Athens day trip: Acrocorinth, one of Greece’s greatest castles

Acrocorinth, Greece, castle, castles
Greece is justly famous for its ancient monuments. The Acropolis, Delphi, and other Classical sites are the reason most history lovers come to this ancient land. The medieval period, however, produced many equally impressive monuments and it’s a shame they’re so often overlooked. Greece is filled with giant castles, remote monasteries, and lovely churches decorated with gold mosaics and richly colored paintings.

One of the largest castles in Greece is Acrocorinth, less than an hour away from Athens by train. It sits atop a rocky hill 1,800 feet high overlooking the famous city and harbor of Corinth. Its strategic location close to the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land connecting the Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, makes it one of the most important castles in the country.

I arrived there one rainy morning to find the hill and its castle wreathed in mist. A taxi ride from the train station took me up a winding road past sheer drops. No approach to the summit is easy, and from some sides it would take a skilled mountain climber to get up. Only the western slope is relatively passable, and it’s protected by triple walls.

Acrocorinth is such an obvious point for defense that there’s been a castle here for more than 2,500 years. The ancient Greeks built a temple to Aphrodite at the top and built walls made of massive stones to serve as a refuge for the Corinthians against pirates and invaders.
In AD 146 the Romans destroyed Corinth and its castle and for many years they lay abandoned.

The temple was replaced by a church in the 5th or 6th century AD. By this time the Western Roman Empire had collapsed and the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, was a powerful Christian state ruling over much of the eastern Mediterranean with its capital at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Corinth and Acrocorinth became important again as a Byzantine regional capital.

%Gallery-146085%The Byzantines had their hands full fighting Muslim armies and were seriously weakened when they lost most of what is now Turkey. Little did they expect the next blow to come from fellow Christians. As knights from Western Europe set out on the Fourth Crusade, they originally planned on retaking Jerusalem from the Arabs. Instead they diverted to Byzantium and sacked Constantinople in 1204.

The Crusaders surrounded Acrocorinth but saw that an assault would be foolhardy and settled down for a long siege. Acrocorinth was defended by the Greek lord Leo Sgouros. For four years he kept the Crusaders at bay, but the strain of living within the walls eventually drove him mad. One day he mounted his horse and galloped over the cliffs to his death. This didn’t deter his garrison, however, and they continued to hold on until 1210, when the situation became so hopeless that they finally surrendered. The French knight William de Villehardouin built a castle on Acrocorinth and strengthened the walls.

The Byzantines slowly pushed the crusaders out of their empire and Acrocorinth was retaken in 1395. The ravages of the Fourth Crusade permanently weakened Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were moving in from the east and took Constantinople in 1453. The Peloponnese held out for a time and Acrocorinth didn’t fall until 1458 after a long siege during which Greek soldiers snuck through Turkish lines and climbed the cliffs to bring supplies to the beleaguered defenders. The Venetians took the castle from the Ottomans in 1687 and many of the walls visible today are their handiwork. After a long war the Ottomans retook Acrocorinth, only to lose it for good to the Greeks in 1823 during the War of Independence.

The view from the top had me entranced. To one side, ancient and modern Corinth lay at my feet, with the Aegean stretching out beyond. To the other side lay olive groves and open countryside. As I explored the rugged hilltop with its medieval walls, Crusader keep, and remnants of temples, churches, and mosques, I was entirely alone. Two American tourists left just as I arrived, and besides a guard and a workman at the gate, I saw no one. That was fine by me. Places like this are best seen in silence and solitude.

It doesn’t bode well for the local economy, though. Sure, winter is low season, but there should be more people seeing this wonderful place. Low season in Greece also means shorter hours. Acrocorinth shut at 3pm. Old Corinth, with its important museum and picturesque Temple of Apollo, shut at the same time. If I wanted to do the castle justice I didn’t have time see Old Corinth.

As the guard closed and locked the castle gate I walked down the road back to Old Corinth a few kilometers away. It had stopped raining and I didn’t mind the walk. This being Greece, however, a passing motorist stopped to pick me up. It turned out to be the workman I had spotted on Acrocorinth, an archaeologist working on the restoration of Villehardouin’s tower. His English was limited but he expressed his gratitude at my visit. He loved the castle as much as I did, and was thankful that money for its restoration was still coming through. Not from my visit, though; entrance is free. I would have happily paid five euros.

Down at Old Corinth everything was closing. I took some photos of Apollo’s temple through the fence and wandered down a street lined with tourist shops and restaurants. All were open and none had customers. I settled in for lunch at a restaurant called Marinos. The owner and his family and friends were having a big, loud meal. I was the only customer. The food was excellent, though, and they serve a wine from their own vineyard not just a hundred meters away. I hope they have better business in the high season; they deserve it.

From the restaurant I called the taxi driver who had brought me up to the castle. It was getting late, the rain had started again, and walking all the way to the train station after sampling the local wine didn’t appeal.

“You liked the castle?” he asked as we drove down the hill.

“Loved it. Too bad I couldn’t see Old Corinth.”

“Yes,” he sighed in obvious frustration. “They should stay open longer. You would have bought a ticket. Instead you end up less happy than you should be.”

“Has business been bad?” I asked.

“The tourists are still coming but they’re getting a bad experience. I do day tours and sometimes we show up at a site and it’s closed. People fly all the way here and don’t get to see what they want.”

“People being the way they are I guess they sometimes blame you.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Sometimes they do.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Acropolis!

Greek museums face the economic crisis

Greek museumsIt’s not easy being the caretaker of Greece’s heritage these days. Greek museums are facing budget cuts, strikes, reduced staff, even loss of visitors due to riots. The National Archaeological Museum had many rooms closed during the peak tourist season last summer due to budget cuts, and strikes are regularly closing all publicly owned museums.

Take the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. It collects the nation’s Medieval heritage, focusing especially on the glory days of Byzantium. When the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves in 395 AD, the West fell apart within a century, but the East, known as Byzantium, survived for another thousand years. Byzantium produced a distinct and beautiful artistic style and preserved many Classical works that then became the inspiration for the Renaissance.

The museum was founded in 1914 in the palace of a French noble. For most of the twentieth century the displays didn’t change much and visitors tended to pass it by for the more famous Classical sights.

“It was a place only for scholars,” said Nikolas Constantios, an archaeologist and museologist who works there and showed me around the recently revamped permanent exhibition.

And what an exhibition! Some four hundred icons are on display. Richly embroidered church vestments stand next to colorfully painted manuscripts, gold coins, and day-to-day objects. It’s all laid out in an open, well-lit fashion that reminded me of the new Ashmolean in Oxford. This modern style replaced the old “cases filled with stuff” museum design and helps combat museum fatigue.

This ten-year revitalization project almost came too late. The money, half of which came from the Ministry of Culture and half from the European Union, was already earmarked when the crisis hit.

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“We were safe because we were almost finished,” Constantios said. “If the crisis had happened five years ago we would have had a lot of problems.

The final touches are due to be completed by May and include a public garden, gift shop, and cafe.

While the present looks rosy for this museum, there are some serious challenges ahead. Museum director Anastasia Lazaridou said the Ministry of Culture has cut the museum’s budget by 20 percent. She has had to let some of the staff go, especially short-term contractors whose work is important for their well-known conservation department, which remains the biggest in Greece.

“We will try to find money from the private sector and create a bigger network of collaborations with foreign museums to share expenses,” Lazaridou said.

With the recession, though, the museum has found getting large donations to be more difficult than it used to be. Tickets help–with the renovation visitors numbers are ten times what they were a decade ago–yet many of these visitors get in for free.

When I visited there was a typical crowd for the low season: three other tourists and several school groups. Entrance is free for under-18s. Luckily this situation reverses in the high season. Check out the photo gallery and you’ll see why the Byzantine and Christian Museum is getting on the map.

The Museum of the City of Athens is facing even greater challenges. Housed in the former royal palace of King Otto, the first monarch after independence from the Ottoman Empire, it’s situated close to the municipal government buildings. Several riots have occurred right outside their door and now many tourists avoid the entire neighborhood. Museum director Aglaia Archontidou-Argiri told me visitor numbers dropped 70 percent last year.

Luckily the museum is a private foundation so they are in no danger of closing, yet they’re scrambling to find money for extra programs. Last year they ran a free program teaching Greek culture and history to immigrants. It ran for six months and included students from the Roma, Georgian, Bulgarian, and other communities. Now they have no money to continue, but Archontidou-Argiri remains optimistic they’ll find the money somewhere.

Like with the Byzantine museum, many visitors are school groups, who come to see the displays illustrating the development of their city. While the museum charges them, it lets in kids for free if their families can’t afford the €2 ($2.63) entry fee. With the crisis worsening, this is becoming increasingly common. There is also a popular music and lecture series that attracts many locals, but it is also free.

So far these two museums are doing fairly well. Both have been lucky in their funding, but with the crisis tightening wallets all over Europe, the caretakers of Greek heritage have a tough job ahead.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Athens day trip: Acrocorinth!

Greek tanker truck strike strands thousands of tourists

As if Greece didn’t already have enough worries, its 30,000 licensed truck drivers have decided that the middle of the tourist season would be the best time to go on strike, effectively shutting down many parts of the economy.

Without truck drivers, there are no tanker trucks on the roads, which means gas stations are almost all out of gas. And without gas, tourists can’t go anywhere.

The strike is taking place because of an argument about truck licenses. For forty years, Greek drivers were unable to get new permits, so the existing permits sold for about $390,000 on the open market.

As part of the massive bailout from the European Union, the Greek government was told that this system has to come to an end, which means anyone with the correct experience can get a truck license.

Crete, Corfu and Rhodos all say they are most likely going to go bankrupt in weeks unless the federal government puts an end to the strike. Thousands of tourists have already canceled their trip, and on Crete, 100’s of rental cars have simply been abandoned with empty gas tanks. Yesterday, the Greek government ordered the truck drivers to return to work, but they have refused, and made it clear they will not deliver anything until the licensing changes are rolled back.

[Photo credit: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images]

Greece finds itself in the middle of a pefect storm – economy down, tourism down

Greece has long been one of the black sheep members of the European Union – it has always relied on huge farming subsidies as its fellow nations worried about the stability of the Greek economy.

This year, those stability worries became justified when their economy collapsed. A combination of poor financial decisions and the global economic meltdown forced the Greek government to turn to its fellow countries for a bailout.

Now the European Union has finally decided to bail the Greek out, sentiment about the scope of the bailout has left Europeans mighty annoyed with the Greek. So annoyed in fact, that many of them have decided to book their vacation elsewhere – removing one of the largest sources of Greek income.

German airline Air Berlin has described the drops as “massive”, but did not have any firm numbers to report on. Germany and the UK account for about 5 million tourists each year – a third of the 15 million that visit Greece each year. In 2009, tourism had already dropped 8%, so a continuing drop may prove to be a national disaster for Greece – especially since they’ll need to dig themselves out of their $400 billion debt pile sooner or later.