Athens was just the introduction to Greece we needed. We had been in the country for a couple days and so far, we had seen the Acropolis up close, indulged in delicious traditional delicacies and wandered the streets of the capital city, discovering unknown Byzantine churches and off the radar archaeological sites. It was now time to explore the area further than the city walls.
The Temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion seemed the perfect pick to take some time away from the city. Ancient ruins atop a hill overlooking the sea were exactly what we were looking for. Plus, the temple was located at a reasonable distance from the city centre by bus. Rather, that’s what we thought.
We noticed there weren’t that many tourists in the bus going to Cape Sounion as we boarded it but it was already late in the morning and we just assumed the other tourists had boarded earlier buses. We weren’t in a hurry though since the trip was supposed to last for a bit more than an hour, no more.
The landscape got interesting almost as soon as we left Athens, gorgeous beaches slowly replacing the dilapidated buildings of the city. Some of these nice beaches were spoilt by concrete beach resorts, which lined up at the gates of the city. Yet, the further we went on, the wilder the seashore became. We drove past empty creeks where lonely anchored boats waited for their owner to take them explore the open sea and coves whose waters were so turquoise we had to resist the urge to get right off the bus.
It had been one hour since we had left the city and we had driven past countless unspoilt coves but Cape Sounion was still nowhere to be seen. For good reason, as a quick look on Google Maps was all we needed to know that we still had a long hour to go before reaching the Temple of Poseidon. On our next visit, we would definitely choose a rental car over a local bus, no questions asked.
Upon two hours though, we finally took our first glimpse into the remains of the temple. All we could see was some ruins looming over the sea but the landscape itself was breath-taking, no matter how small the temple actually looked in the distance. It didn’t get much bigger as we got closer but what it lacked in proportion, it made up for in its scenery.
It was only fitting for ancient Greeks to have decided to honour the god of sea on such a location. Constructed in 444-440BC as an altar to Poseidon, the Temple was standing on its own atop a mountain, on a spur right above the sea, right at the southern-most tip of the Attic peninsula. Beyond the small islands scattered in the horizon, the nearest land was Crete, more than 300km away.
There wasn’t much left of the Temple that had once stood as one of the major monuments of the Golden Age of Athens. Much less was left of the original temple built during the Archaic period, which was believed to have been destroyed by Persian troop during Xerxes I’s invasion, although no direct historical proof could confirm with certainty who had wrecked it.
The main remains of the temple were now off limits to help preserve them but we only had to walk down on a steep paved path to access the temple’s lower level, whose ruins could be visited freely. It was hard to know where the temple stood out the most. From above, as seen from the top of the hill, it looked commanding, watching over the entire area. From below, it looked like the last frontier and had looked so for the ancient Greeks who saw it as the last sign of civilization as they were sailing off into the unknown.
Cape Sounion had a magnetic appeal that had inspired poets too. Homer first had mentioned it, choosing Sounion as the place where King Menelas landed on his way back from Troy to pay a final tribute to his fallen comrades, long before the Temple of Poseidon was even built. Many centuries after the legendary Greek storyteller, Lord Byron had fallen in love with the place, so much so that he had left graffiti on one of the temple’s columns.
Contrary to the Temple’s most illustrious visitors, creative epiphany didn’t strike us on that day. Instead of a poem, we chose to complete this Greek experience with a lunch made of a Greek salad and some fried seafood in a restaurant near the beach, which offered us a new perspective on the Temple. From the ground up or from above, from afar or from up close, the Temple of Poseidon was nothing short of one of the most stunning archaeological sites in Greece.