The stunning scenes of... Ancient Greece

| January 23, 2008

Quality Control Executive Heather Fitsell recently travelled to Greece with Cox & Kings.

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As I arrived into the hustle and bustle of Athens on a warm November evening my illusions of white buildings and clear blue skies evaporated. The image I had in my head of Greece was one of the Greek islands, such as Santorini, but as my journey through mainland Greece progressed, I was far from disappointed with the scenery that I saw.

Our first day took us to the heights of the Acropolis, which provided us with fantastic 360-degree views of Athens. The Propylaia, which forms the towering entrance, and the Parthenon itself are undergoing an extensive restoration project, which is due to last for many years to come, and we were a little surprised to see some scaffolding around the site. However, this process itself is quite fascinating, as the stonemasons sculpt new white marble pieces to replace lost or damaged parts of the building structures, with the aim of re-building the Parthenon to its former glory.

Our journey continued over the striking Corinth canal, which links the Ionian and Aegean Seas and on to the Peloponnese and the World Heritage-listed site of ancient Mycenae . Passing through the dramatic Lion Gate, we entered this wonderful site, which features in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For 400 years Mycenae was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Greece and it remains steeped in history and myth. It is also blessed with stunning views of the orange groves below and surrounding mountains. Whilst modern Mycenae is not particularly interesting, visitors must be sure to try some locally produced fresh orange juice.

The small port town of Nafplio, set at the foot of the Palamidi Fortress, was to be our home for the next two nights. Nafplio is a beautiful town and we were lucky enough to be staying at the elegantly restored Hotel Grande Bretagne, right on the sea front. We found Nafplio quite sleepy at the end of November, but the vast array of seafront restaurants are a clear indication of the throng of tourists that visit this town during the warmer months. Be sure to try some Greek specialties during your stay, including saganaki (fried cheese), mousaka, or souvlaki (cubes of meat on a skewer). From Nafplio we took a half-day trip to Epidavros, which was historically known as a place of miraculous healing. The site has been acknowledged as the birthplace of Asclepius - the son of Apollo, god of medicine and healing. Today visitors flock to see the amphitheatre, one of the best-preserved classical Greek buildings. Renowned for its amazing acoustics, the amphitheatre is still used for the annual Hellenic Festival. We went on to explore the peaceful remains at the less-visited sanctuary, which were definitely worth the extra time spent at Epidavros. The road from Nafplio to Olympia eventually took us through some of the countryside devastated by the fires last summer. The Greeks have had to clear 2,700 square kilometres of burnt trees. As a result the hillsides are stark and unforgiving; we can barely begin to imagine what a terrible time this was for the Greeks. The fire fighters did a sterling job in protecting the ancient site of Olympia - although the sacred Hill of Kronos was completely burnt, the rest of the site was spared and the devastation around ancient Olympia did not in any way detract from our enjoyment and appreciation of it.

The site has been left as it fell and the ruins of the 5th century Temple of Zeus and the stadium with its 120 metre sprint track and judges seats can be explored up close. The museum helps to put everything into perspective by completing the story and demonstrating the grandeur of the site. The pediments from the Temple of Zeus were, for me, the most impressive remains in the museum. The eastern pediment depicts the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos and the western pediment shows the fight between Centaurs and Lapiths. We took an early morning drive the following day over the new 2,880 metre long Rio-Antirio Bridge from the Peloponnese back to the mainland. The bridge is a beautiful construction and was inaugurated just one week before the 2004 Olympic Games. We then followed the mountainous roads to the village of Delphi, the naval of the earth for ancient Greeks. Delphi is a small village located on a cliff edge and is very popular with tourists. Ancient Delphi is a very spiritual place, based around the Sanctuary of Apollo, and houses a number of treasuries, an amphitheatre from the 4th-Century BC and a stadium. Whilst the site is quite steep, if you can make it up to the top of the amphitheatre the stunning view is very rewar ding. A visit to this beautiful site was a wonderful way to end our trip to Greece.

Cox & Kings' 11-night Heart of Ancient Greece tour visits the the ancient sites of Olympia, Delphi, Mycenae and Epidaurus and starts from £2,495 per person.

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