In the western Peloponnese, in the Altis (Valley of Gods), less than 4 hours journey from Kefalonia island, lies the most celebrated sanctuary of Ancient Greece, dedicated to the worship of Zeus, in whose honour Pan-Hellenic Games were held every four years since 776 BC.
Ancient Olympia would be better visited while on vacation in the Peloponnese (one of the most beautiful parts of Greece) but if this is not in your future plans, you could arrange to visit this unique place during your next visit to the island of Kefalonia. There are many day tours offered from local agents, a bit tiring according to visitors reviews and very short as there is not enough time to explore what should be seen.
Therefore I suggest you get your car (check that you are insured outside Kefalonia), get in the first boat from Poros (Kefalonia) to Killini (west Peloponnese) and then drive south, approx 1,5h to Ancient Olympia and spend a night there (check for accommodation options at the end of the article). Alternatively if you want to avoid the car you can get the same boat and get a bus (running normally 5 times a day) from Kyllini to Olympia and then explore the rest on foot. Then you will have the time to visit the impressive Archeological site and the two great Museums (ticket costs 12euros, reduced at 6euros). Here I would suggest, if your budget allows it, to get a private tour guide to get the most of this experience as the site is very big and the ruins are very difficult to identify only with a map. Nicky Vlachou and her team is surely an awarded choice but there a numerous alternatives too. When you finish visiting the site you can get into town for a coffee and a nice walk and continue your exploration by visiting Mr.Kotsana’s private Archimedes museum (free entrance/optional donation), numerous souvenir with miniature statues and ceramic replicas, local product shops and Mr. Kosmopoulos Galerrie Orphee with a variety of interesting international books and original pieces of art. Finish your day with a good dinner in one of the great tavernas in the village, I have visited two times the Aegean taverna which has satisfied my taste and pocket or if you want to accompany your dinner with nice views too try the Garden. Hiking lovers can either climb up the hill following the signed footpaths to admire unique views of the valley or follow the Cledeous river footpath. If you are travelling in July or August there is a big chance to attend a concert or play in the open Floka theatre 3km away. If you are there in December there is an International Film Festival for children and young people organised here too.
If you have a car, there are plenty of interesting villages and sites to see around as well as explore the magnificent natural environment of the Alfios River (contact the Olympic Alternative Action for activities like rafting, kayak, hydrospeed and cycling), visit Kato Samiko’s unspoiled beach or Zacharo and Tolo beaches, enjoy the natural Kaiafas Thermal Spa or visit the Wild life Sanctuary at Zachovouni-Preskavita. At 15km from Olympia you can visit the Kremasti (Hanging) Monastery of Virgin Mary, founded in the early 1700 AC and built inside a cave , the name was given as the local shepherds found the Virgin Mary icon hanging from the ceiling of a cave. At the same distance it’s worth visiting the beautiful Krestena village with amazing old, traditional houses and colors and at 50km you can find impressive Andritsena village that flourished mainly during the occupation of the Franks and played a crucial role during the Greek War of Independence. Old mansions, cobbled streets and a traditional square with the oldest spring tap of the Peloponnese, with a constant cool breeze even in hot summer days created by the surrounding mountains and the lush vegetation enjoys magnificent views. Here you could visit as well the unique Nikolopoulios Library containing important and rare books, as well as manuscripts by Greek and foreign authors, including Jean Jacques Rousseau. Olympia is only 33km from Katakolo port and village with another great museum from Kotsana’s family, the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, located as well 30km from the Temple of Epikourios Apollo, one of the most important and most imposing temples of antiquity and the Temple of Aphrodite and 60km from Chlemoutsi Castle (a striking example of fortress architecture of the Frankish era in Peloponnese). Satisfy your sense of taste by visiting the following producers and taste their local products, starting with Olympia Land Wineryand where you can taste some local wines, then move to Agriturismo Magna Grecia where you can taste home made jams, olive oil and wines and finally learn the secrets of honey making on Klio’s Honey Farm.
A few words on the archeological site:
Ancient Olympia has flourished in such a unique location that could only have been selected by the “gods”! Rolling hills covered with pine woods, small plains planted with vines and olive trees and stately cypresses surround the area where the Alpheios and Kladeos rivers meet together. Remains of food and burnt offerings dating back to the 10th century BC give evidence of a long history of religious activity at the site.
If you like travelling to the past, walk around the ruins, as they stand now silently among the trees and the serene but extremely imposing environment, close your eyes for a minute and you can easily visualise the athletes training in the remains of the Gymnasium, contesting in the Palaistra or witness the first sacrifice on the first day of the games at the Prytaneion and cheer the horses and chariots at the Hippodrome. While entering the stadium one can “hear” the 40.000 spectators gathering from all over the Mediteranean to participate to these Games, cheering the winner of the first foot-race, “Koroibos of Elis”. Now its your turn to try your stamina in the 192m footrace, but do not expect great prizes and money, victors then only won crowns of olive leaves and an olive branch cut from the sacred grove. Glory, fame and historical immortality was their only motive.
If you like researching before you get to a historic site, get first hand information by reading lyric poet Pindar (518BC) or the notes of Pausanias, born in (110AD) in his “Description of Greece, a lengthy work that describes ancient Greece from his first-hand observations ” a great travel blogger of his time” . For the lazy ones, if you do not get a tour guide, you can get these little books with sea through reconstructions of the monuments on top of their present state and basic info on the site, great for children too as well as have a look at these virtual tours in you tube. The monuments are endless here, the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Zeus where the gigantic Ivory and gold statue of Zeus used to stand there, sculpted by Pheidias, which was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Antipater of Sidon, the studio of Phidias, excavated in the 1950s as well as the Treasuries, dedicated by individuals and city-states that brought offerings to Zeus which included money, statues, including some great sculptures like Nike of Paionios, 424 BC, and the Hermes of Praxiteles, late 4th century BC, (that one can see now in the museums), as well as bronze tripods, shields, helmets, and weapons resulting in Olympia becoming a living museum of Greek art and culture.
A second important event held at Olympia was the Heraia Games for women, held every four years in honour of the goddess, Hera. Children, adolescents, and young women ran in separate foot-races over 160m of the stadium track. Prizes for victors included olive crowns and the right to set up a portrait of themselves on the site.
In the twentieth century, the role of Olympia revived with the introduction of the Olympic Torch relay, in which the torch is ignited several months before the opening celebration at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia. Olympia was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.
Excavation is being continued to this day by the German Institute of Archaeology in Athens and the Ephorate of Antiquities in Olympia.
If you have further questions or you need to help to organise this trip, do not hesitate to contact me!
Low cost, simple and convenient option would be Posidon hotel, at the center of Ancient Olympia, just 5min from the archeological site, great price for its location, nice friendly owners.