Everyone knows about the Olympic games but, in Classical Greece, Olympia was one of four sites holding Panhellenic Games on a regular cycle. The Olympics being the oldest of the four. The Games were the Olympic Games, the Pythian Games (held at Delphi), the Isthmian games and the Nemean games. We have visited Delphi twice in the past and, earlier this July, we visited Nemea and Olympia. Both of which have excellent and fascinating museums.
One particularly interesting item in the museum at Nemea was a map showing the origins of people who visited the games (some of the evidence was documentary, some from coins). We were clearly not the first visitors from our area as there are records of people attending the games from Colophon, Magnesia, Notion and several other places we visit quite regularly.
The sites themselves are very different. Nemea is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, though the surroundings are attractive. There is a very interesting bath house (not in the least like a Roman baths – and the one at Nemea is very well preserved and/or restored. The Temple has been tastefully restored. There is a tunnel leading to the stadium and the stadium has no formal seating around it. People used to sit on the grassy banks surrounding the track. You can see the starting blocks for races. We were pretty much the only tourists there and the people in the ticket office very kindly looked after our jackets and helmets whilst we wandered around the main site (the stadium is a few hundred metres up a hill).
Olympia, by contrast, is situated in what might best be described as a tacky tourist town. There are a few hotels and quite a lot of restaurants, most of which were deserted when we were there. The site itself was crowded – we coincided with a cruise ship. It’s also very extensive. Hilary particularly liked the Hera temple – it has very good proportions. It’s a very large site, built up over a long period. Some buildings were converted into a church and, unlike Nemea, there are clearly identified commercial areas. The museum contains some very important pieces and is being left for a post of its own.
The stadium is very like that at Nemea. Except with more tourists. Each is approached via a tunnel (there was a lizard in the tunnel at Nemea). There are starting blocks and grassy banks. Both sites have beautiful natural backdrops.
We suspect that the site at Olympia is more visited because people are familiar with the modern Olympics. We suspect that the town fills up once every four years when the torches are lit and taken to wherever is hosting the modern games.