Athens and the Peloponnese
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
I'm Rick Steves, taking time off from writing travel guidebooks to be your travel partner. Glad you're with us as we continue to explore my favorite corners of Europe.
In this show we'll see some the best Greece has to offer, both ancient and modern On the Peloponnesian peninsular we'll explore the ruined palace of the Mycenaens, check out the acoustics in the best-preserved theater of ancient Greece, savor a sleepy sun-drenched Peloponnesian port town and then plunge into Athens with its historic acropolis, ancient Agora and modern urban energy.
Greece lies between Italy and Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea.. Starting on the Pelopennesian peninsula we explore ancient in and around Greece in Mycenae and Nauplion, before heading to the sprawling capital of Athens.
But we're starting the countryside in the Peloponnese.
This little town doesn't have a hotel or even a post card. We're in Greece, the most touristed, least explored country in Europe. And there's not another tourist within forty miles of us.
Like most of the backpacking crowd, we sailed to Greece from Italy on the 20 hour ferry ride, one of many international boat connections covered by the Eurailpass. But unlike most backpackers, we didn't stampede straight into Athens. Given Greece's meager train system and our interest in doing some real exploring, we picked up a car where the ferry landed.
That gives us a chance to enjoy a bit of the Greek countryside — including a stop for a backgammon game in the unknown town of Agionori. This gentle rural lifestyle is an easy way to get our bearings in Greeece before tacking hectic Athens.
Our leisurely start gives us time to truly savor a few of the history-steeped highlights of the Peloponnesian Peninsula — beginning at Mycenae. When the Minoan civilization of Crete declined, around 1400 BC, the Myceneans became the leading Greek power, and this was their capital.
Unlike the Minoans who enjoyed the luxury of no perceived threat, the Mycenaeans were surrounded by real or potential enemies. So their capital was fortified. This Lion's Gate was the symbol of Mycenaean power.
This is old stuff. Remember, the Mycenaeans were a thousand years before the rise of Athens. They were as ancient and mysterious to Socrates and Plato as those Golden Age Greeks are to us.
When the Athenian Greeks came to these ruins, they marveled at the engineering. In fact, figuring no men could build with such huge stones, they thought this must be the work of the Cyclopes.
Throughout ancient times, Mycenaean architecture was called Cyclopean architecture.
Mycenae goes back to about 1300 years before Christ...the age of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Trojan Wars. The best of the Mycenaean art is in the national museum in Athens.
Modern archaeologists came to Mycenae eager to find the fabled "mask of Agamemnon." What they found may not have been the actual mask but a cultural treasure chest of finely worked golden art.
This bronze dagger — inlaid with gold and silver — shows a realistic lion hunt. Greek civilization was plenty impressive a thousand years before the Parthenon.
The Mycenaean's took good care of their dead. This passageway leads to an underground tomb. The Mycenaean's were famous for their corbelled arch. By today's standards it would be considered very crude, but back then it was state-of-the-art.
One way to judge an ancient society's architectural finesse is by the amount of space it can span with no supports. This doorway was about max for the Mycenaeans. The stones creep out to bridge the gap. A corbelled arch connects but it's not very strong.
Designed like a stone igloo, this "Tholos" tomb was for its time a spectacular engineering feat. It was the biggest dome of its day and it remained the king of domes until the Romans built the Pantheon about 1500 years later.
Nafplion, just a 30 minute drive from Mycenae, and about 2 hours south of Athens. It's the perfect base for exploring the northeast corner of the Peloponnese.
There are plenty of funky old hotels, a fine waterfront promenade, and the remnants of a time when this part of Greece was an outpost of Venice. The island in the harbor was the first line of local defense. The second line was on a mountain above the harbor. . . .
It's 999 steps above Nafplion to this 17th century Venetian fortress. Your reward is a grand view and a chance to appreciate the far-reaching power of the Venetian empire in its prime. The fort fell to the Turks in 1715, played a roll in the Greek war of independence in the 1820's, and was occupied by the Nazis for three years during World War Two.
Most people come to Nafphlion mostly because its close to some great Ancient sites. An hour east of, Nafphlion in the sanctuary at Epidavrous, is the best-preserved theater in the ancient world. Originally built around 300 B.C., by 200 B.C. it had been expanded to seat 12,000 spectators.
Each summer Epidavrous hosts a drama festival and puts on the greatest plays of ancient Greek civilization in the greatest remaining Greek theater...in Greek of course. Given the size and no microphones, the acoustics needed to be perfect — and they are.
In 400 BC, this town was a center for healing. People came here from all parts of Greece for its special
Friends, Greeks, travelers, it is important that we pack lightly for after all, what is travel if it is not a time of freedom. It was only in the age of my father when wayfarers would leave home with hard-sided suitcases upon wheels.
In 400BC this town was a center for healing. People came here from all parts fo Greece for its' special cures. The museum at Epidavrous has a collection of ancient medical instruments and remnants of the city's temples.
Dedicated to the gods of medicine and surrounded by hospitals and sick wards, this theater provided entertainment for those who made the pilgrimage here from all over Greece. It continued to operate until 426 AD when Byzantine and Christian Emperor Theodosius II ordered it closed along with all other pagan sanctuaries.
On the road again to our last stop before Athens. The Corinth canal cuts the Peloponnesian peninsula off from the rest of Greece. The Romans under Emperor Nero dreamed up this Canal back in 67 AD, but the French completed this three mile long ditch only about 100 years ago.
Ships bound for the Adriatic Sea save lots of miles by taking this impressive short-cut.
Our car served us well, but from now on our Greece is this big city and lots of sleepy islands. And the last thing I want; is my own wheels.
Especially with all our gear, riding a taxi in Athens is the best way to go. Be careful, when they see a tourist, many cabs suddenly become "special radio cabs," whatever that means, and they refuse to use their meter. Only use a cab who will give you the metered rate...and you'll ride the taxis in Athens cheaper than the subway in London.
We're staying at the plain and simple, family run Hotel Hera. It's air conditioned, has an elevator, and is just off the old town. A view of the Acropolis is a bonus.
Tomorrow we'll take the Athenian plunge. Tonight I'm in the mood for a little folk dancing and our guide book recommended just the place.
Greeks love to dance and any night the neighborhood under the Acropolis throbs with the happy sound of bouzaki bands and locals and tourists alike yelling oppa!
Retsina is a local specialty, and an acquired taste. Ages ago, Greek wine casks were sealed with pine pitch. The wine picked up its flavor and the locals liked it. Now they add the pine resin straight to the fermenting wine. I must admit, it gets better with each glass.
Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we sightsee. Athens is a huge and polluted city. See it but don't linger. 130 years ago it had a population of 8,000 people nestled at the base of the acropolis. Today its home to nearly 4,000,000...that's 4 out of every 10 Greeks...and that's a lot of modern, urban sprawl.
But you can ignore all the sprawl and concentrate on the center of Athens which has four great and must see sights: the acropolis with its temples and museum on top of the hill, the ruins of Athens' ancient market — or Agora, the plaka —a pedestrian zone where you'll find the best budget hotels, characteristic restaurants and shopping.
And, the National Archeological Museum which houses the cream of what's been recovered from ancient Greece. When you study up here with an overview, the ancient sites of Greece will be more than boring obligatory rubble. With a guide or guidebook you can trace the evolution of Greek art from the stiff archaic style to the balanced statues of the golden age to the wildly creative Hellenistic period.
The Greeks were really into the human body. That's explains why on a scale of 1 to 10 their gods always came in as perfect 10's. The Greeks idealized beauty. No individual features, just ideal ones. A statue was simply Kourous meaning boy, or Kore meaning girl.
Archaic statues like this one all had the same features: weight spread evenly on two feet, arms stiff at the side, shock-absorber spring hair, almond shaped eyes, high eyebrows, and the same quirky little grins. Archaic statues all looked like cousins.
During the Archaic period, around 600 BC, all the parts were there, but if it decided to walk, it would walk like a monster, stiffly with no understanding of the subtle interplay between the hips and the shoulders.
But Greek art evolved with its society. A short period about 450 to 400 BC. is known as the golden age of Greece, the age of Socrates and Pericles. Now the statues were more lifelike.
Weight is shifted believably as the statue can now stand in a contra postal position...That is, relaxed, with weight more on one foot. This was Greece's golden age...when its golden rule was the "golden mean", nothing in excess...everything in balance. And the art showed it.
But, in 323 BC, Athens subjugation by the Macedonians ushered in the Hellenistic age. The word Hellenism refers to Greek culture after its conquest.
Athens was no longer a great political power, but its culture was spread far and wide by Alexander the Great. This Macedonian king understood the greatness of Greek culture.
Greek Hellenistic art, like Greek Hellenistic society in general, lost its balance. Individualism ran rampant. It was the age of cynic philosophers like Diogenes and his followers, history's first hippies.
The art had a jump-off-the-stage exuberance.
The evolution of Greek art from stiff to realistic to emotional was echoed by Europe 2000 years later: from stiff Gothic to balanced Renaissance, to exuberant baroque.
OK! Enough museums and art history for now. It's time for a break. Let's head for the Plaka.
Remember, 150 years ago, this was Athens. A small town surrounded by big ruins, sitting on lots of history. The Plaka provides tourists with a wonderful way to cozy up Athens, no traffic, the best shopping in Greece, fine small hotels, colorful restaurants and plenty of folk dancing.
Greece isn't as cheap as it used to be, but the corner souflaki pita stands still dish up a great cheap snack. Slice up that lamb, toss in a little salad, sauce, and spices, and wrap it in a greasy pita bread...
Of course this little Plaka pedestrian zone is not the only people center in Athens. In fact, maybe this is just a clever place to contain all the tourists so the Athenians can enjoy the rest of their city to themselves. We'll venture out of the tourist zone later, but this path leads to the ultimate sight in Greece...Athens' Acropolis.
While all the great statues that adorned the temples of ancient Greece are now out of the acidic air and safely in the museums, the power of ancient Greek culture is best felt wandering among the remains of its temples.
"Acro-polis" means "high city." Like any acropolis, this was a place people came to worship on special religious occasions and for refuge when under attack. The Parthenon was the greatest classical temple in the Greek world.
It was constructed in the 5th century BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena. Her statue carried a gold tipped spear that, according to legend could be seen by ships from miles away. The Turks, who occupied Athens in the late 17th century, used the Parthenon as an ammunition depot. During a Venetian siege, in 1687, a stray shell hit it and much of what had survived for so long was destroyed.
Even so, seeing the Parthenon is an awesome experience.
The city's modern Agora or market surrounds the ancient agora. Nestled at the foot of the Acropolis Athenians have traded here for nearly 3000 years. This was the world of Plato and Aristotle — the age which laid the foundations for Western thinking about economics, democracy, and logic. The great ideas of this period continue to inspire Western thinking.
But we shouldn't romanticize it. The Athenian economy, like nearly all great ancient economies, relied on slavery. There were more slaves than citizens. So, the rich and free had leisure time to spend thinking.
The Temple of Hephaestus, here in the Agora, is a fine place to start our study of Greek architecture. This best-preserved classical temple in Greece dates from 440 BC. A visit here makes all the ruined temples you'll see a little more meaningful.
Greek architecture evolved as clearly as its sculpture. Like most tourists, I identify the three architectural orders by the capitals of the columns. While just the tip of the architectural iceberg, the capitals are handy indicators.
An early style, Doric, has flat simple plates as capitals. In the next order, Ionic, the capitals are decorated with scrolls. The final order, Corinthian, features boldly decorative capitals with fancy leaves and no apologies necessary.
How to remember all these? As the orders evolve, they gain syllables: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. . . . But for most travelers the agora is more than an architectural review. Strolling in the footsteps of Socrates, revisiting the remnants of the gymnasium and other public buildings, and contemplating the lives of ancient Greeks are the visitors best opportunity to commune with the great Greek past.
Now, lets travel ahead about 2000 years and sneak a peek at Greek chic. I never visit Athens without a wander through the Kolonaki district.
On summer evenings after dark, this is where savvy Athenians come to sip, shop, see and be seen.
For the tourist in Athens, it seems that all roads pass through Syntagma square. This is the visitor's administrative center where you'll find the tourist office, banks, travel agencies, airline offices, and parliament building.
Across Syntagma is the parliament building and the former Royal Palace. Before buying our tickets for the islands, let's check out the changing of the guard. On Sunday mornings, it's strut and bugle affair with lots of pomp and circumstance tossed in.
The uniforms of the Evzone guard are modeled after the traditional dress of soldiers from Eprius in the north of Greece. They feature a pleated kilt called a fustenella and wooden sole shoes with pom-poms. The ceremony colorful; it's free; and it's a fun photo op.
Like London and Bangkok, Athens is famous as a discount travel center. Athens' discount travel agencies or bucket shops are just off Syntagma square. These hole-in-the-wall travel agencies specialize in selling super-cheap plane tickets that airlines have put on the push list.
While their low rent settings don't inspire much consumer confidence, the tickets are legitimate. And those flexible enough to come into town not knowing exactly how they'll fly out, normally land a flight for much less then they could have booked through their hometown travel agency.
From Athens there are cheap flights to London, Cairo, Tel Aviv, New York, Delhi, you name it. With the help of guidebook listings, you can do a little preliminary research from the USA. In fact you can even buy a ticket from abroad on your credit card and pick it up when you get to Athens.
And getting a ticket to your favorite Greek Island is also easy to do near Syntagma Square. Athens' port is Piraeus - a 15 minute taxi ride from downtown. Piraeus, long gobbled up by the sprawl of Athens, is where you'll catch your boat to the islands.
Well, we've enjoyed Greece's main course: Mycenae, Epidavrous, and Athens with the Acropolis and great museum.
...Thanks for traveling with us. I'm Rick Steves wishing you happy travels.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.