Travel - Touring the Peloponnese 

Where the culture of Ancient Greece merges with the present and casts its spell on the future Olympics

The last colours of the sunset had faded and the first stars were beginning to appear in the clear night sky when the cast of the Greek National Theatre filed out of a side entrance and walked slowly toward the stage. The actors wore the traditional robes of ancient Greece and each carried a lighted candle that sent shadows flickering across the ancient stonework of the Proskenion. The effect was spellbinding. The murmur of conversation from the crowd filling the vast stone amphitheatre of Epidaurus faded to a deathly silence as spotlights illuminated the circular stage below us and the classic Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex began to unfold.

Written by Sophocles in the 5th century BC, the play was performed in the language of ancient Greece. But understanding the words was not necessary. Through superb acting and raw emotion the professional cast brought the story to life – the tale of a young man tormented by a prophesy that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Unaware that he was adopted Oedipus attempts to escape the curse of the Oracle by leaving his foster parents, only to have the prophesy fulfilled when he unknowingly encounters his birth parents, and on realizing what he has done blinds himself in a fit of remorse.

Our attendance at the performance was more a case of serendipity than good planning. When we rolled into the Sanctuary of Epidaurus intending to spend a few hours exploring the ruins we had no idea that the summer Theatre Festival was in full swing. As it turned out the ruins were disappointing. Except for the foundations not much remains of what was once an extensive therapeutic and religious centre dedicated to the healing God Asklepios. But the Theatre is magnificent.

Built in the 4th century BC the theatre of Epidaurus is nestled into a natural amphitheatre on the north slope of Mt. Kynortion. Because of its remote location it has suffered little pilfering and most of the original stonework remains intact. Renowned for its perfect acoustics the theatre can accommodate 14,000 spectators in 55 tiers of stone seats that curve around the circular orchestra where actors perform. Like most tourists who visit the place Betty and I took turns standing in the centre of the orchestra and marvelling at how far into the theatre a whisper could be heard.

Blundering into the Epidaurus Festival was the first of many memorable surprises during our week-long trip through the Peloponnese. After the white-knuckle nightmare of Athens traffic driving the winding rural roads of the Peloponnese was pure pleasure. Originally connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land the Peloponnese Peninsula is now separated from the rest of Greece by the Cornith canal. The steep-sided, 6 km cut was excavated through solid rock in the late 1800s to provide a shipping link between the Aegean and Ionian seas that allowed vessels to bypass the perilous trip around the southern Peloponnese. Crossing the bridge over the canal and heading south along the coastal road of the Sasonic Gulf is like entering a different world – a place with more space, less rush, and a step back in time.

Like most of the Mediterranean region the Peloponnese Peninsula has been stripped of its original forests. Wood gathering, logging, and hundreds of years of goat farming, have transformed the hills into a harsh barren landscape sparsely covered by second growth shrubs and olive trees that offer little protection from erosion. But the lowlands are a patchwork of lush green fields and orchards. On our way to Turyns, we drive past orange groves, pasture land, and market gardens where farmers, both men and women, are tilling the soil by hand.

At the end of the day we check into a roadside pension that serves meals on an outdoor patio under an arbor dripping with clusters of grapes. The smell of roast meat and wood smoke drifts in from a fire-pit where a whole lamb is turning on a spit driven by a small water wheel. As we settle down to our evening meal the farmers, obviously tired, are returning home from the fields. Most are walking, a few have ox-drawn carts and some have piled their tools and produce on small donkeys. Betty notes that when couples share a single donkey the woman leads it and the man rides. She is not impressed.

Before leaving the coast we spent a day in Nafplio wandering the narrow streets, admiring the Venetian and neoclassical houses in what is arguably the most beautiful town in Greece. After independence it was the first capital and for hundreds of years before that it was a strategic seaport. The setting is dominated by the massive Palamedes Fortress which clings to the rocks above the town. Its continuous curtain wall encloses seven self-contained forts making it the largest such complex in all of Greece. It's a long climb to the uppermost ramparts but the view over the rooftops of Nafplio past the fortified island of Bourtzi to the mountains beyond the harbour is truly spectacular.

No trip to the Peloponnese would be complete without a visit to the Sanctuary of Olympia which flourished as a religious and athletic centre for more than a thousand years. Little remains of the stately buildings that once graced the Sanctuary. The toppled columns of the temple of Zeus are strewn over the turf like giant stone checkers and the restored columns of the Palaestra, without walls or roof, are all that remain of what was once a huge training centre for Olympic athletes.

Despite the sorry state of the buildings we could easily have spent more than a day exploring the ruins. It's the sort of place you want to visit with a good guide in hand and time to sit and reflect on how the history of this ancient site continues to influence our modern world.

No one is sure when Greek athletes first set aside their spears and gathered at Olympia to compete. The games of 776 BC are traditionally regarded as the beginning of the first Olympiad, the Greek system of reckoning time based on a four year period between Olympic Games. At first men's sprinting was the only event and most of the contestants were local. Women were not only barred from competition they were forbidden to watch. As more events were added the Games grew to include all of the Greek city-states and eventually athletes from other lands. But as Roman influence increased the religious and political influence of the Sanctuary began to fade and the original purpose of the competition was lost.

A low point in the decline of the Games came in 67 AD when Nero, the tyrannical Emperor of Rome, entered the chariot race. Better known for fiddling to the accompaniment of flames than for his athletic prowess Nero decreed that he be given a six horse handicap over the other competitors. Despite this advantage and the fact that he crashed half way through and never finished, he was declared the winner. Only Zeus and Nero know what might have befallen the judges had they been honest.

Corruption eventually consumed the Games and in A.D. 394, during a purge of pagan festivals, they were abolished. A few years later the Christian Emperor Theodosius II ordered the temples of Olympia demolished.

For 1,500 years the Olympic Games ceased to exist. The remains of the ancient temples were further destroyed by earthquakes and eventually buried by debris from floods and landslides. It was not until 1896, after French and German archaeologists began to excavate the ruins, that the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin became fascinated with the ancient Games and helped organize their renewal in Athens.

Only eight nations competed in those first Modern Olympics. Since then, with the exception of cancellations during World Wars I and II, each successive Olympiad has seen the Games grow to a size and complexity that Zeus himself could never have imagined.

When the Olympic Summer Games return to Greece this August most of the venues will be in and around Athens but one event, the shot put, will be held in Olympia, in the Original Stadium near the Temple of Zeus. And Olympic athletes will once again compete on the turf where it all began nearly 3,000 years ago.

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