What’s now an agreeable farm town was once one of the most powerful cities of the ancient Peloponnese. Ancient Argos saw its heyday in the 7th century B.C., under the tyrant Phaedon, until it was eventually eclipsed by Sparta. The scant remains scattered around the modern town include a theater that, with room for 20,000 spectators in 89 rows of seats, was one of the largest in the ancient world (summertime performances are still held here). The Romans re-engineered the arena so it could be used for mock naval battles and channeled the water into the adjacent baths. A small archaeological museum on Plateia Ayiou Petrou (odysseus.culture.gr; tel. 27510/68-819) shows off local finds; among them is a clay figure of a squat, heavy-thighed woman, unearthed at nearby Lerna, thought to be the earliest representation of the human body yet to be found in Europe. Figures in Roman mosaics in the museum’s shady courtyard are far less primitive: They’re bundled up in cloaks and leggings in the cold months, and casually dressed in light tunics and filmy cloaks in the summer months. A 7th-century-B.C. clay krater (vessel) shows a determined Ulysses blinding the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus. Admission is 2€; 6€ with theater and other ruins.
High atop the town are two citadels, famous in antiquity. The Aspis was the city’s first acropolis, abandoned when the higher (274m/905 ft.) Larissa was fortified in the 5th century B.C., with an inner and outer system of walls and several towers, the ruins of which are still visible. You can drive to both on rough roads, or make the ascent on a rugged, steep path from the ancient theater; allow at least 3 hours for the ascent and descent and bring water. The piles of sun-baked old stones at the top really aren’t the draw: your reward for the climb is spectacular views of fertile plains and the sparking blue waters of the Gulf of Argos. The site is always open and admission is free.
A jumble of massive stones—appropriately known as Cyclopean and some weighing as much as 15 tons—were once part of the walls surrounding this fortress-town that may have been the seaport for ancient Mycenae. Homer praised the city as “mighty-walled Tiryns,” and the sheer power the place exudes gave rise to the ancient belief that it was the birthplace of Hercules. A modern observer, the writer Henry Miller, observed that the ruined city “smells of cruelty, barbarism, suspicion, isolation.” Not all about Tiryns was barbaric, however: A palace within the walls was once decorated with splendid frescoes of women riding chariots and other scenes, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. In a series of storage galleries and chambers on the east side of the citadel, the walls of one long passageway with a corbeled arch have been rubbed smooth by generations of sheep sheltered here after Tiryns was abandoned—a graphic example of how the mighty can fall.
The Archaeological Site of Tiryns (odysseus.culture.gr; tel. 27520/22-657) is open Apr–Oct daily 8:30am–7pm; Nov–Mar daily 8am–5pm. Admission is 2€. Tiryns is 5km (3 miles) outside Nafplion on the Argos road. If you have a car, this is an easy drive; if you don't, take one of the frequent Nafplion–Argos buses and ask to be let off at Tiryns. Taxi drivers will take you to Tiryns and wait while you visit; expect to pay from 30€ for an hour visit. A small stand by the ticket booth sometimes has cold drinks and postcards and the useful guidebook Tiryns (8€) by archaeologist Alkestis Papademetriou. Finds from Tirnys are on display in the Archaeological Museums in Nafplion and Athens.
Tiryns is a good deal better preserved—and much less crowded and more pleasant to visit—than Mycenae. Most scholars assume that Tiryns was a friendly neighbor to the more powerful Mycenae, and some have suggested that Tiryns was Mycenae's port. Today, Tiryns is a mile from the sea; in antiquity, before the plain silted up, it would have been virtually on the seashore.
Tiryns's citadel stands on a rocky outcropping 27m (89 ft.) high and about 300m (990 ft.) long and is encircled by the massive walls that so impressed Homer. Later Greeks thought that only the giants known as Cyclops could have positioned the wall's 13-metric-ton (14-U.S.-ton) red limestone blocks, and archaeologists still call these walls "cyclopean." Even today, Tiryns's walls stand more than 9m (30 ft.) high; originally, they were twice as tall—and as much as 18m (57 ft.) thick. Tiryns seems to have increased its fortifications around 1400 B.C., but they were destroyed around 1200 B.C., whether by an enemy or an earthquake is not known.
Once you climb the ramp and pass through the two gates, you'll find yourself in a series of storage galleries and chambers on the east side of the citadel. One long passageway with a corbeled arch has walls that were rubbed smooth by the generations of sheep sheltered here for centuries after Tiryns's fall. Few places offer such a graphic example of how the mighty can fall, than this palace that became a sheep fold.
The citadel is crowned by the palace, whose megaron (great hall) has a well-preserved circular hearth and the base of a putative throne. This room would have been decorated with frescoed walls; you can see the surviving frescoes, some with scenes of elegant women riding in a chariot, in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Lesser folk would have lived below the citadel on the plain. Two tunnels led from the lower slopes of Tiryns out into the plain to the large subterranean cisterns, which held the secret water supply that allowed Tiryns to withstand even lengthy sieges.
Insider Tip: If you're feeling frustrated to be so near, but not in, the sea when you visit Tiryns, take one of the side roads from the Nafplion–Argos road that Tirnys overlooks across to the Gulf of Argos. A sandy beach stretches almost all the way from the outskirts of Nafplion to the hamlet of Nea Chios, where there are fresh fish restaurants. The water is shallow enough that you can wade a long way out, which makes this an ideal spot for families with young children. The men wading about with long-handled nets are rooting around in the sand for mussels. The families hanging their washing out to dry on trees and bushes are Gypsies. As always at a public beach, it's a good idea to lock your car and keep an eye on valuables.
Ayia Moni Convent
This hillside convent is a 3km (1 1/2-mile) drive outside Nafplion. Until recently, much of the drive was through countryside. Now, the road to the convent winds uphill through a fast-growing suburb, where houses and small apartment blocks are fast replacing the olive groves. Still, the convent itself remains peaceful. To get here by car, head out of Nafplion on the Epidaurus road. Turn right at the sign for Ayia Moni and continue on a partly bumpy road uphill to the convent. Ayia Moni is usually open from about 9am to 5pm in winter, later in summer, but usually closed during the afternoon siesta (about 1–4pm).
Ayia Moni was founded in the 12th century, and the church is a fine example of Byzantine church architecture, with nice brickwork. Many of the other buildings here are modern and were built after a series of fires destroyed much of the original convent. If the main door is closed, knock. The nuns sometimes have embroidery to sell and are usually more than willing to show you the church and garden and tell about the rich Greek-American benefactor who rebuilt the convent.
The spring that feeds a small pond just outside the convent walls is one of a number of springs in Greece identified as the place where Zeus's wife, Hera, took an annual bath to restore her virginity and renew Zeus's ardor. Today, the spring water is considered both holy and delicious; pilgrims often fill bottles to take home.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.