Epidavros and Cape Sounion

Today is my final full day in Greece; tomorrow morning, I head for the airport. The question is, where will I be sleeping tonight? I want to be somewhat close to the Athens airport, but I am not familiar with that area. My guidebook does not mention too much beyond Cape Sounion, which is about an hour south of the airport. I'd never heard of Cape Sounion until Mel and my friend Angie mentioned the Temple of Poseidon, which is located at the cape. I guess I'll see what accommodations the area offers when I arrive there later this afternoon.

I drove for about an hour this morning to the ancient site of Epidavros on the Argolic Peninsula. Across the Saronic Gulf to the northeast is Athens. Epidavros is famous for its 3rd century theater, which is still in use today.

The theater is indeed amazing. I've seen ancient theaters in Athens and Delphi, but this one is intact and much larger than the others. It seats 14,000 people and the acoustics are perfect. It's said that if someone drops a coin on stage, you can hear it clearly in the last row. That particular test would be impossible today, given the two groups of obnoxious teenagers who were making barnyard noises, belching, and screaming.

Every now and then, staff from the site stand on the center stone and perform a few readings. I couldn't help imagine, as I did at the Acropolis and in Delphi, the many thousands of people who sat in these very seats before me. Who and what entertained them 2,000 years ago?

I scaled the stone structure from top to bottom and around the perimeter.

Finally, the teenagers left and took their goat and cow noises with them. I, too, left the theater and explored the rest of the ancient city here. Frankly, there is not much to see. In ancient times, Epidavros was a place to go to be cured of your ailments. People from as far as Rome came here to visit the sanctuary to Asclepius, the god of medicine.

In the ancient city there were hospitals, a convalescent, and long-term care facilities. Most of these structures are mere foundations today, but the Greek government is restoring the site. Why, I'm not sure, but they press on year after year, decade after decade.

Nothing else here was as impressive as the theater. I toured the other sites and visited the small museum, but soon I hit the road to find a place to stay tonight near Cape Sounion.

The road north is very curvy and passes through tree-covered mountains that occasionally open up to views of the vivid blue sea. I passed through only a few towns, including Katakali and Almiri. Sensing I was nearing the highway, I stopped to get some food and drink from a kiosk along the side of the road. As I said earlier, these are for the locals and the person inside generally knows everyone who stops by for a paper, cigarettes, or a bottle of soda. I pulled over and picked up a few things to tide me over till dinner and the girl inside said something to me followed by a wink. I'll never know what she said, but I sure did allow my imagination to run wild.

The road joins the highway at Isthmia, the ancient town on the south end of the five-mile-wide Isthmus of Corinth which connects the Peloponnesus to Attica. Just a few minutes after entering the highway, I crossed the Corinth Canal, a deep trench below the road. The canal connects the Ionian and Aegean Seas and was dreamt about since the 7th century BC. It was not until Nero, in the year 67, that the digging began. The canal was built by 6,000 Jewish prisoners, but was interrupted by invasions and soon abandoned. As it turns out, the canal was not completed until the late 1800s by a French company. The result is impressive: a deep trench that is only 70 feet wide. It saves about 200 nautical miles off a mariner's journey.

Heading back toward Athens, I took the by-pass around the city and continued until the highway ended shortly after the airport. I was heading to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. The towns along this road are mainly industrial, nothing too pretty here. I was on the lookout for a place to stay and paying close attention to the route, as I will need to drive back here tomorrow morning on my way to the airport.

After Lavrio, the road narrowed and became more scenic. I wasn't sure where the temple was, and I took a few wrong turns, but I kept following the road and eventually reached the site at the southern tip of the Attica peninsula. It was about 4 o'clock by now and the light was wonderful, not a cloud in the sky. I walked up to the monument, paid the €4 admission, and wandered around. There were a few tours here, but it was not mobbed.

The tawny color of the earth contrasted wonderfully with the indigo sea and the azure sky, throw in an ancient temple and it was a sight to behold. The Temple of Poseidon was built in 444 BC, around the same time as the Parthenon in Athens. In ancient times, it was an important landmark to sailors returning home to Athens, just as the skyscrapers of Manhattan are for New Yorkers today.

After touring the site, I jumped in the car to get a bite to eat. I'd not eaten anything substantial today. I got a table at a seaside taverna below the temple. I ordered some octopus along with the bean dish I've not tried yet. This is a dish of large kidney beans cooked in a light, tomato-based sauce. It was good, but the octopus was better. Washed it down with my last ΑΛΦΑ beer as I watched the sun slowly make its way toward the horizon.

I asked the waiter about places to stay in the area. There are only four. The swanky hotel just across the street, a hotel up the road to the west, a hotel up the road to the east, and a campground. Well, the luxury hotel on the sea was beyond my tight budget, and the waiter recommended the Hotel Saron on the east coast road over the other hotel. I passed the Hotel Saron on my way here, so I went back to check it out. The receptionist was Polish and was asking €75 for the night. Not much of a choice, unless I want to stay in the campground. The room was adequate, and that's about all I can say about it.

The hotel is dead, nothing to walk to and no one to talk to. I jumped in the car and headed to Lavrio, a town to the north, where I got a calling card and talked to Mel for about an hour at a phone booth.

I arrived back at my room, watched a little Greek television, and went to sleep. I needed to wake up early to allow for the additional time to reach the airport. My flight takes off at 12:20 in the afternoon.

I woke up first around 5 AM and again just before my 7 AM wake-up call. I was out of the hotel by 8, bypassing the free breakfast, which I imagined to be as adequate as the rooms. The road to the airport was pretty empty. I filled the gas tank last night, leaving me with about €35 for the rest of the trip. The money worked out perfectly, despite the fact that I lost my ATM card.

I arrived at the airport before 9, returned the car (I was relieved that he didn't say anything about the bird poop), and headed to departures where a group of us had congregated waiting for the ticket counter to open. Once they did open, I got a bite to eat in the airport, relaxed for a bit, then headed for the gate.

At 11 AM, the airline gate attendants arrived and proceeded to kick everyone out to the chairs in the next gate. I scored the only plug in the room for my laptop so that I could begin sorting through the 1,000 photos I shot, and now I was being asked to give that up? They told us the gate didn't open until 11:15, which felt like a cruel joke, Greek style.

The flight back to New York was not as pleasant as my flight here. I was on an aisle, but in the middle section with three rather large people. The guy next to me had no concept of personal space either. And, he was not very talkative to boot. We arrived in New York safe and sound at four in the afternoon (11 PM Greek time).

For the most part, Greece lived up to my expectations. The mountains emanate a delightful pine scent while the valleys are a bit dry and scrubby. The roads are pretty good and the signage is good too. I only lost my way a few times, and never for very long.

In a strange way, Greece made me appreciate how stable the world is today. Every place I visited has witnessed legendary wars and the downfall of empires. Thousands of years ago, people were being attacked from all sides, so much of their effort in life went toward defending what they have. Some may argue this is just as true today, but I believe the world is far more stable today than it was centuries ago. Perhaps this is due to the emergence of superpowers, or technological advances that allow us to see what's coming, but today I feel like we have it easy. Hopefully civilization will continue to evolve in this direction. (Given what is happening today, I'm not so sure it will.)

I hate to besmirch the reputation of the food in Greece, but I was not overwhelmed by its offerings. First, with the exception of a few restaurants, I was not impressed with the quality of the food. Yes, they use fresh ingredients and it was a pleasure to hear "that's not in season right now," but the meat was often overcooked and not of great quality. Second, the variety on the menu was nonexistent. Every place, again, with the exception of a few, offers exactly the same menu. By the third day I swore off Greek salad and souvlaki altogether. However, the wine was incredibly cheap and pretty good. I never paid over €3 for a glass of wine. Perhaps this compensates for the uninspiring food.

On the whole, I loved Greece and I was lucky enough to see a wide variety of places. From the hustle of Athens, to the scenic mountains and monasteries at Meteora, to the prestigious ancient city of Delphi in its idyllic setting, to the Venetian town of Nafplio on the coast. Each of these gave me a different impression of Greece and its people that I will remember for a long time.

When I return to Greece, I would like to see a few of the islands and more of the mainland too. I hear Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, is wonderful. I would like to have seen Olympia, the tiny Venetian town of Monemvasia, and the islands of Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, and others. Perhaps even venture over to Turkey and Istanbul, which is not too far from the Greek border. But, for now, I am content with my memories from Greece and will treasure them always.