Returning to Greece after an absence of many years, I decided to rent a car to give me the freedom to move about the countryside. Then, over a 10-day period, I explored the Peloponnesus, the mountainous southern region of mainland Greece.
The start of my trip wasn't auspicious: I couldn't find my way out of Athens where, understandably, traffic signs are, for the most part, in Greek. Without the assistance of two police officers, I might – like the Flying Dutchman – still be wandering, not the seven seas, but through Athenian streets. The officers directed me to follow their car to the highway for Corinth. There they waved me on.
On my Peloponnesian journey, I paid homage to Apollo at Corinth, to Zeus at Olympia, and to Greek dramatists at Epidaurus, where the theater, built about 360 BC, could accommodate an audience in the thousands.
Until this trip, I had known nothing of the Frankish and Byzantine impact on the Peloponnesus. The fourth Crusade (1204) went terribly awry. Instead of continuing to the Holy Land, the crusaders turned aside to sack Constantinople. Then they parceled out the conquered lands among themselves.
The castle at Mystras on the Peloponnesus was built by William de Villehardouin, a Frankish knight. Here, William "held his court, rode with a thousand horsemen in his train, entertained the princes of Europe, and created a school of knightly manners that was renowned throughout the Western World," writes Eric Forbes-Boyd in his book, "In Crusader Greece: A Tour of the Castles of the Morea."
Later, to obtain his release from captivity, William handed over the castle to the Byzantine emperor. Mystras became a major center of art, scholarship, devotion, and wealth, where the finest Byzantine artists painted frescoes in the churches. I climbed the steep hill to the castle and then descended to see the churches with their glorious 14th-century frescoes.
As a frequent visitor to Venice, Italy, I was aware of its far-flung empire. To see the massive Venetian castles along the Peloponnesian coast confirmed its former Mediterranean superpower status. The arsenal at Venice employed many thousands of men to build ships to extend and support its naval power.
The Venetians occupied the castle of Methoni on the southwest coast of the Peloponnesus for almost 300 years (1206-1500). On the stone walls of the castle to this day remains the imposing symbol of Venice, a growling Lion of St. Mark with sharp teeth bared. (In Venice, the lion looks less intimidating.)
Driving through the countryside on narrow, winding roads, I was surrounded by olive trees – trees with gnarled, twisted trunks and heavy-laden branches.
How appropriate that Olympic victors were crowned with an olive wreath, the greatest honor an athlete could receive. In Pheidias's sculpture of Zeus at Olympia – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – Zeus sits majestically on his throne, also crowned with an olive wreath.
Literary and historical links to the places I visited were an important part of the trip for me. At Mycenae, I recalled Homer and Aeschylus, for here are reminders of the Trojan War and its aftermath. At this ancient site once dwelt King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek expedition to Troy; Clytemnestra, his wife; Iphigenia, his daughter, sacrificed by her father to secure a favorable wind for the Greek fleet to sail to Troy, an act never forgiven by Clytemnestra; and two other members of this unfortunate family, Electra and Orestes.
At Sparta, I was reminded of the grand alliance between Sparta and Athens, which did much to bring about the Greek victory in the Persian War. Aeschylus fought in the war. In his play, "The Persians," he wrote of the anguish of the Persians as they awaited word on the outcome of the decisive battle at Salamis:
And parents and wives
Counting the days
Tremble at lengthening time.
Every Athenian attending the performance would have experienced similar anguish for his loved ones.
As the Persian military threat receded, relations between Sparta and Athens soured. The Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 to 404 BC. Following a major defeat in Sicily, some of the Athenian soldiers, in exchange for their freedom or food and shelter, would recite verses of Euripides, who was popular with the Sicilians. Finding their way back to Athens, these survivors, wrote Plutarch, "greeted Euripides with affectionate hearts."
At the conclusion of my trip, I recalled my mother's spending priorities. Education and travel, she believed, were the best investments you could make – for both expand the mind.
How right she was. In 10 days, I learned much about classical, Frankish, Byzantine, and Venetian Greece. I revisited the playwrights, for I took with me works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. And I was introduced to the Peloponnesian countryside.
In the school of travel, I am an eager student.