March 22, 2022. 53F/12°C
We docked this morning in the small fishing port of Katákolon on the Ionian Sea. This little village is the gateway to Olympia. (Does anyone else remember the animated 1962-1966 Saturday morning cartoon series The Mighty Hercules, with its theme song sung by Johnny Nash? The 5 minute episodes invariably ended with Hercules racing towards Mount Olympus and shouting “Olympia!” after defeating the episode’s villain.)
We’re in port today with one other cruise ship: our sister ship the Viking Sky. Given that Katákolon has a current population of under 500, it’s interesting that cruise ships can even be accommodated here. If our 2 ships were at full capacity and crew complement, we’d increase the town’s population by a factor of 7! Even travelling at reduced capacity as we are, we have more passengers on board the Star than the town has inhabitants.
We won’t be overwhelming the village streets today, though, having chosen a tour to the ancient city of Olympia about 28 km away. In keeping with a stretch of food-related excursions in the past week, we’re also visiting a Greek hotel and restaurant – the Touris Club in Olympia – for a cooking lesson by the owner, Mrs. Vasso, and lunch.
We started our day at the site of the ancient olympic games, which ran from 776 BC until 393 AD when they were abolished by a Christian emperor of Rome. The site is ruins, with active archeological digs still happening, like the one below at the site of the gymnasium (training area)
This dig is only a very small portion of the whole site; I was surprised by what a big complex it was. There were multiple temples, treasury buildings, outdoor altars, workshops, training areas, and the stadium itself. When the olympiad was held, every 4 years, as many as 45,000 Greeks from all over the (then) world descended on Olympia. It was as much a social event as a sports competition. People travelled great distances to camp on the hillsides, to see and be seen, and would arrive tired and hungry. According to written records, on the arrival day as many as 100 oxen would be sacrificed to the gods, followed by what our guide called a “holy barbecue”. She reminded us that the olympics were a tribute to Zeus, and the site really a giant sanctuary.
Across from the gymnasium were the ruins of Roman baths (below). Our guide explained that in the case of this site, brick construction always equates to the Roman era. The Greeks, on the other hand, used large slabs of stone, and wooden roofs.
The first building whose ruins we saw was the Philippeion, the pavilion of Philipos (Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great). The round shape is still discernible from the ruins, but the pillars are a reconstruction. The pavilion originally housed gold and ivory statues depicting King Philip’s family – a way of showing off their wealth and importance.
Our next stop was the remains of Hera’s temple. The only temple on the site larger than Hera’s is, of course, the temple of Zeus.
We got the chance to stand in the spot where the modern day torch ceremony takes place that begins the Olympic torch run. The concept of the olympic torch belongs to the modern games, first introduced at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, and the torch RELAY only came into being in 1936. I think we were all surprised to find out that it was the brainchild of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels for that year’s games in Berlin. Given that fact, I’m a bit surprised the concept was continued after WWII, but the carrying of the Olympic flame from Olympia to the Olympic venue has now become a tradition synonymous with the games.
The altar below doesn’t look like much, but I’m sure that when young Greek women dressed like goddesses light the flame using the sun’s light intensified by a concave mirror, it is pretty spectacular.
We walked down the same route that the ancient Greeks would have taken to the stadium, through the Olympic arch.
Once in the stadium , we could see the marble starting blocks, the sloped hillsides where spectators would have sat, the seating for the judges, and the 192m/600ft long sprinting field. Sprinting was originally the only event (discus, javelin, and wrestling all came later), and there is evidence in Greek writings that the all-male athletes were not actually nude, but wore a kind of binding cloth (a “Speedo”) to cover their less aerodynamic parts.
The ruins of the Temple of Zeus are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The temple crumbled during an earthquake, having been previously weakened by fire. In addition to the wooden roof burning, the massive stone columns themselves were affected by the fire. We learned that Greek columns are not made of a single huge stone, but of stacked circles with a hole drilled in the centre so that lead connectors could be inserted. This worked like reinforced concrete does today when it comes to earthquakes, because the lead was soft enough to flex slightly and keep the column from tumbling. HOWEVER…. lead has a low melting point. Once the temple had been damaged by fire, since the lead supports had melted, it was susceptible to earthquake damage. The huge chunks of what were at one time 34 massive columns (the temple was a rectangle with 13 down each length and 6 across each end – the corner columns being common to side and end) are strewn on the ground around the temple’s base.
Further columns outline where other temples and buildings were located, and more sets of Roman baths are also on the property.
Having toured the ruins, we were taken into the modern town of Olympia for our culinary event.
The Touris Club was absolutely stunning – exactly what you picture when you think of a Greek venue: white and blue, with a shimmering swimming pool, gorgeous gardens, and big bright restaurant.
Our excursion indicated we’d have a cooking class/demonstration. When we realized there were around 60 people (on 2 buses) signed up, I assumed that would be impossible to do. I was, happily, wrong. The demonstration table was set up so that all of us could see it – while drinking wine and eating delicious bread dipped in olive oil. Mrs. Vasso and her team had 3 dishes planned, and asked for 5 volunteers to prep each dish.
I volunteered to make the first item, which was tatziki. Each volunteer was given a grater, gloves, cucumber, carrot, garlic, thick Greek yogurt, olive oil, and cider vinegar, and got to make a dish of tatziki for our communal dining table.
The second dish was a Kolokithokeftedes (try saying that 3 times fast!), which are zucchini and feta fritters bound together with egg. Delicious!
The third dish was Tiropita, or cheese pie. The pastry had bern prepped, but those who volunteered got to roll out the phyllo dough and stuff it with feta, Kaseri, and Anthotiro cheeses before it was fried to puffy perfection in olive oil. Our new friend Allan did a great job rolling out the phyllo. Again, each communal table got samples.
After all that taste testing, it was time for a generous buffet lunch featuring lamb stew, moussaka, lemon roasted chicken, chicken shawarma, salads, lentils, olives, roasted vegetables, pita breads, and more.
As we were finishing all that delicious food, the entertainment started: four absolutely wonderful dancers who not only demonstrated several traditional Greek dances, but also got some of us up dancing with them.
The reward for participation? Getting to throw down a piece of crockery and smash it on the floor while the men did their best Zorba the Greek dance moves. OPA!
45 years ago, when I was 20, I visited Olympia with 4 classmates from a year abroad program. We’d done the 2 night train south through then Yugoslavia for a Christmas vacation visit. Froze our patooties in the unheated youth hostels but I remember running foot races in that stadium! Much more seems to have been revealed and restored since our visit but it was still one of the most memorable of 5 weeks in Greece. I hope to be back in 2024 — keeping fingers crossed. Thank you!
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Well done, my friend! What a happy day you had. OPA!!!!!
I got to slam dishes today, too, as luck would have it… Ir not… One dinner plate on the floor – replete with Chili!!!!! LOL!
Great day! Entertaining blog! Thanks.