Mycenae: Half Day from Athens

This is my last day off for a couple days so I figured why not do another post today. I’ve been writing so much about Venice late, I thought it might be time to complete my Athens half day series. Today we journey to the city of Mycenae, home to the King, Agamemnon.

Who Is Agamemnon?

Have you ever heard of a little thing called the Trojan War? King Agamemnon was at the focal point of the drama. According to Greek mythology and Homer’s Iliad, Agamemnon was the king of one of the most powerful civilizations in Greece. Agamemnon’s brother, King Menelaus of Sparta was married to the most beautiful women in the ancient world, Helen.

Helen was the daughter of the king of the gods, Zeus. Backtracking and to simplify the entire saga, Paris, Prince of Troy was asked to decide between the goddesses: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, who was the most beautiful of all. Paris choose Aphrodite. Hera and Athena went ballistic and vowed their revenge against Paris. Aphrodite promised Paris he could have any bride. He choose Helen.

Helen was then “kidnapped” by Paris and taken to Troy. Menelaus and the Greeks gathered their armies to go after Helen and that began the 10 years of war against Troy. Now, of course much of most likely never happened, but Agamemnon did actually exist! More on that later.

What’s important is that the legend of Agamemnon and the Trojan War sparked the interest of many historians and in particular, a German businessman, Henrich Schlieman. In the 1870s, Schlieman funded several archaeological digs in Greece and Turkey. Using The Iliad as a guide, he was able to discover the historical ancient ruins of Troy and Mycenae (Schlieman solidified the field of archaeology and is considered one of its founding fathers).

Why is Mycenae important?

The Mycenaen civilization existed from the Neolitic age (3200 BC) until the late Helladic Age (1000 BC). It was at the height of its power from about 1600 to 1100 BC. The Myceanes are considered to be one of the heaviest influencers of what would become Greek culture. It’s thought that their religion became the basis of the Greek pantheon.

The city of Myceane is one of the best fortified cities to have existed. Extensive ruins of its walls and masonry work remain. It was one of the most difficult cities to attack due to its hilltop location and defenses. The ancient Greeks didn’t believe a human civilization would be capable of building such a wall and thought the Cyclopes would be the only beings capable of such work.

Getting to Mycenae

I was most drawn to visit the city of Mycenae since I am a huge nerd of Greek mythology. Mycenae is a somewhat difficult location to get to on one’s own, however. It lies about 30 miles from Corinth and Nafplio. If you have a car, it’s easy to navigate by signs in both Greek and English. There is a parking lot for the two sections of the historical site, the tombs and the city. If you are not in a car, taking a tour buys is a great way to great around.

I booked a tour myself since I also wanted to see Greece’s first capital of Nafplio. There may be a way to take the KTEL bus from Nafplio, but honestly it’s a better use of your time to just do a tour or drive. In March, the site wasn’t too crowded and the tour ending up costing my about 50 Euros for site admission, a guide and transportation. I thought it was a great way to see the site!

Either way, once you see the first set of walls along the ruin sites, it’s impressive! They are tall and run for miles. Maybe a cyclopes really did build them! You will want to stop at the tombs first before heading up to the main portion of the hilltop. It is steep terrain and although you probably could walk from the tombs to the museum and city ruins, I wouldn’t advise it.

The Tombs

The Mycenae Kings were buried in unique bee-hive shaped tombs that are one of the most impressive sites you will encounter in Greece. The tombs have a very unique “key shaped” triangle at the entrance. The Mycenaens are thought to have been inspired by the Minoan civilization of Crete. The height of the tombs seemed to be about 30-50 feet tall; its hard to tell from a distance. When they were first discovered, only the very top of the tombs were visible.

When they were finally excavated the treasures within were largely untouched. The grave diggers were supposedly never able to dig deep enough to go unnoticed and according to local lore, didn’t want to feel the wrath of the Cyclopes (who also supposedly built the tombs). You can see the surviving treasure displayed in the Mycenae museum next to the city. Among the treasure is a copy of the famous “Mask of Agamemnon” (the original is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). The lavish columns and other decorations are also on display at the museum.

Another fun fact is that the tombs supposedly draw a line to the palace from the air. The line from to the tombs is what led Henrich Schliemann to discover them. There is one tomb open to the public you are able to step into. When you enter, beware of wasps! I didn’t expect to see so many near the opening of the tomb. They love the cool interior of the tomb as an escape from the hot Greek sun. It can be chilly inside so I would have a sweater with you.

The tomb that is open has two chambers. The burial chamber is roped off to the public and is pitch black inside, but you are able to turn on a smart phone or flashlight to take a better look. You won’t see much. The tomb that the public can see has two names: Treasury of Atreus and Tomb of Agamemnon. It probably doesn’t belong to either one; the tomb dates to the late Bronze age before either would have ruled. Once you are done in the tomb area, head to the museum and archaeological/historical site.

The Museum/Archaeological Site

The museum is something I would recommend starting with. That way you can maximize your time walking around the grounds and seeing the ruins of Mycenae. The museum is well put together and has a wonderful collection of vases, statues and other artifacts dug up in the area. I appreciated that my tour guide did a condensed tour of the museum. There is so much to see that it can be overwhelming.

The most treasured piece of the collection is the fresco of the three Mycenae women! Art so well preserved is a rarity. There is a similar art style to that of the Minoans to it. One person in my group thought it seemed slightly Egyptian. Just be careful what you say….the Greeks get easily offended by comments like this. It is true that Egypt was a large trade partner of the area. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Myceaeans were influenced by them.

The scale model of the city gives you a unique perspective on what Mycenae may have looked like in its heyday. Read the descriptions too if you have time. After a while, your eyes will glaze over. That’s when you know you are ready to hit the outdoors. This is where you will want to ensure you have shoes that are comfortable as you will be doing a lot of walking. The site can also be quite windy. Have your sweater ready to go. There is also no restroom, use the museum one before you go to the historical site.

There are 6 tombs you will see roped off and is spread out over the top of the hillside. The most touristy spot of Mycenae is the Lion’s gate! This was what I had most looked forward to seeing. Sadly, the head of the lions are gone, but the gate itself was the official entrance point into the city. You can imagine Agamemnon walking through it and heading off to Troy! The lion’s heads were thought to be the only part of the city gates that showed above ground and were thought to once have been covered in gold and taken by thieves. Remember that until the 1870s the entire city was buried.

When you walk around, the Greek ministry of culture has done a fantastic job of labeling what you are looking out. You can picture the kitchens and rooms that once stood where you will stand. I was amazed by how much of the surrounding area you could see! The hilltop of Mycenae was the perfect vantage point to see any possible invaders. On a clear day you can see out to the coast.

Other Thoughts

There isn’t much shade to the site itself if you are going in summer, a hat and water are vital to an enjoyable experience. You will probably end up spending about 60-90 minutes there. Take everything in; there are few sites that are older than this and if you want to fully experience Greece, this is a must-see site! My advice it to always go early or late. It can be crowded, but will be much more free than the Acropolis in Athens. Happy travels!