Ancient Greece Road Trip
Who isn’t interested in ancient Greek history, with the mythological stories of Greek Gods and flying horses? We hear about them in childhood stories and in films, but it’s hard to imagine that the sites of many of these Greek myths are actually real.
We love visiting Greece and have been to a couple of the islands already. We love the food, the people and the scenery. With a week holiday from work in Kyiv, we set off to explore the mainland, starting with exploring the things to do in Athens, and then setting off on a Greece road trip to visit some of the famous and not so famous ancient Greek ruins in the Peloponnese. We had considered visiting some of the really famous sites, like Delphi and the Greek natural wonder that is Meteora, but we decided that not so famous attracted us more.
Peloponnese Road Trip, Greece
It’s possible to visit these ancient Greek sites on day trips, if you have more than a short stay in Athens. They are only a couple of hours away from the Greek capital, but we decided to get out of the city and make a Greek road trip of it, spending a few days by the sea. We hired a car from Athens so we had lots of flexibility.
The seaside village of Tolo was an ideal place to base ourselves. A long sandy beach with a parallel road of bars, restaurants and shops, it’s a typical Greek seaside resort. We took a road trip there from Athens, stopping at various sites on the way, and then drove out to other sites during our four-day stay.
First stop on our Peloponnese road trip took us over the Isthmus of Corinth, which joins mainland Greece to Peloponnese. The Corinth Canal was cut through the rock to join together the Gulf of Corinth and the Sardonic Gulf. Prior to this being dug out, ships had to go around Peloponnese.
The Corinth Canal, at only 25 meters wide, was built in the late 19th century, although various Greek and Roman rulers made plans to separate the Peloponnese from the mainland, thousands of years before. To imagine that they managed to dig out the canal in 1800 and something is amazing enough, but to think that they believed they could do it before that is more so. It was an introduction to the fantastic historical engineering to come.
Crossing the canal brought us to the city of Ancient Corinth. This was a civilization I’d heard of from my Catholic upbringing as New Testament readings often include letters from Saint Paul to the Corinthians. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that Corinth was in Greece though.
Ancient Corinth’s main period began in around 5th Century BC and lasted until around 4th Century AD. During this time, it acted as one of the administrators of the ancient Olympic Games at nearby Isthmia.
Ancient Corinth in Greek Myths
As with all Ancient Greek cities, the history is intertwined with Greek myths. It is said to have been founded by King Sisyphus, who cheated death twice and was thus punished by Hades, god of the underworld, to forever push a rock up a hill. Every time he reached the top, the weight would propel it down again and he would have to continue pushing. There’s a lesson for you.
Ancient Corinth was also the home of famous winged (is this pronounced ‘wing-d’ or ‘wing-ED) horse Pegasus, who oddly was one of the many sons of the god Poseidon and born from the neck of Medusa when she was slain by Perseus. Greek myths eh? Full of strange births and impractical sexual relationships.
Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts fame, (who didn’t spend many a Sunday afternoon watching that film? – although on discussion, we can’t actually distinguish it from Sinbad the Sailor) also settled in Corinth after he found the Golden Fleece.
Back in Athens, we did a walking tour with Athens Free Walking Tour, where our excellent guide, Alex, told us excitedly about lots of Greek myths. “There’s always some truth in them” he said. The truth in a horse with wings being the son of a god, I’m unsure, but perhaps there’s something in it.
Answers in the comments, please.
Visiting the Ruins at Ancient Corinth
The first thing you see when you drive up to Ancient Corinth is the Temple of Apollo, a typical Doric temple of huge columns. Our Athens free tour guide, Alex, told us that these were built by piling up sections of fluted column, which had a hollow centre, which was then filled to hold them together. How amazing that this level of engineering was available so long ago. Seven of the 21 original columns of the Temple still stand.
The site also includes ruins of the city’s infrastructure, with shops, fountains and a theatre. Outside the grounds, you can see the remains of the amphitheater, but it’s not in nearly as good condition as some of the others we saw.
Ancient Corinth Museum
The site also has a fascinating museum attached. Inside are two huge marble statues of men, called Kouroi. As impressive as these 1.8 meter statues are, what is more incredible is that they were only found in 2010 because looters stole them from a tomb. Before this, they weren’t even known to be there.
The Kouroi guarded the graves of two men, who died at the same time and were buried together with the statues. Rescued from being sold at auction, the statues were returned to Greece, and the looted area was excavated to find other remains.
We couldn’t get photos of the Kouroi, because they still guard the graves in the museum. You can find photos online though.
Ancient Corinth is overlooked from the old acropolis of Acrocorinth, high on the hill above. While the city fell from use in the early centuries AD, Acrocorinth remained in continuous use as a fortress until the 19th century. We didn’t actually realise it was there during our visit, so didn’t go up.
How to get from Athens to Corinth
The journey from Athens to Corinth takes about 1- 1/2 hours via the 8. It’s a fast route with several toll booths along the way. Each toll booth takes 1.40-2.80 Euros, totally just under 7 Euros. There are different lanes to go down depending on whether you have a pass, are paying cash and need change, or can just throw the coins in the basket.
The site is signposted from the main road, taking you into the countryside on the way. Outside the site, a row of tavernas and souvenir shops have sprung up, assuming they weren’t there in ancient times. We had a great gelato ice cream, and a couple of the tavernas have an impressive view over the ancient site.
It costs 8 Euros to enter.
Next stop on our Greek Road trip from Athens was the site of the Ancient city of Mycenae. This site, just west of Corinth, is older than Corinth, with the main city beginning in the 14th century BC. Mycenae was built on a hill, which you can see must have been a very strategic position, because from the top you can see all around to the sea and mountains.
It’s quite a steep climb to the top, where you can see the remains of the walls of the palace and city buildings. One of the most impressive things is walking through the Lion’s Gate, so-called because of the carving of lions above it. Going through, you can really imagine that you are actually going to walk into an ancient Greek marketplace.
Ancient Mycenae in Greek Mythology
The Mycenaeans were one of the dominant civilisations in Ancient Greece during the late Bronze age, until Argos took over.
According to the myths, Mycenae was founded by Perseus. You may recognise the name, as he’s rather famous in Greek hero circles. He was another son of Zeus (he got around a bit), he was the one who killed the gorgon Medusa, her with the snake hair. Since looking at her could turn people into stone (which must have isolated her rather), he used his shield as a reflection to look for her without becoming a statue.
He cut off her head, and as you’ll remember from the story of Corinth, the winged horse Perseus was born out of her head.
Visiting Ancient Mycenae
Following the path up to the hill, you pass lots of ruins of the various buildings. The walls are known as ‘cyclopean’, huge boulders pilled up roughly, unlike some of the more worked blocks from other sites. Apparently, these were built for Perseus by cyclops. As you no doubt know, cyclops were one-eyed and very strong, which is perhaps why people believed that they must have built the walls.
The path through the ruins takes you to the top, where the view is amazing, and then down the other side. At the bottom, there are some incredible tombs. ‘Beehive’ tombs were built into the earth, as you go through the narrow entry, the tomb opens up into a huge dome. It’s about 13 meters high. Imagine that feat of engineering, and then remember that it was built thousands of years ago. Incredible.
You can see why people chose to believe that gods and mythical beasts were involved.
How to get from Athens to Mycenae
Mycenae was included on our Greek road trip, but you can also do it on a day trip from Athens. Follow the route to Corinth and then the 7 towards Argos. Turn off at Mikines. You need to travel through that town and out the other side to the ancient side. It’s well signposted.
It costs 12 Euros to get in.
One of the smaller ancient Greek sites we saw on our road trip was also a Mycenaean city. Ancient Tiryn is just outside the town of Napflio. It was the site we visited that had had the least reconstruction and is basically just low walls now. What is cool is that it’s mainly all visible from the road.
While Tiryns was a Mycenaean city, according to the myths, it was built by Perseus’ grandfather, so it needed to have been built first. Depending on how closely myth reflects history, anyway.
Tiryns doesn’t have any spectacular remains, like the Lion’s Gate and beehive tombs at Mycenae or the doric columns of Corinth and some of the other sites. We did largely have it to ourselves though.
Ancient Tiryns is easily accessed from Napflio and cost just 6 Euros to get in.
The amphitheater at Ancient Epidaurus was one of the most impressive sites we saw on our Peloponnese road trip. Constructed in the 4th century BC, it seats 6000 people and is used again today for performances. It’s clear to see where it was reconstructed after it was rediscovered in the late 19th century, but the fact that so much of it remains that it can still be used is amazing.
Epidaurus was a city in ancient Greece, which held a centre for healing, known as an Asklepieion. Named after the god of healing, Asklepios, the god who gave us the medical symbol of the snake-entwined staff. People came to the sanctuary for a range of health-giving treatments, including baths and springs and god-worshiping. The main event was for the patient to sleep, when Asklepios would visit them and take away their illnesses. Well, sometimes, all you need is a good night’s sleep.
Music, theatre and the reading of philosophical texts was also part of the healing process, which is the reason for the huge amphitheater. Sports played a part and the running track is also visible, still with rows of seats at each side and the starting pillars at one end.
As well as the amphitheatre and the running track, the site has the remains of a doric temple and other columned buildings, as well as the old baths and healing areas.
The Museum at Epidaurus
On the site is a fascinating museum, housing lots of the statues and findings from the archaeological investigations. There are huge stone blocks carved with information on the building of the temple and sanctuary buildings. I think the Egyptians were right with the invention of paper. It must have been far less cumbersome to keep records on that than huge slabs.
While outside some of the columns still remain in situ, inside the museum, parts of the temples have been reconstructed.
Visiting other ruins of Epidaurus
The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus is only part of the old city you can visit. The town of Palaia Epidaurus is near the archeological site, on the coast. Apart from being a very pretty little seaside town, it has a walking trail of other remains. We drove around to the south of the town to the Athena Ecofarm shop, where there’s a small taverna on the beach where we had some good food. Signs on that beach point to submerged ruins, accessible by snorkel we’d assume.
In the town is a small amphitheatre, which really is small, without comparing it to the immense one at the Sanctuary.
Visiting Epidaurus from Athens
We visited Epidaurus from Tolo, on the Peloponnese coast, but it can also be visited on a day trip from Athens. Just past Ancient Corinth, signs post to Epidaurus so it’s not hard to find. It’s about a two-hour drive.
Visiting Ancient Nemea wasn’t actually on our Peloponnese itinerary. We headed out to Argos – Brits who are reading this will know why the name made us giggle – to see the sites there. However, we basically drove around the town, followings signs, and out the other side. We couldn’t really find the sites or anywhere to park. We realised that Nemea was ahead, so we changed our plans and went there instead.
The Ancient Olympic Games
Nemea was one of the sites of the ancient Olympic Games, along with Delphi, and of course, Olympia. Every four years, the Games were held and men from the various groups – Spartans, Athenians, Macedonians etc. competed in different sports. The first was held in 776 BC. The sports included footraces (running barefoot), boxing, wrestling, racing in armor and chariot racing. Most of these were done naked. Yep. In the buff. I guess togas aren’t particularly aerodynamic and would slow runners down. Imagine naked wrestling though….
The site at Nemea is divided into two areas, although one ticket gets you into both. The first is the actual race track. One of the cool things about Nemea is that they found the original tunnel that the athletes had to run through before they competed. You can actually walk through this tunnel and there is ancient ‘graffiti’, messages carved into the rock by the original athletes!
The race track was built in the middle of a natural dip in the land, so seating for the spectators rises up on both sides. The stone starting line is still there too. The track is used for the Nemea Games, every four years now, when local people and visitors have a footrace (not naked though….).
The Temple of Zeus
The Ancient Olympic Games were originally a tribute to the Greek god Zeus. Thus, the other site is the Temple of Zeus, another doric style temple which is being reconstructed. In the past, only three columns remained standing, but more are being put up now. At this site, you could actually get really close to the columns to appreciate just how huge they are. There’s an exhibition on how they are reconstructing them, and the amount of machinery being used really makes you appreciate the amazing feat of engineering that they were back in Ancient Greece.
There is a really interesting museum next to the Temple, which shows pictures and writing of it from back to the 16th century, when famous writers and artists like Lear, and one of the Wordsworths visited. It explains a lot about the ancient Olympic games, with ancient pictures as well as videos of reconstructions (again, not naked….).
Palamidi Fortress at Napflio
Palamidi Fortress is not ancient, not by Greek standards anyway. A mere youngster at 16th century, it was built by the Venetians, taken by the Turks and then liberated during Greek independence.
Stood on the hill above Napflio, the walls of the fortress are really well-preserved and you can see where it was used as a prison. It’s possible to walk around the walls, admiring the fantastic view over the sea, and when we visited in May, it was covered in beautiful wild flowers.
As it’s on a hill, it’s a steep climb up, but as we had a car, we drove out of Napflio town, and up the hill. It seems like you are leaving the area completely as the road curves round the wrong way, seemingly, but then it comes back around to the car park of the fortress.
And what a car park! There not being a massive need for spaces for Volvos back in the 16th century, the car park is a small area of concrete at the front of the entrance. It’s far too small for the number of visitors so people park on the verges, which drop down quite spectacularly from the edge….
The castle costs 8 Euros to enter. If you don’t fancy the parking, and you don’t want to walk up, you can visit on the hop on-hop off bus.
Nuts and Bolts for a Greek road trip
Renting a car from Athens
We hired a car for our Greece road trip for five days from Athens Car Rental. Given the current economic problems in Greece, we wanted to rent a car from a local car hire company, rather than one of the multinationals. We rented a pretty new Toyota Yaris.
We picked the car up from the airport and one of the Athens Car Rental staff met us and handed over the car. We dropped it off at the same place on the way back. The guy was friendly and chatty and even dropped us off at the next metro station, so that we only had to pay 1.80 Euros for the ticket, rather than the 10 Euro airport fee. We didn’t have any problems with the car, so we can’t comment on how they deal with them, but we’d recommend them.
If you like road trips, how about a self-drive trip to Uganda? We did it in the summer of 2019 and we have several posts.
Where to stay on Peloponnese
We booked a holiday apartment in the Ntemos Apartments in Tolo, which is on the coast, just south of Napflio. Our room had an incredible view over the bay and small islands and it was a couple of minutes walk to the beach. Our visit being in early May, it was off-peak in Tolo, since it’s a beach resort. Most bars and restaurants seemed to be open, but they were very quiet.
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