Ages 6 & up
Destination: Olympia, Greece
Legend claims that Herakles (Hercules) founded the Olympic Games: After completing the last of his 12 labors, to celebrate he paced off 183m (600 Olympic ft.) and then ran the distance without taking a single breath. Whatever the origin, that distance became the length of the stadium at the religious sanctuary of Olympia, and for over a millennium, from 776 B.C. to A.D. 393, athletic contests were held here every 4 years.
Thousands poured into Olympia for the Games; much of the surrounding countryside was a tent city. (Women couldn't compete or even watch -- any woman caught sneaking into the stadium was thrown to her death from a nearby mountain.) Events included footraces, short and long jumps, wrestling and boxing contests, chariot races, the arduous pentathlon (discus, javelin, jumping, running, and wrestling), and the vicious pankration (which combined wrestling and boxing techniques). The most prestigious event was the stade, or short footrace, for which the stadium was named.
Olympia's setting is magical: Pine and olive trees shade a small valley dominated by the conical Hill of Kronos. Make your first stop the Archaeological Museum, chock-full of statues (some of them world famous) as well as athletic paraphernalia from the ancient Games: stone and bronze weights used by jumpers, bronze and stone discuses, and even an enormous stone with a boastful inscription that a weight lifter had raised it over his head with only one hand.
The site itself is a jumble of foundation stones and toppled columns, marking various buildings around the ancient sanctuary. You'll see the ruins of Roman baths where athletes and spectators took hot and cold plunges; slender columns mark the site of the gymnasium and palestra, where athletes practiced foot racing and boxing. Olympia was devoted to the worship of Zeus, so there's one temple devoted to Hera (Zeus's wife) and an even bigger one for Zeus, which once contained an enormous gold-and-ivory statue of the all-powerful god, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Passing through a vaulted archway to walk onto the pavement of the old stadium, which could accommodate 45,000 on its sloped sides you can just imagine the roar of the crowd. The Olympic flame is kindled here by sunlight every 2 years and then relayed by torch to the site of that year's Games.
The Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Antiquity (tel. 30/26240/22-529), up a steep path from the site, has a superb collection of artifacts: chariot wheels, musical instruments, statues of athletes, and all kinds of athletic gear.
Information: Tourist Office (tel. 30/26240/23-100; closed Sun).
Nearest Airport: Olympia (change at Pirgos), 5 ½ hr. from Athens.
Accommodations: Grecotel Lakopetra Beach, Kato Achaia, Achaia (tel. 30/26930/51-713). Hotel Praxitelous, 7 Spilliopoulou, Ancient Olympia (tel. 30/26240/22-592).