Wednesday, September 12: Today I take a one day tour with G.O. Tours to Argolis. The tour costs 101 euros (~ $130), including lunch. My vacation in Greece is winding down, as I must leave tomorrow evening. I guess I am desperately trying to squeeze in as many things as I can see in my final days here.
The tour is described as such: Leave by the coastal road along the Saronic Gulf to the Corinth Canal, which connects the Aegean Sea with the Ionian Sea, (short stop). Drive to Mycenae, the Homeric city of Atreides, the city “rich in gold” of the ancient poets. Visit the Lion’s Gate, the Cyclopean Walls, the Royal Tombs, etc. Depart for Nauplion through the fertile plains of Argolis, the picturesque town nestling at the foot of a cliff crowned by the mighty ramparts of the Palamidi Fortress (short photo stop), leave for Epidauros, to visit the Theatre (4th century B.C.) famous for its astonishing acoustics. Return to Athens by the national road connecting Epidauros with Corinth. Lunch in Mycenae.
The G.O. Tours system for picking up tourists by bus from a variety of hotels, driving them to a central spot near Syntagma Square, and then redistributing them to their proper buses for the day, is quite puzzling and confusing, at least for tourists. I’m sure the tour company itself has a grip on the process. Finally, after being directed to and fro, I board a small bus with about 15 people for our Argolis tour. This tour size is much more to my liking than the 30+ person tour of yesterday.
As I’m sitting on the bus, I see a beautiful petite lady asking one of the G.O. Tours guides on the sidewalk where she should go for the Argolis tour. He shakes his head, not knowing where to send her. I knock on my window and tell her to come on board. She sits behind me and introduces herself as Marie-Claire from South Africa. She tells me she is on a 7 week tour of Europe and it’s the first time she’s ever traveled alone. Her excitement is so infectious that I’m drawn to her and we spend much of the day sharing stories about our travels.
We drive for about an hour out of Athens, where we make our first stop at the Corinth Canal. According to Lonely Planet Greece, the idea to cut a canal through the Corinth Isthmus to link the Ionian and Aegean Seas originated with the tyrant Periander, of Ancient Corinth, at the end of the 7th century BC. The magnitude of the task was so daunting that he gave up, and instead he created a paved slipway, called a diolkos in Greek. Across this slipway, sailors dragged small ships on rollers. This method was used for 2,000 years, until the 13th century.
Many other leaders played with the idea of building a canal here, including Alexander the Great and Caligula, but in AD 67, Nero was the one who began the digging. He used a golden pickaxe to strike the first blow. He then departed the scene, leaving 6,000 Jewish prisoners to do the rest of the digging. Then the Gauls invaded and put a stop to the whole project.
A French engineering company finally completed the canal in the 19th century (1883-93).
The canal separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland, thus effectively making the former an island. The builders dug the canal through the Isthmus at sea level, so no locks are used. It is 6.4 kilometers (4.0 mi) in length and only 21.3 metes (70 ft) wide at its base, making it impassable for most modern ships. The vertical sides rise 90 meters above the water. The canal helped to make Piraeus a major Mediterranean port at one time. However, because only small ships can now pass through it, today it has little economic importance (Wikipedia: Corinth Canal).
The narrowness of the canal makes navigation difficult; its high rock walls channel high winds down its length, and the different times of the tides in the two gulfs cause strong tidal currents in the channel. The canal’s high limestone walls have been persistently unstable from the start. Although it was formally opened in July 1893 it was not opened to navigation until the following November, due to landslips. It was soon found that the wake from ships passing through the canal undermined the walls, causing further landslips.
The canal is too narrow for modern ocean freighters. Ships can only pass through the canal one at a time on a one-way system. Larger ships have to be towed by tugs. The canal is nowadays mostly used by tourist ships; 11,000 ships per year travel through the waterway (Wikipedia).
We get out of the bus for a short stop and stand on one of the bridges built over the canal, where we can look at the seas at each end. The solid rock sides are sturdy and impenetrable, much like a fortress, and the canal is very narrow at the bottom.
After our short stop, we drive on toward Mycenae.