March 23, 2022. 51°F/11°C
We anchored today outside the town of Nafplio, which I’ll admit I had never heard of. While small, it is historically significant – at one point it, not Athens, was the capital of modern Greece!
One of our first sites was the water castle of Bourtzi, Venetian castle located in the middle of the harbour of Nafplio.
We had a full 8 hour day planned, with an excursion called “Historic Sites of the Peloponnese”, which took us to three archeological sites here on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece.
#1. The Venetian Period
Looming over the town of Nafplio are the 8 bastions of the fortress of Palamidi, built by the Venetians the second time they occupied this part of Greece. The massive fortress was built in just 3 years, 1711 – 1714. Looking up at it today from the town, and then standing in it and taking in its commanding view over the Argolic Gulf, it’s hard to imagine that it was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1715 … especially since the only entrance to the fortress at that time was up almost 1000 stone stairs (no railings – and that’s not how we entered!). Nonetheless, it took until 1822 for the Greeks to recapture it and finally gain independence.
#2. The Mycenean Period
Mycenaean Greece was the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece, from approximately 1750 to 1050 BC. Our guide (who was also a historian) was so immersed in her stories about this time period that she completely stopped using “BC” when talking about it, as if years AD were simply irrelevant. Given the relative time periods we talk about in the ancient world, maybe they are.
Mycenae is the city of King Agamemnon of Greek mythology, and was once the mightiest city-state in Bronze Age Greece. Our guide delighted in retelling some of the more gruesome parts of the myths, but also talked about the real Trojan War and the economic and strategic reasons behind it. Historians now believe that Agamemnon was looking for any excuse to take over Troy, which was poised at the gateway to the Hellespont and therefore an essential trading post, and “rescuing” Helen was just a convenient excuse for war. It’s always really about money, resources, and land – nothing ever changes.
We first went inside the Treasury of Atreus, one of the beehive tombs of the Mycenean kings, looted long ago for their gold, but impressive for their structure. The tomb we toured was about 10 metres (33 feet) tall and about the same in diameter. It is a “corbelled” vault, which means that huge stones are stacked and tapered toward a point at the top to create a domed shape much like a traditional beehive. The tomb would once have been buried and completely hidden from sight, but has been excavated.
Next we had the opportunity to walk the huge citadel in the acropolis. It was explained to us that acropolis simply means high point, or refers to a citadel at the high point of a region, so there are many in Greece. Sadly it was pelting rain, super windy, and chilly. Ted made it to the top, but I had to turn back when the wind was pushing me back down the stone ramp, completely negating any forward progress. I headed back to the bus (along with several others in our group), but by that time was completely soaked through my Columbia water “resistant” jacket. I guess it, like me with the wind, gave up resisting.
The citadel at Mycenae was largely rediscovered and excavated due to the obsession with Homer’s Iliad of amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the mid 1800s. Discoveries in the excavations here (and in Hisarlyk/Troy and Tiryns) led scholars to the idea that the events of Homer’s Iliad were based on actual history. Interestingly, many of the items he discovered and attributed to Agamemnon were actually much older than Agamemnon would have been.
The citadel walls are referred to as “cyclopean”, since the stones are huge and we cannot yet explain how they were transported. Mythology would say that the Cyclops, with his superhuman strength, placed the stones.
Our next stop, just as the sun started to try peeking through, was for lunch at Agamemnon Palace Restaurant in Mycenae. The venue was a gorgeous modern Greek design, with marble floors, gold pillars, and a magnificent view. The food was equally stunning: spanakopitas, fresh bread, salad, roast lamb, the iconic Greek lemon-roasted potatoes, orange cake, wonderful strong coffee…. and (it almost goes without saying) copious amounts of red and white Greek wine.
Thoroughly sated and almost dry, we headed for our final excursion stop.
#3. The Hellenic Period
This was definitely the best preserved archeological site we’ve visited so far in Greece. (When we eventually get to Athens, and potentially the Parthenon, I’m going to need to remember that our guide told us it had been destroyed in 1687 when an Ottoman ammunition dump inside the building was ignited by Venetian bombardment during a siege of the Acropolis. Without human interference it might still be intact – it was built to last “forever”.)
Back to today. We got to wander around the spectacular amphitheater in Epidaurus, a famous spa city dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine. The stone amphitheater was built in the 4th century BC with acoustics that are still the envy of modern architects.
Standing in the centre of the amphitheatre, a person speaking in normal tones can be heard in every seat. A team from Georgia Tech did research here in 2007 and discovered that the limestone seats created a sophisticated acoustic filter that carried instruments and voices all the way to the back row. They discovered that frequencies up to 500 Hz were held back while frequencies above 500 Hz were allowed to ring out. The corrugated surface of the seats was creating an effect similar to the ridged acoustics padding on walls or insulation in a parking garage. If you’re interested in more, Ancient Greek Amphitheater: Why You Can Hear From Back Row — ScienceDaily. At any rate, I stood at the centre and sang a few bars, and Ted could hear me in the top row.
The site at Epidaurus also boasts a small museum of items excavated in the area of the amphitheatre and from the temple of Asclepius.
After a cold, wet – but very interesting – day, an early dinner and Ben Mills’ terrific live musical performance was about all we could take. Early to bed. Crete tomorrow.