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Nea and Palaia Epidauros
(New and Old Epidavros)

Archaia Epidavros

As I pointed out before, in my article on the Sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidauros, the actual city that governed the sanctuary, was located some 10 km to the East of it, at the coast of the Saronic Gulf. This coastal town, now called Archaia or Palaia Epidauros ("Ancient Epidauros"), was once a famous and thriving city that ruled the region around it, called Epidauria, from Mycenaean times up until the 6th century CE, when it was destroyed by two earthquakes and part of it sank into the sea. It was mentioned by Homeros in the Iliad as being "rich in wine" and for sending a large number of its ships to Troy. It participated in the Second Peloponnesian War at the side of Sparta and thus suffered from attacks and even a blockade of its harbour by Athenian forces. But for many centuries it was known throughout the Mediterranean mostly because it was the gateway to the Sanctuary of Asklepios.

Very much like today, in Antiquity the city of Epidauros must have counted a number of hotels and restaurants, and any kind of amenity that is typical for a city with an important harbour. Considering the widespread fame of the Sanctuary of Asklepios as a healing centre and the fact that the harbours of Athens and Corinth were just a few hours away by boat, the visitors to Epidauros and its Sanctuary - pilgrims, patients, doctors, students in medicine, ... -  must have outnumbered by far the current tourists in what is now a small holiday resort in Spring, Summer, and Autumn, and a sleepy Peloponnesian town during Winter.

Nea Epidavros

Even smaller and more quiet is the town of Nea Epidauros ("New Epidauros"), a few kilometers to the North of Archaia Epidauros. In both places important remains of a Mycenaean settlement and cemetery have been discovered, thus dating the first Epidaurians to at least the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. Apart from its small harbour, a beach, and a few local hotels and restaurants, Nea Epidauros is worth a visit for the ruins of its medieval castle including a very old church, the monument commemorating the first official assembly in December 1821 of the leaders of the Greek War of Independence, a walk through the narrow and scenic Vothyla canyon, and a stop at the small but interesting Agnountos monastery, a few kilometers North on the road to Isthmia and the Corinth Canal. Visiting another, abandoned monastery at Polemarcha Beach to the South brings us back into the realm of Archaia Epidauros.

The importance of Archaia Epidauros for the archaeology and history of the Argolid (Argolis, or Argolida in Greek) and indeed the whole of Ancient Greece was until recently overshadowed by the fame of the Sanctuary of Asklepios with its healing centre and its famous big theatre. It was not until the 1970s that systematic excavations were organised in the Mycenaean necropolis, which is situated on the hill to the North-West of the town, and around the akropolis of the city, which is located on a small peninsula to the East. Several Mycenaean rock-cut tombs can be seen in one of the streets that runs along the hill to the West of the town centre. It is thought that several more are to be found underneath some of the modern buildings. On top of the same hill are the ruins of a classical temple dedicated to Artemis. The one dedicated to Hera has been "covered up" by the church of Agios Nikolaos, the patron saint of Archaia Epidauros, built on a small promontory in the harbour of the town. Finds from the Mycenaean tombs and other, more recent archaeological sites in Archaia Epidauros are stored or on display in the archaeological museum of Nafplio. The beautifully crafted and painted terracotta figurines and exquisite jewellery dating from Hellenistic and Roman Times prove that this was no ordinary town.

Little Theater of Epidavros

The first building of the city of the 5th and 4th century BCE to be excavated, was the so-called "small theatre" (as opposed to the "big" one at the Sanctuary). Archaeologists sometimes call it "the talking theatre" because of its many inscriptions mentioning the names of the people who paid for its construction or enhancement - sponsorship is nothing new. The theatre dates from the 4th century BCE and its 18 rows of seats could welcome around 2,000 people. A large number of stone blocks of the upper tiers are now missing because a few centuries later they were used as building material for a large, defensive wall protecting the akropolis on the peninsula. Parts of this wall can still be seen near the ruins of an old church which was built on top of one of the ancient temples, which itself contains a number of inscribed blocks of stone, one of which mentions the name of Dionysos. Today, just as its bigger counterpart in the Sanctuary, the small theatre in Epidauros hosts a number of cultural events, mostly music performances, during the Athens-Epidauros Festival that takes place every Summer. The old house next to the theatre is a fine example of Peloponnesian architecture, with its simple, rectangular shape, two levels, and large blocks of limestone. It is now used by the archaeologists who dig up the site. Not far from the small theatre one or two very old olive trees can be seen, as well as a number of old wells.

Ruins in Palaio Epidavros

On the akropolis itself a lot of archaeological work still needs to be done. Shrubs, trees, and landslides have covered most of the buildings and their contents since the site was abandoned in the 6th century CE. Yet several fragments of columns belonging to one of the temples, some ruined walls and foundations of buildings, and several stone stairways running up and down the hill are still visible. A number of fragments of marble statues have been found as well, but the fact that most of the peninsula is still in private hands, doesn't make things easier nor less expensive for the archaeologists.

Epidavros Little Theater

On both sides of the theatre other buildings are now being excavated, one of which is a small Roman bath house, with parts of its tiled floors, plastered walls, washing basins, hypocaust (a kind of central heating system under the floors and inside the walls), and sewage system still intact. Behind the bath house parts of a high wall have been discovered, made of big blocks of stone that were cut and mounted one on top of the other very precisely. Because this wall was covered by earth soon after its construction, it practically looks like new, although it's 2,000 years old. A huge "pithos" (a large earthenware storage container) with Greek characters on its sides can be admired nearby, just as a large white marble lintel with some of its decoration still intact. Towards the harbour of Epidauros archaeologists have been digging quite deep to uncover the impressive walls of another building, the function of which is still under investigation. Fragments of columns, architectural elements in marble, and thousands of fragments of terracotta tiles have been found also.

Ruins in Archaia Epidavros

Other remains of Roman Times in the vicinity of the theatre, probably related to the revival of the Sanctuary of Asklepios during the 2nd century CE, include the ruins of a mausoleum. Its crypt contained the coffins, the bodies, and the bronze surgical instruments (on display in the museum of the Sanctuary) of a doctor, his wife and another member of the family. It is also here that the "sacred road" towards the Sanctuary, 10 km to the West, starts. Several kilometers of this paved road still exist and in certain places even the ruts of the cart wheels can still be seen. Since the road was only about 2 meters wide, at a certain place a double lane was made allowing carts which transported patients or older people unable to walk the distance between city and sanctuary, to cross each other.

Nea and Palaio Epidavros View

The link between the ancient city of Epidauros and its Sanctuary of Asklepios, both physical (the sacred road) and economical (the harbour and the amenities for visitors to the Sanctuary), is quite unique in archaeology. Therefore, in 2015, plans were made and are now being executed to re-organise the site of the Sanctuary of Asklepios with its theatre, temples and other buildings, build a new museum and a centre for medical conferences, organise more excavations in Archaia Epidauros and present their results to a wider audience using new, up-to-date information panels and expertly guided tours. This project is aimed at underlining the importance of the sanctuary as a medical centre (currently overshadowed by the fame of the big theatre at the same site) and at reviving the link between the sanctuary and the city that was managing it for almost a millennium. This could be a boost for local cultural tourism as well as for archaeology in a region that has always been historically very important and still has so much to offer to travellers and tourists alike.

Beach in Epidavros

In this perspective, Archaia and Nea Epidauros are ideally situated as holiday resorts, as they are only a two-hour drive away from Athens and Patras, and allow tourists to have a comfortable base giving them easy access to several important archaeological sites and places of interest in the Argolid and the surrounding area. The Sanctuary of Asklepios and its famous theatre are ten minutes away by car.  Nafplio and Tiryns forty minutes, Mycenae and Argos less than one hour. And then there is Troezen, Methana, Poros, Hydra, Spetses, Nemea, Isthmia, Corinth... all within easy reach. The Epidaurian beaches are many and they aren't crowded. The towns themselves are quiet, have a number of shops and supermarkets, several good restaurants, hotels, and apartments to let. The Gulf of Epidauros, stretching from Archaia Epidauros to the volcanic peninsula of Methana, is still a good fishing ground. If you're the sporty type, you can scuba dive, paraglide, or hike on wonderful trails in valleys and on hills. Off-the-beaten-track villages like Dimaina, Arachnaio, Angelokastro, and Gkatzia offer tourists their untouched authenticity and the hills around them allow for amazing views on the surrounding landscape.

Epidavros beach

In general, prices in hotels and restaurants in and around Epidauros are lower than in the more touristy places. The taste of oranges, lemons, mandarines, tomatoes and other vegetables, all local produce, is unsurpassed, and the perfume of thousands of blossoming citrus trees pervades the valley in Spring - one of the best times of the year to visit. The honeybees, so admired by the Mycenaeans, never left and still thrive here. Shepherds lead their flocks over the same goat trails onto the same hills as their ancestors who settled here, in the Argolid, some 30,000 years ago. Homeros, Pausanias, and other classical authors described this region with love and respect, and so did several European travellers of the 18th and 19th centuries in their journals. It doesn't take much effort to come and see why there is much more to Epidauros than its famous theatre.

Angelos Asklepiades photographs and writes about his passion: archaeological sites and their history, legends, and stories. Based in the heartland of the Mycenaean civilisation, the Argolid, he explores mythical hills and magical valleys in search of ruins and roads that were seen and described by travellers of the 18th and 19th century. A master's degree in Classical Philology and Greek Archaeology helps him to share to a general public what colleagues in history, philology, and archaeology research, excavate, and publish. You can contact him at garden.of.the.muses@gmail.com

Helpful Epidauros Tourist Information

Nea and Palaia Epidauros are about a 3 hour drive from Athens and about 40 minutes from the town of Nafplio. There are restaurants and hotels in both towns which are both on the sea and you can also stay in Nafplio and visit these towns for lunch and a swim on a daytrip along with the Sanctuary of Asklepios with its healing centre and its famous big theatre. For hotels in Nea and Palaio Epidavros use this link to Booking.com's Epidavros Page where you can search for hotels, villas, and apartments.

Many people include Epidauros when they do a One Day Tour of the Argolis with George the Famous Taxi Driver or as part of a longer trip around the Peloponnesos. Fantasy Travel also offers the Mycenae - Epidaurus 1 Day Tour and their Mycenae - Epidaurus 2 Day Tour and it is also included in their 4 Day Classical Tour, their 5 Day Classical Tour and their 7 Day Grand Tour of Greece. If you plan to go by bus they leave from the Kifissos Bus Station and continue on to Argos and Nafplio. See Schedules. You can also rent a car through Swift Rent-a-Car and Fantasy Rent-a-Car and go on your own. For hotels in and around Nafplio see Booking.com's Nafplio Hotel Search.

Be sure to visit these nearby places as well

Ancient Myceneae, Greece
Corinth & the Argolis

Nafplio, Peloponessos
Nafplion

Nemea, Temple of Zeus
Nemea

Mycenae
Mycenae

Thank you to Fantasy Travel for some of the photos on this page. Please join Matt Barrett's Greece Travel Guides on Facebook for conversation, information and photos of Greece. If you liked this page please share it with your friends on Facebook or whateversocial media you are addicted to.


copyright by Matt Barrett and updated continuously