Rest Day 2: Olympia, Greece

The reason for trekking all that way across the Peloponnese was, of course, to visit the ancient ruins of Olympia. I don’t want to make this to be too big of a thing but if you read my book about cycling to Italy you may remember that I was initially inspired to get off the sofa and do something less boring instead (as they used to say on kids TV back in the early 80s) by watching the rain sodden cyclists at the Beijing Olympics. Despite the damp conditions, it was exciting and exotic and I wanted a piece of the action. When I did, I also got a significant amount of the water but that’s another story… My interest in the Olympics goes back further than that however. I hesitate from saying it was ever a ‘passion’ (if it had been I might well have been one of the athletes competing rather than a mere spectator in front of the television) but I fondly remember spending time as a child watching Olympics through from the Montreal Games in 1976 (very vague memories I have to say), the Moscow Games in 1980 when the Americans didn’t show up but Seb Coe and Steve Ovett did, the Los Angeles Games four years later when the Russians reciprocated in kind but we nevertheless marvelled at the spectacle of the astronaut hovering above the stadium, Seoul in 1988 and then Barcelona in 1992. I had been in Barcelona in summer 1989 and was amazed by how the city was already festooned in Olympic flags and banners. The 1996 Games in Atlanta are the ones that everybody remembers for the wrong reasons but Sydney 2000 put the movement back on track with the “best games ever”. The Athens Games of 2004 had a hard act to follow but seemed to do just fine after a frantic effort to finish the venues, then probably the most expensive games ever in 2008 in Beijing. London could never aim to match the spending power of the Chinese but proved the cynics more than wrong by producing one heck of a show. And I played my small part in making those Olympics happen by being a Gamesmaker, one of the fabled volunteers who smiled, helped out and generally made the who thing run like clockwork. Well, most of the time. So, as you can see, my cycling journey through Greece was always going to find its way to Olympia, the home of the original ancient games, and here I am today.

It was another night of sporadic sleep in the tent. I had cockerels to keep waking me up last night and when the cockerels crowed, this seemed to set the dogs off… I eventually gave up trying to sleep and crawled out of the tent at an early hour of around 6:30 to collect my clothes from the washing line next to the reception area. I did tweet late last night that I was naked in the tent as my clothes were being washed but fear not! I had held back a pair of shorts so as not to frighten the neighbours. Not that there are any; the campsite here is quieter than the one back in Corinth for, I suspect, the same economic reasons.

Within the hour I was knocking back a double espresso in a cafรฉ along the main street in the modern town of Olympia. It’s a very pleasant little place; well-maintained, lots of bars and restaurants and souvenir shops selling all kinds of Greek-related memorabilia including a whole range of products themed upon Ancient Greek sexual practices. I averted my eyes… Only a few hundred metres along the road is the entrance to the archaeological site and adjacent to that is the main museum. It was wonderfully quiet when I arrived. In fact I think that I was one of the first half dozen people to wander through the entrance. It is still very low tech which I liked; buy your ticket at the booth, chap at the gate to the ruins rips off one of the perforated bits and you are free to wander. Every so often there is a panel to read; nothing interactive, no special lighting or sounds, nothing but good old-fashioned ruins and I loved every second of it, especially in that first hour or so before… More of that in a moment.

The highlight is without doubt the original Olympic Stadium. I’ve already posted a picture of it. Still more or less as it was when in use 2,500 years ago it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see and hear the competitors and spectators doing their respective stuff. Estimates say that it could hold 45,000 on the banks (no seating) but many more would be packed onto the hill behind the arena getting their fix of sporting action presumably free of charge. An Ancient Greek version of Henman Hill (or Murray Mound?). At one point I was the only person in the place and I wandered to the very furthest part of the stadium to take the panoramic view shown below (and in the previous post). To try and focus upon a flower in the foreground of my shot I squatted low on the ground which did bring me to the attention of one of the site attendants who was curious to see what I was doing (he didn’t really think I was doing what you and me are thinking did he?) but he seemed reassured and turned away when he saw the camera…

By the time I had returned to the main complex of ruins the cruise ships had arrived. Now don’t get me wrong, great white liners had not suddenly appeared behind the marble temples but their occupants had, ferried in by a fleet of coaches they bustled from one place to the next in a frenzy of chat and clicking of cameras. I’m bound to offend someone by saying this but they do tend to fit to the stereotype don’t they? Many on the large side, most wearing vivid clothing and almost all oblivious to the other (non-cruisers) around them. I tried to sneak a few pictures of them and my efforts are below.

In the remaining hour or so I ambled around the quieter further reaches of the site focussing my eye and my camera on the detail of what I could find. So much of it is familiar as so much of what we see today has presumably been influenced by the design styles of the ancients. The patterns, the swirls, the ornamentation, the detail. Fascinating stuff.

Less fascinating was the museum. Equally as traditional as the approach to the site itself but here I could have done with a telling of the story of the ancient games. The curators seemed to have focused their attention upon the statues and the stuff dug out of the ground during excavation work by the Germans from 1870 onwards. The stadium part of the complex was, apparently only unearthed during the second world war on the instructions of Hitler. I can’t be the only one to have spent at least some of my time wandering around both the ruins and the museum with images of Indiana Jones in my head, can I?

As I type this post in the reception at Camping Diane I am experiencing my first storm of the trip. It’s quite reminiscent of 2010. But that’s enough now. Stop. No really, just stop…











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5 replies »

    • Thanks. I did, yes… They have a few videos in the British Museum when they try to recreate the colours on some of their stolen property. In the New Acropolis Museum in Athens which I visited earlier this week there is a much better temporary exhibition which actually has casts of the originals painted sitting next to the originals. Some even have two casts painted showing different interpretations of how the colours may have looked. There’s also an interesting display showing where the palette of colours would have originally come from. Needless to say they couldn’t just pop down to HobbyCraft for a tin of the stuff. I’d recommend a visit if you haven’t already been. It will be even better when they are able to fill the gaps on the upper floor of the museum with the pilfered bounty still in London (and Paris). When I get back to England in September I’m going to be in touch with the Metropolitan police to report a crime…

    • Ha! Just noticed that was indeed a response to my Acropolis Museum post (not a more recent one) so ignore my comments implying that you may not have read the post that clearly you have read…

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