Half Day from Athens: Epidaurus

A half day from Athens sits the healing center of the ancient world, Epidaurus. Used during both Greek and Roman times, this ancient sanctuary was key to those hoping to be  healed or cured of various ailements. Why? This site was believed to be home to the son of Apollo, Asclepius, the patron god of medicine. It is located in the heart of the Peloponnese mainland.  

Getting There

I would highly recommend going with a tour group if you are interested in this half day adventure. It would make the most amount of sense to be able to see a few different points ts of interest along the way. My guided tour included stops in Epidaurus, the Corinth Canal and Nafplio on the day we were going to Mycenae, home of Agamemnon.

It took about 2 hours to get there from Athens. The roads were long, narrow, twisty and windy. The scenery though was absolutely gorgeous. Depending on which route is taken, you will see many islands and connections to history you may have never thought about. For example you may pass the ancient site of the battle of Solamis from the Persian Wars or the rock St. Peter stood on when he preached to the Corinthians.Never take anything for granted.

If you decide you want to take the KTEL national bus service to Epidaurus, it is do able. It takes about 2-3 hours each way. You will want to look for the bus Palea Epidaurus via Nafplion from the Kifissos station in Athens.  To get to Kifissos you can take the 51 bus from Omonoia Square near the National Archaeological Museum or the X93 bus from the Airport. You can always ask your driver. Nafplion is a wonder place to stop. It served as the first capital to Athens and has some interesting Venetian forts. It’s also the cheapest or most economical option. 

The Theater and Shrine Ruins

When you enter the site, if it’s summer there are some frozen lemonade stands and ice cream available. Have a snack before you enter the site as there is no eating allowed inside. You will also want to use the restrooms before you enter.  During fall and winter or even early spring, the eating area is closed. Bring snacks if you tend to get hungry. 

Most people go to Epidaurus in order to see the perfectly preserved amphitheater. As with other theaters, this amphitheater is still in use today for special performances, especially during the summer. The Greeks perfected the art of sound and the shape for acoustics and performance. You can stand at the top font the theater and are able to hear everything below as if you were sitting in the front row. We did an experiment where in our group we spread out all along the amphitheater. We clapped and held conversations with one another. It was a surreal experience to see how well the sounds traveled.

The theater dates back to the 4th century BC and was built by the ancient Greek architect Polykleitos the Younger. It holds about 13,000-14,000 capacity wise and was most used for lectures and theater performances in ancient times. Our travel guide was enthusiastic to share that the opera Norma was staged here in 1960 by the Greek opera singer Maria Callas. She was the lover of Aristotle Onasis who would then leave her in order to marry and become the second husband of Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Our it guide gave us about 1 hour to explore everything that the site held. I was not as interested in exploring the theater for the entire hour, my main reason for coming to Epidaurus was to see the shrine and temple ruins of Asclepius and the museum. The temple ruins can be vast. I would recommend starting there if you are interested in it. The ground is a little uneven and can be steep at times. Make sure you have on some good shoes. 

I took off at a run as we had 30 minutes after the theater experiment and exploration. It was pretty easy to find, I just  followed the signs to what appeared to be an empty field at first glance. The ruins, however, just need to be viewed closer up. They are dug quite deep into the earth. The temple ruins consisted of several buildings. 

One of the best preserved pieces of the site was the Roman style baths. It was thought to help cleanse you for any ritual a that may be performed on you. Walking around there are many helpful signs and placards written in both Greek and English to explain what you are looking at.  Nothing can that show how vast the temple was in its heyday though. A treasure room, treatment rooms as well as the actual shrine itself were erected in a horseshoe shape. Several buildings would have housed the patients, pilgrims and other visitors. 

Snakes were an important and sacred animal to the medicine god and were allowed to freely roam on the grounds. Some were used in treatment. Look at the pits you can imagine some snakes kept there just for this purpose. A labyrinth was said to exist under the temple itself. Priests of Asclepius had secret rituals they alone used the larger snakes for. While this site was not considered a wonder of the ancient world, it was close to being one. There were many medical advances discovered by the priests of Asclepius here. It was said to rival Olympia and Delphi. Only with the rise of Christianity did the site fall into disuse when the Romans closed any pagan sites for worship. 

I enjoyed viewing the gymnasium where I wished I would have had the chance to run across. It was similar in size to the one that was at Delphi and was also blocked off to the public. The field appeared as if it was being restored. You can imagine newly healed patients ready to run against one another or ancient wrestling matches taking place on the field. 

I was also excited to discover the Temple to Artemis here. It still had some columns standing and is currently being restored. It appeared to be built in the Doric style used predominately in the 4th century BC. The Temple to Aphrodite was only an alter. No other columns or pieces of it remained.

The Museum

One of the hidden gems is the museum. If you don’t have time to visit the ruins, look everything over in this small museum. Some of the worlds first medical instruments are on display in here along with statues and friezes that once adorned the temple. Many of the original statues do not have heads. The better preserved ones on display here may be copies created from plaster casts. The Greeks have made a major effort to preserve these statues; many have been sent them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

I enjoyed seeing the bases and alters from patients who had been healed and who wanted to show they were patrons to the god. They really put into perspective how many people were helped. They are fairly elaborate. The statues of Aphrodite show the image of the goddess of love had many followers at Epidaurus even if her temple is gone. 

In the back of the museum is a recreation of the Propylaia of the temple. The ancient freezes tell several different stories of the young god and are one of the must see pieces of the museum if you enjoy ancient temples.  

Wrap Up

Epidaurus is a stop worth visiting if you are in your way to another set of ancient ruins. If you have time, I would recommend spending at least two hours here instead of a rushing and seeing everything in 1 hour like I had. Ancient Corinth is not far from here as is ancient Nemea. If you can talk your driver into it, Nemea is said to have a great temple to Herakles! Until next time, happy travels!