Athens rose to prominence in the 5th century BC as the political, cultural and creative hub of the ancient Greek world. Political leadership over the city-states of Greece was always contentious, but the Persian Wars of 490-480 BC had given a unity of purpose to the Greeks, and Athens had played a leading role. It emerged from the wars with the most powerful navy, a strong economy, and a sense of freedom and pride.
Over the following decades, the power, wealth and democratic ways of Athens became a magnet for intellectuals and artists of the Classical Age. Through famous statesmen, philosophers, playwrights, sculptors, architects and artisans Athens fostered a cultural fluorescence which secured the foundations of western civilisation.
Corinth was one of the largest city-states of Greece which flourished early due to its commanding location on Mediterranean sea-routes. By the 7th century BC Corinth had grown into a leading commercial and cosmopolitan centre, and a thriving international market-place with a developing reputation for luxury and decadence.
When the Corinthians attempted to defy Rome in 146 BC the Greek city was razed to the ground, and it remained in ruins until 44 BC, when Julius Caesar ordered the re-building of a city on the site. Both Roman and Greek remains are visible today in the excavated remains, including one of Greece's oldest standing temples and the Roman forum where St Paul once preached.
Epidaurus is famous for its splendidly preserved 4th century BC Greek theatre, which is still in use today. The theatre here was originally just part of a large complex of buildings which formed the most important healing centre of ancient Greece.
Ancient Greek medicine was very holistic in nature, concerned with mind, body and spirit, and the sanctuary at Epidaurus, dedicated to the god Asclepius, attracted patents seeking cures to all manner of ailments.
The 4th century BC saw a particular surge of building activity at the site, including temples, dormitories and consulting rooms as well as the famous theatre. Current restoration.work on these is making Epidaurus today a very rewarding site to visit.
Mycenae stands out as the progenitor of Greek civilisation. This is where we find the historic reality behind the timeless mythology of Greece, and hear from the first Greek writing - the Linear B tablets dating from around 1500 BC.
The convergence of myth and reality in Greece was first identified by the 19th century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, whose discoveries at Mycenae revealed the Bronze Age palace of King Agamemnon, legendary leader of the Greeks in the Trojan Wars.
Archaeology and mythology both indicate that this was a rich and powerful society - the first mainland Greek civilisation. The period was remembered as a golden age of gods and heroes in the elaborate storytelling of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey; stories in which myth and reality were beautifully interwoven to forge the basis of Greek history, identity and ideals.
The Mycenaean world consisted of a number of palace-based kingdoms scattered around southern Greece, of which Mycenae itself is the most famous. Initially they may all have been independent polities but over time entered into various alliances or became embroiled in dynastic feuds.
The massive 'Cyclopean' stone walls of Tiryns, just 20 miles from Mycenae, were mentioned in Homer's Iliad, and in mythology the site is associated with Herakles - some say he was born here, and most scholars believe he received his 12 labours from King Eurystheus of Tiryns.
By the later Bronze Age Tiryns may have became the maritime base for its more powerful neighbour at Mycenae, and today the site is pleasantly uncrowded compared to famous Mycenae.
In its remote mountain location the Temple of Apollo at Bassae is only rarely visited by tourists, but those who do get here are well rewarded by a very special monument set amid fantastic scenery.
The temple was built in the 5th century BC by the celebrated architect Ictinus, who had just completed the famous Parthenon in Athens. His design for Bassae incorporated some highly unusual elements which make the temple unique in Greek architecture.
Current restoration work includes underpinning the foundations and sheltering the whole monument from the mountain weather under a large canopy. The result is the most intimate encounter with a World Heritage site.
The modern Olympic Games revive an ancient Greek tradition which originated in religious festivals and funeral practices, By the 8th century BC athletic competitions had become a regular part of Greek culture, and a major celebration of Greek identity and ideals.
The Olympic Games became the largest festival of ancient times. It was held every four years and was attended by male athletes and spectators from all over the Greek world, with separate games for women. The athletes were representatives of their home cities, and the winners were honoured as heroic exemplars of Greek ideals.
The original Olympic stadium, and the sanctuary to which it belonged, has been extensively excavated to reveal a large site which developed over many centuries of use. It was finally abandoned when the Christian Emperor of Byzantium abolished the games in 393 AD.
The ancient Greeks regarded Delphi as the cultural and diplomatic centre of the world. It's famous oracle was the ultimate authority where guidance and advice could be sought on all manner of affairs, from personal issues to matters of state, and a consultation was a pre-requisite for all important decisions.
Religion and mythology surrounded the oracle with ancient powers and divine mystery. Here the god Apollo brought the light of reason to mankind, and the site's dramatic setting enhanced the experience. Behind the scenes the oracle's priests and priestesses cultivated knowledge and wisdom, and for centuries all these things worked in harmony to steer the Greeks to their esteemed place in history.
Euboea (Evia) is the second largest of the Greek islands after Crete, and its proximity to the mainland gave it strategic importance to Athens during the Classical Age. Indeed it was Evia that took the brunt of the Persian invasions in 490 BC, in the prelude to the Battle of Marathon.
The island had two important cities of its own in ancient times; Chalcis and Eretria. The archaeological site at Eretria is particularly extensive and has a good site museum. The museum includes finds from recent excavations at nearby Lefkandi which have identified occupation extending back into the Bronze Age, marking it out as an 'old Eretria'.
Such discoveries are changing traditional views of the Greek 'Dark Ages', the centuries between Mycenaean and Archaic times by attesting to much more wealth, social organisation and foreign contacts than previously thought.
The Battle of Marathon is one of the most famous battles in history. It was a triumphal victory for the Greeks over the Persians, which boosted Greek confidence and without which Europe may never have enjoyed the classical culture which has so influenced western civilisation.
After Marathon the Persians attacked Greece again ten years later in 480 BC, when they won a victory at Thermopylae and then sacked Athens, but were themselves finally defeated by the Greeks at Salamis and Plataea. These were the Persian Wars recorded by Herodotus, the 'Father of History'.
The victory at Marathon was marked on the battlefield by a burial tumulus for the 192 Greek hoplites who died, and this is still on the same site today, along with a site museum. The great legend of Pheidippides, the runner who took word of the victory to Athens, may have been embellished with storytelling, but it provided a brilliant basis for introducing the marathon event to the modern Olympics in 1896.
VavronaLeoforos Vravronos 32, Artemida 19016, Ελλάδα | 22940-48042Vavrona (or Brauron) is a rather special place to visit and is often missed by tour groups. The main interest is the sanctuary of Artemis, which looked after children and women in childbirth. Life for women and children in ancient Greece has often been overshadowed by interest in the big events of a male dominated society, so Vavrona is a refreshing departure.
The sanctuary remains include the colonnaded stoa with its intriguing rooms full of stone couches and tables, the true function of which is still debated over by archaeologists. The well organised site museum displays many excellently preserved artefacts from the site and its surroundings, including statues of children, their little toys and their jewellery, which prompt us to reflect on the nature of ancient Greek society..
Cape Sounion is the southernmost point of mainland Greece, and it became strategically important to Athens, guarding the maritime approach to the city. A naval base and beautiful temple to Poseidon, god of the sea, was built here.
The temple came to symbolise Athenian naval supremacy, and it has lived through the centuries as a romantic reminder of the glory of ancient Athens. It was popular with grand tourists of the 18th century, and Lord Byron was moved enough to compose a poem and carve his name for posterity into the marble steeped ruin. Today it is a magical place to consolidate one's tour of ancient Greece, especially perhaps at sunset on a summers day.
Eleusis is a short distance from Athens and provides a morning's excursion well spent. The site overlooks the Bay of Salamis, where the decisive naval battle of the Persian Wars was fought in 480 BC, but this is not the reason for Eleusis's fame.
When the site was incorporated into the growing city-state of Athens it already had a religious significance stretching back into the Mycenaean Age. Eleusis was regarded as the place where Demeter, goddess of cereals and cultivation, was reunited with her daughter Persephone after her abduction by Hades, god of the underworld.
The Eleusian mysteries became a very popular religious cult offering secret knowledge about fertility and the afterlife, and the sanctuary at Eleusis was correspondingly embellished with grand facilities for worship. The main building was a large telesterion for initiation ceremonies and secret rites, and there is still much at the site today to engage a fascination about fundamental human beliefs.
- total distance: 409 miles (658 km)