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

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