When the American writer Henry Miller went to Epidaurus in the late 1930s, he was so ecstatic about the landscape that he wrote (in The Colossus of Maroussi): “The road to Epidaurus is like the road to creation. One stops searching. One grows silent, one is stilled by the hush of mysterious beginnings.”
Located in the northeast Peloponnese, less than two hours’ drive from Athens, the ancient site of Epidaurus makes a rewarding day trip—with or without catching a performance at the extraordinary outdoor amphitheatre. Epidaurus was also the most important shrine to the Asclepius, a demi-god worshipped for his healing powers. For almost a thousand years, patients flocked to his sanctuary at Epidaurus in the hope of being cured at the holistic spa.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius
Try to time your arrival at ancient Epidaurus early in the morning or an hour or two before sundown, when it is less crowded. Although you’re probably longing to see the famous theatre, first take a stroll around the Sanctuary of Asclepius. There are none of the imposing ruins that you’ll find at Olympia or Delphi, only the foundations of its many buildings, so summon your imagination. Picture the ground beneath your feet as the first holistic spa and hospital and also the setting for athletic competitions and worship. And if you do coincide with lots of people, imagine that you are all pilgrims coming in search of spiritual or physical healing. For this famous sanctuary did indeed attract the sick and their relatives from all over the Hellenic and, later, the Roman world.
Myths and medicine
Whatever we may think of myths, miracles or even unconventional medicine nowadays, the cult of Asclepius must have borne results or it would have fizzled out. On the contrary, his cult spread and some 300 Asclepia sprouted all over Greece. In the museum, you will see inscriptions of improbable cures, such as that of a woman named Cleo who gave birth to a son after being pregnant for five years. There are surgical instruments too; though doubtless some of the healing was based on herbal remedies and a deep understanding of human nature.
An essential element of the cure was to spend the night in a building called the Enkoimitirion (dormitory), where patients would have a ‘consultation’ with the doctor-god in their dreams, sometimes assisted by friendly snakes who would lick them. Even today, the symbol of many medical societies is a staff entwined with a snake, the rod of Asclepius.
But this was a place of healing mind, body and soul, so there were also many temples, a library, a ‘shopping centre’, a luxury hotel with 160 rooms, plus athletic facilities—a stadium, wrestling area, gymnasium/banquet hall—and baths. Patients, pilgrims and relatives could listen to poetry or music, meditate, exercise, and every four years, attend a drama festival and ritual games.
The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus
Now to the headline act: the theatre. This pitch-perfect limestone structure was designed by Polykleitos in the 4th century BC. Some experts think it was expanded from the 6,000 seats, in what is now the lower section, to 14,000 seats some two hundred years later.
No doubt you have read that Epidaurus is considered the most perfect amphitheatre in Greece, both architecturally and acoustically. They say a coin dropped in the centre can be heard from the highest seat. You will, of course, want to experiment for yourself. Belt out a few notes of your favourite show tune or find a place to sit and contemplate the spectacle of this singular place. Let the great peace that Henry Miller experienced wash over you: “At Epidaurus, in the stillness, I heard the heart of the world beat.”
The Athens & Epidaurus Festival
Attending an actual performance at Epidaurus is an experience never to be forgotten. Over the past six decades, the open-air theatre has echoed with the voices of such legends as Maria Callas, Kevin Spacey, and Helen Mirren, as high notes of the Athens & Epidaurus Festival. During this annual summer event, you might catch a play by Shakespeare, Racine, or Beckett, as well as the occasional concert. But for many, the real reason to visit Epidaurus is to experience one of the great works of the classical playwrights like Sophocles and Aristophanes performed in a place they did not live to see but would surely have appreciated. If you plan to visit Athens in June, July, or August, be sure to check out the festival line-up and make a detour to this incredible venue.
Getting to Epidaurus
Public buses from Athens to Epidaurus depart from the Kifissos bus station. The advantage of going on your own, either with a rental car or a private guide, is that you can choose your route and time. There are two ways to reach Epidaurus—via Mycenae and Nafplio, or along the coast from the Corinth Canal. This latter route passes a hamlet called Oraia Eleni, where ‘Beautiful Helen’ (of Troy) was alleged to have stopped after Paris kidnapped her from her family home in Sparta. The road then swoops through pine woods above deep coves, where flashes of blue sea alternate with the prevailing green. Keep an eye out for the 8th century monastery of Agnoundos, the oldest in the Argolid, with its 11th century dome. Even if you don’t stop, it comes as a revelation in the middle of what is still nowhere.
Next come the two seaside villages of Nea Epidavros and Palia Epidavros (New and Old Epidaurus). Neither approaches the age of the theatre and sanctuary, but you might like to stop for a meal or a swim. The former was the scene of the First National Assembly in December 1821, when Greek revolutionaries met to draw up a national constitution (they were rather premature since Greece’s freedom was not won for another ten years). Palia Epidavros was an important port in very ancient times and even has its own theatre (3rd century BC). Much smaller than the great theatre everyone comes to see, it is now used for chamber music concerts and the like in summer. My advice would be to save these sights until after you’ve done the main Theatre of Epidaurus, as they’re only about 10 kilometres apart.