Goodbye to Crete, land of lawgivers, long lunches, and battling nuns. We left Heraklion on the “Knossos Palace”, a nice reminder of Greek thalassocracies past and present, and headed due north for Nafplion via Athens.
On the way we made a stop at Lerna, where we visited the 3rd millennium BCE House of the Tiles, reached by a long path through orange groves, far earlier than the Minoan palaces and a jolt to the sense we’d acquired of Cretan precedence in the building of complex structures and the introduction of complex administrative systems. And then on to Nafplion, our base in the Argolid and the Greek home of the CHS, where we were welcomed into the cool of the Center and shown round the control-rooms where the cogwheels of our trip had been invisibly turning for months before we’d even set foot in Athens airport.
The next few days saw our transition from Minoans to Mycenaeans. We visited Mycenae, Midea, and Tiryns, came across tholoi far larger than the Minoans would ever have imagined possible, and vast fortification walls like nothing we’d seen on Crete. We were shown round Mycenae by the very kind and knowledgeable excavator Eleni Palaiologou, who led us under ropes into usually out-of-bounds areas such as Shaft Grave A and the main megaron of the acropolis, and patiently answered our endless questions on anything and everything. At Midea we also had the good fortune to be shown round by another expert, Ann-Louise Schallin, the director of the Swedish-led excavations at the site. We were the only ones on the Midean acropolis that afternoon, and had the views (and the winds!) all to ourselves – one of the wonderful luxuries of visiting small sites as well as large ones, and of having the time, at almost every site we visited, to explore by ourselves as well as discussing the key historical and archaeological points as a group.
It was an enormous mental leap to wake up one morning and find ourselves on the road to Nemea – a millennium had somehow passed by while we were asleep; instead of a 14th century BCE wall of Cyclopean masonry rising out of the mountainside we were suddenly standing in front of a 4th century BCE temple to Zeus, trying to work out whether it was Doric or Ionic, hexastyle or octastyle, peripteral or podium. The same day we visited Corinth and Perachora, both of whose histories (closely interlinked with one another) run the gauntlet from Geometric to Roman periods and beyond. As we dashed across the Corinthian agora in the rain, trying to juggle Orientalizing Corinthian pottery, a 6th century BCE Doric temple, and a terrace of mini-temples erected in the Roman period to a range of demi-gods and divinized emperors, we started to build up the temporal and cultural framework into which we would fit the sites still to be visited – a truly Cyclopean challenge.
We spent our last day in the Argolid in the very pleasant company of another CHS-led group, those taking part in the summer internship program. Together we visited Epidavros and a site which turned out to be the wild card of our trip, the Franchthi Cave. On the way to the famous sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidavros, David Carlisle read us stories of cures brought about through the power of Asklepios, one of the most memorable of which told the story of Sostrata of Pherae, who gave birth to a bellyful of worms. We reread the story when we reached the abaton of the sanctuary, where the inscribed stele carrying the cure stories had originally been found, then turned around to head back to the coach… only to be faced with a pair of worm-like creepy-crawlies wiggling their way up the abaton wall…
We reached our next stop, the Franchthi Cave, by boat, winding our way up a narrow hillside path to stand in front of a quite incredible archaeological site. Franchthi, where the archaeological record of human occupation stretches from 20,000 to 3,000 BCE, stood far beyond the remit of the stated chronological boundaries of our trip; as such it brought up many issues – of the beginnings of agriculture and seafaring, for example – which we had been able to take for granted elsewhere. The bay we had just motored across on our little boat, we were told, had once been the home to the papyrus-growing industry which provided the Mesolithic Franchthi dwellers with their own boats, which they then used to island-hop down the Cyclades – a prospect which put our own adventures on the storm-tossed Flying Cat (the boat from Santorini to Crete) to shame. Happily we were called to do nothing more arduous that afternoon than eat the delicious lunch provided by the municipality of Kranidi, and, for the trip leaders, to sit beneath a portside sunshade and listen to the amazing anecdotes of our host, the inimitable Mr Papas. There were few points on our trip when we were not indebted to the warmth, humour, and seemingly endless capabilities of Marina Cheilitsi, our program coordinator and all-round saint, but for her tireless interpretation, mediation, and translation that afternoon I think we probably owe her a small Greek island in the Argolic Gulf. We rounded off the day with a visit to the local folk museum, before piling back onto the bus, sweet almond-and-mastic cakes in hands, and setting off back for a final evening in Nafplion.
It was wonderful to have spent a few days in Nafplion, wandering along the seafront, learning traditional Greek dancing, and propping up the town’s necklace and gelato industries. Meeting the participants and leaders of other courses taking place at the Center – the Internship Program and the High School Summer Program in particular – gave us a flavour of the broader reach and projects of the CHS, and it was exciting to see a little bit more of the iceberg on whose tip our Maymester group was perched. The only regret is that we didn’t have time to visit the (supposedly excellent) local archaeological museum… but perhaps that was just a trick to guarantee we all make a return trip. Many thanks are due to everyone at the Center who was so kind to us during our brief invasion.