More than 2,000 years after their construction, the great buildings of classical Greece still have power to stir the heart. Architects have drawn inspiration from their elegant proportions and graceful ornamentation for millennia, and yet the remaining original structures have not given up all their secrets. Even the Parthenon, the most iconic Greek building, remains shrouded in mystery. How could an ancient civilization construct such a monumental edifice in less than 10 years, if the histories are to be believed? And how did they achieve such exquisite balance and engineering precision with the technology at their disposal? The great theaters, too, leave as many questions as answers. We can only speculate about how a Greek play was actually performed, and what any accompanying music might have sounded like.
Yet the distant echoes of priests and performers haunt the ruins to this day, their settings on hilltops or coastlines still as dramatic as they were 2,500 years ago. And the Greeks did not confine their monument-building to the present-day boundaries of the country. Sicily contains ancient Greek ruins as spectacular as any in Greece, as does western Turkey. The Andrew Harper Travel Office has assembled a list of 10 favorite Greek ruins which represent the majesty and sophistication of the civilization. Headlines about Greece today tend to focus on its economic troubles, but seeing one or two of these ruins will leave no doubt that Greece was once a great world power.
Ancient Greek architecture arguably reached its apotheosis with the Acropolis, built atop a rugged hill in the heart of Athens. Even though it was converted to a church, a mosque and an ammo depot which exploded, the Parthenon—the Acropolis’s centerpiece—retains its gloriously calm, well-ordered beauty. Arrive early in the day to see the monuments before the crowds arrive and, at sunset, head to the roof terrace of the Hotel Grande Bretagne for magnificent views of the Acropolis from the bar and restaurant.
FROM MR. HARPER: “Even the most prosaic bits of Athens are redeemed by a glimpse of the Parthenon.”
The Peloponnese city of Epidaurus grew wealthy because of its fame as a healing center, allowing it to finance major public buildings, including what Mr. Harper calls “the most aesthetically refined classical theater.” With sweeping views of the mountains beyond, Epidaurus’s immense theater has miraculous acoustics, allowing up to 15,000 spectators to hear actors without amplification. An easy drive from the Amanzoe resort, the theater is still in use today, hosting an annual summer drama festival.
This verdant, pine-shaded site hosted the original Olympic Games from 776 B.C. until A.D. 393, and many impressive structures remain, including a stadium capable of holding 50,000 people. Visitors can race one another there to this day, on the same ground first trod by Greek athletes. The engrossing museum houses tools used to create sculptures for the site, as well as notable works of art such as “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus,” a marble masterpiece by Praxiteles. The Romanos resort on Greece’s pristine Costa Navarino is just two hours away.
FROM MR. HARPER: “Separated from mainland Greece by the Corinth Canal, [the Peloponnese] is a land of small villages where you will still find traditional Greek hospitality in areas that have not been overrun by tourists. Some of Greece’s most important archaeological sites are scattered through the peninsula and include the palaces of Mycenaean kings, and temples such as those at Corinth and Olympia.”
The palace of Knossos predates classical Greek monuments by some 1,000 years, making it all the more enigmatic. In fact, the Minoan culture which built the large and complicated structure dates back to at least 2700 B.C. According to Greek mythology, Knossos was the home of King Minos, who ordered the construction of a labyrinth in which to house the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Rediscovered on the island of Crete in the late 19th century, the palace of Knossos has been over-restored to a certain extent, but its aura of mystery is firmly intact. It makes a fine day trip from the Elounda Beach Hotel & Villas, Elounda Mare Hotel or Elounda Peninsula All Suites Hotel.
Across the Aegean Sea stand the remains of one of the ancient world’s greatest cities, Ephesus. Now in Turkey, Ephesus boasted one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis, as well as impressive public baths, a monumental library and a huge theater facing the harbor. The city flourished for hundreds of years—Paul’s letter to the Ephesians figures prominently in the Bible—but it declined after its harbor silted up. The ruins today are as magnificent, if not as extensive, as Pompeii’s. Many people make a day trip from Kusadasi to the ruins, but they can also be visited as a day trip from Istanbul, which is just an hour’s flight away. The ruins are also a popular cruise ship excursion, making them crowded in high season.
FROM MR. HARPER: “The eastern Mediterranean is one of the most culturally intriguing areas of the world. Two thousand years ago, western Turkey was home to the Ionian Greeks, and some of the most impressive ruins of classical cities, such as Pergamum and Ephesus, are to be found there.”
Just a few hours south of Ephesus, the seaside city of Bodrum also once contained a wonder of the world, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Unfortunately, like the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, the towering mausoleum was destroyed centuries ago. But it’s still possible to visit the site where it stood, marked by crumbling chunks of fluted columns, as well as the Castle of St. Peter, constructed in part with pieces salvaged from the mausoleum. The castle has guarded Bodrum’s harbor since the 15th century, and today it houses the excellent Museum of Underwater Archaeology.
FROM MR. HARPER: “The most fascinating sight is the Petronion, the Castle of St. Peter. Completed in 1437 by the Knights Hospitaller, it incorporates a mix of marble, local volcanic stone and, regrettably, marble columns and reliefs looted from the nearby mausoleum. In the English tower, be sure to examine the stones adjacent to the window seats, where the homesick carved poignant thoughts about their native lands.”
The ancient Greeks also controlled Sicily and southern Italy, founding numerous successful colonies there. One of the most important was Selinunte, a city now little-known outside of Sicily, with a splendidly scenic location right on the coast. Destroyed during the first Punic War and never resettled, Selinunte remained essentially undisturbed until unearthed by archaeologists. Some of its Doric temples have been partially reconstructed; the spectacular Temple of Hera is the most complete. The site makes an excellent day trip from Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort.
The Valley of the Temples on the outskirts of Agrigento also is within easy reach of the Verdura Resort. Its seven Doric temples represent some of the finest Greek architecture in Sicily. Converted to a church in the Middle Ages, the Temple of Concordia is particularly well-preserved, and it ranks as one of the more important extant structures of ancient Greece. The city of Agrigento encroaches too closely to the site to allow visitors to fully lose themselves in Agrigento’s ancient splendor, but the beautiful temples merit a visit nevertheless.
One of Sicily’s most important Greek city-states, Syracuse originally centered on the island of Ortygia, now home to numerous ornate baroque-era buildings as well as a 5th-century B.C. temple converted into a cathedral (the original columns are still visible in the walls.) But the most breathtaking ruins are now found on the mainland, notably the well-preserved theater and what is reputed to be the tomb of Archimedes. The Romans also added an amphitheater akin to a smaller Colosseum. This magnificent ensemble of ruins is well-worth the 90-minute drive from the Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina.
FROM MR. HARPER: “[Sicily] is famous for its Greco-Roman remains. The two principal attractions, Taormina and Syracuse, are picturesque and historically fascinating.”
The Greco-Roman Theater of Taormina is one of the world’s most dazzlingly sited ruins, carved from a hillside just above the town. The sea and snowcapped Mt. Etna are plainly visible beyond the Roman scaenae frons, the columns and wall behind the stage. The theater’s excellent state of preservation combined with its sensational view make visiting it an unforgettable experience. Travel in the off season to possibly find you have the theater entirely to yourself. In such a place, with the sun glowing golden on the sea and the mountain, the spirits of Euripides and Sophocles feel almost tangible.