Ghosts of Games past in Olympia

As Olympic fever hits London, Lucy Gillmore has parts of the Peloponnese – where it all began – almost to herself

I'm not satnav savvy. I scrolled and I searched, but Olympia, one of the most important archaeological sites and key attractions in the Peloponnese, didn't even register. Just before the navigator-taunting started, I finally figured out that the pedantic tool only recognised "Ancient Olympia".

We were holidaying for a week in the mountains of the Outer Mani in the south of the Peloponnese peninsula and, despite the guidebooks' warnings of coach tours, crowds and tourist tat, with the Olympic Games just round the corner we couldn't escape a pilgrimage to the place where it all began.

The lighting of the Olympic torch here on 10 May was almost a damp squib. Glued to the TV in the UK a few weeks earlier we had watched as the high priestess in classically pleated Grecian gown lit the ceremonial torch heralding its long – and rather convoluted journey – to Stratford via Athens and the Outer Hebrides. The Olympic flame burnt brightly, flickered then failed. Her face crumpled briefly before, rallying, she relit it surrounded by her faithful handmaidens.

The torch's first leg to Athens was probably relatively smooth along the smart new EU-funded roads. We did the journey in the other direction. There were hardly any other cars on the shiny asphalt. After cutting through the mountains, the new highway suddenly petered out – perhaps work was suspended after the money dried up – and cones redirected us on to the tortuous mountain road.

Athens wasn't empty exactly – it's a capital city after all – but the tavernas and museums had been, so it was almost reassuring to see coaches in the car park at Olympia and tourists dithering among the crumbling plinths and columns as the sun beat down relentlessly.

The tree-shaded site in the lush Alfios valley is pretty and green, scattered with the remains of temples dedicated to the gods. In the stadium, unearthed by the Germans during the Second World War, tourists posed for pictures "under starter's orders" on the rectangular 200m sandy track. The grassy slopes on either side once held up to 20,000 spectators. Approaching the track through the arched tunnel you could imagine the sense of anticipation.

However, what makes the schlep here worthwhile is the Archaeological Museum, a light, contemporary space where you can wander among classical and Roman sculptures more than 1,000 years old. The bronze shin protectors, hammered helmets and shields worn by those first Greek athletes really bring the Games to life.

According to legend, the Games were founded by Heracles (probably better known by his Roman name, Hercules) the son of the god Zeus. However, the first recorded Games were in 776BC and featured just one event: the 200m sprint. What began as a small local festival soon grew until states from all over Greece were sending athletes to take part. During the Games a truce was declared for their duration and any wars suspended.

The events were mainly athletic: the pentathlon, one of the most famous, a combination of sprinting, long jump, discus, javelin and wrestling. They were also brutal. The pankration introduced in 680BC was naked unarmed combat – biting and gouging out your opponent's eyes were the only banned moves.

At first athletes competed simply for honour and olive wreath, but predictably the Games became dogged by bribery and corruption. These "pagan" Games were eventually banned by the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I in AD393 and weren't revived until the end of the 19th century in Athens, the original ideals once more celebrated.

The Peloponnese is not just the birthplace of the Olympic Games, of course. It's peppered with more ancient sites than you can shake a giant golden cheese grater at, from the palaces at Mycenae and Pylos to the Greek theatre at Epidaurus along with Byzantine gems Monemvasia, a rocky coastal citadel, and Mystra with its frescoed churches. You could spend several weeks here immersed in history – but that would mean ignoring the turquoise sea, dramatic mountain gorges and honey-hued villages suspended in time. Arcadia isn't a mythical rural idyll – it's a province in the Peloponnese.

Our little stone cottage was in the higgledy-piggledy mountain village of Doli in the Outer Mani, a land immortalised by the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. The interiors, however, were straight out of the pages of Elle Decoration, with whitewashed walls and turquoise shutters. From the terraced garden we watched the sun go down each evening over a sparkling sea far below. It was hard to drag ourselves away even to wind our way down to the pretty town of Kardamyli with its waterfront tavernas and empty beaches. However, flicking through the visitors' book we found a tantalising tip: Olympia might be crowded and chaotic but you will have Ancient Messene virtually to yourselves.

The meaning of virtually to yourselves was clear: not only is it one of those best kept secrets that people keep to themselves, but holidaymakers appear to be staying away from Greece at a time when the country needs the tourist euro more than ever.

Ancient Messene was deserted as predicted, apart from a handful of archaeologists tapping away. We wandered around the Roman theatre, explored the ruined temples and old bathhouse, clambering on overturned stones and columns before following the track down to the stadium. Its setting was spectacular, the rows of restored stone seating far more atmospheric than the grassy banks at Olympia. The only thing missing were the cheering crowds – or at least a few people to share it with.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Lucy Gillmore paid €264.10 (£207) to fly to Athens from Aberdeen via Paris with Air France (0871 66 33 777; airfrance.co.uk). You can fly direct to Kalamata with MeridianFly (0845 241 9615; meridianfly.com) from Gatwick and Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com) from Manchester and Gatwick.

Staying there

The House of Baba Spiros, Doli, Peloponnese (07703 345231; houseingreece.co.uk). Rental starts at £575 per week; sleeps three.

More in formation

Visitgreece.gr. John Chapman’s guide to the Mani: maniguide.info

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone