Visiting the Home of the Olympics

21 June 2019

We headed up the coast, stopping first at the very Greek AB Supermarket then further on for a couple more bits at the cheaper but less interesting Lidl outside Kiparissi where a custom-built, battered German MAN motorhome made us wonder about the adventures it had been on. You wouldn’t worry about a scratch or two, anyway. 

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The landscape was now pretty flat and we crossed the Alphios River flowing out to sea, the largest river in the Peloponnese which skirts one side of Olympia and has enough water to allow for watermelon cutivation.  We forked off to Olympia climbing into low hills and were at Camping Alphion in time for lunch.

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It was not at all busy and had a very inviting looking pool but we were on a mission. At 4pm we set off downhill towards Olympia, hugging the shadows along empty, crumbling roads glad we hadn’t come in that way.

There are 3 places of interest at Olympia – two museums and the archaeological site. Given the heat we opted to do the archaeological museum first, a succession of rooms with air conditioning and nice cool marble floors containing, of course, artefacts from ancient Olympia. 

For over a 1000 years the religious sanctuary of Olympia was the home of the most important All-Greece games. The exhibits ranged from offerings left at the Temple of Zeus to the now familiar cauldrons; shield ornaments to wonderful bronze helmets;

and statues in bronze and stone to the beautiful and famous marble statue of Hermes of Praxiteles holding the baby Dionysus.

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One room contains statuary and friezes from the Temple of Hera and the main hall has an excellent display of the pediment statuary from the Temple of Zeus.

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There were also very helpful models of what the site used to be like.

We were glad we had done the museum first as the site itself is a bit of a confusion of ruins if you don’t know the layout beforehand, having been ravaged by time and earthquakes. It was still hot and sticky when we entered at 6pm but there were a handful of die-hards. We walked past the long gymnasium to the circular Philippeion, built by Philip II of Macedonia to commemorate gaining control of Greece – possibly a bit insensitive. Beyond that the Temple of Hera, the first built in the sacred precinct, which still has some of its 30 columns partially upright and is where the Hermes statue was found.

We carried on up past the the pedestals of statues paid for by fines levied on athletes found cheating, their names engraved on the bases for all to see their shame. Through the arch and into the stadium with its 200m track and seating ridges either side which once took up to 20,000 spectators. Strange to think that this was the start of the Olympic Games.

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Danny sprinting to the finish!

To our left, outside the site fencing, is the hill from which women and slaves were allowed to watch the events – thanks chaps! In the centre of the sacred precinct  the Doric Temple of Zeus, with one column standing, is frustratingly roped off and Kate got shouted at for standing on a piece of the ruins to try to get a better view. In its day as big and spectacular as the Parthenon, the Temple once housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, a huge statue of Zeus some 13m tall made of wood covered in gold and ivory and long since destroyed. The air was cooling slightly but we still hugged the shade where we could as we explored the rest of the site including the baths by the river and finally the slim columns of the palaestra, the wrestling school.

The site is in a pretty setting and we enjoyed it very much but we agreed that Delphi is the most outstanding site we have visited and the theatre at Epidaurus the most impressive for being still in operation and so accoustically brilliant.

 

With an hour until closing at 8pm we walked back up to the old museum, opened in 1882 and the first museum in Greece outside Athens.  Focusing on the ancient Games themselves its exhibits include discus, javelin, weights held by the long-jumpers, huge stones lifted by the weight-lifters (very impressive), chariot related artefacts, armour worn by the fighters, and a couple lovely mosaics. Oh, and for no apparent reason, 2 spectacular bronze heads – one a replica and the other ancient, the difference quite striking.

We emerged just before closing delighted to have done all 3 parts  f Olympia in one day, the last of our ancient sites of Greece”. We wandered down the main street of Arhea Olympia, which has grown up to service the tourists to the site, for 2 ice-cold bottles of Alfa. A very satisfying day.

Oh, and for those who like us didn’t know any better Olympia is nowhere near Mount Olympus.