Greece #03 – Athens Area
Greece #3 – Areas Near Athens
This is part 3 of a trip we took in April of 2019 to Greece. Except for a few days on our own in Athens and surrounding areas, the bulk of the trip was an organized Road Scholar cruise through several Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea.
This installment is the final installment of our time based in the city of Athens and is focused mainly on 2 excursions we took out of town with a hired guide (see bottom for info on guide). The first excursion was a loop drive through the northeastern section of the Peloponnese Peninsula and the other was a drive with our guide to the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounio. I’m also including a bit more on Athens attractions photographed at night that were left out of the prior sections of this blog series. Subsequent sections of this blog series will be for our voyage through some of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.
Full Trip Map
Several months prior to our trip, we had arranged for a day and a half with a local private guide (see bottom of this blog for contact info) who would take us to several spots not included on our Road Scholar itinerary both within Athens as well as outside the city. Many of these Athens locations were included in parts 1 and 2 and were taken with this wonderful guide. But in addition, we spent a day and a half with the guide driving outside of Athens.
As with all such plans, one must trust to luck that the weather on the days you schedule for a guided tour will be suitable for that purpose. To aid that, one does some research on typical temperatures and average rainfall at different times of the year when planning the overall trip. But what you get on any particular day is unpredictable that far in advance. Of course, one could delay the booking for special tours till a few days before hand where the weather could be a bit more predictable but then there is the risk that the chosen guide would not be available. So, we booked our tours several months in advance.
Out first day with the guide was a full day driving tour of part of the Peloponnese Peninsula and as luck would have it, the weather was not at all cooperative. Our guide picked us up at our hotel right after breakfast and off we went under a heavy overcast with intermittent drizzle and this turned out to be about the best weather of the day.
The Peloponnese Peninsula is actually now an island due to the cutting of the 4 mile long Corinth Canal which runs across the Corinth Isthmus from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea and splits the peninsula from the mainland making it an island. This canal was dug at sea level so ships could sail through without the need for locks. This canal cut what had been a several day voyage around the peninsula into a few hour passage through the canal.
Although dreams of such a canal persisted throughout antiquity, the first ruler to make a proposal to actually dig it was the tyrant Periander in the 7th century BC. But his project never really got going and they built a stone “overland portage road” across the isthmus instead. This road was constructed such that ships could be pulled on rollers across the isthmus and believe it or not this was still faster than sailing around the peninsula. I guess having a large supply of slaves is useful when implementing a transportation system that relies on dragging ocean vessels across 4 miles of hills.
Several hundred years later, in the first century BC, another plan for the canal was hatched but abandoned after the surveyors screwed up their calculations. And, on it went. The philosopher Apollonius of Tyana prophesied that anyone who proposed to dig a Corinthian canal would be met with illness or early death. And apparently he wasn’t far off the mark. Subsequently three Roman rulers considered the idea and all suffered violent deaths. Then Julius Caesar considered digging it and was assassinated before he could begin. Caligula, the third Roman Emperor, commissioned a study in 40 AD from Egyptian experts who claimed incorrectly that the Corinthian Gulf was higher than the Saronic Gulf. As a result, they concluded, if a canal were dug the island of Aegina would be inundated. Caligula's interest in the idea got no further as he too was assassinated before making any progress.
The first actual construction commenced in 67AD when the Roman Emperor Nero himself dug the first basket full of dirt. The Roman workforce, consisted of 6,000 Jewish prisoners of war who started digging from both ends while another group drilled deep shafts at the ridge for probing the quality of the rock. After digging about a tenth of the required distance, and keeping the prophecy intact, Nero died and the project was stopped. Several other Greeks and Venetians considered completing Nero’s project but never got started.
The project that would eventually complete the canal didn’t get going until after Greece gained formal independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. The project itself got going in 1881 and after overcoming geological issues and the bankruptcy of the original builders, it was finally completed 1893. The final canal is 4 miles long and 70 feet wide at water level.
Now in Nero’s time, 70 feet wide was plenty for both the commercial and military ships of the era, but very few modern ships can squeeze by in that width, even with alternating one way traffic flow. Then add to that periodic closures due to landslides and it is no surprise that it failed to attract the level of traffic expected and has never been a financial, commercial, political, or military success. But it has proved to be a wonderful draw for tourism – and we obliged by making it both our first and last stop on our day’s outing.
By the time we got to the canal after leaving Athens in the morning, the mist and light drizzle had become a heavy solid rain. But undaunted and with a “past it’s prime” poncho I ventured out onto the bridge over the canal. This is the highway 8 bridge (1 lane each way) with a pedestrian walkway on either side. The walkway is about 5 inches lower than the roadway and on the outside of this walkway is a vertical steel kick plate with little drain holes at the bottom. Well, needless to say, those little drain holes had not been cleaned out in about forever and this resulted in the walkway being a 5 inch deep river. But being the intrepid photographer that I am, my mind was set on getting a photo from mid span so I waded in, so to speak, trying to straddle this “walkway river” with one foot on the road way and one on top of that kick plate which sort of worked. But, once at mid span there was no way to take photos in that “doing the splits” sideways position. So I deftly put both feet on top of the kick rail and with one hand holding onto the handrail so I wouldn’t fall over backwards and shot one handed with my other hand. But it worked. And I made it almost all the way back off the bridge before my foot slipped and my shoe got soaked.
But all was not lost. Later, at the end of our excursion, it was still quite overcast but had stopped raining. So, I had our guide change our planned route back to Athens so that we came to this same spot again. This time the photography was much easier, and with nowhere near as much fog nor – thankfully – as much water on the walkway.
Corinth Canal in the pouring morning rain
Corinth Canal (late afternoon)
Upside down draw bridge
At each end of the Corinth Canal is an upside down drawbridge. Okay, let’s take a step back and look at draw bridges in general. There are several types of drawbridges that in one way or another move a roadway out of the way so that ships can pass by. Most of these tilt upward from the edge of the waterway from one or both sides. Others lift straight up using tall support towers. And, still others rotate sideways either from one of the banks of the waterway or from a pivot point midway in the water. I’m quite sure that most of you have seen these various types of drawbridges.
Well the Corinthian canal has another kind at each end. These work on the same principle as those that lift straight up like an elevator but in this case the roadway goes straight down under the water allowing ships to pass over rather than under. Now, that is just plain weird. So, after our guide mentioned this type of bridge we had to go and see one. As I said, there is one at each end of the Corinthian canal. At the south end it is in the town of Isthmia and at the north end it is between the towns of Loutraki and Corinth and that is the one we visited.
As luck would have it, a ship came by while we were there so we had an opportunity to see it in operation. Indeed, it worked as described. The roadway surface is wooden planks which would not have been my first choice for an underwater bridge but I guess they have a reason. The bridge went down, The ship sailed over it. And the bridge came back up. Well as you can see in the photo below, most of the water escapes between the decking boards as there are solid railings on the sides. So, once the bridge comes back up, many times there are fish flopping around on the deck which must be grabbed and thrown over the side. Just one extra duty of the bridge operator. Is it any wonder there aren’t that many bridges of this type to be found around the world?
Bridge surface before being lowered
Bridge before being lowered
Half way down
Just below the surface
Here comes the ship
Epidavros Greek Theatre
As we continued our loop, our next stop was at the town of Epidavros, famous for its Greek Theatre. Epidaurus was a small city in ancient Greece and is said to be the birthplace of Apollo's son Asclepius the healer. The town was essentially a health spa where Greeks came to be healed or rejuvenated. The area of the town where this was done is known as the sanctuary and was situated about five miles away from the actual town and the theater, constructed in 4th century BC, is part of the sanctuary.
The sanctuary was quite popular and prosperous and that prosperity enabled Epidaurus to construct many civic monuments including this huge theatre that gained fame for its symmetry and beauty. The ancient theatre of Epidaurus was designed by Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC. The original 34 rows were extended in Roman times by another 21 rows with a seating capacity of 12,000 to 14,000 people making it a pretty large venue. As is usual for Greek theatres (as opposed to Roman ones), the view of the landscape behind the performance circle is an integral part of the theatre itself and is not to be obscured.
The seating is divided by a walkway between the lower section and the upper section. The lower section as well as the first row of the upper section was for the well to do which of course included government officials. The remainder of the seats in the upper section were for the riff-raff. All the “seats” where just stone blocks. However the first row of both the upper and lower sections also had stone backs which I’m sure was quite a luxury.
But the main attraction and claim to fame of the theatre is its exceptional acoustics. Unamplified dialog in the performance circle can be heard almost perfectly throughout the entire seating area. Famously, tour guides have their group scatter in the stands and show them how they can easily hear the sound of a match struck at center-stage. A 2007 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology indicates that the astonishing acoustic properties are the result of how they designed the seating. The rows of limestone seats seem to filter out low-frequency sounds, such as the murmur of the crowd while at the same time amplifying the high-frequency sounds from the stage. The acoustics are so good that the theatre has been put back into use and now hosts many different types of events.
By the time we arrived at the theatre, the rain had abated to an intermittent drizzle, so we were able to see and walk around the theatre. In terms of ancient Greek remnants, this theatre is in remarkable condition thanks in part to some successful restoration projects. The entire seating area is intact and quite usable if you’re willing to sit on stone slabs with no back support as was the custom for us riff-raff.
Epidavros Theatre from the area behind the performance circle
View from the top with double arched entrance gates at either end of seating area
Stone Block Seating
After leaving Epidavros we headed west to the town of Nafplion on a bay at the north end of the Argolic Gulf. Its claim to fame, other than being the first capital of the Greek state between 1823 and 1834, is that it is said to be one of the most beautiful towns in the area.
As one might guess, Nafplion has some mythology associated with it as well. In this case it was said to be founded by Nafplios (ergo, the name of the place) who was the son of Poseidon. Those Greek gods really got around.
But in reality, records of the town show that soldiers from here participated in the Argonautic expedition and the Trojan War. But during the Roman occupation of the area not much interest was paid to the place and if declined. But it came back to life during the Byzantine era. Along the way Frankish, Venetian and Turkish conquerors ruled over the area and brought their architectural styles as well as cultural influences to the town. This has left a mishmash of overlaying ancient walls, castles, monuments, statues, fountains, and architecture to delight those who choose to pay attention.
After arriving in own we drove along the waterfront to a restaurant our guide was fond of and which overlooked the water front and had a wonderful lunch in an outdoor tent while we watched the rain pour down. Fortunately this tent had clear plastic walls which did a fine job keeping the heat from portable heaters in and the rain out.
By the time we had finished lunch, the rain had come and gone a few more times, but at that moment had petered out leaving only the flat light of a dark overcast day. But, the streets were wet, which added a bit of interest to images and the lousy weather was keeping the tourist count to a minimum – which also improved our photographic opportunities.
The historic portion of town is not that large and is quite easy to walk in an hour or less. There is a lovely mix of wider streets for car traffic, pedestrian only streets for shopping and narrow alleyways. lined with colorful buildings.
Wider street for auto traffic
Pedestrian only shopping street
Even on a dreary day the architecture of the town is quite colorful with each building sporting a different color scheme but mostly in muted earth tone colors such as pale yellow, salmon, beige, light brown, tan, light gray and of course white. All of this is trimmed by doors and windows of offsetting bright blue, green, burgundy, and peach among others. Now add in an array of small shops topped by dwelling with misaligned balconies each of which is surrounded by a black ironwork railing and filled with potted plants and you have a very charming display.
Multi colored buildings along with shops below
Balconies add to the visual appeal and charm
Entrance to one of the guest houses
Cape Sounio & Temple of Poseidon
The next day we hooked up with our guide again for a half day/evening adventure. We started with a walking tour of areas around the Acropolis, including the Plaka and Anafiotika Area which I covered in Part I of this Greece series of blogs. After our walk we hopped in the car and he drove us out to Cape Suounio which is about 43 miles southeast of Athens at the southernmost tip of the Attic peninsula.
Cape Sounion which translates to "Cape of Columns" is famous for the Temple of Poseidon. This temple is one of the major monuments of the Golden Age of Athens. It sits on the edge of a cliff surrounded on three sides by the sea. The earliest literary reference to this location is in Homer's Odyssey where the story recounts that on a return trip from Troy the helmsman of the ship of King Menelaus of Sparta died at his post while rounding "Holy Sounion, Cape of Athens." Menelaus landed at Sounion to give his companion full funeral honors (i.e., a cremation on a funeral pyre on the beach).
The current temple of Poseidon was constructed in 444–440 BC. This was during the ascendancy of the Athenian statesman Pericles who also rebuilt the Parthenon in Athens. It was built on the ruins of a temple dating from the Archaic period. As with all Greek temples, the Poseidon building was rectangular, with a colonnade of marble columns on all four sides of which 15 of the original 36 remain standing.
By the time we left Athens a bit after 6:00 pm the clouds from the prior day’s storm had started to break up which was a good thing as the purpose of going out to Cape Sounio was to photograph sunset at the Temple of Poseidon. Well, given that Athens is a fair sized city and we were leaving at the height of rush hour the traffic was horrendous and Sunset does not wait for traffic. So, after sitting in stop and go traffic for what seemed an eternity, once we hit some open road outside of town we had to put the pedal to the metal so to speak to make it in time. Add to that the fact that the park closes at sunset – or when the guy manning the ticket booth decides that it’s close enough to sunset – which would prevent us from even getting a view of the temple, let alone a sunset shot.
Upon arrival we grabbed our camera gear and scurried up the trail, just in time to nab a ticket as they were getting ready to close the gate. Once inside the gate though, you are allowed to hang around for about another 30 to 45 minutes before they clear you out. But we made it in before they closed but the sun was just about to splash into the Aegean Sea. There is a short hike up a roadway which passes the temple on its east side of the temple itself. The actual building is roped off so you can only get within about 15 feet of the columns. The temple is also built on a marble platform that sits several feet higher than the area where you are allowed to stand on the east side so you are for the most part shooting upward. However on south side was a mostly level rock area which was higher and more even with the floor of the temple offering a side lit view. Now, remember that rain storm from earlier? Well, that rocky area on the south side was chock full of puddles making for great reflection shots
Temple of Poseidon with puddle reflection
But, time was short as the sun was quickly sinking into the sea so no time to wander around looking for the optimal shooting angle or camera settings. Just shoot a few frames, move to another spot, shoot a few frames, and move again. But the light was fantastic for those 15 minutes as the sun disappeared. After the puddle shots I move around to the east side to see if I could get a shot of the temple with the setting sun behind it. Before heading down the slope on the east side, I stopped and grabbed a few images with the sun setting off to the side of the temple.
Temple of Poseidon from south east corner
But what I wanted was a shot of the temple with the sun setting behind the temple and in between columns. So, I moved around to the right some more such that the sun was directly behind the temple. However, there was no place we were allowed to get to that was not well below the base of the temple and as such the horizon and sun were blocked by the base of the monument. Not what I wanted. And, time before the sun disappeared was escaping at an alarming rate. So, I set the camera on 10 second self timer, refocused and set it to manual focus, cranked up the shutter speed to 1/1000 sec to account for how I was about to shoot. To allow for a decent DOF (Depth of Field) I set the aperture to f/8.0. I would have preferred f/22 for a deeper DOF and for the star burst effect but with that fast a shutter speed the needed ISO and resulting noise would have been horrendous. Even so, I had to crank the ISO up to 3200. As I teach my students, photography is all about compromises.
I then put the 3 legs of the tripod together, turned on live view, hit the shutter button and raised the tripod with camera on top way above my head holding just the bottom tips of the legs. On my particular model camera, I don’t have an articulating LCD screen so with the camera waving around in the moderate breeze 6 feet above my head perched on the extended tripod held by my up-stretched arms I more or less had to guess at how to aim it while I waited for the 10 second timer to trip the shutter. After hearing the shutter click, bring the rig down, check the LCD, adjust exposure a bit and repeat.
Some shots had the sun hidden below the temple, some had it hidden behind a column. Some had too much camera shake. But, after about a half dozen attempts I finally got a good one. I even lucked out that as the camera swayed in the wind the instant the shutter clicked the sun was just peaking over the base of the temple and gave me a bit of the star burst I had wanted.
The winning shot
One last grab shot as the guard ushered us down the road and locked the gate behind us.
Athens at night
In part 1 of this blog series on Greece, we saw some night shots of the Parthenon on the Acropolis taken from our hotel room as well as Hadrian's Gate at night. Well, after our whirlwind shoot at the Temple of Poseidon we drove back to Athens for some night shots. One of our stops was Hadrian’s gate which we saw before but we also stopped at a couple of other locations.
One of our stops was at the Athens Panathenaic Stadium. This is the modern track and field stadium. This sporting venue seats 45,000 and is the only such facility in the world built entirely of marble
The original stadium on the site was a simple racecourse c. 330 BC, primarily for the Panathenaic Games. It was rebuilt in marble by Herodes Atticus in 144 AD with a capacity of 50,000 seats. After the rise of Christianity in the 4th century it was largely abandoned only to be excavated in 1869. It was then used for the Zappas Olympics in 1870 and 1875. After being refurbished once again and upgraded to a capacity of 80,000 it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was the venue for 4 of the 9 contested sports. Subsequent renovations reduced the seating capacity to 45,000. More recently it was once again used as an Olympic venue in 2004. It is also the last venue in Greece from where the Olympic flame handover ceremony to the host nation takes place every 4 years.
Athens Panathenaic Stadium lit up for night tourists
From there we drove up to Filopappou Hill. This hill is a very popular vantage point for views of the Acropolis – about 0.2 miles away – as well as much of the city. We parked in the lot (now approaching midnight) and I asked our guide how much of a walk is it to the vantage point. “It’s just a short way”, he said – and he was correct. However, what he forgot to mention was that the short walk included about 50,000 stairs up the side of a mountain. But, huffing and puffing, I made it and the views were spectacular. From here you are looking down on the fully illuminated Acropolis. You can also see most of the Panatheniac Stadium, also lit up for night viewing. And you can see vast areas of the city laid out in all directions.
Parthenon and Acropolis from Filopappou Hill
Parting shots of Athens
On our last day in Athens, with the Road Scholar group, we rode the bus as well as walked through some neighborhoods to the north of the Acropolis such as the Psyrri and Monastiraki areas. So, just a few parting shots of life in Athens.
Rainy street in the Psyrri neighborhood through the bus window
Gyro stand in the Monastiraki Area
As we’ve seen before, Athens has a serious graffiti problem. Some is quite artistic but much of it is just ugly tagging. Couple this with the economic woes the country has undergone recently and you wind up with many abandoned buildings covered with graffiti.
Abandoned, graffiti covered building in Monastiraki Area
Old bookstore in the Psyrri Area
I hope you enjoyed reading the first part for Athens and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/greece-trip-2019-favs (subset of images)
Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
Thanks to our tour guide, Vasilis Germanis who drove us on a full day tour of the Peloponnese peninsula (in the rain), led us on a walking tour of the Anafiotika area of the Plaka, drove us out for a sunset shoot at Poseidon’s temple on Cape Sounio and a night shoot at various locations in Athens www.phototoursinathens.com
Keywords: Acropolis, Acropolis at Night, Athens, Athens at Night, Athens Panathenaic Stadium, blog, Cape Sounio, Corinth Canal, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogGreece, Draw Bridge, Epidavros, Epidavros Greek Theatre, Greece, Greek Theatre at Epidavros, Nafplion, Panathenaic Stadium Athens, Parthenon, Peloponnese Peninsula, Sunset, Temple of Poseidon, Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio, Temple of Poseidon Sunset, Upside down draw bridge
Hi Dan, great travel stories, and yes, sometimes rain is just the story to deal with. You made the best of it, and the shots at the Temple of Poseidon are awesome!
Dan, I always enjoy your travel stories, but I am extra impressed with the photos from the Temple of Poseidon and the story that went with it. Congratulations on your ingenuity!
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