A retired, world-traveled designer for feature films, commercial and residential properties, Peg Cummings-Hashimoto used her professional experiences to plan a 14-day trip to the cradle of Western civilization, the land of Athena and Zeus.
A company of nine other lucky women benefited from Peg’s itinerary that took more than a year of thoughtful planning and research, from boutique hotels to islands, museums and sites of ancient civilization in Greece, just southeast from Italy’s heel in the Aegean and Ionian seas.
We came together from Washington state, D.C., California and Australia. To travel light, we agreed to bring carryon luggage, all but Tracey Griff from Australia, who had other destinations to visit at the end of our journey.
We rendezvoused in Athens at The Athenian Callirhoe Hotel where our first dinner on the top floor garden restaurant provided a breathtaking backdrop of the iconic 5th-century B.C. Acropolis citadel and Parthenon temple, a beacon that glows after dark above the city of 3,154,152 people.
Travel mate Dominique “Dom” Merrill’s first special moment happened “The very first night I arrived on the rooftop restaurant to meet everyone and suddenly caught sight of the Acropolis on the mount behind. I welled up, moved by its existence, its sheer presence, miraculously standing in the 21st century,” she said.
The next day, our delightful, dedicated archaeologist guide Zakia Koutsogianni infused our bus tour of Athens and ascent to the Acropolis with an enthusiastic, fresh telling of its importance to culture and early democracy. She often gives daily tours and said she never tires of hiking — in the heat — to the sites and talking about the mythology, philosophy, history and architecture of ancient Greece.
A day cruise on June 12 in the Saronic Gulf gave us a sampling of three islands south out of Athens populated by charming, picturesque shoreside villages on Hydra (Hee-dra), Poros and Aegina.
The sea, an entity unto itself, didn’t disappoint. I’ve read about the unforgettable color of the sky and water and just as writers, painters and photographers promised, they’re the deepest cobalt blue imaginable. A band of the sea close to shore takes on a greeny-blue cast, waves winking in sunlight.
The significance of having a personal guide made everywhere we visited more meaningful. Zakia traveled with our group for four days in a private luxury 20-seat Mercedes Benz Sprinter van through a vast expanse of the Peloponnese peninsula in southwestern Greece. It’s connected to the central part of the country by the Isthmus of Corinth land bridge, which separates the Gulf of Corinth from the Saronic Gulf.
We stood on a bridge spanning the remarkable Corinth Canal, a four-mile long engineering feat (tackled between 1881-1893) that trenched 170 feet down through the isthmus to sea level. The idea for a canal was possibly conceived in 602 B.C. by Periander, tyrant of Corinth. The first attempt was made in the 7th century B.C. Roman Emperor Nero even broke ground in 67 A.D., removing the first basket-load of soil; followed by Julius Caesar — who was foiled by assassination in 44 B.C. — as was Caligula, who in 40 A.D. commissioned a study.
The canal was intended as a major trade route to cut travel distance around the peninsula for shipping companies by 185 nautical miles but at 70 feet wide it can only accommodate pleasure craft and small cruise ships.
For us the fortified ancient hilltop Bronze Age city Mycenae, from 2,000 B.C., came next. From the top we could see over a plain where occupants could prepare for approaching armies. We visited Epidaurus and the neighboring ancient sanctuary of Asklepios, a celebrated healing center on the northeastern side of Peloponnese..Asklepios is said to be the birthplace of Asclepius the healer, Apollo’s son. The ancient theater built about the 4th century BC at Epidaurus still boasts perfect acoustics and today hosts dramatic performances in its curved stone-seated amphitheater.
It is considered to be the most perfect ancient Greek theater for its sound-carrying capabilities and aesthetics, as evidenced when Dom thrilled our group and other visitors by singing a soaring snippet, clear as a bell, from Giacomo Puccini’s “O mio babbino.” Standing on the performer’s stone center stage, her voice carried to the highest row where children cheered.
“Though trepidatious at first, I suddenly felt a connection to the past. No longer a tourist in shorts, I became an ageless voice of antiquity performing for an ageless crowd. I can’t tell you the thrill to the marrow it brought me,” Dom said of the moment.
Patty Hannifan added, “My mind whirls with the images from the road trip to Epidaurus, Mycenae, Olympia, Delphi and Meteora. Listening to Dominique sing at the center of the theater at Epidaurus, and noticing that the entire crowd of tourists fell silent, was magical.”
On June 14 we walked the extensive grounds of Archaia Olympia, the birthplace for the Olympics, founded in 776 B.C. and operated every four years through about 393-394 A.D. Competition leaned to running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, no-holds barred pankration — a form of boxing-wrestling — and equestrian and wrestling events.
The site is comparable to any modern Olympics village with more than 70 significant buildings, athletic training areas, a grass-sloped stadium seating upwards of 45,000 spectators and temples dedicated to gods Hera and Zeus.
With the advent of the Romans, Nero built a villa of brick at the site and replaced older versions of baths and added singing and acting so he could compete.
The huge fresh water Nymphaion fountain slaked the thirst of thousands at the terminal of a new aqueduct. The area was supplied by restaurants, grocery shops and other services for the multitudes of visitors.
Shade trees throughout provided respite for us from the 85- to 90-degree temps with humidity in the high 60 percent to low 70 percent range, as Zakia described what took place at the sprawling complex. A statue of Zeus there was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Stade was the ancient unit of length, maybe 172.5 yards, and from it came the word stadion/stadium.
A decree from Christian emperor Theodosius I banned pagan festivals in about 392 A.D. and tragically, many of Olympia’s buildings were knocked down. Twenty-six feet of earth and debris from flooding of nearby rivers and repeated tsunamis from the Ionian Sea, now 10 miles distant, then buried Olympia.
An English antiquarian rediscovered the sanctuary in 1766 but real excavation and preservation came in the 1870s with a team of German archaeologists. A reported 14,000 objects were recorded from the dig. Yet enough of the original foundations, walls, pathways, columns and other structures, some partially rebuilt, give visitors an impression of the magnitude, the architecture, the advancement of these societies in the thousands of years before Christ.
Delphi (Dell-fee), once considered the center of the world, climbs up the slope of Mount Parnassus, near the Gulf of Corinth, and housed a religious sanctuary sacred to Apollo, god of light, knowledge and harmony. A path and stairs on June 15 took us ever higher to huge plateaus to see the Sanctuary of Athena and home of the famous oracle of Apollo, who gave ambiguous predictions such as “A great army will win the battle.”
Spoils from Delphi went off to Rome and Constantinople in the clutches of emperor Nero and Constantine the Great. But the museum on site has preserved many other amazing artifacts.
At its highest elevation sits a huge stadium that could seat 6,500 spectators along a 193-yard long, 83.6-foot wide track that hosted panhellenic Pythian Games every four years. The name derived from a python Apollo was said to have killed lower on the mountain. Theodosius I in 390 A.D. also had a hand in destroying ancient Delphi. The medieval village of Kastri was removed from atop the Delphi Sanctuary ruins in the late 1800s to allow for excavation.
Peg said, “the trip amazed me with the skills the ancients had thousands of years before Christ. The water/sewer systems, the buildings with breeze ways, mosaics, light sources, trade with other countries. How very cultured the early Greeks were.”
The statues and pottery we saw in museums piqued Peg’s curiosity about their food, clothing and music. An ancient treasury’s cornerstone at Delphi is annotated for music, Zakia pointed out.
Dom said several other moments helped her sense the bustling life of a bygone civilization. “One was Olympia. I could almost hear the enthralled fans and feel the excitement of the games, as I did also at the top of Delphi. Another was the buried city of Akrotiri on Santorini and the ruins of Knossos on Crete, both with their sophisticated infrastructures. It’s the mundane details such as bathtubs, beds and everyday utensils that make the people spring to life before your eyes. They lived, loved and died like everyone.”
The golden Mycenaean Mask of Agamemnon, exhibited in the National Archeological Museum in Athens, shook travel mate and art instructor Carol Bishop’s senses.
In Greek mythology, Agamemnon was a king of Mycenae. Carol discovered the funerary headpiece, seemingly larger than life in images, could cover her face.
“If Mona Lisa wins the smile contest, the runner up is definitely the Mask of Agamemnon.” His mouth is a simple line “that is contained, cool, amused.” Its eyes “telegraph his ecstasy. He is satisfied, as if he is has just received some important ancient knowledge. This is an image of peace, timeless and universal. We all want to share it. The fact that it’s a death mask perhaps makes it even more poignant. The next time I run into the Mask of Agamemnon on some coffee cup in the gift store or an image in Art Through the Ages, I’ll greet him and wink. And reminisce about how he surprised me when we met face to face in Greece.
Wouldn’t you know it, in some of our free time after dinner when we weren’t too exhausted, Chelley Maple and Dom taught Chris Crosiar, Patty Hannifan and me to play rousing hands of canasta. Associated with rummy games, there are wild cards and jokers and deuces are wild. What fun. Lots of laughter and a perfect way to unwind.
The approach to the Grand Meteora Hotel in Kalambaka on June 15 took my breath away. Buildings surrounding our bus on the town’s narrow streets gave way to a view of the jaw-dropping geological wonder of monstrous sandstone and conglomerate columns jutting skyward. The area was once a huge lake and river delta that dried up. The mud, sand and stone hardened into bands of sandstone and conglomerate that earth movements pushed upward about 60 million years ago. The high plateau’s fault lines were weathered severely through extreme temperatures, wind and water.
It is estimated that large complexes of multi-level Eastern Orthodox monasteries began to appear on the tops of the pillars in the 1300s. Six of the original 24 are still in use. I was relieved to know we could climb stairs to visit them, rather than in ancient times when the only access was long ladders or nets hauled up by ropes.
We reconnoitered in Athens on June 16 and 17 for a free day, then flew to Santorini island to stay in Fira at the lovely Aria Lito, a 1924 mansion turned hotel, on June 18.
The island in the southern Aegean Sea, about 120 miles southeast of Greece’s mainland, is a beautiful collapsed volcano devastated by an eruption in the 16th century B.C. Towns Oia and Fira hug the cliffs above the sea, populated with the iconic, brilliant white cube-shaped buildings accented in rich azure blue.
A guide took us on a bus tour June 19, including to the Monastery of Prophet Elijah at the island’s highest point for a wind-whipped view of the island. We also visited the three-story tall Akrotiri ruins buried by the catastrophic eruption and considered by some scholars to have been Atlantis. Volcanic ash from the Theran eruption preserved the Minoan Bronze Age settlement’s fine frescoes and other objects and artworks. The site is enclosed by a bioclimatic building and has walkways around and through the ruins.
On June 20 we boarded the Santorini Palace hydrafoil and made the relatively smooth 2 1/2-hour crossing to Heraklion, Crete, and stayed at Lato Boutique Hotel over looking the port and the 16th-century Koules fortress.
Our days in Greece winding down, we enjoyed eating in restaurants along shaded streets, visiting the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, shopping a bit in the area around our hotel and on June 21 having a guided tour through the amazing Bronze Age Minoan Knossos Palace ruins and city of Heraklion.
A day of free time June 22 and delightful final dinner at the gorgeous Veneto overlooking the bay led to early bed times for those of us rising at o-dark-thirty for the airport and home the next day.
The Greek food throughout our journey was to die for from the famed tzatziki, gyros, dolmades and moussaka to grilled vegetables, sea bass, lamb, octopus, souvlaki and sweet treats such as the honey-nut filo pastry called baklava.
We learned a few words in Greek: efcharistó for thank you, kalimara for good morning and kalispera for good evening.
For this dectet of women who started the trip mostly as strangers with a few friends connected to Peg, we became a cohesive, cooperative unit intent on absorbing everything and making the most of our time there. Peg, Carol, Dee, Tracey, Diane, Dom, Chelley, Patty and Chris, I was honored to enjoy this experience with you.
It is the best, most comprehensive, well-planned exploration I’ve ever been part of, especially because of Peg’s care and attention to detail and the help of our tour agent in Greece, Antonis Alexandrou.
Two a.m. on June 23 came jarringly early in preparation for a 4 a.m. departure from the hotel for the 6 a.m. flight to Athens, then to New York City — OMG, interminable U.S. customs, I was warned! — then to Seattle and finally to Pasco on June 23. Every flight was delayed, but otherwise uneventful.
Finally, upon visiting with my doctor on June 24 I discovered the hacking cough and laryngitis I endured for 12 days overseas was walking pneumonia, a condition that can incubate up to three weeks before it emerges. I’m utterly grateful it never impacted my energy level or feeling of wellness. I kept up every day, even on the longest hike in the heat ascending the mountainside at the Delphi ruins.
Efcharistó, Greece, Antonis, Zakia and Peg.