The Soul of Greece and Travel ; on My Peloponnesian Journey, I Paid Homage to Apollo at Corinth, to Zeus at Olympia, and to Greek Dramatists at Epidaurus

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Returning to Greece after an absence of many years, I decided to rent a car to give me the freedom to move about the countryside. Then, over a 10-day period, I explored the Peloponnesus, the mountainous southern region of mainland Greece.

The start of my trip wasn't auspicious: I couldn't find my way out of Athens where, understandably, traffic signs are, for the most part, in Greek. Without the assistance of two police officers, I might - like the Flying Dutchman - still be wandering, not the seven seas, but through Athenian streets. The officers directed me to follow their car to the highway for Corinth. There they waved me on.

On my Peloponnesian journey, I paid homage to Apollo at Corinth, to Zeus at Olympia, and to Greek dramatists at Epidaurus, where the theater, built about 360 BC, could accommodate an audience in the thousands.

Until this trip, I had known nothing of the Frankish and Byzantine impact on the Peloponnesus. The fourth Crusade (1204) went terribly awry. Instead of continuing to the Holy Land, the crusaders turned aside to sack Constantinople. Then they parceled out the conquered lands among themselves.

The castle at Mystras on the Peloponnesus was built by William de Villehardouin, a Frankish knight. Here, William "held his court, rode with a thousand horsemen in his train, entertained the princes of Europe, and created a school of knightly manners that was renowned throughout the Western World," writes Eric Forbes-Boyd in his book, "In Crusader Greece: A Tour of the Castles of the Morea."

Later, to obtain his release from captivity, William handed over the castle to the Byzantine emperor. Mystras became a major center of art, scholarship, devotion, and wealth, where the finest Byzantine artists painted frescoes in the churches. I climbed the steep hill to the castle and then descended to see the churches with their glorious 14th-century frescoes.

As a frequent visitor to Venice, Italy, I was aware of its far- flung empire. To see the massive Venetian castles along the Peloponnesian coast confirmed its former Mediterranean superpower status. The arsenal at Venice employed many thousands of men to build ships to extend and support its naval power.

The Venetians occupied the castle of Methoni on the southwest coast of the Peloponnesus for almost 300 years (1206-1500). On the stone walls of the castle to this day remains the imposing symbol of Venice, a growling Lion of St. Mark with sharp teeth bared. (In Venice, the lion looks less intimidating. …