Beyond the Argolid

(J-term Trip Highlights Part 4 of 5)

On the seventh day, we packed up for a night in Pylos near the southwestern tip of the Peloponnese. Our first stop, the Argive Heraion, wasn't far from Nafplion. From this ancient Temple to Hera, we could see Argos. In Herodotus, Solon tells Croesus the story of two young men, Kleobis and Biton, whose lives were well-lived. Their mother was a priestess of the Heraion. One day she needed to get to the temple from Argos, but there was a problem with the oxen, so Kleobis and Biton pulled her cart to the temple. After the priestess prays to the goddess to give her sons the best gift for their devotion, the goddess causes them to die peacefully in their sleep. I always associate this story with Delphi, where the Argives are said to have dedicated statues of the brothers. This morning, however, we were all getting the tingles looking over the plain to Argos thinking of K & B (as one student on the trip affectionately called them) and Herodotus.

The drive from Argos to Sparta, where we stopped next, is about 2 hours. High above the valley of the River Eurotas sits the Menelaion, a hero shrine to Menelaus, who was the King of Sparta during the Trojan War. He was the brother of Agamemon, King of Mycenae, and the husband of the infamous Helen. As beautiful as the Eurotas valley is, I can totally understand why Helen ran off with Paris: Sparta is landlocked, in the middle of nowhere, completely bounded by mountains.

Heres's a better view of the valley with the river running through it. That's modern Sparta at center.

And now a better view of the Taygetos mountains, which the Menelaion faces. If Menelaus wanted to pay old King Nestor a visit, he would have to go through these mountains, which Odysseus' son, Telemachos, crossed on his journey from Pylos to Sparta to learn of his father's whereabouts. What amazes me is that the Spartans dominated their whole corner of the Peloponnese, which means they controlled land and people on either side of two mountain ranges: the Taygetos mountains in the west and the Parnon mountains in the east.

While walking down from the Menelaion, the group found a family -- all three generations -- harvesting olive trees. A tarp collects the olives while the workers use an electronic branch shaker. At the same time, they also prune the trees and use another machine to take the olives off the cut branches. Especially in this area of the Peloponnese, I saw tall columns of smoke billowing up from the olive groves as other harvesters burned their pruned branches. An important note: do NOT eat raw olives off the tree. They are nasty little fruits with a potent, lingering bitterness.

Sparta has a small town feel. It was here that some of the girls on the trip took notice of a strange trend in men's fashion: sweatsuits. A few of us ate lunch at the Ministry Music Hall on Sparta's main street. We sat outside, but to get to the bathroom inside, one had to swim through a smokey sea of Sparta's beautiful people, partying midday on Monday. No matter, the food was really good and we needed sustenance to make it through our epic drive through the Taygetus mountains.

A truly amazing drive it was on a narrow road that crossed under cliffs and switchbacked its way to the top of the snow-capped range and then back down again. Just on the other side is Kalamata (you know, like Kalamata olives), where our driver stopped at this donut place.

As the sky went dark, we arrived at the Hotel Philip in Pylos. I loved my room and the view.

Here's beautiful Pylos in the morning. On the islands in the picture are monuments to the French, Russian, and English Philhellene soliders who died in the 1827 Battle of Navarino during the Greek War of Independence. Navarino was Pylos' Italian name, which stuck from the Venetian occupation.

The day began like usual at a Bronze Age site -- this time at the "Nestor's Palace", famous for its humongous hearth. Some paint, looking something like flames licking the fire, on the hearth still remains. The archives room in Nestor's Palace has been the source of some 600 Linear B tablets, which were baked accidentally in a fire, probably around 1200 BCE. Archaeologists have also found Linear B tablets on Crete. These tablets are usually administrative records, like inventories of livestock.

This picture did not come out well, but I have to include it. The Mycenaeans not only kept warm in style with their fancy frescoed hearth room, they also bathed in style. What a beautiful tub!

In the Pylos museum, we saw this magnificent gold cup. The museum also contained fragments from frescoes which decorated the hearth room and other areas of the palace.

In the afternoon we arrived back in Nafplion with enough time to climb up to the Palimidi, a Venetian fortress with an amazing view of the town.

The ninth day began at Nemea, site of one of the four Panhellenic games and of this 4th-century Temple of Zeus. It was here too that Heracles killed a lion as one of his twelve labors.

At Nestor's Palace, I saw a Bronze Age bathtub, while here at Nemea are washing basins for the athletes. Seeing everyday objects like this always brings the past alive for me.

A short distance from the religious and business complex at Nemea is the stadium.

One of the trip leaders and three of the students ran in a race, but they found it quite difficult to run on clay mud.

Next we stopped in Corinth to see the older (and shorter and stocky) Temple of Apollo from the 6th century BCE. Since the Classical and Roman periods weren't our focus, we moved quickly through the huge site of Corinth. I think it's one of the best sites to give the idea of what an ancient city was like.

Finally, we reached our destination and base for the last two days of the trip: Athens. (Picture from a previous a previous trip in 2009)

Part 5 When in Athens…

About Lanah Koelle

Lanah Koelle is a Programs Coordinator at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC.
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