There’s more to Greece than glorious sunshine and great beaches. Thousands of years of culture have amassed in this part of the world, making it a fascinating land to explore. With Rio 2016 right around the corner, we’re turning our attention to where it all began. From temple ruins to carefully preserved theatres, you can discover the ancient wonders of the Peloponnese and the site of the very first Olympics in 776BC.
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Take a drive through rolling olive groves and along picturesque coastlines, where a magical ancient world lives on in modern-day Greece.
The lively capital is a fun combination of contemporary infused with classical art and history. Its ancient roots are evident everywhere. Even Athens International Airport, the gateway to Greece, comes with its own archaeological museum.
Visit the heart of Athens and you’ll see the majestic Acropolis rising up from the midst of shops, bars and cafés. Climb up to the top to see the magnificent collection of temples, as you look out onto stunning views across the city and out to the sea. There’s also a museum with an impressive collection of marble sculptures on show.
Continue to step back in time with a stroll through the ancient market place, where philosophers would exchange ideas. Or see the rock where the world’s first democracy held its political meetings. Then browse the souvenir shops in Plaka before heading towards the coastal area of Glyfada, where you’ll find an inviting beach to escape the city heat.
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Make your way across the Peloponnese and you’ll stumble upon one of Greece’s largest ancient sites, the birth place of the Olympics. As well as a charming old town, you can explore the temple and stadium ruins which are sure to conjure up images of athletes from ancient times.
The ruins include a gymnasium and wrestling school, where Olympic participants would train during the weeks leading up to the games. You’ll also find the remains of the 2,500 year-old Temple of Zeus here, plus the smaller Temple of Hera.
Then, of course, there is the Olympic Stadium itself. Entered by way of a long tunnel, you can imagine the roar of the 20,000-strong crowd as you approach the 200-metre track. You can still see the judges’ thrones and the starting line too. On your marks, get set…
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High up in the misty mountains, just north of the Peloponnese, atmospheric Delphi was an important location in ancient times. Dubbed the “navel of the earth”, it was considered to be the centre of the world. Pilgrims used to travel from far and wide to have their fortunes told by the priestess of the Delphic Oracle.
The small town, just west of the site, has a sprinkling of restaurants and cafes and offers breath-taking views over the lush mountains. At the ancient site, you’ll find remains of temples and treasuries dotted around, including examples of Doric and Ionic architecture. Most date back to Greece’s Golden Age, built around 400-500 BC.
The Temple of Apollo used to house a chasm which emitted hallucinogenic vapours from the earth. This is where the Pythian priestess would sit and dole out her prophecies to visitors. Guidance was offered in the form of inscriptions on the temple building too, “Moderation in All Things” and “Know Thyself”.
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The main draw of Epidaurus is its impressive limestone theatre. This World Heritage attraction is one of the best preserved ancient theatres in the world and is still used for performances today.
Built in 330-320 BC, the semi-circular masterpiece has sensational acoustics. So good in fact that you can hear a penny drop on the stage from the very back of the 14,000 seats. You can catch classic plays by the likes of Euripides and Sophocles, performed at the Athens Festival during summer. And with a stunning backdrop of hills in the distance, it’s a magical experience even if you don’t understand the language.
The area is also home to the Sanctuary of Asklepian. While you’re there, you can visit the foundations of the temple and Greek baths set among pine trees.
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Featured in Homer’s epic adventure, The Odyssey, the Neolithic citadel of Mycenae thrived during 1550-1200 BC. Homer described this prosperous city as, “well-built Mycenae, rich in gold”. Encircled by immense stone walls and its grand Lion’s Gate entrance, more than 3,000 years later, there is still plenty to explore.
Discover the different rooms of the Royal Palace which revolve around the throne room. Underground tunnels were built to protect inhabitants during times of war and you can still follow the stone steps deep underground towards the secret cistern.
Riches were found in several royal burial grounds during excavation. This included the famous gold mask thought to belong to King Agamemnon. The discovery can now be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
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Make your way to the seaside city of Pylos to visit Nestor’s Palace with its magnificent views of Navarino Bay. You can see remains of the open hearth in the throne room which was decorated with beautiful frescos, now on show at the museum.
Wander around the many storerooms and see the Queen’s quarters where you’ll find a decorated terracotta bathtub still standing. As well as a vast number of pots and vases, hundreds of tablets were found here. The Linear B tablets were covered with inscriptions giving an insight into life in Mycenaean times.
Explore Pylos town with its pretty harbour and sandy beaches, including Voidhokilia beach backed by a wonderful lagoon. Or hop in a hire car and explore nearby attractions, such as Kastro Navarinou Castle or the picturesque town and olive groves of Kalamata.
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This mighty ancient city was once home to King Menelaus and the beautiful Helen (of Troy), “the face that launched a thousand ships”.
Although many of the ancient buildings were demolished, you’ll find temple ruins at the ancient site of Sparta, as well as the remnants of a theatre. Discoveries have also revealed intricate bronze works and mosaics, which can be seen in the Archaeological Museum.
Sparta (or Sparti) is conveniently close to the seaside resort of Laconia. As well as traditional villages to explore, it’s got a fantastic selection of sandy beaches. Pick up a mask and snorkel and you might spot the loggerhead sea turtles that swim in the crystal clear waters.
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