Image: Olympia stadium
Petros Giannakouris  /  AP file
Ancient Olympia stadium is pictured with the burned hill of Kronos in the background.
updated 3/26/2009 10:19:12 AM ET 2009-03-26T14:19:12

I saw the news on a sunny spring day, traipsing through ruins where the Oracle held court, in a place once deemed the center of the Earth.

The report was dated by a couple of thousand years, carved in ancient Greek letters on a marble slab, filled with passages of the era’s noteworthy events. It was also an example of how the abundant remnants of the ancients still have relevance here in Greece, where vibrant modern life coexists casually with the past. Our journey included stops in the Bronze Age, the Golden Age, the eras of the Roman occupation and Byzantine influence, with side steps to the paths of the disciples of Jesus, and some of the wonders of the ancient world.

Traveling with my family on an organized tour, we started in Athens, where a third of the Greek population lives and works. The city spreads out below the Acropolis, which glows under lights by night for an awe-inspiring view from virtually anywhere in the city. (Building-height restrictions of 24 stories ensure its view will not be obstructed.)

We joined a crowd on the same stone pathway once traversed by throngs as part of an annual rite, known as the Panathenaic procession, to the site of the grandest of temples around 500 B.C.

We clambered past the ruins of the formal entrance, the Propylaia, and stood before the remains of the Parthenon, where a huge statue of the goddess Athena once stood. I was struck by how much of the edifice is still intact, although restoration is ongoing.

Nearby and also remarkably intact is the Erechtheion, famous for massive statues of women used as supporting pillars. Below the walls is Theatre of Herod Atticus, dating to A.D. 161 but now restored and in use.

From here, we followed the footsteps of Socrates through what was once the political center of Athens — the Agora. Notable is the fully restored, colonnaded Stoa of Attalos, which features a fine museum. While only 15 of the original columns remain, their sheer size shows that the Zeus temple at one time was larger than the Parthenon, and the largest in Greece.

Image: Filopapos hill
Petros Giannakouris  /  AP file
Tourists walk on Filopapos hill, in front of the ancient Parthenon on the ancient site of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

Athens offers enough history to consume months or years of sightseeing, so these highlights are just a sample. But there’s so much more outside the city, not only in terms of history but also natural beauty. Marathon Plain, northeast of Athens, was the scene of the Athenians’ battle victory in 490 B.C. over the Persians. Beyond there, the traffic thins out as the road meanders past olive plantations, along the shimmering Gulf of Corinth and gradually into the highlands.

In Delphi, we were again following the footsteps of the ancients on the Sacred Way on the slopes of Mount Parnassos. The upward path brought us past the ruins of the temple of Apollo, dating back several hundred years B.C., and the excavated site of the Oracle, whose ambiguous incantations came at a price in sacrifices and donations. Still intact is the conical stone marking the mythological center of the Earth.

We passed the slab that served as a supporting wall and also a newspaper of the day, and on to a 2,500-year-old theater carved into the hillside. Above was a newer stadium, built by the Romans during their occupation and still remarkably intact. Like many excavated sites, this was cordoned off. But our next stop, Olympia, was not.

The route to the site of the first Olympics presented a constant contrast between the old and modern: A space-age cable-stay bridge carried us to Peloponnese, a peninsula on the other side of the canal at Corinth. At the foot of the bridge was a well-preserved fort dating to the days of the Crusades. Homes along the way, featuring traditional orange tiled roofs, also had rooftop hot-water heaters energized by the abundant sunshine.

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And mountaintops once considered the realm of the gods are now the domain of a newer power — energy. Numerous wind farms have sprouted along high ridges that streak across the island.

Walking past the site of the Palestra in Olympia, a visitor can imagine contestants from the early games — they started here in 776 B.C. — practicing boxing and wrestling. In the center of what was essentially an Olympic village are the remains of yet another Temple of Zeus, its once-grand columns now scattered about the base. This is also the site of another ancient wonder, where the statue of Zeus once stood. We stood at the site of the ritual lighting of the Olympic flame, which even today is lit in the ancient way, using the sun’s rays and a mirror, and then under the vaulted arch leading to the stadium, which even by the ancients’ standards is quite simple.

A bowl carved into the earth and nearby hillsides provided room for thousands of spectators. And the field where the early races were held is open. We were among the visitors who could not help but try a quick dash across the hard-packed dirt.

Moving even farther back in time, to the 1,700-1,100 B.C. late Bronze Age, we were guided by our driver, Pericles, eastward through Arkadian Mountain passes to Mycenae. While much of its fortified palace atop a citadel lies in ruins, some of its features remain intact, such as the 46-foot-thick stone wall to warn off invaders. They are so immense that even Greeks in later centuries believed they must have built by giants; that’s why they are known as “Cyclopean” walls.

Visitors can walk to a corner of the citadel and enter a dark opening where 99 steps lead to a cistern that provided water to the hilltop city. Bring a flashlight and watch your step.

Nearby, we entered the conical stone tomb once thought to be that of Agamemnon, of Trojan War fame. It turns out to be that of Mycenaean King Atreus, who was laid to rest in Egyptian fashion in his underground tomb. No need for a flashlight here; a golden shaft of sunlight provides all the illumination needed to behold this “Beehive Tomb.”

Moving east from Mycenae, a 21st century traveler can literally step to the center stage of the fourth century B.C. at Epidavros, site of the well-preserved outdoor theater that seated 14,000 — and still does for special presentations. Visitors from Spain, Germany, Russia and elsewhere took turns standing at the stage to sing songs, recite poetry or just speak out to their compatriots sitting high in the semicircular structure. Their words and melodies could be heard in the top tiers.

Past the seaport of Nafplion, a former capital of Greece, we stopped for coffee at the edge of the Corinth Canal, a deep gorge that connects the Ionian and Aegean seas in a region where St. Paul preached to the early Christians. (You can briefly catapult back to modernity at the canal, where a bungy-jumping business offers thrill leaps from a bridge.)

A visit to Greece is incomplete without touring at least some of the islands. From Piraeus, we sailed to Mykonos, in the Aegean’s Cyclades islands. Rough April seas prevented us from going ashore. But the seas had calmed by the time we berthed in Rhodes.

Here, the Colossus of Rhodes overlooked the entry of ancient visitors until it was claimed by an earthquake in 227 B.C. While the Colossus is gone, the castle built by the Knights of St. John during the Crusades retains much of its original magnificence. Visitors today roam the inner side of the ramparts, where scores of shops and restaurants line the meandering walkways.

If you’re looking for a break from sightseeing for some beach time, Elli Beach is a short and pleasant walk from the harbor, just past the casino. Like most beaches, it has pebbles. For a sandy beach, it’s a cab ride (about $20 or 15 euros) to touristy Faliraki, which attracts a rowdy young crowd in the summer.

Our cruise took us on to the tiny island of Patmos, marked by its gleaming white homes below the 11th century Monastery of St. John, a mountaintop bastion known for its collection of books, some dating to the sixth century. Visitors can enter the cavern where St. John composed the last book of the New Testament, Revelations. The vista of the town below and Aegean Sea is nothing less than spectacular.

Our visit coincided with the Greek Orthodox Easter. We watched in the village as a couple of local men carried a lamb on a spit to a home where a roasting pit awaited and the traditional feast would soon begin.

The holiest day was rung in with great celebration the previous night. I watched from the deck of our ship as fireworks lit the harbor, flares rose, horns blared, ship whistles sang out and church bells pealed. Then I caught a glimpse of a somewhat familiar custom, with a twist: A woman on deck handing an officer two red-dyed eggs.

Click here for a link to archaeological sites
Greek tourism office in U.S.: 212-421-5777

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