It was late 2019. The skies were clearing up after the monsoons. The streets were abuzz with pre-Deepawali shopping. And we were putting finishing touches for our Greece trip in the spring. Hotels were booked. Visa was applied. And I could tell "eimaste chortophagoi" with a reasonable comprehensibility. While we were debating if we should break journey in Dubai on a lazy Saturday afternoon over a cup of tea, someone, somewhere was shopping for a bat for dinner. Or was it a pangolin? And the rest, as they say, was history, a historic pandemic. Thanks to Science and the global coordinated effort, our Grecian odyssey ended half as quickly as the original. Ours ended like a dream on a mid-summer night when the final flight (of a three-hop onward journey) touched down in Heraklion in the island of Crete.
First day first show was Knossos, the place where the Bronze Age started in Europe. Around 3300 BC, Minoans appeared out of nowhere to start a grand civilisation which reached its zenith around 2000 BC. We didn't even know these guys existed till the site was accidently discovered in the late 19th century. We don't even know what they called themselves - both their scripts (Cretan Hieroglyphics and Linear A) are undeciphered - Minoans is the name we gave them, thanks to the Myth of the Minotaur and the bull based rituals which seemed to have abounded here. As the tour buses rolled in, we rolled off to Rethymno where the colourful harbour and the splendid fort kept our minds off the raging El Nino induced mid-day heat. Our day ended in Chania whose Venetian Harbour and Old Town managed to eclipse those of Rethymno.
Early morning, we wound our way to Arkadi, a 16th century monastery which became the symbol of Cretan Resistance in 1866. In that fateful year, a thousand Cretan refugees locking themselves in the monastery, decided to blow themselves up (and thereby killing the besieging Ottoman soldiers) instead of surrendering. After pit-stops at Phaistos and Gortyna (both added so that we have enough footage for our YouTube video where I try to cram two millennia of Bronze Age history under 4 mins), we returned to Heraklion. And promptly headed to its incredible Archaeological Museum housing the famous frescoes of Knossos and the world's first Movable-type print, the Phaistos Disc. After meandering though another splendid Cretan Old Town, we ended the day atop the Venetian Fortress gazing into the horizon of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.
A two-hour speed boat took us to where our eyes were gazing the previous evening - Santorini. It is a caldera. Which means it was a volcano. And its eruption in 1650 BC was the biggest in recorded history. Who was doing the recording? Well, who else, but the Chinese. The Shang dynasty to be precise. The eruption was big enough to affect the crop cycle of China. It was this eruption that precipitated the decline of the Minoans. Our first stop after escaping the frigid ship (some frost-giant decided to keep the interior at 40 below) was Akrotiri, where it was 40 above in shade. This was the Minoan city which was buried under the volcano ash and unlike the more famous (and much later) Pompeii, there were no loss of life in Akrotiri. Everyone seemed to have escaped, with all their precious possessions, the ash only burying buildings (and their wonderful frescoes) which couldn't be carried on a boat. The well-preserved frescoes are safely ensconced in the museum at Fira where we finally gazed at the haunting Fisher Boy painted three and a half millennia ago, fresher than the window grill that we got done last week. No one (except us) comes to Santorini for frescoes and crumbling ruins. Everyone comes here for the oh, so pretty, Oia. The sleepy mariner's village here was rocked by an earthquake in 1956 and the ensuing reconstruction created this wonderful fairyland of milky white edifices with ocean blue doors and domes, a magnet for Instagrammers and Bollywood dream-scene creators. If you can trade the hot sun for the cool sunset, you can have all of it for yourself (read: only 30 minute wait at the Insta-points as opposed to 300).
An early morning exodus brought us to Athens where we picked up the second rental car (the first was in Crete, in case you were wondering) for our Peloponnesian road trip. But we wouldn't be reaching the island (it has been since the Isthmus was canaled in the 1890s) till late evening. First up, the place that is located 42 kilometres (as the man runs), from Athens viz., Marathon. Bronze Age ended in 1100 BC and the Classical Age (the Greece in our popular knowledge) started around 500 BC and the transition to it was marked by the famous Greco-Persian Wars, the wars that made Herodotus a historian.
One of the initial battles was the 490 BC Battle of Marathon where 10,000 Athenians stopped a Persian army twice as strong and Pheidippides' famous run to relay the message back to Athens gave us the modern Olympic event. Since we had a car and a modern expressway system at our disposal in two hours (or the time people dream to complete the Marathon), we reached the World Heritage monastery of Hosios Loukas. Founded by a monk in the 10th c, it is a textbook example of late Byzantine architecture and the incredible mosaics inside are, well, incredible. After spending an hour at the monastery and a half more on the road, we reached the greatest religious site in the ancient world, Delphi.
What followed the Bronze Age Collapse of 1100 BC was a period of Dark Ages (Classical came 600 years later). "Dark" because there are no written records from that era. Literacy, simply disappeared. Winners don't write history. Literate people do. Iron Age people who ended the Bronze Age party wrote jack. Sometime in the middle of this darkness, Delphi was born. The famed Oracle would attract people as far away as Egypt and Anatolia. The place was in active use till 381 AD when Theodosius I put an end to all pagan rituals. Most of the structures that is seen today date from the Classical Era (4th c BC or thereabouts), but they replaced earlier structures that went back to the Dark Ages. After walking up and down the Delphic hill we drove to Patras, the third largest city in Greece, and our first destination in Peloponnese. Patras was just a convenient night stop and we reached late enough to eat dinner and flop. But European summer sun sets late. And we discovered the perfect point to watch the event, the Agiou Nikolaou Stairs. These 93 steps were built in 1930s to connect the proletarians of the upper town with the bourgeois of the lower town and climbing it gave us the opportunity to witness the most magical sunset of our lives. Thanks to its obscurity, we only had two other pair of travelers around us. We had to share a toilet with 100 times that number in Oia.
The following morning was the Olympic race. We had to get up early and race to Ancient Olympia before the other tourists do. And we got bronze. The Dark Ages gave way to Archaic Era and the transition is marked by the first games held here in the honour of Zeus. In 776 BC. A quarter millennia before Buddha. Half before Alexander and Ashoka. And the games continued, unabated, till that fateful year 381 AD. That's over thousand years without break. Very few things last that long. And not surprisingly, the site mostly was rubble and pillars. But head to the museum for something more substantial. The massive pediment from the Temple of Zeus and the colossal Nike are sure to take your breath away. After Olympiam, we had two choices in front of us, Ancient Messina or the Temple of Epicurean Apollo. We chose the latter only because it is an UNESCO WHS.
The route was nauseatingly winding and ended in a big tent. Yes, the entire temple is now inside a huge tarpaulin to save it from erosion. This 5th c masterpiece was built by the same architect who constructed the Parthenon. Two more hours of winding brought us to Sparta, the home to the most unique society that human mind had ever invented. There is very little to see here, because there was very little to begin with. Spartans had outlawed money. So everyone was equal and everyone was either a hoplite or produced one. Everyone ate the same thing - a black bean concoction. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every day. Post suckling until death. This meant Sparta had a standing, professional army. While their peers had to be content with part-timers, farmers who doubled up as fighters during war times. No wonder Sparta was an unstoppable force.
Fifteen minutes from Sparta is Mystras, its polar opposite. In the early 13th c, the three Latin Kingdoms (Franks, Venetians and the Holy Roman Empire) jointly launched the Fourth Crusade. The pretext was to get the Holy Land and Egypt from the Saracens. Since that was too hard, they promptly turned around and attacked the Christian Byzantine Empire. After the infamous 1204 Sack of Constantinople, they installed a short lived Latin Empire. The empire was carved into several small pieces. Venice got all the Grecian islands (which explains so many Venetian Forts in Crete). One such piece was the Principality of Achaea which continued as the Despotate of Morea after the Byzantine Empire made a comeback. And the said Mystras was the capital of both. The comeback of the Byzantine heralded the Paleologan Renaissance, the last hurrah of the Byzantines. And the text book example of it is this Mystras. The place is simply stunning. Exploding with incredible churches and palaces. There is enough to see here for half a day and we only had budgeted two hours. I try to pack in too much in a day.
The following day was dedicated to couple of lesser known gems of Peloponnese, unfortunately at two corners of it. So most of the day was spent in driving. Off the southern tip of Peloponnese lies the first, Monemvasia, a massive rocky outcrop that got cut away from the mainland after the 375 AD earthquake. Refugees from the Gothic attack hid themselves on its top in the 6th c AD. As the peace returned under the Byzantines, people moved downhill and the place became an important port. All this resulted in one of the best preserved medieval towns in all of Greece. Walking through its narrow alleys and climbing to the top to enjoy the stunning panorama was a true high point of the trip. Our second destination, Nafplio, is located towards the northern end of Peloponnese. Although it dates back to antiquity, most of its important historical events took place in and around the Greek War of Independence (1821-29). It was the first capital of the Kingdom of Greece, the place where Kolokotronis, the hero of the independence movement, was held prisoner, the place where Kapodistrias, the first governor, was assassinated. If this part of Greek history doesn't intrigue you, you can still come here just for the picture-perfect Old Town and the jaw dropping views from the 17th century Venetian Palamidi Fortress.
Nafplio has one more plus. It is a great base to explore many of the ancient sites. Just 30 minutes away lies the astonishing Theatre of Epidaurus. It was an ancient healing site, home to the famous Temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Theatre, post-dating the Temple, built from the funds collected from the pilgrims, is a true masterpiece. Known for its incredible acoustics and with a capacity to seat 14,000, it is still used for modern day performances. 30 mins (in another direction) from Nafplio is Ancient Mycenae, the second great Bronze Age civilisation of Greece. They started around 2000 BC, playing second fiddle to the Minoans. Tables turned after the Santorini eruption and Mycenae started dominating from around 1400 BC. Minoan towns were not walled, they weren't afraid of being attacked. Mycenean cities were heavily walled and were always at war. The best examples of these famed walls can be seen at the nearby site of Tiryns.
It was here that the story of the Iliad starts. The Greeks united under Mycenae to launch a costly war with Troy, a city in Ionia (western Turkey). This drained their resources and could then be easily knocked over by the Dorians bringing an end to the Bronze Age itself. Our final history stop of the day was Corinth. Born during the middle of the Dark Age, Corinth became an important city during the Archaic, Classical and the Hellenistic periods. It is home to the most famous tyrant of antiquity, Periander, an ally of Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, the ground-zero during the wars of the Spartan and Theban hegemony and the final stand of the Greeks before the whole peninsula fell to the Romans. And this fall happened in 146 BC, the same year Carthage fell and Rome gave both the same treatment, razing it to the ground. Julius Caesar rebuilt the city a hundred years later (most of what we see today is from this reconstruction) and a century later Paul preached the early version of Christianity.
What should have been an uneventful drive to Athens turned out to be nightmare, thanks to the Greek Fire. No, not that one which kept the Arabs away. This one that keeps the tourists away. A fuel tanker got flame shutting the main highway down. And an one hour commute became eight. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we finally ended up in Athens. Midnight Thursday with an 8 am pre-booked tickets for the Acropolis with a plan to see all of Athens in one day. A task fit to be the Baker Dozenth task of Hercules. We did make it before most to the Acropolis, take mugshots before Parthenon, gawked at the originals at the site museum, roamed the two agoras (Roman and the Ancient), bowed to Zeus, Hadrian (twice - the arch and the library), stared back at Agamemnon at the National Museum and squinted to see the tiny masterpieces of the least celebrated of all Grecian Bronze Age civilisations - the Cycladic.
We have now clocked 15,000 steps. Every day. 10 days straight. And we were not done. Couple of more boxes to check. Last morning we headed to the Lykavittos Hill for the amazing sunrise view of the Acropolis and then to the 11th c Daphni Monastery (the sister of Hosois Loukas with equally impressive mosaics) before finally ending at the Eleftherios Venizelos. This was one of the most enriching trips of our lives. And also one of the most exhausting. I have made this write up extra-long. So you can feel the exhaustion reaching till here. Assuming you did last until here, If you did, thanks!
Click here for more photos from Athens.
Click here for more photos from Crete.
Click here for more photos from Santorini.
Click here for more photos from Marathon, Hosios Loukas and Delphi.
Click here for more photos from the ancient sites across Peloponnese.
Click here for more photos from the rest of Peloponnese.