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10 incredible Greek hiking trails you can tackle right now
6 min read — Published Jul 1, 2021
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Spread over a steep mountainside and surrounded by verdant olive and orange trees, this former Byzantine capital and fortified city is the single most compelling set of medieval ruins in Greece. Treading the cobblestones, worn smooth by centuries of footsteps, you can walk with the ghosts, ducking into the ruins of palaces, monasteries and churches, most dating from between 1271 and 1460. Aerial view of the Mystras Archaeological Site © Leonid Andronov / Getty Images History The Frankish leader Guillaume de Villehardouin built the fortress in 1249. When the Byzantines won back the Morea from the Franks, Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos made Mystras its capital and seat of government. Settlers from the surrounding plains began to move here, seeking refuge from the invading Slavs. From this time until Dimitrios surrendered to the Turks in 1460, a despot of Morea (usually a son or brother of the ruling Byzantine emperor) lived and reigned at Mystras. While the empire plunged into decline elsewhere, Mystras enjoyed a renaissance. Gemistos Plethon (1355–1452) founded a school of humanistic philosophy here and his enlightened ideas, including the revival of the teachings of Plato and Pythagoras, attracted intellectuals from all corners of Byzantium. Art and architecture also flourished, as seen in the town's splendid buildings and frescoes. Mystras declined under Ottoman rule, but thrived again after the Venetians captured it in 1687 and developed a flourishing silk industry. The population swelled to 40,000. The Turks recaptured the town in 1715 and from then it was downhill all the way; it was burned during the Orlov uprising in 1770 and Ibrahim Pasha torched what was left in 1825. By the time of independence it was a largely abandoned ruin, and the refounding of nearby Sparta in 1834 contributed to the decline, though Mystras remained inhabited until 1953. Much restoration has taken place since the 1950s (and continues to this day) and in 1989 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage site. Buildings of Mystras © TPopova / Getty Images Touring Mystras At least half a day is needed to do justice to the ruins of Mystras. The site is divided into three interconnected sections – the kastro (the fortress on the summit), the hora (upper town) and the kato hora (lower town). The fortress (upper) gate is between the kastro and the hora, while the lower gate is at the bottom of the kato hora. The following route takes in some of the site's top highlights: The fortress From the upper-entrance ticket office, the right-hand path (signposted ‘Castle’) leads up to the fortress; it's a 10-minute ascent. The fortress was built by the Franks and extended by the Turks; the views of the Lakonia plain, spread out below, are nothing short of fantastic. Agia Sofia The left-hand path descends from the ticket office to Agia Sofia, which served as the palace church and burial ground for several emperors' wives; some frescoes survive in a side chapel, including a well-preserved Birth of the Virgin Mary over the doorway. Steps descend from here via the church of Agios Nikolaos to a T-junction. Convent of Pantanassa Head right, through the Monemvasia Gate, the former entrance to the lower town, and on to the well-preserved 14th-century Convent of Pantanassa. Featuring a beautifully ornate stone-carved facade, it is still maintained by nuns, Mystras’ only inhabitants besides the motley crew of stray cats. The convent is an elaborate, perfectly proportioned building that's never overstated. The exquisite, richly coloured 15th-century frescoes here are among the finest examples of late-Byzantine art. Look out for the tiny stamped silver and gold votive offerings beneath the large icon of the Virgin. You’ll find images of eyes, ears, legs, arms, breasts, babies, husbands and wives stamped onto these small tablets, depending on the problems for which the faithful have come seeking aid. It's a continuation of a long tradition going back to Classical Greece and beyond. The nuns may provide wraps to cover your legs. Byzantine church in medieval city of Mystras © elgreko / Getty Images Monastery of Perivleptos The path continues down, via an impressive mansion house, to the exceptional Monastery of Perivleptos, which is built into a rock and tucked away in a pine grove at the far end of the site. Inside, the 14th-century frescoes, preserved virtually intact, equal those of Pantanassa. It's an extraordinary place. The marble-floored church has a dome in whose centre you'll find the Pantokrator (depiction of Christ as the universal, all-powerful ruler) surrounded by the Apostles, and the Virgin flanked by two angels. Mitropolis (Cathedral of Agios Dimitrios) Continue down towards the Mitropolis (Cathedral of Agios Dimitrios), a complex of buildings enclosed by a high wall. The original church was built in the 1200s, but was greatly altered in the 15th century. The church stands in an attractive courtyard surrounded by stoas and balconies. Its impressive ecclesiastical ornaments and furniture include a marble iconostasis, an intricately carved wooden throne, and a marble slab in the floor featuring a two-headed eagle (the symbol of Byzantium) located on the exact site where the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, was crowned in 1449 (he died in battle during the fall of Constantinople in 1453). The church also has some fine frescoes. Exhibits at the small but modern museum upstairs include fragments of ancient cloth, buttons, jewellery and other everyday items. Ruins from the town of Mystras © Anastasios71 / Shutterstock Tickets and other practicalities The ticket price to enter Mystras is €12. Entry to the site is free every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st. Aim to start early in the morning to beat the tour groups, wear comfortable shoes and bring water (you can refill at the convent).
On a hilltop backed by powerful mountains stand the sombre and mighty ruins of Ancient Mycenae, home of Agamemnon, the legendary king who commanded the Greeks during the Trojan War. For four centuries in the second millennium BC, this kingdom was the most powerful in Greece, holding sway over the whole region and influencing other Mycenaean cities. History The World Heritage-listed Mycenae is synonymous with the names Homer and Schliemann. In the 9th century BC Homer told in his epic poems, 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey', of ‘well-built Mycenae, rich in gold’. These poems were, until the 19th century, regarded as no more than gripping and beautiful legends. But in the 1870s the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822–90), despite derision from professionals, struck gold, first at Troy then at Mycenae. This link, between the mythical and factual, runs thick through Mycenae's history. According to Homer, the city was founded by Perseus, the son of Danae (a princess) and Zeus (a god); and by King Agamemnon’s time, the Royal House of Atreus, which ruled Mycenae, was the most powerful of the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks). Whether Agamemnon and his family ever existed is uncertain. However, the archaeological facts are that Mycenae was first settled in the Neolithic period and came to prominence in the late Bronze Age, from about 1600 BC. In the wake of the Indo-European wave that arrived in Greece between 2100 and 1900 BC, and influenced by the already-present Minoan and Cycladic civilisations, an advanced culture developed on the mainland. This new civilisation is now referred to as the Mycenaean, named after its most powerful kingdom. The other kingdoms included Pylos, Tiryns, Corinth and Argos, all in the Peloponnese. Evidence of Mycenaean civilisation has also been found at Thiva (Thebes) and Athens. The city of Mycenae consisted of a fortified citadel and surrounding settlement, at its height from 1450 to 1200 BC. Due to the sheer size of the 'Cyclopean' walls (13m high and 7m thick), formed by stone blocks weighing 6 tonnes in places, legend has it that Perseus enlisted the help of a Cyclops, one of the one-eyed giants described in the Odyssey, to build Mycenae. Archaeological evidence indicates that the palaces of the Mycenaean kingdoms declined sometime around 1200 BC and the palace itself was destroyed around 1180 BC, possibly by fire. Whether the destruction was the work of outsiders or due to internal division between the various Mycenaean kingdoms remains unresolved. Through the entrance gate, it's worth stopping by the Ancient Mycenae Museum (entrance included in the general ticket price) for additional context. The Lion Gate, the main entrance of the citadel of Mycenae © Lefteris_ / Getty Images Touring Ancient Mycenae Lion Gate Agamemnon's fortress is entered through the dramatic Lion Gate, a solid construction of massive stone blocks over which rear two large lions. This motif is believed to have been the insignia of the Royal House of Atreus. Grave Circle A Once inside the citadel, Grave Circle A is on the right. This was the royal cemetery and contained six grave shafts. Five shafts were excavated by Schliemann between 1874 and 1876, uncovering one of the richest archaeological hauls ever to be found, including a well-preserved gold death mask. Schliemann sent a telegram to the Greek king stating, ‘I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon’, though the mask is thought to have belonged to a ruler who lived centuries before the era when the Trojan War might have taken place. Agamemnon’s Palace Follow the main path up to Agamemnon’s Palace, accessed through what was once a monumental doorway. The rooms on the north side of the palace were likely private royal apartments (where Agamemnon was supposedly murdered). On the palace's southeastern side is the megaron (reception hall where the great hearth would have been), with the column bases remaining. Beyond this are buildings that probably served as artisans' workshops. The valley views from the top of the hill here are phenomenal. Secret cistern Head down to the northeast extension, and you'll find the entrance to the secret cistern in the corner. This marvellous vaulted tunnel, a masterpiece of engineering at the time, descends via dark steps (half-heartedly roped off) to a spring. Follow the main path anticlockwise and on the northern boundary of the citadel you'll come across the Postern Gate, through which, it is said, Orestes escaped after murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. Tombs Until the late 15th century BC the Mycenaeans interred their royal dead in shaft graves; later they used a new form of burial – the beehive-shaped tholos tomb. Back outside the Lion Gate, head down to the tholos tombs of Aegisthus, with its collapsed roof, and Clytemnestra's Tomb, with its dramatic entrance and dome roof. Near the museum, the Lion Tomb is also impressive, while another Mycenae highlight, the Treasury of Atreus, also known as Agamemnon's Tomb, is found 500m down the road from the car park, beyond the main Mycenae site. Aerial view of the ancient site of Mycenae © George Pachantouris / Getty Images Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the Ancient Mycenae site is €12 and includes access to the main complex, the Ancient Mycenae Museum and Treasury of Atreus. Two to three daily buses (excluding Sundays) head to Mycenae from Nafplio (journey time: one hour) via Argos. Buses stop in Mykines village, continuing the 1.3km to the site from April to October. A return taxi from Nafplio with waiting time is around €70.
Crete’s most famous historical attraction is the Palace of Knossos, the grand capital of Minoan Crete, located 5km south of the city of Iraklio. The setting is evocative and the ruins and recreations impressive, incorporating an immense palace, courtyards, private apartments, baths, lively frescoes and more. People exploring the ruins of the Palace of Knossos © Neil Setchfield / Lonely Planet History Knossos’ first palace (1900 BCE) was destroyed by an earthquake around 1700 BCE and rebuilt to a grander and more sophisticated design. It was partially destroyed again between 1500 and 1450 BCE, and inhabited for another 50 years before finally burning down. After initial excavation of part of the palace by Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokerinos, the ruins of Knossos were fully unearthed in 1900 by British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941). Evans was so enthralled by the site that he spent 35 years and £250,000 of his own money excavating and reconstructing sections of the palace. Although controversial in expert circles, his reconstructions help casual visitors conceive of what the palace might have looked like in its heyday. The first treasure to be unearthed in the flat-topped mound called Kefala was a fresco of a Minoan man, followed by the discovery of the Throne Room. The archaeological world was stunned that a civilisation of this maturity and sophistication had existed in Europe at the same time as the great pharaohs of Egypt. The Minoans’ highly sophisticated society is further revealed by details like the advanced drainage system and the clever placement of rooms in relation to passages, light wells, porches and verandas that kept rooms cool in summer and warm in winter. King's chamber of Knossos Palace © Anton Chygarev / Shutterstock Touring the Palace of Knossos There is no prescribed route for exploring the palace, but the following one takes in all the highlights: West Court and South Propylaion Entering from the West Court, which may have been a marketplace or the site of public gatherings, you'll note a trio of circular pits on your left. Called kouloures, they were used for grain storage. From here, continue counterclockwise, starting with a walk along the Processional Walkway that leads to the South Propylaion, where you can admire the Cup Bearer Fresco. Piano Nobile From the South Propylaion, a staircase leads past giant storage jars to an upper floor that Evans called the Piano Nobile because it reminded him of Italian Renaissance palazzi and where he supposed the reception and staterooms were located. On your left, you can see the west magazines (storage rooms), where giant pithoi (clay jars) once held oil, wine and other staples. Fresco Gallery The restored room at the northern end of the Piano Nobile houses the Fresco Gallery, with replicas of Knossos' most famous frescoes, including the Bull Leaper, the Ladies in Blue and the Blue Bird. The originals are now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Iraklio. From the balcony, a great view unfolds of the Central Court, which was hemmed in by high walls during Minoan times. The Dolphin fresco at the Palace of Knossos © ewabeachgirl / Shutterstock Throne Room Follow the stairs down to the courtyard and then turn left to peek inside the beautifully proportioned Throne Room, with its simple alabaster seat and walls decorated with frescoes of griffins (mythical beasts regarded by the Minoans as sacred). To the right of the stairs is a three-sectioned room that Evans called the Tripartite Shrine. Areas behind it yielded many precious finds, including a statue of a 'snake goddess', which is believed to date back to 1600 BCE. The figurine is now on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. King and queen's quarters Crossing the Central Court takes you to the east wing, where the Grand Staircase drops down to the royal apartments. Here you can peek inside the queen's megaron (bedroom), with a copy of the Dolphin fresco, one of the most exquisite Minoan artworks. Continue to the king’s quarters in the Hall of the Double Axes; the latter takes its name from the double axe marks (labrys) on its light well, a sacred symbol to the Minoans and the origin of the word ‘labyrinth’. Charging Bull fresco and Royal Road From here, head around to the palace's north side for a good view of the partly reconstructed north entrance, easily recognised by the Charging Bull fresco. Walking towards the exit, you pass the theatral area, a series of shallow steps whose function remains unknown. It could have been a theatre where spectators watched acrobatic and dance performances, or the place where people gathered to welcome important visitors arriving by the Royal Road, which leads off to the west and was flanked by workshops and the houses of ordinary people. The ancient ruins of the Minoan Palace of Knossos © Dziewul / Shutterstock Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the Palace of Knossos is €15. A ticket pairing both the palace and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Iraklio (Heraklion) is €20. Entry to the palace is free every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st. Unlike at other ruins around Iraklio, visitors make their way through the site on platform walkways, which can get very crowded. This makes it all the more important to time your visit for outside the tour-bus onslaught. Avoid ticket lines by buying in advance through the Archaeological Resources Fund e-Ticketing System.
Serving as the heart of Ancient Delphi, the hillside Sanctuary of Apollo is where pilgrims would journey to hear prophecies from the god Apollo, voiced through his chosen oracle (a woman from the local area). The Sacred Way, the path that climbs to the complex's centrepiece Temple of Apollo, was lined in ancient times by treasuries and statues, erected by city-states including Athens and Sparta to thank Apollo and assert their own wealth and might. Some stand complete, most lie in ruins, but together they form a magnificent spectacle. View along the Sacred Way in Delphi © Federica Grassi / Getty Images History The Greeks told many stories to explain the origins of Delphi. The site was originally sacred to Gaia (also known as Ge), the ‘Mother Goddess’ whose cult centred on the Korykeon Cave, high on Mt Parnassos. After slaying a snake or she-dragon (known as Pytho) here, Apollo took the local name of Apollo Pythios. For a thousand years, pilgrims flocked to his sanctuary for guidance. The height of its fame came between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, after the Amphictyonic League, a federation of 12 tribal states, took control of the sanctuary following the First Sacred War (595–586 BCE). As an autonomous state, Delphi earned great prosperity from benefactors including the kings of Lydia and Egypt, and the Roman emperor Hadrian. Nominally neutral, it was a locus of political power. After surviving fire in 548 BCE and earthquake in 373 BCE, the sanctuary was conquered by the Aetolians around 300 BCE, and by the Romans in 191 BCE. Although the Roman general Sulla plundered Delphi in 86 BCE, later emperors kept the oracle’s rituals alive well into the 2nd century. Ultimately its influence waned with the spread of Christianity, and the sanctuary was abolished by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century. By the 7th century, a new village, Kastri, had taken over the ancient site. It remained atop the ruins until late in the 19th century, when its inhabitants were paid to relocate to the newly constructed village of Delphi, allowing archaeologists to unearth the ancient site. The twisted serpent column and the Doric columns of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi © Mary Baratto / Getty Images Touring the Sanctuary of Apollo You'll need an hour minimum to take in all that the Sanctuary of Apollo has to offer. The following route takes in some of the site's top highlights: The Sacred Way After entering the sanctuary at its lowest point, beside the main road, you set off up the Sacred Way, laid out in its modern form by 19th-century archaeologists. The first of several stone pedestals you reach, on your right, held the Bull of Kerkyra (Corfu). Just beyond it, on the left, are the remains of the Spartan Victory Monument (an offering to the admiral Lysander). Further on sits a small conical stone known as the Omphalos, the 'navel' of the ancient Greek world. Sphinx of Naxos, Rock of the Sibyl and Stoa of the Athenians Northeast of the reconstructed Athenian Treasury stands a portion of the column that supported the Sphinx of Naxos, displayed in the on-site museum. Near it, find the Rock of the Sibyl, where Delphi's earliest prophetess made her predictions. A few steps away, behind three columns from the Stoa of the Athenians, the remarkable Polygonal Wall once supported the terrace of the second Temple of Apollo (548 BCE). Look closely, and you’ll realise it’s covered with minutely carved inscriptions. Temple of Apollo As the home of Apollo himself, the Temple of Apollo dominated the entire sanctuary. Its surviving incarnation, from the 4th century BCE, contained a statue of the god, guarded by an eternal flame, and was where the Pythia (oracle), the god’s mouthpiece, delivered her pronouncements. Its vestibule bore the so-called Delphic Maxims, including ‘Know Thyself’ and ‘Nothing in Excess’, which Socrates mentioned in Plato's Protagoras. Congregations gathered not inside the temple, but out in the open air. A view of the restored Athenian Treasury, Delphi © trabantos / Getty Images Serpentine Column Immediately east, the replica of the Serpentine Column, or Tripod of the Plataeans, was erected in 2015. The original bronze column commemorated the Greeks who defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BCE). Removed by Constantine the Great in AD 324, it now resides at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, in modern Istanbul. Theatre and Castalian Spring Above the temple, the well-preserved 4th-century-BCE theatre was restored by Pergamene king Loukumenes II during the 2nd century BCE. Plays were performed here during the Pythian Festival, staged every four years. The views from the top row are breathtaking. East of the Sanctuary of Apollo, a paved path parallel to the main road leads to the Castalian Spring, where pilgrims cleansed themselves before consulting the oracle. A view from the top row of the Theatre of Delphi © Santi Rodriguez / Shutterstock Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the Sanctuary of Apollo, which is part of the wider Ancient Delphi complex, is €12. This ticket also includes access to Delphi Archaeological Museum. Entrance to the site is free during every first Sunday of the month from November 1st to March 31st. To avoid the summer heat (and year-round crowds), aim to visit early morning or late afternoon, allowing at least an hour to explore the site in full. Whenever you visit, be sure to check opening times ahead, as hours can vary.
This is where the Olympic Games took place every four years for over 1100 years, until their abolition by Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393. The Olympic flame is still lit here for the modern Games. Thanks to the destruction ordered by Theodosius II in AD 420 and various subsequent earthquakes, little remains of the magnificent temples and athletic facilities, but enough exists to give you a hint of the sanctuary's former glory. It is one of Greece's most evocative ancient sites. Wandering amid the tree-shaded ruins, you can almost picture the blood and smoke of oxen sacrificed to Zeus and Hera, the sweaty, oiled-up athletes waiting inside the original stadium and the raucous crowds waiting to see the action unfold. Stone columns at the Archaeological Site of Olympia © George Damigos / Alamy Stock Photo History According to one (of many different) legends, Zeus held the first Olympic Games to celebrate beating his father Kronos at wrestling. Archaeologists, however, date the oldest structures in the ancient complex to around 2000 to 1600 BCE, while records show the first known games – the athletic contest was originally part of a wider festival honouring Zeus – took place on the site in 776 BCE. It's worth remembering that some structures precede others by centuries; a visit to the excellent archaeological museum (as well as the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity) before or after will provide context and help with visualising the ancient buildings. The entrance to the original Olympic stadium still stands © Education Images / Getty Images Touring Olympia Archaeological Site Gymnasium and wrestling school On your right as you descend into the complex, the first ruin encountered is the gymnasium, which dates from the 2nd century BC. South of here are the columns of the partly restored palaestra (wrestling school), where contestants practised and trained. Pheidias’ workshop Beyond here is Pheidias’ workshop, where the gargantuan ivory-and-gold Statue of Zeus, was sculpted by the Athenian master. The statue, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, stood in the Temple of Zeus (in The Altis) but was destroyed in the 5th century – its existence is known only through ancient texts and its representation on coins. The workshop was identified by archaeologists after the discovery of tools and moulds; in the 5th century AD it was converted into an early-Christian church. The Altis The Altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus, lies on the left of the entrance path. Its most important building was the immense 5th-century-BC Doric Temple of Zeus, which enshrined Pheidias’ statue. One column of the temple has been restored and re-erected, and helps put into perspective the sheer size of the structure. To the east of the temple is the base for the Nike (Victory statue) that visitors can admire in the archaeological museum. The altar of oaths South of the Temple of Zeus is the bouleuterion (council house), which contains the altar of oaths, where competitors swore to abide by the rules decreed by the Olympic Senate and not to commit foul play. Here were kept the official records of the Games and its champions. The stadium The stadium lies to the east of the Altis and is entered through a stone archway. It is rectangular, with a track measuring 192.27m; the stone start and finish lines of the sprint track and the judges’ seats still survive. The stadium could seat at least 45,000 spectators; slaves and women, however, had to be content to watch from outside on the Hill of Kronos. The stadium was used again in 2004, when it was the venue for the shot put at the Athens Olympics. Doric Temple of Hera To the north of the Temple of Zeus, past the pelopion (a small, wooded hillock with an altar to Pelops, the first mythical hero of the Olympic Games), is the late 7th-century-BC Doric Temple of Hera, the site’s oldest temple. An altar in front of the temple would have maintained a continuous fire during the Games, symbolising the fire stolen from the gods by Prometheus; today, the Olympic flame is lit here. The Olympic flame is still initially lit in Ancient Olympia at the beginning of every Olympic Games © Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock Tickets and other practicalities The entrance fee to the site is €12, which covers entrance to the Archaeological Olympia Site, Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Museum of the History of the Olympic Games of Antiquity and Museum of the History of the Olympia Excavations. It is worth visiting first thing in the morning or in the late afternoon; it's a magical experience to be there without the crowds. Information panels are in Greek, English and German.
This dazzling museum at the foot of the Acropolis ' southern slope showcases its surviving treasures. The collection covers the Archaic period to the Roman one, but the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BC, considered the apotheosis of Greece's artistic achievement. The museum reveals layers of history – from ancient ruins beneath the building, to the Acropolis itself, always visible above through floor-to-ceiling windows. The good-value restaurant has superb views. Designed by US-based architect Bernard Tschumi with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, the €130-million museum opened in 2009 after decades of planning; it replaced the small museum near the Parthenon. As you enter the museum, the glass floor reveals the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood. These were uncovered during construction and had to be preserved and integrated into a new building plan. In 2019, the museum opened up a 4000-sq-metre section of these ruins for closer inspection. The ground floor's Gallery of the Slopes of Acropolis emulates the climb up to the sacred hill, while allowing glimpses of the ruins below. Exhibits include painted vases and votive offerings from the sanctuaries where gods were worshipped, plus more recent objects found in excavations of the settlement, including two clay statues of Nike at the entrance. Bathed in natural light, the 1st-floor Archaic Gallery is a veritable forest of statues, mostly votive offerings to Athena. These include stunning examples of 6th-century kore – statues of young women in draped clothing and elaborate braids, usually carrying a pomegranate, wreath or bird. Most were recovered from a pit on the Acropolis, where the Athenians buried them after the Battle of Salamis. The 570-BC-statue of a youth bearing a calf is one of the rare male statues found. There are also bronze figurines and artefacts from temples predating the Parthenon (destroyed by the Persians), including wonderful pedimental sculptures such as Hercules slaying the Lernaian Hydra and a lioness devouring a bull. Also on this floor are five Caryatids, the maiden columns that held up the Erechtheion (the sixth is in the British Museum). The museum’s crowning glory is the top-floor Parthenon Gallery, a glass atrium housing the temple's 160m-long frieze. It's mounted as it once was, following the layout of the building, and you can stroll along, as though atop the columns, and examine the fragments at eye level. The frieze depicts the Panathenaic Procession, starting at the southwest corner of the temple, with two groups splitting off and meeting on the east side for the delivery of the peplos (shawl) to Athena. (To really understand the reliefs, see the film that is screened on this floor.) Interspersed between the golden-hued originals are stark-white plaster replicas of the missing pieces – the so-called Parthenon Marbles hacked off by Lord Elgin in 1801 and now held in the British Museum in London. Also on this level are metopes and sculpture from the Parthenon, as well as a plaster replica of a giant floral akrotirion, a decorative element that once crowned the southern ridge of the pediment.
Designed to be the pre-eminent monument of the Acropolis, the Parthenon epitomises the glory of Ancient Greece. Meaning 'virgin's apartment', it's dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, the Parthenon took 15 years to build. It was designed by Iktinos and Kallicrates and completed in time for the Great Panathenaic Festival of 438 BC. Built on its highest ground of the Acropolis, the Parthenon had a dual purpose: to house the great statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles and to serve as the new treasury. It was built on the site of at least three earlier temples dedicated to Athena. The temple consisted of eight fluted Doric columns at either end and 17 on each side. To achieve perfect form, its lines were ingeniously curved to create an optical illusion – the foundations are slightly concave and the columns are slightly convex to make both look straight. Supervised by Pheidias, sculptors worked on the architectural detail of the Parthenon, including the pediments and friezes, which were brightly coloured and gilded. The metopes (the decorative panels on the temple's exterior) on the eastern side depicted the Olympian gods fighting the giants; on the western side they showed Theseus leading the Athenian youths into battle against the Amazons. The southern metopes illustrated the contest of the Lapiths and Centaurs at a marriage feast, while the northern ones depicted the sacking of Troy. Much of the frieze inside depicting the Panathenaic Procession was damaged in a devastating 1687 gunpowder explosion – the Turks had been storing ammunition here; the Venetians launched a mortar at it. Earlier, Christians had defaced some of the pieces, too. But the greatest existing part (over 75m long) consists of the controversial Parthenon Marbles, taken by Lord Elgin and now in the British Museum in London. The British government continues to ignore campaigns for their return. The ceiling of the Parthenon, like that of the Propylaia, was painted blue and gilded with stars. At the eastern end was the holy cella (inner room of a temple), into which only a few privileged initiates could enter. Here stood the statue for which the temple was built: the Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin), considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Designed by Pheidias and completed in 432 BC, it was made of gold and ivory with a wooden core and stood almost 12m high on its pedestal. The face, hands and feet were made of ivory, and the eyes were fashioned from jewels. Clad in a long gold dress with the head of Medusa carved in ivory on her breast, the goddess held a statuette of Nike (the goddess of victory) in her right hand; in her left, a spear with a serpent at its base. On top of her helmet was a sphinx, with griffins in relief at either side. In AD 426 the statue was taken to Constantinople, where it disappeared. There's a small Roman copy (the Athena Varvakeion) in the National Archaeological Museum.
The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands sentinel over Athens, visible from almost everywhere within the city. Its monuments and sanctuaries of white Pentelic marble gleam in the midday sun and gradually take on a honey hue as the sun sinks, while at night they stand brilliantly illuminated above the city. A glimpse of this magnificent sight cannot fail to exalt your spirit. Inspiring as these monuments are, they are but faded remnants of the city of Pericles, who spared no expense – only the best materials, architects, sculptors and artists were good enough for a city dedicated to the cult of Athena. It was a showcase of lavishly coloured buildings and gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times (4000–3000 BC). The earliest monumental buildings were constructed here during the Mycenaean era. People lived on the Acropolis until the late 6th century BC, but in 510 BC the Delphic oracle declared it the sole province of the gods. After all the buildings on the Acropolis were reduced to ashes by the Persians on the eve of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), Pericles set about his ambitious rebuilding program. He transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples, which has come to be regarded as the zenith of Classical Greece. Ravages inflicted during the years of foreign occupation, pilfering by foreign archaeologists, inept renovations following Independence, the footsteps of millions of visitors, earthquakes and, more recently, acid rain and pollution have all taken their toll on the surviving monuments. The worst blow was in 1687, when the Venetians attacked the Turks, opening fire on the Acropolis and causing an explosion in the Parthenon – where the Turks had been storing gunpowder – and damaging all the buildings. The Acropolis became a World Heritage-listed site in 1987. Major restoration programs are ongoing, and most of the original sculptures and friezes have been moved to the Acropolis Museum and replaced with casts. Restoration at the site is ongoing and there are almost always hordes of tourists here – visit very early in the morning or last thing at night to avoid the worst of the crowds. The one modern detail on the hill (aside from the ever-present scaffolding and cranes) is the large Greek flag at the far eastern end. In 1941, early in the Nazi occupation, two teenage boys climbed up the cliff and raised the Greek flag; their act of resistance is commemorated on a brass plaque nearby. From here, you can look down into the Temple of Olympian Zeus. From November to March, admission is free on the first Sunday of the month. A combo ticket (€30) permits entry to the Acropolis and six other sites within five days.
Delos has a special place in Greek mythology. When Leto was pregnant with twins Apollo and Artemis, she was relentlessly pursued by a vengeful Hera – the wife of their father, Zeus – before giving birth on this sacred island. The ancient town that sprang up here was a bustling commercial centre as well as shrine. Within the extensive ruins of this Unesco World Heritage Site, it's not difficult to imagine Ancient Delos in all its original splendour. Boats for Delos leave Hora (Mykonos) at 9am, 10am, 11.30am and 5pm from May to October, returning at noon, 1.30pm, 3pm and 7.30pm. On Mondays throughout the year, and daily from November to April, only the 10am boat operates, returning at 1.30pm. The journey takes 30 minutes. Tickets are sold from the Delos Boat Ticket Kiosk, located at the foot of the jetty at the southern end of Mykonos' old harbour. When buying tickets, find out which boat you can return on. On the island, the ticket office sells Delos guidebooks but there are also detailed information boards scattered around the site. Visitors are given a map with three walking routes marked on it, taking from 1½ to five hours. While many significant finds from Delos are in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the island's museum retains an interesting collection, including the originals of many of the frescoes, mosaics and statues that were removed from the site and replaced with replicas in situ. The key areas to explore are the Sanctuary of Apollo, the spiritual heart of the complex, to the left of the ferry dock. Two large stoas (colonnaded porticos) lined the Sacred Way leading to the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to a complex of magnificent temples and treasuries. Three temples to Apollo stood side by side, facing a colossal 9m-high statue of the god. Also within the compound is the Artemision, containing the Temple of Artemis. Beyond here is the much-photographed Terrace of the Lions. These proud marble beasts were offerings from the people of Naxos, presented to Delos in the 7th century BC to guard the Sacred Lake (drained since 1925 to prevent malarial mosquito-breeding) where Leto gave birth to her twins. To the right of the dock is the Theatre Quarter, where Delos’ wealthiest inhabitants lived in houses built around peristyle courtyards, with intricate, colourful mosaics. Beyond this are the Sanctuaries of the Foreign Gods and the path leading up Mt Kynthos (113m); it’s worth the steep climb for the terrific views of the encircling islands.
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