Ancient Nemea & Mycenae

The ruins of Ancient Nemea and Mycenae sit just half an hour apart, but the former is nearly empty, while the latter receives hordes of visitors. This is a shame, because both sites have a great deal to offer. Here’s a glimpse into each one.

Ancient Nemea

Long ago, Hercules came here to slay the vicious Nemean lion. Years later, shortly after the golden age of Athens, Nemea had a flash of glory in as the site of the Nemean games. Part of the Olympic cycle, these competitions were held every two or three years for the glory of Zeus; they featured everything from running and wrestling to chariot racing and singing.

The current site of Ancient Nemea is divided into three sections: a religious sanctuary, a museum, and a stadium. The religious sanctuary is mostly a wide open, dusty rubble pile that’s dominated by the impressive Temple of Zeus.

This temple was built in 330 BC for the Nemean games, but it was used for less than seventy years. Over the centuries, the temple collapsed, and much of the stone was quarried for other projects. Prior to 1980, only three columns remained standing, and what remains today owes its grandeur to major reconstruction efforts.

Walking around the rubble here is frustrating because there is so little in the way of guidance; you have to work hard to decipher the single tiny map. So while you may have the place to yourself, you’re also likely to be wandering around feeling a bit clueless for much of the time. The best signage is at the archeological dig at the baths, where you can easily make out ancient sinks and tubs.

At these baths, athletes would first scrape the gloios — a combination of oil, sweat, and dust — off of their bodies (this appealing-sounding compound would be saved and used for medicinal purposes). Then they would bathe and wash off the rest of the grime of the day.

We were able to figure out that the stones below once formed part of a shrine dedicated to Opheltes, a local hero who was killed by a snake as an infant (the myth goes that the oracle at Delphi told Opheltes’s mother that he must never touch the earth as a baby, but his nurse laid him down in a field of wild celery, and all went to hell in a handbasket from there):

Legend has it that the Nemean Games were founded as part of the funeral rites for young Opheltes in order to stave off some sort of impending doom (the mythology here gets complicated; if you want more, look into the Seven against Thebes). It’s hard to envision what his shrine might have looked like when you’re standing out in the field, but there is a model inside the museum.

The Archaeological Museum of Nemea was built in 1984, and it looks like it has not been updated much since then (the paint color says it all).

Still, the museum offers welcome air conditioning, interesting dioramas of what ancient Nemea might have looked like over the years, and many archaeological finds from the site (note that the little figure at the top is thought to be the infant Opheltes wearing a mask).

The plain-looking slab on the left above is a starting block from one of the two stadiums that were constructed at Nemea (the little inset rectangle is a foothold for the racer). The second stadium still stands just a 350 meter drive away.

Visiting the Ancient Stadium is well worth it, especially since you can pretend to be an ancient athlete and walk right through the competitors’ tunnel out onto the track.

As a rather amazing endeavor, reenactments of the Nemean games are now held every four years (and while there are no medals, victors do receive branches of palm and wild celery).

If you visit Ancient Nemea, there’s a bonus: you’ll get to see Greek wine country.

The landscape here feels part Greece, part Napa, and there are plenty of wineries to keep you busy once you’re done seeing ancient ruins.

As an important side note, the road signs for finding the sites at Ancient Nemea are pretty crummy, so keep your eyes out and ignore Google’s suggestion that you drive through tiny village roads to get around.

Mycenae

The sites at Nemea are all preceded by the word “Ancient,” but Mycenae is more ancient by over a thousand years. This military stronghold, inhabited from 1600 to 1100 BC, long predates the people we traditionally think of as the ancient Greeks. The Mycenaean state was ruled by kings who lived in a palace at the top of this fortified hill.

Unlike Ancient Nemea, Mycenae today is well-marked and well-traveled. You start by walking past grave sites (they’re roped off in the photos above) to the Lion Gate.

The signs boast that this “relieving triangle” is the “oldest monumental relief in Europe.” One of Mycenae’s best-known (and certainly most photographed) elements, it’s been impressing visitors since 1240 BC.

A single winding path leads you past the foundations of many crumbled houses…

… up through the ancient palace area …

… down to the underground cistern (where, with a flashlight, you can walk down slippery, cool steps until you hit a gate) …

… and over to the giant stones of the North Gate.

Just beyond the citadel, you’ll find a large doorway that leads to Agamemnon’s Tomb — but Agamemnon is not buried there (the naming was a romantic hope of nineteenth century archaeologist Heinrich¬†Schliemann), and it was closed when we visited.

Like Ancient Nemea, there’s no shade at Mycenae, and it can get blisteringly hot. It’s also far hillier than Nemea, and there’s more ground to cover — so make sure to wear a hat and bring lots of water.

You’ll likely be grateful for the air conditioning in the Archeological Museum of Mycenae, which is a fascinating space in its own right. There’s a lot to learn about and see here (we spent only half an hour but should have given it more). You’ll find plenty of the phi and psi figures for which the Mycenaeans are famed …

… along with largest known piece of Mycenaean wall art …

… gold jewelry …

… and all sorts of ceramic vessels objects …

… including this fascinating little guy with hinged legs (and what look to be some very serious work boots):

The roads to Mycenae are well marked, the parking lots are large, and there’s even a stand that sells slushies and fresh orange juice if you’re hot and feeling parched. To beat the heat, go early in the morning or late in the day — and plan for a trip to a beach or a dip in a pool afterwards!

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