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West to the Peloponnese

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The route from the centre of Athens towards Kórinthos (Corinth) follows the ancient Ierá Odhós – the Sacred Way – as far as Elefsína, ancient Eleusis. There’s nothing sacred about it these days, though: this is as ugly a road as any in Greece, traversing an industrial wasteland. For the first 30km or so you have little sense of leaving Athens, whose western suburbs merge into Elefsína and then Mégara. Offshore lies Salamína (ancient Salamis,), these days just another suburb. The Attikí Odhós motorway from the airport meets the road from Athens just outside Elefsína.

Beyond Elefsína, the old road to Thebes and Delphi heads northwest into the hills. This route is described in Chapter Three, and is highly worthwhile, with its detours to ancient Aegosthena and the tiny resort of Pórto Yermenó. Directly west, towards the Corinth Canal and the Peloponnese, there are shingle beaches along the old coastal road at Kinéta and Áyii Theódhori. This highway, with the Yeránia mountains to the north and those of the Peloponnese across the water, follows the route where Theseus slew the bandit Skiron and threw him off the cliffs to be eaten by a giant sea turtle.

Dhafní

The Monastery of Dhafní, a beautiful example of Byzantine architecture, was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1999, and only reopened in 2011. Still not fully restored, it is held up by scaffolding – set to be there until 2014 at least – which offers an exceptional chance to climb right up into the dome and get up close and personal with the magnificent eleventh-century mosaics, considered among the artistic masterpieces of the Middle Ages. Ascending by rickety ladders, you pass first the Life of Christ, then the Prophets, before reching the Pandokrátor (Christ in Majesty) in the dome itself. The restored mosaics, glistening with gold, are magnificent, and the stern Christ depicted here is a classic Orthodox image. A chamber next to the church has an excellent display on the monastery’s history and restoration, along with close-up detail of the mosaics and identification of the saints and events depicted.

Eleusis

The Sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis was one of the most important in the ancient Greek world. For two millennia, the ritual ceremonies known as the Mysteries were performed here. Today, the extensive ruins of the sanctuary occupy a low hill on the coast right in the heart of modern Elefsína.

The best plan on arrival is to head straight for the museum, which features models of the sanctuary at various stages in its history: Eleusis is impressively large, with huge walls and gates, some of which date back to Mycenaean times, but the numerous eras of building can also be confusing, especially as signage is poor and mainly in Greek. Exploring outside, the most important structure of ancient Eleusis was the Telesterion. This windowless Hall of Initiation lay at the heart of the cult, and it was here that the priests of Demeter would exhibit the Sacred Objects and speak “the Unutterable Words”.

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