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Olympia, Nemea & Bassai

Reasons for Going

Travelers have many, many reasons for coming to Greece. Some come simply to enter, themselves, the evocative looking-glass of full-color posters churned out by the National Tourist Organization. They see themselves on that impossibly white Zakynthos sand, just beside the beached freighter; or looking out over the vast volcanic bay beneath the clifftop hotels of Santorini. They want to be part of those impossibly beautiful landscapes, if only for one week of one summer, in the foreground of the photograph.

Others come to Greece to give substance to what they have read about all their lives, whether in history or myth. They come to see the rivers dammed by Hercules, the narrow pass where a hundred Spartans met the hordes of Persia, the Cretan palace where Ariadne saved Theseus from the man-bull in the maze, and the Athens of Pericles, Socrates and Sophocles. They come, essentially, to put meat on the bones, to illustrate the texts in their heads and hearts.

This overnight, or several days’ journey into the western Peloponnese, which takes in Nemea, Bassae and Olympia, is for the latter group, primarily, those for whom the remains of ancient temples are evocative rather than exhausting. And though I last made this trip in winter, when I had three ancient sites to myself— a mystical experience for this long-time student of Greece—the landscape is also exceptionally beautiful in the full florescence of spring, and another thing altogether in summer, when the long sweep of the western beaches beckons, and suckling pig is sizzling in roadside tavernes. In the summer, you can come for the temples and the beaches, and not feel one bit guilty.

By Rental Car (or Not) to Three Ancient Sites (& More)

There are several ways of approaching a tour of the Peloponnese, and so very much to see on this vast southern peninsula. On this itinerary, I do not take you to Agamemnon’s stronghold at Mycenae, or to the dramatic Frankish castle atop the Acrocorinthos nor, in fact, to Ancient Corinth below it. The Ancient Theater of Epidaurus and beautiful Nafplion, too, I leave for another time. But, if you want, you can join guided, coach tours to all these ancient sites, making arrangements through my travel agents. And, if you like, you can make the trip I took without bothering with a rental car, or by getting to Olympia by bus and then renting a car there to visit the temple at Bassae and the beach. It’s up to you to choose the method of transportation with which you feel most comfortable. I drive, because I like the luxury of stopping and looking, for any length of time I like, and because I feel I see more if I can putter around back roads here and there, and even take the occasional wrong turning.

This Journey Begins at the Hotel Intercontinental

You’ll need to arrange for a rental car to be delivered to your hotel the evening before you set out. Make good use of your rental car company’s representative, and your hotel concierge, to get good instructions on how to get out of town. Even with a Greek navigator, I found the signage out of Athens minimal and confusing. You’ll need good road maps and some change for tolls—and I’d take along plenty of bottled water and food for snacking: depending on the season, there may be little open in the way of tavernes and cafés on your route to the southwest. (I also advise taking a cell phone with you, as well as your rental company’s emergency numbers, your hotelier’s number and the number of my travel agents. You’re driving in a foreign country, through largely rural regions, and you just never know. . .)

Beginning as early in the day as possible at the level of the Hotel Intercontinental on Syngrou Avenue (and set your odometer to 0 here), proceed down Syngrou, away from Athens’ city center, south: the road will morph into Hamosternes Street. Just keep following signs for Korinthos. About 12 kilometers on, you’ll pass signs for the 6th-century Daphni Monastery (stop in if you have the inclination) and, in another 4 kilometers or so, pass the maritime blight (refineries and shipyards) of Skaramangas, where petroleum is offloaded. On your right is the freshwater Lake of Skaramangas. The island off to your left is one of five major islands in the Saronic Gulf, Salamina, birthplace of Euripedes. It was in the narrow straits here that, in the great sea battle of 480 BC, Themistocles and the Athenians routed the Persian fleet.

Keep following signs for Korinthos, and you will enter the E8, the National Road (Ethnikos Othos). At 23 kilometers, you pass through Elefsina, where the Mysteries of Ancient Eleusis, secret rites of initiation sacred to Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, or Kore, were enacted. At 26 kilometers, there’s a turn-off for the ancient site. (The museum on the site is going to be of interest to those of you steeped in the classics, but I would leave it for an afternoon trip by taxi or bus from Athens.) At 29 kilometers, pay a 1.40 Euro toll.

Passing Corinth, & The Canal

After the tollbooth, the road climbs a bit, and your view of the Corinthian Gulf and Salamina improves. Keep following signs for Korinthos and Megara; then, for Korinthos/Loutraki. Speed limits vary: they’re signed as black numerals inside red circles. At about 70 kilometers, you’ll see, ahead of you to the southwest, Ancient Corinth, the Akrocorinthos (the imposing massif topped by medieval ramparts) and, in winter, the snow-covered peaks of the Kilini mountains. At about 78 kilometers, the exits for the modern city of Corinth begin and, in the flash of an eye, you pass over the manmade chasm of the Corinth Canal: you’re now in the Peloponnese itself. (Visiting Corinth, and the medieval kastro above it, takes the better part of a day, and should be undertaken as a separate trip from this one.)

At about 83 kilometers is the last exit for Corinth. Follow signs now for the city of Tripoli. Bear left towards Tripoli at 87 kilometers. In winter, your route will pass through orange groves, their trees heavy with fruit under snowy peaks. You pass just under the heights of the Akrocorinthos now, and can look up at its long, rambling curtain walls. At 100 kilometers, pay another 1.40 Euro toll.

The Sanctuary of Nemea

If it’s early in the day, take the opportunity to take a small detour here, just 9 kilometers on, and visit the Sanctuary of Ancient Nemea (Open daily, 9:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m.; 3 Euros admission; stadium, an additional 1 Euro), its 4th-century-BC Temple of Zeus, and excellent small museum (with its special new wing dedicated to the display of a horde of jewelry smuggled out of nearby Aidonia by thieves but retrieved, in the nick of time, by the Greek authorities). At the museum shop, there are booklets on sale detailing the site here, as well as the Peloponnese in general, a very good one, titled “The Peloponnese,” published by Ekdotike Athenon: by all means, pick them up.

And don’t miss the stadium. In her book, “Athens and Beyond: 30 Day Trips & Weekends,” author Diana Farr Louis writes: “The excavations at Nemea have been the responsibility of the American School of Classical Studies since 1924, but it was not until the University of California started work in the early 70s that Nemea really began to be studied systematically. In addition, the university raised money from hundreds of private American citizens, bought land, trained workers, built a museum and uncovered the stadium, which is now in such impeccable condition that a version of the [Nemean] games was re-enacted there in 1996 and in 2000 and will be again in 2004.”

Please note: do not have coffee and snacks at Nemea. Anything you’ve brought from Athens will be preferable to what’s available here. I have heard, from Diana Louis, that there is an excellent taverna in the area—certainly, the wine from the region deserves a fabulous bistro or two—but neither of us has yet to locate it. Perhaps in a future edition of this site. . .

Back on the main road to Tripoli, at 125 kilomters, is the exit for Nafplion and Argos, which is also the road to Mycenae and Tiryns, just for future reference. At 142 kilometers, there’s a kitsch but cheerful rest stop called Travel Break Snack Bar (which covers it all, I guess), and though the fare is not the best Greece has to offer as far as cuisine, the place does serve Illy coffee (and the restrooms were just fine, too, when I was there this winter).

Megalopolis & Karitena

At 159 kilometers, do not turn off for Tripoli: follow the National Road on to Megalopolis. Nine kilometers farther, the freeway ends and morphs into a simple highway. Those little “shrines,” or eikonostaseis, by the side of the road mark spots where motorists died in automobile accidents, and you will note that they begin to proliferate now that the road has narrowed: proceed with great caution. At 187 kilometers, the monument you pass commemorates 242 Greeks massacred by the Germans in World War Two.

In the valley below, you now see the smoking chimneys of industrial Megalopolis, founded in the 4th century BC by the Theban general, Epameinondas: the last truly ugly sight you will see between here and Olympia. At 194 kilometers, you enter prosaic Megalopolis. Follow signs for Adritsaina and Karitena, which will involve several rapid turns in town. Just out of town, you’ll pass the Ancient Theater of Megalopolis, which seated 21,000 spectators in antiquity.

You’ll then pass, on your left, a massive coalmine and, at 211 kilometers, the scenic town of Karitena, on a hillside up to your right. Here lived one of the great, if ruthless, heroes of the Greek War of Independence, Theodoros Kolokotronis, and Karitena was his home, if not his birthplace. The castle on the heights was built in 1254 by Hughes de Bruyeres. As you drive, you pass over the River Alpheios. In mythology, it was one of two rivers (the Nedas was the second) used by Hercules to wash out the Aulean Stables. The entire site is so beautiful that I and my companion stopped to photograph town, river and castle, repeatedly.

Through the mountains, as the road winds, follow signs for the hamlet of Adritsaina. To the northwest are the Likeo mountains, snowcapped in January behind already-flowering almond trees when I was last there. At 239 kilometers, you will enter the mountain village of Adritsaina. Just after the village, turn left at signs for the Temple of Epikourios Apollo—there are no signings for Bassae (from vassai, or small ravines) which is how most of the West knows the place—which is a 13-kilometer detour, uphill, off the main road, through the back of beyond. I turned to my companion and said in Greek: “This place really is stou diaolou ti Mana (at the Devil’s Mother’s),” i.e. inaccessible. The main road is bad enough in these parts, but just wait till you see the road to Bassae: we’re talking white knuckles for half an hour or so, but the site at the end of this jaunt will be worth it, believe me.

Bassae, & Apollo’s Matchless Temple

You climb from Adritsaina, at 2,510 feet, to Bassai, at 3,710 feet, through a sort of alpine wasteland of crags and rocky outcroppings, something like the moon, in winter, though I can imagine it must be splendid, with flowers, in spring. I had never been to Bassai before the winter of 2004, and was breathless with anticipation—and fear of oncoming motorists—but our car was the only one in sight, thank goodness. Geologists must find this area fascinating, as do archaeologists: I knew I was about to see one of the most remarkable temples in Greece at the end of the winding road, but kept wondering how architects and builders of the 5th century BC came here in the first place, let alone brought materials here to erect the structure they did.

The site itself is mystical, silent in winter, and rustling with the tiny leaves of oak trees, which also blanket the ground. In the far distance, southward, is the vast sweep of the Peloponnesian littoral, the snowy heights of Mount Taygetos, and the Ionian Sea: the view takes your breath away, as does the silent power of the place itself. Impossible to express. I had in hand “The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space,” published by the Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios, so I was prepared for the one great shock I experienced: since 1987, the Temple of Apollo, in its entirety, has been covered by what the Greek archaeologists choose to call a protective canopy, but which resembles nothing so much as a circus tent to the untutored eye.

Completed in the last quarter of the 5th century BC, and perhaps built in part by Iktinos, architect of the Parthenon at Athens, the Temple of Apollo Epikourios (or “Succourer,” as the local Phigaleians credited the god with preserving them in time of plague), is one of the most perfect and beautiful extant structures in Greece, second only to the Hephaistion in the Athenian Agora. Thus, it is painful to see it draped by the archaeologists of the 20th and 21st centuries, even if the drapery (and the armature on the column drums) preserves the building from decay and collapse in this hostile climate and region given to earthquakes. I spent an hour or so at the site musing on the fact that we try so hard to preserve “things as they are” and, in the process, can no longer really see them as they are: it’s a paradox. Perhaps, one day, the canopy will be lifted, and the moon and the stars and the rest of us will have our temple back. I hope, selfishly, in my lifetime. . .

By the way, if you don’t find the Committee’s beautiful little book on the site available anywhere else, it’s on sale at the entrance booth of the Ancient Site of Olympia, so have a look there. The Temple of Apollo Epikourios (Open, sunrise to sunset; 3 Euros admission) is only one of the temples and other ancient structures on the slopes of Mount Kotilio, but you need some gumption to get uphill to the other, older structures, and a map helps. We, who had to move on quickly to Olympia, in order to reach our final destination by dinnertime, left the heights till another time.

Onward, Downward, to Olympia

Retrace your route to Adritsaina, and turn left, following signs for Pirgos. It’s all downhill now, till Olympia, as you travel through terrain and depopulated villages that have changed little since the middle of the 20th century. Follow signs for Ancient Olympia and Pirgos as you go, watching carefully as you pass through the town of Krestena.

Fifty kilometers beyond Adritsaina, turn right over the Alpheios River, and you’re in the modern town of Olympia. I stay at a modest little B-Class highrise hotel, right in town, called the Hotel Neda (11 Karamanlis Street; 45 rooms; open year round; TV, AC and a glorious terrace for breakfast). It’s owned and operated by the Tyligathas brothers, Spyros, Dimitris and Vassilis, and you must give them my regards if you stay there. They’re always complaining that Western visitors come so far to see Oympia, and then stay only one night, so try to prove them wrong: there’s so much to see at both the site and in the museum, plus excursions to be made down to the beach (and hot springs) on the coast at Kaiaphas that, even in winter, I wish I could have stayed several days.

Up the hill from the town is the more luxurious, four-star Europa Hotel (78 rooms and 2 suites, 20 percent of them non-smoking; open year round; in-house restaurant and café; AC, TV, mini-fridges; swimming pool; tennis courts; computer room; in-house jewelry shop), owned and operated by the delightful Spiliopoulos brothers, Alciviades and Ernestos. The Spiliopoulos brothers’ grandfather worked all his life with German archaeologists at Ancient Olympia, Thebes and on Samos, and his contributions are commemorated on a plaque in the hotel lobby. If you stay here, please sample the delicious coffee in the hotel’s little ground-floor café/bar: the best I had on my entire trip this past winter.

Note: Every hotel I mention in this extended guide is one I have either visited several times or stayed in myself. I think I stopped by every hotel on Mykonos in 2003, and everywhere list only hotels whose facilities are impeccable and whose staff are genuinely friendly and helpful. All the hotels I recommend work closely with my travel agents, as I intend to “keep an eye” on how they treat travelers using this guide, and want only the best rooms and room-rates for “my” particular travelers. I have spent hours and hours talking with the managers of my selected hotels, though I receive no “kickbacks” from them. Till now, strangely enough, this guide has been a labor of love which accepts no advertising nor lists no venues which pay me either in advance nor after the fact: it’s the only way it works, for the reader.

The Archaeological Site & Museum

It’s been a long day’s drive down from Athens, so I recommend a hearty dinner—your hoteliers will recommend good places to eat: they change from season to season, and so I do not list any particular tavernes—and then a tour of the Archeological Site of Olympia (open 8:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. in winter, 7:00 p.m. in summer; 6 Euros admission) the morning following. Note: the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, closed, due to significant renovations, till just before the summer Olympic Games of 2004 in Athens, is a marvel: you will see the pedimental sculptures and metopes of the 5th-century-BC Temple of Zeus, and the 4th-century-BC Hermes of Praxiteles and 5th-century-BC Nike of Paionaios. Do not miss this experience.

We wandered around the original site of the ancient Olympic Games for several hours, guide books and “Plan and Reconstruction of Archaeological Site” in hand (available at the ticket booth). You need to read up on the history of Olympia before setting out on this trip, and you need the Reconstruction Map, available at the site, to “see” what it was once like here. The Reading Up (on Ancient and Modern Greece) section of my A Year Prior: Planner gives you a lot of good suggestions.

Here, for just a taste, are A. R. and Mary Burn, from “The Living Past of Greece” (Penguin Books): “To the real evolution of Olympia, entirely post-Mycenaean, its institutions and the dates of its buildings give the best clue. The archaic Temple of Hera, close by the spring, was much older than the classical one of Zeus; but the Altis (local dialect for alsos, a sacred grove) had been sacred since before the age of written records, or of temple building. Its wall delimited an inexact square, with sides c. 160m, later extended a little; and it was the scene, not only of the great four-yearly festival of Olympian Zeus, but of that of Hera, in which the chief event was a foot-race for the local girls. Their course was just the length of one side of the Altis. The race may well have begun as one of those in which young people ran, originally carrying something, from an altar on the occasion of a sacrifice. When men gained control (very likely it was the result of a conquest of the south by Hollow Elis) they left the Heraian rites alone (they would have considered it very dangerous not to), but added their own festival, which became much grander. Its athletic element, too, was originally a simple foot-race; but the course was longer—192 and 1/4m, the classical Greek stadion (whence ‘stadium’). A new stadium was laid out, originally beginning inside the Altis, but extending to the east, between earth banks. The spectators never had anything more luxurious to sit on, except for a later built-up box for the Presidents of the Games (obviously not judges!) half way along; opposite it was an altar, on which a woman sat, watching the Games from which the rest of her sex were rigorously excluded. She was the priestess of the earth goddess, Demeter, and she sat there as of right; for the new Stadium cut slightly into her goddess’s precincts. This, and the fact that the girls raced just the length of the Altis, are evidence that women and female deities, as in the old bronze-age religion, were in control here first, and that Olympian Zeus, from his mountain in the north, was intrusive.”

Ah, but still, Ladies, Olympia is today known as Olympia, not Heraia, and much else has changed, vis-à-vis the Games, in the last six or seven centuries.

From Olympia, it is a beautiful 30-kilometer drive down to the beach at Kaiaphas, also known for its thermal springs and, on the way, tavernes serving roast suckling pig (ask your hotelier for directions). The vegetation is lush on your route to the Ionian Sea and, when you get there, there is a gorgeous, 35-kilometer stretch of beach, from Pirgos to Kiparissia.

When you’ve seen what you came to see, the quick, if not scenic, route back to Athens is via the main Patras-Athens freeway, very clearly marked on your road maps. It’s an uneventful 211-mile (340-kilometer) trip, if undertaken in daylight, and you pass by the dramatic new Rio-Antirio Bridge en route. There are two tolls, for 1.80 and 1.40 Euros, and then you’re back in the big city.