Let Ancient Corinth, once home of prized black-figure pottery, a bustling sea trade and renowned temple prostitutes, lead you astray for at least half a day...
In the annals of modern tourist literature, not a whole lot has been said about Corinth, probably because unlike in Athens, its most evocative temple ruins are less intact and divorced from its acropolis, the Acrocorinth which is spectacular but separate . And when you studied Corinth it was probably in the context of the ancient Greek city-states in general, and you learned about the Corinthian order, the fanciest of the three kinds of ancient Greek columns (unlike ours, which is resolutely unclassifiable), and then moved on.
Classical Corinth was often tangled up between Athens and Sparta but it was a polis to be reckoned with, home to as many as 90,000 people by 400 B.C. The city exported black-figure pottery to other Greek city-states, and many of those who weren't keeping busy by making vases kept busy by plying what was even then the world's oldest profession. There were at one point a thousand well-trained hetaerae, or temple prostitutes, who served merchants and officials from far and wide. They answered only to Aprodite, the goddess of love and related activities of varying degrees of
holiness. Brisk trade served by not one but two ports, average warriors, a few colonies here and there and a world-class red-light district: basically, Corinth was the Amsterdam of the ancient world.
By the time St. Paul came to town it was a new one, because the Romans had destroyed the classical city some time before. The Jews in residence weren't buying what Paul was peddling er, preaching, so it was in the Corinth that he resolved "to go to the Gentiles," penning his Epistle to the Romans (he penned the Epistles to the Corinthians elsewhere). The Ottoman Turks did a number on Corinth during the Greek War of Independence, and when visit the ruins today you do get the sense that between faded glories, sundry sieges and of course earthquakes this places has really earned its stripes as an archaeological site par excellence.
Although ancient Korinthos is slightly set back from the sea, that doesn't mean it didn't have a port: in fact, it had two of them. The geography here is something unique in the world and also played a decisive role in antiquity, thanks to the Isthmus of Corinth which puts the Gulf of Corinth to the west and Saronic Gulf to the east. The ancient city is just west of the famous isthmus, which since 1893 has been crossed by a narrow canal (the modern city is about three miles north of the ancient site). One of the ancient ports was Lechaeum, on the Corinthian Gulf side, and it handled trade from Corinthian colonies in Sicily. On the Saronic Gulf side, the port of Cenchreae was entrepôt for trade with Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean. Traces of the ancient harbor and Temple of Isis can still be seen just off shore at modern Kechries.
The ancient Corinthians were not on the whole as intellectually brilliant as the Athenians, but that's not to say they weren't clever. The nasty but ingenious Periander was quite the tyrant (if he didn't care for your politics and there was a staircase nearby, look out) but he did design the diolkos, a kind of paved track that was used to swiftly transport boats across the isthmus from one port to the other. It was also a canny way to generate revenue from tolls, a legacy which lives on in the buckets of change one must fork over when taking the main highways in or out of the Corinth area today. By the way, we recommend Kosmos Car Rental.
Ideally you could explore the ruins of ancient Corinth when the flowers are in bloom and the heat isn't quite so intense as it is in summer. What you can do though is spend more time up on the Acrocorinth, which is truly spectacular and a actually a mix of Mycenaean, classical ancient Greek, Byzantine and Venetian fortifications. The commanding view of the Isthmus of Corinth made this one of the most strategic spots in Greece, and the breezes you feel up on the summit—where long ago there was also a temple to Aphrodite—are welcome on a hot summer's day.
If you're up for it, you can look for the Upper Pirene fountain, originally clad in marble, within the walls. According to one legend the spring there, sacred to the Muses, was created when the hoof of the winged horse Pegasus struck the ground.
Speaking of springs, the entire area around Corinth is very seismically active and there are abundant mineral springs. Just five miles northeast of modern Corinth, the seaside city of Loutraki sits on the site of the ancient town of Thermae, which literally means hot springs. Loutro means bath, so the name Loutraki itself kind of means 'little bath town'. In modern times, the presence of healing waters was widely publicized after 1847, after which the town grew considerably. Loutraki is mostly Greek seaside honky-tonk without a whole lot to keep you there, but the Perachora peninsula just north of it is another story. Lots of stories, actually, starting with Limni Vouliagmenis, a salt lake with a narrow opening onto the Gulf of Corinth.
If you arrived at this spot blindfolded and then suddenly saw the azure waters backed by the craggy peaks covered with bright-green pine trees, you might think you were in Ibiza or Corfu. But a jaunt a little farther down the road reminds you that you are still very much in the heart of the Greek mainland and also the center of some powerhouse Greek mythology: the Heraion of Perachora is one of the most arresting ancient sanctuaries to Hera, goddess of home, hearth and shouting matches with monogamy-averse husband Zeus, in the ancient world. Take a look around:
The ruins are adjacent to a cove with a small beach, where you can go for a swim if it's not too crowded. Alternately, just gawk at the place from one of two lookout posts.
By the way, speaking of honky-tonk, on the road between Loutraki and the archaeological site of the Heraion of Perachora you will notice some unusual tavernas, with their oversized mock amphorae inviting you to come on in and check out their wine offerings (and maybe some food to go along with it).
From classical to kitsch and secret coves and spa waters, Corinth really does have it all! One thing it doesn't have? Crowds. My guess is this whole area was more popular in antiquity than it is today, but that's not a complaint: it's very easy to get around, halfway to Sparta if you'll be exploring the Peloponnese, and only about an hour and a half away from its old friendly rival, Athens.