-10 minutes late on that run to Syntagma Square – not a big deal when you are arriving. It could be a different matter when you are heading to a flight and the announced train doesn’t arrive.

Nowadays, every second seat on these trains is not in use. Accordingly, we grabbed two facing benches (four seats) for ourselves and our luggage. Behind each bench was a glass panel; our luggage effectively barricaded us from the other occupants of the carriage. But I felt distinctly uncomfortable with sitting in such confined quarters with other people, many of whom wore their mask over their mouth only. We both agreed we had made a mistake that we would not repeat on our return to the airport 4 days hence.

I had planned an ambitious program of museum visits for our Athens stay. But as soon as we arrived at our gorgeous 8th floor apartment with its killer view of the Acropolis, those plans started to go out the window.

I should focus on how we actually spent our time, but I’ve appended (after this section) my short-list of museums, most of which we saved for another visit.

Covid numbers were rising when we arrived in Athens; Athens was (and is still) the source of half the infections in Greece. After our mildly unsettling Metro ride, we realized we didn’t want to be exposed to crowds, especially not indoors. So – no restaurants, no large museums, no visit to the Central Market, no thronging sidewalks. My interest in the classical world is modest and we had already seen plenty on this trip; we were not committed to a check-list. We’d enjoyed the peace and solitude of the earlier part of our trip, so that is what we sought to reproduce in our Athens stay. It actually worked out quite well.

Athens is not a beautiful city but it has some beautiful, picturesque neighbourhoods, for those whose primary goal is to wander and absorb atmosphere. We allowed ourselves to get lost – briefly – in the Plaka. On our first full day, a Saturday, we spent a lot of time clambering around Anafiotika, that maze of picturesque white-washed houses and narrow lanes beneath the Acropolis. We also reconnoitred around the Acropolis, approaching from the South, past the Acropolis Museum and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Past the North entrance, we climbed that huge, bare rock (its name unknown to me) from which you have a tremendous view of the Propylaea and the Parthenon itself. Our route home to Plateia Agion Theodoron took us past the Agora and Roman Forum, which we did not feel compelled to enter – we saw quite enough through the railings.

The next day was Sunday November 1, so all the main archaeological sites were open free. We anticipated a crowd, so left our apartment at 8 AM to walk to the Acropolis. Although there is only one actual entry point (via the Propylaea) to the temples on the top of the Acropolis, there are two ticket offices, each with an entrance wicket. The south entrance is where tour buses stop. From our apartment, it was faster (and probably more scenic) to walk through Monastiraki on its pedestrianized main shopping street, then walk past the Ancient Agora and up the hill by the footpath windng up the North side. It's a steeper than the approach from the south, which is more open and grander, passing the theatre of Dionysos and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.

Our concerns about crowds were unwarranted. There weren’t a lot of tourists when we arrived and there were no delays. There is a certain amount of folderol about how you ascend – the objective is to keep people traveling in a single direction, so those arriving do not mix with those departing.

The level of construction activity on the Acropolis was a bit of a shock. We emerged from the Propylaea into a haze of concrete dust. Workmen were cutting noisily into a freshly poured concrete walkway. Everywhere there were massive cranes, scaffolding and clanking machinery. On the plus side, we were delighted to see how beautifully clean the Parthenon, the Erectheion and other buildings are, compared to our visits in 1961 and 1972 respectively, when Athens was one of the most polluted cities in the Western world.

We rounded off our day with a visit to the Arch of Hadrian and the Temple of Olympian Zeus – a temple larger than the Parthenon and only completed by Hadrian after 700 years.

Our final day in Athens was a Monday, a good day for museum-going. My keenest interest was for Byzantine art, so we chose the Museum of Christian and Byzantine Art. This is set in a handsome 19th C villa and garden, formerly the home of the Duchesse de Plaisance.

A 12,000 square foot suite of subterranean galleries was added in the 1990s. These galleries are the only parts of the property regularly open to the public. They are crammed with Byzantine art and artifacts from the 3th C AD to the 19th C. The museum is laid out with a clear didactic purpose – to explain and illustrate the culture and history of the Byzantine empire throughout its full range (including Turkey and Coptic Egypt) and to show its lasting impact on Greek culture. I enjoyed it a lot, though I wasn’t sure afterwards that I could ever look at another sad-eyed Madonna and Child or medieval iconostasis. A brisk walk afterwards through the adjacent National Gardens was enough to clear my head.

That left us with just a few hours to fill – a walk in the Plaka, a picnic supper in our living room, with the windows open to view the Acropolis – then bed and a 6:20 rendezvous with our Mercedes driver from Athens Airport Taxi (highly recommended).

As we sped through the Athens suburbs at dawn, I concluded this had been one of our most rewarding trips of recent years.
tedgale is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread

Contact Us - Archive - Advertising - Cookie Policy - Privacy Statement - Do Not Sell My Personal Information


All times are GMT -8. The time now is 03:45 PM.