On the road to Epidaurus

On the road in the Peloponnese

The road to Epidaurus passed through ancient groves and valleys which induced a sense of stillness the nearer we got to our destination. This entire territory was considered sacred to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Injured or sick pilgrims in search of a cure would make their way here to a vast ritual site known as the Asclepieion, where they would first go through a stage of Katharsis, or purification. Water formed a key part of the ritual, with a series of baths, and a cleansing diet taken over several days.

And then would come the enkoimeses  or “incubation.” The patient would make an offering to the temple, and then sleep in the sanctuary, where the god would visit him in his dreams to prescribe or to heal. He would report these dreams to the priest the next day for interpretation.

Exploring the Asclepieion with a small stray cat

The Asclepieion is encircled by wooded mountains green with pine. We spent several hours wandering the ruins, where the only sounds were the wind in the trees, and the lilt of birdsong. The occasional stray cat passed among the stones, and that was all.

I found a space near the farthest entrance to the complex, and I lay down on a bench near the sacred well, searching for meaning in the aqueous blobs of floaters as they moved across the screen of my eye. But they were a poor substitute for nocturnal visitations.

Waiting for visions from the god…

Did the visions of the ancients live on in this dream-charged landscape? I resolved to ask the site’s current guard. I approached his small glassed-in hut and inquired whether he’d had any strange dreams while working there, but he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Greek. He spat out an indignant, “I no sleep!”, slammed the window closed and turned his back. He thought I was accusing him of napping on the job.

I thought it best to slink away discretely and go to the theatre. Not to see a film, but to gaze in wonder at the ancient world’s prime example of perfect aesthetics and acoustics. Like the adjacent sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, we had the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus completely to ourselves.

I’m not exaggerating about the acoustics. They’ve actually been measured by scientists from the University of Patras, who found that speech intelligibility remained nearly perfect at all listener positions. Incidentally, this clarity didn’t hold throughout the rest of their report, which was a mess of graphs and waves that, in the end, were all Greek to me.

My entire audience followed me to Epidaurus.

I stood on that spot in the dead centre of the stage, where a whisper takes wing and rises over the hill. I made Tomoko climb to the top row, and I belted out a song accompanied by an improvised soft shoe routine, and then recited dirty limericks in a normal voice until she got bored and wandered off to take photos.

My wife was a harsh critic, but the thunderous applause in my head was enough. “Thank you, thank you. I’m here until Tuesday. Try the tzatziki. Anyone from Athens…? Anyone…? One, in the back row.”

When I had my fill of imaginary accolades, I joined Tomoko on a cold stone bench high in the cheap seats, and imagined this place filled to capacity with 15,000 spectators, with that stage, and that mountainous backdrop like a natural bowl fit for a performance at the festival of the god.

Did she just say, “So what’s this place called?”

Tourists finally straggled in, shattering the scene and bringing with them their national stereotypes. The chatter of a Spanish family was audible from the forest long before they appeared. The Italians took the stage with look-at-me bluster. An Indian man wheedled his son into photo after photo, while his wife and daughter ignored them both. And the American family pontificated to one another, citing barely remembered guidebook facts which may or may not have been about this site, but with a confidence that said it didn’t matter anyway.

The theatre’s acoustics carried it all the way up to us with perfect clarity, in a performance I thought of as, “Oblivious Tourists Eavesdropped On Shamelessly”. But most of the time, we were alone up there. It was a very peaceful day.

Napflio breakfast views from our rented flat

Back in Napflio, we secured an evening table at Taverna Beto by the harbour. The foundation was laid with coarse Greek country-style bread (horiatiko psomi) and a salad of Cyclopean proportions, with chunks of ripe tomato and a slab of feta on top.

I’d barely gotten through the first carafe of wine when the main course appeared: an enormous grilled squid like a Kraken stuffed with feta and herbs, next to a plate of mussels. Vine leaf wrapped rice arrived, too, along with the owner, to tell us about the folk music trio assembling their instruments on the main floor below.

An enormous grilled squid like a Kraken stuffed with feta and herbs

“I’m sure you will enjoy it,” she said, “they are very very good.” Most of the other patrons were Greek, and several had clearly come for the music. But what I remember most was that genuine sense of Greek hospitality, the feeling that guests are a gift from the gods, a sentiment older than Homer.

(To be concluded next time with Athens)

Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2018

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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