Many popular Mediterranean ports of call lend themselves to independent exploration. From Cadiz to Cannes, Monte Carlo to Montenegro, cruise ships drop anchor in seductively close proximity to cerulean beaches, trendy pedestrian shopping, and (mostly) adequate local and regional public transportation. The convenience and wide array of activities and attractions on Mediterranean itineraries is incentive enough to go it on your own. I take exception to my own assertion when it comes to exploring Greece and the Greek Isles: If history and archaeology is your thing, there are several reasons to invest in an organized excursion in this treasure trove, led by an experienced tour guide.
Creating a More Memorable Experience
Aside from a layover a few years back in Heraklion, I had spent no time whatsoever in Greece prior to my visit in 2011. Our ship docked in the charming port town of Katakolon, which serves as the window to ancient Olympia. My colleagues and I were escorted to the major attractions by the ship’s local tour operator, who took us on a whirlwind tour of all the nearby attractions sans passengers.
As the name suggests, Olympia was the site of the very first Olympic games. The first Olympic games were held here in 776BC, and continued for over 400 hundred years! Our guide, Niovi, was normally dispatched to one of the ships’ shore excursions and was as delighted as we were that this was a private affair – staff only!
It is oppressively hot in the dusty Greek countryside! Olympia, like most ancient sites, has a vibration, a visceral presence of the hundreds of thousands of people who walked these grounds before us. The Sanctuary of Ancient Olympia is an extremely important site because its constructions have the particularity of representing every stage of Greek development. The complex is incredibly vast, much like today’s modern Olympic villages. However, it is relatively compact, and possible to fully navigate within a few hours.
The ancient Greek ideal of an Olympic champion was not only an excellent physical specimen, he was regarded for his exceptional intellect as well. Plato was a 3-time Olympic Champion. Even in ancient times, the athletes had to take an oath to uphold the standards and integrity of the games.
The site of Olympia contains a special row of Statues of Zeus, called the Zanes. Strategically placed along the terrace wall at the entrance of the Stadion (Stadium) they functioned as a warning of the consequences of unscrupulous conduct – being immortalized in stone as a CHEATER! These statues were erected with the money of fines imposed upon athletes or officials found guilty of dishonorable practices, mostly bribery related, in the course of the games. The reasons for the fines and the names of those involved were included in the inscriptions at the base of the statues – a Wall of Shame, if you will. There are only 16 Zanes spanning a period of 400 years.
The Travails of Public Transportation
The seaside village of Katakolon is located at the western edge of Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula. This placid little town is 25-miles west of the archaeological sanctuary of Ancient Olympia. It is possible to get from Katakolon to Olympia by public transportation, however the departure and arrivals often conflict with cruise ship’s departure times, not to mention the fact that this service is notoriously unreliable and often interrupted by strikes.
Maximize Your Time in Port
The 90-minute cab ride is about €80 roundtrip, and you will miss the commentary on what you are seeing, which is what brings your visit to Olympia to life.
Don’t Miss Out On Local Colour
Greece is the cradle of western civilization. Licensed Greek tour guides are among the best educated and most knowledgeable in the industry. In additional to which, they are a gold mine for anecdotal information on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from etymology to the sex lives of demi-gods!
Save Time for Exploring Katakolon
Organized tours, both private and organized through your cruise line, are the most efficient way to maximize your time in port. Most excursions to Olympia will have you back in plenty of time to stroll through Katakolon’s quaint, albeit affected pedestrian zone. It has definitely been repurposed to accommodate cruise ship passengers, but this is not a bad thing! The two inland pedestrian streets have an impressive array of shops and galleries offering quality jewelry, leather goods, artwork, and souvenirs. Additionally there is a well-stocked pharmacy (my Guide taught about the origin of the word Apothecary and the meaning of the snake symbol!) Local supermarkets sell locally produced olive oil and olive oil toiletries at incredibly low prices. Last but not least, the waterfront is lined with trendy outdoor cafes and restaurants, perfect for a mid-day respite before returning to your ship!
The Highlights of Katakolon and its surrounding areas:
- Olympia – 25 miles away (6-Euro Entrance, 9 Euro for park and museum)
- There is a Shuttle bus to Olympia from the port of Katakolon. The cost is 10-Euro per person. It’s approximately a one-hour drive to the site, and you have take the same bus back that you rode in on.
- The Archaeological Museum of Olympia is one of the most important museums in Greece, because it houses the most significant finds from the excavation of Olympia.
- The Modern village of Olympia is located right next to the ancient site. It has traditional architecture and the usual tourist amenites. There are numerous shops selling jewelry, T-shirts, and reproductions of ancient pottery and statues, as well as several outdoor cafes.
- Katakolon: Shopping, sitting at an oceanfront, open-air cafe. There are also car and scooter rentals at the port exit
- Mercouri’s Vineyards & Winery, The Mercouri (or Merkouri) estate is one of the most highly regarded in the Greek wine industry. The estate is a family owned working farm that has been in operation for nearly 150 years. About a 20-minute drive from Katakolon, this is a delicious alternative to visiting Olympia.
- Beaches: The closest beach is Agios Andhreas, approximately $10 cab ride. Agios Andreas is a diminutive village with a couple a small cafe/bars and two restaurants above a wonderful little beach.
- Phenomenal jewelry, both gold and silver, in classic Greek and modern designs
- Honey, olive oil, handicrafts and artwork
Language: Greek primarily, but English is also spoken.
Port Location: The pier is at the foot of Katakolon, with the town’s main street a five-minute walk away.
Getting Money: Euro is the official currency. Some shops may also accept U.S. dollars. There is an ATM machine in town.
For more information, visit: http://www.katakolon-greece.com