April 25- Mycenae and Nafplio
On Wednesday, it was back across to the Peloponnese to pick up where we left off on Sunday.
Mycenae is one of the oldest major settlement sites on the mainland: to the extent that the Iliad records history, Agammemon and company would have come from here. The first really important civilization in Greece was the Minoans, who settled mainly in Crete (more on them later). They were largely supplanted by a more warlike kingdom, the Mycenaeans, sometime around 1500 BC (probably in part due to ecological and societal upheaval in the wake of a huge volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini). Mycenaean culture lasted until about 1200 BC. Homer, writing in the midst of a Dark Age 300 years before the construction of the Parthenon, was looking back at a vanished golden age of the Mycenaeans.
We got to Mycenae about as early as we tend to be able to get anywhere, and it was already filling up. By the time we got through a quick tour of the museum, the place was jammed (that photo above, not taken on this day!) Apparently a trip to Mycenae is roughly the equivalent of heading to Mt. Vernon, and it seemed like half of the student population of Athens was there that day. It is also in striking distance of two ports, so we had cruise tours as well.
As with other major sites, location was tremendously important at Mycenae. It is only around 10 miles from Corinth, but blocked from view by fairly high mountains. Like Delphi, it sits on the shoulder of a hill, with a pair of high, rounded mountains rising behind it (cue more geomammarian speculation from the "Travelers Key"), separated from the higher ground by a steep gorge. It commands views of the entire Argive valley stretching south to the Gulf of Argolis. It was famously excavated in the 1870s by German philhellene Heinrich Schliemann, who played a little fast and loose with archeological exactness in furtherance of his efforts to connect the archeology to the mythology. ("I have gazed upon the face of Agamemmnon," he exclaimed upon uncovering a gold death mask from Grave Circle A. No you haven't: this was from a couple hundred years earlier.) To his credit, however, he turned the entire haul over to the Greek government, so you can see every bit of it at the National Archeological museum. Unlike, say, Lord Elgin, who shipped his acquisitions off to the British Museum.
Mycenae is famous for the aforementioned grave circles, it entrance gate topped by a carving of two lions, and at the very top, a hidden staircase carved into the rock down to an underground cistern that served as water source. We were once again armed with map and book vividly detailing everything in between; unfortunately, it was so crowded we were barely able to keep track of the children, let alone get a real sense of what we were looking at. So Mycenae was a bit of a disappointment from that perspective. Most of the groups did peel off before the secret stairway, however, so we did get to explore that in relative peace. Though it's apparently closed off partway down now, at least according to the guy who borrowed our flashlight and jumped the rope to explore down further.
When we got back to the car we realized that all those crowds had to park somewhere, and our little car was completely parked in by about 20 tour buses. Have you ever played that "parkmaster" puzzle game on a board or computer? We got to play it in real life. Bus A moves 2 feet. We squeeze out. Four other buses inch their way around to give us enough room to maneuver out. There was one other stop we had to make at Mycenae, to what is called the Treasury of Atreus, a spectacular "beehive" tholos tomb about half a mile back down the hill. The various grave circles would all have looked like this at one point, a large circular enclosure dug into the ground and enclosed by a corbelled roof. This particular tholos was never rebuilt, the stones have remained in perfect alignment for three millennia, and the acoustics inside are such that a whisper carries to any point within. Somehow, we managed to get this little gem of a site entirely to ourselves for about a full five minutes, it was stunning.
Next stop was supposed to be Tiryns, but we did a short detour into Argos, mainly because we could see its acropolis from Mycenae and it looked cool. We ended up getting a little lost in the modern town, however, and decided to skip "AcroArgos" - but we did see some of the ruins at the base of the hill, a theater and Roman baths.
Tiryns is further south, just outside of Nafplio. Homer spoke of it having been built by giants ("cyclopean") - its walls are built perhaps of the largest blocks of stone of any site in Greece. This is due to the fact that its strategic importance (near the water) is belied by its weak location, on a very low rise surrounded by what was once marshland. The city needed to make up for that with particularly thick walls. Apparently Tiryns is not on the Mycenae bus tour route; this place had pretty much to ourselves (but its parking lot was twice the size of Mycenae's and neatly paved, go figure.)
Tiryns took us to almost 3 PM, so we went into Nafplio knowing we wouldn't get into two of the interesting sites there - the hilltop Palamidi fortress, supposedly impregnable but fell to the Turks after a week, or the Bourtzi, a fortified island in the harbor, which was used to control access to the sole navigable passage. We were, however, just in time for a late lunch. We found a taverna (Ta Fanaria) that came recommended in the book and had a very good lunch. I finally had some pastitsio, which is apparently a daily special rather than a regular menu item in many places. Then we spent some time wandering the town. My guidebook calls Nafplio one of the most charming towns in all of Greece, and it also came highly recommended by a coworker, and it is a lovely place. The architecture is mainly Venetian, with tiled rooftops and narrow streets arrayed up a slope to Akronafplia, yet a third fortification -- this one was open at all hours, and yielded a nice walk and more great views. We didn't even bother with dinner, just got some snacks and pastries on a little town on the way back (turned out to be the best baklava I've ever had) and headed back to the hotel.