Donaldus, We rented a car. Usual Europe delays and paperwork. It’s a Volkswagen, black, automatic, and it only took us four hours to find the USB port. Now we have navigation. We drove out of Athens without incident, and then motored to Corinth on a major Greek highway. Everything is better, better maintained, and easier to use than the last five or six times I have been here. We stopped at a roadside rest stop (petrol, food, candy, restrooms, fast food) briefly, hoping to get change with which to get through the toll booths, which recur every fifteen miles or so.
We wound our way on lesser roads, some hairpin, to Mycenae, which is very well marked. Tickets 12 Euro, but they get you into the beehive tomb, the Megaron at Mycenae, and the museum. On the road, Catherine read out the Blue Guide’s paragraphs on Mycenae, which is thought by some to have been the home of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. We took scores of photos (the age of endless SD card storage, rather than the “husband your small supply of 35mm film” era in which I grew up). We heard a docent explain to a group of tourists that the famous Lion Gate (shown here) is probably not lions but griffins instead. The Cyclopian walls (giant “rectangular” blocks of heavy stone) astonish every time. How did they lift them into place. The lintel is so massive that you would think it would collapse the whole gate, but (again the docent) the Lions (read Griffins) create a lighter arch-like triangle that displaces some of the weight of the whole. Not much to see at the Megaron at Mycenae–but still thrilling, both because it may have been the home of the basileus (king) who “launched the thousand ships” to recover Helen for his brother Menelaus (of Sparta–that’s our goal today), and because Heinrich Schliemann was so naive (innocent?) in his belief that this must be the place, that in 1876 he dug here and discovered one of the greatest treasuries in the history of archaeology. We are there! When I came the first time, a docent actually pointed to the “bathtub” (a narrow vault of stones) where Clytemnestra and her lover boy Aigistos cut down the returning king. There is a famous scene in Book XI of the ODYSSEY in which Agamemnon explains to Odysseus what a humiliation it was to be cut down (“like an ox”) by his faithless wife.
Catherine recited for me the first seven lines (dactylic hexameter) of the Iliad in ancient Greek. Now that’s a liberal arts education!
In my own peculiar life, there are only a handful of supremest places on earth to visit: Troy, Walden Pond, Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, the place in the Lake District where Wordsworth wrote the first great passages in the Prelude, the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, the statue of John Donne (posing in his own funeral shroud) at St. Paul’s in London… But Mycenae is perhaps the supremest of all in my life.
When I was first here, when I first wrote that cramped postcard to you several decades ago, I actually saw a shepherd, dressed like a shepherd, tending his flocks on the higher mountain southeast of the palace site. That sent chills down my back. Some parts of the Mediterranean are as old as time, locked in time.
We lingered as long as we reckoned the afternoon light was on our side, then drove in a very slow and languid way to Epidaurus, the site of the best-preserved Greek theater in Greece. The temperature was perfect–just this side of hot. I once saw a production of Oedipus Tyrannous there (modern Greek of which I understood only the words Oedipus (pronounced eeeedipus), Jocasta (yoh! casta!), and nemesis. Yesterday the theater was empty–we would have loved to see an ancient Greek play there–but the upside was that we were permitted to scramble all over the ancient structure. You cannot sit there in a theater 2500 years old, largely intact, and not feel a wandering of the soul. We lingered as long as we dared, recited some soliloquies from Homer (and Thoreau) from the center of the orchestra, took the kind of photos you take if you think you might never be back), and then drove away still more languidly to Nafplia.
I cannot think of anything I would rather do than see those two magnificent places in a single perfect Greek day, all sun, dry as an old fig, with bursting blinding Mediterranean light, side by side wit
h a fellow student of the Greek classics. And when you add that that young classicist is also my child, who has lapped me in both Latin and Greek, who read about 40% of the Iliad in Greek in her last semester in college–that takes it to the sublime.
Today–Sparta, and the home of the ancient Homeric adviser, Nestor, at “sandy Pylos” over on the other coast of the Peloponnese.