The last colours of the sunset had faded and the first stars were beginning to appear in the clear night sky when the cast of the Greek National Theatre filed out of a side entrance and walked slowly toward the stage. The actors wore the traditional robes of ancient Greece and each carried a lighted candle that sent shadows flickering across the ancient stonework of the Proskenion. The effect was spellbinding. The murmur of conversation from the crowd filling the vast stone amphitheatre of Epidaurus faded to a deathly silence as spotlights illuminated the circular stage below us and the classic Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex began to unfold.
Written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC, the play was performed in the language of ancient Greece. But understanding the words was not necessary. Through superb acting and raw emotion the professional cast brought the story to life the tale of a young man tormented by a prophesy that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Unaware that he was adopted Oedipus attempts to escape the curse of the Oracle by leaving his foster parents, only to have the prophesy fulfilled when he unknowingly encounters his birth parents, and on realizing what he has done blinds himself in a fit of remorse.
Our attendance at the performance was more a case of serendipity than good planning. When we rolled into the Sanctuary of Epidaurus intending to spend a few hours exploring the ruins we had no idea that the summer Theatre Festival was in full swing. As it turned out the ruins were disappointing. Except for the foundations not much remains of what was once an extensive therapeutic and religious centre dedicated to the healing God Asklepios. But the Theatre is magnificent.
Built in the 4th century BC the theatre of Epidaurus is nestled into a natural amphitheatre on the north slope of Mt. Kynortion. Because of its remote location it has suffered little pilfering and most of the original stonework remains intact. Renowned for its perfect acoustics the theatre can accommodate 14,000 spectators in 55 tiers of stone seats that curve around the circular orchestra where actors perform. Like most tourists who visit the place Betty and I took turns standing in the centre of the orchestra and marvelling at how far into the theatre a whisper could be heard.
Blundering into the Epidaurus Festival was the first of many memorable surprises during our week-long trip through the Peloponnese. After the white-knuckle nightmare of Athens traffic driving the winding rural roads of the Peloponnese was pure pleasure. Originally connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land the Peloponnese Peninsula is now separated from the rest of Greece by the Cornith canal. The steep-sided, 6 km cut was excavated through solid rock in the late 1800s to provide a shipping link between the Aegean and Ionian seas that allowed vessels to bypass the perilous trip around the southern Peloponnese. Crossing the bridge over the canal and heading south along the coastal road of the Sasonic Gulf is like entering a different world a place with more space, less rush, and a step back in time.