Olympia – yes, that Olympia – is situated in a green valley on the North-Eastern side of the Peloponnese, about 30km inland. Most visitors arrive via a little tangle of country roads that wind through the flat countryside of this part of the peninsula.
There has always been a town here, but the rag-tag collection of two-storey hotels and souvenir shops give the impression of having sprung up over recent years to accommodate the visitors who come to visit the famous archaeological site. Around a thousand people live here now and, while there is little reason to come here other than to visit the remains of Ancient Olympia, the town is pleasant enough and there are a few decent places to eat, drink and watch American teenagers stumble past, drunk on Mythos. There is something of a dusty – almost Wild West – feel about these few, straight streets that fall silent with the night.
Olympia was – and is – home to the Sanctuary of Zeus, the Greek god who was worshipped here from the 10th Century BC. The height of Olympia’s fame coincided with the famous Olympic games, which were held here from the 7th Century BC to the 4th Century AD and the fall of the Roman Empire.
Olympia was not only host to Ancient Greece’s greatest athletes. The site attracted the most celebrated artists of the time too, and many have left their mark on the sanctuary. The famous Praxiteles of Athens’ ‘Hermes’ was discovered during excavations here in 1829 and the 13 metre high golden statue of Zeus, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, was housed in the god’s great sanctuary here. It is thought that this masterpiece of Hellenic art was taken to Constantinople before being lost in a fire in the year 475 AD.
Today, this most holy of sites, where physicality and immortality were celebrated side by side, is best appreciated by taking a stroll through the ruins. The remains of the Temple of Zeus are particularly evocative – the building-blocks of immense columns lie where they fell after an immense earthquake that devastated the site in the 6th century AD.
The Temple of Hera is almost as impressive, and easily recognised as the place where the Olympic flame is ignited every four years in a ceremony created before the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Visitors can also see the original Olympic Stadium, where details including the judges’ seats are preserved to this day. You enter through the arch used by the athletes all those millennia ago – and get just a taste of how overwhelming this moment must have been for them. This stadium was brought to life once more during the Athens Olympics in 2004 in tribute to the original Olympians.
The sanctuary of Olympia was famous throughout the Greek world, and continued to be an important site during the age of the Romans. Testament to this is the presence of Nero’s villa, the remains of which are still discernible to this day. Nero participated in the games in 67AD, but according to legend didn’t play fair – during the chariot races, the emperor drove with 10 horses, while his competitors had to make do with four.
One of the highlights of any visit to Olympia is the museum located onsite. Far from the dusty provincial museum one might expect at such a far-flung site, the collection is stunning and easily rivals the Acropolis museum. Here, visitors can see the wealth of art that marked out this as one of the great sites of Classical archaeology. Keep your eyes peeled for Praxiteles’ Hermes, although it’s hard to pick favourites among all of the masterpieces here.
We would recommend allowing at least an hour to see the archaeological site, and another hour for the museum.