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The mother Alcmena immediately understood that the child would be persecuted by the notorious fury of the queen of heaven, Hera. Baby Heracles, thanks to a stratagem of Alcmena, managed to take a sip of milk from the breast of the Goddess. It was enough to acquire his divine essence. The countless attempts at murder by Hera were vain, as she considered little Heracles the fruit of Zeus’ betrayal.
Heracles grew up, becoming a healthy and strong boy. The most meticulous care and careful education was not spared on him. Amphitryon, his tutor, was prodigal of lessons for the spirit and the body, teaching him to tame horses and drive a chariot. From every corner of Greece came the most illustrious and well-known masters lecture him about arts, sciences, and physical strength.
However, when he was guilty of the murder of his music teacher, Lino, the life of Heracles changed forever, and all the events that subsequently happened were triggered by that unfortunate moment. The wrathful character of Heracles radically changed his destiny, with all the consequences that followed. Forced to live among the guardians of his own flocks, He did not, however, renounce to his education.
At the age of eighteen, Heracles – handsome, strong and wise – had become the symbol of virility and self-denial, always alongside the weakest. He continued to listen to the advice of the Duty which, under the guise of a beautiful woman, gave him a life with a winding path yet respectable, and which would have been handed down to posterity. Following his choice, Heracles started with his first deeds, lavishing himself for the good of others, fighting against bandits and petty thieves. He was on the Argonauts’ expedition, married Megara, from whom he had eight children, who all found death by his own hand, because of the Anger – in agreement with stepmother Hera – which upset his mind.
Having prevented suicide, after a consulting with the Delphi oracle, Heracles did his best to face the notorious twelve labors with courage and wit, symbol of the eternal struggle between man and nature, man and his fears, in the wildest and most terrible form.
Many others were the vicissitudes that Heracles had to face: all his life he had to fight against his demons, the demons of all men – the feelings – until he found peace in death, also violent at the end of a life so troubled, between the flames and spasms caused by the poison of which his clothes were soaked…
This is only a legend. And yet, we like to imagine this hero, perhaps while still wandering among the ruins of Olympia. Because that’s our new destination, in the footsteps of the heroes and gods, between Greek history and traditions that make this culture immortal.
Before reaching the Olympia site, a stop at the small town of Katakolon is unmissable.
Katakolon was just a small fishing village before the construction of a modern port that allows the docking of cruise ships to allow cruise passengers to visit the archaeological site. Beside cruises, this city lives mainly from beach tourism and fishing income. Today it’s a charming seaside town, small but alive and prosperous.
It’ll be possible to visit Katakolon in complete relaxation, shopping among the many shops in the only street of the town. Continuing along on it, you’ll find the small church of Agios Nikolas, the saint of Katakolon, located just above the city; all you’ll have to do is walk down a staircase to see it.
Not far from the church, an interesting stop is the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, with a very low-priced entry ticket. Katakolon is also famous for its lighthouse: it’ll be exciting to imagine ancient maritime feats in front of the foam of the waves and caressed by the sea breeze.
Alternative Tours of Katakolon
During the hot and sunny summer days, it’ll be possible to rent a scooter (for about 20€) and get lost in the streets of Katakolon. Spending a morning in the wild, driving a scooter through the uncrowded streets and feeling the wind on your face will leave you with an exciting feeling.
Not far from the town center, you’ll find the three most famous beaches in the area: Agios Andreas, Kourouta (about a half hour away from the center), and Plakesa (only 200 meters from the port). The beaches are all sandy and the sea water, blue and crystalline, has a perfect temperature; each of the beaches is served by bars and never particularly overcrowded. A real treat for lovers of sunbathing and relaxation.
Before continuing to the archaeological site, it’s always nice to stop at one of the many typical cafes and restaurants near the marina, where you can enjoy dishes like moussaka and gyros, or drink the traditional aniseed liqueur, the Ouzo.
Later on, at sunset, when a good part of the tourists goes away, Katakolon will seem like a pint suspended in time after a long day of celebration, until it wakes up at the dawn of a new day.
Olympia and Its Glorious Past
Finally, you’ll arrive in Olympia, where people come every day to visit the archaeological remains of great historical and cultural importance. Walking through the ruins will give you the excitement of evoking the atmospheres of antiquity, immersing yourself in a place that offers more than a few surprises.
The House of the Ancient Athletes
Olimpya was an ancient city of Greece within the municipality of Archea Olympia, seat of the administration and development of the Olympic games but also an important place of worship, as evidenced by the remains of ancient temples, theaters, and monuments and statues, discovered after excavations carried out in the area where the city originally stood.
The visits to this site date back to the final part of the Neolithic (between 4300 and 3100 BC), in particular in the northern area of the stadium. Settlements from later periods were also discovered in other parts, for example under the new museum building. The links with the culture of Cetina arouse interest, following the discovery of rests that connect the site to the areas of Dalmatia and even with other towns of the same culture, such as those in Sicily and Malta.
The city was set in a valley situated along the river Alfeo, in Elide (north-western Peloponnese). Many of the erected buildings were used as a residence by the athletes who participated in the games, known as Olympic, and which were held every four years in honor of Zeus. In this place, a list of winners was compiled for the first time in 776 BC: possibly the outcome of the first historically ascertained Olympics.
In the first half of the 18th century, thanks to the English archaeologist Richard Chandler – notoriously fond of Greek art – the ancient city was rediscovered; only in 1800 began the actual excavations: the first to deal with them were French and German archaeologists. During their research, statues, altars and votive objects were brought to light: they were awakening a world whose beauty went beyond imagination.
Visiting Olympia’s Site
Today, Olympia represents one of the most important museums in the world.
Once at the site, it’s always good to rely on a guide who, helped by images of ancient splendors, will help you immerse yourself in a magical atmosphere, allowing you to relive the events and understand the spirit and history of the place. You’ll start from the sacred enclosure, the Altis, 200 meters long and 177 meters wide, placed in an elevated position. Here there were temples and buildings used for the administration of the games. You’ll see the Heraion, the Doric temple dating back to 600 BC; it was one of the first buildings in Olympia and it was dedicated to Hera, wife of Zeus, venerated by all athletes. In this temple, laurel crowns were preserved, destined to Olympic winners. A truly evocative place.
From there, you’ll proceed to the Temple of Zeus. Also in Doric style and erected between 470 and 456 BC, it’s considered the most famous and important sacred building of Olympia: on top of it, there was a Zeus statue made by Fidia and considered one of the seven wonders of the world; unfortunately, only descriptions of ancient writings – and our most fervent imagination – remain.
The Stadium and the Athlete’s Bravery
But probably the biggest thrill will be crossing the entrance arch of the Stadium. Theater of exciting competitions, the Stadium received its final form – the third realization over time – around the 5th century BC.
The athletes prepared themselves for years and enrolled for the games just one month before the competitions. Sport, in fact, was conceived as an improvement of men to reach divine perfection, and as an educational tool both physical and mental. The winners received a simple olive branch, a symbol that today represents peace. In fact, during the Olympic Games every war was suspended.
The first Olympics date back to 776 BC, celebrated in honor of the festivals dedicated to Zeus. Even today, trampling this ground gives a truly ineffable emotion. The photo at the starting blocks taken by tourists from all over the world is inevitable. Sometimes, it’s possible to intercept some sportsman intent in his training run or simply sitting at the edge of the track to catch a breath.
The last stop will be the Leonidaion, which takes its name from Leonide di Nasso, located to the south, next to the Altis. Without doubt, this is the most mundane building: it consisted of an external arcade in Ionic style, with 138 columns, and an internal porch in Doric style, around a central courtyard. Between the two colonnades were the refined rooms where the most important foreigners received hospitality. However, it was also possible to find less wealthy people here, camping outdoors.
A real “meltin’pot”, an emotional moment in which the rich and the poor would have shared – albeit in different conditions and treatments, mind you – the same environment. And yet it was a truly revolutionary idea, from which we would have much to learn today.
The Olympic Games between History and Legend
During the 2004 Olympic Games held in Greece, Olympia relived its magic moments: the ancient stadium was reused for the weight throwing competitions. One can only to imagine what emotion could arouse for athletes to find themselves in such a sacred place.
Stopping in front of the Olympic torch altar will be a fascinating experience. And it’ll come as no surprise to know that the Olympic flame is a modern invention. Opposite the ruins of the temple of Hera, the actresses play the role of priestesses and light up the flame, but only the choreography and costumes are inspired by antiquity. The ignition system corresponds to a process already known to the ancients: the use of the sun and a concave container, a cylindrical-parabolic mirror.
The Olympics games contain one more myth: the story of Callipatera, a woman of a noble Rodia family, whose relatives were athletes of great fame. His son Pisidoras was a skilled runner like his brothers. Once widowed, the woman started training her son; unable to enter the stadium, she disguised herself as a man and was mistaken for the coach, but when the boy won, she betrayed herself because she lost her clothes in exultation. The authorities did not punish her, out of respect for her noble family. From that singular episode, however, the rule that forced athletes and their coaches to remain naked during the competitions came into force.
When you’ll be near the end of the tour, wrapped in a strange and evocative silence despite the continuous presence of tourists, almost as a sign of respect for such a sacred place, a last look will turn towards the columns of the gym. Who knows, maybe it will seem like seeing your hero among them, proud and intent in his daily training.
Where to Eat in Olympia
After such a busy day, is there anything better than a great meal with an unquestionably Greek flavor? The Magna Grecia farm is the best choice for you, not far from the archaeological site and easy to reach by car.
Once on the farm, you’ll be pleasantly welcomed by the owner, a nice Friulian woman, and her family: you’ll be overwhelmed by a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Walking through the olive groves and large colorful gardens will be a joy to behold. An intense scent of cooking food will always linger in the air while you’ll visit the oil production remittances, tasting the many fragrances here produced.
And when the time comes to really get to the table, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many typical local, zero km delicacies come from this land, so simple and genuine, but still radiating beauty.
Then there’re the dances, inebriating everyone, even the owners, the waiters, the cooks. Everyone becomes the protagonist of a festive Zorba. There is no owner or employee, but only union and joy of sharing. The joy is such that it will be impossible not to be involved in their dance fun moments await you, including popular music, laughter, and impromptu shows.
You’ll surely smile at the farm owner – a proud Athenian doc – who will often explain the etymology of any term to you; just as Kostas, one of the protagonists of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. So, Greeks are really all like that? Surely they give the impression of being proud people in love with their own culture.
Near the farm you’ll find a small market where to buy local oil, natural soaps and many small handmade souvenirs.
Greece and the Journey of the Soul
And so, a long day is coming to an end, it’s already time to go.
And yet, a thought always remains alive: we must be conquered by the art of traveling, even slowly, savoring every aspect, learning to listen to what surrounds us; we must open a door to new cultures.
When we visit a place, when we are in a place, its stories don’t come immediately to us; then we have to look, look deeply, be curious. It’s enough to close our eyes and take a deep breath. Because this is that part of Greece where the journey is also that of our soul.