High on a cliff above the sea stands the Temple of Poseidon, a magnificent ruin built around 444 BC, writes Uday K. Chakraborty.
The Aegean Sea is the heart of the Greek world. And, any visit to Athens is incomplete if not followed up by coastal and island trips. Attica’s southern-most promontory is just 70-km from Athens. The cape can be reached in less than two hours by car, or by organized coach trip that leaves most mornings and afternoons from the city. The route follows the Saronic Gulf, and you see Greece at its most elemental – sun, rock, and sea. The closer you get to Sounion, the better it gets, as the road winds around stiff cliffs overlooking spectacular vistas.
High on a cliff above the sea stands the Temple of Poseidon, a magnificent ruin built around 444 BC. About half of the temple’s original 34 Doric columns remain, but the temple of the God of the Sea is beautiful in all its starkness. The setting, ever-changing light, the crashing waves, inspired no less a personage than Byron to engrave his name in the Marble.
The view from the temple is commanding. Peloponnesian coast and the Saronic Gulf islands can be seen on a clear day. However, if you want to visit those enticing Islands in front, you must return to Athens’ main port, Piraeus. Several Greek islands are ideal for short excursions, whether by ferryboat, cruise ship or hydrofoil.
Most people opt for Saronic Gulf for good reason. Ferries leave from Piraeus several times daily, and most can be reached under three hours. Only the pretty island of Spetsai, with its main square festooned with lights and its horse-drawn carriages a primary source of transport, is, at four hours away. Although hydrofoils make the trip daily, cutting down the time spent traveling, the seas can be choppy and hydrofoils are often cancelled. It is more
suited for a long weekend rather than a day excursion, as that would allow for sufficient cushion for contingency.
Most popular of such excursions is an all-inclusive cruise to three islands: Aegina, Hydra and Poros, visited in a single day. Poros, the first port of call, is built around several hills, the nearest crowned by a distinctive blue and white clock tower. In the hour allotted during the stopover, a visit to this tower top will be rewarding, if slightly strenuous climb. From the top of this tower, the rather workaday harbour recedes, and in its place a sunny tranquility takes over – melons, grapes and lush flowers overhang domestic verandas and from the top, it is possible to observe, smugly, the frenzied activities of other tourists far below. Should there be time, a visit to the Monastery of Zudochos Pighi, or the remains of a Temple to Poseidon can be seen.
Once aboard the boat, remain on deck for one of the best adventures of the day. Henri Miller, in the Book The Colossus of Marousi, describes it best: “Suddenly I realized that we were sailing through the streets …. The land converges on all sides and the boat is squeezed into a narrow straight from which there seems to be no egress. The men and women of Poros are hanging out of the windows just above your head ….. The loungers on the quay are walking with the same speed as the boat; they can walk faster than the boat if they choose to quicken their pace”.
Miller’s “streets” are actually a narrow passage of water that separates Poros from the mainland of the Peloponnese peninsula, which is separated from mainland Greece by the Gulf of Corinth. From Poros’s straits it’s a one-hour sail to Hydra.
Hydra is Cosmopolitan Island where the best souvenir shopping takes place. In the 1960s and 70s, artists, attracted by the symmetry and clear, bright light of the port, took up residence – which in turn attracted well-heeled hippies. Hydra became minor jet-set destination and even today, the movie stars and artists long gone, the island is fashionable one where visitors tend to dress up, rather than “down’ for the beach.
The town is picturesque, with quaint old buildings and cobbled streets that twists inland from the sea and are filled with chic boutiques and restaurants. White-washed walls give way to elegant doors and small squares tucked into corners provide refuges for quite drinks. Cars are banned on the island, so pace is absolutely leisurely.
Aegina, the final destination, is largest island around and has the most varied scenery. The town, also Aegina, is on the site of an ancient Greek city. If there is time to visit only one attraction, opt for the coach excursion to the Temple of Aphaia, northeast of Aegina town.
Dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and light, Aphaia is thought to have been built between 510 and 480 BC Of the original 32 columns, 24 have been preserved, as well as the foundation of an alter and the remains of a priests chamber. It is constructed on the highest point of the island, and commands a breath-taking view out to sea.
Aegina is rich in locally produced pistachio nuts, which come in handy on the cruise back to Athens, but a possible return trip to these islands remains in everyone’s mind.
Uday K. Chakraborty.