Tuesday, September 2

Steve: Well, we've certainly had some busy days on our trip, and this one ranks right up there. We decided to take a day trip to explore several towns and ancient ruins in the Peloponnese. Instead of taking one of the standard bus tours, we hooked up with Paul, a private driver who also turned out to be a wonderful guide. This turned out to be a great decision because we were able to visit many more locations than the bus trips cover. Also, renting a car was pretty much out of the question - we've been warned several times about this. When we spoke with Paul on the phone, he had a long list of interesting places we could see over the course of a day, many of which we had read about but not realized we could get to. He told us that as long as we'd keep going, he'd do the same. Sounded good to us!

Of course, before describing our accomplishments of the day, we have to again mention the heat, which even Paul admitted is pretty unbearable. The thermometer on Paul's car read 90 degrees at 9:20 AM, 105 degrees at 1:00 PM, and was still showing 89 degrees at 8:30 this evening on our drive back to Athens. I have to admit that we're kind of getting used to this, and I think we've done fairly well not letting the heat impact what we accomplish each day. We did see our first clouds today - I think we counted a total of three small ones! Paul said that in an average summer, there are only about three days of rain…

Paul picked us up at 8:00 in his shiny yellow Mercedes (not bad!), and our first stop (after fighting the Athens rush hour traffic for close to an hour) was the Corinth Canal. This is a man-made canal linking the Aegean and Ionian Seas. It is six kilometers long with walls over 90 meters deep (we've started thinking in metric out here!), and was first started in 67 AD by Nero. After several unsuccessful attempts, it was finally completed by a French engineering company in the late 1800's. Up through the 13th century, boats were dragged on rollers across the ground - that must have been quite a task. Today large ships can pass through the canal, but they must be towed by guide boats. The canal is fascinating to see, largely because of how deep and narrow it is. It's amazing to think about how much work it was to dig the canal into solid rock. Apparently there's a group that offers free bungee jumping off the bridge into the canal - they had several pictures showing people doing the jump. We're thinking about going back tomorrow to give it a try… (just kidding).

Next, it was on to the ancient site of Corinth, and the Acrocorinth that stands high above it. We drove to the top of the Acrocorinth, and visited the fortress on the top. The views were great, particularly looking out toward the Aegean Sea. We also marveled at the huge numbers of olive trees that we could see stretching for miles. The fortress was originally built in ancient times, but through the Middle Ages served as an important defense for the entire Peloponnese. Over the years, it's been held by a whole series of empires, including the Byzantines and the Ottomans.

On our drive down from the Acrocorinth, we asked Paul to stop so that we could examine our first olive tree. Paul gave us a little lesson about olive trees and the art of making olive oil. He owns 400 trees himself (it's a family farm), and explained that the trees live to be over 800 years old - then ones we were looking at were closer to 40-50. The olive harvest happens once each year between the months of January and March, and is done with ladders and large rakes that knock the olives onto nylon tarps. The olives are then bagged and taken to be pressed. Paul then sells the oil on a wholesale basis, much of it to Italian companies. He explained that much of the olive oil sold with Italian labels is actually made from olives grown in Greece - we never knew that. David was disappointed that he couldn't taste any of the olives - they are still very hard and green. So, instead he took delight in throwing the olives at us, and we had a fun little war (guess if you can't throw snowballs, the next best thing is olives…).

Corinth used to be one of the most powerful cities in Greece, next to Athens and Sparta. The ruins consist of a large agora (marketplace), but most are no longer standing. The Romans destroyed the city in 146 BC because the Greeks rebelled against Roman rule. There have also been several earthquakes in this region over the years, which have contributed to the destruction. The largest ruins on the site are seven (out of 37 original) columns from the Temple of Apollo. Even with only a few columns remaining, the site from the temple is very beautiful and we took some great pictures with the Acrocorinth in the background. We also saw the Bema, which is the spot where St. Paul spent 18 months unsuccessfully preaching Christianity.

From Corinth, we drove to Mycenae which is the oldest known Greek civilization (dating back 400 years). Homer wrote about Mycenae in the Illiad and the Odyssey, but the site wasn't discovered until the 1800's by the archeologist Schliemann. The discoveries made at Mycenae have been instrumental in learning about ancient civilization, and many of these are displayed in the museum at the site. We climbed up to the palace of Agamemnon, and enjoyed the great views stretching across the mountains. The most visible ruins are the Lion's Gate (a very impressive entrance to the citadel), and a grave circle containing a group of royal tombs. We also visited the Treasury of Atreus (about a five minute drive), which is a huge beehive-shaped chamber built into a hillside. It's is thought to be the tomb of Agamemnon, but its contents were all robbed before archeologists arrived. The structure is amazingly well preserved and is very impressive.

On our way out of Mycenae, we stopped at the "Mycenae Center", a wonderful shop that manufactures its own replicas of ancient Greek artifacts. They had a beautiful collection of ceramics, statues, mosaics and frescoes, and we couldn't resist making a couple of purchases. The shop owner explained how they create their ceramics using the same methods that were employed by the ancient Greeks. After quite a bit of deliberation, we settled on two ceramic replicas, one from Classical Athenian times, and one representing the Corinthian style.

From Mycenae we drove to Nafplio, a picturesque seaside town that is a very popular vacation spot for the Greeks and originally the capital of modern Greece. It was already 2:30 PM, and we were very hungry - lunch was the first order of business. We ate at a seaside restaurant, and enjoyed our first seafood meal in Greece (a nice change from all the Souvlaki that we've been eating). Before sitting down, we were taken to the refrigerators where all the fresh fish is kept, and asked to make a selection. In these restaurants, you pay by the kilo and select your own fish. We picked a couple of ugly red fish (we had no idea what kind they were) that we were told would taste very good, and asked to have them grilled. Before they were cooked, the waiter placed them on our table and took a picture of us all, just for fun!

After lunch we took a brief walk around the town - it was afternoon siesta time in Greece, so there weren't many people outside. The town is very pretty, and enjoys a great setting right on the water. Towering over the town is the Palamidi fortress, which played a pivotal role in the Greeks' War of Independence over the Turks. We drove to the top (instead of walking the 999 steps up), and enjoyed the sweeping views from the top.





Our final stop today was Epidaurus, which was a sanctuary for Asclepius, the god of medicine. There are several ruins on this site, but the highlight is clearly the huge theater. This is one of the best preserved ancient structures in all of Greece, and is absolutely spectacular. The theater seats 12,000 people, and is still used for productions today. It is well known for its amazing acoustics, and we were told that it's possible to hear a coin dropped in the center of the stage all the way in the top row. Of course, we had to try this - it worked!

The drive back to Athens took two hours, much of it on a very scenic road along the Aegean coast. On the way, we enjoyed talking with Paul about life in Greece - interestingly, he grew up in New Jersey but has been living here for the past 20 years. We arrived back at the hotel at 9:00 - tired, hungry, but very satisfied with all we had seen and learned today.

Tomorrow our flight to Rome leaves at 17:05 (we've also shifted to a 24-hour clock mentality). We'll spend the morning packing and have a few last sites in Athens that we want to visit before we leave. We also want to have some Gyros at a spot that Paul recommended for lunch. Then it's on to pasta heaven - the kids can't wait!

Distance Walked: 3.21 miles












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