Katakolon (Olympia) Cruise Port
Port of Katakolon (Olympia): An Overview
The seaside Greek town of Katakolon, with a population around 600, is your typical small-town cruise port -- fishing boats bob in the harbor; cafes lace the waterfront; shops sell T-shirts, hats and jewelry; and a small beach draws swimmers and splashers. But that's not why ships make this town a destination. They arrive because Katakolon serves as the cruise gateway to Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games.
Drive 40 minutes from Katakolon and you are transported back thousands of years. Stroll the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ancient Olympia, and you walk in the footsteps of early Greek and Roman athletes -- wrestlers, chariot drivers, discus throwers, runners and long-jumpers -- who vied for glory and the gods' favor. Stand alongside the massive columns, and, with the tales of a good guide, you can envision the once-magnificent temples, athletes training in the palestra and runners readying on the track. Alexander the Great, Nero, Plato and Aristotle are among those who watched the games from where you stand.
Tourists flock to the site and its companion museums, including the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, a treasure trove of pieced-together sculptures and statues that once adorned the ancient structures, and the Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games, where you can learn about the original competitions.
If you've already visited Ancient Olympia, there are other sights in the area, including the spectacular temple of Apollo Epicurius and the medieval Chlemoutsi (Hlemoutsi) fortress -- or seek out the golden-sand beaches that ring the Gulf of Kyparissia.
Note: We recommend that you use Google Maps to locate the destinations in this guide by entering the name of an attraction or business, rather than the address, which often stumps Google Maps. You should also confirm the hours, which are changeable, based on the season and day you will visit. In some cases, the fact that there's a ship in port will also affect opening times.
You exit the ship to an open-air dock that also has a small duty-free shop, a good place to purchase bottles of water, soda, cigarettes, alcohol and other items. After a short walk to the right from the dock, you reach Katakolon, with its waterfront cafes and shops.
The town has three streets that run parallel to the shore. The one closest to the water provides access to the marina, along with seaside cafes and tavernas. Moving away from the water, the next street is the main drag, lined with shops selling typical tourist items like T-shirts, hats, white cotton and linen dresses, and jewelry, as well as olive oil. There's also a news shop that sells international papers and an internet cafe. The third street is more residential and less touristy, but you'll find a bakery, a few shops and a traditional cafe.
If you want a quick swim and you're not too picky, Plakes Beach, also known as Renata Beach, to your left as you leave the port, offers a small swath of pebbly sands. Jellyfish, however, are known to frequent these waters, so ask the locals before you jump in for a swim.
Ancient Olympia Archaeological Site: You might be surprised to learn that the original Olympic Games were tied into religious rites -- thus, some of the most impressive architecture at the site includes temples dedicated to Zeus and his wife, Hera. The area was originally a sacred grove, then a sanctuary to the god Kronos (father to Zeus). Later, in 776 B.C., the first Olympic Games were held, and they continued until 393 A.D., when they were halted by the Christian emperor Theodosius, who ordered a ban on all pagan cults.
After a 40-minute drive from the port, tour buses pull up to the archeological site's parking lot at the foot of Mount Kronion. You'll walk about a quarter-mile to the site entrance, passing the ticket booth along the way. Horse-drawn carriages are available for a modest fee if you'd rather ride than walk. The ancient site was ravaged over the years, first by earthquakes and then by two nearby rivers, which flooded and changed course, burying everything in silt. The remains have been unearthed, although -- due to earthquake risk -- archaeologists have chosen to reconstruct only a rare few columns. Still, wandering with a good guide amid tumbled pillars, passageways, partial statues, steps and stones, you might imagine the eons-old games nearly ready to begin.
Note: The Olympic site is very sunny, and it's recommended that visitors wear a hat or carry an umbrella, wear lots of sunscreen and bring water. In fact, in ancient times, spectators died due to the summer heat. (Off of Ethnikos Odos 74, Olympia; 30-26240-22517; hours vary by season)
Among the key structures to see are:
The Palaestra: Athletes trained here and anointed themselves with olive oil in the side chambers; it's now defined by rows of columns.
The Temple of Hera: This temple once held a huge statue of the goddess, and it's also where the exquisite statue of Hermes by Praxiteles (now in the museum) was found. In front of the remains, the Olympic flame of the modern games is lit (using sunlight and a lens).
The Temple of Zeus: This massive structure once contained the nearly 40-foot-high gold-and-ivory seated statue of the god. Huge sections of columns lie where they've fallen and a tall pedestal outside the structure was once topped by a statue of Nike (goddess of victory), now in the museum.
The Stadium: On the way to the stadium, you'll pass a hill which once housed an elaborate Roman-era fountain system and treasuries where offerings were stored. Then you reach the remains of a vaulted passageway that leads to the stadium. The oval stadium is surrounded by grassy slopes, where as many as 20,000 spectators (all male) sat. You can still see the stone starting and finishing lines, separated by a distance of about 581 feet. Competitors in the ancient games had to be Greek, born free (not slaves) and without criminal convictions. The oldest contests were foot races, but eventually the challenges grew to include warrior races in full armor, a pentathlon, wrestling and more. (Chariot races were held in a nearby hippodrome, which has been obliterated by floods.) As with the modern games, revived in 1896, the original games took place every four years. But in the ancient games all competitors were male and competed in the nude. The winner's reward was an olive wreath said to be from a sacred tree planted by Hercules.
Pheidias' Workshop: Once the building where the sculptor Pheidias crafted the huge statue of Zeus; a Byzantine church was later constructed in the ruins.
Archaeological Museum of Olympia: Located in the archeological complex but requiring a separate admission (combined admission tickets for the site and the museum are available), the museum safeguards many of the statues, sculptures and figures found on the Olympic grounds as well as bronze helmets, breastplates and clay votive figures. A model of the site presents a bird's-eye view of the layout of ancient Olympia.
The museum contains remarkable sculptures and reliefs carved by the era's greatest artists. The two most famous statues are the Nike of Paionios, whose gown seems to flow in the wind, and the Hermes of Praxiteles, holding the infant Dionysus, carved of fine Parian marble. Another room contains the reconstructed pediments from the Temple of Zeus. The two triangular sections are at eye level, giving you a sense of just how massive the temple must have been. On the east pediment, the figures and horses illustrate preparations for a legendary chariot race; the west pediment depicts the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths. In the same room, smaller stone plaques, or metopes, illustrate the labors of Hercules.
There is a wealth of other objects to see, all with descriptions in English, so if you're an antiquities buff, allow 60 to 90 minutes for the museum alone. (Off of Ethnikos Odos 74, Olympia; 30-26240-22529; hours vary by season)
Museum of the History of the Ancient Olympic Games: This fascinating museum is located before the archaeological site entrance, in a modern structure built in Hellenistic style. You'll pass it on your right, up a hill, shortly after the bus drop-off area. While it's not always included in shore-excursion tours, the museum is well-worth visiting if you're interested in the ancient sports. You'll find excellent displays featuring implements -- discuses, stone weights used in the ancient long-jump, strigils used to scrape olive oil off the skin and more. There are also urns and mosaics depicting various sports, plus some bragging inscriptions by athletes. Here, too, detailed descriptions are provided in English. (Off of Ethnikos Odos 74, Olympia; 30-26420-29107; hours vary by season)
Temple of Apollo Epicurius: This impressive Doric temple was built in the fifth century B.C., and is one of the best-preserved Greek temples. Unfortunately, its remote location is 55 miles southeast from the port, requiring a drive of about an hour and 45 minutes. Many of the interior friezes and sculpture fragments are now displayed in the British Museum. (Bassae; 30-26240-22529; hours vary by season)
Clermont (Chlemoutsi) Fortress: Located about 30 miles northeast of the port (a 50-minute drive), this imposing castle, completed in 1223, was occupied and modified by a series of conquerors through the ages. You can take in spectacular views from atop the walls and visit the jousting courtyard, chapel and ceremonial halls. (Kastro-Kyllini, Ilia; 30-22610-95033; hours vary by season)
Domaine Mercouri Winery: About 10 minutes, or 2.5 miles, from Katakolon, the Domaine Mercouri winery, a family estate, was established in 1860 and occupies 23 acres. If it's not too hot, this is a pleasant and peaceful outing on a gracious country estate, where some 40 peacocks stroll. Tours include the original winery building with its old wooden presses, bundles of socks used to dust the plants and the wooden crush buckets. Yes, they stomped on the grapes in their bare feet. In the new winery, the guide shows you the stainless-steel tanks, the wooden barrels for aging and the temperature-controlled wine cave, a cool spot on a hot day. Afterward, enjoy a tasting of red and white wines, accompanied by cheese and crackers in the shade of tall trees. Wines are available for purchase at the winery's shop. The winery is located in the village of Korakochori. (GR-271 00 Korakochori, Ilia; 30-26210-41601; open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
On Foot: It's an easy walk from the dock to the heart of Katakolon with its array of restaurants, shops and the small beach. You can walk to the town beach, but the next beach is nearly 2 miles up the road.
By Car: You can rent a car and drive the well-maintained roads to the ancient site yourself, picking up a guide, if available, once you arrive. Avis has a rental office near the port. With your own car, you can also visit the nearby beaches.
By Scooter: Scooters (also known as motos) are available for rent in town. You'll see rental shops across from the port and along the main street.
By Taxi and Van: Taxis and vans that accommodate small groups line up to meet the cruise ships. Expect a taxi to Olympia and back costs about 80 euros (about $83), with 60 to 90 minutes waiting time at the site. If you're an antiquities buff, bargain for more time. Taxis are technically required to use the meter, which includes charges for waiting time, and to give you a machine-printed receipt; however, we found that they quoted a flat rate. If that's the case, be sure to bargain -- and don't pay until after the driver returns you to the ship. The local tourism office advises against booking a taxi in advance via the internet, saying those operators will simply arrange for a local taxi and mark up the price, socking you with an added fee.
By Train: At select times, a train operates between Katakolon and Olympia, and a one-way trip takes about 45 minutes. The station is about a 15-minute walk from the cruise pier. The train service operates an information kiosk at the port when ships are in town, and extra trains are added when the port is busy. Be sure to confirm train times in person; don't rely on internet information. If you can make the scheduling work, prices for the train are significantly lower than a taxi.
By Bus: Private company Katakolon Express offers reasonably priced bus tours and private tours to Olympia.
By Horse Carriage: Once you get to Ancient Olympia, you can walk into the site (about a quarter-mile) or take a 2-euro carriage ride to the main entrance.
Best Nearby Beach: Plakes Beach (also known as Renata Beach) is just on the other side of Katakolon's jetty -- a short walk of about 200 yards. It is a small, pebbly beach with a relaxed beach bar sporting palm-frond umbrellas. Amenities include changing rooms and a shower. Check with locals to find out whether jellyfish are offshore.
Best Beach for Scenery: If you want to spend several hours soaking up the sun, head to Agios Andreas Beach. This arc of sand fronts crystal clear waters, with trees and greenery in the background. It's located just a couple of miles north from the port, about a five-minute drive. There are a couple of cafes overlooking the beach, with umbrellas if you need a respite from the fierce Greek sun.
Best Beach for a Scene: A bit further away (about 12 miles or a 25-minute drive north from the port), Kourouta Beach is the locals' favorite. It offers clean sands and clear waters, with abundant bars, cafes and restaurants. You'll find umbrellas, changing rooms and showers. You also might encounter a beach party, particularly on a Sunday.
In Katakolon, the tavernas and cafes line the waterfront, serving traditional Greek dishes, including pastitsio (a baked casserole with ground meat, pasta tubes and bechamel sauce), moussaka (meat sauce layered with eggplant and topped with bechamel sauce), gyros (meat sliced from a vertical rotisserie and tucked into pita bread, usually with salad and sauce), souvlaki (grilled skewers of meat and vegetables), grilled meats and seafood and appetizer dips including tzatziki (yogurt with cucumber and garlic), taramasalata (made with salted and cured fish roe) and melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant, garlic, olive oil and lemon).
Vegetarians will be happy to know there are usually plenty of options, including stuffed zucchini, eggplant or peppers, Greek salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and feta cheese) and the dips mentioned above.
You might wander along the Katakolon waterfront to choose one of the many restaurants with a view, or try one of the options listed below. Wherever you eat, be aware that "Greek time" may be more casual than you're used to, with service that is likely to be slower than back home.
Aegean: Located in modern Olympia (which borders the archaeological site), this tavern serves generous portions of fresh, local fare, including gyros, moussaka, souvlaki, grilled meats and fish, Greek salads and classic Greek appetizers, including tzatziki and taramasalata. They also have a good selection of vegetarian dishes. The robust Wi-Fi is a bonus. (G Duma 4 [a diagonal street off the main road], Olympia; 30 26240 22540)
Ambrosia: To catch a quick bite or drink, just up the hill from the Archaeological Museum, this is a good spot -- though it's pricier than the dining options a short walk away in the town of Olympia. Stick to the gyros or other light fare. You'll be able to check on the arrival of your tour bus, since the restaurant is a stone's throw from where buses pick up returning passengers.
Jimmy's Taverna: Although it's not on the waterfront, this Katakolon restaurant serves generous portions of classic cuisine, including octopus and meats cooked over a charcoal grill, fish soup, Greek salad, gyros and fried calamari. The one downside is the slow service, so beware if you're not in the mood to linger. There's also free Wi-Fi. (On the second street back from the water, just before a church; 30 2621 041514)
Knisa: For affordable gyros, souvlaki and Greek salads right at the harbor, this no-frills spot does the trick. Tuck in and enjoy the view. (Katakolon waterfront; 30 26214 00390)
Where You're Docked
The port of Katakolon is in town, less than a 10-minute walk to the shops and restaurants.
Watch Out For
Aggressive jewelers. Some jewelers hang outside urging people to come in their shops, but once you do the games begin. Expect major haggling. You may get a great deal but you also may have to work for it.
Greece is hot in the summer, and its inland sites are even hotter. In the summer, temperatures can spike over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen, bring plenty of water and plan to purchase more bottled water for the ride back to Katakolon, if needed.
The bus drop-off point for Ancient Olympia is different from the bus pick-up point, so listen carefully to your guide's instructions. To catch your return bus, follow the footpath to the left of the Archaeological Museum to reach the bus departure area. Allow 5 to 10 minutes to get there from the museum, depending on your walking speed.
Although convenient, the cafe at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia serves high-priced soft drinks and snacks. The outdoor vendors near the entrances to ancient Olympia are often less pricey.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro is the official currency. For current currency conversion figures visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. ATMs are available at the port, in the town of Katakolon (one is located at nearby Jewellery Dionisos) and also in the modern town of Olympia that borders the ancient site. Some shops and restaurants take credit cards, and a few will accept U.S. dollars.
Greek is the native language, but most vendors, shop owners and taxi drivers know enough English to enable you to bargain, order food and get to and from your destinations.
Outside the ancient Olympic site, vendors sell souvenirs and books about Olympia. "Olympia and the Olympic Games: The Monuments Then and Now" features photographs of the sites as they appear now plus an overlay of what the sites looked like in ancient times.
In town, local olive oil products, like soaps and lotions, make great gifts. For something more elaborate ArtPoint on Katakolon's main street sells jewelry, museum reproductions, mosaics and Byzantine-style icons.
You might want to give traditional Greek alcohol, like ouzo (anise-flavored), masticha (liqueur flavored with resin) and tsipouro (distilled from grapes, like grappa), a try. Bartenders can also mix up riffs on traditional cocktails using the local tipples -- for example, the Mediterranean Sunset, with ouzo, orange juice and grenadine.
Katakolon (Olympia): MSC MagnificaTwo 2 TangoDid the dotty train trip with wine tasting stop half way, it was very enjoyable. There are some shops in town just next to the ship and a lot of restaurants on the front, all a short level walk from the ship ... Read more
Katakolon (Olympia): MSC MagnificaatbroussWe reserved an automatic-transmission rental car from AVIS a few weeks before and had no problem at all picking up the car and driving to Ancient Olympia. We used the self-guided tour in Rick Steves' Mediterranean Cruise Ports to see the ... Read more
Katakolon (Olympia): Norwegian SpiritConnieTactDid our own thing here. Walked right outside port and got train 10€ return to Olympia. Very good. There is also a toy train type of thing that others said was good that just went around the area. Beautiful port and easy access to shops and ... Read more
Katakolon (Olympia): Norwegian SpiritDollianGollianShips berth right on the quay. Rail available within easy walking distance. Pleasant tavernas on the sea front. ... Read more
Katakolon (Olympia): MSC FantasiaBrynaman SteveNot much there ... Read more
Katakolon (Olympia): OosterdamKeyser SozeWaterfront, two streets, four blocks of shops. Olympia ruins and Giorgio's Bike Bar ride await. ... Read more
It's fun to take a bus ride to see the oldest Olympia site. You really get a Greek feeling. Shops in Katakolon and Olympia are cheaper than other Greek cities! ... Read more
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