Don't Miss in Katakolon (Olympia)
Ancient Olympia Archaeological Site: You might be surprised to learn that the original Olympic Games were tied into religious rites -- thus, some of the most impressive architecture at the site includes temples dedicated to Zeus and his wife, Hera. The area was originally a sacred grove, then a sanctuary to the god Kronos (father to Zeus). Later, in 776 B.C., the first Olympic Games were held, and they continued until 393 A.D., when they were halted by the Christian emperor Theodosius, who ordered a ban on all pagan cults.
After a 40-minute drive from the port, tour buses pull up to the archeological site's parking lot at the foot of Mount Kronion. You'll walk about a quarter-mile to the site entrance, passing the ticket booth along the way. Horse-drawn carriages are available for a modest fee if you'd rather ride than walk.
The ancient site was ravaged over the years, first by earthquakes and then by two nearby rivers, which flooded and changed course, burying everything in silt. The remains have been unearthed, although -- due to earthquake risk -- archaeologists have chosen to reconstruct only a rare few columns. Still, wandering with a good guide amid tumbled pillars, passageways, partial statues, steps and stones, you might imagine the eons-old games nearly ready to begin.
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. In fact, in ancient times, spectators died due to the summer heat. (Off of Ethnikos Odos 74, Olympia; 30-26240-22517; hours vary by season)
Among the key structures to see are:
The Palaestra: Athletes trained here and anointed themselves with olive oil in the side chambers; it's now defined by rows of columns.
The Temple of Hera: This temple once held a huge statue of the goddess, and it's also where the exquisite statue of Hermes by Praxiteles (now in the museum) was found. In front of the remains, the Olympic flame of the modern games is lit (using sunlight and a lens).
The Temple of Zeus: This massive structure once contained the nearly 40-foot-high gold-and-ivory seated statue of the god. Huge sections of columns lie where they've fallen and a tall pedestal outside the structure was once topped by a statue of Nike (goddess of victory), now in the museum.
The Stadium: On the way to the stadium, you'll pass a hill which once housed an elaborate Roman-era fountain system and treasuries where offerings were stored. Then you reach the remains of a vaulted passageway that leads to the stadium. The oval stadium is surrounded by grassy slopes, where as many as 20,000 spectators (all male) sat. You can still see the stone starting and finishing lines, separated by a distance of about 581 feet. 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 races in full armor, a pentathlon, wrestling and more. (Chariot races were held in a nearby hippodrome, which has been obliterated by floods.) 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 wreath said to be from a sacred tree planted by Hercules.
Pheidias' Workshop: Once the building where the sculptor Pheidias crafted the huge statue of Zeus; a Byzantine church was later constructed in the ruins.
Archaeological Museum of Olympia: Located in 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. A 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. The two most famous statues are the Nike of Paionios, whose gown seems to flow in the wind, and the Hermes of Praxiteles, holding the infant Dionysus, carved of fine Parian marble. Another room contains the reconstructed pediments from the Temple of Zeus. The two triangular sections are at eye level, giving you a sense of just how massive the temple must have been. On the east pediment, the figures and horses illustrate preparations for a legendary chariot race; the west pediment depicts the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths. In the same room, smaller stone plaques, or metopes, illustrate the labors of Hercules.
There is a wealth of other objects to see, all with descriptions in English, so if you're an antiquities buff, allow 60 to 90 minutes for the museum alone. (Off of Ethnikos Odos 74, Olympia; 30-26240-22529; hours vary by season)
Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games: This fascinating museum is located before the archaeological site entrance, in a modern structure built in Hellenistic style. You'll pass it on your right, up a hill, shortly after the bus drop-off area. While it's not always included in shore-excursion tours, the museum is well-worth visiting if you're interested in the ancient sports. You'll find excellent displays featuring implements -- discuses, stone weights used in the ancient long-jump, strigils used to scrape olive oil off the skin and more. There are also urns and mosaics depicting various sports, plus some bragging inscriptions by athletes. Here, too, detailed descriptions are provided in English. (Off of Ethnikos Odos 74, Olympia; 30-26420-29107; hours vary by season)
Temple of Apollo Epicurius: This impressive Doric temple was built in the fifth century B.C., and is one of the best-preserved Greek temples. Unfortunately, its remote location is 55 miles southeast from the port, requiring a drive of about an hour and 45 minutes. Many of the interior friezes and sculpture fragments are now displayed in the British Museum. (Bassae; 30-26240-22529; hours vary by season)
Clermont (Chlemoutsi) Fortress: Located about 30 miles northeast of the port (a 50-minute drive), this imposing castle, completed in 1223, was occupied and modified by a series of conquerors through the ages. You can take in spectacular views from atop the walls and visit the jousting courtyard, chapel and ceremonial halls. (Kastro-Kyllini, Ilia; 30-22610-95033; hours vary by season)
Domaine Mercouri Winery: About 10 minutes, or 2.5 miles, 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. (GR-271 00 Korakochori, Ilia; 30-26210-41601; open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.)