Monday, June 18, 2007

Olympia Gold Medal

[VACATION] Talk about a taxi ride! We got off the boat from Cephalonia at the small port of Kylini. It is not a pretty place, and comparably, it’s like entering the Salt Lake Valley for the first time from the north and your first impression would be of scarred cliffs and oil refineries. Well, there are no cliffs or refineries, but Kylini manages to find it’s own ugliness. It’s not the fault of the folks who live here that the waters before them are deep enough to allow for larger boats to port, but it’s hot, dry and colorless nonetheless. We wanted to leave as soon as we got there.

Anyway, we wanted to skedaddle. We knew our options to get to Olympia were few and they got fewer when the first cab arrived. He told us the fare to Olympia was 50 Euros. How about a bus, we asked? Sure, he said, but the fare to the bus station is 45 Euros. OK, we’ll take the cab. Olympia is around 35 white-knuckled miles away via back roads and the National Highway—which at any time of day or night is a fair replica of Daytona Motor Speedway. Our cabbie got us there safely, but on the way we were among the first to the scene of a very bad accident.

They happen even in Greece. Hard to figure, since in Greece the roads are very narrow, no one pays real attention to traffic signs (In Greece, red means “speed up, it will turn green soon), there are no set rules for passing (we’ve been passed on the left and right, sometimes at the same time on two lane highways), where every road is just one winding S curve or worse, where stopping for any reason in the emergency lane will only cause an emergency, and where cars approaching you headlong into your own lane are as common as dead bugs on the windshield. I can’t imagine how that accident took place. I can imagine, however, why Greece is first or second among EU countries in highway fatalities per capita. Along every road is a religious tribute to people who have died in any particular spot. They look like baby churches.

But we arrived safely. Our hotel, the Best Western Europa, is among the best we’ve ever stayed at in Greece. If more hotels were of this quality, I think Greece would attract more visitors, but as it is, even though one can find charm in many Greek hotels, their amenities are often insufferable. No air conditioning. No hot water. Very poor breakfast offerings. General lack of uncleanliness or malaise. That’s not everywhere, but it occurs.

And when it does, visitors report it on sites like
TripAdvisor.com and next thing you know, a bad reputation evolves.

That should not happen here. Not only is Europa a great hotel, it commands a fantastic view of the area, and just 5 minutes walk away are the ruins of Ancient Olympia. However, that is all downhill. The walk back is a strenuous 25 minutes or so. Anyway, you won’t have to suffer long as the showers are top notch. The pool is very nice and the dinner that awaits afterward (all outdoor fire/charcoal oven prepared foods) will take your mind off of the hike.

The ruins themselves sprawl for many acres. Centuries ago, starting in 776 b.c. annual competitions were held here in many fields, not just athletic. It was at once a large bacchanalian party and also serious ritual. Athletes had to swear to honor. In front of the stadium many statues rose—not of the victorious, but of the cheaters and others of disrepute, frozen for all time for all to see time in their dishonor. I suppose if we did that today, statues of Pete Rose and Barry Bonds would greet visitors to the local ball park.

We have less than a day here in about an hour our bus for Athens leaves. This is a place I’d like to return. Olympia is a fine town, remote and peaceful, it has the hills and trees and it has the Europa Hotel. Compared to some places we’ve stayed in Greece, this is the Ritz. I’d even come back just for the food—we had a stew of onions and prunes last night. Sound weird? Yup, but it was as delicious as we’ve ever eaten in Greece, that alone giving reason to return. My hat’s off to the family that runs this place. (John Saltas)

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