It is here, every four years, that the Olympic flame is first lit before being taken to whichever city is hosting the modern games.
Olympia is by far the most famous site in the Peloponnese. Situated in the northwesterly province of Ilia (Ancient Elis), this is where the most important festival of the ancient world took place, in both Greek and Roman times. And it still has a place in modern world culture. It is here, every four years, that the Olympic flame is first lit (by the power of the sun) before being taken to whichever city is hosting the modern games.
Most ancient ruins in Greece seem to be located in fantastically dramatic locations; think of the Temple of Apollo at Vasses to the south, or Mycenae rising up on its crag of rock, or, indeed, the Parthenon itself. Olympia, in contrast, is set in a lush and bucolic valley, watered by the famous Alphios to the south and its tributary, the Kladeos, to the west. The mighty-sounding Mount Kronos (Zeus’s father) which lies just to the north of the site is, in reality, a small hill, barely 100m tall. The white columns of the ruins lay below it, shaded not only by the ubiquitous olive, but also by plane trees, oaks and poplars.
The forest fires of 2007 came close to destroying this idyll, turning the hill of Kronos into a charcoal mound and coming within metres of the ruins themselves. They were saved by the concerted efforts of the locals, whether they worked on the site or not, and now the slopes of Kronos have been replanted. Olympia remains a remarkable place, peaceful and romantic, especially in the spring, when wild flowers surround the ruins.
The ruins of the Philippeion commemorate Philip of Macedon’s victory in the Battle of Chaironeia © Pan.stathopoulos, Wikimedia Commons
That said, it can also come as something of a disappointment to many visitors. This is partly due to false expectations. Perhaps people anticipate something on the scale of the modern stadiums that are built to host the Games, or at least something comparable to the Parthenon, or the theatre at Epidavros, rather than the somewhat jumbled, and often confusing, ruins that do remain. There is also no denying that the modern village next to the site, whilst functional, lacks charm or character. On top of this the site itself is often crowded, even first thing in the morning.
Please don’t be discouraged. Olympia is a place that repays the effort you put into it. Away from the coach parks and the tourist facilities, the atmosphere of the place still prevails, giving some idea of why the ancients chose the site in the first place. Even on a busy day you will be able to find a quiet corner to sit and contemplate the place, and on a cloudy, wet day in autumn you might have the ruins to yourself. The Olympic ideal, peace between states fostered by friendly competition, was difficult to achieve even in Classical times, but here, in this Arcadian glade, you can still feel its power.