Sunday, November 8, 2015

Olympia, where the games first began

Today we docked at Katakolon, Greece, a seaside town on a headland overlooking the Ionian Sea. It was another early start, something that we weren't used to and have some difficulty adjusting to. Katakolon was our gateway to the UNESCO site of ancient Olympia. We drove through the lush countryside to the sanctuary of Olympia. It has the appearance of a park, lying in quite a fertile landscape.
As we stepped back 2,000 years we could imagine the area crowded with athletes, orators, merchants and philosophers. It was lovely to see the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I particularly liked seeing the starting line for races and the sandy area where they were carried out. One of our shipmates was a former Canadian Olympic track star, who had her picture taken at the start line. We saw it afterwards but we didn't see the part where she fell over. She thought it was quite funny.

One of the most unassuming sites was the area where the Olympic flame is ignited before it is carried around Greece and then around the world to the site of the Olympics. It was a round area somewhat overgrown by weeds but things change every four years when the priestesses dressed in archaic style surround the Altar of Hera while the high priestess, invoking the god Apollo, lights the torch using a concave mirror. According to the Myth of Prometheus, the fire is the symbol of life, rationalism and freedom as well as inventiveness, and so had been the ageless flame that used to burn on the Altar of Prytaneion in Ancient Olympia. Then, the High Priestess relays the flame in a small ceramic pot and heads to the Stadium with all priestesses in procession. They pass by the Olive Tree, where they stand for a moment and “Amphithalis Pais”, the young boy cuts off an olive branch as a symbol of peace and a meaningful winner’s prize. When the procession arrives at the Stadium, the High Priestess lights the torch of the first runner and the torch relay begins. This is a very important day in Greece when the nation stops to watch the proceedings on television.

We took a short walk to the newly renovated museum, which holds exhibits from excavations on the site. Perhaps one of the most striking objects was a 4th century marble statue of Hermes from the Temple of Hera.

Returning to modern times, we stopped in the village of Olympia, which had quite a few trendy shops with end-of-season sales, jewellery shops and restaurants. We did lots of browsing but no buying. It had been quite a long day and we were glad to be back onboard the ship.

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