SOUNION SUNSETS AND HELLENIC SAGAS
Looking for picturesque ruins and fine seafood? Head south to Greece and follow in the footsteps of America's former First Lady
A spurned woman's revenge is always terrible, especially if it happens in a Greek myth and the background is Cape Sounion, the south-easternmost spot of the Attica Peninsula.
Several thousand years ago Aegeus, king of Athens, was on top of the cliffs that plunge dramatically into the Aegean Sea's turquoise waters. He was waiting for his son, Theseus, to return home after sailing to Crete in a bid to save his country from a terrible sacrifice. Every nine years the city had to send seven boys and seven girls as offerings to King Minos' Minotaur - a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull that lived in the world's earliest labyrinth.
Theseus promised his father that if his expedition was successful, he would return on a ship with white sails. But he failed to foresee that after killing the Minotaur, he would leave with Princess Ariadne, who had fallen in love with him. Unfortunately, he abandoned her en route on the island of Naxos. Ariadne cursed him and he forgot to change the sails. When Aegeus saw the black sails on the horizon, he leapt off the cliffs into the sea, which henceforth became known as the Aegean.
At least 3,500 years have passed since then and things are now a little different. Nobody enters the Temple of Poseidon, built at the beginning of the 5th Century BC on the site of an even older temple. Its Doric columns and walls still standing could collapse at any moment. The trireme (battleship), which the Athenians painstakingly carried to the hilltop as a souvenir of their victory over the Persians and King Xerxes in the Battle of Salamis, is long gone. For thousands of years, no sailor or family member has come here to make sacrifices to appease Poseidon, the god that, for them, was second only to Zeus himself.
Poseidon, the ruler of the seas and earthquakes, decided on everything from whether merchant ships reached their destination to the outcome of sea battles and the quantity of fish in the sea. He was also notorious for his bad temper. You only have to remember the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, whose main mistake was that he killed the Cyclops Polyphemus, one of Poseidon's numerous children, in self-defence.
Nowadays, you're unlikely to see people like Aegeus, waiting on Sounion for a relative to return from the sea. And Greek sailors now assume that they will see the promontory on the horizon, end their journey safe and sound and see Athens once again.
But beautiful landscapes are never left unpopulated for long. For nearly two centuries (or maybe longer, judging from Byron's name carved on one of the columns), Sounion has become the gathering place for people waiting for a special event. It may sound mundane but they wait for the Sounion sunset because it's known to be particularly radiant.
Photography may have been unknown to the Ancient Greeks. But their architects were so adept at placing buildings against a backdrop of sublime scenery that even the ruins of the smallest temples and amphitheatres seem impossibly photogenic. The Temple of Poseidon, in particular, is unrivalled - its cream-coloured columns rising just a few metres from the cliff's edge. Beyond the cliffs lie the turquoise sea and the islands of Makronisi, Patroklou, Kea, Kithnos, Serifos and Milos. When the sun sets, all elements of this scene etched by man and nature gradually change colour. Marble becomes purple, the islands fade into the darkness one by one, and the sea acquires the colour of Homer's favourite cliche, which will seem a figment of his literary imagination only to those who have never visited Greece: wine-dark.
It is romantic. But the idyll does not last long. Cape Sounion is only 69 kilometres, or 43 miles, from Athens and because its sunset has become a tourist attraction in its own right, there are as many coach loads of visitors at dusk as in the daytime. There's no escaping them.
Their vehicles block the narrow road leading to the promontory. When you get there you'll see a souvenir shop and a tavern full of enthusiasts ready to endure a long wait for a bite of poor quality but pricey octopus. But the worst thing is the noise. The people in this confined space seem to have some special need to talk loudly and simultaneously.
The ancient ruins and the sunset can help to suppress outbursts of chattering ("Look, John, it's so old!", "Natasha, honey, take a picture of me by these columns!") And however amusing the colony of rock partridges living in the nearby bushes may be, you should pray its members remain in their nests when tourists are nearby.
But tranquillity on Cape Sounion is not a pipe dream. All you have to do is take one of the goat paths from the Temple of Poseidon downhill to a small cove. They also provide a wonderful view of the sunset and while descending you can see the much humbler remains of the temple of Athena.
The rivalry between Poseidon and Athena was a favourite topic for ancient Greek story-tellers and Athenians, who believed that their city once was a source of discord between the two deities. Zeus' daughter prevailed and the city was named after her. But Sounion is another matter.
Here, Poseidon is the foremost of the gods. According to archaeologists, who began excavations on the promontory in the early 20th Century, this has been the case since the Bronze Age. All other deities - and people too - are of secondary importance.
For better or worse, Cape Sounion has remained the stuff of legends not on account of the grandiose manifestations of Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, but for purely human dramas. Aegeus' tragic suicide was followed by the funeral of the helmsman of King Menelaos of Sparta, who had survived the 10-year siege of Troy only to die on his way back home. Too bad. But what scenery this poor sailor had!
Byron on Sounion
Lord Byron lived in Athens in 1810 and 1811 and visited Cape Sounion twice. The poet left two souvenirs from these trips: his name carved on a column in the Temple of Poseidon and several words about the promontory at the end of The Isles of Greece, written in 1819 and published in 1821.
Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep...
Jackie Kennedy & Sophia Loren
There are two places to eat along the bay under Sounion. Only one of them offers an unbeatable combination: tables - strewn with white and blue chequered tablecloths - standing almost in the sea, an excellent view of the sunset, respectable octopus and squid, absent-minded waiters, determined dogs begging for food and the compliments of a 20th Century legend. The Akroyiali tavern has been standing on the shore since 1867, when there were few tourists. But the family that owns it has preserved the same tasty cuisine and the memory of the visit of Jackie Kennedy, widow of former American president John Kennedy. She clearly relished her time there because on her return to the United States she wrote a thank-you letter to the proprietors, which now hangs on a wall in the tavern. However, there's no such letter from Sophia Loren, another distinguished visitor.
The Perfect Time, the Perfect Way
The No. 91 road from Athens to Sounion may only be 69 kilometres (43 miles) long. But if you expect a quick journey - as this distance would surely be by motorway - you'll be disappointed. In fact, the meandering mountain roads are such that it takes the bus, which leaves from Omonia Square, about two hours to get there! But the view of alternating cliffs and promontories, known as the Athens Riviera, makes the journey very pleasant. Of course, it's faster by car but you may not find a parking place and, perhaps more importantly, you may be unable to drink as much ouzo or retsina in the taverns along the bay as you'd like. It is the best place to watch the sunset, unless you enjoy being among the crowds uphill. Besides, the taverns close in time for you to climb up to the car park (take a torch!) to catch the last bus to Athens. If you want to stay here overnight, there is not much choice of accommodation. The area of Cape Sounion is a natural park, so there is only a single hotel, right by the taverns. Prices there reflect its location. Your other option is to break the cliche and arrive for the sunrise.
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