Time travel

Classical historian Bettany Hughes recounts her favourite Mediterranean journeys
December 14, 2011

This year we’ve come to associate Mediterranean countries—Greece, Italy, Spain, Egypt, Syria et al with problems; yet civilisation was kick-started in the region when men and women came up with ingenious solutions to the issues of their age. Just look at the classical sites and monuments that ring the “Middle Sea.” Bronze Age harbours in Crete were developed to satisfy international demand for the royal purple dye harvested from the Murex sea snail. The mighty Greek temples overlooking the coast—dedicated to Poseidon at Sounion, Nemesis at Rhamnous, Athena at Syracuse—doubled up as watchtowers and banks. Their guardians kept an eye on sea-borne trade, piracy and military manoeuvres while inside the sanctuaries sacrifices were made to Olympian gods. Even the picturesque prehistoric settlements at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini were an exercise in problem-solving; white-washed homes and town halls built with an anti-earthquake technology still employed today, 3,500 years on.

So a journey around the Mediterranean is, for many reasons, fundamentally invigorating. Follow in the footsteps of those traders, treasure seekers, thinkers, theologians and tyrants who made ancient history happen. Forget the euro crisis and a potential Middle Eastern meltdown. Walk the ancients’ path and drink deeply from their cups.

Take the plucky little Greek island of Milos. Melos, as it was in antiquity, is a stepping-stone that sits halfway between Athens and Crete, and a geological cornucopia. On Melos’s northern shores the best cutting tool in the world could be found: the treacle-black volcanic glass obsidian. At the deserted Bronze Age site of Phylakopi you can still pick up obsidian razors, carefully chipped from the rocks 4,000 years ago. One excavator was so impressed that he insisted obsidian tools were used when he underwent a major operation (you will be glad to hear he survived). Children hop around Phylakopi on sea-polished pebbles the size of bean bags and bask themselves, alongside the lizards, astride the sturdily built walls of Iron Age homes. Further along the coast are the yellow sulphur, gypsum and kaolin cliffs that yielded the raw materials for ancient artists. Beaches such as Palaeochori, warmed by thermal springs, boast sand so hot the local taverna owners can roast lamb and vegetables underground.

Further west, the island of Ischia saw the first footfall of Euboean Greeks in what is modern-day Italy. Their original 8th century BC settlement, in the place they named Pithecusae (Monkey Island) is, today, artfully hidden beneath the church of Santa Restituta. Pay your entry fee, sometimes to the local priest, and make your way down through 28 centuries of history, back to the foothold of the resourceful Greek-adventurers who used Ischia to control the Bay of Naples. The volcanic nature of the place (Pompeii is a 50-minute boat ride away) lends the island a deep green fecundity, a hot exoticism, much more primal than nearby Capri. In the town of Lacco Ammeno is the hotel L’Albergo della Regina Isabella: here Elizabeth Taylor made love to Richard Burton on her rest-days from the set of Cleopatra—I’m not sure how much time she had left to take in the stunning neighbouring archaeology.

Back in present-day Greece, the little seaside town of Gythion in the Peloponnese also harbours a passionate past. This was once the functional port of the land-locked Spartans, and—according to legend—where Paris stole away Helen, princess of Sparta, under cover of darkness. Homer calls the precise spot of the dangerous liaison “Kranae” (rocky island) and it does indeed have rock shards so sharp that it is almost impossible to walk the shoreline without slicing your feet open. One imagines the two runaways must have been quite pleased, after a night of back-breaking passion, to set sail.

Another ancient Spartan stomping-ground, albeit 900km to the north, is the coastline of Thrace. One of the flashpoints of the grand war between Athens and Sparta, a millennium after Helen first caused trouble for the Mediterranean world, was nearby Thassos. Thassos—Greece’s northernmost island, is pine-rich, honey-sweet, gold-bearing and picture-postcard perfect. Herodotus marvelled “here a whole mountain has been turned upside down in search of gold.” The powers of the 5th century BC—Athens, Sparta and Corinth—all wanted a piece of that goldmine to call their own. Here today you’ll find a recently excavated classical sanctuary of Dionysus, pretty Roman theatres and an impressive Byzantine-Ottoman fortress. But if I were you, I’d spend just 48 hours or so on the island and a while longer in Kavala, its noisy, big sister on the mainland. This workaday port town, which is itself a gateway to many of Alexander and Philip’s Macedonian treasures, is home to the Imaret, one of the best hotels in the world. Rescued by a local heiress, this one-time madrasa, library and soup kitchen (founded by the Pasha of Egypt in 1817) is as close to “living heritage” as you could get. There is a sense that guests come here not just to indulge, but to reflect. Colonnades lead to secret gardens and there are fountains at every turn, while subterranean, mosaiced swimming-pools, copper foot baths in each room, and an Ottoman-style breakfast to die for, are worth every failing euro. The Imaret also sponsors cross-cultural exchange—a recognition that the Mediterranean joins three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe) whose people have got to learn to get along together, just as they did at the beginning of civilisation itself when an unwritten code of xenia (guest-host friendship) kept international relations sweet.

A journey through the Mediterranean is not only inspiring and stimulating, it is also humbling. The men and women who created antique treasures for us to marvel at had to deal with plague, genocide, a world without writing, iron tools, or penicillin—and yet they made something extraordinary of their life and times. Remember too that, with the possible exception of the early Cynics, the ancients were great believers in the value of indulgence—so here’s my five-star smorgasbord of Mediterranean must-dos to revive both body and spirit.

Catch a sundowner at the Galaxy Bar in the Hilton Hotel in Athens—where, from the 1970s onwards, the great and the good have enjoyed a killer cocktail while the Parthenon darkens to dusk. Raise another glass to the onetime inmates of the Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul, originally the infamous Sultanahmet prison. From their rooftop terrace you can see the Sea of Marmara and 1,500 years-worth of world-class monuments, starting with the bullishly brilliant Hagia Sophia first constructed under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Hire an apartment in Santa Maria Village at Adamas in Milos to imagine the sculptor of the Venus de Milo at work (Venus was found in scrub here by a local farmer). Climb to the hill over the little harbour of Eressos on Lesbos to watch the sun rise on the Greek poet Sappho’s birthplace. Finally, catch sunset at Matala in southern Crete, stare out over the Libyan Sea and ponder the fickle nature of earthly power—but don’t be tempted into remembering the whole of antiquity with a rosy glow. That famous purple dye was produced here to cloak the Mediterranean’s mighty in what Pliny tellingly described as “the colour of congealed blood” and gallons of human urine were an essential part of the industrial process. It was pretty darn good, but it wasn’t all better back then.