Athens and the Legendary Peloponnese

We burned our last 2,000 Albanian lek in an overpriced Tirana airport bar and caught a one-hour flight to Athens. It was after midnight by the time we made it through passport control, met up with a friend near baggage claim, picked up our rental car, and drove to our hotel on the edge of the city.

An animated old Greek woman welcomed us at the front desk.

“When are you headed to the islands?” she asked eagerly, assuming we would be seeking out the nightlife of Mykonos or the iconic cliffs of Santorini.

“Actually, we won’t make it to the islands this trip,” we told her. “We’re driving out to Delphi and Olympia tomorrow.”

Our host was aghast.

“O-Olympia??” she stuttered. “Three young guys, and you’re not going to the islands? I don’t believe it.”

The Athenian Treasury at Delphi

The Athenian Treasury at Delphi

Perhaps our host was right that we should have been looking for beaches and nightclubs instead of ancient ruins. Maybe Daniel and I are boring. But for history nerds like us, the Peloponnese was anything but.

We started in Delphi, the famous ancient sanctuary that served as home of the oracle. For centuries, Greek city-states would tithe from the spoils of battle to build monuments in Delphi, commemorating victories and the sage advice of the oracle. Excavations in the late 19th century revealed thousands of treasures, sculptures, and structures, including the Treasury of Athens, built in honor of the 490 BCE Battle of Marathon.

Overlooking the Pleistos Valley

Overlooking the Pleistos Valley

Theater at Delphi

Theater at Delphi

Fightin' dudes

Fightin’ dudes

Tholos of Delphi

Tholos of Delphi

Our next stop was Olympia – famous, of course, as the original home of the Olympic games. We had been told to keep our expectations low for Ancient Olympia, but we were pleasantly surprised by the number of ruins and relics, especially in the excellent Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Ancient Olympia

Ancient Olympia

Finish line at the Olympic Stadium. We couldn't find the Olympic swimming pool.

Finish line at the Olympic Stadium. We couldn’t find the Olympic swimming pool.

Ruins of the Temple of Zeus. The single standing column was restored before the 2004 Olympics with the sponsorship of multiple institutional benefactors.

Ruins of the Temple of Zeus. The single standing column was restored before the 2004 Olympics with the sponsorship of multiple institutional benefactors.

Part of one of the awesome pediments of the Temple of Zeus in the museum

Part of one of the awesome pediments of the Temple of Zeus in the museum

Shifting historical time periods by a few thousand years, we drove south to Mystras, near ancient Sparta. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the fortified city was among the largest in the Byzantine empire and served as capital for the Byzantine Despotate of Mystras.

Looking up at the fortified city of Mystras

Looking up at the fortified city of Mystras

One of many churches and monasteries in the city

One of many churches and monasteries in the city

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On the remains of the castle at Mystras

On the remains of the castle at Mystras

Driving across Greece was a breeze, and not just because we were coming off a week in chaotic Albania. The country’s system of freeways – apparently mostly built before the 2004 Summer Olympic Games – are in excellent condition, well-signed in both the Greek and Roman alphabets, and largely devoid of traffic.

The scenery continually reminded me of the rugged beauty of California’s central coast, and for the first time, I started understanding why my native home state is sometimes described as “Mediterranean.”

We enjoyed a long scenic drive around the rustic Mani Peninsula, the southernmost tip of mainland Greece.

Roadside views on the Mani Peninsula

Roadside views on the Mani Peninsula

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The surprisingly picturesque Dimitrios Shipwreck, perhaps once used to smuggle cigarettes between Italy and Turkey

The surprisingly picturesque Dimitrios Shipwreck, perhaps once used to smuggle cigarettes between Italy and Turkey

Our next stop was Monemvasia, a fortress town situated on the side of a small island just off the east side of the Peloponnese. The old town is an interesting mix of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman architectural influences – all in a surreal setting.

Monemvasia's old town sits on the opposite side of that giant rock

Monemvasia’s old town sits on the opposite side of that giant rock

Getting our Omega-3's

Getting our Omega-3’s

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Narrow walkways in Monemvasia's old town

Narrow walkways in Monemvasia’s old town

View from the upper old town

View from the upper old town

12th-century Church of Agia Sofia

12th-century Church of Agia Sofia

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Heading north from Monemvasia, we stopped to explore the archaeological site of Mycenae, one of the centers of Greek civilization from 1600 BCE to 1100 BCE. A thousand years before Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, the Mycenaeans were living and building with unbelievable sophistication. The Lion’s Gate entrance has stood just like it does today since the 13th century BCE. The following week, we would see many of the excavated Mycenaean treasures in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Lion's Gate entrance to Mycenae

Lion’s Gate entrance to Mycenae

One of several beehive-shaped tholos tombs

One of several beehive-shaped tholos tombs

We spent two nights in the coastal city of Nafplio, where we visited multiple Venetian fortresses and took a short road trip to Epidaurus (Epidavros), famous for being home to the best-preserved ancient theater in Greece.

By September, we had fully reached shoulder season, and sites like Epidaurus were almost empty. We bypassed football stadium-sized parking lots and walked right in.

View from our hotel room in Nafplio

View from our hotel room in Nafplio

Touristy but lovely city streets

Touristy but lovely city streets

The massive Venetian Palamidi fortress, which later fell to the Ottoman Turks

The massive Venetian Palamidi fortress, which later fell to the Ottoman Turks

The theater of Epidaurus seats 14,000

The theater of Epidaurus seats 14,000

We ended our three months in Europe with eight nights in Athens. A week in Athens would be more than enough time for any fast-moving traveler, but we enjoyed taking our time and getting to know the city.

Formerly one of the dirtiest and most polluted cities in Europe, Athens has made some progress toward becoming more tourist-friendly – but whatever the city lacks in charm, it easily makes up for in fascinating history.

One of the highlights of our entire trip was walking up the steps of the Acropolis toward the Parthenon, marveling at the ancient people who traveled the same road thousands of years before and the scale of human achievement in front of us. I was nearly moved to tears.

Light traffic near Syntagma Square

Light traffic near Syntagma Square

Overlooking the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater

Overlooking the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater

Tourists on the steps of the Acropolis

Tourists on the steps of the Acropolis

Parthenon

Parthenon

View of the city and Temple of Olympian Zeus

View of the city and Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Athena Nike

Temple of Athena Nike

Reconstructed Stoa of Attalos

Reconstructed Stoa of Attalos

Still-standing Temple of Hephaestus

Still-standing Temple of Hephaestus

Acropolis view from the Ancient Agora of Athens

Acropolis view from the Ancient Agora of Athens

Columns everywhere! Temple of Olympian Zeus

Columns everywhere! Temple of Olympian Zeus

The less attractive side of Athens, after dark

The less attractive side of Athens, after dark

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Some of the many treasures recovered from tombs at Mycenae, in the National Archaeological Museum

Artemision Bronze, recovered from a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea

Artemision Bronze, recovered from a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea

Did I mention that I ate nothing but gyros and souvlaki for a week?

Did I mention that I ate nothing but gyros and souvlaki for a week?

There’s little doubt why Greece is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. We loved every minute of it.

18 Comments

  1. Those are amazing pictures – the theaters are just amazing (and the rest are too!) Thanks so much for sharing! I can see why you loved it so much!

  2. Greece is lovely! I did an archaeological tour there a few years ago and went to all the places you mentioned! It was wonderful to see pictures of them again. Mystras was by far my favourite, each corner you turned there was another church tucked away in some idealic spot.

  3. So cool! Greece is on my list of places to explore…you packed a lot in!! Ikaria is one of the islands that has been on my list bucket list for years. One of National Geographics blue zones where the residents live to be centenarians. I’m guessing their diet has a lot to do with it – how can you go wrong with that plate of sardines you ate?? Looked like a great trip!!

    • We definitely want to return someday to see the islands. I would love to see one of the “blue zone” places; there’s a lot to learn from those lifestyles. Hydra — a completely car-free island fairly close to Athens — is also high on our list.

  4. Looks like an amazing trip. Definitely struck up wanderlust and a strong desire to get to Greece being a history nerd myself 🙂

  5. I think my favourite pastime is trying to burn through currency before leaving a country. What fun. More seriously though, this looks amazing. Thanks for taking the time to upload all your travel photos. The history is so fascinating. It must be humbling to amble through this millennium-old architecture. Thanks again!

    • We were disappointed that the Duty Free store in the Tirana airport only accepted Euros, not the local currency. So instead we had a bunch of overpriced coffee drinks. I find those ancient ruins so moving — you definitely feel the shortness of your own life in comparison to the length of human history.

  6. I would take the spots you went to over the Greek beaches any day. I mean, I’m sure the beaches are gorgeous too, but so much history there and certainly a lot older than anything you would find in America.

    • Yes, “old” American sights don’t quite seem as ancient after touring the ruins of 3,500-year-old towns. But we still enjoy them anyway!

  7. Amazing pictures. Hard to believe anyone in his/her right mind would prefer “beaches and nightclubs”.

  8. Very convincing story on Athnes. I have never been there. It is ion the list when the kids are older and start to study in school the Greek empires.

    And nothing wrong with eating local food all week long 🙂 !

    • There’s definitely a ton of educational value there. I remember zoning out during history class when I was 10 or 11 years old, probably just because I didn’t have any context for it.

  9. Great photos!
    I was thrown off a bit by the “Temple of Athena” caption – that is the Tholos of Delphi. While it was in tribute to Athena Pronaia, the distinction “Temple of Athena” could leave it mistaken for the Temple of Athena Nike. It is more commonly known as the Tholos of Delphi or the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia.

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