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Road trip with Apollo

An emotional trip to Napflio, Greece's first capital
View of the picturesque Nafplio, which was once the capital of Greece

This spring I went on a road trip through Greece with my therapist – or, rather, two bags of her ashes in a small wooden box. We were headed to Nafplio, which is next to Argos, founded by Argus, son of Zeus, next to ancient Mycenae, built by the cyclops, because I thought this was as close I could get to driving her to the capital of myth. As she was a Jungian, myth was very much Sara’s thing.

It was Nafplio that served as the first capital for free Greeks. “And we’re very proud of that,” said taverna owner Dimitris. “It’s a nice city”

I’d been wanting to come to Nafplio ever since moving to Greece a few years ago. Athens, as it turns out, is a pretty modern construct. Outside of the Acropolis, the city didn’t really exist until the 19th century when it was built on the orders of modern Greece’s first king, a German called Otto. As they fought to overthrow the Turks in 1823 and for nine more glorious years, it was Nafplio that served as the first capital for free Greeks. “And we’re very proud of that,” said taverna owner Dimitris. “It’s a nice city.”

It’s on the Peloponnesian coast and in order to get it to it from Athens you drive along the Gulf of Corinth, over the Corinth Canal, which feels epic even in a rented Nissan Micra. Just saying it aloud sounds impressive, so you have to. “Korinthos!” I told the wooden box in the passenger seat. “Behold, the Gulf of Korinthos!” I announced, feeling very much as though we had crossed Terry Gilliam-style into the time of myth and legend as we passed the Peugeot dealership. We turned off the highway towards Argos onto a narrow road weaving down sloping groves of olive and orange trees onto a delta-ish plane of palm trees and humidity.

Sara’s favourite god was Apollo. She held frequent negotiations with him in her last weeks, angling for more time

There was Nafplio: a cute, neat, little port town. It feels very different to the sprawling, white, concrete homogeneity of Athens. More island like, more Greek. The port bit feels Venetian, the main square’s a bit neoclassical, the big museums, churches and official buildings Ottoman. It’s very touristy but, like Dimitris said, it’s a nice place.

Ruins of the temple of Apollo at ancient Delphi
View of the picturesque Nafplio, which was once the capital of Greece
The tomb of Clytemnestra at Mycenae

I sat on my terrace looking out over it, breathing in the olive trees, listening to the blackbirds and reading about Clytemnestra. Sara was inside, in her box. She died last summer, quickly, with lung cancer. The way she chose to live as she died had a profound impact on me and, on her suggestion, I wrote about it for the Guardian. I met with her widower in London after the piece was published and he gave me three bags of her ashes to take back with me to Greece. Part of her is already on a hilltop park looking out over London, he said. Other bits of her should be somewhere more mythic.

Sara’s favourite god was Apollo. She held frequent negotiations with him in her last weeks, angling for more time. “I said: ‘Apollo, come on, give me a few months. I need to finish my clients properly.’ He hasn’t answered me yet what he wants back,” she told me a month before she died. “What can I give back to Apollo? Think about it.”

I thought he would probably like her, so I delivered the first bag of her ashes to the feet of an olive tree overlooking the ruins of the oracular temple he presides over at Delphi. I had two more left and I was considering the supposed tomb of Clytemnestra as a fitting spot.

Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who commanded the Greek fleet that sailed from Argos to Troy to help his brother, Menelaus, get his wife, Helen, back from a Trojan prince. After ten years of war that some say was heroic, others that it was pointlessly destructive, Agamemnon returned to his palace at Mycenae where Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, promptly murdered him. She was probably an actual historic queen, but crucially she is a myth told in many variations.

The pantheon of Hellenic dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, were all appalled by Clytemnestra. So was her daughter Electra and so too the gods. This was the dawn of the patriarchal age; you couldn’t have queens going about killing kings as they did in those bad old matrilineal pre-Hellenic days. So through the oracle at Delphi, Apollo told Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, that unless he killed his mother and restored order, he would get leprosy and no one would like him.

Clytemnestra’s tomb at Mycenae stands discreetly to the side of the ruined ancient acropolis looking out over the valley to sea. When Agamemnon set out to sail his fleet to Troy on that water and the winds didn’t blow his way, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. Sacrifices to the gods in those days were generally burned and eaten. When he returned to Mycenae ten years later, he brought with him the prophetess Cassandra, whom he’d taken as a sort of second wife in Troy, and their two new children. So yes, Clytemnestra murdered him but she argued this was fair enough.
Sitting with Sara’s box in that 3,000-year-old burial chamber, I am inclined to agree. Here we are, centuries later, still chewing over what to do with our blithely femicidal men. Clytemnestra expunged her rage by beheading her husband while he was in the bath. Our generation’s anger has erupted in the MeToo movement: aggressors are beheaded through the court system or without trial in the media. Sara was more inclined toward forgiveness. About the man who often hurt me, she said: “Wish him well and then protect yourself. Forgive him and then leave him.”

1882 painting by John Collier depicting Clytemnestra at the palace of Argos, holding the axe with which she killed her husband Agamemnon, as recounted in the play by Aeschylus
View of the picturesque Nafplio, which was once the capital of Greece

Murder, according to Sara, should always be done symbolically. This is the whole point of myth. Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon so we don’t have to and I’m grateful to her for that. So I sit a bit longer, mulling in the shadows, watching a German toddler refuse to leave the tomb. Two adult men with her have walked out towards the horizon and are calling for her to join them, but she’s rooted to the spot screaming her lungs out. There’s that Clytemnestra spirit, I think. Good for her.

But probably, I decide, that’s too much rage to cohabit with for an eternity. Sara lived and died by myth, but she also liked bikinis, pretty jewellery and the sea. She appreciated the great Greek harmony of archetypal odysseys and fried cheeses. I think she would have loved our road trip in the Peloponnese, a journey through the human psyche with nice snacks and lovely views.

I take Sara’s box replete with its two bags of ashes to a remote cove to read, drink a bit of wine and look out at the sea as Clytemnestra probably did, waiting for the return of her husband’s murderous ships. It’s peaceful and beautiful. A thunder storm rolls in and a clap of thunder echoes across the bay. That’s probably a sign, I think, and empty one of Sara’s bags into the waves.

I’m saving the last one for Athens. They’ve found a well there where Apollo appeared to divine the future, and she might like that. As the storm sets in, I wander slowly back into town to look at the pretty Medusa necklaces I’d seen in the window of a jewellery shop. Now Medusa was a woman who knew how to protect herself…

Phoebe Greenwood is a former assistant editor and foreign correspondent at the Guardian, now reporting from Athens. She has written and broadcasted extensively from the Middle East and the Balkans

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