Peloponnesus; Impressive ruins amid a beautiful landscape in Greece
Never before in Greece have I sensed such a harmony between legend and landscape as here; as if the tale of Agamemnon, dramatized by Aeschylus, could not have happened anywhere else. Though we associate Greek architecture with slender grace, there is little graceful about Mycenae: Here the bulgy, unadorned stones are clumped one upon the other, forming monstrous walls and prisonlike recesses.
When Aeschylus wrote, in the 5th century BC, the tale of King Agamemnon's murder by his wife, Queen Clytemnestra, after the King's triumphant return from the Trojan War, the story was already 1,000 years old. Aeschylus, a product of the Classical Age, was looking back on a murky, semi-mythical past when both architecture and manners were less refined than in the Athens he knew.
Like Aeschylus, late 19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann drew inspiration from Homer's ''Iliad.'' Schliemann's excavations at Mycenae yielded a wealth of pottery, jewelry, figurines, weapons, frescoes, and gold masks; all on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, in the exhibition hall opposite the museum's main entrance on Patission Avenue.
When Schliemann - an amateur excavator by today's standards - uncovered one particular gold mask, dating from 1600 BC, he was said to have exclaimed: ''I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon!'' Professionals in the field still scoff at that boast, but judge for yourself when visiting the museum in Athens. Depicting an elderly man with heavy eyebrows, a long, thin nose and mustache, the hammered gold visage certainly lives up to any classicist's imagination.
The site itself, like the gold mask, casts a spell upon the visitor, beginning at the very portal of the acropolis. Over the huge stone lintel are two lions carved in relief. From this spot one looks upon the brown-and-green checkered carpet of the Argive plain unrolling into the Gulf of Argos, with a snowcapped triad of peaks looming on the western horizon.
Aside from the tomb structures, little at Mycenae is in a high state of preservation; the site is special because of how it suggestsm and how it plays upon the imagination, summoning to mind a royal place burdened by forbidding passageways and an abundance of tombs. Apparently there were two kinds of burial places at Mycenae: a ''grave circle'' and a ''tholos.'' The first is exactly what the name implies, a circular wall enclosing an area of several shafts, each holding family remains. The second is a large dome-shaped chamber with an entrance cut out of a hillside.
The largest tholos is the so-called Treasury of Atreus, as its date of construction, the 14th century BC, corresponds with the lifetime of the mythical king. Another tholos is called the Tomb of Clytemnestra, but, as with many finds at Mycenae, the only proof for this being the resting place of the fabled queen lies in one's imagination. Therefore, the best guidebook for Mycenae is simply a copy of Aeschylus's play, ''Agamemnon.''
Mycenae is only two hours and a half by car or bus from the kinetic gaiety of Athens, one hour from the Doric and Roman majesty of Corinth, 90 minutes from the ancient theater at Epidaurus, and only 45 minutes from Nauplion, a port with the same Italianate beauty of the island towns in the Dodecanese.
This part of Greece is known as Argolis, a peninsula in the northeast corner of the Peloponnesus; a leaf-shaped blotch of land which makes up the southern part of Greece and is a microcosm for all that is essential in the ''Greek experience.''
A tour of the Peloponnesus begins on the other side of the Corinth canal. Ancient Corinth, the wealthiest city of its time, is only a short distance away. Destroyed by the Romans in the 2nd century BC, almost all of the remains date from the Roman period which followed - except for the Doric pillars of the Apollo temple overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. Doric art was developed by the Spartans, and like Sparta itself these precious few pillars appear rough-hewn and mighty; battered but still standing.
The adjacent museum houses a fine collection of Roman floor mosaics from a villa 700 meters away. Their naturalism and fine state of preservation makes them equal to the finest Roman mosaics in Tunisia and Sicily. The museum itself I found almost as beautiful as the objects it houses, with cloisterlike courtyards and quaint wooden cases holding pottery and figurines, reminiscent of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.
On the way to Nauplion, from Corinth and Mycenae, stop at Tiryns, a Mycenaen-age city associated with the exploits of Herakles (Hercules) and his descendants, the Herakleides. Pindar praised Tiryns for its high walls, which even today are the prime visual attraction of the site. Their height and long, sweeping curves evoke the deeds of the mythic strongman who might have built them.
About Nauplion - the first capital of modern Greece between 1829 and 1834 - I cannot be objective. Despite repeated trips through the country, I have to yet to find a mainland port as beautiful. Even among the island ports, only a few waterfronts might surpass it. Considering how close Nauplion is to Athens, it still surprises me that more people don't know about it.
Imagine a webwork of narrow streets leading to the waterfront, framed by houses with red-tiled roofs and saffron facades supporting ornate iron balustrades, adorned with vines and potted flowers. At dusk, the water in the harbor is foamy and motionless, reflecting all the colors of a prism.
The waterfront is lined with fish restaurants, all of them excellent and cheap. I had a simple meal: squid, feta cheese, a Greek salad, for less than $8.
In the morning, before traveling to Epidaurus, visit the Palamidi fort, 800 feet above Nauplion, built by the Franks and added to by the Venetians and other conquerors.
Epidaurus seems to garner more visitors than any other place in Argolis. It is a complete archaeological park, with a museum and ruins of a theater stadium, baths, and temples; all of which form the complex known as the Asklepieion - named after Asklepios, the Greek god of healing. In ancient days, Epidaurus was a pilgrimage point for those seeking cures.
The ruins are sparse, though the foundations are sufficient fwyPOo o imagine the complete structures. An exception is the 3rd century BC theater constructed by Polycleitus the Younger, in a near perfect state of preservation and capable of holding 14,000 spectators in its 50 tiers. Acoustically, it is the finest ancient theater in the world. A friend whispered on stage and I heard the words perfectly from the top row.
Not surprisingly, every summer since 1954 the theater has been the site for the internationally renowned Epidaurus Festival, where classical Greek drama is performed from mid-June through early September by several Greek and foreign companies.
If you still have the better part of a week, instead of going back to Athens, head southwest to visit Sparta, the Mani region, Pylos, Vassae, and Olympia:
Sparta. The drive from Epidaurus covers some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Europe. At precarious spots are little chapels consisting of icons and candles. Sparta itself is a drab, modern town. But in the foothills of the nearby Taigetos Mountains is the Byzantine complex of Mistra, consisting of numerous medieval churches and frescoes; perhaps the single largest site from the Byzantine period in the world. Below Mistra lie the paprika and green-colored swirls of the Eurotas River Valley, magnificently described by British author Robert Byron in a 1920s travel book, ''The Station.''
The Mani. The Mani region is in the extreme south of the Peloponnesus and includes the towns of Githion and Areopolis. There is nothing specific to see here. The landscape is the main attraction, wild and primitive, remotely evocative of the Canadian Maritime Provinces.
Pylos. Pylos is the site of King Nestor's palace, where Telemachus came seeking news of his father, Odysseus, in ''The Odyssey.'' The palace is well landscaped, with excellent explanatory markings. The town itself is a cluster of red roofs by the sea, which gets very violent at night. In the Bay of Navarino here, the Turkish fleet was defeated and modern Greek independence achieved.
Vassae. The Vassae temple was designed by Phidias, who also built the Parthenon in Athens. It is high up in the mountains, just beneath the snow line. The drive here is of course spectacular. The air is so rarefied that when goat bells tinkle, the sound is as sharp as that of ice breaking on a lake in the middle of the night.
Olympia. Ext nsive ruins and three museums make up the site of the ancient Olympic Games. Except for the National Museum in Athens, those here are the best in Greece. Of particular note is the Hermes of Praxiteles. Concerning the ruins, no single structure is in a high state of preservation, but the tall pines and cherry trees buzzing with bumblebees and the dark, lush greenery give Olympia an atmosphere all its own. Practical details
Touring the Peloponnesus involves two basic choices: either a one- or two-day trip from Athens to Argolis, or a week-long odyssey of the entire Peloponnesus.
There is a one-day tour from Athens, costing $35 including lunch, that covers Corinth, Mycenae, Nauplion, and Epidaurus. But if you can spare the extra day, I strongly recommend a night in Nauplion. Car rental costs $20 daily plus 20 cents for each kilometer. By bus, the ride to Nauplion takes three hours and costs $5. Buses leave hourly from Kifissou Street in Athens.
While spring and fall are the best times to tour the Peloponnesus, summer is fine provided you book all reservations in advance. Winter is very good too, provided you're prepared for occasional rainstorms and temperatures that average in the low 50s.
The season at Epidaurus runs from June 18 until Sept 11; performances are Saturdays and Sundays at 9. The box office in Athens for this and other festivals is found at No. 4, Stadiou Street. This year the festival offers works by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Aeschylus; on June 18 and 19 the Maurice Bejard Dance Company will perform a 20th-century ballet, ''Dionysus.'' Be sure to take something to sit on when you go to the theater at Epidaurus - those stone seats seem hard after a few hours.