89km (55 miles) W of Athens

Today, as in antiquity, Corinth, along with Patras, is one of the two major gateways to the Peloponnese. And, like most gates, Corinth offers no real temptations to linger. An earthquake destroyed much of ancient Corinth and the charming 19th-century town that sprawled around it. Today, modern Corinth (pop. 26,000) is a thicket of undistinguished concrete buildings, built to withstand future quakes, but the ancient site still has much to offer, including acres of the ancient commercial center and the spectacular Temple of Apollo.

Stop to see the ships slipping through the narrow Corinth Canal that cuts across the isthmus, then head straight for ancient Corinth, in the hamlet of Archaia Korinthos (Old Corinth), bypassing the unappealing modern city. When you've seen ancient Corinth, head for Mycenae or Nafplion, both less than an hour away and both with excellent hotels and restaurants.

A Look at the Past -- Much of Corinth's ancient power and prosperity came from its strategic location overlooking the sea and land routes into the Peloponnese. No enemy could sneak across the isthmus without being spotted by the soldiers stationed on Corinth's towering acropolis, Acrocorinth, standing 566m (1,855 ft.).

During the 8th and 7th centuries B.C., Corinth controlled much of the trade in the Mediterranean and founded colonies as far away as Syracuse in Sicily. This was when Corinth made and exported the distinctive red-and-black figured pottery decorated with lively animal motifs, examples of which are on display in the excavation museum. Great sailors, the Corinthians were credited with refining the design of the trireme, the standard warship in Greek antiquity. The only obstacle Corinth couldn't overcome was the isthmus itself: there were only two ways for ships to get around the Peloponnese. Either they were dragged between the ports of Kenchreai on the east and Lechaion on the west, or they sailed around the entire Peloponnese.

Although Corinth's greatest period of prosperity was between the 8th and 5th centuries B.C., most of the ancient remains here are from the Roman period. Razed and destroyed when the Romans conquered Greece in 146 B.C., Corinth was refounded by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. and began a second period of wealth and prosperity. When St. Paul visited here in A.D. 52, he found Corinth too sophisticated, and chastised the Corinthians for their wanton ways.

By the 2nd century A.D., with some 300,000 citizens and 500,000 slaves, Corinth was much larger and more powerful than Athens -- and much larger than any city in the Peloponnese today. As one Greek proverb had it, "See Corinth and die," suggesting that there was nothing to look forward to after visiting its monuments (and fleshpots).