Sunday, 23 September 2018

Greece: Ancient Corinth

The Fountain of Glauke

We are en route from Athens to Nafplio, but breaking our journey to see Ancient Corinth. Corinth was was one of the great Greek city states, but was entirely destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and rebuilt by Julius Caesar from  44 BC. Most of what is now visible dates from the 1st to the 3rd century AD.

The first thing you see on entering the main site is the Fountain of Glauke (above). The celebrated Roman traveller Pausanias wrote in AD 150 that the fountain received its name from Glauke, daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth, and the second wife of the hero Jason (he of the Argonauts). Medea, Jason’s first wife, in a fit of jealousy presented Glauke with a cloak infused with poison. After putting on the cloak, Glauke threw herself into the fountain in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the poison from burning her. [Information from the American School of Classical Studies website]

It soon became apparent that there were a few butterflies in view as well, including this beautiful Painted Lady and several Swallowtails and Whites.


We decided to look in the Museum before exploring the rest of the site and this proved to be a great idea, with lots of good statues and two fabulous Roman mosaics.



Round the back of the Museum was this striking group of short columns with lintels over Corinthian capitals.


The main event however was the Temple of Apollo, one of the oldest Temples in Greece, dating back to about 550 BC. It dominates the site, standing as it does on a knoll which is the highest point.
The temple was built in the Doric style. It had 6 columns at each end, and 15 along each side. It was 53m (174 feet) long and 21m (70 feet) wide. The  columns are monolithic, that is, made from single pieces of stone and display obvious entasis (swelling).


Beyond the temple is the vast Agora (Roman forum) which includes the platform where St Paul preached to the Corinthians.


On the far side is the Fountain of Peirene. The actual fountain is hidden behind a facade which once had six columns, but it still provides water for the nearby village.


Finally there is a short stretch of Roman Road, the Lechaion Road, which led to Lecheo, one of Corinth's two ports.


There is one interesting building outside the main site: the ruins of the Roman Odeon.


In the background, on the mountain to the left is the great fortress of Acrocorinth, strategically placed to defend the Isthmus of Corinth. It was originally a Greek acropolis, but later became a Roman citadel and then a Byzantine fortress. The Franks captured it in 1210 and later occupants included the Kingdom of Naples, the Knights of Rhodes, the Turks and the Venetians. We decided we did not have time to see it, but driving south later on, it was obviously what massive fortifications remained.

Conditions: hot and sunny.

Rating: four and a half stars.

Greece: Mycenae and Tiryns

First view of Mycenae

The next stop on our tour of the Peloponnese is the ancient city of Mycenae, whose king according to myth was Agamemnon. His brother Menelaus was married to Helen of Troy and her elopement with Paris/Alexander (also of Troy) sparked the Trojan War. Agamemnon's wife was Clytemnestra (who I have only just discovered was Helen's sister – I thought I had got the Trojan war clear in my head, but evidently not). The war ended badly for Troy and also for Agamemnon, who on his return to Mycenae was murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. This was in revenge for Agamemnon's sacrifice to the gods of his daughter Iphigenia in order to get sufficient wind for the Greek fleet to sail. It's a great story, but it seems to have little to do with the reality of Mycenae since the city dates from about 1500 BC and most authorities date the Trojan war (if there was one) to about 300 years later.

We had our first glimpse of the ancient city as we drove up the hill towards the car park (see above). You can make out an outer wall, a citadel above it and and large mountain in the background.

When we arrived the dominant impression was of the massive "Cyclopian" walls – so thick that it was believed that they could only have been built by Cyclopses.


We headed towards the main gate, the famous Lion Gate. A narrow passage, rather like a barbican in a medieval castle, leads to the gate itself, with the celebrated twin lions looking down over the lintel.


This was the view looking back once we were inside.


We passed Grave Circle A, where the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer of the location of ancient Troy) found a gold face mask during his excavations. "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon" he said, although as previously noted what he found is probably older. We then began the uphill climb to the citadel.


Looking back a steady flow of people could be seen plodding up in their turn. At the top there was a fine view of the main hall which also gives some idea of the surrounding countryside.


We made our way back down and then went to see the fantastic Tholos. It is a type of burial chamber dating back to the 15th century BC. It consists of three parts: an entrance path (or dromos), an entrance and a tall beehive-shaped chamber. In this case the roof had long disappeared. Other tholoi (I am pretty sure that is the plural - "O" level Greek comes in useful at last!) on the site purport implausibly to be the tombs of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.


Now we headed a short way back down the hill to see the Treasury of Atreus (father of Agamemnon). This is actually another tholos, so it was not a Treasury and most likely had nothing to do with Atreus. It is however a magnificent structure.



The entrance dromos is 35m long, the two lintels over the entrance weigh120 tons and the dome is 13m high and has a a diameter of 14.5m. For over a 1,000 years it was the largest domed structure in the world.

Now on towards our next stop at Nafplio via the Mycenean site at Tiryns – it is bracketed together with Mycenae as a single World Heritage Site so I am going to cover both in a single post. Tiryns is set in much lower countryside and, as with Mycenae, you are struck by the massive walls (best seen from the road from Nafplio).


The entrance is round the back and you first walk along a wide path between two vast stone walls.


At the end is passageway inside the outer wall. It is very dramatic, but its purpose does not seem to be known.


You climb up onto the top of the Acropolis where excavations seem to be continuing. There are the by now usual hard-to-understand stumps of walls. The route now leads down and outside the walls through a small opening.


Apart from the fascinating buildings, Tiryns was also awash with butterflies: Swallowtail, Greek Clouded Yellow (see below), a lone Plain Tiger (I hadn't realised this species was to be seen in Greece), Eastern Bath White (also below), Painted Lady, unidentified Blues ... A lovely bonus.



Conditions: hot and sunny.

Rating: five stars.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Greece: Cape Sounion


The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

Cape Sounion is the southernmost tip of the Attic peninsular, about 70 km south east of Athens. The drive there from Athens closely follows the coastline. We went there to see the Temple of Poseidon, which was wonderful, but we also found some interesting surprises. In the picture above you can see the remains of the temple with the island of Patroclus in the background. (This is not a reference to Achillles's Patroclus, but rather to an admiral in Ptolemy's navy.)

We walked up from the car park towards the temple to quickly gain the clearest view of what remains. The remains of the portico of the temple is on the left. It was constructed in 444–440 BC in the Doric style on the site of an early temple of the so-called Archaic period and dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea and protector of mariners. The very helpful Wikipedia entry says that the temple would have resembled that of Hephaestus in Athens which was built at about the same time. We admired the Temple of Hephaestus in our walk around Central Athens.


An unexpected feature as we continued our exploration was a small flock of grouse.


This is the view looking directly at the remains of the portico. The square column on the right has a lot of graffiti from past tourists ...


... of which perhaps the most notable was Lord Byron (just above the line separating the two stone block) who visited Sounion in 1810-11


We explored the surrounding area and gained a nice view over the nearby bay, where we learned from a very helpful information board that there would once have been been a port, shipyards and a naval base.


Further information boards revealed that the site was fortified in 413 BC (during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta) and was home to a garrison over a long period. This is the main street along which the garrison buildings were arranged.


Nearby there was a temple to Athena built in 470 BC. This temple was demolished in the 1st century AD, and parts of its columns were taken to Athens to be used in the South-East temple of the Agora in Athens.


I am always on the look out for butterflies, but it was perhaps too windy and I had just a couple of glimpses. I did snap a fine red dragonfly however.


Conditions: sunny, hot, windy.

Rating: four and a half stars. A great outing.

Greece: Central Athens

The Arch of Hadrian

This post describes a short walk in central Athens starting from the Arch of Hadrian and the Temple of Athenian Zeus and ending in the Plaka district, where we are staying.

The Arch of Hadrian stands beside the busy road that surrounds the oldest part of the city. Extreme efforts would have been required to take a picture unclogged by traffic, so I took mine from the inside. (There is also a bonus view of the Acropolis.) It was built in AD 124-9 to mark the boundary between the old city and the new one he was having built.

Nearby is the Olympieion, the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  It had 104 marble columns each of which was 17m high. Earthquakes account for its destruction over the centuries and there are now only 15 still standing (plus one horizontal on the ground). Most temples of the golden age have Doric or Ionic capitals at the head of the columns and we wondered why this one had Corinthian ones. The answer is that although work on the temple started in the 5th century BC, it was not completed until around 130 AD under Hadrian.


We walked along the inner ring road in the direction of the Parliament Building and made a brief detour to get some sense of the large and attractive National Gardens.


The Parliament Building was built as the Royal Palace between 1834-38 (that is, within a few years of Greece gaining independence from the Turks and installing King Otto I as its monarch). We thought it was a bit dreary in its limited neo-classical style.


One thing which is anything but dreary however is the extremely stylised process of changing the two soldiers who stand guard outside the Palace. This seems to happen every hour and the two incoming guards replace the two outgoing ones in a bizarrely choreographed ritual involving slow-motion goosestepping. We learned that the tallest soldiers are chosen for this role and that the pompom shoes they wear are extremely heavy which makes the movements physically challenging.


The Palaces faces on to Syntagma Square, a large, but not very interesting public space. We walked across and continued into a long street called Ermou, which we thought must be the main shopping street. Suddenly, the shops gave way to an attractive Byzantine church, Kapnikarea, built in the 11th century on the site of an ancient temple.


We continued along Ermou to reach the lively Monastiraki Square.


Turning right through busy streets we emerged at our next major destination: the ancient agora, rather like the Roman forum. The first thing we saw - from the outside - was the astonishing Stoa of Attalos. It is immediately beside the metro, which in some way accounts for the graffiti on the wall.


We went into the agora and headed for the Stoa of Attalos. (A stoa generally is a covered walkway or portico.) It was built by King Attalos of Pergamon between 159 BC and 138 BC and reconstructed in 1952–1956 by American architects along with the Greek architect Ioannis Travlos and the Greek Civil Engineer Yeoryios Biris. It now houses the Ancient Agora Museum, by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, with funding donated by the Rockefeller family.

This is the spectacular view of the outer colonnade.


This is the view of the area behind the colonnade (thought to have originally housed shops), but now with wonderful ancient sculpture in a spacious and airy environment.


The agora is a large site, most of which is just the footprints of ancient buildings, but the absolute stand out is the Temple of Hephaestus (the god of blacksmiths, metalworking, carpenters, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes). The temple was built in the 5th century BC and best preserved Greek temple anywhere in Greece. From 700 AD to 1834 it was used as a Christian church which presumably saved it from being raided for its stone.


Our final highlight was the Odeon of Agrippa, dating from 15BC and used for musical performances. The Odeon (or Odeion) was destroyed by the Herulians in A.D. 267. It was rebuilt in the early 5th century A.D. as part of a sprawling complex.  The statues of Giants and Tritons which had formed part of the facade were reused for a monumental entrance. This is the best preserved.


By now it was getting late in the afternoon and we were in incipient danger of Stendhal's Syndrome (a kind of dizziness brought on by excessive tourism). We passed Hadrian's Library with its many-columned facade) and behind it what I think is the remains of a Christian basilica built in the 6th century in part of the garden.


A little further on we stumbled on this absolute delight: the Tower of the Winds in the Roman agora. It dates from the 1st century BC and once had a weathervane, sundials on each face and a water clock. It was perhaps the first public clock tower.


We were especially delighted by this having seen a similar building, inspired by the Tower of the Winds, while we were walking the South West Coast Path. It was the Storm Tower in Bude (Cornwall).  It remained only to stagger back to our hotel.

Conditions: hot and sunny.

Distance: maybe 3 miles.

Rating: five stars.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Greece: The Acropolis of Athens and the Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis seen from the Agora

We arrived in Athens last night and our first major piece of tourism was to visit the Acropolis. I have headed this post "The Acropolis of Athens" because it turns out that there are numerous acropolises in Greece - the term means the highest point of a city, a citadel. Athens of course is home to The Acropolis.

We soon realised that because Athens is quite a low-rise city, it is completely dominated by the Acropolis which is visible from almost anywhere. The best view seems to be from the Agora however.

From the coach park you walk uphill through an olive grove ...


 ... and enter the Acropolis via the Beulé Gate. Immediately on the right is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which dates from 161 AD; that is, when Greece was under the Roman Empire.. It was destroyed by barbarians (in this case the Heruli) in 267 AD and restored in 1950. It is still used for music concerts.


Further up you reach the entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea (the work of the architect Mnesikles, and built 437-32 BC). It is a pinch point and very congested. It is quite hard to make sense of all the columns.


Immediately on the right as you enter is the exquisite temple of Athena Nike (nike means Victory). It was designed by the architect of the Parthenon, Kallikrates, completed in 420 BC and built in Pentelic marble.   There are only four columns at each end (and none on the sides) and unusually they are monolithic, that is they are each made of a single block of stone instead of the usual horizontal drums. There is a rather beautiful frieze below the triangular pediment.


Turning away from the Temple of Athena Nike, you are confronted by the massive Parthenon. It was built in only 15 years between 447 BC and 432 BC and is often described as the most perfect Doric temple ever built. Nowadays, it is still undergoing a process of restoration and has a great deal of scaffolding around it. There is an enormous amount of stone scattered all around, some with beautiful carving.


It gradually became clear that the best strategy would be to walk around to the south (?)  and see it from the rear. This offers a much more coherent view and the scaffolding is obscured.


... and the Parthenon Museum  (of which more later).


You can also see the Roman Forum with the wonderful Temple of Hephaestus in the top left. We plan to visit this tomorrow.


The final great building on the Acopolis is the Erechtheion, completed in 406 BC. It was built as a sanctuary for the cults of all the deities ever worshipped in Athens, which explains its odd shape.


Its greatest feature is the caryatids who hold up the roof  - a caryatid is a column sculpted in the form of a woman or girl. (We felt a special affinity with these having enjoyed St Pancras church (1822) in Euston Road in London which has a very similar set, undoubtedly inspired by these.)

We dragged ourselves away from the Acropolis and walked down to the Museum. It is aligned spatially with the Parthenon and inside it has the same number of (steel) columns with the same spacing as in the Parthenon. It is a truly visionary concept. On the top floor the metopes (carved stone panels) are arranged in their original order (having been removed from the Parthenon itself to prevent further deterioration and cleaned up).


Many of these metopes contain sculpture of the highest order and being at a modest height above the floor they are much easier to really appreciate than when they were high up on the temple's exterior.


Finally, on the second floor, we saw the original caryatids from the Erechtheion. They too have been removed for their protection and replaced with replicas.


Conditions: hot and sunny.

Rating: five stars. Truly wonderful!