The ancient sanctuary and theatre of Epidavros located in the Argolis area of Peloponnesus is one of the best known and often-visited Greek antique sites. It can be done as a day trip from Athens, but we travel to Epidavros from Galatas, a small town located on the mainland coast of the Saronikos Gulf, just opposite the holiday island of Poros.
The route is torturous (takes the best part of 2 hours) but also stunningly picturesque. I have visited this part of the world twice before, but, somehow, never realised how incredibly mountainous most of it is. The coastal strip and inland valleys are separated from each other by high, rugged mountains which reach very respectable altitudes. The bus passes an eerie coastal lake, all reeds and waterfowl and then starts a laborious climb, a serpentine after a serpentine, with the mountain on one side and the Saronikos Gulf on the other. From so high up, and with the ubiquitous Greek haze enveloping everything, the sea isn't the usual mixture of emerald green and dark blue but acquires silvery, grey hues; flat and shimmering like a pool of mercury, dotted with rocks, islets and bigger islands of truly mythical appearance. One can almost see a fleet of triremes emerging from behind one of these. After a while we crawl through the pass and emerge on the other side, the sea is not visible anymore but it takes few more valleys, passes and breathtaking views until we get to the site.
Eventually we descend into more verdant land and arrive at the ancient Epidavros. It`s a restful site, nested amongst the hills and abundant in greenery and freely flowing water. Like Delphi or Sunion, Epidavros displays the ancient Greek genius for location. Fragrant pines and smattering of other trees including jasmine, walnut and - of course - olive provide shade and rest for the eye.
Epidavros was a major sanctuary in the Classical times, devoted to Asklepios (demi-god of healing) and Hygea (health). The sick came here to pray and be healed and even today it seems to exude a positive, life affirming vibe. Nothing is ever that simple, though. In the same way as the sun and poetry god Apollo was also the patron deity of pestilence, there is a strong connection with the darker aspects of the spiritual world here: Asklepios` companion animal was a serpent (thus snakes present in many graphic representations of medical and pharmacological profession even now) associated with the underworld. They even kept some here - apparently harmless ones - to release them at night in the room where the sick were sleeping awaiting enlightening dreams.
The main reason for the throngs of visitors coming to Epidavros nowadays is its theatre: a wonderfully preserved and completely unravelled from the hillside that buried it, patched up where needed; it`s now used to stage performances of Classical plays during an annual festival; but even on a non-performance occasion still very worth visiting.
Designed for 14 000 people, its tiered seats seem to organically grow from the hillside; the harmony between the landscape and the structure is perfect. The trees and the distant hills seem to be parts of the stage set. And of course, for entertainment, there is the famed acoustic of the theatre: a pin dropped in the middle of the orchestra can be clearly heard at the highest tier. Numerous visitors go to down to the orchestra to drop pins, clap, sing and recite poetry. The highlights of our visit were the Henry the Fifth pre-Agincourt speech delivered by a member of a British tour group (strangely, the only one we were to meet in the whole month) and what seemed like a Bach cantata sung by a group of Mongolians.
We spend pleasant three-quarters of an hour in the theatre, sitting on one of the shadier tiers and content with watching other visitors test the acoustics.
Apart from the theatre, the rest of the site is a vast area of ruins, comprising clear outlines of various buildings of the sanctuary (hostel, gymnasium, stadium, and a few temples). At the time of our visit there was a lot of reconstruction work going on several buildings, so probably fairly soon a re-constructed and re-created edifices will grace the site. I have a mixed attitude to that kind of work: on one hand, it brings the past to life, on the other it gives them a bit of a Disneyland feel. Overall, I would say that anastylosis (reassembly from existing, authentic pieces with an odd patch thrown in) is a Good Thing; while rebuilding from new materials seems sacrilegious.
The reconstruction work at Epidavros seemed to concern mostly three buildings: the propylon, Tholos (a round temple devoted to the underworld aspect of Asklepios) and the main shrine of the sanctuary, the temple of Asklepios. I do wonder if the restorers dare go all the way and paint the buildings in the gaudy colours they have been covered in at the time?
So far, nobody ever did. We don`t know the Greek temples and statues as their contemporaries did, and not just because they are in ruins now. The beauty we see is different, has its own quality that was not known to the ancients. The ruins are more organic, more part of the landscape - simply because they are ruins of course - but also because the paint and glitter has been stripped by the centuries and only the fundamentals of the structures are visible.
The main part of the site is certainly worth a stroll, even with all the scaffolding and machine tools going; one is to hope that once the work is finished this part of the site will return to its more tranquil atmosphere. Even now it is possible to capture it in the surrounding pine wood; and traces of it linger in the scent of chamomiles (lots of chamomiles about!) growing between the stones.
We finish at the museum located by the entrance gate: small but reasonably informative, especially about the role the sanctuary played in its heyday.
***Verdict and the boring bits***
Epidavros is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Argolis and the whole of Peloponnesus. The setting, the ruins and the wonderful theatre provide a pleasant outing and I would love to see a play here - sadly we visited long before the festival started.
We spent over three hours at the site (including a quick picnic lunch) but normally it`s probably pleasantly doable in something like 1.5-2 hours.
Entrance costs 6 euro (roughly about 4 GBP). This is a moderate amount for a major site (Delphi cost 9 euro and Acropolis 12).
There are toilets on the site as well as outside and a portakabin type of café by the car park. There is also an official souvenir shop; and in season a post office and a tourist police booth. Most people visit as a day trip, but there is actually a hotel very near and this has a `proper` café/restaurant.