Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games

Whilst in Athens we'd visited the stadium of the first modern Olympic Games, but today, our port of call was Olympia, home of the ancient Olympic Games.

The previous day had been a rather uneventful one by my standards; we were told that because we'd had such a busy day the day before visiting three historical sites, they were going to give us a rest so as not to overwhelm us with information and history. Unfortunately, this made for a rather slow day. We wandered around Nafplio, a quaint little town on the coast, but one that didn't different much from other Mediterranean towns, even if it did differ from those of the rest of Greece.

Our next delight was a pottery demonstration before we drove through the mountains to Olympia on the other side of the Peloponnese. While the hotel here left much to be desired, the local home-style meal was at least a pleasurable experience (even if they do serve potatoes with their lamb).

Our day at Olympia was far better.

Scale model of the Complex

Delightfully, the extensive archaeology and research that goes on in these ancient sites means that there is now a museum in addition to the archaeological site. In the former, there are several more headless statues, but also the friezes and pediment statues of the Temple of Zeus that stands proud on the site.

Though in the cases of some figures little remains, it is delightful just how expressive these small fragments are. The hand grasping at a young lady's hair or a man's ear are in themselves enough to convey the story.


Among the beautiful pieces is the original Greek statue of Hermes carrying the young Dionysus, a beautiful statue that has been copied many times over by later Roman artists, 

Also, a statue of Nike, similar to the Nike of Samothrace that now sits in the Louvre. This one is missing its wings, but enough of the thin drapery over the goddess's figure remains to provide a good indication of its former beauty.

Beside her is the bronze helmet of Mithridates from his victorious battle against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Inscribed with his name, the reason this helmet was sent to Olympia of all the sacred sites in Greece, was because for one month every four years, this place as the melting pot of all Greece and Mithridates wanted all the city states in the area to know of the victory of the Athenians under his command. 

Helmet of a captured Persian

Mithridates' name etched in the side. 

Having wandered through the museum with the commentary of our tour guide in our ear (even if we'd wandered away from her to look at more things) we headed outdoors towards the cold archaeological site.

One of the most identifying features of Olympia is its stadium, a flat sandy strip edged at two ends by a strip of Marble and with gentle grassy slopes surrounding three sides. To enter and exit the stadium one had to pass through an arched corridor of stone, where the athletes were expected to strip in preparation for their sprint (in the nude).

With a couple of youngsters on the tour, we were able to get up an impromptu sprint (not in the nude) from the marble starting strip to the other end of the complex.

Just on the outside of the arched corridor was a series of plinths. It seems the whole of the Olympia site was once covered with statues, not only of the winners but of the Gods, of people who had contributed to the site, those who were just bringing dedications to the various gods... These plinths however were reserved for a very important purpose. Those on the right were for the statues of winners. Those of the left were for statues of Zeus, but inscribed with the deeds of someone caught cheating in the games; a so-called Hall of Shame.


Aside from the Temple of Zeus, there is a second main temple on this site; the Temple of Hera. This is because although the Olympic Games were for men only and all women (bar the high priestess to Demeter) were completely excluded, even from being spectators, the women also had a use for the site. Prior to the masculine Olympic Games, virgins were allowed to participate in the Heraia Games, dedicated to the goddess Hera.

The overall winner of these games (the winner of the sprint) would have her portrait in clay hung on the outer columns of the Temple of Hera, hence the rectangular holes we now see.

Olympia is beautiful, a tranquil grotto of trees and fallen stones but there is something strange about the site. Its location was diplomatically chosen as an uninhabited plain easily accessible by Greeks from all over the known world, and there is a similar blandness to the whole site. While it is picturesque and there are some spots where one can get some great photos, it is completely lacking in power and majesty. This is particularly surprising given that this is the site where one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World once stood. The Temple of Zeus, around which the sports facilities centre was the home of the seated gold and ivory statue of Zeus.

That afternoon, after a late lunch we headed around the north western tip of the Peloponnese to Patras where we would cross the Gulf of Corinth on the Rio Bridge the new Cable suspension bridge that opened in time for the 2004 Olympic games, after 17 years of construction.

From there our coach followed the coast round to the east, allowing us picturesque views of the green mountains diving straight into the bright blue sea. Despite the mountainous terrain, the landscape reminded me of home. The green olive trees, orange of the bauxite and grey rock were the same colours as you would see driving up into the Darling Ranges at home. We were even able to stop to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery over a sour cherry juice.

The last leg was uphill, winding past a few bauxite mines to the new town of Delphi. We arrived in Delphi after dark, but were blessed to see the final orange ribbons of dusk silhouetting the mountain range before us and two stars twinkling in the sky above.

Encouraged to go for a walk around the town, I headed out before dinner and stood on the hill before the hotel. There was the feeling of a strange atmosphere here, a tranquillity accompanied by a powerful wind whipping around my head; the sound and feel of the wind as though I was sitting on a beach down south at night, listening to the crashing waves and wind off the surf.

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