Sunday, 30 December 2012

The birthplace of the Olympic Games


We stopped off only by chance. Following the coast on the west side of the Peloponnese, idly gazing out over the soft blues of the ocean after a dramatic morning driving through winding mountain passes, F muttered something about a palace. 'I'm sure I read about a palace near here' he asserted, as I shoved aside maps looking for our Lonely Planet guide. A few minutes flipping through pages later, and we'd found it - the palace of Nestor, not far from where we had found ourselves. Not unlike Mycenae, the palace is another site of the same era tangled in myth - the hero Nestor was an Argonaut and fought in the Trojan war.


As we'd made good time so far, we decided to take a quick look. Although the accompanying museum was closed, the palace is incredibly well preserved, featuring a distinct floor plan and original features, including a terracotta bathtub still in place. It must have been a magnificent place to live, high above the coast, looking out onto sparkling water glinting from the noon sun.


What was even more exciting however (although I will admit that exciting is a rather subjective word...exciting for me in this case) is that the site is undergoing a current excavation, and was full of archaeologists uncovering new sections. We watched them work, the team labouring in the heat and perfectly content to have a few observers. The palace is one of the smaller sites that may easily be by-passed in favour of the larger, more famous ruins, but is definitely worth a visit, particularly whilst excavations are still at work there.


Moving on, we soon arrived at the main destination for the day: Olympia. We parked in between a long row of coaches, promptly changed our minds, and checked in at our hotel before returning later in the afternoon. The difference was dramatic - as we walked in, the last of the groups walked out, and apart from the old family here and there, the ruins quickly emptied out. Unfortunately, countless natural disasters have stripped the centre of Olympic history of its former glory, with most buildings existing only as piles of tumbled stone or lone standing pillars, but the accompanying signs give clear information and guidance to what once had been.


Naturally, we couldn't resist having a race in the stadium (without our trusty chariots, alas), which I won, possibly due the substantial head start I gave myself, imagining the applause of the 45000 strong crowd as I gracefully (cough, cough) stepped over the finishing line. From there we marvelled at the scale of the Temple of Zeus, its lone standing column surrounded by a small hill of further pieces, each block taller than I am. Some buildings are in better shape - the Temple of Hera has resisted the forces of nature better than most, and the sheer size of the whole area means that there is plenty to explore. Visiting at the end of the day turned out to be a good move, and one that we would repeat throughout the trip - the temperature had dropped, and the late afternoon light was ideal for taking photos.


To be completely honest, Olympia was not the most stunning or atmospheric of the archaeological sites we visited in Greece, but the opportunity to stand at the birthplace of the Olympic games, particularly only a couple of months after hosting them in my home city, was not to be missed.

 

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