B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The September 2012 Tour of Ancient Greece was a great success with a very keen group. This consisted of: Robert and Mara de Jongh, Deborah Russell, Natasha and Sam Rogers, Colin and Anne Sheppard, and Robert Parker. The academic guide was the author, Michael Birrell, and we were joined by a number of local guides who gave us their wonderful insight into what it is like to live in Greece – and how the financial crisis is affecting them. It was unseasonably warm in Europe for this time of year which made it very pleasant without too many tourists.

I went to Athens a few days early before the group arrived. I stayed in the Hermes Hotel which is a very convenient place in the Plaka District near the central part of the city. I went for a walk through the agora (the stoa of Attalus Museum has been renovated since I was there last and there is a new display of sculpture) and climbed up to the Akropolis – we had thunder and lightning (Zeus was clearly nearby) and I had to shelter under a tree near the Erectheum when it poured with rain.

The Akropolis of Athens
The temple of Aphaia on Aegina

The Akropolis Museum was fairly quiet while the National Museum was absolutely empty – the economic downturn in Europe has meant that few people are travelling to Greece. There was a fantastic display of the finds from the Antikythera wreck which included the famous 'computing' machine designed to work out the position of the planets. The sculpture has been cleaned and the 'Antikythera Boy' looks truly remarkable. I also went to the Pnyx Hill to see the wonderful view of the Akropolis, then saw the Kerameikos Museum with its display of sculpture and pottery, and also went down to the Phalerus harbour to see the life-size modern replica of the ancient trireme known as the 'Olympias'. I also visited the Maritime Museum in Athens which had some interesting models.

The September Study Group arrived in Athens in the early morning of the 23rd September 2012. Once the group was refreshed we had our visit to the acropolis of Athens and the Acropolis Museum. We walked through the Theatre of Dionysus and the nearby Asclepius Shrine, located on the south slope of the acropolis and then climbed up to the summit of the acropolis to see the Parthenon. After lunch we saw the new Acropolis Museum which contains a stunning collection of sculpture from the area. The following day we began our Athens walk with a visit to the Temple of Olympian Zeus at the base of the Acropolis. From here we made our way to the Athenian Agora, the ancient heart of the city. This fascinating area retains numerous ancient structures from the classical period including the almost intact Temple of Hephaestus. We had cocktails on the roof of the Plaka Hotel – stunning views over the old city and always wonderful to see the lights come on illuminating the Akropolis.

On Tuesday 25th September we visited the beautiful island of Aegina, located to the south of Athens in the Saronic Gulf. We caught the morning ferry from Piraeus Harbour to the island. We explored the ruins of the fortified Bronze Age city near the port, including the temple of Apollo and then made our way by bus across the island to see the beautiful Temple of Aphaia. This superb Doric shrine is located on a high point overlooking the sea and is very well preserved.

The next day we left Athens in the early morning. We stopped to see Salamis, the site of the famous Battle (480 BC) between the Greeks and Persians – we had a wonderful view from the area where Xerxes placed his throne. We drove along a scenic coast road to the ancient site of Epidauros, home of a major cult to the healing god Asclepius. A highlight of the visit was the famous theatre at the site, one of the best preserved from the ancient world. Much of the sanctuary is being restored including the tholos temple and sleeping quarters. In the afternoon we headed to the picturesque seaside town of Nauplion where we checked into the Agamemnon Hotel – this was our base for the following 4 days. The rooms had beautiful views over the harbor towards the Venetian fortress.

The group have lunch at Corint
The ruins of Corinth

The following morning we headed north of Nauplion to the ancient site of Mycenae to see the impressive Late Bronze Age city ruins. The enormous tholos tombs are particularly impressive as is the famous 'Lion Gate'. The site museum is excellent and has a fine collection of artefacts from the excavations. In the afternoon we saw the ruins of Tiryns with its splendid Mycenaean city walls and palace. Most impressive are the corbelled storage rooms and the well-defended gates. We found some time in the afternoon to visit the remarkable Venetian fortress which rises above Nauplion – the views across the Gulf were spectacular.

On the 28th September we saw the Temple of Zeus at Nemea – this is currently in the process of being reconstructed and quite a few more columns have been erected since my last visit. We also saw the nearby stadium which was used for the pan-Hellenic Nemean games. This still retains evidence of the original mechanism which operated the starting gates. We then travelled the short distance to Corinth. We drove up to the 'Acro-corinth', the ancient fortified Akropolis, to see the majestic Venetian and Ottoman castle which has superb views over the Corinthian Gulf. We then had some lunch at a café overlooking the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Corinth. The temple of Apollo was a highlight of the visit and the onsite museum contains interesting sculpture from the region.

The next day we visited the Nauplion Museum which has recently been restored and is well laid out – artefacts include a number of suits of Mycenaean armour and numerous grave goods from the area. We then drove across the mountainous heart of the Peloponnese Peninsula to the Mycenaean site of Pylos where we saw the well preserved remains of the Palace of Nestor, fabled ruler from Homer's Iliad. We had a nice lunch in a café overlooking the sea and then headed north to Olympia where we checked into our hotel (the Best Western Europa). The next day we explored the fascinating ruins of Olympia; most impressive are the tholos temple and the Doric Temples of Hera and Zeus. The Olympic running track also gives a good impression of the games – many of us lined up to have a race along the ancient track. After lunch we explored the excellent site museum which contains a superb new display of the restored pedimental sculpture from the temples as well as numerous artefacts from the sanctuaries. A much needed swim in the hotel pool was an excellent end to the day.

The theatre at Delphi
The harbour of Iraklion

On the 1st October we travelled to Delphi, crossing the impressive suspension bridge over the Gulf of Corinth. En route we stopped for lunch at the pretty sea side town of Nafpaktos, scene of a famous sea battle during the Peloponnesian War. A statue of Cervantes also commemorated the nearby naval battle of Lepanto against the Ottomans. We then made our way to Delphi passing through spectacular scenery with views over the Corinthian Gulf. We explored the splendid archaeological finds in the Delphi Museum – a highlight is the magnificent pedimental sculpture from the archaic shrines.

The following day was set aside for our exploration of ancient Delphi – we walked up through the ancient sanctuary exploring the remains of numerous 'treasuries' to the Temple of Apollo, god of light and music. We then continued further up to see the magnificent theatre and stadium. We also visited the gymnasium and the beautiful Sanctuary of Athena. In the afternoon our guide took us to visit the nearby Moni Osios Loukas Monastery with its beautiful frescos – the vista from the courtyard was absolutely stunning. Natasha and Anne looked particularly fetching in their wraparound garments.

On the 3rd October we left Delphi and headed south to Athens airport where we caught our one hour flight to Iraklion in Crete. We checked into our new hotel – this was the Lato Hotel with stunning views of the harbor from the roof terrace restaurant. This would be our base for the next 3 nights. In the afternoon we went for a walk to explore the Venetian fortress in Iraklion harbour and saw part of the Old Quarter of the city. The next morning we visited the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion which displays the highlights of the objects found on Crete. A few new rooms of the renovated building are now open to tourists with some excellent sculpture on show.

We following day we drove inland, stopping at the village of Arhanes to see the fascinating objects from the Amenospila Minoan temple (with evidence of human sacrifice!). After lunch we visited the fascinating ruins of the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos, located on a scenic hill overlooking a picturesque valley. Extensively 'restored' by Arthur Evans in the late 19th Century, the palace remains are extensive. The next day we headed into the interior of Crete, passing through some very scenic country on our way to the archaeological sites of Phaestos and Aghia Triadha. The first site, Phaestos is a major Minoan palace with a spectacular view of Mount Ida (mythical birthplace of Zeus) in the distance; the private rooms of the palace are very well preserved. Aghia Triadha is a small Minoan palace near the coast with scenic views along the coast.

On the 6th October we caught a ferry to the island of Santorini. The 80 km trip took only 2 hours. The island is a flooded volcano and one approaches the main ferry stop as the towering cliffs of the caldera rise above you. We checked into our hotel (the Kavalari Hotel in Fira), and had some lunch at a restaurant overlooking the volcano - the rest of the day was free to the town of Fira. Many of the group went for a walk along the edge of the volcano rim while others explored the numerous shops in the town. We met up for dinner – a magnificent sunset over the volcano caldera!

Sunset on the island of Santorini
The Akropolis of Athens

The next day we explored the remarkable archaeological ruins of Akrotiri, a Minoan era town which was preserved by the eruption of the Thera volcano in 1628 BC. This had recently re-opened after the construction of a new wooden roof over the site – the end result is impressive. In the afternoon we saw the Fira Archaeological Museum which contains numerous artefacts from Akrotiri. We then flew to Athens in the early evening.

The following morning we went to the summit of Lykavitos Hill – this gives an amazing view down onto the Parthenon and across the entire city. We then spent the rest of the day at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. This remarkable collection of antiquities includes magnificent sculpture and reliefs, including the famous bronze statue of Poseidon. Most impressive are the rooms on the ground floor which are dedicated to the Mycenaean treasures including the famous Death Mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae. After lunch in the Museum cafe we explore the extensive re-vamped collection of Greek pottery and the excellent display of artefacts from Akrotiri on Santorini. We also saw the Antikythera wreck remains.

The last day of the tour included a visit to Marathon to see the famous battle site. The group visited the tombs of the Athenians and the Plataeans and saw artefacts from the area in the local museum. In the afternoon they visited the picturesque Temple of Poseidon on the end of Cape Sounion. This beautiful Doric shrine was designed to give aid to travelers of the Aegean and commands a stunning view across the Saronic Gulf. The following day we headed home to Australia – a very enjoyable tour.

Michael Birrell

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