After a day spent on the Acropolis and touring Athens, we departed in a motor coach for Sounion when the sun was still high in the west. The scenery was beautiful and the weather perfect for sightseeing and dining.
The first reference of this deme (municipality) occurs in The Odyssey. Homer recounts a tale of how when the Greek commanders were returning from Troy, King Menelaus of Sparta’s helmsman died. He did so while they were sailing around “Holy Sounion, Cape of Athens.” The ship landed at Sounion so that the helmsman could be afforded proper funeral rites—cremation on a funeral pyre on the beach.
Located on the southern tip of the Attic peninsula, Sounion was once a strategic stronghold of Athens. Their grain supplies from Euboea (Evia, the second largest Greek island after Crete) came by ship and passed by this landmark, requiring it be protected from the Spartans.
Two-hundred feet above the sea on a cliff, the Temple of Poseidon is an impressive monument. Doric in style, this temple was completed in 440 BC, and was a replacement for one originally built of tufa. The first temple was destroyed when Greece was invaded by Xerxes I. The design of the temple is a typical hexastyle, so it had a front portico with six columns. Only some of the original columns are left standing.
As the sun sets, this temple takes on a magical appearance, the columns turning golden in the late afternoon light.
With a new moon, the sight was striking. A huge crowd had assembled on the edge of the cliff to watch the sunset, and we were reminded of a similar event when we last watched the sunset on the beach at Carmel-by-the-Sea (although no one in this crowd applauded when the sun finally set into the sea).
Once the sun was completely set, we headed for a nearby seaside restaurant and enjoyed a dinner of sea bass.
This was our last night together as a group. Although everyone else had to get up at two o’clock in the morning for the trip to the Athens airport, we were able to sleep in a few more hours before we, too, had to get to the airport for the last leg of our stay in Greece—Santorini.
Built to house every artifact ever discovered on the top and slopes of the Acropolis in Athens, the Acropolis Museum is a modern wonder. Covering a total area of 25,000 square meters, it has over 14,000 square meters of exhibition space. Admission is cheap: 5 Euros in the winter and 10 in the summer.
Beneath the building is a large urban settlement dating from Archaic to Early Christian Athens. The design of the museum allows a visitor to see those ruins by way of a glass ground floor. The image shown here is from outside the museum–the sidewalks leading up to the entrance are open to show the circular tower-hall of an ancient Athenian building. Image is courtesy The Acropolis Museum.
This photo, from the Acropolis Museum website, shows how the top floor of the museum is the same orientation as the Parthenon and the same height as the stylobate.
Artifacts are organized according to where they were located on the rock and from which era (archaic, classical, and end of antiquity). They are also varied, from a jar lid to the original caryatids that graced the porch of the Erechtheion.
On the slope of the Acropolis were the sanctuaries of Asclepios, Nymphe, and Dionysos.
Votives from the archaic period include the Korai of the Acropolis (she still has some paint left!) and a male statue.
Other pieces include the three-bodied daemon, Heracles and the Triton, and the Magic Sphere of Helios.
From the classical Parthenon, originals as well as reproductions of the friezes and metopes are mounted according to where they were located–the top floor of the museum is set up to replicate the structure. The largest marbles from the pediments are still located at the British Museum, so those on display here are all reproductions (but the Greeks want their originals back, and this museum was built to house them).
Finally, here is the central akroterion of the Parthenon roof along with a piece of another.
We enjoyed a traditional Greek lunch and Greek coffee at the restaurant located on the roof of the museum, and our view was of the Parthenon.
This was our last night in Athens as a group. Next stop for just us: Santorini!
After making the trip back to Athens, we checked into our hotel, Divani Palace Acropolis, and had a traditional Greek dinner. Located in the historical heart of Athens, the hotel is close enough to walk to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. It’s also located atop part of the Themistoclean Wall, which is on display behind glass in the lower level of the hotel. As a result of the Persian Wars, Themistocle’s Wall was built during the 5th century BC in the hopes of defending against further invasion.
A vibrant city at night, Athens is also safe. We walked to dinner and passed by the ruins of Hadrian’s Library.
The following morning, we took a sightseeing tour of Athens. The itinerary included a trip to the Olympic Stadium and the capital building. Then we headed to the base of the Acropolis for our climb to the top.
The marble steps are slippery from years of use and lead up to the Propylaia, or monumental gateway. A building of the Doric order, it includes a few Ionic columns supporting the roof of the central wing. This complex structure was built to leave a lasting impression on any visitor (always be sure to look up).
The Parthenon, an enduring symbol of Athenian democracy (it was originally the treasury) and one of the world’s architectural feats, is undergoing another round of restoration. This time, titanium is being used in place of rebar that left rust stains on the marble columns. Replacement columns are being carved from marble taken from the same quarry as the original, so that, with time, the color will match up to the original. Considering the Parthenon was severely damaged in 1687—when an Ottoman ammunition dump inside the building was ignited by Venetian bombardment—it looks pretty good behind the scaffolding. It’s doubtful it will ever look as it did after it was first built (below right).
The Acropolis is also home to the Temple of Athena Nike, which once housed a gold statue of the goddess, her clipped wings preventing her from leaving the city.
Built between 421 and 406 BC, the Erechtheion is a temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena and includes one of the most famous porches in the world. The statues that grace the Porch of the Maidens now are reproductions—their originals are in the nearby Acropolis Museum.
From the southwest edge of the Acropolis, there is an excellent view of the Odeon of Herodes-Atticus. Built in 161 AD, this stone theatre was—and still s a venue for music concerts and can seat 5,000.
From the Acropolis, you can see all of Athens including other ruins like the Temple of Zeus and the Dionysus Theatre.
After our descent, we bought a Koulouri (a pretzel-looking bread covered in sesame seeds) and headed to the Acropolis Museum. See you there!
Located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus high above the Gulf of Corinth, Delphi was considered by the ancient Greeks to be the center of the world. According to mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles from the ends of the universe to find the navel of Gaia, and this is where they met. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the center of our world for a full day.
We made the two-hour trek from Athens to Delphi on a tour bus after flying from Rome in the early morning hours. We passed geological formations that reminded us of Wyoming.
After checking into our hotel in the town of Delphi so we could drop off our luggage, we reboarded the bus for the short trip to the site. Our bus driver managed the winding, thin mountain road like a champ. (Note: After having ridden several buses in different parts of Greece, we admit to being very impressed by their drivers. They are masters at negotiating roads never designed for conveyances larger than chariots.)
Our guide led us up a steep slope into the center of the ruins before explaining the historical significance of the area.
In mythology, Python, a huge serpent, guarded the navel before the infant god Apollo stayed him. When Apollo’s arrows pierced the serpent, its body fell into a fissure and great fumes arose from the crevice as its carcass rotted. All those who stood over the gaping fissure fell into sudden, often violent, trances. In this state, it was believed that Apollo would possess the oracle and fill them with divine presence.
Named for the serpent, Pythia, the role of the Oracle of Delphi was played by a pure, chaste and honest young virgin. However, since young virgins were prone to attracting negative attention from the men who sought their council (which resulted in oracles being raped and violated), older women of at least 50 began to fill the position. They fasted and drank spring water to prepare, and then on the seventh day of the nine warmest months of the year, they held a dish of spring water and took their position on a tripod chair positioned over a fissure. Monarchs as well as mortals made the pilgrimage to Delphi to ask questions of the oracle. Although her answers were sometimes vague and could be misinterpreted, she was the most powerful person in Greece.
As to why the Oracle of Delphi experienced her visions, we can turn to a more modern explanation. In the late 1980s, a team of curious scientists discovered that the rocks beneath the Temple of Apollo were oily bituminous limestone and had been fractured by two faults that crossed beneath the temple. This had to be more than a coincidence. The scientists theorized that tectonic movements and earthquakes caused friction along the faults. Combined with the spring water that ran beneath the temple, methane, ethylene and ethane gas would rise through the faults to the center and directly into the temple. The low room, with its limited ventilation and lack of oxygen, would help amplify the effect of the gasses and induce the trance-like symptoms experienced by the oracles.
The site includes the temple of Apollo and the ancient theater (above), the Castalian spring, the gymnasium and a stadium where athletes competed.
The history of the Sanctuary is displayed in the site’s archaeological museum’s 14 rooms. Here you can learn the political, religious and social history of Delphi. The museum also includes several artifacts from the site and the surrounding region, including two magnificent sculptures of the Charioteer and the Sphinx.
We had dinner back at the hotel and spent the evening shopping in the boutiques that line the two streets that make up the town.
Next up: Athens!
See that hump-backed mountain in the background of the image above? That is Mount Vesuvius, and it’s the only European-based volcano to have erupted in the last one-hundred years. Back in 79 AD, it spewed a huge cloud of ash, stones, and volcanic gases in an eruption that ultimately killed over a thousand people and buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis.
The ash and stones have mostly been removed from Pompeii to reveal a seaside resort city that was once a playground for rich Romans. The amphitheater is in excellent condition as are many of the mosaics that can be found on the floors of the homes of the wealthy.
Frescoes adorned the walls of those homes, and many retain their brilliant colors, although earthquakes have caused some to crumble. This particular villa was home to the owner of a gladiator school.
Ovens for baking bread and public fountains for water can be found everywhere. Pottery, amphorae, bowls and other pottery, still in excellent shape, are on display.
How did they get water to those fountains? Why, lead pipes, of course! The Romans had discovered the malleable metal in England and brought it back to Italy. If the volcano hadn’t killed them, it was likely the citizens would have suffered lead poisoning at some point.
Although not all the walls survived the eruption, the purpose of many of the remaining structures has been determined by what was found inside. There is a treasury, temples, shops and more lining the main square.
Look closely, and you’ll find evidence of chariot wheels in the stone streets, detailed plasterwork along the edges of doors, and carved column tops. You’ll also find ancient graffiti.
And because this was a resort city, there is a brothel district. It’s not hard to find when there are directional signs right in the pavement.
Since language may have been an issue, fresco menus allowed a patron to simply point to what he wanted. Let’s hope those beds had some cushions, though.
A few plaster casts of bodies caught in the eruption on are display under glass. These were made when voids in the ash were detected. Plaster was poured into the void and then the ash and stone was removed to reveal bodies, furnishings—anything that had been organic. At the time of our visit, most of the bodies had been removed for use in a traveling exhibition.
Upon exiting the grounds, be sure to survey the area. We took a tour of a nearby shop that sells cameos and watched a demonstration of how they are created (they are carved from seashells) before having a traditional lunch. Then we headed back to Rome for our last night there.
Next up: Delphi
Back in pagan times, a Roman necropolis stood on what is now Vatican Hill. After the fire of 64 AD, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire. He executed them (we won’t go into detail, other than to say it was gory). Among those crucified was St. Peter—disciple of Jesus Christ and the first bishop of Rome—who was supposedly buried in a shallow grave on the hill. By the time the Christian religion was recognized as the official religion of Rome, Emperor Constantine started construction of the original basilica atop the ancient burial ground with the tomb of St. Peter at its center. The present basilica, built starting in the 1500s, sits over a maze of catacombs and St. Peter’s suspected grave.
Vatican City, a separate city within Rome, is home to that basilica as well as Christian and art museums. Linda, our guide from our tour of the Forum, once again proved how important it is to have a knowledgeable person leading the way. She took what was listed as a two-hour tour and gave us five hours in the museums and basilica. We gained access to places not on the schedule, a necessity considering there are five miles of corridors in the Vatican complex and 70,000 exhibits.
We passed a reproduction of the statue, Pieta, before heading into the Pinacoteca, 18 rooms featuring art in chronological order. Over the years, the popes have been amassing a huge collection of art. Some is altar art rescued from churches that have been destroyed or are simply priceless pieces requiring museum care. Most pieces were commissioned by popes or are from their private collections and include frescoes and sculpture. The collection boasts of 460 paintings, including absolute masterpieces by prominent artists like Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, il Perugino and Caravaggio.
We immediately recognized that painting of King George IV (Prinny!).
Along the way, it was important to look up. Art is everywhere, adorning the ceilings and the floors. Note: Although we did see the Sistine Chapel, no photography was allowed.
The Gallery of Geographical Maps includes a panel for every town in Italy as well as regional maps. The ceiling is more amazing than what’s on the walls.
The Pio Clementino Museum, twelve rooms in total, is made up the Octagon Courtyard, the Room of Animals, the Gallery of Candelabra, the Round Room, the Room of the Muses, and the Gallery of Statues (filled entirely with Greek and Roman sculptures, most marble but some in bronze).
We didn’t tour the nine rooms of the Gregorian Egyptian Museum or the Pavilion of the Coaches, but we did visit Raphael’s Rooms. Works include The School of Athens and The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple by Raphael Sanzio. Can you find Raphael? He’s the one who is peeking out at the viewer. Throughout these rooms, there are interesting architectural details as well as proof they have been toured by millions.
Normally, a visitor would take the helical staircase to exit the museums, but Linda had us heading to the basilica by way of St. Peter’s Square.
An Italian Renaissance church and one of only four major basilicas, St. Peter’s can accommodate 60,000 people and features huge paintings and sculptures. Michelangelo’s famous carving of the Pieta is here. Two lower levels house the tombs of all the popes (the Vatican Grottoes) and Vatican Necropolis, including St. Peter’s Tomb. Only three women are entombed in the Vatican Grottoes; Queen Christina of Sweden, Agnesina Colonna Caetani and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus.
After five hours, it was time for a stop at a outdoor cafe and some refreshment!
Next up: Pompeii
Despite its size, Rome is a very walkable city. Given the amount of traffic, it’s sometimes preferable to simply pull on a good pair of shoes, preload a Google map of the area you want to explore on your phone (GPS works even if you don’t have cell service), and then head out with a few others to see the sites that aren’t included on your tour. For two nights, we did this, racking up miles on our pedometers while seeing some attractions that appear far more romantic at night.
We had to cross the Tiber River to begin our tours, but the view of St. Peter’s Basilica is breathtaking at twilight.
Fountains are Fab
Over two-thousand fountains can be found in the Eternal City—more than in any other city in the world. Fifty of those are considered monumental fountains. We made it our mission to visit as many as we could.
The Fontana del Pantheon can be found directly in front of the Pantheon in the Piazza del Rotunda. Atop the fountain is the Egyptian Obelisk. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII and designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1575, the fountain was sculpted out of marble by Leonardo Sormani. The redesign of the fountain in 1711 by Filippo Barigioni added the the Macuteo obelisk (originally created during the period of Ramses II) set in the centre on a plinth with four dolphins decorating the base.
The Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) can be found in the Piazza Navona. Designed in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Innocent X, the fountain stood in front Innocent’s family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili. It depicts the Gods of the four great rivers in the four known continents of the time: the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe, and the Río de la Plata in America.
At the north end of Piazza Navona is the Fontana de Neptune. This was once called the Fontana dei Calderan because a nearby alley was home to blacksmiths and those who made metal pots and pans.
The Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Boat), is a Baroque-style fountain found at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. This one has a particularly interesting history. According to legend, as the River Tiber flooded in 1598, water carried a small boat into the Piazza di Spagna. When the water receded, a boat was deposited in the center of the square. When Pope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini in 1623 to build the fountain, Bernini was inspired by the story. He designed the fountain to be the shape of a half-sunken ship with water overflowing its sides into a small basin.
The source of the water comes from the Acqua Vergine, an aqueduct from 19 BCE. Bernini built this fountain to be slightly below street level due to the low water pressure from the aqueduct. Water flows from seven points of fountain: the center baluster; two inside the boat from sun-shaped human faces; and four outside the boat.
At the top of the 138 Spanish Steps is the piazza Trinita dei Monti and the twin-tower church, Campo Marzio. This church has an interesting ceiling in that it’s not decorated with frescoes. The entire sanctuary is bright at night because there’s nothing to absorb the light.
Designed by the architect Giacomo Della Porta and constructed by the Fiesole sculptor Rocco Rossi, the Fontana de Piazza Colona is located near the Column of Marcus Aurelius. This Roman victory column is Doric and hollow. The exterior features a spiral relief of the emperor’s successful military campaigns against the Quadi across the Danube between 172 and 175 AD, while the inside contains a spiral staircase. Similar in appearance to its predecessor, Trajan’s Column, it’s not nearly as tall. However, its base has never been excavated—and up to seven meters is below the ground! Back in the 4th century, it was said this column stood 175 feet.
The most grand of all the monumental fountains is the Trevi Fountain in Palazzo Poli. Designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini and several others, this is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome (161 x 86′). Yes, we threw a coin into the fountain, but we’re not sure if we did it right (you’re supposed to use your right hand to throw it over your left shoulder). The act of doing so means you’ll come back in the future. An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day.
While on our trek, we passed by some unexpected sites, like this colonna (collonade) left from the Temple of Hadrian.
On the way back to the hotel, we walked along the river and had an entirely different view of the night lights. A quick check of our pedometers showed we had covered over seven miles on this trek. Time to put up our feet and have a glass of prosecco!
Next up: The Vatican
As an author of historical fiction, we’re fascinated by the places that still exist, even if they aren’t quite all there. The Roman Forum is one such place. Once the heart of the former Roman Empire, it featured a number of temples and government buildings that are now in ruins.
The first half of our day was spent traveling by bus from Florence to Rome, a comfortable trip with picturesque scenery. Early spring in Italy means everything is green—farm fields, vineyards, and trees.
After we checked into our hotel, we made our way to an outdoor lunch spot near the Forum. Our guide for this portion of our trip, Linda, was well-versed in the politics and archaeology of Ancient Rome. As we stood beneath the ruins of the Palatino Domus Severiana, she described the daily life of Romans and those who were important to the rule of Rome.
The Roman Forum spans a huge area. Two large arches are featured: the Arch of Septimus and the Arch of Titus.
Ruins of the Basilica Aemilia, once strewn across the grounds, have been lined up to show the location of the foundation as well as the placement of the columns.
The House of the Vestals was once home to the Vestal Virgins. Statues of them line the walkway in front of this ruin.
The Imperial Forum is a mere shadow of its former glory.
The Temple of Antonius and Faustina is one of the best preserved of the structures, likely because it’s been used as a church, while the Temple of Castor and Pollox, the Temple of Saturn, and the Temple of Vesta have only a few columns left standing.
A short walk past the House of Vestals, and soon you’re in the shadow of the Colosseum. This structure was built between 72 and 80 AD from stone and concrete.
Once the home of gladiatorial combat and spectacles, the Colosseum at first feels small—how could this arena have hosted crowds of up to 87,00 people?—but once you climb the concrete steps and emerge into the arena itself, the scale changes completely.
It’s HUGE (and the largest amphitheater in the world). With 80 entrances and an efficient layout, thousands of people could make their way to their seats in a short amount of time. Fifty-thousand people would have been seated in the tiers that reflected their status in Roman society. On hot days, a retractable awning, or velarium, would cover the spectators.
On the day we visited, over half of the area beneath the level of the original arena’s floor was covered due to ongoing restoration work, but the visible areas provide a sense of the elaborate tunnels, passageways, and rooms that would have housed animals and gladiators during games.
As for that Roman concrete, there’s a reason it’s still intact—it grows stronger over time. The Romans were known for producing the perfect concrete using volcanic ash, lime, and seawater. Mixed together with volcanic rocks, it was spread into wooden molds that were then immersed in more seawater. As the seawater percolated through the concrete, it dissolved components of the volcanic ash and crystals, creating new binding minerals to grow. Within a decade, a very rare hydrothermal mineral called aluminum tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) and a porous mineral called phillipsite formed in the concrete. Those minerals gives Roman concrete its strength.
Although these days those minerals can be made in a lab, they very difficult to incorporate into concrete. And to achieve that added strength? It takes centuries to achieve.
Even given the growing strength of the Roman concrete, only one-third of the Colosseum is original. The other two-thirds were damaged due to earthquakes, vandalism, and fire.
On the way back to our hotel, we passed by the Castle Sant’Angelo, better known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Originally built by Hadrian to be a mausoleum for him and his family, it was instead used as a castle fortress by popes and is now a museum.
Next up: Rome at night!