She Said, She Said: Delphi and Olympia
Five years after their first blogged adventure (She Said She Said London) Jenny Keroack, now 23 years old, and her mom, travel writer Geri Bain, set off on a new journey. This trip centered on three great societies: the Ancient Greeks, the Ottomans, and the Venetians. Starting in Athens, they set sail on a Windstar Cruise to Venice, tracing the interwoven histories of these superpowers. After the cruise, they headed to the Dolomites for a few days of hiking. As with their last adventure, they recorded their impressions and favorite finds along the way. Jenny’s are in italics; Geri’s are in regular type. The following is their first installment, logged from Athens.
While Ancient Greece was not a single political entity, the ancient sites of Delphi and Olympia served as unifying forces—places where citizens of each city-state came to pray and send offerings to the gods, compete in pan-Hellenic athletic competitions. As at Epidaurus, we joined Windstar Cruises excursions for the sites and were glad we did—they had knowledgeable guides who shared insights with our group (about 20) about ancient and modern Greece during bus rides as well as at the sites.
Bellybutton of the World. The location of the ancient site of Delphi on the slope of Mount Parnassus would be worth a visit for its awe-inspiring beauty alone so it’s not surprising that this was considered a sacred place as far back as 1500 BC. Steep cliffs reaching for the heavens frame a rocky aerie for temples to the gods, as if providing protection for the fertile valley below. According to Classical Greek mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles–one headed east the other to the west–to find the center and origin point of the earth, and they met here. Zeus then threw a stone from the heavens to mark that spot. A reproduction of the belly-button-like stone Omphalus rests in place; the original is inside the next door Archeological Museum of Delphi along with many other treasures from the site. My favorite work was the Charioteer of Delphi, a sensuous sculpture of a winner who is celebrated both as art and as the embodiment of the Greek values of self-discipline and athleticism and humility in victory.
Well-gifted gods. Delphi is an extensive site and you’ll need to move fast if you’re on a tour and want to climb all the way to the top. The site actually has several sections, including the Temple of Apollo and the renowned Oracle of Delphi, which attracted people from around the ancient world seeking insights and advice. They often left with cryptic messages that could be parsed to provide opposing meanings, so the Oracle had 100% accuracy! Higher up the mountain is a theatre and athletic stadium. Leading to the Temple is the Sacred Way, lined by a series of marble treasuries built by each city-state for their offerings, and it was fun to hear about what each state provided.
Racing the track. Ancient Olympia has a lot in common with modern Olympic cities. There’s an area where athletes train, dormitories where they sleep, more luxurious accommodations for rich spectators and temples for prayers and offerings. Walking through the open-air park, strewn with marble pillars and platforms, it was fun to hear our guide reconstruct the site and events of the past, and to learn that doping was a problem, even in ancient times. Another surprising thing: the Greek word “stadion” actually refers to a unit of distance in a track competition that was the most prestigious of the games. Many visitors spontaneously decide to reenact the past on the original site—although we didn’t see anyone dressed in the traditional attire–none (nudity)—and unlike in ancient times, females are welcome.
Goddess of Victory. The modern Archaeological Museum of Olympia has an one of the world’s best collections of ancient bronze sculptures in addition to a number of celebrated works in marble. My mom was especially drawn to Hermes of Praxiteles carrying his infant half-brother Dionysos. It’s ironic that it originally stood at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, since both Dionysos and Hermes were the products of affairs of her philandering husband Zeus. My favorite was a partially reconstructed Nike, the goddess of victory, who I recognized from Athens, where a temple devoted to her stands in the Acropolis. The Olympia statue, like most Nike statues, has wings; the one in Athens is wingless; it’s been said that this was so she would always protect their city and never fly away.
Fun on the Farm. The hills surrounding ancient Olympia are furrowed with olive groves and vineyards. We got to see them up close at a complimentary all-ship lunch at Magna Grecia Farm, a family-owned operation producing olive oil and wine. During a concise demonstration, I finally understood what “extra virgin” olive oil means. (It’s from the first pressing, extracted without chemical agents or excessive heat, with acidity below .8%; “virgin” is similar, but with acidity below 2%. “Pure,” “light” and other terms are non-regulated marketing terms.) After a scrumptious family-style lunch that included tastings of olive oil, wine, ouzo and wonderful local sausages, taztziki and a zesty chicken and rice dish, we watched a traditional Greek dance troupe, who then led us all in a line dance around the room that seemed right out of the movie Zorba the Greek.
Next: We sail through the fjord-like twists and turns of Kotor Bay in Montengro.
Geri Bain (left), a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 65 countries. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.
23-year-old Jenny Keroack, a recent graduate from University of Chicago, has written for The Gate, Observer Tribune and other publications and is now a Senior Analyst at National Journal’s Network Science Initiative.