Katakolon could not seem less of a cruise port if it tried. A tiny enclave clinging to the western Peloponnese coast, it's a sleepy place except when ships dock. But it's a popular cruise destination because of its proximity to Olympia. Ancient Olympia was one of the most important cities in classical Greece. The Sanctuary of Zeus was the city's raison d'être, and attracted pilgrims from around the eastern Mediterranean, and later the city played host to Olympic Games, the original athletic games that were the inspiration for today's modern sporting pan-planetary meet. At the foot of the tree-covered Kronion hill, in a valley near two rivers, Katakolon is today one of the most popular ancient sites in Greece. If you don't want to make the trip to Olympia, then Katakolon is an ideal place for a leisurely Greek lunch while you watch the fishermen mend their nets, but there's just not much else to do there.
Located at the foot of the pine-covered Kronion hill, and set in a valley where the Kladeos and Alpheios rivers join, Ancient Olympia is one of the most celebrated archaeological sites in Greece. Home to a sacred sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, Olympia also became famed as the host of the Olympic Games. Just as athletes from city-states throughout ancient Greece made the journey to compete in the ancient Olympics-the first sports competition-visitors from all over the world today make their way to the small modern Arcadian town that appears to have been already been a legend as long ago as the 10th century BC. The Olympic Games, first staged around the 8th century BC, were played here in the stadium, hippodrome, and other venues for some 1,100 years. Today, the venerable ruins of these structures attest to the majesty and importance of the first Olympiads. Modern Olympia, an attractive mountain town surrounded by pleasant hilly countryside, has hotels and tavernas, convenient for visitors to the ancient site.
As famous as the Olympic Games were-and still are-Olympia was first and foremost a sacred place, a sanctuary honoring Zeus, king of the gods, and Hera, his wife and older sister. To honor the cult of Zeus established at Olympia as early as the 10th century BC, altars were first constructed outdoors, among the pine forests that encroach upon the site. But around the turn of the 6th century BC, the earliest building at Olympia was constructed, the Temple of Hera, which originally honored Zeus and Hera jointly, until the Temple of Zeus was constructed around 470 BC. The Temple of Zeus was one of the finest temples in all of Greece. Thirteen columns flanked the sides, and its interior housed the most famous work of ancient Greece-a gold and ivory statue of Zeus. Earthquakes in 551 and 552 finished off the temple.
After the Treasuries, the Bouleuterion, and the Pelopeion were built, the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the Golden Age of the ancient games, saw a virtual building boom. The monumental Temple of Zeus, the Prytaneion, and the Metroon went up at this time. The enormous Leonidaion was built around 300 BC, and as the games continued to thrive, the Palaestra and Gymnasion were added to the complex.
Today's tranquil pine-forested valley at Olympia, set with weathered stones of peaceful dignity, belies the sweaty drama of the first sporting festivals. Stadium foot-races run in the nude; pankration wrestling so violent today's Ultimate Fighting matches look tame; week-long bacchanals-serviced by an army of pornoi and prostitutes-held in the Olympic Village: Little wonder this ancient event is now called the "Woodstock of its day" by modern scholars (wrestlers, boxers, and discus-throwers being the rock stars of ancient Greece).
For today's sightseer, the ruins of many of Olympia's main structures are still visible. The Altis was the sacred quarter was also known as the Sacred Grove of Zeus. In the Bouleuterion, the seat of the organizers of the games, the Elean senate, athletes swore an oath of fair play. In the Gymnasion, athletes practiced for track and field events in an open field surrounded by porticoes. In the Hippodrome, horse and chariot races were run on a vast racecourse. The House of Nero was a lavish villa built for the emperor's visit to the games of AD 67, in which he competed. The Leonidaion was a luxurious hostel for distinguished visitors to the games; it later housed Roman governors. The Metroon was a small Doric temple dedicated to Rhea (also known as Cybele), Mother of the Gods. The Nymphaion, a semicircular reservoir, stored water from a spring to the east that was distributed throughout the site by a network of pipes. The Palaestra was a section of the gymnasium complex used for athletic training; athletes bathed and socialized in rooms around the square field. The Pelopeion, a shrine to Pelops, legendary king of the region now known as the Peloponnese, housed an altar in a sacred grove. Pheidas's Workshop was the studio of the great ancient sculptor famed for his enormous statue of Zeus, sculpted for the site's Temple of Zeus. The Prytaneion was a banquet room where magistrates feted the winners and a perpetual flame burned in the hearth. The Stadium held as many as 50,000 spectators, who crowded onto earthen embankments to watch running events. The starting and finishing lines are still in place. The Temple of Hera was one of the earliest monumental Greek temples was built in the 7th century BC. The Temple of Zeus, a great temple and fine example of Doric architecture, housed an enormous statue of Zeus that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The famous Treasuries were temple-like buildings that housed valuables and equipment of twelve of the most powerful of the city-states competing in the games.
You'll need at least two hours to fully see the ruins and the Archaeological Museum of Olympia (to the north of the ancient site), and three or four hours would be better. Off Ethnikos Odos 74, ½ km (¼ mile) outside modern Olympia. Admission charged.
Archaeological Museum of Olympia. Of all the sights in ancient Olympia, some say the modern Archaeological Museum of Olympia gets the gold. Housed in a handsome glass and marble pavilion at the edge of the ancient site, the magnificent collections include the sculptures from the Temple of Zeus and the Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionysus, sculpted by the great Praxiteles, which was discovered in the Temple of Hera in the place noted by Pausanias. The central gallery of the museum holds one of the greatest sculptural achievements of classical antiquity: the pedimental sculptures and metopes from the Temple of Zeus, depicting Hercules's Twelve Labors. The Hermes was buried under the fallen clay of the temple's upper walls and is one of the best-preserved classical statues. Also on display is the famous Nike of Paionios. Other treasures include notable terra-cottas of Zeus and Ganymede; the head of the cult statue of Hera; sculptures of the family and imperial patrons of Herodes Atticus; and bronzes found at the site, including votive figurines, cauldrons, and armor. Of great historic interest are a helmet dedicated by Miltiades, the Athenian general who defeated the Persians at Marathon, and a cup owned by the sculptor Pheidias, which was found in his workshop on the Olympia grounds. Off Ethnikos Odos 74, ½ km (¼ mile) outside modern Olympia. Admission charged.
Lovers of handicrafts will really enjoy shopping in Greece. There's an abundance of ceramics, both traditional and modern, wooden bowls, reproductions of ancient statuary, woven rugs, jewelry, lace, and edibles such as delicious honey and olive oil. Cotton clothing is perfect for the summer temperatures, along with strong handcrafted sandals and leather goods that have always been popular purchases here. Around Olympus other popular souvenirs are reproductions of ancient artifacts found at the ancient site. Shop in modern Olympia or in Katakalon before reboarding your ship. There are just a few shops in Kalakon, but they sell a full range of souvenirs.
Archaeological Museum. The shop of the Archaeological Museum carries an appealing line of figurines, bronzes, votives, and other replicas of objects found in the ruins. Off Ethnikos Odos 74, north of Ancient Olympia site.
Atelier Exekias. At Atelier Exekias Sakis Doylas sells exquisite handmade and hand-painted ceramic bowls and urns, fashioned after finds in Ancient Olympia; the glazes and colors are beautiful. Kondoli, Olympia.