Tag Archives: Peloponnese

Olympia

On Monday morning, 27 August, we were up quite early intending to beat the rush of cruise ship tourists to Olympia.  There were three ships in the terminal in the morning and the suitably olympic sized car park behind the boat was full of coaches and taxis.

The train to Olympia is a small narrow gauge affair but I assume most of the visitors from the ships were booked on coach tours but even when we got to Olympia it wasn’t that crowded.

The site of Olympia is on the floor of a river valley below the hill named after the god Khronos.  The area has been occupied since the Neolithic times, 3000BC, developing into a centre of worship and during the 2nd millennium BC the Myceneans founded the cult of Zeus there.

Ruins of the gymnasium where athletes trained before the games
Entrance to the Stadium. .
The Stadium. Seating was not provided, requiring spectators to sit on the banks. Capacity of 30,000 to 40,000
View across the Leonidaion, a hostel for distinguished visitors

The origins of the games are lost in myths; the Gods held wrestling matches and running races in Olympia and so ‘games’  were likely a part of religious rites.  They were possibly held as far back as the 11th century BC as fairly local affairs but were reorganised in the 8th century, the first Panhellenic Olympic Games being held in 776BC. The concept of the Sacred Truce, during which the warring city states stopped fighting, was instituted to allow peaceful competition.

Workshop of Pheidias
Workshop of Pheidia

Another myth of Mycenean origin  has the king Oinomaos involved in a chariot race with a suitor for his daughter’s hand. Oinomaos had dreamt he’d be killed by his son-in-law and so, equipped with a pair of unbeatable winged horses from Zeus, challenged all potential candidates.  The draw back was that the winner killed the looser!  Pelos, arrived on scene and had been given winged horses by Poseidon; Pelos won, killed Oinomaos and had the Peloponnese named after him!

Southern facade of the temple of Zeus

The athletes competed in the games for prestige alone, winning a wreath of wild olive leaves. However; anyone caught cheating had to pay a large fine which was used to dedicate a bronze statue to Zeus.  These were known as Zanes and were displayed on the approach to the Stadium. These statues bore the name of the cheating athlete  and the manner of his cheating as a warning to others!

Reconstructed Pelopion

The Games developed down the centuries much as they do now with new events being added at intervals, until 393AD when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I banned them. His successor, Theodosius II then ordered the monuments burnt in 426AD and two earthquakes in 522 and 551AD finished the job. Although a farming settlement remained even that was abandoned by the 7th century and the site slowly disappeared under the flood plain of the Alpheios River.

Altar of Hera, where the Olympic Torch is lit, with the Temple of Her in the background

When you bear in mind this is the birth place of the Olympics and the place where the Olympic Torch is lit before each Games they could have made a bit of an effort with presentation; it is rather overgrown in places and, as elsewhere, there is a dearth of information about the ruins.   We had a guide-book but it was difficult to relate the text to the ruins especially as I now find we went around the site ‘backwards’!  Some direction arrows could have helped !!   There were some signs around the place but it is an extensive, complex site and a lot more wouldn’t have hurt; Audio Guides would have been fantastic; the wold even be a job opportunity for official guides!    Despite that it is an impressive site and the sheer scale of some of the ruins give a hint of the enormity of the original.

The Hermes of Praxiteles
The Nike of Paionios
Statues from western end of the Temple of Zeus depicting drunken Centaurs at the wedding feast of Peirithoos and Deidameia. The Centaurs tried kidnapping all the female guests.
Statues from the eastern end of the Temple of Zeus showing preparations from the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos.

Olympia is a fantastic place and well worth the visit but it could be an amazing experience with attention to presentation.

Katacolon

Katacolon was a small fishing village until a local boy made good shipping magnate decided that it would make an ideal cruise ship terminal for tourists visiting Olympia.

The village is about 700 metres long, at one end is the beach and the cruise ship terminal and at the other is the station for the narrow gauge railway to Olympia.

Katacolon harbour front

The village comprises the harbour front and two streets behind that. The harbour front is dedicated to restaurants, end to end. The next street back is home to souvenir and jewellery shops for the cruise ship passengers and the third street, well, the third street is behind the second. There are more ATMs per square metre than some islands we know.

We arrived on Friday afternoon in a ghost town, literally no one on the streets, tumble weed deserted. The town quay is in front of the largest and emptiest car park imaginable and on the other side of that is the railway station and the local church. They have a very loud set of bells and a loudspeaker system that broadcast the entire Friday evening sung service to the village. Happily that was the only one although the bells did get a bashing on Sunday morning as well.

Saturday was Valeria’s birthday so we spent a quiet day doing little and wandering along to a nice restaurant for a late lunch. We decided to leave the visit to Olympia until Sunday, not appreciating that the train wouldn’t run.

We did little on Sunday, waiting to visit Olympia on Monday, although I did take a walk over to the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, which was fascinating. Everything from sundials and water clocks to self-loading cross bows and holy water vending machines. They even had a steam-driven device linked to the fire for the temple offerings. When the fire was hot enough the temple doors opened in approval! When the fire died down the door closed and the only way to get the gods to show their approval again was to make another offering! And of course numerous types of crane and lifting machines.

Katacolon really has little to offer visitors unless you are on a cruise ship, it is easier to buy jewelery or a leather coat than to buy groceries.   Once the cruise ships leave there is little here at all.   It is a useful stop over on the west coast of the Peloponnese and one of the few places with shelter.   We planned to be ‘not sailing’ on Valeria’s birthday and to visit Olympia, but with those two targets achieved sitting waiting for the wind to change got to be a little boring.