Friday, December 31, 2004

Christmas in Athens - the Ports of Corinth

Monday 27 December 2004

The Isthmus of Corinth
My husband Richard and I are spending the last day of our Christmas research trip in Athens. I so wish we could have another week. In May. To really get a feel for these sites in the warmth. But my due date for The Fugitive from Corinth is late Feb and there are fans waiting to read it.

In the late morning we go to the National Archaeological Museum. It is full of the Greek masterpieces I studied at Cambridge when I was doing my degree in Classical Archaeology. Again I am struck by how many of these beautiful white sculptures or grave steles had traces of bright paint on them! We have arranged for an English-speaking taxi driver to pick us up outside the Museum at a certain time and he is there. His name is Stavros. His family comes from Crete but he is now an Athenian.

Sanctuary of Corinth
We set off on the quick highway for Corinth. I know exactly where I want to go and we don't have much time so this will have to be a fast tour. We do have time to stop and look at the canal. I know I've been here before but I can't remember stopping. Probably because I was about 22 years old and driving a rented Fiat and in fear of my life. Now you can go bungy jumping from here.

At Corinth we whizz through the site in 15 minutes and skip the Acrocorinth. I was there many years ago and will never forget the magic of the place. You hear nothing but the wind and bees and maybe the clank of a flock of goats moving down the hill. And I still remember hearing the distant braying of a donkey from miles away on the plain. I'd love to take Richard there but we don't have time. It will have to wait.

Stavros in Lechaeum, Corinth
Stavros has never been to the remains of the western port of Lechaeum and has to ask a local taxi driver. Clutching a scrap of paper with complicated instructions we finally get there... after a few wrong turns. It would have taken me hours to find this place without a native. Lechaeum is just as I expected it: barren, flat, windswept. The meagre site is fenced off with no access but the remains of a terracotta Roman flue confirm that this is the place.

Helen's Bath?
We drive back towards the eastern harbour of Cenchrea, passing along a flat plain of vines and olives beneath the shadow of the Acrocorinth. We go via the little village of Examilia to Loutro Elenis. This means Helen's Baths and Pausanias talks about a hot springs here.

It is my idea that Flavia and her friends are staying here a mile or two from Cenchrea in a luxury guest house called Helen's Hospitium. Helen is a beautiful Greek widow who owns the hospitium and has designs on Flavia's father, Captain Geminus. As my husband Richard says, Captain Geminus isn't so much a babe-magnet as a matron-magnet. Well, he does still have all his teeth!

ruins of Cenchrea, Corinth
Helen's Bath turns out to be the highlight of this trip. It is beautiful in the golden sun of late afternoon. Mount Onia ends in a spur here so you have olive clad slopes rising behind, a blue sea and bright green pine trees down by the water. With Stavros' help we even find the warm springs, still bubbling out of the hill into the transparent seawater a few feet away.

After Helen's Baths we find the site of Cenchrea. A marble pillar and some clay tiles are fenced off and when I climb a brambly hillock I can see the remains of stone piers going out into the water.

We are an hour behind schedule and I want to take the coast road along the Isthmus – the road Theseus travelled when he first went to Athens to claim his birthright. We find Sciron's Rock but not the Evil Stairs. Later I read in the Blue Guide that the ancient road was much higher.

shrine on the Isthmus of Corinth
We pass Megara, and I can't for the life of my make out the twin "breast-shaped" hills Pausanias speaks of. I convince Stavros to stay on the old two-lane coast road, rather than the fast new motorway. He has never been on this road before. We pass through villages, traverse dry river beds, stop to photograph views. All the time I am scribbling furiously in my little notebook. At one point near Eleusis we see a ship capsized and half-submerged in the bay!

Finally at dusk we reach Eleusis. All the guide books say it's an ugly industrial area and yes, there are too many huge factories and refineries on this lovely stretch of coast, but Eleusis itself has some charming seaside cafes by the ruins. I didn't realise it was this close to the water. I didn't realise that conical needle of rock was so dramatic. Of course it's not open but I can peer through the fence and see the columns and blocks of marble and even the Cave of Pluto. There is always a cave.

Eleusis was of course the sanctuary of Demeter and site of the famous Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were so mysterious that nobody to this day knows exactly what went on there. It's getting dark now and so we turn back onto the motorway and go home.

Fagopoteion in Athens Kolonaki
On the way back to Athens, Stavros tells us some of his favourite restaurants, places he goes with his own wife. One of them is on a street not far from the hotel. Next door, it turns out, to the zacharoplasteio, Despina, where we bought our Christmas confections. It's called Fagopoteion, which roughly means Food and Drink and it's wonderful. It's full of Athenians – a good sign – and you can just point to the food you want. For the first time we see the wine being drawn from a barrel into copper beakers. We've used up almost all our money but when I ask the handsome owner if he takes cards he says, 'You don't need cards. We're very cheap.' And indeed they are. The whole meal with wine costs only E 20 and it's one of the best we had. If only we'd found it at the beginning of our visit!

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 and 3. There are DVDs of some of the books.]

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