Beyond Rome & Athens: The Best Classical Sites

A lot of people think that all of the best classical temples, forums and amphitheatres are in Athens and Rome. My customers who have exhausted these destinations or who are looking to explore the less well known ruins should think about the treasure trove of ancient monuments in Croatia and Sicily.

Both the Greek and Roman Empires made indelible marks across the landscape in a wide circle around the Mediterranean Sea, from Portugal to Syria and Britain to Egypt. If you know where to look, there is a wealth of classical treasures outside Athens and Rome. Swept by desert sands and nestled in verdant valleys, these icons of a bygone age can be found in the most surprising of places.

Here are just two of what I consider to be the best places to step a thousand years back in time, without having to queue and jostle with the crowds who flock to the more hackneyed attractions of Athens and Rome.

Croatia

With its dramatic Dalmatian coastline, heavenly beaches and tranquil National Parks, I have seen Croatia’s popularity as a holiday destination rise and rise again in recent years. The pull of its superb sea vistas may attract many, but its deep-rooted history and culture continues to surprise and delight visitors who didn’t know anything about it before they arrived. The Roman Empire occupied what we now know as Croatia for over 500 years, leaving a network of roads and a rich Roman history for visitors to discover today.

Pula

The city of Pula, on the tip of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, is a buzzing, modern city rooted in a Roman past. It is home to one of the best-preserved ancient amphitheatres in the world; the outer walls which are almost completely intact have helped me and many other amateur historians conjure up an image of how the magnificent structure would have looked at its prime.

What I particularly love about Pula is the way in which the traces of the Roman past weave in and out of the history and architecture of later periods. The Cathedral of the Assumption in the old city originated as a Roman temple, and its bell tower was constructed using stone from the amphitheatre.

While classicists will love a trip at any time of the year, I always suggest that classic film lovers plan their visit to coincide with the famous Pula Film Festival, which is hosted inside the amphitheatre every July. Those visitors whom we have sent to Pula in the past enthuse almost without exception about the magical atmosphere at one of the late night screenings.

Split

For those clients who yearn to follow in the footsteps of one of Rome’s most notorious emperors I would put Split on the itinerary. The eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea is the site of Diocletian’s Palace, built by the Roman Emperor at the turn of the fourth century AD. The monumental structure makes up around a half of Split’s old town and city centre today and has rightly been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site where no fewer than 220 buildings have been integrated into the immense palace’s walls, including houses, cafes and bars.

I would highly recommend visiting Split during August, when the city celebrates the ‘Days of Diocletian’ festival. It consists of four days of city-wide celebration through the streets of the old town, in an ancient tradition of honouring the Roman Emperor. With games, parades, feasts, fairs and the hotly-contested Diocletian’s Cup tournament, this is one Roman festival you would be disappointed to miss!

Croatian Accommodation: Top Pick

When you think ‘luxury hotel’, it is easy to picture large buildings with impressive facilities – spas, restaurants, golf courses – but very little local soul. If you’re looking for something quirky and full of character in Croatia, yet still with an exceptional level of service and comfort, look no further than the Hotel Peristil in Split.

I love that this boutique hotel has real history running through its walls – located within Diocletian’s Palace, two of its twelve rooms have original sections of the ancient walls exposed within them, and all have beautiful views of the palace’s architecture.

 

I have clients who have returned again and again to this little gem – and why? ‘Service, service, service’.

Sicily

Since ancient times the island of Sicily has had its own distinct cultural identity. Unlike most of the rest of Italy, it was an important Greek colony from around 750 BC, which is reflected in the fascinating array of ancient Greek attractions that you can visit today.

Agrigento

You can’t fully enjoy western Sicily without a visit to the Valley of the Temples just outside Agrigento. This incredible archaeological park has eight temples within its borders, dedicated to various heroes and gods of the Greek pantheon. Make sure you take a sun hat and a water bottle when exploring the park, because there is a lot to see in the baking midday heat.

A particular highlight for me is the astonishing Temple of Concord, which was first built in the fifth century BC and converted into a Christian basilica over a thousand years later in the sixth century AD. It is considered to be one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world – including Greece!

Segesta

If you’re staying in Castellammare del Golfo on your Sicilian holiday, I would recommend a day trip to the archaeological park at Segesta. Another incredibly well-preserved Doric temple is located here, thought to have been built by an Athenian architect in the 420s BC.

Make sure that you visit Segesta’s theatre, constructed at a similar time, which sits on the brow of a nearby hill. You can sit on the stone steps and look out at the breathtaking vista of Sicily’s lush landscapes – there wouldn’t have been any need for stage scenery with such a stunning backdrop!

Sicilian Accommodation: Top Pick

Having stayed in western Sicily a few years ago and explored Agrigento myself, there is no hotel I would recommend more highly than Mandranova, which lies in the countryside just 20 minutes’ drive from the Valley of the Temples. You live as a guest in Sylvia and Giuseppe’s beautiful, renovated olive oil farm, breaking bread and sharing a bottle together every evening. Make sure that you take advantage of their Sicilian cooking classes and tour of the olive oil farm for a truly authentic stay.

If you romanticise about Roman ruins or are engrossed by Greek temples, visit some of the world’s best-preserved ancient sites without setting foot in Athens or Rome. In my whole career I’ve never heard any of my culture loving clients complain about being disappointed by the inspiring classical monuments in Croatia and Sicily.