The straightforward drive across the Isthmus—the original isthmus—through Corinth to Nafplio (described in Part 2) didn’t prepare us for the next leg of our journey, an amazing, twisty-turny drive over the mountains of the Peloponnese.
The big peninsula, which gave its name to the legendary (but also historical) fifth century BC Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, is streaked with rows of magnificent mountains crossed by narrow though well-paved roads and speckled with red-roofed villages for which the word “picturesque” was invented.
Under a beautiful, bright sun we stopped in a small, completely un-touristed town called Bitina for a delicious lunch at a quiet—actually, entirely unpopulated—restaurant. The meal involved lamb; most meals we had in Greece involved lamb and/or fresh fish.
But our goal that day was Ancient Olympia, where we arrived late in the day. We checked into the very nice Hotel Pelops, which, among other amenities, offers a computer with Internet access, so you can email home and tell your family you haven’t been killed in an Athens riot. We had time to visit one of the small museums, but we saved the site itself for the following day.
The modern town, curiously named Ancient Olympia, seems to exist only to service the tourists coming to the site. And the site itself doesn’t disappoint. Excavations over more than a century (there’s a separate museum just about the excavations themselves!) have uncovered a huge spread of ruins: not only athletic facilities but temples, treasuries, and every other kind of edifice the Greeks and Romans built in their respective heydays. The torch for every modern Olympic Games is first lit here, not far from the ancient track (pictured below) where the races were held back in, you know, the day.
The original Olympic Games were held for over a thousand years, ending only in 383 AD when Emperor Theodosius decided they weren’t Christian enough. The modern Games have a while to catch up before they rival that kind of staying power.
We had staying power, though—two nights in Olympia, one of the few relaxing stretches of our trip. Not that our feet were relaxed. We had museum-legs (you know the ache!) constantly through our trip. Greece’s museums may be the best in the world. It isn’t just the mind-boggling quality and quantity of the treasures and relics they hold; it’s the museums themselves.
Greeks have mastered the art of creating museums that display the objects in the best possible way and explain their context and significance clearly and thoroughly (provided you can read Greek or English). We kept saying “We’ll fly through this museum” but usually ended up dragging our feet looking at every single item, gaping at the sheer volume of antiquities along with the beauty of many of them.
Next up: We get lost in Patras, cross the most expensive bridge we’ve ever driven across, and arrive at Delphi, which is nestled in one of the most glorious settings imaginable. Continued in Part 4.