Some time ago, Bob Wallace first went to Greece, where time is in a class of its own.
Once upon a time, we visited Greece with a 2-year-old and a now-classic orange and cream Volkswagen Kombi Camper with a pop-top.
Hired in Amsterdam, the Kombi was to clock up more than 10,000km in our hands and when we reached Greece after working our way through from then Soviet-controlled Hungary and Yugoslavia we decided our young daughter needed a break from travel. Thus followed a wonderful, restful few days in northern Greece at an idyllic Platamon beachside camp in the central Macedonia region.
Tonic taken, the journey continued to Athens for another stop, then across the Corinth canal and westward to Patras, crossing the Gulf of Corinth strait on a small vehicle ferry and driving up to the north of Greece to Igoumenitsa, to get a large car ferry to Brindisi, Italy.
There were two stand-out features of those younger, sun-baked Grecian days: One was being able to roam free all over the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens — no fenced off areas, reconstruction cranes or wardens. The other was experiencing the fascination created among locals by our toddler with her snow-white hair — she was continually endowed with small gifts by shopkeepers, who made it clear they expected no custom in return from us.
But there was one thing lacking when we ended the Greek part of our odyssey — apart from the awesome Acropolis, we decided that rambling over other amazing remains of classical Greece would be pushing the 2-year-old's envelope just too far. So, a return to Greece several decades later meant that omission could be rectified.
And that was how we found ourselves last year once again crossing the Corinth Canal, but this time heading south on a tour that took in Epidaurus, Mycenae and Olympia on the Peloponnese, as well as Delphi. For good measure we added the non-classic option of Meteora and its mountain-top dwelling monks and nuns.
Defining classical Greece in broad terms means looking at a period in Greek culture of around 200 years, covering the fifth and fourth centuries BC and ending with the death in 323 BC of Alexander the Great. This was a time of powerful influence on Western civilisation through architecture, artistic and scientific achievement, politics, philosophy, theatre and literature.
It was fitting that our first stop was the magnificent open-air theatre at Epidaurus with its legendary acoustics. Constructed firstly in the 4th century BC it originally had 34 rows of limestone seating, extended in Roman times by a further 21 rows. Today, it still hosts theatrical performances for audiences of up to 14,000.
Claims that all the theatre's patrons can hear a match struck on centre stage have been debunked by scientists in recent times as myth, but there is no doubt it remains a great example of early sound engineering, not to mention aesthetic setting.
The pretty seaport town of Nafplion (also confusingly known as Nafplio, Navplion, Nauplia or Anapli) is a pleasant transit stop en route to Mycenae. It has three historic castles, including the Venetian-built Bourtzi fortress, guarding the harbour on Saint Theodoroi Island.
It is fair to say that the ordinary tourist recognises Olympia and Delphi for their classical fame more than Mycenae. Indeed, technically Mycenae has its roots in the Bronze Age rather than the later classical Greece period, and when the Bronze Age system collapsed so too did the Mycenaean culture. But when classical Greek culture emerged several hundred years later, it was clearly influenced by the Mycenaeans, especially in terms of language, religion and economics.
For this reason, the ruins of Mycenae fit neatly into an exploration of Classical Greece. Hiking up to the higher points of the acropolis citadel has the bonus of panoramas towards the groves of trees bearing the famous Kalamata olives, as well as across the plains to the distant sea; once much closer to Mycenae than it is today.
If Mycenae doesn't stir your historical senses, Olympia certainly will.
Sited in the treed valley of the Alfeios River close to the west coast of the Peloponnese, the ruins shout Classical Greece. Originally the place where Zeus and other gods were worshipped, this Panhellenic sanctuary became the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games in 776 BC, with its greatest development taking place in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.
Archaeological remains and myths and legends abound from the time you start walking through the Doric columns of the boxing and wrestling Palaestra until you finally stride along the arched Crypt to the running stadium.
Having witnessed a modern Olympics and competed as an amateur runner, including at the World Masters Games, I got a huge buzz out of sprinting down the 192m length of the track — well beaten by the members of a young and loud Australian family only to have the last laugh by turning quickly and easily heading them home on the second leg.
Athletics aside, among the many, many structures of note in this hallowed area that appealed were the Philippeion, the circular temple (now minus the majority of its 18 columns) honouring Philip II of Macedonia and completed in 338 BC by his son, Alexander the Great; plus the workshop of famed sculptor Phidias which had a fifth century AD Byzantine church built over it — the combined edifice now in ruins.
For sheer all-round impact, however, the mountainous ruins of Delphi probably take the kotinos (the laurel wreath bestowed on Ancient Olympics victors).
As our coach journeyed from Olympia to Delphi it was interesting to reflect on our transit from the Peloponnese on that small vehicular ferry with the classic Kombi camper years before. This time crossing the Gulf of Corinth involved simply skirting Patras and taking the elegant 2.5km Rion to Antirion suspension bridge, one of the world's longest multi-spanned, cable-stayed bridges; opened in 2004 at a cost of €630 million.
The highway that goes eastwards from the other end of the bridge provides lovely coastal views as it skirts Nafpaktos and runs by the pleasant seaside towns of Galaxidi and Itea before turning up into the steep terrain past 1000-year-old olive trees, switch-backing and curving up to the home of the oracle, the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
To explore ancient Delphi, first go to the restored ruins of the Temple of Athena Pronaia, the second most important sanctuary, lying on the opposite side of the road about 1km from the main buildings. Although the original Athena temple was built in the Archaic period, the most prominent feature today, a circular tholos, was constructed during the classic age in the fourth century BC.
The main Delphi site has it all, of course — the remains of the fourth century BC Temple of Apollo, ruins of a strip of "commercial" premises, treasury buildings, a semi-circular theatre and, for good measure, a regulation 200m-long stadium; not to mention an excellent museum. Be aware however, that it is a fair trek up to the top where the stadium is sited — wear comfortable shoes and sun lotion, and take water.
Capping it all off is Delphi's stunning setting, on the southern slopes of Parnassus mountain. The scenery is classic.
Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Athens, via Dubai. Economy-class return fares are available from $2194.
We chose the four-day Classical Greece itinerary with Chat Tours, which included Meteora, and were happy with the offering. Guide Costas lived up to expectations when it came to history, culture and mythology. Overnights were comfortable at hotels in the related Amalia chain. Breakfasts and dinners included.