Cruise To The Birthplace Of The Olympic Games
The approach of the Rio Olympics was an excuse to explore the origins of the Games, which date back to Greece more than 2,700 years ago. As about 500 cruise ships call on that country every year, it was not difficult to find one that included an excursion to Olympia, and we settled on a week’s voyage along the Aegean and Adriatic.
This cruise offered a day excursion to Olympia, as well as to the islands of Santorini and Corfu, and to Turkey (for Ephesus), Croatia (to see what had happened to Dubrovnik), and finally to Italy (to marvel again at the glories of Venice).
The ship we chose was the Regent Seven Seas Mariner, which, together with its sister ships Voyager and Navigator, must be among the most luxurious smaller cruise ships currently afloat. Mariner takes a up to 700 passengers, most of whom are American, though Europeans are becoming increasingly aware of its attractions.
To reach Olympia, we sailed to the fishing port of Katakolon, which is close to where the Games originated in 776 BC. The ancient site is huge and plentifully supplied with reconstructed pillars and the fallen remnants of what were once the grandest of buildings, of which the finest must have been the Temple of Zeus, but a vivid imagination and the eloquence of a guide are required to bring them back to life.
The Games were originally held in the sacred grove known as the Altis, and it was here that the first gymnasium and palaestra were built to house the athletes during their training, provide them with changing rooms and the arenas where they competed (one race was run in full armour). Only men were permitted in this area, but it is recorded that one woman disguised herself as a man to support her son.
When her identity was revealed, it was ordered that all supporters and trainers should appear naked, as the athletes were (as displayed in so many amphora and reliefs in the Museum of History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity, which was opened after the Athens Olympics in 2004). One cannot help wondering whether today’s athletes could achieve the times they do if they were compelled to run naked.
Perhaps the place to try would be the stadium, which was added to Olympia as the Games became more popular. Entered through a Roman archway (originally a tunnel), the stadium comprises a wide track excavated during the Second World War, apparently on the orders of Adolf Hitler – its track proves irresistible to many of today’s visitors, who set off at great speed but invariably flag before reaching the finishing line. One disappointment was the site where the Olympic flame is lit: there is virtually nothing there, not even a gas burner.
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Just as memorable was Kusadasi, in Turkey, where our guide was the English archaeologist Adrian Saunders. His enthusiasm swept us through nearby Ephesus, one of the best-preserved classical cities in Europe.
Starting with the traditional bath house (visitors were assumed to be in need of a scrub after their journey), we moved into the upper agora, the city’s legislative district, and the Prytaneum, where once stood a temple and giant statue of Artemis, the Greek goddess of fertility. Adrian drew our attention to a rough piece of ancient graffiti, which read: “If anyone p----- here Hecate [the three-headed goddess of witches] will be very cross.”
After the tour, there was just time for a quick visit to the neighbouring town of Selcuk, where the Ephesus museum is housed. Here are to be found many of the artefacts recovered from the old city, including part of a huge statue of the Emperor Domitian, a collection of gladiators’ weapons, some of the jewellery and other items excavated and, in a discreetly darkened case, an effigy of the phallic god Priapus.
A group of young girls stood in front of the case, reluctant to move until a helpful young man stepped forward to press the button that lit up the exhibit. He was rewarded with much giggling.
The approach into the ominously deep caldera of Santorini, formed initially by the massive volcanic eruption that hit the island in about 1630 BC and virtually wiped out its Minoan civilisation, retains its rather sinister atmosphere. It’s surrounded by sheer cliffs on top of which whitewashed houses cling precariously to the surrounding pumice.
To get up to the capital, Fira, you have to take a cable-car, a mule, or walk, and having done that, you may well decide that your best option is to stay there, explore the museums and galleries, the shops, bars and restaurants, many with great views across the bay. This is what we did, sitting in a restaurant watching the wind stir up white horses across the water way below. Less successful was our decision to order a traditional Greek lunch – one meatball (without the gravy) proving more than enough.
Our next port of call was Corfu, where some of us decided to remain on board, justifying it to ourselves, as we swam leisurely in the ship’s good-sized pool, on the grounds that we had already had three quite hard-working days and faced another next day when we sailed into Dubrovnik, in Croatia.
It was hard to know what to expect in Dubrovnik. We knew the city had suffered following the break-up of Yugoslavia, but were happy to discover that life has returned to normal.
The ramparts and old harbour remain intact, as do the main sites within the city walls, including the baroque Church of St Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron saint. There are now few signs of the ordeal this celebrated pearl of the Adriatic was put through, and visitors are back in force.
On our way up the Adriatic towards Venice, our final port of call, we passed the tiny island of Vis, which during the Second World War was used by Marshal Tito as his hideout for the Yugoslav partisans. Churchill sent Royal Marines, motor-torpedo boats and RAF aircraft to the island in 1943, which became a base for attacks on German shipping. The Nazis never discovered where these attacks came from, always suspecting that there was a British aircraft carrier lurking somewhere in the Adriatic.
And so to Venice. Our captain, Felice Patruno, urged us to be on deck to witness the passage through the lagoon, which he described as second only to Sydney in all the landfalls he had made. To us Venice seemed, with its gradual transformation of mud banks and old fishing huts into visions of increasingly grand domes, campaniles, churches and waterside palaces, the most exciting of landfalls.
Sadly, we had only half a day to reacquaint ourselves with Venice’s amazing qualities, but it was long enough to remind us, together with some of our other on this cruise experiences, of what humankind is capable.
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This article was written by James Bishop from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.