A bucket-list visit to four ancient Olympics sites in four days, and nearly alone.
Some dream of going to the Olympics. I’d long dreamed of going to Olympia. I wanted to take a solo road trip like no other, searching for the four sites of the ancient Greek athletic games — Isthmia, Nemea, Delphi and Olympia — precursors to the Olympics spectacle opening in Rio on Friday.
Collectively known as the Panhellenic Games, they were open to athletes across the Greek empire, but Olympia’s festival was always the most prestigious. The first to be established (in 776 B.C.) and the last to go (abolished in A.D. 393), the games at Olympia took place every four years — this was one way the Greeks measured time — with the other three held in the interval.
I could picture herculean athletes hurling the discus, boxing, wrestling or chariot-racing to take home the top prize, a simple crown — olive branches at Olympia, laurel at Delphi, wild celery at Nemea and pine at Isthmia. Such figures are depicted on ancient vases and vessels, in statuary and, nowadays, in re-created scenes on History Channel specials.
But what do the sites for these games look like now, what condition are they in, and how would I get to them? As a lifelong exercise fanatic, this would be my personal pilgrimage to the birthplace of athletic competition.
I started in Athens, renting a “supermini” Ibiza. My car didn’t come with GPS, but I convinced myself that everything would be fine. I’d go old school, relying on maps, my inner compass and, if needed, locals for directions.
Within an hour of flying down the broad national highway I began spotting signs for Isthmia — so named for being on the Isthmus of Corinth, which connects Greece’s mainland with Peloponnese, the peninsula to the south. I’d chosen to visit Isthmia first for one reason: It was closest to Athens. (After this, I planned to travel in a loop over the next five days, ending up back in Athens.)
Finding no signs for the ruins, I stopped at a roadside gas station. The clerk, an older woman in a bib apron, spoke little English, so I showed her the spot on a map. Pointing out the window, she exclaimed, “Street? Yes!” Pause. “Bridge? Yes!” We then locked eyes and she made the sound “Poof,” like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat: “Now, Isthmia!”
It was essentially just down the block, and I found it in minutes. What I didn’t find were crowds, lines, vendors — the trappings of tourism. There was no one else there except a ticket clerk and two burly security guards inside the site’s small, informative historical museum. I bought a ticket and stepped outside to survey the grounds.
While historians cannot say with certainty how large the site of the Isthmian Games had been at its height, when it featured an imposing shrine to the god Poseidon (plundered and destroyed by the fifth century A.D.), it would have extended far beyond the few hundred meters first cleared there by archaeologists in the 1950s.
As I wandered along dirt paths, peeking into a partly uncovered running track (a remnant of the stadium) and the tiled floor for a bathing complex added in the early Roman Empire, the first word that came to my mind was “forlorn.” The site was mainly a dry, rocky field, only a fraction of which had been excavated. But “forlorn” would be unfair, for this field was rich with history. I knew that a young Plato had competed as a wrestler at the Isthmian Games in the early fifth century B.C. Think about that, I told myself: Plato’s sweat had mixed with this dirt, here on these very grounds. I took a handful and sprinkled it through my fingers.
I stayed in Isthmia for a good hour, then got back on the road. I had to get to Nemea by 1 p.m. I had made an appointment with the distinguished archaeologist responsible for the Nemean excavations for more than 35 years, Stephen G. Miller, now a retired professor of classical archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. He had one hour to spare.
The trip from Isthmia to Nemea went smoothly, if you don’t count a missed exit and some frantic backtracking. After about 45 minutes on the highway, I followed rural roads curving through vineyards redolent of sweet wine. I made it in time, barely, and found Miller waiting at the entrance to one of the two digs. As at Isthmia, I was the only visitor. Miller shook my hand, then briskly strode ahead while beginning a history of the excavations. Stopping suddenly, he announced, “We are now in the locker room.”
I looked about: Nine sand-colored Doric columns in varying heights stood majestically on ground that was as even and as smooth as a gym floor (originally, it had a roof as well). “Then this is the most beautiful locker room I’ve ever seen,” I whispered, for I felt as if I were in a truly sacred place. And, in fact, sites like these were far more than athletic fields — they held deep religious significance for the Greeks, who dedicated the games and individual victories to their deities.
Here in the locker room, athletes stripped and rubbed their bodies with olive oil and dust, which functioned as both a natural sunscreen and, not incidentally, an enhancer of muscular male beauty. As at all the athletic festivals, they’d compete in the buff.
The running track’s original granite starting blocks remained firmly planted; holes drilled into them once held poles threaded with cord across the whole track to prevent false starts; a dozen runners at a time shot off from here. Shallow ditches running alongside the track provided water from an aqueduct to wet the track down between events — foot races and field events like the javelin — as well as drinking water for the athletes.
Wrestling, boxing and the bloody ancient equivalent to mixed martial arts, pankration, were also held there. Spectators (dressed in variations on a toga and sandals) sat on the gently sloping hillsides — several thousand men could be accommodated. And at the end of the track, evidence remained of a platform for a panel of 10 judges, who, in the event of what we would now call a photo-finish, arbitrated who would go home the winner. Unlike today’s Olympics, with its bronze and silver medals, second and third places were not recognized in the games of antiquity.
From here, Miller suggested we go to the second Nemean site, a quarter-mile down the road.
Miller gave me a tour of the reconstructed Temple of Zeus — a fourth-century B.C. shrine where religious rites were performed and animals sacrificed — then he had to depart. And there I was, basically on my own in the middle of nowhere.
I headed to Nafplio, a seaside town where I had arranged to spend the night at a charming, family-run hotel, the Victoria. The next morning, the desk clerk drew me a map of the route from Nafplio to Olympia, the third site on my journey. I would essentially traverse mountainous central Peloponnese, east to west. He said the drive would take maybe two hours. He also said he’d never done it before.
Eight hours later, I pulled into Olympia. I’d made one detour on purpose (to see the remains of the ancient civilization at Mycenae, dating back nearly 4,000 years) and several more that would more accurately be called mistakes. (Road signs in Greek didn’t help.) But I didn’t care; I had no cares. The drive through the Mainalo Mountains in the heart of Arcadia was magnificent, albeit unnerving.
I sweated through my T-shirt as the narrow road wound around blind curves for miles and tunneled through a tree-covered mountainside. Stopping for lunch at Platanos Café in the tiny village of Langadia, nestled high up on a cliff, was a highlight of the day.
I found my way to the Olympia site at about 6 p.m. The site would remain open another two hours. This was a perfect time to go. The tour buses had left, and I found it empty except for 15 or 20 people. It was magically beautiful at dusk, the light of the low sun like liquid gold beaming through the cypress trees.
I visited the remains of the gymnasium; the stadium (similar to Nemea’s but larger, accommodating 45,000 spectators); and the palestra (a wrestling arena) — all constructed from native stone. Remarkably, large chunks of the foundations and many lychen-encrusted columns still stand. Although the events held at all four sites were generally the same, one crucial factor made the Olympic Games at this site the ultimate Tough Mudder: These athletes were required to train together for 30 days immediately before the contests’ start and, furthermore, had to pledge that they’d trained for a minimum of 10 months every year (financial support from their hometowns made this feasible).
Leaving Olympia the next day for Delphi, I had a sense of freedom that I think of now as “being in fifth gear,” the feeling, both literal and figurative, one has while cruising at top speed on a stretch of empty road.
I stopped once to cool off by skinny dipping at a deserted beach, inspired, I suppose, by all those naked ancient athletes I’d been contemplating (swimming, incidentally, was never a competitive event in the games of antiquity); and stopped another time to get fuel and directions just before crossing the stunning new Rio-Antirrio Bridge, with its distinctive white, fan-shaped cable supports. The bridge connects northern Peloponnese back to the mainland.
My itinerary had been dictated by geography — the fastest way to drive from one site to another — but it turned out there was an accidental logic to it. The sites had gotten more and more spectacular with each stop. Pulling into Delphi, where I would stay two nights, I realized that I’d saved the best for last.
Tucked into the southwestern spur of Mount Parnassus, Delphi overlooks the Gulf of Corinth and a velvety-looking valley blanketed with olive orchards. It was too late in the day to visit the site, but I caught a peek — breathtaking, as it had been carved out of the looming mountainside.
According to myth, the god Apollo started these games at Delphi after killing Python, the dragon living there; hence, they were named the Pythian Games in recognition of this act. During the Pythian Games, a competition in music and dance was held at the same time as the athletic contests, an ancient equivalent to “American Idol” cum “Dancing With the Stars.” For this, a 5,000-seat amphitheater had been constructed.
I dined that night in the pretty, nearby seaport of Galaxidi and arrived back at the site first thing the next morning. I slathered on sunblock before heading in — which is to say, up, for seeing the Pythian ruins would involve a fairly steep hike up the mountainside. Even at this early hour, the place was crowded with hundreds more tourists than the others I’d visited.
I took my time walking toward the first major monument, the Temple of Apollo, as scores of visitors scurried past. The temple was so large it made the locker room at Nemea seem like a delicate miniature. I found it hard to conceive how this had been built some 2,500 years ago. Slave labor is the short answer, but something more, something mysterious in its decayed beauty, was also at play. Here at this temple was where the Oracle of Delphi resided — this is not myth. She — and it was always a she, a priestess — would inhale fumes rising from a crack in the earth (likely, ethylene emitting from faults in the ground below), which reputedly put her into a trance, in which she would prophesy events of the future.
Even an oracle could never predict how amazing a life can be, it struck me — all the unlikely places that travels can take one. I felt fortunate to have made it to all four sites, as I’d hoped.