I found Olympia to be an interesting stop. It was an area so deeply rooted in history that it felt like we were going back in time the second we stepped onto land.
For this one, we chose to go with a tour because it was a bit of drive to Olympia itself from the port that we were docked at (Katakolon). The one good thing that I find about joining a group tour is that anytime you’re on the bus, especially at the beginning, the tour guide will launch into this long spiel about the local culture, the history, and more background of the places that they will take you. It’s a great pre-cursor to all the sights that you’re going to be see.
When we got to Olympia, our guide led us around the area, pointing out sights and giving us the history behind it all. We saw the Temple of Zeus, the area where they light the torch for the Olympic flame (the Temple of Hera), the Palaestra, the Philippeion, and more. For a little bit of background:
The Temple of Zeus, built in the second quarter of the fifty century BCE, was an ancient temple dedicated to the god Zeus. It housed the renowned statue of Zeus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The site of the ancient sanctuary was identified in 1766 and in 1829, a French team partially excavated it. Systematic excavation began in 1875 and has continued, with a few interruptions, up until now.
The Palaestra is part of the gymnasium and was thought to be a building in ancient Greece that was devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes. It is a
The Philippeion was a circular memorial (tholos) in limestone and marble which contained ivory and gold statues of Philip’s family; himself, Alexander the Great, Olympias, Amyntas III and Eurydice I. This was the only structure inside the Altis dedicated to a human.
The Temple of Hera is an Archaic Greek temple that was dedicated to Hera, queen of the Greek Gods. The temple was built in approximately 590 BC, but was destroyed by an earthquake in the early 4th century CE. In the Archaic Greek time period, the temple stored items important to Greek culture, and other offerings of the people. Now, in modern times, it is where the Olympic flame is lit for each of the games, symbolically joining the Ancient and Modern Olympic games.
It was fascinating to literally walk among the ruins. You’d be walking in the middle of places where old rulers and renowned athletes from the Ancient world would walk. To your left would be a bath that they used to use, and to your right would be the remains of a column that used to prop up the old structure.
My favourite part was the Ancient Stadium, which was mostly used for running events that would determine the fastest person in the world. Leading into the stadium, there was a stone vaulted tunnel that all the athletes and visitors would have to walk under. The tour guide had mentioned that the stadium could hold 45,000 people back in the day, and I tried to picture the sheer energy that would fill the stadium during the Olympic Games. I tried to imagine being an athlete in the middle of that grand stadium, with cheers coming from left and right from the people who adore you. It’s hard to imagine such grandeur in a stadium that was now left in ruins, with nothing more than white blocks and a dirt area to prove its long, magnificent history.
Our tour guide mentioned that a lot of tourists who come like to run up and down the length of the stadium, which is about 212 meters long. They start from the white blocks (which was used back then to align the athletes and make sure they all started from the same spot) and would run to the back of the stadium.
“People who do it are joining 2500 years of history”, she said.
And so, after hearing that and after seeing a couple of the other tour members get ready to run, I really was left with one choice. I shrugged off my backpack and decided to do the same. I would run the length of the stadium and maybe, just maybe, I would feel like one of the athletes who would compete for the title of world’s fastest runner so many years ago.
As I was running towards the finish line, at one point, all I could see were the other runners, the field of green around me, and all I could hear was the sound of the wind whistling in my ear. It felt freeing and a little surreal to be running where I was. I felt light and I felt like with a little hop, I could just float and be suspended in the air. It was 30 degrees out, I was sweaty, and I was getting to be out of breath towards the end, but yet, I felt good. I felt charged with energy.
These are the moments of travel that I find to be the most precious because you really can’t do it anywhere else. As Sean once said to Will in ‘Good Will Hunting’, “If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”
This is what travel is truly about. You can read a million books or watch a million movies but can you describe what it’s like to run down the length of the Stadium at Olympia, rooted in now over 2500 years of history? Can you describe what it is like to feel the sun beating down on you in that stadium and hear the whistling of the wind and nothing else? It is about those experiences and those moments that aren’t always talked about in books, but ones that stick with you forever. The ones that revitalize you, the ones that leave an imprint on you.
At the end of the day, we made our way back onto the bus and headed back to the modern village where we were given a bit of time to wander around, peek our head into the shops, and take some pictures at our leisure.
The perfect end to the excursion? Greek frozen yogurt with honey drizzled on top.
We also got a great view of the coast and the boat in the distance.
Next stop: Souda Bay! I was definitely not ready to leave the Greece sun and sea.