To paraphrase one of our fellow travelers, there is "old" and then there is "way old." After several years exploring the "old" ruins of Mexico, Central and South America, we set off on November 28, 2006, to visit the "way old" ruins of Greece.
Our route would take us through 550 miles of mainland Greece, beginning and ending at Athens, through Corinth, Delphi, and Meteora.
CORINTH: ELEGANT RUINS IN GREECE'S FIRST "SIN CITY" - Our first stop was Corinth. In ancient times it was a rollicking town - one of Greece's richest trading centers and the site of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, where Greeks went to frolic with "sacred" courtesans.
CORINTH, GREECE - The wicked ways of the ancient Corinthians so raised the ire of St. Paul the Apostle that he spent 18 months preaching in Corinth from 51 to 52 A.D. before being dragged to this platform, called the bema, and accused of "persuading people to worship God in ways contrary to the law."
CORINTH, GREECE - The Temple of Apollo is Corinth's dominant feature. Built in 550 B.C., it was one of the buildings preserved by the Romans when they rebuilt the site in 46 B.C. (after having razed it a century before).
CORINTH, GREECE - Like many ancient Greek ruins, what remains of temple columns rise above vast amounts of fallen stonework.
CORINTH, GREECE - Below the Temple of Apollo is the Corinth agora - the marketplace. These are the remains of shops at the western end.
CORINTH, GREECE - The ruined archways call on our imagination to see the gleaming buildings that once were.
CORINTH, GREECE - Headless statues are tucked in small alcoves and beside stone walls. We learned that many were made intentionally with interchangeable heads that could be replaced when the city changed its mind on its rulers or heroes.
CORINTH, GREECE - Inside the Corinth museum we found more headless statues. There seemed to be far more stone bodies on display than there were heads.
CORINTH, GREECE - Corinth's museum also displayed an incredible mosaic honoring Dionysos - the Greek god of wine and theater. It once graced the wall of a local Roman villa in the 2nd century A.D.
THE CORINTH (GREECE) CANAL - Corinth sits at the neck of a narrow isthmus between the Ionian and Aegean Seas. A canal to link the two seas was first proposed in the 6th century B.C., but nothing came of it until the emperor Nero struck the first blow with a golden pickaxe in 67 A.D. But it took 1826 years before technology and a French engineering company could complete the channel. Today it is too narrow for most merchant vessels.
ARACHOVA, GREECE - After leaving Corinth and the Peloponnese region, we traveled to Arachova, a small ski resort town, population 4,000, that seems to cling precariously to the side of Mount Parnassos. Here we had lunch.
DELPHI, GREECE - We arrived in Delphi in time to see a beautiful sunset over the Gulf of Corinth. At the end of the village's main street, an array of flags represent the countries that visited Greece during the Summer Olympics 2004. The statue commemorates the eternal Olympic flame carried through the village on its way to Athens.
DELPHI, GREECE: THE SACRED SITE OF THE ORACLE - We entered the mystical ruins of Delphi. Some say the spirit of Apollo still drifts through the pillars of the ancient temple once inhabited by the Oracle, the priestess who sat admist vapors and muttered prophecies that often guided the course of nations.
DELPHI, GREECE - Central among the Delphi ruins is the Temple of Apollo, first built around the 7th century B.C., rebuilt after a fire in the 6th century B.C., destroyed in 373 B.C. by an earthquake, and rebuilt for a third time in 330 B.C. Today only the foundation and six doric columns remain.
DELPHI, GREECE - Visitors seeking the Oracle's guidance would ascend to the Temple of Apollo via the Sacred Way, a curving path of switchbacks up the hillside. Entering the path, they would first pass a marketplace, then nearly 3,000 statues along the way.
DELPHI, GREECE - Also along the Sacred Way, pilgrims would pass by numerous "treasuries" where the gifts of grateful beneficiaries of the Oracle's guidance would be stored. The most impressive is the Treasury of Athens, built to commemorate the Athenians' victory over the Persians at Marathon.
DELPHI, GREECE - Near the spot where the Oracle delivered her pronouncements we gathered for a group photo - believing we might also benefit from whatever divine powers might still be lingering at the site. Mary and Bob Schmidt (on the left) are the good friends who accompanied us.
DELPHI, GREECE - When visitors to Delphi were not consulting the Oracle, they might have gathered in this theater with its spectacular view of the sanctuary and the valley below. Built in the 4th century B.C., it accommodated 5,000 spectators.
DELPHI, GREECE - At the very top of the hillside overlooking the Delphi sanctuary are the ruins of a stadium. Here the second-most important sporting event was held in Greece - the Pythian Games (the Olympics were, of course, the most significant). Among the sports were chariot races that would race around the narrow oval infield.
DELPHI, GREECE - Jeanne could hardly resist taking a lap or two, sprinting on the same ground that Greek athletes trod 3,000 years ago.
DELPHI, GREECE - In the valley below the main Delphi sanctuary there was another temple, this one dedicated to the goddess Athena. The purpose of its most prominent feature - the circular tholos - remains a mystery.
DELPHI, GREECE - Inside the museum is the Omphalos, a sacred stone once housed inside the Temple of Apollo. Legend says this stone signified that Delphi was the center of the known world, so determined when two eagles released by Zeus in opposite directions flew around the globe and crossed directly over it. A more recent theory is that the Omphalos was positioned over a natural fissure beneath the temple and served to channel the hallucinogenic vapors (probably ethylene) into the Oracle's chamber.
DELPHI, GREECE - The most famous artifact in the museum is the Charioteer, a bronze statue of a youth in a chariot race. Originally, the figure stood in a bronze chariot drawn by two horses, but only pieces of the sculpture remain.
DELPHI, GREECE - Today's small village of Delphi overlooks the beautiful Amfissa valley and the Gulf of Corinth. In the valley were nearly three million olive trees, the largest olive tree grove in Greece.
METEORA, GREECE: CLIFFTOP SANCTUARIES IN THE CLOUDS - Continuing our journey northward, we reached the Plain of Thessaly and encountered massive granite pinnacles. At the top were monasteries, the earliest built in the 14th century by monks seeking refuge from Turkish pirates. This is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.
METEORA, GREECE - The Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapapsas was built in the latter part of the 15th century.
METEORA, GREECE - Once there were 24 of these mountaintop monasteries. Today only six remain active, sparcely occupied by monks and nuns. We visited the Monastery of Saint Stephan, one of the oldest dating back to 1350, which overlooks the modern-day town of Kalambaka.
METEORA, GREECE - Our guide Cassandra gave us a tour of the monastery's chapel (no photos were allowed beyond this point).
METEORA, GREECE - "Meteora" means "suspended in air." Until the 1920s, the only access monks had to these monasteries was a net hitched over a hook and hoisted by rope and a handcranked windlass. The ropes were replaced only when, according to the monks, "the Lord let them break."
METEORA, GREECE - Today there are easier ways to access the Meteora monasteries. This one, the Monastery of Saint Barbara Rousanou (probably named after the first hermit to live on the rock) could be reached by a wooded trail and a stone stairway.
METEORA, GREECE - Prevalent throughout the monasteries we visited were icons, painted images that depict the visual Gospel. Outside the town of Kalambaka, we stopped by an "icon factory" where skilled craftsmen (and women) still practice the 1500-year old art of iconography.
METEORA, GREECE - The "icon factory" outside of Kalambaka is the place where Greek Orthodox priests from throughout the region come to shop.
THERMOPYLAE, GREECE - Under steadily darkening skies, we left Kalambaka on our way back to Athens. Along the way we traveled through the Pass of Thermopylae ("Hot Gates") where in 480 B.C. a band of 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians (the warriors, not the actors) held off a huge Persian army for three days, giving Athens time to prepare for the battle that would drive the Persians out of Greece and preserve democracy in the western world. Today the pass is marked by a statue of Leonidas, the Spartan king who refused to retreat.
AN EVENING IN ATHENS - There is perhaps no better time to enter Athens for the first time than at night. From throughout most of the city, the magnificent Acropolis is visible, made even more spectacular when illuminated at night.
ATHENS, GREECE - There is perhaps no scene more breathtaking than a visitor's first view of the Parthenon shining like an iridescent jewel high above nighttime Athens.
ATHENS, GREECE - Imagine living in a city where this is your view every evening. The Parthenon at night is definitely one of the "1000 Places" in the world that can take your breath away.
ATHENS, GREECE - For more than 3,000 years, the Acropolis in central Athens has captivated visitors, rulers, armies, and residents.
ATHENS, GREECE - To reach the top of the Acropolis, visitors climb the steps to the Propylea, the entryway to perhaps the greatest architectural masterpiece on the planet.
ATHENS, GREECE - The Propylea was built between 437 and 431 B.C. to control entrance to the Acropolis. When we visited (in 2006), the entire right side of the structure was encased in scaffolding as part of a restoration effort for the Temple of Nike.
ATHENS, GREECE - Some say the Parthenon is more striking from a distance...less obvious construction cranes, a more dramatic setting. But we found the "up-close" view to be just as spectacular.
ATHENS, GREECE - Our "we were there" photograph. On Saturday, December 2, 2006, we checked off one of most breathtaking "1000 Places" we hope to visit - the Parthenon atop the Acropolis.
ATHENS, GREECE - Our co-travelers, Bob and Mary Schmidt, take a moment from their explorations of the Acropolis to be photographed with the Parthenon as the backdrop.
ATHENS, GREECE - As hard as it is to believe today, the Parthenon was not always held in such high esteem. The Ottomans used it to store gunpowder, and in 1687 it suffered its greatest blow when attacking Venetians fired a mortar and blew it apart. Today a reconstruction project is underway to repair as much of the explosion damage as possible.