Modestine's Olympic Marathon

Thursday 24th April 2008, Olympia
Tonight is our second night camping in Greece and we find ourselves just a few minutes walk from the ancient site of the very first Olympic games! So far we have been very happy here and after our experiences driving in Italy, weaving our way through the traffic of Patras was almost as easy as cutting through feta cheese.

Approaching Patras

We met up with David and Lesley as arranged, at a campsite near the beautiful, modern suspension bridge that links this end of the Peloponnese to the rest of mainland Greece. Modestine was overjoyed to see her friend Erik again and while their four owners discovered the culinary delights of Greece in a nearby taverna, they stood together musing over their travelling adventures and concluding it was a far cry from toddling around the Isle of Wight where they were both born.

Modestine, Erik and their owners

Meanwhile we explored the immediate area of the campsite and decided there was nothing to detain us now we had finally managed to make contact. The views of the mountains across the water and the sleek lines of the bridge were magnificent but the beach was scruffy and the waterfront was merely a collection of small tavernas and parked cars.

Bridge at Rio linking the Peloponnese to the mainland

To celebrate meeting up we went for a very enjoyable meal together. The waiters were delightfully patient while we struggled with the menu, deciding eventually on spit-roasted goat with herbs and yogurt. No, we were informed, that is not available. “Oh well, let’s go for Moussaka”. “No, you cannot have that either. Life is very hard for waiters at this time because it is Lent in Greece and we can only serve Lenten food.” In the end we asked what we were allowed to eat. Cuttlefish, Greek salad and taramasalata balls. We were served a really wonderful meal and the accompanying salad was too huge for the four of us to finish, loaded with olives, feta cheese, herbs and swimming in Greek olive oil. With it we had a litre jug of local red wine and to finish we were served sweet, warming digestive drinks. We lingered all evening chatting and nobody hurried us. What a contrast with Mexico and Spain!!

Yesterday morning we went our separate ways, arranging to meet up in Olympia during the evening. We headed off along the coast to Pyrgos, a town of around 23,000 people. Our guide book said it wasn’t worth visiting but we needed food as everywhere shuts over the Greek Easter period. On the outskirts we stopped at a supermarket and spent a happy hour puzzling over the Greek labels. We are beginning to understand the Greek script but even when we transliterate the sounds we don’t understand the words! Many things are written in English as well and there were even Heinz baked beans on sale! Such things are cheating though so we left with pots of yogurt, honey, Macedonian Tahini, feta cheese and olives as well as several litres of Greek wine to while away the evenings and a few more prosaic necessities for daily living. It was fascinating watching the Greek priests in their long black robes, tall hats and huge beards pushing supermarket trolleys down the aisles with several children in tow! At the meat counter they were doing a good line in skinned goats’ heads, their eyes glaring resentfully up at you from the slab. A butcher wielding a cleaver reduced an entire goat to chunky chops before our very eyes! We are soft in England, accustomed to seeing nothing more of the animal than the plastic-wrapped piece on its polystyrene tray.

It looked safe in the busy car park outside so we left Modestine and walked into the centre of Pyrgos. There were many gipsies on the street, colourfully dressed women with several bare-foot children, many begging. Possibly they may be from Albania. The pavements were broken, drain covers missing and an air of neglect about the residential outskirts. Once within the town we discovered it to be a busy, friendly place, filled with small shops and several larger stores. In the computer shop we managed to buy a replacement mouse from someone who spoke as little English as we do Greek! He even tested it out on his computer running XP to prove it would work on our laptop. (It does.) When we went to pay the 12 euros written on the label he insisted it would only cost us 10 euros! Not only was it an amazingly friendly thing to do, it was really cheap! £8 for a Microsoft mouse! Eat your heart out PC World! Next we discovered a baker, the window full of Chocolate bunnies, chickens and eggs as well as a few icons of virgins and some spring flowers. Here we bought spinach pasties for lunch, the pastry oozing in olive oil. They are standard fare in Greece as are pizzas in Italy. They are far nicer though. We ate then under a shady tree in the public garden looking out over the roofs of the town towards the sea.

Next we peeped inside the door of one of the many Greek churches. We are not yet sure how we need to dress to wander around inside one so stood in the doorway, our eyes adapting to the dark interior. The walls were completely covered in modern icons of various saints, the ceiling painted with lots of gold stars and a sort of canopy and candelabra in front of the altar.

In contrast we next found an internet place and spent an hour with a Greek keyboard and onscreen instructions, reading our e-mail and sending a blog. We will just have to remember where we normally click and hope it means the same. Fortunately the (non religious) icons on the screen help.

Returning to Modestine we were approached by a couple of barefoot gipsy children who chattered away at us, obviously asking about Modestine. They peeped in, signed to ask if we really slept in her, touched the sink and cooker with wonder and then held out their hands for money. We made it clear we did not intend giving them any and they eventually trotted off to pester somebody else. It’s always so hard to know what to do when we are approached for money and it happens so frequently we have just become hard to it. Perhaps we are wrong.

We continued to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Olympia. Strange to think it was only a few weeks ago that the flame was lit here and that it is even now on its way to Beijing for the next Olympics. We left Modestine under a shady tree in the centre of the village (it really is THE Olympic village!) and went in search of the archaeological site and museum which was about to close so we will visit later today instead. The main street is geared to tourists with high class souvenir shops selling maps and masks of Agamemnon. There are several hotels and lots of attractive little tavernas.

At the campsite we discovered the elderly Greek owners spoke excellent French so no problem there. We explained we would be joined by friends with a similar vehicle and we were given a private little corner to ourselves and a negotiated price. There was excitement when Erik arrived! Those must be your friends they said in delight. Two of the tiniest camping cars they had ever seen, side by side!

Inside we each have a tiny Remoska, these are Czech-made electric cooking pots and they are pure magic! It is so easy to cook anything from cakes to casseroles. In no time we had vegetables and meat cooking in one and Italian medlars in the other. Meanwhile we sat by candlelight with glasses of wine and a dish of taramasalata waiting for supper to cook while the bells of the church down in Olympia summoned people for the service at the start of Easter. Today is Good Friday here.

Saturday 26th April 2008, Olympia
The ancient site of Olympia together with its museum opened at midday yesterday and we were there for the entire afternoon trying to absorb Greek history, mythology, art and culture. It turned out to be free for the day as it was Good Friday! Zeus was not pleased about this and spent the entire afternoon grumbling resentfully from a sky that had turned from clear blue to a dirty grey. He even sent a shower of rain to indicate his displeasure but otherwise left us to get on with it.

The museum contains the finds excavated at Olympia, arranged within their historical context, so we investigated it before visiting the actual site. At the heart of ancient Olympia stands the remains of the huge temple to Zeus, totally destroyed by an earthquake during the 6th century AD. Inside was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – a huge statue of Zeus made by Phidias, a master craftsman with his workshop on site here in Olympia. (He also produced many of the sculptures to be seen at the Parthenon in Athens.) Many of his tools, examples of his work and a reconstruction of his workshop can be seen in the museum here. The statue no longer exists, having been removed to Byzantium where it was lost during the fires that raged Constantinople in the 6th century.

Phidias drinking cup found in the remains of his workshop, Olympia

We wandered the museum trying to understand the relationship of the different Gods, the many battles between the various states, the different periods of ancient Greek civilization – covering from around 1500BC to the second century BC when the Romans took over. On view were statues - mostly damaged - from the temples of Olympus, friezes, pediments, weapons, shields, helmets and armour, tools, jewellery, domestic utensils and vases. There were also countless votive offerings to the Gods in bronze, stone and clay. These included small statues of animals, huge shields and engraved cauldrons.

Hello, statue? I'm at the Ideal Homer Exhibition at Olympia

Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs with Apollo, Olympia

Hermes of Praxiteles, 4th century BC in Parian marble, originally in the Temple of Hera, Olympia

Griffin heads from the archaic period, Olympia

Votive offerings to Zeus, Olympia

Next we moved on to the nearby ancient site. It proved to be very peaceful and attractive, lying at the foot of a terraced mount, shaded by olive trees, pines and cypresses, with many wild flowers growing between the ruined walls. It was large enough to wander alone and in peace, accompanied by birdsong, imagining how life would have been in this ancient city, every four years, as competitors arrived to take part in the Olympic games. Only men could compete or even watch. Events consisted mainly of foot racing, wrestling, boxing and jumping. Later chariot racing was introduced and eventually various forms of armed combat. During the games a truce was agreed between warring cities and an oath of loyalty to Zeus sworn in his temple. The stadium stands to the edge of the site beyond a sacred processional way leading through a covered archway. To either side there are rising grassy mounds for spectators. Otherwise, apart from an altar opposite the judges’ podium, it looked rather unremarkable and not dissimilar to a sports field today. We found the workshop of the craftsman Phidias. It was later made into a church by the Romans once they had ordered the complete destruction of pagan temples. There were the remains of later brick buildings introduced by the Romans where they had outdoor swimming pools, baths and a hypocaust, but the real centre of the site is the Temple of Zeus, nothing more than a ruin. It was amazing to see the huge columns along each side, lying tumbled in their component sections, like so many dominoes, following the combined destructive actions of the Christian emperors and a couple of earthquakes. Amongst the chaos lay the enormous Doric capitals that originally topped the columns along each side of the portico. According to Pliny, during its heyday the precinct housed more than 3,000 statues!

Philippeion, circular shrine with Ionic columns dedicated by Philip II of Macedon to commemorate the Battle of Khaironeia in 338BC and completed by his son Alexander the Great, Olympia

Temple of Hera, sixth century, with Doric columns, dating from the 6th century BC it is one of the earliest visible structures on the site. In front is the altar where the modern Olympic flame is kindled, Olympia

The starting line of the Stadium – an over enthusiastic visitor! Olympia

The arched entrance to the Stadium, Olympia

The ancient Greek sports arena, Olympia

Roman building used by Nero when he competed in the Olympics in 67AD, Olympia

Temple of Zeus with tumbled columns, Olympia

Leonidaion, Olympia

Workshop of Phidias, Olympia

Palaestra, dating from the 3rd century BC where the athletes
practised, a large open court with a Doric colonnade, Olympia

Building stone throughout the site contains many fossils, Olympia

There is so much to absorb and knowing very little about Greek history and legend, this is no more than an impression of what we have seen and learnt. (Sorry Ron but you only taught Ian Latin all those years ago, not Greek - though the little green guide for kids you lent us is proving really helpful!)

Back at our campsite we were overrun by tiny cats who appreciated the smell of cooking as we prepared supper. All nine are obviously related and by the look of a couple of them, who are heavily pregnant, their numbers could easily double by the time we are ready to leave. Their leader we have named Nero. His sisters are obviously terrified of him as he eagerly mounts any of them not quick enough to sit on her tail!

At 9pm we were at the village church for the Good Friday service. As people filed in they each lit a candle before approaching the holy icon of Christ laid out on a bier covered by an arched canopy of fresh flowers. They each kissed the icon, then moved forward to kiss the unadorned cross before taking their places in the body of the church. We slipped in at the side to watch and nobody seemed to even notice. The floor was covered in heavily patterned rugs and the church brightly lit by two huge chandeliers and hundreds of candles. Beside the icon the priest, dressed in the purple robes of mourning, chanted from his holy book and a troop of little choir boys in matching silk robes chanted the Kyrie Eleison. Beyond was the iconostasis, covered in colourful modern religious paintings while the walls of the church and even the ceiling were painted with similar icons of Greek saints and scenes from the life of Christ. As the chanting continued Ian managed to see one of the music sheets and declares the notation to be nothing like standard musical notation as we know it – more like medieval neumes. We were heavily blessed with incense and holy water as the priest waved his censer and the chanting continued for nearly an hour. Eventually the canopy and icon were raised up on poles and carried outside where hundreds of people were waiting with candles to follow the procession around the streets. The local band struck up – it was dreadful – and with the priest waving blessings and holy water, everyone proceeded to the local police station where the police came out to kiss the icon while the angelic looking little choirboys, wearing combat trousers and trainers beneath their Easter robes, chanted the Kyrie Eleison and the band wandered on, noisily playing their way up the street before realising they should wait. Thus the procession made its way around the town, stopping regularly at crossroads for people to touch or kiss the icon and the candle-lit cross. Eventually it returned to the church where the canopy of flowers and the bier bearing the icon were held high on the shoulders of the bearers at the entrance to the church. Everyone then bent double and crawled beneath it back into the church while nearby several firecrackers started to go off. Lent is drawing to an end and the emphasis is now on Easter as they await the risen Christ on Sunday.

The procession stops at a crossroads, Olympia

Passing into the church beneath the bier, Olympia

We have decided to remain at Olympia for Orthodox Easter. One of our reasons for coming at this time was to experience a Greek Easter and this is a very pleasant place to do so. The lives of the local community continue completely separately from that of the tourists and the Church is still so very much at the centre of it all. We have seen Lent so we will wait to see how the same people celebrate on Sunday when once again they can eat meat, feast and dance in the streets. This officially begins at midnight tonight, again with a service at the church.

The church in Olympia

During the morning today we visited the Museum of the Ancient Olympic Games, devoted entirely to the history of the Olympics and its rewards for the victors. Here we learnt everything we ever needed to know about training, anointing the body with oils, discus throwing sans underpants and more besides!

Vessels with paintings of athletes, Museum of Ancient Olympic Games, Olympia

Mosaic from Roman house in Patras, Museum of Ancient Olympic Games, Olympia

This evening it has been raining heavily so we joined Lesley and David inside Erik for Greek aperitifs. A dry, resinated white wine, known as Retsina accompanied pistachio nuts, sesame seed bars and a dish of olives. It's a very sociable way to spend a wet evening. As the rain eased and we were about to leave, the lady from the campsite arrived with a parcel for each of us containing some of her homemade Easter biscuits to celebrate the start of the festivities. She says we should be down in the town for midnight but she is frightened of the fireworks so will be staying at home. As we were made to feel perfectly welcome yesterday we will join in again at midnight.

Sunday 27th April 2008, Olympia
Last night Ian and I went down alone to the town just before midnight. Crowds had gathered outside the brightly lit church and the chanting of the priest was relayed around the town on a tannoy system. Fire crackers were being set off on the rooftops and as midnight approached the air reeked with the smell of cordite, a pall of smoke hung over the town, and spent rockets fell onto the gathered crowds at the church door. Frequently fireworks continued to burn after they had fallen, sending sparks and smoke amongst the bystanders. On the stroke of midnight the church was plunged into darkness. From within came a pinprick of light that rapidly spread as each person lit the candle of their neighbour. Soon the glow had spread to those waiting outside. Flares, fireworks, marine distress signals and what sounded remarkably like gunfire made a deafening noise to celebrate that Christ had risen. The priest appeared on the steps of the church wearing his white Easter robes and carrying his Bible, ornately bound in silver. As he raised it above his head for the crowd to see, they responded by raising their candles creating a wave of light. The church bell began to clank and clang – the only way to describe the cracked, joyous sound it produced. Together with the chanting, the hubbub of the crowd, the whistling and cracking of the fireworks and the staccato sound of what must have been gunfire, the noise was awesome. People were shaking hands, kissing and hugging each other saying Christ is risen, Alleluia. Eventually people began to make their way homewards, the bobbing candles glowing along the side streets. Even those going home by car kept their candles alight inside their vehicles!

Exiting from the midnight Easter service, Olympia

At the church door, Olympia

This morning seemed an anticlimax. Instead of the smell of lamb roasting on a spit and the sound of dancing, the town was completely silent. All the restaurants were closed and the streets almost deserted. Rather disappointed we went for a walk in the warm sunshine along beside the Olympic site where we discovered a monument to Coubertin, who revived the Olympic games in 1896. We returned along a deserted track that lead us through vineyards, olive groves and orchards of citrus fruits. The grass was spangled with bright flowers – pink mallow, purple vetch, scarlet poppies, wild blue delphiniums, yellow tansy and white daisies. Lizards scurried in the banks, swallows skimmed the river and overall was the hum of bees. Finding our route blocked by the river and reluctant to return the way we had come, we took off our shoes and waded across. As we sat on the far bank waiting for our feet to dry we heard gunfire and realised the muddy ground had been churned up by the trotters of wild pigs. Obviously mutton was not going to be the only meat on the Easter dinner table!

Coubertin monument, Olympia

Mount of olives, Olympia

Ripening olives, Olympia

Last year there were many spectacular fires in the Peloponnese. Local people we have met all affirm they were started by arsonists rather than by the hot, dry weather. While the flowers, grass and shrubs are already back, many of the olive trees and orchards we saw on our walk showed signs of burning, sometimes entire orchards were reduced to blackened stumps. On the hills around the Olympic site, countless trees have been chopped down, the bark around the remaining stumps being burnt black. Gradually replacement trees are being planted with tiny cypress trees in clumps all around the base of the hillside. For many farmers however, it looks as if they will have lost their livelihood until the vines, orchards and olive trees can be regrown.

Back at the campsite the French-speaking Greek owner and his wife presented us with more delicious Easter biscuits, this time iced and containing nuts. We definitely do not hold with the expression “beware the Greeks bearing gifts”. They are such a delightful, friendly couple. Later in the day they came and asked us to act as interpreters for some Slovenian visitors who had just arrived who spoke Serbo-Croatian and English but not Greek. The owners spoke Greek and French but not English. We spoke English and French but not Greek. Somehow it all worked out, everyone was happy and there was a great deal of smiling.

After a late lunch Ian, Lesley and I went off for a walk in the hills above the town, leaving David engrossed in his computer. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding hills and the discovery of the open air theatre of Olympia, possibly on the site of an original ancient Greek theatre.

View from above the campsite, Olympia

Theatre at Olympia

We soon discovered Greek families were celebrating Easter Sunday with music and dancing, but in their own homes with all the members of the family gathered together rather than community-based celebrations as we had expected. The sound of music drifted up to us from the houses in the village below. So we wandered down the steep path into the heart of the village to see what might be happening. As we passed an open door people waved cheerfully and beckoned us in. The large room was littered with broken crockery and people were dancing in a circle to the sound of lively Greek music. Ian and I joined in the circle and were soon making stumbling attempts to copy the steps, our arms raised above our heads, holding hands with those on either side. When the dance ended we found Lesley already seated at the family dinner table with a glass of wine! Everyone clapped our attempts at dancing and we were handed glasses of wine, plates appeared and huge pieces of meat were placed before us! Such sudden and unexpected hospitality was quite overwhelming! There were around 12 members of the family and the son, a student at Athens University, acted as interpreter for us as his parents did not speak English. As soon as we drank anything our glasses were refilled and his father taught us the Greek for "Cheers" which we were soon expert at repeating as we all clanked glasses. Next we were offered some delicious white sheep's cheese made by his mother and urged to eat more lamb. "Today we have killed many sheep" we were told. Red painted eggs were brought in displayed in a pretty basket and we were given one each. They were hard boiled and we were expected to use them like conkers, banging their ends with those of our neighbour. The winner would have good luck for the next year.
Our hosts, Olympia

Invited to join the family celebration of Easter, Olympia

Showing us how Greek dancing should be done, (Note broken crockery) Olympia

Bashing eggs with our interpreter, Olympia

The son explained that his father is a farmer and the wine we were drinking is their own. They live by producing mutton, cheese, wine and olive oil. They explained the broken china all over the floor is a sign that they are happy. I explained that broken china all over my floor at home is a sign that I am not happy. This made them laugh. There was more talk, more music, more dancing and more wine before we felt it might be polite to leave. When we thanked them for such unexpected, boundless hospitality they insisted it was nothing and that if it hadn't been them, it would have been one of their neighbours because this is a very special day for Greek people and they are proud of their country and hospitable by nature! It has turned today into something that is pure magic! How fortunate we are that so often during our travels we have experienced the friendship of complete strangers!

A parting gift of home painted Easter eggs for us, Olympia

David, Lesley, Jill and Erik, Olympia