Epidavros and Mycenae

Monday 5th May 2008, Tolo, near Nefplio
Yesterday I was ill. Generally we stay pretty healthy so we are not geared up to coping when one of us is ill. It wasn’t anything serious, being the sudden outburst of a particularly unpleasant cold and high temperature. Last night I was fit for nothing but curling up in bed and watching a DVD. During the night we both became unbearably hot and cramped in Modestine but as soon as we opened the blinds we were invaded by mosquitoes. Somehow they managed to breach our defensive fly screens. This is not a moan, it’s just to record that things are not always plain sailing as we travel around. I really expected to be in bed all day today and was worried about how Ian could amuse himself when there is absolutely nowhere to move as the bed occupies the entire interior of Modestine and we did not know where we were in relation to nearby shopping facilities or buses. Fortunately, and quite beyond our expectations, I have been unbelievably much better today.

Yesterday started fine. We left our campsite on the Gulf of Argos and drove to the ancient Mycenaean site of Tiryns, probably about 1500BC. This location is right at the heart of Homer’s Iliad and although today it is little more than a tumbled mass of ancient stones, there is a magic in treading the same floors as those ancient Greeks of legend. It used to be believed that Tiryns was built by cyclops, so huge are the stones and so thick the walls. Constructed on a hill that rises slightly from the rest of the plain it has a hinterland of distant grey bare mountains with the blue of the sea in front. As we were leaving a Dutchman recognised Modestine from an earlier campsite and stopped to tell us of another site he’s seen, not to be missed. So we drove to Lerni, a tiny settlement that pre-dates even Tiryns, prettily set in the middle of orchards of citrus fruits, surrounded by roses and wild flowers. Labels in Greek and English informed is that the mud brick walls were early, mid or late Helladic but by this time my cold was full-on and I didn’t take in much about the finer points of which was which. Ian says that they date from about 2200 BC, almost a millennium before Tiryns.



View towards the sea from Tiryns


Stopping on the sea shore for a picnic lunch I fell asleep in Modestine for two hours while Ian read. After that we found the nearest campsite and reconciled ourselves to an exhausting and restless night. There is not a lot of room to hide in Modestine but if you are the size of a mosquito it’s none too difficult. Just as we'd fall into a fitful doze we’d hear the inevitable whine of a hungry insect. Ian spend much of the night leaping up with his fly swat, gallantly slaying countless attackers, several of whom disgorged traces of our blood over the walls. Wobbling across the deserted campsite to the shower this morning, I discovered the friends and relations of our late, unlamented assailants, all lined up along the edge of the soap dish, knives and forks at the ready, eager for revenge and breakfast.

Today has actually been a lovely day. We drove along a beautiful, deserted, broken road edged with deep red poppies to Epidavros, about 30 kilometres from our campsite. Here is the ancient site dedicated to Asklepios, son of Apollo. He was a cult figure revered as the god of healing and is represented holding a staff, around which is coiled a snake. This symbol is still used today to represent the practice of medicine.
People would travel to the site for treatment where they would be cured during a drugged sleep when Asklepios would come to them in their dreams. The site was also the centre for the early practice of more orthodox medicine and in the museum there is a collection of surgical instruments found on the site.


Medical instruments found at Epidavros

Votive plaque circa 9BC, in gratitude for being cured from deafness, Epidavros

There is little more than a ground plan in ancient stones to show the wonders of the site as it would have been in the 4th century BC. It is on the UNESCO heritage list and much restoration work is underway. This is of questionable benefit at Epidavros. Using modern tools, techniques and gleaming white new stone, huge arches, columns and even an entire structure, known as the Tholos, are rising up in the midst of the ruins. It is obviously a reconstruction but in years to come it may well be impossible for an untrained eye to differentiate between the genuine and the reconstructed. The cost of such an undertaking must be phenomenal and there is always the risk that later evidence might show the reconstruction hypothesis is flawed – as at Knossos in Crete. For a fraction of the cost it would be possible to produce a scale model of the site as it would have been or a computer generated “walk through”. The rest of the money could be better spent improving the roads and road markings of present-day Greece, filling in some of the millions of potholes and broken tarmac, and running a publicity campaign to encourage some of the young motorcyclists to wear their crash helmets on their heads rather than dangling from their elbows!

All that remains of the once impressive entrance to the sanctuary of Asklepios, Epidavros

Restoration work, Epidavros

Restoration work, Epidavros

Also at Epidavros can be seen possibly the most complete and original Greek theatre anywhere. It is magnificent, capable of seating 14,000 people and with perfect acoustics. How that number of people could ever have gathered at such a remote site back in the days of ancient Greece and Rome is mystifying. The theatre is still in use today. With the backdrop of the grey mountains it must be the most beautiful theatre, and certainly the oldest, in regular use anywhere in the world!

On the way to Epidavros

Original Greek theatre, Epidavros

Seating in the theatre, Epidavros

We had arranged to meet Lesley and David again this evening so returned to last night's campsite to find they had arrived a couple of minutes before us. Also on the site is a large British campervan. We saw it yesterday up in the mountains and waved as one does to a fellow citizen in a remote corner of a foreign land. We were all amused at meeting up by chance once more. They too are retired and loving every minute of it.

After a walk with Lesley and David to discover the little seaside resort of Tolo, we settled with retsina and olives while we waited for our two Remoskas to produce our supper. They both came up trumps, making liberal use of aubergines, stuffed vine leaves and olive oil. They are a fantastic invention for a tiny camping car.

Tuesday 6th May 2008, Mycenae
We've lost Erik somewhere. He and Modestine will no doubt find each other in a day or so.

It's really true - here we are camping just below the legendary Greek city of Mycenae which we will visit tomorrow! The campsite is called Atreus. Just in case your childhood recollection of Greek myths is a bit hazy, Atreus was just a typical, ancient Greek. He killed his nieces and nephews and fed them to his brother Thyestes. (We decided not to eat at the campsite restaurant this evening.) Atreus didn't get around to killing and serving up his niece Pelopia to her father. Instead, Thyestes incestuously fathered a son, Aigisthos with her. Aigisthos later murdered his uncle/great uncle Atreus and placed his father/grandfather Thyestes on the throne of Mycenae. However, Atreus's son, Agamemnon, later seized power. He then lead a fleet to destroy Troy after Paris stole his brother's wife Helen! Needing a good strong wind for his ships he did the obvious thing and sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia! It worked a treat and off he went to the Trojan wars. When he returned his wife Clytemnestra and her lover – Aigisthos (see above) – murdered him. They in turn were then murdered by Agamemnon's children Orestes and Elektra. Nice! To think that today we consider the Simpsons to be a dysfunctional family!

This morning we went into Nafplio. It's one of the nicest Greek towns we have seen. Generally they are not very interesting places but Nafplio is an exception being both lively and elegant. It was occupied by the Turks from the 16th century and there are several fountains and mosques to be seen, most of the latter converted to churches and one serving as a cinema. The Turks were driven out briefly by the Venetians from 1686 – 1714 and a Venetian fort stands off shore on the island of Bourtzi. There are two other notable forts at Nafplio, the Venetian built Palamidi fortress high on a hilltop above the town reached by a flight of over 850 steps, and on a lower hill, Akronafplia, dating back to the Bronze age, extended and rebuilt by the Turks.

Square in Nafplio

Venetian fort on the island of Bourtzi, Nafplio harbour

Mosque and walls of the fort of Akronafplia

Dining in the street, Nafplio

Fountain from the time of Turkish occupation, Nafplio

From 1829-1834 Nafplio was the first capital of Greece after independence, until it moved to Athens. A statue of King Otto stands in one of the squares in the old town which spreads around the harbour. Daunted by the thought of climbing up to either of the two main forts, however splendid the views, we discovered a tunnel and a lift up to a hotel near the Akronafplia. So we cheated and took the lift, and in seconds were strolling along the walls of the fort enjoying the views across the bay while less fortunate visitors were still way below us, struggling up the winding road or searching for a taxi to bring them up!

King Otto, Nafplio

Roofs of Nafplio from the Akronafplia, Nafplio

Fort of Akronafplia, Nafplio

Along the coast from the Akronafplia, Nafplio

Instead of returning to last night's campsite we decided to continue here to Mycenae. The site is inland, set amidst barren hills. There really is nothing here except the ancient site and a few facilities for visitors. As yet it isn't obvious why this became the unlikely location for a city that was to give its name to an entire civilisation spanning from 1700 – 1100 BC (roughly equating to the late Bronze Age).

Driving up to find the site this evening we encountered a new road hazard. A tortoise lumbered out from the roadside to make a dash for the far side before the next vehicle came by. We were that vehicle. Skidding to a halt we waited patiently while it heaved itself slowly across the tarmac to disappear into the long grass on the far side. Once parked we walked back to play with it but with a lightening turn of speed it had completely vanished. Hope we see another one tomorrow.

Our first view of Mycenae

Wednesday 7th May 2008, Mycenae
A Dutchman on the campsite told us this morning that we arrived here yesterday shortly after an identical Romahome left. At first he thought we were the same vehicle deciding to return for another night. Well it certainly wasn't Erik so that means there is a third Romahome wandering around the Peloponnese, last seen heading for Corinth, unaware of our existence.

As it was fairly cool today we decided to let Modestine ponder on the whereabouts of Erik beneath the pine trees of the campsite while we walked up to ancient Mycenae. Despite being in an isolated location, we were buzzed all along the route by huge coaches carrying hundreds of school children and tourist groups up to the site. Most appeared to be on a day trip from Athens. When we arrived the car park and site entrance were heaving with visitors. They trailed up the ancient route through the ruined city like so many ants on an anthill. Most were only really interested in having their photos taken perched on the edge of a tomb or beside a Grecian vase.

Day trippers, Mycenae

Ian ended up having an altercation in German with a tour leader who refused his polite and reasonable request to move slightly to one side to address her group so that other people could read the information panels. She told him he wasn't the only visitor and he should learn to have more respect for the countries he was visiting! Huh? That should have been our line! We do appreciate that we are particularly fortunate at most sites as information is displayed in English as well as Greek so we don't need to be taken around with an interpreter. However, it's not much use if the interpreters block our view of the display panels and hey, maybe there were a few Greek people who might have liked to read about their heritage!

Surrounding countryside with olive groves, seen from Mycenae

Below, Ian has undertaken to provide a somewhat more erudite description of Mycenae than I am capable of producing. I will simply add that the setting was magnificent, built on a promontory of rock surrounded by bare, grey mountains. The ancient, cyclopean walls provided a foothold for many beautiful and colourful spring flowers. As we reached the most exposed part of the ruins, there were flashes of lightening and the rumble of thunder. The sky became black and wreaths of cloud descended on the hilltops. In the distance the sky was streaked with falling rain, fast approaching. There was an immediate stampede for the exit. Not having a nice dry coach waiting for us we braved the wet and ended up with an almost empty site to explore.

Massive, cyclopean walls, Mycenae

"Located on a hilltop dominated by the bare slopes of Mount Agias Ilios and Mount Zara, the acropolis is surrounded by massive fortifications extended in three stages to cover a triangular area on the top of the hill. A slope leads up through the main entrance, the famous Lion Gate, the earliest example of monumental sculpture in Europe and once inside the ramparts a winding path continues to the palace of which little more than the foundations remain, as in later time a temple was built over part of the site.

Lion Gate, Mycenae

Nevertheless the throne room of Agamemnon can still be seen, partly rebuilt after its destruction by an earthquake in antiquity. Like in Nestor's Palace there is a central round hearth surrounded by four pillars which supported a gallery. Also in the fortress are a granary, near the Lion Gate, and Grave Circle A which contained six graves with a total of nineteen bodies. It was here that Schliemann found the bulk of the gold grave goods with which he adorned his wife and the gold mask at which he exclaimed "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon!"

Palace, Mycenae

Granary, Mycenae

"Face of Agamemnon", Mycenae

In fact the burial dates from about two centuries before the late 13th century BC, the date when Agamemnon would have lived – if in fact he was an historical personage. There are also houses of artisans where fragments of decorative artefacts were found. In the far corner are cisterns, including one to which it was necessary to descend down a slippery unlit corbelled tunnel. The water supply was led in conduits from the nearby spring, supposed to have been discovered by Perseus, the founder of Mycenae.

Entrance to the cisterns, Mycenae

Postern gate through which Orestes escaped after murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, Mycenae

The city was very well organised, with a network of trade links across the western Mediterranean, to the extent that they found it necessary to introduce the Linear B script used in Crete to keep accounts of agricultural produce, lists of names, goods provided for the different deities and so on. Once the city was burned shortly after 1100 BC the script fell into disuse and the Peloponnese seems to have become illiterate until the introduction of Phoenician letters around the eighth century. Outside the ramparts were a series of merchants houses and three magnificent tholos tombs, rather misleadingly linked to three members of the house of Atreus: the Tomb of Clytemnestra, the Tomb of Aegisthos, whose dome has fallen in and, most impressive of all, the so-called Treasury of Atreus. This is made of massive blocks neatly fitted together and the enormous lintel over the main entrance is estimated to weigh almost 120 tonnes. How they were manoeuvred into place and joined so perfectly is impossible to imagine.
Roof from inside the tholus or "beehive" tomb of King, Atreus

At the opposite end of the spectrum of size are some of the objects to be seen in the excellent museum – grains of wheat, almonds, fragments of foodstuffs, exquisite seals, minute beads and pieces of jewellery. There are neatly decorated pots from the graves and some of the merchants' houses, writing tablets, bronze tools in excellent condition and even fragments of frescoes from the palace which show religious, hunting and battle scenes. These add life to the stone walls and give some idea of the flourishing civilization that was to be found in such a remote site. "

Site finds in the museum, Mycenae

Site finds in the museum, Mycenae

We left the site shortly before closing time and walked back through the rain following a track that eventually lead us through the old village of present day Mycenae. Here we passed farm buildings constructed from mud bricks, complete with straw, protected from the rain under a tiled roof. We were less fortunate and unable to find any form of shelter so arrived back at the campsite dripping wet. Modestine had somehow made telepathic contact with Erik and he arrived shortly afterwards having found his way from Nafplio in a thunderstorm. Once all four of us had dried off we squashed inside Eric together with hot drinks to warm up while the rain poured down for the rest of the evening.