Part 5 - Piraeus (Corinth / Sounion)
Piraeus (Corinth / Sounion)
Athens had already been part of our Holy Land cruise last year. Although we had much enjoyed seeing the world-famous sights for ourselves, it somehow got lost among all the other highlights of that beautiful cruise, and we didn’t quite click. This year, we accepted the fact that Athens would be part of the route again but weren’t even sure whether we’d actually go to town. Istanbul had been our reason to book this cruise. When Istanbul was cancelled a few days prior to our departure and the overnight was changed to Piraeus/Athens of all places, it was like twisting the knife in the wound of our disappointment.
Anyhow, we needed a plan B ... On our cruise to South America we had met Jelena, travel blogger herself and lovely wife of MickeyLive, the guest speaker onboard the Celebrity Infinity. We had kept in touch, and Jelena had already given us valuable tips for Istanbul. When we told her about the change of route, she immediately helped us with alternative ideas for Athens, where, it turned out, she had lived for a few years.
Back home we had already booked a rental car with Hertz in the port of Piraeus. This way, all options were open to us. When we told Linda and Pete about it, we were very pleased to hear that they were also up for a field trip and happy to join us. This alone was the promise of a beautiful day.
Together we decided to first visit Corinth and depending on how we’d get through the day remain open to another of Jelena’s suggestions.
While we were still fast asleep, the Reflection had moored at Terminal B of the port of Piraeus, just like the Silhouette the year before. In the first light of the beautiful sunrise we could see all the tour buses lined up together with the first HopOn/HopOff buses on the big parking lot in front of the terminal, ready to take passengers to Athens.
As usual, we started off with a breakfast with Linda & Pete, as the Hertz station wouldn’t be open before 9.00 am. Even that early in the morning the temperatures on the outside deck already indicated that we were in for another hot day. After breakfast and a quick stop at our staterooms we had agreed to “meet by the rose” in the Centrum.
With a last look back at the Reflection, by now elegantly glistening in the sun, we walked from the terminal past the big parking lot along the riverwalk towards the town center. This street also lead towards Terminal A of the port.
The Hertz station is just across the road right next to Terminal A and therefore hard to miss. Once we got there after a roughly 15-minute walk, I completed the necessary paperwork and the agent took us towards a Seat Leon which offered plenty of space for the four of us. After some brief explanations, we set off towards Corinth.
The start was a bit bumpy though… Before our vacation I had downloaded a satnav app to my Iphone. After that annoying experience with a free app in Israel I had gone for a relatively expensive but well-known software offering maps for all of Europe and Iceland. Since we would definitely use it again on our next cruise, it was kind of a long-term investment. I had programed the Canal of Corinth as our first destination. When we left, I was slightly surprised that the app didn’t give any voice prompts, but it showed a route which corresponded to the tips the gentleman at the rental station had given us. He had told us to ingore the first signs to Corinth, as the next route would be the better one.
So we followed the indicated route, which also seemed to confirm our gut feeling – and ended up in a dead end in a harbour on the opposite side of the bay of Pireaus. Slightly surprised about what this was supposed to be, I turned around and laughed when I saw a “Corinthia” sign at the entrance of a ferry terminal. I went through the settings menu of my app and discovered that, somewhere well hidden, the option “include ferries” was enabled.
After unticking this option, we followed the red route again … and ended up at some mililtary checkpoint. Obviously, this didn’t get us much farther, either. OK, back in the days we didn’t need satnavs. So I went in the rough direction of where I suspected the highway on the strip of land towards the Peloponnese. And shortly after, large signs also showed us the way. There we go!
When we reached a toll station on the highway, we had to wait in line for a moment, which I used to play with the satnav and to reboot the system. And suddenly, the lady spoke to us - allthough “speaking” is quite an understatement. She told us about every change of lane, indicated in rich detail the correct street to turn into and with a loud “Achtung” permanently warned us about speed limits, tunnels (of which there were many) and every major curve. Soon we thought how we missed the previous peace and quiet...
About an hour later we reached our first destination – the Corinth Canal.
The canal was opened in 1893. At the narrowest point of the Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the Peloponnese peninsula with mainland Greece, a connection of 6,346 m (20,820 feet) in length between the Saronic Gulf and the Gulf of Corinth was created as part of an ambitious project in a construction period of 12 years, saving ships a detour of some 400 km (250 miles) around the peninsula. To do this, they had to dig as deep as 80 m (260 ft) into the rock.
The view from the bridge over the canal was impressive. From the waterway’s upper edge, which is approximately 75 m (250 ft) wide, we looked down on the turquoise water far below us. At water level, the canal has a width of approximately 24 m (80 ft). That’s where the cliffs merged from high above, very steep and straight.
At the time of construction, the canal represented a huge relief for seafarers, as it spared the ships a long and dangerous journey around Cape Malea. Today it has become less important, as modern cargo ships are too big for the canal and have gained speed and seaworthiness compared to the old days.
We were, therefore, very happy when we saw a fish trawler pass the canal and thereby giving us an idea of the narrowness of the fairway.
Bungee jumping was also offered at the bridge on which we were standing, but the office was closed. Too bad…
Our next stop was Ancient Corinth. Since the signs were a bit confusing, we didn’t find the archaeological sites straight away but first came across the beautiful church of St. Paul’s with its beautiful triptych mosaic.
Not much later we finally found the parking lot near the archaeological sites of Ancient Corinth. From its ruins we were able to guess the remains of Acrocorinth, an ancient temple and fortress complex on the mountain behind them.
First of all we noticed the seven re-erected columns of the Temple of Apollo dating back to the Archaic period.
During its heyday (about 6th century BC), Corinth was the third largest city of Greece behind Athens and Sparta. Through earthquakes and warlike circumstances, it was destroyed several times and rebuilt during the Roman period (from 150 BC) to Roman ideas. The dimensions of the city and its commercial center (Agora), still visible today, gave us an idea of how significant Corinth must have been more than 2000 years ago.
At various points there were signs helping us visualise how magnificent the ruins must have been in their original state.
The Forum’s main entrance (1st century AD)
Deeply impressed by this ancient site we drove to present-day Corinth and looked for a restaurant by the sea. We found one at the waterfront and enjoyed a well-deserved lunch break in the shadow of the restaurant´s parasols.
In the meantime, temperatures had risen high, so it was nice to cool down, and the food at this beach restaurant was excellent, too.
Over lunch we decided that we had enough time left to heed one more of Jelena’s suggestions. But before we’d be on the road again, we wanted to dip our toes into the cool water of the Gulf of Corinth.
Refreshed and invigorated, we headed off to our next destination some 70 km (45 miles) south-east of Athens: Cape Sounion at the southernmost tip of Attica. It took us approximately 2 hours to get there. First we followed a very well-developed highway through Athens and then continued on a country road. Shortly before our destination we stopped at a shop in a small village to buy some sundowner provisions.
Soon afterwards we reached the recommended attraction on the cape: the Temple of Poseidon. The temple is famous for the sunsets which you can watch from the plateau some 60m (200 ft) above sea level.
According to legend, this is the spot where King Aegeus of Athens is said to have plunged into the Aegean Sea, then named after him, upon hearing the false news of the death of his son Theseus.
By the time we reached the temple, the rays of the setting sun had already enveloped it in a magical light.
We settled down in front of the columns of the temple, took in the amazing view and clinked glassed with the local wine we had bought before (and “smuggled” in).
The colors of the temple kept changing with the light of the setting sun.
Meanwhile, the sun continued to sink towards the horizon and finally merged with it entirely. It was simply unforgettable...
After this magical spectacle we took the coastal road and returned to Pireaus, where we parked our car in a street near the entrance to Terminal B. We went straight to the Ocean View Cafe for a quick bite to eat and sat on the terrace in the balmy night temperatures. We all agreed: Thanks to Jelena’s valuable tips we had spent a fabulous day.
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