Route through classical Greece: from the Athens of Pericles to Byzantium
“At the palace erected on the top of Mount Olympus, the highest summit in Greece, were the private apartments of King Zeus, the father-god, and Queen Hera, looking towards the famous cities of Athens, Thebes, Sparta, Corinth, Argos, and Mycenae.” So wrote the classical scholar Robert Graves. As if they were Olympic gods themselves, visitors to today’s Greece can luxuriate in all the glory of classical Greece while remaining fairly close to Athens. And this can be done in a single journey that encompasses the prodigious era in which the Greeks invented everything, from Alexander the Great to the end of the Byzantine Empire, from the birthplace of the Olympics to Corinthian glory, the mysterious cliffs of Delphi and the rural pleasures of the Hosios Loukas Monastery. And, as Graves recommends, despite the imposing ancient remains, visitors can lighten the solemnity by recalling that almost all of them were built in honour of a “large, quarrelsome” family of gods eternally immersed in disputes about boundaries, desires and love affairs.
1 Parada 1: La Acrópolis
The fascinating city of Athens boasts unique museums, omnipresent olive trees on its slopes and green areas such as the National Garden, Athens. However, what brings it true meaning is its ancient heart of stone, the remains of a golden Athens – a city that experienced the radical democracy of Pericles in the fifth century BCE, with the Parthenon literally at the head. A striking white Dorian silhouette crowns the Acropolis, the oldest and largest monumental complex in Greece.
To truly understand this, we must descend to the Acropolis Museum, where the remains are displayed and explained. Here, the stars are the caryatids that decorated the Erechtheion
2 Stop 2: The Olympieion
After this visit – which puts everything that came after in context, from Rome to America, from paganism to Christianity, from cathedrals to main squares – the city still has plenty of classical delights on offer. The Temple of Olympian Zeus – the Olympieion – took 700 years to be finished.
3 Stop 3: The Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora
After this exciting encounter, there are many more to discover: the Ancient Agora, where daily life, democracy and business were conducted, with the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalos being must-see visits. The Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library are ideal for understanding the subsequent evolution of Pericles’ city.
4 Stop 4: Ancient Corinth
In the vicinity of never-to-be-finished Athens, and always within two hours of travel, classical Greece is preserved in cities as majestic as Ancient Corinth. The capital can boast that its moment of glory preceded that of Athens, in the 6th century BCE, when its strategic sea access turned it into a prominent business centre. The city we see now is fundamentally Roman, after centuries of wars and looting.
5 Stop 5: The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus
The next leg of the route takes us to the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, a public work in the same league as the Colosseum of Rome. This amphitheatre, built in the 4th century BCE, could seat 12,000 spectators. It is tempting to walk along the stands, especially if you’re lucky enough to attend the modern performances that make good use of its incredible acoustics, as the voice of the softest-spoken actor can be clearly heard from the highest row in the stands.
6 Stop 6: Acropolis of Mycenae
The next stop is the Acropolis of Mycenae, the legendary kingdom that Agamemnon took to its peak and that dominated Greece for 400 years. A World Heritage Site, its impossible walls – 13m high, 7m thick and made of blocks weighing up to six tonnes – convinced the ancient Greeks that it had been built by the Cyclops, who were the masons that built the gods’ own home on Mount Olympus. Today, you can visit the Tomb of Agamemnon, which dates from 1,300 BCE and has a vaulted ceiling and a 40m corridor that leads to a large beehive-shaped chamber. The Mycenae Museum displays the fine jewellery, bronze weapons and frescos that decorated the buildings and are evidence of the grandeur of the city.
7 Stop 7: Delphi
Delphi is related to the Ancient Greek word delphoi, which means ‘womb’, and is a clear example of the Greeks’ high esteem for their cities and culture. The famous Oracle of Delphi, which was consulted on the most important decisions – was located in the Temple of Apollo and was a woman. Her always cryptic predictions changed the course of Hellenic history. Its buildings, its high location on the slopes of Mount Parnassos and its extensive views overlooking valleys dotted with olive and cypress trees that end at the Gulf of Corinth form a complex where it is easy to let your imagination soar back to those mystical times.
8 Stop 8: The Hosios Loukas Monastery
Half an hour from Delphi, we conclude the route with a somewhat more culinary stop. The Hosios Loukas Monastery, lost among the mountains and protected as a World Heritage Site, boasts a number of records. From its monk-pampered olive groves come the best organic oils and honeys in Greece. And the walls of its main church, Agios Loukas, have the best Byzantine frescoes in the country – surrounded by marble, icons and mosaics, their effect is highlighted by dramatic contrasts of light and shadow.