Greek classical sites (Delphi, Epidaurus, Olympia, etc.)
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Did You Know … ?
- The Parthenon’s horizontal lines — stair steps, beams and roof — are curved in a slight dome shape.
- The eternal flame of Altis, at Olympia, is the source of the flaming torch carried to the modern Olympics.
- Statues on ancient Greek buildings were typically painted with bright colors.
- Aristotle’s most famous student was Alexander the Great.
- The Olympics, first recorded in 776 B.C., were held for nearly 12 centuries.
Greece, with a history dating back thousands of years, boasts fascinating ruins at scores of archaeological sites. And some of those ruins aren’t all that ruined, with the result there is much to see for those interested in classical history.
Classical Greece generally refers to a short period, around 480 B.C. to 323 B.C., meaning from the Greeks’ decisive defeat of Persian invaders to the death of Alexander the Great. In that period, Pericles led Athens for about 30 years, playwrights and philosophers created works that still influence us and construction of the Acropolis began.
But Solon had laid the foundations for Athenian democracy a hundred years earlier. Indeed, so many events of much greater age are compelling — the Minoan civilization on Crete (peaking around 1700 B.C. to 1400 B.C.) comes to mind — that history buffs choose itineraries to encompass antiquities related to any era from the Minoans to the time of Roman domination.
Most visitors make time for one or more of the following:
- Athens is a convenient starting point, and — it hardly requires saying — Greece’s star antiquity is the city’s Acropolis, a complex of temples including the Parthenon atop a 230-foot rock. Ancient theaters sit at its base.
- Delos, a tiny island two miles from Mykonos, is an open-air museum. Ancient Greeks considered this the holiest place in the Cyclades islands, so they built temples, a theater and more. Visitors see abundant evidence of the island’s former prominence.
- Delphi, the hilltop home to Greece’s famed oracle, includes the Temple of Apollo (where the oracle worked); a stadium, and a theater. The site provides a sweeping view of the countryside.
- Epidaurus, while boasting a temple and other attractions, is best known for its well-preserved ancient theater, the setting for Greek drama each summer.
- Knossos is on the tourist circuit because of its humongous palace, the political and ceremonial center of Minoan culture. Controversial reconstruction helps sightseers visualize the original structures.
- Olympia, site of the first Olympics, attracts visitors who want to see where it all started. The site includes the Temple of Zeus, the stadium and facilities associated with the quadrennial event.
Things to do for Venturers
- Travel among the historically important islands aboard your chartered sailing boat or motor yacht, with or without a hired crew.
You can snorkel in many places on your route, but scuba diving is restricted to select sites to protect underwater archaeological sites from damage or theft.
- Get around on the islands by motorcycle and moped.
- Compete in the Athens Classic Marathon, held in autumn. The route follows what is deemed the original course (meaning the 490 B.C. run to announce the Greek defeat of Persian attackers), from Marathon to the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens. (The modern stadium stands where an ancient stadium once stood.)
- Attend a Greek drama in the open-air theater at Epidaurus — one of Greece’s best-preserved ancient theaters — during that site’s annual summer festival. The performances are in Greek (with English summaries available), but they provide an excellent way to connect with Greek antiquity.
- Do the must-do sightseeing, then go sea kayaking off Crete.
- For another see-and-do combination, visit the archaeological sites at Kos or the 3,500-year-old Minoan palaces on Rhodes, then head to Kefalos on Kos or Prassonissi on Rhodes for windsurfing.
Things to do for Centrics
- While on the Acropolis, try to see how your eyes have been tricked into thinking the Parthenon’s columns are straight or that the stair steps and roofline are really horizontal. The columns have a slight bell shape, horizontal lines a slight dome shape. In addition, the columns incline inward slightly.
- See Delphi in winter, then ski on nearby Mount Parnassus, said to have some of the country’s best skiing.
- In summer, during the Athens Festival, attend an open-air performance in the marble, horseshoe-shaped Herod Atticus Theatre that sits below the Acropolis.
- Visit Olympia, site of the first Olympics — and the site of these quadrennial competitions for more than a thousand years.
- Visit Kos in the Dodecanese islands to explore an extensive archaeological site at Mandraki. For sheer beauty, look for the town of Gia sitting high in the rocks and resembling nothing so much as the monasteries of Meteora.
- At Vergina, on the Macedonian plain in northern Greece, see the Great Tumulus Museum, which encompasses ancient tombs including one believed to have been that of Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander the Great’s father. In addition, the site includes remains of a large palace complex and more than 300 other burial mounds.
Things to do for Authentics
- Board a hydrofoil for a day trip from Athens to Sounion for fabulous scenery and the Temple of Poseidon. Another choice is a shorter trip to Eleusis to tour a set of striking ruins.
- Hang out for a spell in little cafes and tavernas of Katakolon, a coastal town near Olympia. Or look for appealing tavernas in the towns associated with other key sites from the classical era.
- Tour the battle site at Marathon, where the Greeks defeated a much larger Persian army in 490 B.C., and see the burial mound and museum there. Wrap up this visit with a swim at the nearby Schinias beach.
- On the road between Livadia and Delphi, look for the crossroads where, in fiction, Oedipus murdered his father.
- Visit and learn about the classical sites — and then play golf — on Crete or Rhodes.
- Weave the best of Greece’s antiquities museums into your itinerary. The National Archaeological Museum is a (very obvious) start. At our last viewing, the Greek tourist office was listing nearly two dozen such museums, and those were just the ones with extended hours.
For more information, consult the Greek National Tourism Organization at www.visitgreece.gr