After sailing from Venice, we spent a day in the Mediterranean on our way to Greece. David and I mostly spent it getting to know the ship and preparing for the busy days ahead. I’ll tell you all about the MS Zuiderdam later, though. For now, let’s talk about our very first encounter with Greece.
The Zuiderdam’s first port of call was Katakolon. According to the cruise log, we docked at 9:16 AM. It was nearly 90 degrees (35 C), blue skies, with a light breeze. The draw at this port is, no doubt, the city of Olympia, ancient seat of the Olympic games.
Getting to Olympia
When on a cruise, we typically wait to leave the ship, as it can get extremely crowded. However, we enjoyed our breakfast a bit too long, and just missed the first of two trains heading into Olympia. It was 10:50 by the time we meandered through town and made it to the train platform; the train was 20 minutes gone and the next was not due in until 11:30.
Not wishing to waste more of the day, we found a couple companies offering charter buses to Olympia. Both were offering the roundtrip for 10 Euros per person. It was reasonable enough. Our bus left at about 11:15, and took 30 minutes to reach Olympia.
Rick Steves’ Guide to Mediterranean Cruise Ports was our invaluable companion during this trip. We toured the archaeological site on our own–the path is very easy to follow and we had good information. We highly suggest bringing the guidebook of your choice, not just to Olympia but on any vacation! This way you have background on the sights and don’t feel the need to hire a guide.
The first structure of note in the archaeological site is the gymnasium (known as the Palaestra), where athletes used to train (naked!) for the games. Nearby was the workshop of Pheidias, the famous sculptor known for the gigantic Statue of Zeus, once one of the Ancient Wonders of the World, that used to be found here in Olympia. The Temple of Zeus, where the statue once stood, was in ruins, but you could still see how grand it must have once been.
Then we came to the area where the Olympic winners had their names engraved in pillars for all to see. Following along was a row of plinths that once held the names of those miscreants who had attempted to cheat at this most prestigious tournament. Then through the Echo Stoa, an arched path through which the Olympic contestants probably ran out to the roar of the crowd. It opens to a huge field, the Stadium, where the running events and chariot races were held. We considered attempting the run (only 697.3 feet!), but it was 90 degrees out… no thanks.
Back through the arch, we followed the path to the rest of the ruins. One of these is the Temple of Hera, where, to this day, the Olympic torch is lit before making its way to the site of the year’s games. Cool, right?
We also checked out the Philippeion, a (relatively small) memorial dedicated to the family of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
That was it for the archaeological site, but a short walk away is the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. Here they exhibit many finds from the excavations in the area, and notably the ornamentation from the Temple of Zeus. It’s quite small and takes less than an hour to explore, but worth checking out since you’re already there. Plus you get to enjoy the air conditioning!
The Town of Katakolon
Our bus left Olympia shortly after 2. It was enough time, but we wouldn’t have minded an extra hour, so keep that in mind when you go, and try to make that first train! Since we still had some time before the ship was scheduled to depart, we decided to have a quick snack at Katakolon and explore the town.
Though narrow, the streets were clean and easy to navigate. We walked around for a bit, checking out the shops and seeing what was on offer. There were clothing stores, shops selling leather items, and the rest of the usual tourist stuff. I think if we were staying in the area, a big meal of fresh seafood would have been absolutely amazing–we saw many travelers enjoying delicious-looking plates. We eventually found ourselves at Karousos. We enjoyed a plate of fresh tzatziki (a yogurt-and-cucumber based dip) and bread for 5 euros total, as well as 2-euro Alpha beers, perfectly refreshing after a hot afternoon! This was also the start of a love affair with tzatziki that continues to this day.
This was also the perfect opportunity to acquire some alcohol for our rum runners. And what’s the obvious choice in Greece? Ouzo! Honestly, I’m not too fond of it; I don’t love licorice at all. We still got a bottle, as well as some vodka. Prices were fairly reasonable if I recall correctly, though the Ouzo was definitely more affordable.
Our first foray into Greece was promising: ruins, museums, and some excellent food. I’m always amazed at the things ancient civilizations were able to accomplish. And I was really glad to be at a place where the past connected and resonated into the present.
We had a comfortable evening on the ship. Our next port was Nafplion… what would we find there?