Having established base camp on the splendid Saronic island of Hydra, we could easily explore the vertiginous mainland of the Peloponnese, west by ferry. Erroll and I had been offered various suggestions on where to day-trip by well meaning islanders during our stay, though nothing appealed to us more than to scout out the small harbourside resort of Porto Heli, a popular weekend escape for Athenians but two and a half hours drive south of the capital (and for us, only one hour from Hydra).
Few travellers venture down to the southwestern heel of the Argolis peninsula, 90km southeast of Nafplion, Greece’s first capital city after Independence (1833). This Peninsula separates the Saronic and Argolic Gulfs and is a treasure trove for history lovers like me. Argolis was the Mycenaean Empire’s power base from 1600-1100BC, and World Heritage-listed Mycenae is exigently linked to amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who discovered the physical loction of this ancient city (as he did with Troy).
In the 9th century BC Homer told in his epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey of “well built Mycenae, rich in gold” and up until the 19th century these poems were regarded as nothing more than gripping legends. Schliemann unearthed the city of Mycenae, its fortified citadel, palace and surrounding settlement much to the world’s incredulity.
But it not at Mycenae that we stop on this particular journey. By 11AM our ferry deposits us on an excellent harbour near the southern tip of the Argolis Peninsula. Extremely sunny and warm morning; limitless blue skies meet the green of trees along our path: canopy as shade for what will today be an exploration by foot of a fascinating independent city-state of the ancient world, archaeological evidence of which confronts us as the tide recedes…
Sometime before 431 BC Porto Heli (known as the ancient city of Halieis) was captured by Sparta but with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War it was subject to further raids by the Athenians to whom the use of acropolis and harbour was granted in 424-423 BC by treaty.
The ancient town is located on the slopes and shore below a low hill on the southern side of a perfectly circular harbour, across from the modern village of Porto Heli.
The city walls of Halieis had five gates and enclosed an area of 45 acres, within which were 500 homes. In the fertile surrounding area olives, grapes and cereals were grown and sheep and goats grazed. Four gates and a number of towers ran down from the acropolis to, and along, the shore. Private houses and workshops on stone socles have been found over the whole site, affording a rare glimpse at the plan of a provincial town. Changes in sea level have covered up to 50 metres of the town along the shore.
To our amazement, the ruins of ancient Halieis can be seen on four levels:
Underwater – the sea has risen since ancient times but on this calm day we spotted the ruins under the water. What we saw was the remains of a harbor, houses and streets.The Greeks of the time built a Temple dedicated to Apollo and athletics Stadium. Later, the Romans built baths.
The Lower City – coins depicting the head of Apollo were produced in a Mint. The streets were on a regular grid pattern, each of the houses having a courtyard, water well and olive presses.
The Industrial site– halfway up the hill is a site with workshops thought to have been used for producing dyes.
The Acropolis – astride the hilltop, with its fine strategic position over the harbour and across the Argolic Gulf, the Acropolis housed a look-out tower, barracks and an altar for religious worship.
What a tough little town Halieis turned out to be: during the wars between Greece and Persia (499 BC – 449 BC) Halieis provided ships and, because of its strategic position, assisted Athens fight Sparta during the 27 years of the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC). By 600 AD Romans and Byzantines took occupation, and as Romans like doing, built Baths. The site was thereafter abandoned and remained untouched for 1,000 years.
Fast forward to this scorching July day in 2010 and we now understand why the Argolis beneath our feet is reknowned for its ancient pedigree. What we were yet to discover was the quality of the wine grapes and the exceptionally low acidity of the olives produced in the region: But we do now, for Erroll and I had hit the bar! Wine and olives. No complaints there. Ideal refreshments for all those exertions we made at ancient Halieis on hillside Porto Heli, just making it on time for our ferry ride back to home base Hydra.