Epidavros, Greece

As mentioned in our last post, we spent several days in the town of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. One of the side trips we took was to the ancient city of Epidavros.

Getting There

KTEL runs a bus from the bus station in Nafplio to the Epidavros Theater which is the entrance to the ancient site. We tried really hard to confirm the existence of all buses to and from the site and were assured that all of the buses on the schedule would run as indicated. We had also heard that bus did not actually run all the way to entrance to the site in the winter off-season but that it would stop 1.5 km away at a tavern on the road. When we arrived at that tavern, we tried to get off, but the bus driver shooed us back on saying that he would take us all the way there. Upon arriving at the entrance to the site, we confirmed with the driver that a bus would return to that exact spot to pick us up at 3:45 pm. No problem, right?

The Theater

The ancient theater is the main attraction at Epidavros. In fact, most guide books say that it is really the only reason to go there. And, it was magnificent, though we did enjoy the rest of the site as well. It is the best-preserved of all of Greece’s ancient theaters. To top that off, it is huge! And the acoustics are amazing. When you stand in the middle of the orchestra, you can hear how well your voice reverberates through the theater. Our guide book told us that you can drop a coin in the center of the orchestra, you can hear it even at the very top of the theater (which can seat around 15,000 people). We now know that is true!

 

The Sanctuary

While the theater is by far the main attraction at current day ancient Epidavros, the rest of the site was really more important in the past. The area was once a famous healing center. It started as a temple to Apollo, worshiped here even before the ancient Greeks, during the Mycenean times. Eventually, it became more of a site to worship Apollo’s son Asclepius (he was supposedly born at the site), the god of health. During its heyday it hosted full medical facilities.

We saw the ruins of what was probably an ancient hostel or hotel where patients stayed while they were getting treated. There was also the Temple to Asclepius where people prayed for his healing powers. Most interestingly, there was also the remains (partially reconstructed now) of the abaton, where patients would come to sleep, hoping to be visited in their dreams by the god Asclepius where he would tell them how to heal themselves. We debated on taking a nap there, but decided we didn’t have time!

The site also boasts many other ruins, ancient baths, a sanctuary to the Egyptian Gods of healing (demonstrating the connections in the ancient world), and a tholos (use unknown). There was even a stadium for the Festival of Asclepius which was the site of athletic competitions every 4 years (much like the sites of Delphi and Olympia).

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The Museum

As with most of the archaeological sites we have visited, there is a small museum. This one was only 3 rooms and didn’t have a ton of English signage, but it did house steles describing the healing practices in use at the site, miraculous cures due to Asclepius, ancient medical tools, and many statues which were taken from the temples of the site.

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partially reconstructed temple

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Asclepius. The snake looks familiar when you think about doctors, huh?

 

Getting Away

We had been really careful this time, confirming over and over again that there would be a bus to take us home at 3:45… We had been a little unprepared and hadn’t realized that the site closed at 3 pm. They actually ended up having to kick us out… oops. So we went back to the entrance to read and wait for the bus. We met a fellow traveler who had ridden on the bus with us that morning and chatted for awhile.

Of course, 3:45 came and went without any bus. We waited about 30 min and decided that we had been deceived by KTEL again. We were livid, and a little concerned because the site was closed and this time, there were no taxis to be found. We were just starting to try to formulate a plan, which probably would have involved walking several km back to the last town we had passed, when a car pulled up. We watched the two travelers get out and head up to the site. We didn’t really know what they were doing since the site was closed, but assumed that they did. Finally, Della decided to walk back into the site and hope that there was someone around to give us some information about how to maybe call for a taxi or where we might walk to get some transportation. She ran into the two travelers who were coming back from the entrance, disappointed that they had arrived too late to see the site. Della cut to the chase (she didn’t really feel like she had time to make friends first) and asked for a ride. Luckily, the couple was heading to Mycenae which would at least take them back in the direction of Nafplio. They took us almost all the way, dropping us off only 4 km from town. We were fortunate to have another lucky break with friendly fellow travelers… And we really want to know how we can get back at KTEL!!!!!!!!

Mycenae, Greece

Our final stop in our tour of the Peloponnese was the city of Nafplio. We spent multiple days here, so we’re going to break up our activities into multiple posts. The first activity we did was a day trip to the archaeological site of Mycenae. This site contains the palace and tombs of this culture that pre-dates what we normally think of being the “ancient Greeks” by more that 1000 years!

Getting There

Conveniently, KTEL runs a bus from Nafplio to the entrance to the archaeological site. Since we tend to spend quite a bit of time at sites, we caught the 10:00 bus to give ourselves plenty of time. The bus was on time and got us to the site by about 11:00. So far, no KTEL drama.

The Citadel

The citadel of Mycenae

The citadel of Mycenae

The highlight of the archaeological site is the palace of Mycenae built on top of a hill with views looking out over the valley. To enter the site, you go through the famous “Lion Gate,” named for the decoration above the entrance. This was also our first chance to get a close view at the massive blocks that made up the “Cyclopean” walls that surround the structure.

The Lion Gate

The Lion Gate

Lion Gate Jelfie

Lion Gate Jelfie

Inside the gate, we found “Grave Circle A.” We were excited to see this because we had read about its excavation by Henry Schliemann in the book Greek Treasure. He believed that Mycenae was the home of the civilization that sacked the city of Troy during the Trojan War (using the Trojan Horse), and that this grave must have been the grave of King Agamemnon, the leader of the Myceneans described in Homer’s Iliad. Currently, the evidence seems to disagree with this being Agamemnon’s grave, but it does seem to indicate that this site is the home of a civilization that defeated Troy.

Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A

At the top of the acropolis, there aren’t many structures left, but we were able to see the outlines of the ancient palace, built in the structure of a traditional megaron. We were a little disappointed that we could only see this from a distance.

At the east end of the site, we saw an entrance that led to an underground well. We like caves, so we decided to explore. We did have a flashlight along, which came in handy as we descended the 77 steps down into pitch black darkness. It was actually Halloween, so we were a little nervous that we would encounter some scary creatures. But, we aren’t in a horror novel and we made it out safe and sound!

Sure, let's check this out. What could possibly go wrong?

Sure, let’s check this out. What could possibly go wrong?

Boo!

Boo!

Back on the surface, we walked through the ruins of a few more residential buildings and then headed out the North Gate.

The North Gate

The North Gate

The Museum

Like all of the other sites in Greece, Mycenae has an archaelogical museum at the site. The Myceneans didn’t leave behind any amazing sculptural relics like the ancient Greeks, so the museum was a little light on content. But, it did provide a nice glimpse into the culture of these people that pre-dated the ancient Greeks.

One of the figurines found in Mycenae

One of the figurines found in Mycenae

The Graves

Outside of the main walls, archaeologists have uncovered a number of large tombs, called tholos tombs. These tombs are also called beehive tombs based on their structure: they are built with large, domed interiors. Some of them have lost their tombs, but two of them are still intact, including the largest, which is called the Treasury of Atreus. The entrances to these tombs are also built using the giant boulders, so it is fascinating to imagine how they managed to put it all together. We were also very intrigued by the acoustics inside of the beehives themselves.

Getting Away

The KTEL timetable clearly stated that there was a bus at 1:00 and 3:00 leaving from the site. Since, as we mentioned, we like to take our time, we didn’t rush and aimed for the 3:00 bus. We were a little worried because a taxi driver at the entrance had implied that the 1:00 bus was the last bus, but the bus driver that dropped us off said there would be a 3:00 bus.

We were in position by about 2:30, and waited… and waited… Till about 4:00… There were a few other people waiting as well, and everyone was pretty frustrated. One group pitched in to get a cab, but there wasn’t room for us. We were stuck there with one other traveler, who turned out to be a fellow American. Luckily, he had a local friend who graciously offered to pick us up and take us back to Nafplio. We aren’t sure what we would have done if she hadn’t agreed to take us as well!

 

These cats were able to catch a bus at the site faster than we were,

These cats were able to catch a bus at the site faster than we were,

Sparta, Greece

THIS… IS… SPARTA!!

Most people in our generation probably think of the movie 300 when they hear Sparta, and think of this famous line from that movie. Sparta was our second stop on our trip through the Peloponnese, and while it isn’t very much like the movie, we did quite enjoy it.

This is Sparta! No, really, this is actually the historical site of Sparta. And the modern town of Sparta beyond.

This is Sparta! No, really, this is actually the historical site of Sparta. And the modern town of Sparta beyond.

Getting There

We knew that getting to Sparta from Olympia would be challenging, but do-able. While we were in the town of Pirgos on our long trip into Olympia, we confirmed that we would need to connect through the town of Tripoli. The worker also told us that there was a 12:15 bus that would do just that.

Armed with that knowledge, we decided to take a bus from Olympia back to Pirgos at 9:30, just to be safe. We got to Pirgos at about 10:30 and went to buy the 12:15 ticket… and were informed that the next bus that would be going to Tripoli was at 3:30. In fact, no one seemed to have any idea about the supposed 12:15 bus. When we asked, repeatedly, the answer was “The next bus is 3:30.” We were pretty bummed, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. So, we spent five hours in the Pirgos station reading and working on the blog (at least there was free Wi-Fi).

When we got to Tripoli at 6:10, we were pretty excited because we heard that the bus to Sparta was leaving at 6:15. Finally, a quick connection! We bought the ticket, and went outside and waited… and waited. Finally around 6:45 the bus pulled in. But, in broken English the driver told us that we should just wait for the next bus that was coming in 10 minutes or so – looking closer it seemed that maybe the bus was full. It was a bit confusing because he did let other people on the bus. But, it was the same answer for us and another couple of backpackers… The bus pulled out of the station and we weren’t on it. Needless to say, we weren’t pleased.

We had just started to settle back in when we saw the bus driver run back into the station on foot. The ticket saleslady starting yelling at home, pointing at us and the other couple. The driver motioned at us to follow him, so we walked briskly out onto the side of the highway, where we dodged traffic to throw our bags under the bus. We got on the bus and discovered that it indeed was full. We found a spot near the rear exit where we could sit semi-comfortably in the aisle. Della did get a seat offered to her by someone halfway through, and ended up having a pleasant conversation.

So, another frustrating trip on KTEL. There are more stories like this coming as well…

At the Pirgos bus station... we spent so much time here that we probably should have listed it under "Where We Stayed"

At the Pirgos bus station… we spent so much time here that we probably should have listed it under “Where We Stayed”

Where We Stayed

Since we were a little unsure about making it all the way to Sparta, we didn’t pre-book anything. In general, there wasn’t even that much in Sparta listed on websites like hostelworld or Booking… Sparta just doesn’t seem to be on the tourist radar as much. Lonely Planet did list one budget option which didn’t even have a website, so we decided to just show up at it and hope they had space. Luckily, the Hotel Apollon did have space and turned out to be a nice place to stay. We had a spacious room, and a pretty substantial included breakfast every morning. The front desk staff was also very helpful with any questions we had.

What We Did

The most renowned site in the Sparta area is not actually the ruins of the ancient Greek civilization, but rather the ruins of the medieval fortified Byzantine city of Mystras. The city is built on the side of a mountain just 5 km away from Sparta. Normally you can take a bus to Mystras from Sparta, but the day we wanted to go was a Greek national holiday, so it didn’t seem like buses were running. Instead, we ran into the same couple that was almost left on the bus from Tripoli to Sparta, and we agreed to share a cab to the site. The cab dropped us off at the upper entrance – highly recommended since it makes it easy to walk down through the ruins. We did just that: started at the ruins of the castle at the very top, then worked our way down, visiting monasteries, the palace, and residences on the way down. The monasteries were both abandoned and active with some old but well-preserved frescoes that gave a glimpse into the Greek Orthodox culture as it existed during the late Byzantine period. Mystras is considered as one of the last remaining centers of Byzantine culture until the empire fell in the 15th century. We got particularly lucky, the day we visited, the site was free! That was exciting after having to pay for a cab to get there… and back. After visiting the site, we were able to get a cab with our fellow travelers back to Sparta from the lower entrance.

Back in town, we took a visit to the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil. It may not sound interesting, but we found it fascinating. The top floor of the museum gives the history of the olive and discusses how it and its oil can be used for a wide variety of purposes: food, light, rituals, etc. The lower floor discussed all about how to make olive oil, and had examples of the different machinery that has been used to make the oil from ancient times until the present.

We did decide to visit the ruins of ancient Sparta, but as our guidebook warned, there isn’t much remaining. The Spartans were much less interested in building temples than they were in training warriors. Just north of town, there is a small site that you can wonder around in free of charge. There are the ruins of a theater, and some scattered remains of structures from the acropolis on top of the hill. It does take some imagination to appreciate them, but the site does also provide some nice views of the surrounding valley and mountains.

Where We Ate

After being in the artificial town of Olympia, it was kind of nice to be back in an actual town where it seemed that real Greeks lived and the shops and restaurants were not geared to tourists. However, the first night we did end up eating in a restaurant in which every other table was filled with tourists (a group of British high school students on a school trip). The second night was the national holiday, so all of the sit-down restaurants were packed with celebrating locals and we just chose to eat in a less-crowded Greek fast food place. Our final night in town we ate at the Lonely Planet-recommended Tsipouradiko. This was our first experience at a place without an English menu, but luckily the waiter was able to recommend a meatball dish that we ended up enjoying quite a bit.

Final Thoughts

If you go into Sparta expecting to see sights from the movie, you will be sorely disappointed. Since that wasn’t our expectation, we enjoyed seeing the sights that the town did have to offer. And we appreciated the chance to be in a city that wasn’t just a tourist attraction as well. The weather was a little gloomy for us to completely love our time, but we definitely enjoyed our visit and would recommend it for your Peloponnese itinerary.