Peloponnese (3): Nafplio, Epidaurus, Sparta

We began the day with a stroll through Nafplio, a lovely seaside town, where I could easily imagine spending a couple of weeks in the summer. There’s even a seaside rock swimming pool that reminded me of the Sydney area. Nafplio was the first capital city of the modern Greek state, 1823-1834. It would be very different today had Athens not taken over as capital. We ended our walk at the fortress that overlooks Nafplio, and stopped in at the museum. As in other places, the Nafplio museum holds treasures from ancient sites. One of the best known is a full suit of ancient Greek armor including a helmet made of boar’s teeth.

Clockwise from upper L: Nafplio; Ocean swimming area; An Ottoman fountain incorporating earlier Venetian architectural elements; Ancient armor & boar tooth helmet; “Mycenaen” style bank building in Nafplio; Street scene; Our hotel.

From Nafplio, we turned toward our first monumental ruin of the day, Epidaurus. This ancient city claims to be the birthplace of Asclepius, a son of Apollo, hero and god of medicine. The shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus was the largest and best known healing center of the Classical world. From 600 BC to AD 500, people came from all over to be treated. There was a large dormitory/guest house with 160 rooms.

The large complex of rooms for people seeking healing at the Asclepion of Epidaurus

Part of the treatment was an overnight stay in the “incubator”, the enkoimeteria, where supplicants slept and were visited in their dreams by the healing god who instructed them on how to cure themselves. After dreaming, people visited the shrine, made offerings, perhaps bathed in nearby springs, and were cured. Interesting to think about the placebo effect in this setting–did focusing on one’s illness and how to cure it actually help with a cure? The size of the site is what impressed us. Little of the major temple to Apollo still stands, but the site goes on and on.

The fame of Epidaurus as a place for healing made it prosperous. The theater seated 14,000 people and there are exaggerated claims of its excellent acoustics. When we visited, school groups were busy declaiming to the upper seats.

The theater of Epidaurus

We drove to Tolo for lunch, slightly out of the way, but it was worth it. Maria’s restaurant is a seafood place, and we shared marinated sardines, spicy shrimp, mussels in lemon sauce, and scallops served in the shell. They were delicious! For dessert, we had what they call spoon fruit, halfway between stewed and candied fruit. Ours was bergamot, which I only know from flavoring Earl Grey tea. Definitely an acquired taste.

Leonidas, the archtypal Spartan

A bit of a drive later, we reached Sparta. It was drizzling, but that meant we had the site to ourselves. Sparta needs no introduction, famed for conquest, disciplined troops, and competition with Athens. We wanted to visit, because it’s Sparta. Sparta! Aristotle provided a fountain of knowledge as we looked out over the theater. Much of the remaining site is covered by olive trees, and it looks untouched, though archaeological excavations have taken place periodically since the 1890s.

Perhaps because of the rain, our visit was a bit melancholy. Sparta was a world capital in its day, praised and vilified in myth and history, yet the archaeological site of Sparta is often skipped on a tour of the Peloponnese today, because the ruins are not on the same scale as other sites.

The theater of Sparta, a broad grove of olive trees that covers more ancient settlement, and the modern city of Sparta.

The museum at Sparta was full of rewarding things to see. Thousands of votive offerings from small cut-out bone and metal shapes to cast bronze figurines were buried over the centuries in and around the temple of Artemis Orthia, by people who wished for a favor from the gods.

Other pieces were interesting for their detail:

(L-R): Mosaic of a triton; carving of wild boar; “Head of the goddess Tyche (Fortune), the city goddess of Sparta. Her tower-like turreted crown has relief representations of the walls of the city.

Our day ended on a drippy note. The entire week was forecast to be rainy, yet only the afternoon at Sparta and the next morning at Mystras were wet. I can’t complain.

Lunch: Maria’s, Tolo

Dinner and Overnight: Mystras Grand Palace Resort and Spa

(Banner image at top of post credit:


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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