From the October 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
In the annals of ancient combat, central Greece looms large. Notably, in 480 B.C., a small but resolute Greek army held off hundreds of thousands of Persians for several days in the Alamo-style Battle of Thermopylae, a humiliating setback for the all-powerful Persians. Some historians call it the battle that changed the world; 2007’s Hollywood blockbuster 300 stars Gerard Butler as Leonidas, the heroic Spartan king.
Thermopylae (“hot gates”) still beats unlikely odds—now as a history-steeped battleground that’s also surprisingly fun. Named for sulfur springs that pour out of the mountainside, the site doubles as a primitive water park where locals and savvy visitors splash under a 16-foot, steaming waterfall and in sultry pools.
Central Greece is punctuated with similar places, where a past rich in legends and myths provides context for the beauty and intrigue of the present. West from Athens, a four-day drive in the marching path of warriors offers heart-quickening roadways, awe-inspiring temples, and an invitation to connect with the back-to-basics lifestyle of the long-ago Greeks.
After heading west out of Athens on Highway E94, join the tour buses parked at the Corinth Canal, a four-mile slot of turquoise water that connects two seas, and, 25 miles down the road, Mycenae, the Bronze Age palace made from limestone boulders so humongous that legend claims only a Cyclops could have laid them. Then part ways with the crowds and head south into the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula along Highway E65 to Sparta. Though the practical Spartans weren’t magnificent architects or artists like their Athenian rivals, quiet pleasures can be found here.
In the center of town, the small Archaeological Museum of Sparta contains a fine bust said to depict King Leonidas, terra-cotta figurines and bone ornaments from the glory days, and a collection of gravestones, which—in the spirit of the city-state’s conviction that citizens should become soldiers or give birth to them—were allotted only to those who died in battle or during labor.
Though Sparta itself has an unremarkable modern cityscape, the ancient city’s acropolis features a lush expanse of yellow flowers under olive trees, some so thick and gnarled they look as old as the mossy ruins. From the acropolis, it’s clear why the Spartans settled here. A rolling valley that once fed the war machine lies to the south; to the west are the incisor-like, snowcapped Taigetos Mountains. Nearby stands Mistras, the last preserve of the Byzantine Empire, with its buildings stacked up a mountainside.
Point your wheels west toward Kalamata via Route 82. Swerving along curves that have the contours of ribbon candy, tires screech feistily. Skim along a gorge and the Langada Pass to glimpse why this road has been called one of the most breathtaking in Greece. But the drive isn’t all about ooh-aah moments: Somewhere among these craggy cliffs, perfectionist Spartans left weak and deformed babies to die.
Linger in the stunning landscape at Hotel Taigetos, which stretches along a ridge at 5,000-foot-high Langada. The rooms are—shall we say—spartan, but the vistas are opulent, especially at sunset. Peaks, bathed in reflected light, turn purple and pink under an indigo sky. Feast on rabbit stifado (stew) in the dining room, seated by a colossal fireplace—the massive logs fetched by the hotel’s seventy-something manager (note her palpable Spartan pluck).
Next morning, roll down to the famous olive-producing area of Kalamata. To taste the regional treasure, try local stores or the roadside fruit stands near the olive groves close to town (where olives are sometimes sold out of wooden barrels).
Then take Highway E55 for 70 miles, gliding along the sparkling Ionian coast to Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics, where a few shops and restaurants cluster under gentle mountain swells. Early on, the games were part of a religious festival to honor god-of-all-gods Zeus. Men ran one footrace loaded with some 60 pounds of armor, though participants competed in most races in the buff. Then as now, winners returned home as heroes.
Cross the Gulf of Corinth near Patra on an elegant suspension bridge (completed in 2003), and cruise Highway E65 along the gulf’s northern shores, where small fishing boats ply the coves in pursuit of sea bass and sea bream. Stop in serene Galaxidi, its two harbors filled with brightly colored skiffs and lined with stone houses.
Spend the next morning exploring the mysteries of Delphi, 20 miles north and the site of the famed oracle. High on a cliff with a view of the Gulf of Corinth, this is where leaders like Alexander the Great sought consultation before waging war.
After an invigorating workout climbing Delphi’s switchback paths, continue driving on E65 until it meets E75, crossing a mountain range and dropping down to the coast to reach Thermopylae.
Down the old highway stands a bronze statue of Leonidas, the general who led the effort (and died) at Thermopylae. An inscription on the base translates to “Come and get them!”—his retort to the Persians’ demand for his army’s weapons.
Before reaching the sculpture, turn right down a side road to join locals playing in Thermopylae’s hot springs and steamy pools. A rope fastened under the falls helps frolickers remain upright in the tremendous current (water shoes are recommended). This isn’t an official operation: no fees, no staff, but plenty of locals.
Spend the night in the coastal town of Kamena Vourla, worth a stay for its Mitsis Galini Wellness Spa and Resort. The 224-room beachfront hotel beckons with a large, rambling pool that encircles several shady islands.
Circle back toward Athens on Highway E75, exiting on a back road that wends among pine-forested cliffs past a steely blue reservoir. Then it’s on to Marathon, the site of yet another face-off with the Persians—this one victorious.
According to legend, a messenger ran nearly 26 miles to Athens to announce the news—a feat that, yes, inspired the modern-day marathon.
After walking around the gumdrop-shaped burial mound and inspecting a 3-D battle diagram, head to the beachfront Isidora Taverna (order the day’s catch grilled over coals). Admire the beach scene; it’s the same stretch of sand where advancing Persians landed their ships 2,500 years ago.
Surrounded by centuries of history and lore, you set an agenda that’s worlds apart—whiling away the afternoon, so unmilitary-like of you, in the warm sun and salty breeze.