Plumbing the Pelopponese

From Lesvos, we flew back to Athens and immediately boarded our coach for the Peloponnese. We had the services of an extremely knowledgeable historian as our guide for the next five days – Nikos Lanser – who is Greek-Dutch. On top of his immense knowledge and many skills, he favored us by singing a beautiful version of a Greek anthem.

Nimish and Deb during the seminar on Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians.

As you can see on the map below, Corinth straddled the isthmus between two important Greek waterways. Likewise, it separated the peninsula of Attica, dominated by Athens, and that of the Peloponnese, dominated by Sparta in ancient times.

This position enabled Corinth to levy fees for passing from one waterway to the other and become a commercial powerhouse. It was rich and bawdy – spawner of the most ornate style of columns, Corinthian, and renowned for its hetairai and pornoi. We also learned, reading Lysistrata, that it was famous for sex toys too!

As the “Las Vegas” of the ancient world, it was ripe territory for Paul of Tarsus as he proselytized the new Christian religion.

The first night we stayed at Loutraki, a charming seaside town near Corinth, and then went on to Tolo, also on the sea. In that vicinity we enjoyed lunches and shopping at Napflion too.

Gazing at the sunset from Loutraki.

Tolo was our jumping off point to visit three ancient sites: MykenaeTiryns, and Epidaurus. The city of Argos, near Mykenae, was the domain of Agamemnon, the instigator of the Trojan War. His brother’s wife, Helen, had been stolen by the Trojan king’s son, Paris, and they wanted her back. All this is recounted in Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. “Ilium” was another name for Troy.

The ancient Persians’ attitude about the Trojan war was “over a woman? How ridiculous.” While one may dispute the motives for the war, it’s remarkable that the Greeks’ most famous epics feature powerful mortal and immortal women and that women were so highly prized, unlike in many other cultures. It gives one a window into the heroic vision and mindset which formed the foundation of the uniquely valuable Greek culture.

Mykenae (oddly spelled Mycenae in English. I don’t know why Greek was transliterated with “c” in English because it encourages an English speaker to mispronounce the word, e.g. with a soft “c” before “e,” when the Greek pronunciation is a hard “c.” This confuses my pronunciation on many Greek words- end of rant!)…Mykenae is the legendary location of the Tomb of Agamemnon, which Henrich Schlieman   discovered in 1879.

Schlieman’s remarkable work led first to the discovery of the site of Troy. As a child, his father introduced him to Homer and he fell in love with The Iliad. He pledged that he would find its location, but everyone laughed at him, especially as he was not formally educated, but an auto-didact (who could speak 14 languages). You see, the experts believed The Iliad was pure myth. From a very poor family, Schlieman became an enterprising – if sometimes questionable – entrepreneur, earning a fortune in the California gold fields and cornering the market in indigo dye, among other endeavors. Rich at 36, he retired to pursue his passion.

Using the descriptions from The Iliad and collaborating with another archeologist, Calvert, they discovered a site with many, many layers of a grand city. Troy VII is believed to be the Homeric city.

Looking at the landscape in the Peloponnese, Athens, Mykenae and its sister excavation, Tiryns, I saw how there were so many high hills on which to build fortresses. Perhaps this was the origin of the many city states which could remain independent because of their defensible positions?

Near Mykenae is the village of Epidaurus, with a magnificently preserved ancient theater of astounding acoustics, built through Greek knowledge of geometry and materials. Sitting in the top row, you can hear the speaker in the center perfectly.

Mari and Marsha listen as Ian recites some bawdy lines from the comedy, Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Ian got in trouble with the guard at the site!

In Tolo we had a delightful seminar on Lysistratawritten to make fun of the seemingly interminable Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.

In the story, the women of Athens and Sparta go on strike, refusing to sleep with their men – and this stops the war!

Too bad it didn’t work in real life, as that war did much to destroy classical Greece.

Women’s night out in Tolo.

The sacred city of Olympia was the last leg of our Peloponnesian exploration.  776 BC marked the first Olympic games, which were initially running contests as part of a festival honoring Zeus the king of the Olympian gods. These games were so important to the Greeks that wars between the city states (almost endless) were halted and crime against travelers to the games was severely punished.

Olympia is in gorgeous country in the western part of the Peloponnese;

View of the Olympia valley from our hotel.

There are many ruins at the site of the games (40,000+ people would come to play in, watch, and trade). Sculptors would study the magnificent nude athletes, representing the highest in athletic skill and beauty. Unfortunately, due to earthquakes, all that remains of the magisterial Temple of Zeus are the pieces below. The temple housed a giant gold and ivory statue of Zeus, long gone.

You can appreciate the scale of the temple in this photo with Liz.

All that’s left of the original stadium are the runners’ stone starting toe-holds – shown by Mari Russell.

Among many stunning statues, the Olympic Museum housed the Hermes and the baby Dionysus and the Temple of Zeus pediments, including Deidemeia repelling the centaur.

Praxiteles’ Hermes

Travelers Deb and Jim Grace discovered and arranged our final night of fun in Olympia – tour and dinner at an olive farm, Agriturismo Magna Grecia.

Scott Barton enjoying the wine from the olive farm.

While strolling the grounds we heard about how olives are grown, later how the extra virgin oil is made while viewing its vats. The owners served us a delicious dinner, and provided a demonstration of traditional Greek dancing. Then we were all up, dancing ourselves like Zorba the Greek! The establishment had little shops of olive products, ceramics, fabrics, and jewelry. (Of course the first piece I adored was a Byzantine style necklace for 1950 Euro – not in the budget!) The entire evening cost 17 Euro per person, around $20. Afterwards, we returned to our lovely hotel and spent hours under the pergola, talking, joking, and drinking wine. Next morning we enjoyed the Greek countryside on our ride back to Athens – and on to Sicily, the last leg of our ancient Greek trip, which I will recount next time.

Late night Olympia.

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