In the early hours of the morning, our cruise ship MSC Magnifica began to sail along the coast of Greece, arriving at Katakolon at about eight o’clock. Katakolon is 250 nautical miles from Brindisi, and is a village on a peninsula in western Ilia in the municipality of Pyrgos. From Katakolon we were able to take a taxi ride to Olympia, once a major religious, cultural and sporting centre. For over a thousand years, the ancient Greeks travelled every four years to celebrate the games in honour of Zeus. The sanctuary at Olympia gradually evolved on the southern slopes of Kronos Hill, and began to take shape from the 10th century BC, with the first monumental buildings being erected in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. New buildings were gradually added until it reached its peak during the 4th century BC, although some additions and alterations were made after that date. The sanctuary, or Altis was separated by a wall that surrounded the temple areas, and three main gates led out to buildings that served the needs of visitors to the sanctuary, and participating athletes during the games. In the 8th century BC a ‘sacred truce’ was instituted, to be observed every four years so the games could take place peacefully. In order to participate in the games, the athletes had to be ‘true-born, free Greek men’; and women were not even permitted to watch the games. Victors in the games were crowned with a branch of wild olive from the tree that stood near the Temple of Zeus, and gained great honour and status for himself, his family, and his home city. The Temple of Zeus was the most important building at Olympia, built with six rows of thirteen columns. Inside the temple was the 13 metre high, gold and ivory seated statue of Zeus, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was said that if he stood up he’d take the roof off! The gymnasium was a large rectangular building of 120 x 220 metres, and was used for running, discus and javelin practise. The stadium was 212 metres long, and had no seats, however, the embankment could easily accommodate 45,000 spectators!
We arrived at Olympia around ten o’clock, and it was already getting hot. We had an hour to walk around the complex – not enough time to really view the extensive ruins.
It was quite amazing. There were fallen colonnades, broken walls, tumbled finials; ruins for as far as the eye could see. We followed the path as it wound past porticoes and foundations, between grassy pavements and untidy heaps of boulders. When you got closer you realised that what might appear to be a useless chunk of rock was in fact worked stone; each piece once part of a massive structure. A huge disk, like a giant cog-wheel, broken from a pillar; a gigantic shaped block from a wall, smooth paving, bricks from the baths or the gymnasium, and of course, each apparently discarded rock had once been an intricate part of a temple, a colonnade, a residence or a courtyard.
My visit to Olympia was an amazing experience – not one to be missed!