The Cultural Tourist: Take your seat, thanks to the philhellenic senator

Greece came up with the idea of cultural tourism more than 2,000 years ago.

Greece came up with the idea of cultural tourism more than 2,000 years ago. (Pausanias compiled a guide to its temples and monuments for well-heeled Roman travellers in the second century AD - still in print and still worth consulting.) Recently, however, although the country hasn't lacked eager tourists, most are in search of the physical pleasures of its beaches and this year the excitements of the Olympic stadiums rather than the cerebral ones of its culture.

Which is a pity, since, in addition to the spectacular ancient remains, there is a rich cultural programme throughout the summer. Under the title of the Hellenic Festival, operas, plays, ballets and concerts of orchestral and popular music runs from May to September. Easily the most impressive are the theatrical performances at the ancient theatre at Epidauros, about an hour and a half's drive from Athens. Set in a natural dip in a hillside among groves of pine trees, it was built in the middle of the fourth century BC. This year's season starts on 18 June with a production of Euripides' The Trojan Woman - in modern Greek, but it's easy to follow with a Penguin Classic paperback. Other Euripides' plays to be performed include The Bacchae, Andromache and Lysistrata, as well as works by Sophocles and Aeschylus.

The other magnificent theatre used by the Hellenic Festival is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens. This was the gift to the city by a philhellenic Roman senator in the second century AD: smaller than 14,000-capacity Epidauros (it seats 5,000), but with a similar atmosphere. The Hellenic Festival starts here on 1 May with a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The programme includes Brahms's First Piano Concerto with Daniel Barenboim. Other visiting orchestras include the Vienna Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the London Symphony. A particular highlight of the extensive programme of theatre, opera and musical productions will be the world premiere of Orion, a concert work by Philip Glass. The Philip Glass Ensemble will be joined by esteemed world artists including Foday Musa Suso (kora) from Gambia, Africa, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Qawwali vocalist) from Pakistan, Ravi Shankar (sitar) from India, Ashley MacIsaac (violin) from Nova Scotia, Canada, and Eleftheria Arvanitaki (vocalist) from Greece.

To book, phone 00 30 210 928 2900. The box office is at Panepistimiou 39. Booking begins three weeks prior to each performance. To book earlier than that, email Nikolaidis@greekfestival.gr or fax 0030 210 9282 927.

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