Olympia, Greece: Glory to the Gods

I always hear people mentioning things like ‘Bucket Lists,’ but I rarely see them take the initiative and actively commit to one, no matter how amazing or how absurd it might be. Well, knowing that life doesn’t stop just because one is indecisive, I recently grasped an initiative I doubt I’ll forget about anytime soon.

For the longest time, I had been interested in visiting Greece. Everything ranging from the food and wine to its ancient history and, most importantly, for me, its mythology were no less than enticing. And when I use that word, it usually borders on obsessive. 

When I arrived in Athens, I truly didn’t know what to expect. What I did know was that the beleaguered country is still in the midst of an economic crisis that has eclipsed almost every facet of everyday life for its citizens. Never one to be deterred easily, I instantly focused heavily on getting to my main destination, Olympia. Now believe me when I say that when it comes to getting to Olympia, patience is a definite virtue.

First of all, the only non-stop flights that go from the USA to Greece are out of JFK, Newark, and Philadelphia, with the flight-time taking up to 11 hours. After that, you’ll learn that the main way to get from Athens airport to Olympia is by bus. Now here’s where things get a tad nerve-wracking (yes, even for me). The buses that go to the small city aren’t located at the airport, so you have to take the #93, which goes directly to Athens’ main bus station where all tour buses are located. That trip is about 30 minutes and costs €6.00. Once you’ve arrived, you have to purchase your ticket to travel to Pyrgos, the closest city to Olympia. The journey to reach Pyrgos takes at least five hours, but one more bus is required from there to finally reach Olympia (yes, you have to buy a ticket for that one, too, which costs €2.30). The ride from Pyrgos to Olympia lasts anywhere from 45 to 65 minutes, depending on the number of stops the driver has to make.

Once I was off that third and final bus, I was taken aback by the change in demeanor Olympia possesses compared to the obvious hustle and bustle of Athens. It was quaint, cozy, picturesque, and I couldn’t wait to get myself situated. I had decided to not book a hotel in advance, either, as I had no idea how long I was going to stay. As luck would have it, the very first place where I inquired, called the Pelops, had vacancy. That was rather fortunate for me because there had been a swarm of tourists from all over the world the previous day. The Pelops could indeed be considered a four-star hotel, and at the very inexpensive rate of only €35.00 a night (some of the luxury hotels there can run up to 90 to 120 euros); I was ready to book.

After I put my small suitcase away in my room, I raced to the main attraction in Olympia, and one of the most popular in all of Greece at that: the ruins of ancient times referred to as the Archaeological Site. You could imagine my disappointment when I finally reached it to discover that it had closed an hour before. I tell you, it was the closest I had come to tears in some time.

I figured by then that it was a good notion to actually take a walk around town (the Archaeological Site is located about five minutes away by foot), and it helped me quickly forgot my troubles. Now if you enjoy Greek cuisine, especially street food, Olympia will surely not leave you disappointed. The first restaurant I found was Anessis, and the first thing I noticed was the price of their wine; it was dirt cheap. For only €1.80, you were given a pour that reached the rim of the glass. After about three glasses worth, I was ready to try something else on the menu. Of course, I had tried souvlaki before, but who hasn’t? Be assured, though, that it only took one bite of a kebab skewer to make me realize that there’s a definitive difference between good and authentic. It was completely surreal! Served with French fries (a meal addition almost as popular as yogurt to the Greeks), one souvlaki plate cost €1.50. 

The next day after a hearty breakfast at the hotel (most of the hotels in Olympia consider themselves to be upscale B&Bs), I wasted no time hurrying to the ruins. To my amazement, fortune smiled on me. On weekdays, the Archaeological Site has an entrance fee of €12.00 for adults and €6.00 for children. Arriving on a weekend, however, I found out that it’s free to the public! Once inside the ruins, I couldn’t believe how large the site is, and it was when I observed the aged and majestic pillars of the Temple of Hera (my favorite Goddess in every spectrum of mythos and the main reason for my trip) that I knew every perceived annoyance I held previously paled in comparison. It’s extremely humbling to know that every set of ancient ruins at the Archaeological Site is roughly 2,800 years old, and there definitely remains an aura of antiquity in the air.

I lost track of how long I spent at the ruins on the first full day of my trip, but three large groups of tourists had come and gone before I even considered leaving. To walk among the rows of ancient stones and former buildings and to see the spectacular arrangements, not to mention reading all of the informative plaques that provide insight into the reverence the Ancient Greeks gave to every ritual and rite conducted in the honor of their Gods, I can honestly say there’s so much information pertaining to the ruins that a whole week studying might not be ample enough time to retain everything.

Reluctantly, I pulled myself away from the ruins to visit the Archaeological Museum. A stone’s throw away, the Museum had the feel of both a classical art museum and a historical spectacle; I should know, I worked at a museum in Balboa Park, San Diego, for over five years. Several amazing displays of statues, pottery, bronze weapons, paintings, and artifacts covered the walls in an extremely impressive array. Like the ruins, the Museum is also free to the public on weekends.

Away from the Archaeological Museum and the ruins was my third destination of the day, and it, too, was free: the Historical Museum. It featured a comprehensive guide in relation to all sporting and ritual events that took place in ancient times, including the Olympic Games. Two particular events really stood out to me. The first was the fact that there was an all-female event called the Heraean Games, since women were forbidden to compete in the conventional Olympics and, in some circumstances, even to observe them. Those games dedicated to Hera, whose name would be ritually invoked in a fire-lit procession before starting, allowed women to race on foot and partake in other contests, such as archery.

The second event involved a rather brutal sport called Pankration. Participants would use a combination of both wrestling and boxing moves and have a virtual ‘street-fight’ until someone either surrendered or died. Death was a common occurrence in Pankration matches, and in Sparta participants could also bite their opponents and gouge their eyes.

I was in much need of some leisure by the time I left the Historical Museum, and I found it later that night at a restaurant in town called Vasilakis. Now I know most people have tried and enjoyed gyros (the Greek version of a sandwich wrap usually consisting of lamb, vegetables, and yogurt sauce in pita bread), but until you’ve tried one from the heart of Greece itself, I say you’re missing out. Their house wine is especially cheap, and they’re also quite renown for specialties such as moussaka.

My last day was spent at the Kronio Hotel, since my previous accommodation was completely booked for any extra nights. The Kronio had the inner furnishings of a four-star property, and for only €40.00 a night, including breakfast, I had a room the size of an average living room.

I consider every vacation I have quite an educational experience, especially when I consider this particular trip. I’ve never been to a place so connected to ancient times, and whose food and wine were so well prepared that I could have stayed there twice as long and still yearned for more. I had plenty to think about on my way home, and even more to contemplate if there’s ever to be a return trip.

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