Thebes: historic city with a fantastic museum

The visitor to Thebes (and there aren’t many at this time of year, at least…) is not met with a sense of being in a significant place, or one that has a depth of history in its bones. The station is unremarkable, and the only hint at Thebes’s past (whether real or imagined) is that the road into town is called Tiresias Street. It’s a fair old hike uphill to the area where the hotels can be found, too, although when one gets up there, the cafes and squares are quite pleasant. The Lonely Planet guide book describes Thebes as being only for the “Greek history diehards”, although that was written when the museum was still closed for updating. Still, that’ll be me then!

That updating has been a great triumph – the museum is spectacular, and makes the journey an hour north-west of Athens worth it on its own; there is a wealth of information, some wonderful exhibits, from vases to grave steles, amphorae to figurines, and even an underground excavation – all of it brilliantly laid out, sensitively presented, and with a real sense of how it all fits together. The main threads are those whose mythological roots are in Thebes – and there are many of them: Dionysus, who merits several representations, often with Ariadne, who looks, on the depictions of her cavorting with a thyrsus-bearing god, to have got over the disappointment of being left on Naxos by Theseus. Then there’s Heracles, who appears in many scenes, from a votive relief of him “receiving the horn of Amalthea” to a lekythos of him with Hippolyta, to a figurine of him with club in hand, and pictures of him with various foes – the Cretan Bull, Cerberus, the Centaurs… And then there’s his apotheosis, beautifully done.

Moving on to the next room, I saw plenty of Linear B inscriptions, Mycenaean tombs, armour, frescoes. Lots to love in this museum. Mighty impressive.

If you have an hour or so before catching a train, as I did, you could do worse than spending it at the restaurant opposite the station – To Tzaki, where I had a filling plate of chicken and potatoes, with a beer, and then followed it with an espresso and a chocolate ice-cream – all for 15 euros. Pleasant and cheerful staff, too.


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