The seaside Greek town of Katakolon, with a population around 600, is your typical small-town cruise port -- fishing boats bob in the harbor; cafes lace the waterfront; shops sell T-shirts, hats and jewelry; and a small beach draws swimmers and splashers. But that's not why ships make this 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 UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ancient Olympia, and you walk in the footsteps of early 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, athletes training in the palestra and runners readying on the track. Alexander the Great, Nero, Plato and Aristotle are among those who watched the games from where you stand.
Tourists flock to the site and its companion museums, including the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, a treasure trove of pieced-together sculptures and statues that once adorned the ancient structures, and the Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games, where you can learn about the original competitions.
If you've already visited Ancient Olympia, there are other sights in the area, including the spectacular temple of Apollo Epicurius and the medieval Chlemoutsi (Hlemoutsi) fortress -- or seek out the golden-sand beaches that ring the Gulf of Kyparissia.
Note: We recommend that you use Google Maps to locate the destinations in this guide by entering the name of an attraction or business, rather than the address, which often stumps Google Maps. You should also confirm the hours, which are changeable, based on the season and day you will visit. In some cases, the fact that there's a ship in port will also affect opening times.
The port of Katakolon is in town, less than a 10-minute walk to the shops and restaurants.
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. In the summer, temperatures can spike over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. 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, if needed.
The bus drop-off point for Ancient Olympia is different from the bus pick-up point, so listen carefully to your guide's instructions. To catch your return bus, follow the footpath to the left of the Archaeological Museum to reach the bus departure area. Allow 5 to 10 minutes to get there from the museum, depending on your walking speed.
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.
The euro is the official currency. For current currency conversion figures visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. ATMs are available at the port, in the town of Katakolon (one is located at nearby Jewellery Dionisos) and also in the modern town of Olympia that borders the ancient site. Some shops and restaurants take credit cards, and a few will accept U.S. dollars.
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.
Outside the ancient Olympic site, vendors sell souvenirs and 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.
In town, local olive oil products, like soaps and lotions, make great gifts. For something more elaborate ArtPoint on Katakolon's main street sells jewelry, museum reproductions, mosaics and Byzantine-style icons.
You might want to give traditional Greek alcohol, like ouzo (anise-flavored), masticha (liqueur flavored with resin) and tsipouro (distilled from grapes, like grappa), a try. Bartenders can also mix up riffs on traditional cocktails using the local tipples -- for example, the Mediterranean Sunset, with ouzo, orange juice and grenadine.