Thermopylae--194km (120 miles) N of Athens on the Athens-Thessaloniki National Hwy.

If you find yourself on the Athens-Thessaloniki Highway, keep an eye out for the larger-than-life-size statue of the Spartan king Leonidas, about halfway through the 6.4-kilometer-long (4-mile-long) Pass of Thermopylae that snakes between the mountains and the sea. One of the most famous battles in history was fought here in 480 B.C. during the Persian King Xerxes's attempt to conquer Greece. To this day, historians speculate on just how different the world might have been if Xerxes had succeeded, and Greece had become part of the Persian Empire.

When Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 B.C. with perhaps 100,000 men, soldiers from almost every city-state in south and central Greece rushed to Thermopylae to try to stop the Persian king's advance. The Greeks might have succeeded in holding the narrow pass of Thermopylae had not a traitor told the Persians of a secret mountain path that allowed them to turn the pass. As Leonidas and his 300-man royal guard stood and fought at Thermopylae, the main Greek force retreated south to regroup and fight another day. When the fighting at Thermopylae was over, Leonidas and his men lay dead, but the Spartan king had earned immortal fame for his heroism.

The name Thermopylae (Hot Gates) refers to the warm springs that bubbled here in antiquity, when the pass was considerably narrower than it is now that centuries of silt have built up the seashore. Many of Thermopylae's springs have been partly diverted to spas, such as Kamena Vourla, but unfortunately, overdevelopment has seriously undercut the former charm of the seaside towns nearby. If you want to take a fast look at some of the springs, keep an eye out for plumes of smoke when you park near the statue of Leonidas. If you don't see the plumes, follow your nose: The smell of sulfur is strong.


Notes above were written by Dr. Earl Fries prior to his leading a Steps of Paul and John Tour.