August 28 – September 1
We checked out of the Nafplia Palace and took a taxi (supplied by the tour) down to the harbor to meet the bus. We’d be joining a four-day group and unlike the day before, this bus was packed; so much so we considered ourselves lucky to get two seats next to each other. Other than that, it was another comfortable ride, our home for the remainder of the week.
Our one stop of the day, given the late start, would be the ancient site of Mycenae. It was at this time that we would begin to get to know our tour guide, George. Originally from Crete, his breadth of knowledge was impressive and his ability to express it, both in English and Italian, as those two languages represented the bulk of our group.
Tour guides in Greece are usually licensed, requiring a compulsory and successful 5-semester completion of the Schools of Tourist Guides operated by the Organization of Tourism Education and Training. We would come to appreciate the depth of the information we would receive at each of our stops and realize that at their heart, they were the real value of taking a tour.
In the second millennium BC, Mycenae was one of the major centers of Greek civilization, a military stronghold which dominated much of southern Greece. The period of Greek history from about 1600 BC to about 1100 BC is called Mycenaean in reference to it and at its peak in 1350 BC, the citadel and lower town had a population of 30,000. From the hill on which the palace was located, one can see across the Argolid to the Saronic Gulf.
Like a number of ancient civilizations, Mycenae mysteriously disappeared and their empire crumbled. Whether they fell victim to a sudden invasion by the Dorians, suffered from drought or internal rebellion is unknown but whatever the reason, by 1100 B.C. Mycenae was abandoned and burned and Greece plunged into four centuries known as their Dark Ages.
We stopped at the Lion’s Gate, circa 1300 B.C. which guards the entrance to the fortress city. The lions form a triangle above the massive lintel, which weighs 18 tons, and are connected by the exterior walls that at one time were 40 feet high, 20 feet thick, and 3,000 feet long, built with an estimated 14,000 boulders weighing 5 to 10 tons each. As you pass through the gate you notice post-holes carved into the stone that would have held the wooden door.
We passed by Circle Grave A (where it is theorized Mycenaean royalty was buried during the early part of the dynasty) which features shaft graves, rectangular holes cut 20 feet deep into the rock. There are six in total and they contained 19 bodies, (9 women 8 men and 2 children) which were found embalmed and lying on their backs along with their most precious possessions, with their heads facing east towards the rising sun, indicating a belief in the afterlife.
Continuing on up a steep rise we paused briefly at the remnants of the Royal Palace and Throne Room as all that remains now are the outlines of the rooms, and moved on to the top of the site to the Cistern. The city’s water storage system, it was fed by local natural springs that could support under siege, the population of 60,000 inhabitants at the height of its glory.
We headed down the hill and on the way grabbed a drink, arriving at the bus a few minutes later than George had asked us to get there. We ended up waiting for a couple more folks and George gave us a stern talking to about sticking to the schedule and we felt guilty about having been late until later in the day when other folks told us it was directed at the middle aged Italian lady who would act throughout our time together as if it was her own personal tour.
We rolled out of Mycenae and made a brief stop at the Treasury of Atreus (Tomb of Agamemnon), a massive beehive shaped underground chamber. Mycenae’s royalty was buried here beginning in the 15th century BC. A marvel of engineering at 47 feet in diameter and 42 feet tall, the lintel over the doorway is 26 feet across by 16 feet by 3 feet and weighs 120 tons. For comparison, the biggest stones of the Egyptian pyramids were 30 tons.
Back on the bus we settled in for a long ride to our destination for the night, the village of Olympia and our overnight stay there. Dinner was a hearty buffet and we would begin a ritual practiced on countless tours and cruise lines, sitting at a table getting to know our fellow tour participants. That night it included a couple our age from Australia and two newlyweds from the States. Each following night we’d join different folks, often just determined by what time we hit the dining room.
Our first day with the full group had been a good one and we began to appreciate the advantages of a guided tour such as this; sticking to a schedule meant maximizing your time, being provided with in depth information at each site, more so than we would have derived from a guidebook, and the relaxing aspect of not having to drive a car in unfamiliar circumstances.
Association of Licensed Guides: http://www.tourist-guides.gr/en.aspx