I think that it must not come as a surprise, but I love Greece. I love the history of the country as well as the food, people and language. Having lived there for a few years, I have been able to travel extensively through several regions and visit the archaeological sites and musea. In this new series, I want to take you on a little tour of Greece by looking at some of the nicest and most historical regions of the country. And what better place to start then the north of the Peloponnese.
The Peloponnese is a peninsula in the south of mainland Greece. The region is characterised by its immensely beautiful coastlines and mountainous landscapes, filled with archaeological ruins and olive groves. The Peloponnese has always played an important role in the history of Greece. This was the place where the earliest figures in Greek mythology fought against legendary monsters such as the Nemeid lion. Or where the Mycenaean kings departed from their fortresses to the ancient Troy. Even today, numerous traces of that past can be found on this peninsula. High time, therefore, to take a look at what this region has to offer the historical traveller.
The Corinthian Canal
The start of every journey in the Peloponnese begins with a visit to the Isthmus of Corinth. Since ancient times, this isthmus has been the only point where the peninsula is connected to the central part. Today, visitors can make a small stop at the Corinthian Canal. Although it was hoped to create a short cut since ancient times, the canal was built only shortly after Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830 and was completed nine years later. From the top of the footbridge, you get a great view of the canal. Of course, you can also choose to cross the canal by boat.
Not far from the Isthmus of Corinth, are the ruins of the city of Corinth itself. This city was founded in the 10th century B.C. and played a major role in the early history of the Greek city-states. In 146 B.C. the city was destroyed by the Romans, but in 44 B.C. Julius Caesar rebuilt the city and after the visit of the Apostle Paul to the city in 49 or 50 A.D., it became one of the most important early Christian centres. Today you can still see various remains of the city such as the temple of Apollo built in 7th century BC. Slightly above this archaeological site is the Akrokorinthos, a high rocky hill that served as the city’s acropolis in antiquity and the Middle Ages, to which it was connected by long walls. Behind the highest of the three gates you can see the remains of a city that was built and destroyed by the Turks.
The castle palace of Mycenae
Slightly below the region of Corinth, lies the Argolis. In this region you will find several interesting sights, but none is as special as the castle palace of Mycenae. Between 1600 and 1100 BC, the Mycenaeans controlled the entire region from here and it was the political and cultural centre of the Mycenaean civilisation. By the way, it was in this period that Homer’s famous heroes Agamemnon and Achilles set out for Troy to retrieve the Spartan queen Helena. The cyclopean walls and famous lion gate were excavated in 1870 by German ‘archaeologist’ Heinrich Schliemann (who had also previously discovered the remains of Troy). The city itself was composed of a fortified citadel and neighbouring settlement, which had its peak between 1450 and 1200 BC. Apart from the remains of the palace, two circles of royal tombs were found with an enormously rich gold treasure. Schliemann also discovered an impressive golden death mask that he naturally attributed to Agamemnon, but which we now know is much older than first estimated. There is an impressive museum at the site itself, but many of the finds are now on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Epidauros – the healing power of Asklepios
Another place of interest in the Argolis, is to be found a little more to the west: ancient Epidauros. This city was known in ancient times for its sanctuary of the demigod Asklepios. In this sanctuary, people came from far and wide to be cured of all kinds of ailments. From the 6th century BC, pilgrims could spend a night here in the enkoimeteria (the big sleeping hall) hoping that the god would cure them in their dreams during the night. It remained a popular pilgrimage site until it was destroyed by the Goths in 395. Today, ancient Epidauros is still a major tourist attraction because of its large theatre. Built in the 4th century BC, it is in such good condition that it has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Although it was not the largest theatre in the Peloponnese – that honour was reserved for the theatre of Megalopolis – it could hold around 14,000 spectators for all kinds of performances. The theatre is also known for its excellent acoustics, which may be one of the reasons why many performances and concerts still take place there today. Apart from the theatre, in Epidauros you can see many other remains of the sanctuary: for example the temple of Asklepios (4th century BC), the stadium where a sports event was organised in honour of the demigod (5th century BC) and the enkoimeterion.
A little more to the west of Mycenae, you will find Nauplion. This city was the first capital of Greece after independence and is characterised by its Venetian architecture. The city has been an important port since prehistoric times, but had a great period of prosperity in the Middle Ages. During this period, the city was controlled by different peoples – Byzantines, Franks, Turks and Venetians, but it was mainly the latter who had a lasting impact on the city’s architecture. The heart of the city, the Platia Syntagmatos, was built by the Venetians and they also built the Palamidi citadel between 1711 and 1714. This citadel is made up of eight autonomous bastions that fell to the Turks in 1715 after only one week of siege. You have to walk a bit, but the complex offers a great overview of the city and Argolic Gulf. In the middle of this Bay of Nauplion, you can see the so-called Bourzi Island, named after the Turkish word for tower. On this island, the Venetians built a fortress in the 15th century to ward off approaching enemies. After Greek independence, the defensive tower served as a prison and even a hotel. The city has a third fortress: the Akranafplio fortress. This is one of the oldest parts of the city: in ancient times, the acropolis of the ancient city was located here, but the Byzantines later converted it into a fortress. The combination of Venetian architecture, beautiful views and relaxed atmosphere has rightly made this city one of the most romantic places in the northern Peloponnese. It is certainly worthwhile to take a stroll along the embankment in the sunset and relax after a busy first acquaintance with the Peloponnese.