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89km (55 miles) W of Athens

Now lying in vast ruins and surrounded by fertile plains, Corinth—one of the most important cities in the world for well over a thousand years—still evokes wealth and power. A prime location on the narrow Isthmus of Corinth gave the huge city, with a population of 100,000 by 400 B.C., not one but two ports, gateways to sea routes to the Middle East as well as Italy. Goods from all over the known world once flowed into Corinth. A player in the Trojan and Persian Wars, the city was a major sea power with a huge fleet and established a colony at Siracusa on the island of Sicily that became another of the world’s great Greek cities. Corinth’s citizens were known for their love of luxury, reflected in the so-called Corinthian Order of architecture, in which columns are topped with elaborate capitals decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls. They were also known for their free-wheeling lifestyle, exemplified by the Temple of Aphrodite’s 1,000 sacred prostitutes—morals that later vexed St. Paul when he came here to preach Christianity in the 1st century A.D. What you see today is actually the remains of two cities, for the Romans destroyed much of Corinth when they overran Greece in the 2nd century B.C. Julius Caesar ordered the city’s reconstruction in A.D. 52, and much of today’s site dates to that era.

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.

The name Peloponnese means “Pelops Island,” but for centuries this region west of Athens was not really an island, but connected to the mainland by this narrow neck of land, only 6.3km (4 miles) wide. As a result, ships approaching Athens were forced to sail an extra 400km (240 miles) around the Peloponnese. Over the millennia, numerous schemes for shortcuts were attempted. The ancient Greeks built a stone road, the Diolkos, to cart goods and small ships between the Gulf of Corinth to the west of the isthmus and the Saronic Gulf to the east. (Portions of the stone ramp still run alongside the modern canal.) The Romans attempted to dig a canal several times but eventually settled for rolling ships across the isthmus on logs, similar to the way the Egyptians had transported blocks of granite across the desert to build the Great Pyramids. The Emperor Nero revived attempts in A.D. 67 and set 6,000 slaves to work with spades, but that endeavor was soon determined to be too costly and impractical. It was not until the Suez Canal was completed in the 1870s that interest turned again to digging a similar water route across the isthmus, and a Greek team completed the job in 1893, making the Peloponnese a bona fide island at last.

Most highway traffic zooms across the Isthmus of Corinth, but you can pull off into the Canal Tourist Area and a well-marked overlook for a look at the ribbon-like waterway, the ship traffic, and, most impressively, the 86m-high (282 ft.) walls of rock through which the canal was cut. An added attraction is the daredevil antics of bungee jumpers, for whom the chasm is a big draw.

Afterward, 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.