I had dreamed of visiting Greece ever since high school when I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey. At the University of Arizona, my studies in art history compounded my fascination with ancient Greece. But for the time being, my experience with the country and its culture was confined to the descriptions and the washed out slideshow images offered by my professors. After graduation, I felt even more compelled to make it to these places which were, quite literally, the stuff of legends.
If you're an American, it may be difficult to fully appreciate the aging grandeur of places like Greece. After all, recorded history on the North American continent is barely a footnote in the annals of humankind, and nothing in comparison to the millennia-old cultures of the Mediterranean, Europe, Africa and Asia. During my two weeks in Greece, I managed to make it to most of the important ruins like the Acropolis in Athens and the temples of Delphi. But one of the most significant sites for me wasn't a ruin at all, but a picturesque cove and a nearby cave hidden high on a scrub-covered hillside.
This half-moon-shaped inlet on the west side of the Peloponnese is called Voidokilia. Hidden from both the elements and human eyes by rolling sand dunes and craggy cliffs, it's a perfect off-the-beaten-path retreat for enjoying the sun and sea without enduring crowds of tourists.
There are no ruins at Voidokilia, but it doesn't matter because the very landscape is what's important. In ancient times – those times described by Homer in the Illiad and the Odyssey – this was a harbor for Nestor, King of Pylos. (A few miles to the north are the ruins of Nestor's palace. You can visit there too – it's now a museum – and walk the nearby woods where the beehive-shaped tholos tombs of the ancient Mycenaeans are an unusual and somewhat eerie diversion.)
The sandy Voidokilia beach is where Odysseus's son, Telemachus, puts ashore accompanied by the goddess Athena while searching for his missing father. He finds the beach filled with revelers, as Nestor is hosting a feast in honor of Poseidon. Although the old king lavishly entertains young Telemachus, he cannot provide any new information about Odysseus's fate and suggests the youth continue his quest in Sparta. These passages from the Odyssey are important because they reinforce a major theme in the legend – fidelity to one's parents, partners and friends.
Above the cove is a cave. There aren't any signs leading to it and it's hard to see from the beach, but I was prepared. I hiked up a steep sandy berm on the south end of the cove, which was the most strenuous part of the journey and somewhat akin to sifting powdered sugar with my feet. I then made my way across the back of a scrub-covered ridge, pausing to photograph both the cove and the Ionian Sea to the west. On the summit above me were the ruins of a 13th century Frankish fortress commonly known as The Old Pylos Castle. The cliff-tops were also used in Classical times as a naturally defensible area which overlooked the bay. The cave doesn't have quite as illustrious a history as the beach and ruins nearby. According to legend, this is where Nestor sheltered his cattle during bad weather. It held a similar purpose for me, providing a cool resting spot after my hike through 100-degree weather.
The cave was unremarkable, a dry egg-shaped cavity which smelled faintly of wet earth. Certainly it will never be mentioned in the same breath with contemporaneous sites like Mycenae or Troy. The main room seemed large enough to hold a small herd of cattle, and I couldn't help but imagine the noise and smell this would've produced. As I exited, I found Homer's ancient world neatly framed by the mouth of the cave. The brilliant blue curve of Voidokilia... the flat scrubby plain of the Greek countryside... The low foothills where Nestor's crumbled palace still lay... It all stretched out in front of me. There were no throngs of tourists and the only sounds were the wind and the surf far below. Standing there, I felt more connected to Greece than I had anywhere else on my journey.
Probably you won't find Voidokilia in most Greek travel guides. It's not particularly close to any tourist destination and the road in is an unmarked and meandering route. But if you can find it, plan to spend some time. Sunbathe, snorkel, take a picnic... but also climb the hillside to the cave and reflect on the great legends this place inspired.
In my personal blog, I recently wrote a piece entitled The Whispering Stones of Sparta in which I found myself defending my recent visit to this ancient Greek city. Before heading to Greece this past Fall, I’d been told that Sparta wasn’t worth the trip. It was remotely located and therefore a long haul from, well, almost anywhere. Plus, the town just wasn’t very interesting and the ancient ruins and museums were inconsequential.
"I wouldn't even bother with Sparta," a good friend told me before I left, having visited several years earlier. "There's nothing there but a few piles of rock, so spend your time at better sites."
With all due respect, the naysayers were wrong. Sparta was a genuine surprise, not only for its ruins but as a city filled with amazing restaurants, impressive museums and a vibrant open-air market.
We drove over from Kalamata using the narrow, winding GR-82 highway. The road was beautifully maintained – something we found in almost every large thoroughfare we used in Greece – and offered amazing views along the mountain’s spine, the Messinian Gulf to the southwest and the Evratos river valley to the east. The landscape transformed as we crept over the mountain passes. On the west, it was drier, more barren, dominated by grasses, low scrub and scattered trees, epitomizing the Mediterranean climate. As we descended toward Sparta however, it grew green and lush. Thick stands of conifers clung to the towering rock walls and choked narrow grottos next to rushing streams. The journey across the mountain took much longer than it would normally, as we were constantly tempted to stop at the tiny mountain villages and roadside markets selling homemade soap and produce.
As Greek cities go, Sparta was fairly typical – noisy, crowded, bustling, friendly. We found it easier to park our car and walk the streets since a massive farmer’s market had been set up in the town square and the crowds were almost impassable. We filled our backpacks with fresh figs and vegetables, then wandered down to the Archaeological Museum which lay at the center of an elaborate courtyard filled with fountains and lines of headless Roman statues. The collection itself was small compared to what we saw in Athens and Delphi, but did much to refute the naysayer’s claims that Sparta had “nothing good to see.” Artifacts from Sparta’s earliest era as a bronze age settlement through its Roman occupation spoke clearly of a community which valued beauty as much as any other ancient city-state, though perhaps this was over-shadowed by the Spartans’ reputation as fearsome warriors.
If my friend and the guidebooks were right about one thing, it was that the ruins of Sparta were not as vast as those in Athens, Corinth or Messene. In antiquity, Spartan resources weren’t necessarily directed toward massive building projects, partly because their isolation and the surrounding mountains made elaborate fortifications unnecessary. Even in ancient times, visitors to the city commented how Sparta seemed more like a collection of tribal villages than that era’s equivalent of a super power. Still, geography and the Spartan’s warlike reputation seemed to work in their favor. The city remained untouched throughout most of antiquity, although the Spartan state eventually succumbed to internal strife and distant battlefield defeats which forced it to bow to Macedonian, and later Roman rule.
Now, if you're only impressed by size and grandeur, well, I guess you might want to skip the Spartan ruins after all. But personally, I can find a lone marble column standing lost in a grove of olive trees to be just as intriguing as a sprawling temple. Very few people seem to visit the ruins, so the noises of the city far were away and we could hear every chattering bird and the wind rustling through the treetops. The sense of isolation was almost eerie, as though we were the first people to set foot here in two thousand years. Well, okay, not the first people. The shady groves seem to attract many of the locals looking for a romantic hideaway. We unintentionally dislodged several couples in various states of public displays of affection. Like the museum below, the ruins represented numerous eras of Spartan development. Crumbling walls and scattered marble edifices lay toward the bottom of the low acropolis. At the top were more sprawling Roman-era ruins, including a partially excavated theater, stadium and Temple of Athena. If nothing else, the view from the top of the acropolis, providing an excellent panorama of the modern city dwarfed by the Taygetos Mountains beyond, was worth the long, sweaty climb.
So in retrospect, I heartily recommend a visit to Sparta if you find yourself in the area. But please appreciate it for what it is. If you spend all your time there grousing that its treasures aren’t the same as those of Athens or other sites, you do an injustice to Sparta’s legacy while ensuring your own disappointment.