Katakalon & Olympia, Greece

All memory of our blustery departure from Mykonos yesterday dissolved in the brilliance of the pink and orange sunrise. We spent the morning watching Joyce Goldstein, our guest chef, prepare Greek savories in the lounge while the National Geographic Endeavour headed north along the west coast of Greece. Our destination was Katakalon, the nearest port to the site of Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games.

Surrounded by rugged mountains and fertile valleys filled with vineyards and groves of olive, citrus and mulberry trees, the Greeks, like all ancient men created myths as a means of understanding their own beginnings. In the sacred landscape of the western Peloponnese, the ancient Greeks founded the sanctuary in honor of Zeus, the god of the sky. Olympia was one of four pan-Hellenic sites where all men of Greek birth from across the Mediterranean, gathered to compete in a series of athletic events held in honor of Zeus.

Entering the original Olympic stadium through a vaulted tunnel, placing one’s foot on the marble starting line and sprinting down the length of the original Olympic stadium as athletes did for more almost a 1000 years from 776 BC – 350 AD is awe-inspiring. The green grassy slopes bordering the stadium that once held 40,000 spectators, are now surrounded by a pine forest singed orange and black by the devastating fires of this past summer. But for the invention of modern fire-fighting foam, human carelessness almost destroyed a site that is important, not just to western civilization, but to all humanity.

Ancient Olympia was never a town, but a sanctuary so all its silent ruins relate to the worship of the Olympian gods or the games. Standing beside the collapsed column drums of the massive temple of Zeus one quickly develops an appreciation for the scale of this once great structure, which housed the seated ivory and gold encrusted statue of Zeus. Known only through Greek texts and depictions on ancient coins, the moulds for sections of this masterpiece, which was one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”, are preserved in the newly refurbished site museum.

Reluctant as we were to leave the site, a late afternoon wine and olive oil tasting at the Mecuri Wine Estate enroute to the ship provided a perfect end to a magical day and in fact, our five-day visit to Greece. At midnight, under the starry skies of early autumn, we headed south towards Sicily, through the ink black Mediterranean Sea.