The complete guide to: Classical Greece

Next weekend Greece will be celebrating Orthodox Easter, so what better time to go and explore this country's magnificent cultural heritage? With Dana Facaros as your guide, embark here on a journey that takes you through the centuries and from theAcropolis to Mount Parnassos.


ARE WE TALKING DUSTY OLD RUINS?

ARE WE TALKING DUSTY OLD RUINS?

Not at all. Some of the most fascinating sites in Greece – and beyond, in Italy and Turkey – are classical. And they're not just of interest for their picturesque qualities so loved by Grand Tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Classical in a nutshell means the age of Athens, when its democracy astonished, then alarmed the world as it built a de facto empire (sound familiar?). Today Athens' proud relics are incorporated in the buzzing modern city, now going into overdrive as it overhauls and preens for the 2004 Olympics. Still, calling it "pretty" is a long shot; modern Athens looks like a madman's game of dominoes bunched on the hills. But it's a fun, gutsy city which stays up late and knows how to have a good time. New metro lines have helped to clear up the old bugbears of dirty air and congestion; and its classical sites are being linked up as a pedestrian-only oasis in the city core.

The most astonishing thing to remember, in historical terms, is how short the classical period really was – from Athens' victory over the Persians at Marathon (490BC) to Alexander the Great's accession to power in 336BC. During these 154 years, Greek civilisation not only reached its apogée, but in a staggering burst of creativity germinated much of Western civilisation.

SO WHERE DO I START?

Where most tourists do, the Acropolis. The Acropolis (00 30 210 321 0219, open 8am-7pm daily, €12/£8) stands like a great limestone pedestal in the heart of Athens, displaying the ultimate classical icon, the Parthenon (447-432BC). Designed by Iktinos, this great Doric temple is made up of some 13,400 blocks of Pentelic marble, each cut individually to precise mathematical calculations. Remarkably, there's not a single straight line in the entire building: Iktinos wrote the book on entasis (tension), subtly imitating the swellings and curves of nature, an almost subliminal visual trick that helps make the building so visually satisfying.

Walking up the slope, you'll often find architects gazing dewy-eyed at the Propylaia, the ceremonial gate to the Acropolis, which many consider as sublime as the Parthenon. Built on extremely difficult ground, and incorporating, on one end, the bijou temple of Athena Nike, the structure still manages to be a model of classical grace and harmony. The third temple on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion (395BC) with its famous Caryatid porch, owes its unique layout to cult requirements – including the display of marks made by the trident of Poseidon and the olive tree invented by Athena, when the two gods contested to become patron of Athens.

The Acropolis Museum houses several sections of the 524ft Parthenon frieze. Designed by the celebrated sculptor Phidias, the frieze, depicting the quadrennial Panathenaic procession, epitomises the classical spirit in the naturalistic yet idealised, godlike beauty of its figures. The Greeks are building a state-of-the-art museum (due to be ready in 2004) near the Acropolis metro station, to hold the entire frieze in a single room overlooking the Parthenon, hoping to convince the British government to return the rest: the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.

AND APRES ACROPOLIS?

Sustenance and souvenirs, of course. The Plaka quarter, the heart of Athens before it became the modern Greek capital in 1834, is conveniently spread under the Acropolis, its narrow lanes packed with Roman ruins, Byzantine chapels, Ottoman mosques – and shops selling plastic glow-in-the-dark Parthenons as well as lively bars and tavernas. The oldest taverna, Platanos, at 4 Diogenis Street (00 30 210 322 0666), is still one of the best, with tables spread under an ancient plane tree.

ANYTHING ELSE TO SEE OF CLASSICAL ATHENS?

Plenty, and all in walking distance of Plaka. Scooped out of the Acropolis hill, the Theatre of Dionysos (00 30 210 322 4625, open daily 8am-7pm, 5pm in winter, €2/£1) is the oldest playhouse in the world, where drama as we know it was invented in the 5th century BC by Aeschylus, Sophocles and company, all competing for the prize in the annual festival in honour of the god of wine. Audiences were tougher back then – performances went on all day, and they had to sit on the ground, or perhaps on planks, until the theatre was rebuilt in stone in 342BC. Even then, one can't help thinking ancient bottoms must have been hard as nails.

The heart of classical Athens, as in any Greek city, was the Agora (00 30 210 321 0185, open 8am-7pm, Oct-Apr until 5pm, €4/£3), the "marketplace" but also the civic centre, where every citizen went daily to meet, keep abreast of events, or get buttonholed by Socrates. The Agora's Temple of Hephaistos (of Theseum) is the best-preserved classical temple in existence, complete with its coffered stone ceiling. Among their many accomplishments, the Greeks invented the modern shopping mall: the porticoed stoa, where one could shop or philosophise, sheltered from the sun or rain.

These days the Agora's reconstructed Stoa of Attalus contains, instead of shops, a fascinating museum filled with art and everyday bits and bobs, from a classical era potty-training chair to a bizarre pachinko-like machine used to select jurors randomly.

No place, however, better evokes classical Athens than Kerameikos, the ancient pottery district just north-west of the Agora, where all those beautiful Attic vases were turned and painted (00 30 210 346 3552, open 8am-7pm, €2/£1). This incorporates the majestic Dipylon Gate, through which the Sacred Way to Eleusis passed; along this road, for 1,500 years, Athens buried her dead. As you stroll Kerameikos's quiet lanes, lined with cypresses, dotted with its wistful, restrained funerary steles, and taking in magical views up to the Acropolis, it's easy to imagine that you're walking in the city of Plato and Aristotle.

What you won't see of classical Athens, at least for now, are the contents of the blockbuster National Archaeology Museum, which is closed until late 2003 for an Olympic refurbishing. For more information, contact the National Tourist Organisation of Greece (EOT), 2 Amerikis Street (00 30 210 325 2895, www.gnto.gr).

THIS CLASSICAL STUFF CAN GET UNDER YOUR SKIN ...

Even if you only have a long weekend in Athens, it's easy to take in some of the classical sites outside of the city. The metro will take you to Athens' bustling port, Pireaus; its own Archaeology Museum at 31 Har. Trikoupi (00 30 210 452 1598, open 8am-2.30pm, closed Mon, €3/£2) can offer some consolation for the closed National Museum, with its a superb collection of early classical bronzes, including the Apollo of Pireaus, the oldest known example of Greek hollow bronze casting. Pireaus also offers the chance for a classical dining experience, at the Archaion Gefsis, at 10 Epidavrou Street (00 30 210 413 8617), where ancient Greek recipes are served in a ripe kitsch setting – and no forks allowed (€22/£14).

The Greek islands beckon tantalisingly from Pireaus, but even if time is short, Aegina is only 35 minutes away by Flying Dolphin hydrofoil, with departures every hour until late afternoon (bookings 00 30 210 419 9200, €14/£9 return). A pretty island of rolling hills and pistachio groves, Aegina's port has frequent buses to the gorgeous sandy beach at Ag Marina, stopping on the way at one the most charming classical sites, the little hilltop Temple of Aphaia (00 30 229 703 2398, open Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat-Sun 8.30am-3pm, €2/£1). To see its superb pediment, however, you'll have to go to Munich; Lord Elgin started an antiquity-stripping free-for-all that only ended when Greece gained her independence in 1827.

South-east of Pireaus stretches greater Athens by the sea, the so-called "Apollo Coast", of smart suburbs and luxury hotels flanking the beach resorts and gin-palace-packed marinas of Glyfada, Voula and swanky Vouliagmeni. The coast is a great place to join the élite at play, by day and by night, when the huge clubs along the shore throb into life from midnight until dawn, with sounds ranging from the latest techno to the passionate soul-flagellating sounds of top bouzouki crooners. From here, drive south or take the hourly bus from Athens' Mavromateon terminus at Areos Park (00 30 210 821 3203) to Cape Sounion, the southernmost tip of Attica, marked by the sun-bleached Temple of Poseidon (00 30 229 203 9363, daily 10am-sunset, €4/£2.50). The classical Greeks, who had an unerring, geomantic eye for siting monuments, excelled here; this temple, dramatically set on the cliffs, welcomed home Athenian triremes (warships), and although it seems touristy, you can do worse than join the crowds who flock here for the sunsets in the exquisitely clear Attic light.

I'VE GOT ANOTHER WEEK – WHICH WAY NEXT?

Hire a car and head over the Corinth Canal to the Peloponnese. Only a couple of hours from Athens, this stunning region of towering mountains and golden beaches is nicknamed the "Garden of Greece" for its vineyards, orange and olive groves. Endless strips of sand line the west coast, all in easy striking distance of ancient Olympia (00 30 262 402 2517, open daily 9am-7pm, museum closed Mon until noon, €9/£6), home of the quadrenniel Olympic games from their founding in 776BC to AD392. Set in the delightful wooded valley of the Alphios (Coleridge's "Alph, the Sacred River"), the surprisingly simple stadium, altars, temples, the athletes' training areas, stoas, and a massive hotel remain; a dense smattering of proud monuments erected by states from around the Greek world suggest that the links between sport and nationalism are nothing new.

Olympia's huge Classical Temple of Zeus housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Phidias's colossal gold and ivory statue of Zeus. Although not a trace of the statue remains, the temple's superb pediment sculptures are one of the treasures in Olympia's top-notch museum.

South of Olympia, high up in the tremendous mountain setting of Bassae, is the most remote classical shrine in Greece, the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, designed by the Parthenon architect Iktinos (00 30 262 602 2275, daily 6am-9pm, €3/£2). Its Parian marble frieze is in the British Museum, but thanks to its isolation, the rest of the temple is beautifully preserved, although it's less impressive than it used to be – since 1982 it's been covered by a tent as restoration work continues, scheduled to be completed in 2020.

WEREN'T THE SPARTANS DOWN THIS WAY TOO?

You bet. Sparta, Athens' mighty rival, regarded the Peloponnese as her own backyard, but her obsession with things military (just as the historian Thucydides predicted) has meant her own city has vanished almost without a trace. However, when Thebes defeated the Spartans in 369BC, their liberated helots founded their own city, Messene, over the mountain roads south of Bassae. Not surprisingly, keeping the Spartans out was their former slaves' first concern, and the walls they built make up one of the most remarkable sights in Greece – a 9.5km circuit of precision-cut limestone blocks, complete with 30 towers and gates. While here, don't miss the amazing view from nearby Androusa over the Messenian plain, a shimmering, seemingly endless expanse of silvery olives, known as Makaria, "the Blessed Land", since ancient times – and source of all those delicious Kalamata olives.

ON THE WAY BACK TO ATHENS ...

In the north-eastern arm of the Peloponnese, the Argolis, mythic Greece can make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck at the citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns. In classical times, however, Epidauros, dedicated to Asclepios, the gentle god of healing, was the main attraction, drawing patients from all across the Greek world (00 30 275 302 2009, open daily 8am-7pm, museum closed until noon on Mon, €6/£4). Epidauros has a mysterious round "tholos" building, designed by the great sculptor Polykleitos in 360BC, that once held, or so they think, Asclepios's sacred snakes (since immortalised on the modern medical symbol, the caduceus).

You can trace the vast Enkoimeterion where patients slept, having dreams that would be interrupted by the priests (who were wise to the potent powers of suggestion), and try out the acoustics in the most perfect ancient theatre in the world. Classical tragedy and comedy are still performed here every summer as part of the Epidauros Festival – just as in Never on Sunday, when Melina Mercouri went to see Medea (00 30 210 928 2900, www.greekfestival.gr; tickets from €15, £10; special buses are laid on from Athens and the nearby neoclassical city of Nauplio, one of the prettiest towns in Greece).

AND THE ORACLE OF DELPHI?

Delphi is simply spectacular, piled on terraces under the sheer "Shining Cliffs" of Mount Parnassos, overlooking once sacred glens of olives; get there by ferry from Egio in the Peloponnese or by a three-hour drive from Athens. The ancient Greeks, enamoured with poetry, never had a "Bible" outside of Homer, and no religious authority more powerful than this Oracle, whose Pythia, the mouthpiece of Apollo, gave famously ambiguous replies (in verse, of course) to their questions. Normally, you can trace the sacred way up to her old haunts in the Temple of Apollo, by way of the beautiful reconstructed Treasury of the Athenians; further up are the theatre and stadium that hosted the Delphi Games, where both athletes and musicians competed. There is also a museum, with its omphalos, or the navel of the world (Delphi's mythic location), and a classical masterpiece, the bronze Charioteer of c.475BC. The problem is that much of the complex is under wraps as restoration work continues in advance of the Olympics. Call 00 30 226 508 2312 to find the latest, but don't expect there to be too much to see before 2004.

In winter, you can round off a visit on the ski slopes of Mount Parnassos; in summer, head down to the beach and fish tavernas at Delphi's ancient port Itea; any time of year, stop in the nearby mountain village of Arachova to browse for handmade rugs. Arachova, with its traditional stone inns, also makes a great stopover: stay where the Beatles stayed at the charming Pension Nostos, 00 30 226 703 1385; from €35/£23 a double.

WHAT IF I JUST THROW MY RETURN TICKET AWAY AND HEAD UP TOWARDS MOUNT OLYMPUS?

On deeply-forested, eagle-haunted Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the Balkan peninsula at 9,570ft, Zeus and company schmoozed over nectar and ambrosia in their cloud-girt palaces: these days its summit is accessible to any reasonably fit mortal (Trekking Hellas, 00 30 210 331 0323, www.trekking.gr offers organised ascents). Wide sandy beaches skirt the foot of the mighty mountain, dotted with little resorts frequented by Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Czechs – English speakers are very much a minority here.

Mount Olympus marks the frontier of northern Greece, which in classical times was under the aegis of the Philip II of Macedonia. Philip's defeat of Athens and its allies was the death knell of classical Greece, but his further ambitions to conquer Persia ended with his assassination in 336BC. Before marching east to fulfil his dream, his son Alexander gave Philip a stupendous Homeric funeral in Aigai (modern Vergina), an hour's drive north west of Olympus.

Discovered in 1978, hidden in the centre of the largest tumulus in Greece (360ft in diameter) Philip's unplundered tomb now forms the centrepiece of the country's most stunning museum (00 30 233 109 2348, open Tue-Sun 8am-7pm, Mon 12 noon-7pm, €8/£5.50). Dark and evocative, the three royal tombs in the mound are softly illuminated, while their priceless gold and ivory treasures glow magically in "invisible" fibre optic lit cases. The best surviving classical wall paintings decorate the tombs, including, on Philip's tomb, a faded but remarkable scene of Alexander hunting, while the neighbouring tomb's scene of the "Rape of Persephone" is a tour de force of rapid brush-strokes that looks forward to Tiepolo.

Vergina is on the lush, orchard-covered plain of Lower Macedonia, which is also the centre of a major wine region. On the slopes of the surrounding mountains, Naoussa lends its name to one of Greece's noblest red wines. Just below the town, the idyllic Sanctuary of the Nymphs (open daylight hours) is a series of caves and ruined foundations on a ledge over a stream, where Aristotle is believed to have taught the young Alexander. It's only a few minutes from here to the Boutari vineyards in Stenimachos, where, if you ring in advance, you can have both a tour and a lunch built around the local wines (00 30 233 204 2678, open Mon-Fri, set menus from €11-22/£8-16).

Just north of here lies Pella (00 30 238 203 1160, open 8.30am-3pm, closed Mon, €3/£2), the capital of Macedonia, before it was moved to Thessaloniki in the late 4th century BC. Philip II and Alexander were born here, presumably in the massive royal palace, a 60,000 square metre complex with a pool that is still being excavated. Pella is best known for the remarkable pebble mosaics that carpeted the floors of its villas, including one of Alexander and friend hunting a lion, and a charming portrait of Dionysos.

AND IF I KEEP HEADING EAST?

The Chalkidiki peninsula – on the map that big three-fingered paw dangling east of Thessaloniki – is the luxury beach playground of north, while its easternmost prong is the monastic republic of Mount Athos, where women have been banned since the 9th century. In classical times, however, Chalkidiki hosted more than a score of Greek colonies, which banded together in a confederation in 432BC and founded a capital, Olynthos (00 30 237 192 2148, open 8am-7pm, closed Mon, €2/£1). They designed it according to the precepts of the classical town planner, Hippodamus of Miletus, who promoted isonomia (equality of rights) in his careful grid plans. Philip II destroyed Olynthos 84 years later, and it was never rebuilt, making its tidy but eloquent geometric foundations on a lonely bluff the "purest" classical city in Greece.

Just east of Chalkidiki on the river Strymonas, the Athenians founded Amphipolis in 437BC, hoping to cash in on the nearby gold mines of Mount Pangaion, the El Dorado of ancient Greece. Amphipolis's elaborate classical walls and gate survive near the river, along with the unique fossilised wooden piles of a classical bridge. To the south, near the modern steel bridge, stands a giant stone lion, erected (probably) in honour of Laomedon, one of Alexander's generals.

DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVOURITE SECRET CLASSICAL SITES?

Minor classical ruins lost in the Greek countryside can be wonderfully evocative, and usually you have them all to yourself. The Castle of Aigosthena is one of these places, guarding the north-west corner of Attica, just behind the little beach resort of Porto Germano on the Gulf of Corinth; although seemingly forgotten, it's the best preserved fortress dating from the 5th century BC in Greece, made of beautifully cut polygonal stone.

Along the wild and wooded Neda gorge in the Peloponnese (just under Bassae), the recently discovered foundations of a classical temple and altar lie lonely outside the nearly abandoned hamlet of Figelia, which also has an ancient fountain-house in its centre and an enchanting waterfall on the Neda river. Downstream, the larger village of Lepreo has similar remote foundations of a temple in a gorgeous setting, next to a little Hellenistic building used until recently as a stable; the last time I was there it was guarded by a slow-ambling old tortoise.

TOUR OPERATORS

Martin Randall (020-8742 3355, www.martinrandall.com) offers 10-day classical Greece tours in the Peloponnese and Attica for small groups, with lecturers, in four-star hotels, for £1,720.

ACE Study Tours (01223 835055, www.study-tours.org) offers cultural tours of the Peloponnese and in October to northern Greece for 15 days (£1,590 half-board).

Filoxenia (01422 3275999, www.filoxenia.co.uk) offers two-week archaeological tours of northern Greece for £1,260 per person.

Bales Worldwide (0870 241 3208, www.balesworldwide.com) offers an 11-day classical Greece tour of the most famous sites in Greece, including Delphi, Olympia, and Athens, from £1,499.

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