The greatest athletic event in the planet. The best moment in Athens’s modern History. The flame that is lit every four years and travels the world as a rare reminder that the things that unite us are more than the things that separate us. It all started here, in 776 B.C., when according to legend Lycurgus of Sparta signed an agreement with Ifitos of Ilia to establish that here would be celebrated festivities in honor of Zeus, during of which all wars and all hostilities would cease. A few years later, the festivities were so important that time was counted in Olympiads.
Ancient Olympia is the archaeological site that excites even those people that usually don’t get excited with the archaeological sites. Especially in spring, when the Jacaranda trees of Altis bloom, turning its vastness into a purple and green spectacle, the rural routes of Olympia become one of the nicest walks you can do, not only in History but in nature as well.
The archaeological site of Olympia is vast, so you have to consider three hours the least to see only the basics. The tour starts at a cobbled path that passes above the waters of Kladeos River, to bring you firstly at Altis, the sacred grove of Olympia, where are all the temples, the administrative buildings, the Gymnasium where the trainings were, and the structures that the athletes were hosted.
The entire site is perfectly signed in three languages (Greek, English, and German) with details not only about the History, the architecture, the religious worship, and the excavations, but also about omissions and snapshots of the Olympian daily routine. Because there is an interesting small or big story behind every marble plaque that was put up here two and a half thousand years ago and its inscription starts like this “the city of the Messinians and the Olympian Parliament wreathed…”, “the Municipality of Athens and the city dedicate…” .
Almost in the center of Altis there is its most important temple, the temple of Zeus that was built in 456 B.C. and hosted the famous gold and ivory statue of the god, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was a masterpiece of 13 meters that depicted the god sitting on his throne, and about which history says that Caligula once sent slaves to load it on a boat and bring it to Rome, where he planned to change its face by carving on his own. But a thunder (Zeus, were that you?) stroke and burnt the ship just at the moment that the statue arrived at the port’s waterfront. When the terrified slaves returned empty handed in Rome, Caligula was already murdered. The statue was finally taken, centuries later, in 390 A.C. by the Emperor Theodosius in Istanbul and some people say that it was destroyed during a fire in 475 A.C., while some others believe that is was saved and remains somewhere hidden ever since.
Close to the temple, one of the Doric columns of which has been restored and offers an idea of its imposing size, there is the workshop of the person to whom we owe this masterpiece. Phidias used to spend his days here in the 5th century B.C., probably ignoring that thousands of years later he would be considered as the most important sculptor that ever walked on earth- just as his workshop would turn, ten centuries later, into a Christian basilica, and as a result to be adorned today by crosses and byzantine flower patterns.
Across the temple of Zeus, the smaller, also Doric, temple of Hera dates back to 1.046 B.C. and it is considered as one of the most ancient saved temples of the world. The astounding Hermes of Praxiteles that you can see today in the Museum of Olympia and would leave you speechless, was hosted back then inside the temple. In Altis you will also see, among many others, the impressive Philippeion, its only circular structure, which Philip of Macedonia dedicated to Zeus, the cenotaph that Pausanias mentions that Hercules himself built in honor of King Pelops, the Leonidaion, where the officials who came to see the games were hosted, and the Mitroon, a temple dedicated to the mother of gods, Rea- Cybele.
Through the vaulted tunnel of Echo you will pass from Altis to the Stadium, as the athletes used to enter, and you will try to realize what makes you feel such awe: The dark tunnel, in which every sound echoes seven times, or the 45.000 people stadium’s vastness? Or perhaps that here, in this exact spot, everything started?
One of the most important archaeological museums in Greece- and of the entire world, if we may say- the Archaeological Museum of Olympia hosts findings from the excavations here, which cover a period that starts from the Paleolithic era and reach the first years of Christianity. Hermes of Praxiteles rightly occupies an entire room on its own and is without doubt a reason by itself to visit the museum, even if you don’t see anything else.
However, this would be a pity since the Museum also hosts parts of the sculpted pediment of the Temple of Zeus (what is not in the Louvre), offerings from the altar of Zeus, tools and objects from the workshop of Phidias, impressive sculptures of Roman Emperors, and the famous Nike of Paionios, one of the most beautiful sculptures of the Classical period. The model at the entrance of the Museum replicates the entire archaeological site, and gives a clear picture of how it was.
The village that spreads outside the archaeological site, and it’s also called Olympia, might seem quite “touristic” with its cobbled paths filled with souvenir shops that sell miniatures of Hermes of Praxiteles. It has though, some decent choices in food, coffee and accommodation, and it can be a nice base to start exploring the most beautiful tips of the least explored prefecture of Peloponnese.
The National route 31 connects Ancient Olympia with the Foloi Forest, continuing till Patra, if you truly are a sworn hiker. If you are not, the region has nice routes that you can do by car, from which we suggest the one that connects Olympia with the Louvro and Kalliani villages, passing by dense forests, through gorgeous creeks and next to the banks of Ladonas River, and the one that goes up and down the mountains for twenty kilometers, passing by tiny villages before it brings you to Lala and then to Foloi.
Before they qualify for the Olympic Games, the potential Olympians must first compete on the city’s stadium that hosted the games. And that city (you probably didn’t know) wasn’t Olympia but Elis (or Ilida), 60 kilometers away of it. An extremely interesting, and amazingly quiet, archaeological site today that has its own ancient theatre, stadium and the remnants of temples of Athena, Aris, Dionysus and Aphrodite. In a close distance from the temple, there is the perfectly organized Museum of Ancient Elis, where the findings from the excavations are hosted.
Very close to Elis (7 kilometers to be precise) there is the artificial Pinios Lake that is the largest in the entire Peloponnese, but hasn’t got any kind of infrastructure on its banks- which means if you dream about drinking coffee with a view to its still waters reflecting the mountain slopes of Erymanthos and Santamerio Mountains, you will be disappointed. What you can do is to stare at it when walking on its dam and then drive on the interesting route that connects Elis to Gastouni, crossing the plains of Elis and looking like it is taken out of an American road movie.