Corinth is the gateway to the Peloponnese from mainland Greece and it is a confusion of ugly modern city, touristic ancient city, lofty citadel and 6kms of canal plied by cargo ships.
My introduction to Corinth is the coastal city, congested with traffic and decorated with graffiti. I’d planned to stay near the harbour where two Polish motorhomes had already marked their territory but it’s a depressing place overlooked by disintegrating tenements and used as a rat-run by the local vehicles. So instead, I aim for the oldest inhabited site of Akrocorinth.
The route is well signed and takes me through the backstreets of Ancient Corinth. Somewhere, behind the white-washed houses, are the ruins of the Roman city, but I can’t see them. The road forks at the beautiful Ottoman fountain of Hatzi Mustafa, where a wandering horse is slaking its thirst. I make a mental note to stop and fill up Trixie on the way back. The approach road twists and turns and climbs up to the top of the hill where the citadel is perched at 565m above sea level. The views from the top are incredible and I can finally see the Roman ruins lying far below like an incomplete Lego model.
The main entrance to the citadel is quite formidable with a steep, slippery, stone path through three gateways with thick, fortified walls. I’m surprised to find the ticket office closed and the gate open, so I’m free to scramble around the ruins at leisure. I find very few other people on site. Some surveyors with a modern electronic theodolite and a couple of builders slowly transporting materials down the narrow, uneven paths from the highest watch tower, which is being restored.
At the furthest corner of the site, with a vertical drop over the cliffs, I locate the Fountain of Peirene, an underground spring which has never run dry and served as the main water source for the fortress. Mythology says that it was created by Pegasus when he stamped his foot on the spot and water gushed forth. On the way back down, dodging perilous holes in the ground which were formally water cisterns, I stop at a building with a domed roof. Sadly the dome now has a large hole in it and the walls are propped up with wooden supports.
However, a little further on is the small chapel of St George. At least I assume it is dedicated to the saint as there are numerous icons depicting him slaying a dragon. As I didn’t have to pay to visit the site I consider it appropriate to make a donation and light a candle in thanks for my good fortune and to ensure a safe descent back down the hill.
The archaeological site of the Roman ruins is surrounded by a fence but it’s quite easy to see everything through it without paying to enter. Besides, I can’t believe the experience can live up to the dramatic location of Akrocorinth. In addition, next to the parking area are the unfenced remains of the theatre, so access is free to all, including the local stray dogs. The main road from the site entrance to the town square is lined with tavernas and souvenir shops but the photo menus and the tourist tat are a complete turn off.
I still need to find a spot for the night so I head to the Corinth Canal, or ‘the ditch’ as it is locally known. Even in Roman times, this short cut between the Aegean and Ionian Seas was used by boats, though they had to be hauled on a wheeled platform overland. The diolkos, a paved way, helped in the process and this method was used up to the 12th century. A small section can still be seen at the western end of the canal.
Modern technology and engineering resulted in the new canal which took 12 years to complete and opened in 1893. I cross it three times. Twice on the ‘sinking’ bridges at either end and once on the main road which spans the highest point of 52m and is a popular stopping place for the tourist coaches and public buses. Up to 12,000 boats a year use the canal to shorten their journey but there don’t seem to be many passing through while I am there.
I end up at the port of Isthmia, at the eastern end of the canal, where I excitedly watch the road bridge submerge to let through a boat. Disappointingly, it turns out to be a small fishing vessel but later I get to see the skilled pilots manoeuvre a large cargo boat into the canal. There’s a limit on the size of vessels which can enter as it is only 21m wide and 8m deep.
Watching the boats pass through gets me wondering about how much the cost of passage actually is and the practicalities of payment. Luckily some sailing websites come to my assistance. A small yacht can cost up to €300 while a large cargo vessel can be over €500 and a foreign registered boat will pay more than a local one. Finally, given the large amounts, it is possible to pay by credit card and payment is usually taken in the modern control tower at the eastern end of the canal.