In central Greece, near the town of Kalambaka, is Meteora. The name means something like “suspended in air” and describes a collection of Greek Orthodox monasteries perched 1,000 feet above Plain of Thessaly at the top of titanic natural pillars.
The pillars were first inhabited by Christian hermits in the 11th century, seeking solitude and security. They scaled the towers and lived in caves and cracks in the stone. In the 13th century, groups of monks came to the area and began to build. Over the next several hundred years over 20 monasteries were built.
Today, the six surviving monasteries are open to visitors. Inside you’ll find a few monks and nuns and important collections of frescos, manuscripts and icons. It’s over 5 hours from Athens, so you’ll want to overnight in Kalambaka, the small town at the foot of the rock towers. You can get a 2-day motor coach tour to Meteora from Athens or a 3-day tour to Meteora and Delphi, or a 4-day tour that combines Meteora with Mycenae, Epidaurus, Olympia and Delphi.
Less than an hour drive southeast of Athens is Cape Sounion, a windswept promontory jutting out into the Aegean Sea. A magnificent 5th-century BCE Temple of Poseidon commands the end of the cape. It’s a dramatic and evocative place, especially at sunset, well worth the pretty drive from Athens along the Saronic Gulf.
With Saronic Islands day trips from Athens you visit three islands – Hydra, Poros and Aegina. If you’re short on time and really want to see more than one island in an organized, semi-escorted way, this is a good way to do it. On the other hand, you spend a lot more time traveling between islands and boarding and disembarking than you do on the islands. Personally, I’d rather have time to linger and soak up one place, and Hydra would be that place. Hydrofoils depart several times a day from Athens’ Pireaus port during the tourist season (March/April-October). The one-way trip takes about 1 ½ hours. The island is idyllic, with the pretty, whitewashed town tucked between amphitheater hills and the harbor, cobbled roads and no motorized traffic – the perfect recipe for lazy poking around and a long harbor-view lunch.
The ancient site of Corinth is about an hour drive west of Athens on the isthmus that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese. There has been significant development there since the 8th century BCE. With ports on the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf, Corinth controlled a great deal of trade and was very wealthy and powerful, especially in the Classical period, when the city was known for decadence. The flamboyant Corinthian Order (column) originated in Corinth and is a good reflection of the city’s character at its peak.
Ancient attempts to dig a canal through the isthmus failed but, after the first try in the 7th-century BCE, a paved ramp was built so ships could be moved overland to avoid sailing around the Peloponnese. In the late 19th century, the canal was finally built, 4 miles long and only 70 feet across, too narrow for most modern seafaring traffic.
Many visitors to Corinth are interested in its biblical significance. Paul the Evangelist established a church there and visited several times. Two of his letters to the congregation in Corinth are part of the Christian Bible – 1st & 2nd Corinthians. Among the ruins are a 6th-century BCE Temple of Apollo, one of the oldest surviving Greek temples, a Roman Temple of Octavia, the Roman agora, and the Bema, a public square where Paul was judged after some of the locals complained about his preaching.
Ancient Athenians welcomed spring with hard drinking and the latest offerings of their favorite entertainers. The Great Dionysia, also known as the City Dionysia (as opposed to the Country Dionysia in the winter) was a major festival held around the vernal equinox beginning in the 7th century BCE. Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, theater and wild abandon was the fitting honoree.
The 5-day(ish) festival evolved over the centuries but here’s more or less how it went:
The festival opened with a grand parade through the streets of the city to the Theater of Dionysus on the slopes of the acropolis. Thousands joined the procession, including Athenians and visitors, who came to town for the occasion. The procession ushered a statue of Dionysus and sacrificial animals to the theater and marchers waved phalloi on poles to symbolize the fertility of the season.
Theater of Dionysus, Athens
After the procession, revelers settled into the theater to enjoy competitions between choruses from the different tribes of Attica, who performed poetry and songs in honor of Dionysus.Then there were the sacrifices, followed by feasting and prodigious wine drinking (and associated behaviors).
The next three or four days were dedicated to theatrical competitions. Playwrights would introduce their new works here. Winners were awarded an ivy wreath, but the real prize was the glory and prestige of victory. Most of the ancient Greek drama that we know today was first performed at this festival. Initially only tragedies and satyr plays (satire) were included in the competition, but from the early 5th century, comedies were also allowed. Prizes went not only to writers but also to producers, directors and actors.
Less than 2 hours from Athens, near the Saronic Gulf coast of the Peloponnese, the ancient site of Epidaurus makes an easy day-trip from the capital.
In mythology, Epidaurus was the birthplace of Asclepius, son of Apollo and god of healing. The Asclepion sanctuary there was an active healing center from the 6th-century BCE to the 4th-century CE and then continued as a Christian healing center for another century. The area thrived on the popularity of the sanctuary and the spectacular theater at Epidaurus is one indication of that prosperity. The theater seats 15,000 and the acoustics are so perfect that normal voices on the stage can be heard clearly from every seat. The theater is still used for performances today.