An Olympic Inferno

Exploring Olympia 5Exploring Olympia 1Exploring Olympia 2Exploring Olympia 3Exploring Olympia 4Covered Mosaic FloorsExploring Olympia 6Exploring Olympia 7Exploring Olympia 8Exploring Olympia 9Exploring Olympia 10Exploring Olympia 11Exploring Olympia 12Temple of Zeus 1 - OlympiaTemple of Zeus 2 - OlympiaNike's Pedestal - OlympiaTemple of Zeus 3 - OlympiaThe Original Olympic StadiumBecoming an OlympianThe Inferno At OlympiaExploring Olympia 13Exploring Olympia 14Exploring Olympia 15The Philippeion - OlympiaExploring Olympia 16Inside the Olympia Museum 1Inside the Olympia Museum 2The Pediment Sculptures from the Temple of Zeus 1The Pediment Sculptures from the Temple of Zeus 2The Pediment Sculptures from the Temple of Zeus 3Inside the Olympia Museum 3Inside the Olympia Museum 4Inside the Olympia Museum 5Inside the Olympia Museum 6Inside the Olympia Museum 7Inside the Olympia Museum 8Inside the Olympia Museum 9Inside the Olympia Museum 10Inside the Olympia Museum 11
I was headed into an inferno, at least, that was what the news story on the Internet led me to believe. It was old news really, I remembered first hearing about the fires burning across the Peloponnesian Peninsula when I was in Rhodes a few weeks before. I had never even considered changing my plans due to the fires, though. After all, I had lived for many years in California where forest fires were commonplace and I was only going to get one chance of seeing six of the Seven Wonders of the World before it was time to go home. I figured that as long as the transportation was still running I was going to stick to my plan.

My bus ride out of Delphi went flawlessly. We descended the slopes of Mt. Parnassus to a small town near the north shore of the Corinthian Sea where the first bus left me on a dusty street corner with several other passengers. About an hour later I was on another bus following the winding, scenic road west along the coast. Eventually we crossed a huge suspension bridge that gracefully joined Northern Greece and the Peloponnesian Peninsula with a gleaming white arc of steel, cables and asphalt. My bus dropped me off in the port town of Patra. I had no map, but the bus had been following the train tracks ever since we crossed over the bridge, so I knew which direction the train station wasn’t in. My educated guess led me straight to the station where I bought a ticket to Pyrgos. I sat and watched the comings and goings of the shipping traffic at the adjacent port as I waited for my train. The sun was already setting by the time we pulled out of Patra, which didn’t bode well for my plans of reaching Olympia that day – I had been told that it would be difficult to do before I left Delphi, so I wasn’t all that disappointed. I was staring out of my window when the last hints of the passing landscape disappeared in darkness leaving a near perfect mirror in its place. Since I didn’t want to stare at the reflection of the person sitting across from me, I took out my new book and started reading. The clackity-clack of the big wheels on the steel rails remained my only connection to reality as I lost myself in the story of the misunderstood ‘monster’ created in a fit of mad genius by Dr. Frankenstein.

Dinnertime had come and gone by the time the train came to a stop in Pyrgos. I had planned ahead and I had plenty of food to tide me over until morning, so I went straight to the ticket counter to buy my ticket to Olympia. In broken English, the woman at the counter let me know that the next train to Olympia was at eight in the morning – As suspected, I was going to have to spend the night in Pyrgos! I hoisted my backpack and set off in search of a place to stay and a proper dinner. Finding hotels ended up not being a problem, there were several within walking distance of the station. What was a problem, though, was finding a room in one of the hotels – Every one of them was full! I had a similar problem finding food. All of the restaurants were closed and none of the stores had anything better than what I already had in my bag. Defeated, I walked back down the dark street to the station, took a seat on a bench on the platform and watched the comings and goings of the trains. Eventually the last of the passengers disappeared and the schedule indicated that the next train wasn’t until early the next morning. I was alone.

It was a scene right out of the movies: There was a deserted, dimly lit platform with a big clock that seemed to be moving ever so slightly backwards. Several sets of steel rails disappeared into the darkness at either end of the station, a slight bluish-white light reflected off of them interrupting the night. Across from where I was sitting there were several derelict train cars that looked as if they had been sitting there for years, some were decorated in the latest graffiti fashions and all of them had dark, lifeless windows. There was an old rundown industrial building clad in rusty tin sheets and sitting in darkness except for a tiny light near one of the doors. The only thing missing from the scene was steam rising up out of the exhaust of a slowly passing freight train. I felt like I was the only actor in the movie, but the problem was that most of the times I remembered seeing scenes like that in the movies, bad things were happening to the people involved. Eventually the chill of the night and the big, slow motion clock that was mocking me from its wall fixture above me forced me to go into the waiting lounge of the terminal. The doors to the street were locked and there was a nice bench that I could almost stretch out on, so I laid down and tried to get some rest. I slept fitfully, waking at every hint of motion or sound. Once I woke to find the night watchman quietly turning off the lights in the room. When he noticed I had woken he smiled and said something that I didn’t understand in a friendly tone and then left the room, closing the door to the platform, which had been chained open until then, to keep out the cold. So it went for my night in Pyrgos, but somehow I managed to get a few hours of sleep.

The watchman came back through sometime around five or six in the morning – I’m not really sure when – to unlock the station doors. He gave me an apologetic smile before he turned the lights back on. Within minutes the station was busy again with commuters waiting for the trains that would whisk them off to their offices in Patra or beyond. The big clock over the platform door seemed to be functioning properly again – I had about an hour and a half before my train was due to arrive. I knew that finding breakfast was going to be nearly impossible at that hour, but I had to look. I ended up with a muffin and a cup of coffee, which I found in a tiny café-like place attached to the station. I took my seat on the same bench I had started my evening on the night before and I waited and watched as trains arrived and departed. The train to Olympia pulled into the station nearly on time. I jumped off of my bench and took my seat on the train and then I left Pyrgos behind me.

The train ride to Olympia was short enough that I was left wondering if I could have taken a taxi or a bus the night before – I dropped the thought, because it didn’t matter at that point. I was one of only a few people that got off at the Olympia Station – I supposed that the majority of the tourists would be arriving on the later trains. The streets were deserted in the early morning coolness, but the town had a very welcoming feel about it. The pleasant smell of a smoldering campfire filled the air throughout town, but I knew that there was nothing pleasant about the fire that produced it – I had seen its marks all along the tracks during my ride from Pyrgos.

It was still very early, so I decided to find a place to stay before I went in search of a real breakfast. The two hostels I found in town were full. In one of those hostels I ended up waiting for the desk clerk for quite a while before he came out. The first time he came to the desk he just looked at me and walked away. About ten minutes later he came back and said in a fairly abrasive voice, “What do you want? We are full!” I then went to a hotel in the center of town called the New Hotel Olympia. They had a room available and, while it couldn’t have been called nice, it was all I needed. I checked in, dropped my bags and went out to breakfast. After my hunger pains were eliminated I went back to the hotel and laid down for a few minutes. Three hours later the exhaust from a passing tour bus woke me up – I had slept a lot longer than I had anticipated, but I felt better and I was ready to start the day. I grabbed my camera and some water and I headed out to explore the ancient city of Olympia.

The conveniently located signs led me to the edge of town where the footpath to the ruins started. The path wound its way through a grove of olive trees to a bridge over a ravine. I continued across the bridge into the lovely forest on the other side. The view of Mount Kronos that I had from town had me a little worried. I knew that the fires had reached the ancient site, but it didn’t sound like there was much, if any damage. Yet, the leaves on the lovely trees that graced the slopes of the mountain, which was right next to the ruins, were glowing orange and yellow as if it was fall in New England. Judging by the bright green foliage on all of the other trees, it was easy to tell that Mt Kronos had burned and all of those scorched trees were either dead or badly damaged. The smoky aroma of burning wood and the ominous whine of chainsaws filled the lovely forest and the ruins with a sad ambiance, but I knew that regardless of how bad the fire had been the scenery around one of Greece’s most important tourist attractions would be restored and beautiful again quickly. I turned my attention away from the plight of the trees and I focused on what I had come to see, the ancient birthplace of the Olympic games.

Olympia was an important site in Classical Greece. The site was dedicated to Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology. The Olympic games were first held at the site in 776 BC in his honor. As the site grew in importance, major construction projects, such as the Temple of Zeus, began to appear. Every Olympiad, or four years, the Olympic games were held at the site until 393 AD when the Christian Roman emperor, Theodosius I, banned the games calling them pagan. Olympia was occupied until the sixth century AD when the site was abandoned due to flooding. The first excavations were carried out in the 1820’s and they are ongoing today. Thanks to the popularity of the modern Olympic games, the site has become popular on the tourist circuit and funding for major excavations and restoration projects has been generous. The ancient site of Olympia still plays a big part in the modern Olympic games. The famous Olympic torch starts its journey to the Olympic games in Olympia where it is ignited with a parabolic mirror. Also, the shot put competition was held at Olympia’s ancient stadium during the Olympic games that were held in Athens in 2004. It was a place I had wanted to see for a long time!

I walked up to a modest little ticket booth next to the path that led into the ruins. The bored lady that was sitting there smiled and pointed to a sign next to the window that had some very good news on it – It was national tourism day and admission to the site was FREE! She handed me a map and I thanked her and then I walked into the forest. The first structure I came to was the sprawling gymnasium complex. It made sense that it was so large considering the site’s athletic history, but its size was still impressive – There was a massive square courtyard surrounded by two colonnades that once formed a covered walkway around the courtyard. I walked slowly along one of the colonnaded walkways taking in the beauty of the site. Many of the columns and capitols had been re-erected on their bases and beautiful old trees formed a green, roof-like canopy overhead. It was a beautiful place!

I spent the next few hours working my way through the ruins. I came across several structures dating from Roman and Byzantine times. The structures were apparently known for their amazing mosaic floors, but because of the fires all I got to see of them was a thick protective layer of sand plastic and gravel that the archaeologists had put down over them to shield them from the heat. I also explored an old church with lovely marble carvings from the Byzantine era. In classical times the church had served as the workshop of Pheidias where the famous chryselephantine statue of Zeus that was once one of the Seven Wonders of the World was created. Excavations in the workshop/church produced several tools that would have been used in the creation of the statue, as well as a cup that had Pheidias’ name on it.

Eventually I entered the Sanctuary of Zeus, or Altis, climbed up the stairs of the ruined Temple of Zeus and gazed upon the former location of the fourth of the Seven Wonders that I had ‘seen’ on my trip. I could almost see the giant, twelve meter high ivory and gold statue of Zeus staring down at me, but sadly scholars believe the statue was carted off to Constantinople where it was destroyed in a great fire – Nobody knows for sure what happened to it, though, so maybe someday it will be rediscovered. The Temple of Zeus was impressive in its own right. Its huge columns were made from fluted circular discs that were stacked on top of each other. When an earthquake destroyed the temple, the columns all fell in the same direction and now they are all lying on their side like toppled stacks of coins – It is a beautiful sight to see. One new column has been erected on the temple’s original foundation to help show the impressive scale of the structure and the result was very photogenic. Behind the temple a triangular marble pedestal rose up out of the ruins. The sign next to it said that an amazing statue of Nike once adorned the top of the pedestal as an offering to Zeus for one state’s defeat of the Spartans. I left the temple and headed towards the back of the sanctuary and another site that I knew was there.

There were two things I had wanted to do at Olympia. One was to see the ancient location of the statue of Zeus. The other was to visit the birthplace of the Olympic games. At the back of the Sanctuary of Zeus I found the beautiful arched ‘crypt’, which led from the sanctuary to the stadium, the original Olympic stadium. I walked through the crypt and looked out on the lovely field and its gently sloping, grassy banks that served as the seating. The bright, emerald green of the stadium clashed with the charred landscape just beyond – The fire had burned right to the edge of the stands! I had the stadium to myself at first, so I set up my camera on a timer and then I ran a lap. I am pretty sure that doesn’t qualify me as an Olympian, but I did run a lap at the original Olympic Stadium! I spent a while at the stadium watching as group after group of people came through the crypt. Most of them ran as much of a lap as they could, but some decided to just be spectators.

I finished walking through the site visiting the lovely temple of Hera, with its three large standing columns, and the Philippeion, a beautiful circular structure built by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. I had seen all that there was to see in the ruins, so I headed through a beautiful, but charred forest to the modern museum. Outside the museum, lining the wall of a covered walkway, I found several impressive statues that were not complete enough to be included in the indoor collection, but nice enough to be on display. Inside the museum it quickly became apparent how important of a place Olympia was in ancient times. The statuary was abundant and of excellent quality. There were rooms filled with weaponry that would have served as war trophies. Others contained fine bronze details from furniture and impressive architectural details. One room contained a nearly complete set of pediment sculptures from the Temple of Zeus, arranged as they would have been on the temple. My favorite items in the museum were the statue of Nike, which once adorned the top of the triangular base behind the Temple of Zeus, and the flawless statue of Hermes. I spent nearly two hours in the museum, but eventually museum burnout set in and I was forced to stumble back to my hotel a drooling, mindless mess.

I had an amazing day exploring the ruins of Olympia. Its structures were well preserved and its history was well documented and, despite the fires, its landscape was stunning and shady and quite pleasant to walk around. I spent the evening in modern Olympia planning my journey to Athens for the following day. I confirmed the train schedules and I even found a few places to stay in Athens. I went to one of the cute cafés across from my hotel for dinner that night. I sat and ate my meal in a crowd of loud, happy tourists. When I was nearly done with my meal I noticed that the pork I had been eating was nearly raw! Visions of my stay in Delphi and my bad case of Delphi belly filled my mind – I didn’t want to get sick again! I was still feeling fine in the morning when I checked out of my hotel and walked over to the train station – I suppose I got lucky! The train to Pyrgos arrived on time and I climbed on and took a seat. My time in Olympia was done, but I knew that the next time I watched the Olympics I would know where it all started, I would be able to picture the place that the torch was lit and I would feel a little more connected to them. As the train pulled out of the station I set my sights on Athens and new adventures to come…


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