Enter ancient Greece at Mycenae

Greece is famous for its rich amount of archeological sites. Building in the country is almost impossible due to the abundance of history hidden underneath Greek soil. As a result, even the smallest towns have archeological sites or museums. Most of these sites are fields, covered with ancient foundations and restored columns. The most famous sites might have a building that survived time, like the Parthenon in the Acropolis or the theatre at Epidaurus. At the ancient city of Mycenae, however, you can actually touch and enter the structures built thousands of years ago. This archeological site is a truly unique experience.

Location Overview

Argolis, Peloponnese

Archeological site

1.5 – 2 hours

€6,- to €12,-
seasonal

Be careful

Yes

Location

Mycenae lies in the North of the Peloponnese peninsula, in the Argolis region. The ancient site is just 1 hour and 40 minutes away from Athens Airport by car, and the first famous archeological site you find when entering the Peloponnese.

The location of the ancient city is impressive. On top of a hill, overlooking the sea in the south, and de fields and mountains all around.

Mythology

Mycenae is an ancient city on top of a hill built from giant rocks. It seems almost impossible that human hands constructed this city so long ago. So, Greek mythology came up with an explanation.

According to mythology, Zeus and Danae (the daughter of the king of Argos, a city close by) had a son, Perseus. He wandered around the area that is now Mycenae and either dropped his cap or found a mushroom. A cap, as well as a mushroom are myces in the ancient Greek language. So we can not know which of the two Perseus was about to pick up. But when Perseus picked up his myces, he found a water spring. He decided to settle right there and called his city Mycenae.

Perseus wanted to fortify the city he was now king of and called the cyclopes. These one-eyed giants were strong enough to pick up large and heavy stones with ease. They created fortification walls that mark the outline of Mycenae till today. The Cyclopean walls, named after their builders.

History

Mycenae is over nine thousand years old. The first signs of human life in the area date back to the Early Neolithic Age in the 7th century B.C. However, not much of the early Mycenae survived through time, and the archeological site mostly tells the story of the city’s prime time.

Between 1350 and 1200 B.C., Mycenae was a major center of Greek civilization. The city expanded rapidly to a population of 300,000. Many buildings in the citadel were rebuilt, and the fortification walls were constructed. The Lion Gate, the tholos tombs, and the palace, for example, all originate in this time in ancient Greece. Unfortunately, because of this, not much of Mycenae before this time survived. 

After 1200 B.C., Mycenae lost its status as the center of power. The site got destroyed for an unknown reason. The citadel was partly rebuilt later but caught fire and then was slowly abandoned. The ruins of ancient Mycenae have been a tourist attraction since Roman times and have remained popular till today. The site has been on the list of UNESCO world heritage since 1999.

The archeological site of Mycenae

The archeological site of ancient Mycenae is one of the oldest in Greece. Eight hundred years older than the Acropolis and constructed two thousand years before the close by site of Mystras. However, the site is well preserved. A visit to Mycenae is like a visit to ancient Greece.

I have never felt more connected with history than during my visit to Mykines. There are ancient streets you can walk on, structures you can enter, spaces you can experience, and walls you can touch. At the site, there is a concrete path you can follow. This path leads you to all the impressive structures of the old city. I would recommend first entering the citadel and visiting the tombs at the beginning of the site afterward.

The Lion Gate

The most famous and first structure at Mycenae is the Lion Gate. This gate marks the entrance to the city in an impressive 3-meter (10 feet) tall wall. 

The reason behind the gate’s name is above the passage. There is a large, triangular, limestone slab with the image of two confronted lionesses. Although the heads are missing, the image in the stone is still clear and detailed. But more impressively, the lionesses are not just there for ornamentation. The limestone’s triangular shape gives stability to the giant rocks in the wall above the entrance. Without this stone, the gate would collapse.

Nature and History

After passing through the Lion Gate, you have entered the citadel. From the gate, a concrete path marks the route around the city. Along grave circle A, the palace, temples, and many other buildings. 

Cyclopean walls, constructed for fortification, enclose the entire citadel. From these walls, the view of the surrounding landscape is breathtaking and reveals how well-positioned this ancient city used to be. At a both strategic and defensive location in the area. You will be continuously drawn between being amazed by the ancient structures, to being astonished by the magnificent views.

The underground cistern

At the most eastern point of the archeological site, you can find a rare experience, the underground cistern. Although its entrance looks like a cave in the fortification wall, it is actually the beginning of a spectacular piece of architecture.

The cave marks the entrance of a passage. This passage is a staircase that leads 18 meters deep and at the end of this staircase, there is an even deeper structure. A well, made of clay, collects water from a natural spring. This well used to provide a continuous supply of water to the citadel, and is one of the oldest underground aqueducts you can visit in Greece.

Unfortunately, only a part of the tunnel is open to the public. However, this is enough to reveal how advanced and intelligent the Mycenaen civilization used to be. You can enter the tunnel, descend part of the stairs and see how deep down the staircase reaches. However, even the giant stones that enclose the stairs in an arc-like shape, are an art piece by themselves.

The tholos tombs

After visiting the ancient city of Mycenae, you can enter grave circle B. Located just outside of the city’s wall, the tombs of Aegisthus and Clymentemnesta are worth the climb down the steep hillside.

The tombs are called the tholos tombs. Tholo in Greek means dome, which perfectly describes the shape of the tombs as they are large underground domes, or beehive tombs in English. But how were these impressive underground shapes created?

First, the Greeks make a large round opening into a hill. Inside this opening, they placed huge stones in circular rows, on top of each other. Each row sticks out slightly over the previous one, to decrease the diameter of the circle of stones gradually. They continue this process upward, until the circle’s diameter is as small as a singular stone. This is the top of the dome.

After the Greeks completed the dome shaped-structure, they restored the hill, by adding soil on top of the tomb. The dome shape of the structure made it survive underground. The tomb of Clymentemnesta proves the strength of the dome design. When a theatre was built on top of it at later times, the structure was able to hold the weight.

The entrance to the tombs is a wide path leading into the otherwise hidden dome. This path is called the dromos in Greek. This dromos leads to the tomb’s entrance, marked by a gate, constructed similar to the Lion Gate. 

The tomb of Aegisthus is destroyed at the top. However, the tomb of Clymentemnesta is fully preserved and impressive. The scale of the tombs at Mycenae is unbelievable, and the acoustics inside adds to their size. They are real masterpieces of ancient Greek architecture.

Tips:

  • The whole site, except for the tombs, is accessible by wheelchair. However, the concrete path is very steep at some points, so keep this in mind.
  • Visit the site in the order described above. You will go from being amazed to being more amazed, and being beyond amazed!
  • Bring plenty of water and sunscreen when you visit the archeological site of Mycenae during the summer months. The location, on top of a hill, requires quite a hike, and shading is scarce at the citadel. Therefore, it is better to visit off-season. This period will also show a clearer view of the landscape around.
  • Don’t forget to visit the museum and the tomb of Agamemnon. The museum is located slightly downhill, on the North of ancient Mycenea. You can find the tomb on the road down to the village of Mykines.
  • Combine a visit to Mycenae with Epidaurus, Nafplio, the Sunken City, the Dolines of Didyma, or any of the beaches close by.
  • You will have to pay entrance to enter Mycenae. A ticket costs €12,- from April to October. Off-season and for children, the price is €6,-. There is another ticket available that is valid for three days and combines Mycenae with other museums and ancient sites in the area. This ticket costs €20,-.
  • Mycenea is open from 8 AM to 8 PM during the summer months. When traveling outside this season, you should check the opening hours before your visit since they change each month.

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Swim with history at the sunken city of Greece

Upon arriving at Athens airport in the summer of 2022, an interesting advertisement was to be seen. A poster from a promotional campaign of EOT, Greece’s National Tourism Organisation. This poster showed something unique. A clear blue sea, photographed from above. With tree bright yellow kayaks floating above something that looks like an archeological site. An impressive scene, but without any information on where to find it. Luckily, we discovered it was close to Athens and on our way. The sunken city in Greece, is in Epidaurus.

Location Overview

Argolis, Peloponnese

Natural / Archeological

0.5 hour
tour: 4.5 hour

Free
tour: €70,- p.p.

Be careful
tour: >12 years

No
tour: contact

The EOT

The EOT (Hellenic Organization of Tourism) is an organization that falls under the supervision of Greece’s ministry of tourism. Their main mission is the development and promotion of tourism in Greece. Which counts for over 20 percent of the country’s GDP.

The 2022 summer campaign of EOT is based on the true story of Otto, an Austrian man who visited Greece and ended up “staying forever.” This sentence is the campaign’s slogan. And since the EOT was unclear about the location of their posters, you might end up doing just that.

EOT campaign greece sunken city kayak poster water archeological site ruins sea kayak
The summer 2022 campaign from Greece National Tourism Organization.

Location

The sunken city of Epidaurus is located in the North of the Peloponnese peninsula. In the East of the region called Argolis. This explains the nickname of the site, Argolida’s lost Atlantis

The Argolis region is home to Archaia (ancient) Epidaurus. The famous site which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But there are also Nea (new), and Palaia (old) Epidaurus. The latter is where you can find the sunken city of Greece.

The historical underwater site is located in the Aegean sea. The Saronic Gulf, to be specific. In order to reach the site by car, navigate to Gliati beach in Palaia Epidaurus. There you can find a small parking area from which you can walk to the sunken city in less than five minutes.

History

Little is known about the sunken city. There is no information on site nor online, and even the tour guides are uncertain about what it is that is hidden underneath the water.

It could be an old Mycenean settlement dating back to the 12th century A.D. The site shows the remains of ancient walls, foundations, and paved streets. The second possible explanation of the history of the sunken city is a bit younger. A Roman villa from the 2nd century B.C. 

How to visit?

The sunken city of Epidaurus can be experienced in two ways. By a guided kayak tour or by yourself with a snorkeling mask.

The tribal kayak tour

From the village Panagia, just South of Palaia Epidaurus, starts a guided kayak tour to the sunken city. This tour will take you along multiple historical and natural sites. A guide will tell you a lot about the region’s history and help you with your kayak. After the adventure, there is even home-cooked traditional Greek food. The complete tour takes 4,5 hours and costs 70 euros per person. This price includes water, dry bags, snorkeling gear, and a GoPro for underwater pictures. An absolutely recommended experience! However, pregnant mothers-to-be and children under 12 are not allowed to attend this tour.

Visit for free

If you travel through Greece on a budget or belong to one of the groups that are not accepted on the tour, there is another option. All you need is a snorkeling mask or goggles to be able to see the marvelous underwater scenery. Because the sunken city is just a few meters offshore and in shallow water, it is easy to reach swimming. Just bring water shoes or slippers you can walk in the water with. But these should be in everyone’s suitcase when traveling to Greece.

sealife at ancient ruins in sunken city Greece in Epidaurus fish and stones underwater kayak tour
Sea-life inside the ruins at the Sunken city
picture from tribal_kayak_argolida

The experience

Swimming over the sunken city of Greece is a unique and wonderful experience. Usually, archeological sites are organized, preserved, or even restored, and always packed with tourists. This one, however, is just there, taken over by nature in a unique way. And allows you to explore all by yourself.

Usually, only a drone can give you the perspective from above. At the sunken city, you are this low-flying drone. Floating over the ruins, you get a new kind of understanding of the spaces and sizes of ancient times. You can nearly touch the old walls and walk the ancient streets.

Where the Greek seas are usually very scarce when it comes to sea life, the sunken city is home to a rich underwater world. The ruins at Epidaurus are full of colorful fish and beautiful sea urchins, who now inhabit the structures once made by men. Add to that a clear blue sea like everywhere else in Greece, and you have a priceless experience. For free!

Tips:

  • If you plan on visiting the sunken city by kayak book your tour upfront through the website. 
  • Unfortunately, the site is difficult to reach with a wheelchair or with other difficulties walking. A couple minute walk over a pebble beach is needed to get there. However, you might be able to attend the kayak tour if you contact the company in advance and discuss your medical situation.
  • When you visit the site on your own with children, be careful. Make sure they wear shoes or slippers when they go in the water. For children not good at swimming yet, it is a good idea to take an air mattress or something else they can float on, so you can take them to the site inside the water.
  • For adults, the site needs caution as well. Wear either water shoes or slippers, or be extremely careful where you step inside the water. When we visited in August, the beach in front of the sunken city of Greece was home to giant wasps, so do not plan on nicely-staying at the beach here.
  • If you want to combine the archeological site with a lazy day at the beach, there are two options close by. Yialasi beach, just South of the site, or Kalamaki beach in the North.
  • The site is perfect to combine with a visit to ancient Epidaurus, the city of Nafplio, or the dolines of Didyma. By car, the sunken city is two hours away from Athens airport.

Take your underwater camera!

Don’t forget your underwater camera when you have one! We left it at the hotel the day we visited the sunken city and now do not have any pictures of this beautiful site. Did you visit, take pictures, and want to share them on our website? Please leave a comment below or send an email to discoveringrealgreeks@gmail.com

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Experience the ancient theatre of Epidaurus

In the north of Peloponnese, close to Nafplion and just 2 hours away from Athens, lies the ancient city of Epidaurus. Epidaurus was a small city established in the sixth century B.C. Today, it is a big tourist attraction due to the most well-preserved ancient theatre. The site is on the list of UNESCO world heritage and is famous for its acoustics. Epidaurus is known as the most impressive ancient theatre in the world. But what is the true experience of visiting this place?

Argolis, Peloponnese

Archeological site

1 hour

€6 – 12,-
depending on age and time

Yes

Yes

History

The city of Epidaurus was not like the average ancient city. Since the sixth century B.C., it is known as the healing center of the classical world. Ill people from all over Greece would come here to visit the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Treatment would involve a cleansing diet and healing through dreams. But there are also records from performed surgeries and the use of medication.

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus was created as a part of the healing practice. It was believed that the observation of dramatic shows could increase not only mental but also physical health. The original theatre was completed in the fourth century B.C. with 34 rows. Later, in roman times (2nd century B.C.), 21 more rows were added. The complete theatre provides space for about 14.000 spectators.

Architecture

The theatre of Epidavros is an architectural masterpiece designed by the architect Polykleitos. It is built as part of the Cynortion mountain and looks over the lush landscape below. Impressive and giant gates mark the entrance on both sides of the theatre.

The gate at the entrance of the theatre, against the high walls that surround the theater’s koilon or cavea.

From the entrance, you first see the perfectly circular stage, the orchestra, with a width of about 25 meters. The center of the stage is the center of the entire theatre. This spot is marked by a small circular stone, the thymele or altar. This is the stone on which the actor in ancient Greek times would stand to reach all the spectators with his voice.

Around the stage are the 55 rows of seats, the koilon or cavea. With a radius of 60 meters and at a 26-degree incline, these rows make the theatre most impressive. The scale and the height, the perfect symmetry, and the excellent preservation. The theatre of Epidaurus is one of the few places that make you understand the scale of ancient Greek society.

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Theatre experience

The instructions for visiting the theatre of Epidaurus are clear. You leave your travel partner on the circular stone plate in the middle of the stage while you start to climb up. After approximately 110 steps, you sit down on the highest row. When your friend below speaks, and you can hear every word.

In reality, however, I was not surprised when I tried to communicate with my boyfriend on stage. I could vaguely hear some of his words, but my ears mostly caught the sound of crickets around. How could it be that I was finally at this famous architectural masterpiece, and all I felt was disappointment? Was the whole story about the theatre just a way to lure tourists?

Aggrieved, I climbed down the stairs and sat in a row halfway in the theatre. When putting my phone back in my pocket, I heard a coin drop. Where did my money fall? I searched around but couldn’t see it. Another coin drops. What is happening? How can I be losing money I did not know I had with me?

Confused, I looked at the stage. And at this moment I realized just how special the theatre actually is. A man, standing in the middle of the stage, was dropping his coins. The sound started 40 meters away, but according to my ears, it sounded right next to me. That’s impressive acoustics!

The truth about the acoustics

What they often forget to tell about the theatre is how the material contributes to the acoustics. The theatre’s benches are made of limestone, except for the first marble rows for special guests. Limestone has the ability to filter out low-frequency sound and amplify high-frequency. With this material, the noise of the crowd is absorbed while the higher tones from the stage travel from bench to bench, to reach even the spectators in the highest rows.

This is why my boyfriend was surprised when I spoke to him from the stage, but reversed, the acoustics failed. His, and many other men’s voices, are too low to be amplified. So when you plan on visiting Epidaurus with a male travel partner, remember to use a coin!

The limestone benches and the theatre of Epidaurus

How did the theatre work in ancient times?

The material’s acoustics made me wonder. Did men plan in ancient Greek theatres? Or was it just women and boys before the age of puberty? Or is it the aging of the limestone that changed the acoustic aspects of the material?

No. 

The limestone properties did not change. And strangely, ancient Greek actors were men. One man, actually, during the time of the completion of Epidaurus. And although the number of men on stage changed over time, actresses were never allowed on an ancient Greek stage.

However, this one man used costumes and masks to define the different roles he played. And it is these masks that are the key to good acoustics. Ancient Greek masks both amplify the actor’s voice and change its acoustical qualities. It was the mask that helped the actor’s voice to work together with the limestone material and travel through the entire theatre. Amazing!

Tips:

  • Attend a theatre at the summer festival of Epidaurus. For a unique experience, Epidaurus offers ancient theatre plays, performed at the ancient theatre during the summer months. After sunset, you can watch a play from the same spot the Greeks used to sit thousands of years ago. For more information and tickets, check https://aefestival.gr.
  • Combine with a visit to the museum and the rest of the site. At Epidaurus, not only the theatre is well-preserved. Instead, the whole site provides a unique look into ancient times. 
  • Epidaurus is close to Mycenae, another UNESCO world heritage site. Mycenae is famous for its lion’s gate and well-preserved tombs.
  • When visiting during summer, the temperatures at Epidaurus might ask for a refreshing swim afterward. At Palaia Epidaurus, a picturesque town on the coast, 15 km away from the ancient site, you can find the sunken city of Epidaurus. Here, you can swim around the ruins of an ancient villa, a rare and exciting experience. Don’t forget to bring water shoes and snorkeling or diving gear.
  • The site of Epidaurus is well accessible for people with a disability. Paths are paved or asphalt. However, the theatre and the paths between the ruins are not.
  • Bring water, sunblock, and a hat. Not unlike anywhere else in Greece, temperatures in summer can rise to 40 degrees Celsius. Be prepared and protect yourself. Drink lots of water while you explore the ancient site.

Frequently asked questions

How to reach the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus is easiest to reach by (rental) car from Athens in about two hours. For tourists, there are also many organized day tours to the site from Athens and other towns around. However, when joining these tours in summer, be prepared for high temperatures since you will reach in the middle of the day.

Do I have to pay an entry fee at Epidaurus?

Yes. A ticket for the ancient site of Epidaurus, the theatre, and the museum costs 12 euros per adult and 6 euros for children in summer. From November till March, tickets are half-price. There are a couple of days each year on which entry is free. Examples are the 18th of April, International Monuments Day, and the 18th of May, International Museums Day.

What are the opening hours of the theatre of Epidaurus?

In general, the site is open when the sun is up. From 8 am to 8pm in the summer months, and from 8 am till 5 pm during the winter. In April, September, and October it is best to check the opening hours before your visit. During holidays the site is either closed or has adjusted opening hours.

What is the best way to experience the acoustics of the ancient theatre of Epidaurus?

Drop a coin in the middle of the stage, and check how many people start looking around for money. Many guides tell you to speak from the center point of the theatre, but the best and most impressive experience is dropping a coin. You can literally hear a pin drop at all the 14.000 seats. 

Building amongst archeological sites

Around 50 years ago, Thessaloniki decided to do something about the endless traffic jams in the city. The idea was a metro, connecting the rectangular-shaped city center underground. Today, however, not one station opened. Why? Because building amongst archeological sites is nearly impossible.

The tunnel for Thessaloniki’s metro resulted in the largest archeological dig in northern Greece. While construction of the metro quickly came to a stop, 300 archeologists had 20 square kilometers of Byzantine structures to be unearthed. With over 10 years of delay, the metro is still not functional today, but archeologists found a real treasure.

Although I fully agree that the archeological findings in Greece are valuable and do need to be preserved. I want to show you a different side of this story. Because while living in a country with ancient stones in every back garden might sound romantic to you. It is actually not as great as it seems. Building amongst archeological sites actually causes big problems all throughout Greece.

As soon as construction starts, it stops

Whenever someone wants to build something, somewhere in Greece, there is one main rule he or she has to follow. Stop when there is a sign of any kind of old object in the ground.

But imagine that you bought a piece of land in your favorite region in Greece. The plans for your dream house are ready, construction starts with digging for the foundation, and then… it stops. Either you will have months or even years of delay. Or archeologists will tell you after this time that you can forget all about your dream house. You instead bought yourself an archeological site. Yay..?

The same thing can happen even when you inherit the family house. Maybe the foundation needs to be strengthened or maybe you want to make an extension to fit the whole family. Well even if the house and garden have been in family for years, chances are big that you as well, will stumble upon some artifact that either leaves you with an unhabitable house or a big delay.

It is too expensive to build

During countless construction projects in Greece, both big and small, something valuable is found. Resulting in delays, higher costs, or loss of invested money. The Thessaloniki metro, for example, went from a budget of 1.1 billion euros to costing over 3.5 billion. With an additional 132 million euros spent on archeology, of which the budget was just 15 million. But where this project was able to continue because of funding, many Greeks are not able to pay 3x more as planned for a simple house.

Do they stop at every stone?

As a result, many building sites are left abandoned and unfinished. And although ancient ruins are not the main reason for the abandoned structures, it is one that seems so surreal to me.

I can imagine the frustration of developers when again an ancient wall is found by a bulldozer. I wonder if they would really stop at every single stone or just throw away a few to speed up the process. It is not easy, building amongst archeological sites when they are litteraly everywhere.

It reminds me of the projects I worked on in Germany, where it is very common to have either a bomb or a bunker underneath your plot. A different kind of history but one that prevents architectural growth as much as the ancient ruins in Greece do. Funny.

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