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The scenic seaside Greek town of Katakolon, with a population around 3,000, is your typical small-town cruise port -- cafes lace the waterfront, shops sell T-shirts, hats and jewelry, and a small beach draws swimmers and sandcastle-builders. But that's not why ships make the town a destination. They arrive because Katakolon serves as the cruise gateway to ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.
Drive 40 minutes from Katakolon, and you are transported back thousands of years. Stroll the site of Olympia, and you walk in the footsteps of the earliest Greek and Roman athletes -- wrestlers, chariot drivers, discus throwers, runners and long-jumpers -- who vied for glory and the gods' favor. Stand alongside the massive columns, and, with the tales of a good guide, you can envision the once magnificent temples, the crowded gymnasium and the runners readying on the track. Alexander the Great, Nero, Plato and Aristotle are among those who watched the games from where you stand.
More than 3 million people annually visit the site and its companion facility, the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, a treasure trove of pieced-together sculptures and statues that once adorned the ancient structures.
En route to the grounds, you travel through the fertile valleys of the Western Peloponnese region. Strawberries, watermelons, tomatoes, wheat and corn fill the fields; behind them rise groves of olive trees. The rich soil also suits grapes. At the Domaine Mercouri winery, about 3 kilometers from Katakolon's dock, you can sit in the shade of centuries-old cypress trees, sipping noted red and white wines.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
Greek is the native language, but most vendors, shop owners and taxi drivers know enough English to enable you to bargain, order food and get to and from your destinations.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Ehe euro is the official currency, and ATMs are available in town. Some shops and restaurants take credit cards, as well as U.S. dollars.
Outside the ancient Olympic site, vendors sell books about Olympia. "Olympia and the Olympic Games: The Monuments Then and Now" features photographs of the sites as they appear now plus an overlay of what the sites looked like in ancient times. Or, purchase bottles of the Domaine Mercouri vineyard's signature white and red wines.
Where You're Docked
The Port of Katakolon is in town, less than a 10-minute walk to the shops and restaurants.
You exit the ship to an open-air dock that also has a small duty-free shop, a good place to purchase bottles of water, soda, cigarettes and other items.
After a short walk from the dock, you reach Katakolon, with its waterfront cafes and shops. If you want a quick swim and you're not too picky, Plakes Beach, also known as Renata Beach, in town offers a small swath of pebbly sands. Jellyfish, however, are known to frequent these waters, so ask the locals before you jump in for a swim.
The block behind the waterfront is Katakolon's shopping street, the place to browse for typical tourist items like T-shirts, hats, white cotton and linen dresses, and jewelry, as well as olive oil.
On Foot: It's an easy walk from the dock to the heart of Katakolon with its array of restaurants, shops and the small beach. You can walk to the beach in town but not to the other beaches.
By Car: You can rent a car and drive the well-maintained roads to the ancient site yourself, picking up a guide, if available, once you arrive. Avis is located near the port. With your own car, you can also visit the nearby beaches.
By Taxi and Van: Taxis and vans that accommodate small groups line up to meet the cruise ships. Always arrange the fee ahead of time -- be sure to bargain -- and don't pay until after the driver returns you to the ship.
By Train: At select times, a train operates between Katakolon and Olympia, and a one-way trip takes about 45 minutes. The station is about a 15-minute walk from the cruise pier. For more information, check out Katakolon.org.
Watch Out For
Aggressive jewelers. Some jewelers hang outside urging people to come in their shops, but once you do the games begin. Expect major haggling. You may get a great deal but you also may have to work for it.
Greece is hot in the summer, and its inland sites are even hotter. The August day we toured ancient Olympia, the temperature hit 104F degrees. Be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen, bring plenty of water, and plan to purchase more bottled water for the ride back to Katakolon.
Although convenient, the cafe at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia serves high-priced soft drinks and snacks. The outdoor vendors near the entrances to ancient Olympia are often less pricey.
Olympia Archaeological Site: The 40-minute drive from Katakolon takes you through some of the most fertile areas of Greece, where most of the country's fruit and vegetables are grown. Once in Olympia, the tour buses pull up to the archeological site at the foot of Kronos hill. The Olympic Games originated here in 776 B.C., although the Sanctuary of Olympia dates to the 10th and 9th century B.C. This is also where the Olympic flame of the modern games is lit (using sunlight and a lens).
All the buildings at Olympia were built either for the early games or to celebrate Zeus and the other gods. Enough remains -- pillars, passageways, partial statues, steps and stones -- that, with a good guide setting the scene, you might imagine the eons-old games nearly ready to begin. Among the key structures to see are the palaestra, the place where wrestlers and boxers trained, now defined by rows of columns; the gymnasium, where a footprint of stones still outlines the large space; the Temple of Zeus, which once contained the 12-meter-high gold and ivory seated statue of the god; the Temple of Hera, outside of which a plaque states that from this site the Olympic flame is lit; as well as the stadium where the athletes competed and most spectators, except the high-ranking, watched from the sidelines, sitting on the surrounding slopes.
Competitors in the ancient games had to be Greek, born free (not slaves) and without criminal convictions. The oldest contests were foot races, but eventually the challenges grew to include warrior games, a pantathalon, wrestling and chariot races. As with the modern games, revived in 1896, the original games took place every four years. But in the ancient games all competitors were male and competed in the nude. The winner's reward was an olive oil branch and a wreath said to be from a tree planted by Hercules.
Note: The Olympic site is very sunny, and it's recommended that visitors wear a hat or carry an umbrella, wear lots of sunscreen and bring water.
Archaeological Museum of Olympia: Located on the archeological complex but requiring a separate admission (combined admission tickets for the site and the museum are available), the museum safeguards many of the statues, sculptures and figures found on the Olympic grounds as well as bronze helmets, breastplates and clay votive figures. The model of the site presents a bird's-eye view of the layout of ancient Olympia.
The museum contains remarkable sculptures and reliefs carved by the era's greatest artists. Highlights are the Nike of Paionios, whose gown seems to flow in the wind; the Hermes of Praxiteles, carved of Parian Marble and holding the infant Dionysus; the east pediment of the Temple of Zeus, whose figures and horses illustrate preparations for a chariot race; and the west pediment depicting the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths.
Been There, Done That
Domaine Mercouri Winery: About 20 minutes, or 4 kilometers, from Katakolon, the Domaine Mercouri winery, a family estate, was established in 1860 and occupies 23 acres. If it's not too hot, this is a pleasant and peaceful outing on a gracious country estate, where some 40 peacocks stroll. Tours include the original winery building with its old wooden presses, bundles of socks used to dust the plants and the wooden crush buckets. Yes, they stomped on the grapes in their bare feet. In the new winery, the guide shows you the stainless steel tanks, the wooden barrels for aging and the temperature-controlled wine cave, a cool spot on a hot day. Afterward, enjoy a tasting of red and white wines, accompanied by cheese and crackers in the shade of tall trees. Wines are available for purchase at the winery's shop. The winery is located in the village of Korakochori. (9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Saturday; 0030 26210 41601)
On the other side of Katakolon's jetty, Plakes Beach is a small, pebbly swath. It will suffice if you want to get wet and don't have the time to go farther from town. Young kids don't mind the dark sand or pebbles. Check with locals to find out whether jellyfish are offshore.
In Agios Andreas, a seaside village about 4 kilometers, or a five-minute drive, from Katakolon, the Kastro bar overlooks a small beach. Some ships offer excursions to popular Kourouta Beach, about 25 minutes from Katakolon. Vendors along the wide sandy beach rent chairs and umbrellas in season, and cafes offer lunch.
In Katakolon, the tavernas and cafes line the waterfront. While admiring the sea views from your outdoor table shaded by blue, beige or turquoise awnings, you can sample such Greek specialties as pastitsio (minced lamb and macaroni), moussaka (minced meat cooked with vegetables and topped with cheese), tzatziki (yogurt with cucumber and garlic), as well as seafood. Mouragio is known for its fried calamari.
In Olympia, outside the ancient site, restaurants like La Belle Helene, O Thea and Taverna Ambrosia also serve traditional Greek cuisine.
Staying in Touch
The town's Internet cafe is located on the shopping street, Epar. Od. Pirgou-Katakolon, the route behind and parallel to the waterfront.
Best for First Timers and History Buffs: The easiest way to see ancient Olympia and the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, about 38 kilometers from Katakolon, might be on a shore tour because the bus comes with guide, presumably a good one, plus a driver who handles the often tricky parking during busy times. If arriving in the summer when it's hot, aim for a morning tour before temperatures hit their peak. Good for families are tours that cover the ancient site in the morning and then go to Kourouta Beach or another spot for swimming. Read the itinerary carefully, as some of these tours skip the archeological museum, a worthwhile place to visit.
Best for Beach Bums: The farthest from Katakolon, Kourouta Beach is a popular seaside destination. It offers wide sands, as well as chairs and umbrellas to rent and cafes for lunch. You won't be alone at this lively beach.
For More Information
On the Web:
Official Katakolon Guide
Greek Tourism Organization
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Greece
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Europe Travel Guide