Discovering the ancient wonders of Greece

The lions (or lion) gate at Mycenae is the main entrance to the site's ancient citadel. It shows...

The lions (or lion) gate at Mycenae is the main entrance to the site's ancient citadel. It shows two lions, confronting each other, and dates from the period 1350 BC to 1200 BC. The citadel area was home to Atreus and his descendants, heroes of ancient Greece. (JAMES REANEY/QMI Agency)

JAMES REANEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:01 PM ET

In Greece, the tour guides tell all.

So, during a tour of the magnificent new Acropolis Museum at Athens, our guide paused to remind us that some of Greece’s most treasured artifacts are still held in Britain.

Because the $205-million Acropolis Museum is designed to emphasize its setting at the edge of ancient history, the reminder took place with the citadel of the Acropolis and its Parthenon visible as a majestic backdrop.

For more than two centuries, the British have resisted demands the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in the early 19th-century, be returned to Greece.

Over the decades, many arguments have been used, said Mina Graneta, our guide, in an effort to justify keeping the sculptures at the British Museum in London, England.

Finally, the British said Greece had never built a museum worthy of the sculptures. How can they say that now, Graneta asked with a grand gesture sweeping around to take in the Parthenon behind us and the astonishing modern building and its treasures of ancient Greece, all around us.

Seems like a good question, especially at a time when interest in ancient Greece is looking up. There are countless reasons to visit Greece — from climate to food to beaches. Museums and ancient sites are among the hot ones in 2013. Greek statistics service ELSTAT announced 19% more people visited Greece’s museums and 35.4% more visited its archaeological sites in the first four months of the year compared to 2012.

That’s the kind of interest we discovered during a recent trip to Greece. The trip was made as the acclaimed Amabile Young Women’s Ensemble choir from London was touring the country. The national mood during an economic crisis, with unemployment at more than 25 %, can be summed up by the comment of a town’s mayor in the region of Epirus, in northwest Greece. The region, said the mayor, had always been among the poorest in Greece. So, the crisis of recent years — while serious — was not felt in Epirus nearly as much as in wealthier centres such as Athens.

Stoic sentiments indeed. The comment also shows a long-range view adopted by Greece in its determined campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, as they’re known here.

When it opened in June 2009, the glass and concrete Acropolis Museum at the foot of the ancient citadel was billed as Greece’s latest argument in the marbles war — in part for the reasons advanced by our tour guide.

The mixture of Greek-held images from the Parthenon’s frieze and the replicas of British-held ones and the discussion the display is sure to provoke are among the many attractions at the museum. Others include diverse depictions of Athena, everyday and erotic sculptures and three-dimensional exhibits. Also memorable are depictions of young women (the Korai), and the horse riders (the Hippeis).

A visit to the museum should always be done with a tour of the Acropolis itself. There, work continues on making copies of treasures now held in the museum.

The most famous of Greece’s archeological sites, the Acropolis is an outdoor experience of the kind we experienced at two other such iconic locales — Mycenae in the Peloponnese and Delphi in central Greece.

At Mycenae, the excavations begun in 1874 continue as scholars discover more about the Acropolis and stronghold associated with the dynasty of Atreus and his descendants, including those epic figures of tragedy, Agamemnon and Orestes. Not to be missed is the chance to stand inside the Treasury of Atreus, the best-preserved example of a “tolos” tomb (dating from 1250 BC). To Canadian-minded visitors, the structure looks something like a huge, conical igloo. Guides can also indicate passages leading away from the floor and if you have Prof. Konstantine (Kostas) Kolizeras as your guide, you’ll hear stories about life during the Second World War when his family sheltered in the tomb from British bombers attacking invading Nazi forces.

The Kolizeras family owned land at the site and his fascination with archeology was inspired by excavations when he was a boy. With project leaders taking advantage of his size and agility, the future expert was often lowered into ancient ruins under investigation decades ago.

Attractions on the way up to the ruins of the Palace include more graves and the Lions Gate, with its reliefs of two lions, who have been on guard for more than 3,200 years. Like other monumental sites devoted to ancient Greece, there are many steps and it’s hot in the 35 C sun. The experience is thrilling, take care as you ascend.

Perhaps less heralded than the Acropolis and Mycenae is the ancient religious and athletics complex at Delphi in northwest Greece. Many of the treasures are held elsewhere in Greece, with replicas at the site’s museum. It’s pleasant, but the real business is on the Mount Parnassus hillside and its valleys, complete with Apollo’s temple and the area where our guide, Penny Kolomvotsou, told us prophesies were received.

The Delphi site is blessed with newly installed pathways, built for ease of climbing and safety following damage to older steps. Still, the trekking tourists have already worn some steps smooth and as you marvel at what was here before, watch your step, too.

GLIMPSES AROUND GREECE

 

Hydra, the island where iconic Canadian singer-songwriter-poet-novelist Leonard Cohen lived for a time is a beautiful stop on the Aegean, south of Mycenae. There are fine restaurants, a rocky swimming area for enterprising aquanauts and at least two museums. One is religious and two euros admission. A self-guided tour of Greek Orthodox art and iconography is on offer. The other is billed as maritime museum, but exhibitions of contemporary ceramic art are likely to be on view along with musketry, maps and minutiae of sea-faring days gone by. It’s five euros.

Parga, on the Ionian Sea, has a lovely, sandy beach, gentle waves and historic islets within swimming distance. Umbrellas and beach chairs can be rented for a few hours, about six euros.

Fishy feet: Foot-care businesses put your tootsies in a footbath with some sweet-looking fish. They’re small and they nibble at old flesh. Many tourists rave about the results. Not for everybody though. Prices 8- 20 euros.

Small umbrellas, five euros, are available from vendors on approaches to Acropolis. Worth it. It’s hot and very sunny as you mount the ancient citadel.

Feta cheese and olives seem to be present at every meal. The fun debates are conducted by restaurateurs who will tell you it’s pronounced “moose-a-caw” . . . or moussaka is only for tourists and sea food is the real Greek feast or their moussaka is the best you’ll ever have.

Outside Athens, a meal for four, with wine, may cost about 30 euros. Some main courses were available for about three euros.

In an effort to promote the homeland at the expense of its tourist competition across the Adriatic, tour personnel will delight in telling stories about how expensive it is in Italy . . . four euros for a diet Coke . . . and nobody outside Rome speaks much English. Amusing, but Homeric in their distortion of strangers in strange lands.

Passports are useful in gaining free admission to an under-18 tourist to many sites that are home to Greece’s antiquities.

Aegina is an island known for pistachios. A pound or more of a small variety of pistachios will cost six euros and up.

ON THE WEB

Visit visitgreece.gr the official website for the Greek Tourism Organization for details.


Photos