The Peloponnese peninsula is literally chopped off from mainland Greece by the isthmus bisection of the Corinth Canal that connects the Ionian and Myleon Seas like a pencil transit on a blueprint.
In the 19th Century French engineers were famous for digging canals — the Suez and the Corinth Canals — but they failed with the Panama Canal because of the pesky malarial mosquitoes.
The Corinth Canal.
Actually, the ancient Greeks began the Corinth Canal about 600 B.C. but the task was beyond their technology. In 67 A.D. Nero visited Greece to participate in the Panhellenic Isthmian Games and he announced his decision to continue the construction of the canal, seeing himself as another Hercules splitting the isthmus apart. In less than five months, thanks to the hard labor of 6,000 Jewish prisoners sent by Vespasian from Palestine, a roughly 2 1/2 mile moat had been dug and 12 wells 30 feet wide. After Nero's death the building of the canal stopped until modern times.
The French completed it in 1893. Volcanic ash and pumice from the Santorini blast was swabbed on the steep walls to keep them from caving in. There are no locks on the canal because the two seas are at the same elevation, with no tides.
Corinth was one of the most important seaports in ancient Greece, and it was an important gelato stop for our Insight Vacations motorcoach tour of the famous peninsula. St. Paul had lived here for 18 months and presumably produced the Bible book Corinthians while he was in the area.
Spartan warriors passed this way during the Peloponnesian War with Athens, which was fought mostly in and around the early Greek capital; we were on our way to the first modern Greek capital, Nafplia, which ruled in the 1820s, but now is the seat of government for the province of Argolis. There are seven provinces on the peninsula..
The drive along the moist southern Peloponnese coast from Corinth to Nafplia is one of the most beautiful in the world, with hairpin turns on paved highways cutting through groves of wind stunted pines.
Ancient healers included Hippocrates.
The Peloponnese has many hidden and famous secrets: Olympia, home of the first sporting games around 776 B.C.; Mycenae, hilltop citadel of King Agamemnon, general of the Greek forces that invaded Troy around 1,200 B.C.; The Argolis Plain, one of the top agricultural centers in Greece for fruits, vegetables, honey, tomatoes, olives, oranges, clementines, long melons shaped like squash, artichokes, and worry beads. The biggest secret for me was the UNESCO World Heritage site of Epidavros, where the Greeks thronged when sick because of its healing hot waters.
An ancient healer?
The Peloponnese is hilly, with many hidden small valleys where plentiful water collects in healing springs, surrounded by a mild climate. The ancient Epidavrians founded the sanctuary of Asklepios, the most brilliant center of healing in their world. The worship of healing gods in Epidavros dates back to the prehistoric period. In the Mycenaean period, the hero-doctor Malos, also known as Maleatas, was worshipped on the peak of Mount Kyknortion nearby.
About 1,000 B.C. Apollo displaced the prehistoric deity, but his name was now Apollo Maleatas and he continued to be worshipped in the newly founded Asklepieion sanctuary at Epidavros. His cult continued to evolve into the healing culture of Asklepios, culminating in the 6th century B.C. with the construction of the sanctuary.
Propylons once adorned the sanctuary.
The first symbol of the healing profession — the short snake entwined caduceus staff — was first displayed here carved into the marble; it was also the herald of Hermes (Roman Mercury), the speedy messenger that with the grace of the gods, returned a patient quickly to good health.
Hippocrates was a healer here, so I presume the Hippocratic oath was born from his lips here.
The prestige and reputation acquired by Asklepios as the major center of healing led to great economic prosperity for the sanctuary, which made it possible to implement a large building boom in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. to house the cult in monumental buildings seen today with the marble strewn about.
A museum replica.
The winged peripteral Doric temple of Asklepios must have been beautiful. It was erected between 380 and 375 B.C. by the architect Theodotus. The pedimental sculptures were carved by Timotheos, while the chryselephantine of Asklepios was the work of Thrasymedes of Paros.
The Tholos was built next to the temple in 360-330 B.C. This circular, peristyle building was the center of the chthonic mystery cult of Asklepios, and its famous sculptures are attributed to the Argive architect and sculptor Polykleitos, who is also considered to be responsible for the theater at Epidavros, one of the most perfect, and best preserved of the ancient Greek theaters that is still used today for concerts and events.
The beautiful theater is still used for concerts.
To the north of the temple and the Tholos is the Abaton of Enkoimeterion, a porticoed building in which the sick, having first been purified and having offered sacrifice, were required to go to sleep, so that the gods could appear to them in a dream to cure them, or indicate to them the treatment to be followed. The discovery during the excavations of a large number of medical instruments bares evidence for the view that practical medical operations were also carried out in the sanctuary. Around the sacred precinct of Asklepios were erected temples to other deities (Artemis, Aphrodite, and Themis), along with buildings to provide service for the hosts of pilgrims, and installations for the athletic and music contests (stadium, palaestra, baths, odeon, and theater). Going to the doctor must have been fun in ancient Greece!
After three centuries of world renowned prosperity, the Asklepieion was dealt a series of severe blows. The Roman general Sulla plundered its treasures in 86 B.C., and a few years later it was ravaged by pirates from Kilikia.
The sanctuary enjoyed a second period of prosperity in the 2nd century A.D. when new buildings were erected and the old ones repaired. In A.D. 395 the sanctuary was plundered by the Goths of Alaric and it finally ceased to function when the ancient cults were banned by the emperor Theodosius II in A.D. 426. The ravages of time were completed by two major earthquakes in 522 A.D. and 551 A.D., and the sanctuary remained silent until the excavations conducted by the Archaeological Society (1879-1928) uncovered the ensemble of monuments once again.
Buildings on the site once included the Greek Baths; Ceremonial Hestiatorion or Banquet Hall; Propylon of the Gymnasium (300 B.C.) that later became the Temple of Hygeia (2nd century A,D,); The Roman Odeon, which is a smaller type of theater for plays and oratory; The Stadium and athletes' quarters (4th century B.C.); Palaestra or Temple of the Egyptian Gods Apollo, Asklepios, and Hygeia (2nd century A.D.); Temple of Artemis (330 B.C.); Hellenistic cistern; Monumental Propylon (4th century B.C.); Tholos or Thymele (360-330 B.C.); Abaton or Enkoimeterion (4th-3rd century B.C.); Baths of Asklepios (5th century B.C., repaired in the 2nd century A.D.); Temple of Asklepios (380-375 B.C.); a complex that included the Library (2nd century A.D.); Temple of Themis or Aphrodite; Hellenistic cistern; Monumental Propylon (330 B.C.); Stoa of Kotys, a group of commercial buildings (3rd century B.C.); Aguae (Roman Baths); Epidoteion (sanctuary of the benevolent gods, 4th century B.C.); Anakeion (sanctuary of the Dioskouroi, 4th century B.C.); Katagogion or Hostel (late 4th century B.C.).
Most of the sanctuary is in ruins with a few columns cleaned and raised in modern times. But the huge marble Theater continues its usefulness today with concerts and music festivals and plays. Our Greek Insight Vacations guide, Anna Zora, sang a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem of Greece in the proscenium and the acoustics were pitch perfect and rich in tone today as in the past.
The Museum was built between 1905 and 1909 by P. Kavvadias, who excavated the site and then housed the most important of the finds. The original sculptures are now at the Archaeological Museum of Athens, with replicas, complete with aging patinas, standing in as moot reminders of a glorious past.
In the first room of the Museum are the sanationes (inscriptions on marble tablets) with accounts of the miracles and cures of Asklepios. One of the most important inscriptions is the hymn to Apollo and Asklepios, composed by Isyllos, the epic poet from Epidavros (280 B.C.). There are also inscriptions recording tenders for and the accounts of the building work in the sanctuary. A small showcase contains medical instruments and small finds from the sanctuaries of Apollo and Asklepios.
My privcate guide, Anna Zora,
explains an ancient artifact.
The second room contains mostly votive sculptures dating from the later years of the cult, and casts of works now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. At the back of the room are reconstructions of the colonnade of the propylon of the temple.
The third room contains reconstructions of parts of the temple of Asklepios and Hygeia, casts of the sculptural decorations from the pediments of the temple of Asklepios, and a temporary display of drawings, photographs, and a few characteristic architectural members of the Tholos.
Tel: 27530 22009 or 27520 27502
After our sojourn in to the healing past we drove on to Nafplia (also known as Nafplio), one of most beautiful villages I encountered in Greece. Like a thumb, the long Argolic Gulf presses into the underbelly of the peninsula at Nafplia. The town is a combo of seaport and hills and is the only town in Greece with two Acropolis mounts — Acronauplia built in 600 B.C. and the Palamidi Acropolis, which was built in 1711 by wealthy Venetians, who also built the Bourzi Fort in the harbor.
Nafplia was the capital of the First Hellenic Republic, from the start of the Greek Revolution in 1821 until 1834. Nafplia is now the capital of the regional unit of Argolis. Nafplios was a son of Poseidon and Palamidi was the son of Nafplios. The view of the fort was stunning from my luxury suite at the awesome Nafplia Palace Hotel constructed of hewn granite stone to blend into the ancient fortress of Akronafplia, which rests on the brow of the hotel. The Nafplia Palace Hotel and Villas was my own personal sanctuary that boasted my own private lap pool, modern electronics and amenities, double sinks, and the hotel's ultra-chic spa.
The Venetians built Bourzi Fort.
The only way into the hotel was a walk down a long dark hall at ground level of the fortress that felt like I was plunging into the belly of a mine, then a large elevator opened and I was whisked up one floor to the panoply of light and architectural beauty of the hotel. The old fortress and modern hotel were indeed a refuge from the ordinary.
A view from Nafplia Palace Hotel.
The exterior stonework blends well with its ancient surroundings, while inside stone and white walls harmonized with wood flooring in spacious rooms, suites and villas. Each of the 63 rooms, villas, and 21 suites have balconies and sea views.
Private lap pools at the Palace Hotel.
There are imaginative spaces interacting with the dramatic ever-changing panorama of light. The hotel's Amimoni Italian gourmet restaurant made the evening complete with floor-to-ceiling glass windows for views of the setting sun across the bay; tables were elegantly set for a candlelight extravaganza of artisan cheeses, home-made breads, robust and earthy wines, exquisite entrées and side dishes, all served by a fun loving staff.
Greek ethics of perfection lives at the Nafplia Palace Hotel and Villas!
The hotel is near other UNESCO World Sites which we visited on the Glories of Greece tour with Insight Vacations.
A Gelateria in Nafplia town.
Just steps away from the Nafplia town square are gelato stations. Or hike up the 999 steps to Fort Palamidi, then return to Arvanita beach and enjoy a well-deserved drink at the beach bar. Major cruise lines have added Nafplia as a port call in recent years. The quiet village is known for its wonderful climate, and is a great retirement haven.
Tour the Peloponnese, as you please, with Insight Vacations; visit them online at www.insightvacations.com.
Read more Jetsetters Magazine feature stories about the Peloponnese and Greece with Insight Vacations Glories of Greece tour.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.