22 -26 May 2019
With overnighting so close we were at Ancient Mycenae early and for once were ahead of the crowds. The cool grey morning was perfect for sunburn. It’s a difficult site to describe, on a small hill between larger ones overlooking the fertile plains of Argolis. An old city, it’s hey-day 1500-1200BC when Mycenae dominated southern Greece, but abandoned 1100BC for no known reason. Homer’s writings about Mycenae, accurate or not, are so enthralling the stories have worked their way into British classrooms, Hollywood films and the imagination of every tour operator. The first thing we saw were the “Cyclopean” walls and the Lion’s Gate. “Cyclopean” because the stones are so massive that the people who came later could only imagine that the legendary giants, the Cyclops, had built them. People entered ancient Mycenae via the Lion Gate so it was designed to defend and impress – it still does, despite their heads being missing.
The site revealed more at every corner. Inside the Lions Gate was a royal grave where the beautiful gold “Agamemnon’s Mask” we had seen the Athens museum was found (it’s actually older than Agamemnon and had preserved human face on it when found – yuk).
Carrying on up the hill through a network of ruins, accompanied by the now familiar sound of a strimmer, we came to the Royal Palace and it’s megaron, the grand reception hall set on the side of a sheer cliff with wonderful views where kings did their business.
The trail took us through the artists quarter and down to the fortifications protecting the underground cistern – the entrance begins inside the citadel and runs underground outside the walls some 18m deep to a natural spring which they channelled back into the citadel for a continuous water supply – very advanced for its time.
Back down we visited the small museum with some nice exhibits, but the replica Mask of Agamemnon made us realise why people value gold so much.
Back outside we found the Lion Tomb, the top of which was missing but we found the entrance and walls truly impressive.
We were about to leave – there were a lot of coach parties by now – but saw a sign we hadn’t noticed before near the entrance . That led to another interesting grave circle then to the really amazing Tomb of Clytemnestra – a huge, beehive tomb that made the Lion Tomb look small. Brilliant.
We found another couple of nooks and crannies away from the crowds but had been there over 2 hours and it was time to move on. We wanted to park down the road at the Treasury of Atreus but the 20 coaches on the main car-park made us dubious and when we got to the small parking area there were 4 blocking it completely so we contented ourselves with what we had already seen.
Too early for lunch, we headed an hour east to Ancient Epidaurus passing on the way a heritage sign to an “Archeological Place”!! which we found a bit bemusing given that most of Greece is exactly that. We knew Epidaurus was a “must see” but even we were shocked by the number of coaches and motorhomes on the huge car park when we arrived, particularly as we had passed about 15 leaving the site on the way up. Figuring they would empty out for lunch we paid up and followed the signs. “Ancient” Epidaurus is a lot younger than Mycenae but still old in our world – around 300BC. The signs pointed to a theatre and we climbed the steps to find a remarkable sight -a wonderful 14,000 seat stepped semi-circle set in the hill-side with a circular earthen stage.
Despite the presence of a large group of noisy teenagers we were a bit awestruck. 54 tiers of limestone seats and near-perfect acoustics. A young German couple broke into an impromptu operatic performance at one point – it sounded magnificent and tourists from the bottom tiers to the top broke into spontaneous applause. A lovely moment we suspect the pair will treasure forever. Climbing to the top reminded us of the temple steps in Mexico, and walking round the top made us appreciate how wonderful it would be to see one of the live shows they hold here – definitely worth flying in for. We were also impressed by how comfortable the stone seating seemed but they may feel different after an hour or so.
After the main event the museum was a bit of an anti-climax but it did give us an impression of what some of the rest of the site might have looked like. Epidaurus was a sanctuary to Asclepios, the god of healing from whom is derived the serpent and staff symbol of health organisations worldwide. Away from the Theatre the quite extensive site was quiet and well worth a bit of time. There are remains of the buildings where people coming for healing were accommodated, where they bathed, exercised, sacrificed and received the healing. We enjoyed it, but the bit about forcing the mentally ill to crawl through an underground labyrinth to a central pit filled with writhing snakes to cure them did make us wonder about their success rate…
There is some really good restoration work going on and the signage helped us a lot.
We had a late lunch in the van, marvelling at the couple in a small van conversion parked next to us, 10-15 years older than us with 2 non-electric bikes on the back. Good on them!
We had exhausted our list of ‘Ancient Sites to Visit’ for now and headed to Drepanon, just below Nafplio and after an hour we bumped down a narrow road to the sea, turned alongside the narrow pebble beach and followed our noses to Camping Triton II. We found a pitch, grabbed a cold beer to the sound of power-tools – the whole of Greece seems to be preparing for June – and settled in for a relax for 5 nights.
The site has everything you come to value when you are travelling – toilet seats, toilet paper (luxury), piping hot water in showers that aren’t limited to 5-second bursts, immaculately clean, good washing up facilities for Danny, a basic laundry, BBQ facilities, functioning WiFi, even a freezer for your ice! And a good taverna – what’s not to like….
And for those of you whose only interest in ancient ruins is checkin in on what we are up to, our archaeological exploits are on pause!