peloponnese
Olympia

Olympia was the site of the most important athletic games in ancient Greece. From all over the Greek world, athletes came to Olympia to compete in chariot and horse races, wrestling, boxing and foot races, to offer sacrifices to Zeus, and to celebrate the winners, crowned with wild olive wreaths.

Before going out to the ruins, first stop into the archaeological museum. Check out the model of the complex, what the buildings at Olympia looked like in all their glory.
The museum has a gorgeous collection of things found at Olympia - birds and animals in fantastic shapes, bronze helmets, Gorgon shields, scads of little tiny votive figures found around the altar of Zeus. Plus the exquisite statue Hermes of Praxiteles (holding a little tiny Dionysius), and lovely draped ladies in Roman statues, sections of the magnificent frieze from the Temple of Zeus - legends of the Twelve Labors of Hercules and the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs.
As you start into the ruins, on your right, you'll see the Palestra, the wrestling school. Kids can run around among the double sets of columns (this was once roofed over), enclosing the quadrangle. Like the athletes who trained here, older kids can practice their wrestling holds on each other.
A little further down, step up the high steps into what was originally the workshop of Phidias, the sculptor of the gigantic Zeus statue in the Temple of Zeus. The Byzantine church was built over Phidias' studio. (The last games were held in Olympia in 393 A.D., and in later centuries, the buildings were ransacked by various invading hordes, and used for other purposes.)
Next stop, check out the Leonidaion, a luxury five star hotel for important guests at the games. In the center, you can see the remnants of the fancy water garden, a later addition by the Romans. During the Roman era, guests at the Leonidaion had a perfect view of the processions and ceremonies over at the sacred precinct.
Ascend the stairs into the Altis, the sacred precinct, dominated by the incomparable Temple of Zeus. A lone reconstructed column gives you a sense of the massive size of the Temple of Zeus, but the broken column sections on the ground are even more impressive. Inside the Temple was the gigantic statue of Zeus, 43 ft. high, covered in ivory and gold, and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (needless to say, later this statue was carted off, and not a bit remains).
Also in the Altis, the Temple of Hera, the oldest temple at Olympia, the Nymphaion of Herodes Atticus, a Roman fountain construction, and bunches of little treasuries, where gifts to Zeus were stored.

By now, you'll want to head out to the stadium, where the running races were held. The stadium looks familiar - a long dirt field, with a grassy embankment on either side for the spectators. Kids can run their own races, while parents watch from the sidelines. (When we were there, a group of 10 teenagers were energetically running the length of the field, cheered on their classmates.) Also, don't miss the starting line (marked in stone, grooves for toes) and square basins on the grassy sidelines (provided water for the athletes and audience).
Note: These are glorious ruins, but they are unreconstructed, and kids will need to envision what it looked like. Also, some sections are roped off, for preservation. What is very tangible is the stones themselves - it's a great rock collection, shaped and weathered, smoothed and pitted, embedded with seashells, hexagonal paving, Roman brickwork. Kids can rub their hands over the stones, the textures of centuries.

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