One of the many great things about being lucky enough to take such a long holiday is that we can stay a few nights at big tourist sites, instead of rushing everything on a day trip. It allows us to choose the best time to visit the main attractions and to see more of the town than the average tourist sees.
We were in Olympia for three nights. This allowed us to find out that the busiest time was first thing in the morning, especially when a cruise ship was in town. We therefore managed to avoid the 40-odd coach loads of tourists and plumped for a late afternoon visit. As this is such an important and interesting site, we also hired a guide.
The ancient Olympic games started in 776 BC and continued until the late fourth century AD. It was then deemed ‘too pagan’ by the Christian Roman emperors of the time, who looted and burned the site over a few decades in order to save everyone’s souls. Cheers.
We find out that the idea of the games was to educate and promote peace between warring city states, on the grounds that understanding your neighbours made you less likely to attack them. For one month every four years, a truce was enforced, alliances made and deals agreed.
We visit buildings where competitors stayed for a month before the games. They arrived early not just to train, but to be educated both intellectually and spiritually. Fascinating facts come by the minute from our excellent guide, including that building columns were designed to be smooth on one side to avoid injury during wrestling practice. We do the tourist thing of posing exactly where the boxing practice took place.
We see the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. One column (of the original 65) has been reconstructed to give some indication of how massive this must have been. In the middle of the temple, there would have been a huge statue of Zeus made of ivory and gold, encrusted with precious jewels with an olive oil lake below to reflect light and make the statue sparkle. No wonder it was described with awe, it must have been spectacular.
The games themselves were huge events. The 45,000 spectators must have been awe-inspiring for competitors who had never seen so many people. If they won, a statue was made of them and lots of the plinths with inscriptions still survive. It was a men-only affair, though, with just one woman (a priestess of Demeter) allowed to observe the competition.
As with the current Olympics, some competitors cheated. If found out (via a variety of methods including urine tasting) they had to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus, accompanied with an inscription naming and shaming them forever. A notable exception was the Emperor Nero, who entered the four-horse chariot race with an obviously cheat-worthy 10 horses. He promptly crashed, but this didn’t stop Nero declaring himself as the winner!
Continuing into more modern times, we see where the Olympic flame is lit before every games. We take a collective breath on discovering that this tradition was actually resurrected by Hitler before the 1936 Olympics. Finally, we saw the ancient stadium, used for the shot-put competitions during the 2004 Olympics. We were the only people there, so it was deathly quiet apart from the ghosts of Olympics past.
Allan did a re-run of the 1 stadia race (192m from one end of the stadium to another) in a time that wouldn’t have won any race, in either ancient or modern times. Excuses range from “it was very hot” to “it was bumpy ground”. In truth, he admits it was because of being unfit, in his late 40s, and with his marathon running days a distant memory.
The air-conditioned museum was a welcome break from the sun. This, like the site itself, was compact but stunning. The pediments of the Temple of Zeus and the statue of Hermes with the infant Dionysus were highlights, but the sheer quantity and quality of the artefacts was remarkable.
It is very quiet in the evenings here, so all that was left was to have a couple of cold beers followed by one of the best meals of the entire holiday at the wonderful Taverna Orestis.
We agreed that Olympia has a very special place amongst Greece’s archeological wonders. It is the start of a golden thread that directly links events of 2,500 years ago with our own lives in a very immediate way. As Londoners who felt the magic of the 2012 Olympics transform our city, even if only temporarily, we felt we had completed a historical circuit of sorts.