The Lourdes of Greece

Back in Mycenaean times, if you were in need of some healing – and perhaps a spa holiday at the same time – you would have gotten yourself to Epidavros. There, priests acting on behalf of Asklepios, the god of medicine, would tend to your ills. It was sort of a combination of Lourdes, Canyon Ranch and Bath in Roman England.

By the fourth and third centuries BC, this site had complete medical facilities, housing for the sick, mineral baths, a stadium for athletes, and a theater.

Today, it is mainly a field strewn with rubble – but a very evocative one. Little survives except the outlines of the buildings, but the history of the site is quite well-known. There was a 160-room hotel, dining hall, Greek baths (as opposed to the later Roman baths) and a temple. Their footprints remain.

Asklepios was associated with the healing power of snakes, and his rod with an entwined snake is a symbol familiar with the medical world today. In ancient times, it seems that some lucky patients would sleep in on the floor of the columned building nearby the round tholos (here shown under reconstruction) where the snakes were supposedly kept, in the hope that they would be visited by the snakes at night and be cured of their ills. I would personally be staying up all night with a big stick praying no snake would come near me. But testimonials abound of cures from Asklepios and his snakes, so maybe I would be missing something.

The stadium of the complex is still nicely intact, and – like Olympia – it retains its original starting block, with the posts that were part of the system that kept the runners from taking off too early. A lovely site.

The Temple of Asklepios has only a fragmentary remnant of its role as the centerpiece of the sanctuary. The Romans kept the entire operation going for a while, adding things like their own baths. Remains of all three mandatory baths remain, along with the drainage channel and a bit of mosaic. In the small museum of the site are many pieces of both Greek and Roman sculpture, but most of the real goodies have been moved elsewhere. (There is of course an obligatory statue of Asklepios with his snake.)

The real centerpiece of the site is the best-preserved of all of Greece’s ancient theaters. The acoustics are perfect, and a whisper from the orchestra can be heard at the top of the 55 rows. The theater seats 15,000 and is still used today. It hosted song contests and plays for 700 years, until the sanctuary was closed by Emperor Theodosius II in the fifth century. The red marble seats in the first row were reserved for dignitaries, so naturally that’s where we chose to sit, while admiring this marvelous gift from the Greeks.

On our way back to Nafplio, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of the few remaining Mycenaean bridges still in existence. The sophisticated layout of the bridge and the road indicate that they were specifically constructed for use by chariots. Built around 1300–1190 BC, the bridge is still used by the locals.

Before leaving for Epidavros, we walked around Nafplio and visited its archaeological museum., which is very nicely done and has one spectacular treasure. The focus is on the Bronze Age, and it is beautifully represented by a 15th century BC suit of armor found in a Mycenaean tomb. Also found there was a helmet made from boar’s tusks. The ensemble is considered to the the oldest surviving suit of armor in all of Europe. All the school kids – along with us – loved it. There is even a video of a young man wearing a replica of the suit – confirming that it must have been very uncomfortable, though maybe it served its purpose.

There were many other tomb treasures on display. I think it’s time we bought some Mycenaean replicas, as the images are now started to feel like friends.

The more we see of Nafplio, the more we like it. This is a sweet town – just the perfect size, and full of eye candy on every corner.

Don’s Food Corner

At an unusually pretty restaurant on an unusually pretty pedestrian-only street in this unusually pretty town, we ended up ordering dishes that might have been more suited to Austria than Greece, but they did a great job.

Jo had schnitzel (of course) but this version came smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce. Very fine. The rice that came with it was so good that I asked what how it was made. Well, it included butter (rare in this country) along with salt, pepper and a bit of bouillon. In other words, prepared in a buttered broth. Just the way we like it.

I had a grilled sausage dish. Because of the literal translation on the menu, I was expecting more of a shish-kabob presentation of grilled meats. But it turned out to be two different types of mildly spiced sausage — one of which, the larger one, was filled with cheese. It was served with a little dish of mustard. Hallo, Berlin.

After the meal and before the bill, they brought us a fantastic platter of sliced pears, candied grapes and luscious ripe strawberries drenched in some delightful Greek honey.

Plus, the weather was perfect. We like this town.

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