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After a relaxing first day at sea on the ship, I rose before dawn and my alarm clock. We were scheduled to pull into port at 8am, and our suite concierge Bruno had said if we met him in the lounge up on the 13th floor about 15 minutes prior to docking he’d lead suite guests off the ship.
My husband and I enjoyed some breakfast in Cagney’s restaurant, and then Bruno led us to a secret passageway, behind the counter of the bar and through a staff door into a hallway where he pressed a button to call the employee elevator. We went down to the floor where disembarkation was taking place and he led us right to the area where the guys were setting up to swipe guest cards. We handed over our cards and were off the ship in no time. As we walked the length of the ship towards the exit gate we noticed that only the suite guests had gotten off the ship so far.
In keeping with our goal to save money on our daily excursions by foregoing organized ship tours, we had carefully looked at the Shore Excursion form provided by the ship. The activities that we wanted to do most closely fit with tour code 5011, named “Olympia & Archaeological Museum” for 74 EUR per person. The description of the 4 hour tour from the brochure was –
*Set in the middle of a fertile valley with the rivers of Alphios and Kladhios flowing past, you will visit the site of Olumpia, where the first Olympiad was held.
* See the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and enter the stadium through a long, tunnel-like passage constructed in Roman times.
* Continue to the Archaeological Museum, with great finds from the area, including the Head of Hera, the statue of Hermes of Praxiteles, ornaments from the Temple of Zeus and many other priceless pieces.
We also wanted to do one of the items from the “Birthplace of the Olympics” tour, which was –
*Continue to the village of Olympia, where you will enjoy free time to browse the local stores and cafes.
My husband had reserved a car from Avis online the day prior using very very slow internet. It took a while to complete the reservation, but as soon as he was done he got the confirmation page and number so we were all set for a pick-up time of 8:30am. Rental car for the day cost – 37 EUR. As we walked, the sun started to peek over the horizon so we stopped for a few minutes to catch the beginning of sunrise.
We walked past several huge tourist buses, and were glad that we had decided to rent a car instead of doing the pre-arranged ship tour.
The Avis car rental shop was literally across the street and up a block or two from where the ship docked, and it was easy to find. We arrived at the door just before another couple but my husband open the door and gestured for them to go first since we already had a reservation. They didn’t, and thanked us since they’d heard that cars quickly ran out at this location on cruise ship days.
A few minutes later they emerged smiling and it was our turn. We went in and sat down to take care of formalities. My husband provided his credit card and driver’s license, but there was a problem. Even though the agent found our reservation, he said he had sent my husband an email after the reservation had been made to ask how many people he needed the car for. My husband smiled and said it was just the two of us, and that the Compact sized car he had reserved would be perfect.
The guy said that actually the pricing would be different because he’d have to put us in a 8 person passenger van. ?? My husband told the agent that he had made a reservation and had a confirmation number so he wanted the car he reserved for the price that was agreed upon. The guy said he did not have a car available other than the van, and that he wasn’t willing to lower the price.
Realization dawned on my husband, and he asked if the couple that had come in just before us got the only appropriately sized car. They hadn’t had a reservation, and he had. The agent didn’t answer but insisted that our reservation hadn’t really been confirmed even though we had gotten a confirmation number, because he had emailed to ask how many people the car needed to be for. Seeing that we had a confirmed reservation it made sense to us that he would have held the regular car for us and given the huge, expensive van to a walk-in without a reservation but would the agent see it that way? No. The two of them went back and forth, but the agent refused to budge on the exorbitantly higher price and didn’t have anything else but the huge van. He was rude, and didn’t even apologize or offer up any other suggestions. My husband made the tough decision to void the contract knowing that other car rental places might already be sold out for the day, and we left with the agent shaking his fist at us.
We had wasted precious time, so we quickly walked to the local car rental shop named DIAS that we had passed on the way to Avis. Fearing that they would be out of cars as well, I asked meekly if they possibly had anything small available to rent for the day? The lady gave us a big grin and said, “Of course!” Immediately at ease, we drew up a contact and she was so efficient and helpful that we both wished we hadn’t gone with Avis at all, and reserved with her instead right from the start. The price was even better at just 35 EUR.
She pointed to our car, which was just steps from the ship. She also gave us a small map (which I knew we wouldn’t use because we had GPS on our phone), and a card with the rental shop’s phone number and email address in case we ran into difficulties. She said when we were done all we had to do was leave the car back in that lot and we’d be on the ship in less than 5 minutes. Great!
Much happier than 20 minutes prior, we took the car and headed to the Archeological Museum and site.
The air had held an odd pungent odor when we docked, but I couldn’t quite place it. As we drove along the road it got stronger, and the question was answered quickly. Huge piles of garbage sat on the sides of the road. There had been a garbage truck strike lasting several weeks and even though it was over, when they resumed their routes they only took the usual amount so the weeks of refuse that had built up were not being taken away. It was rather disgusting, and while some people took the time to put their garbage in bags before throwing it on the heap, others had given up and just threw junk near the piles. We passed a building that had two huge dumpsters overflowing with trash, and people had taken to throwing garbage in the nearby field as well.
We passed through some areas that were pretty depressed. Buildings sat in a state of disrepair, and there were broken windows, tagged walls, and shuttered shops.
It took 30 minutes to get to the museum, if that. Once we were there though the air smelled a little fresher. Parking was easy and plentiful in a free lot next to the museum, and somehow we had managed to get there before the throng of tourists. Cost was 9 EUR including the Archaeological site (Museum only tickets are 6 EUR), and the Olympia Museum was open from 8am-8pm. The price was low, but for those looking to save even more, many Sundays are free admission days.
The morning was still calm and quiet, and after we paid I was astonished to find that we had the museum almost all to ourselves. There were maybe two or three other people, and that was it. I took my time walking from marble statue to bronze figurine, and looked at them in amazement. Considering the age of some of the pieces I was surprised that there were very few glass cases, no “don’t touch” signs but rather an honor system, and I didn’t have to jockey for a good glimpse of anything which is usually common at museums often swarming with people.
I’d read that one of the “don’t miss” items was the marble Hermes of Praxiteles statue, which was sculpted sometime between 340 and 330 BC and found during excavations at the temple of Hera in 1877. Hermes was the messenger of the gods who was given a task by Zeus, to take infant Dionysos to the Nymphs. It is believed that the original sculpture probably had his right arm holding a bunch of grapes, which Dionysos reaches for. Hermes’ face has a look of serenity and calmness, and studying his features with quiet contemplation was easy since it was so quiet in the Museum that I could have heard a pin drop.
Another figure in Parian marble that caught my interest was the Nike of Paeonios, which was an offering to Zeus from teh Messenians and the Naupactians for their victory against the Spartans in 421 BC.
There were many other rooms filled will figurines and artifacts, each with carefully written details in both Greek and English.
Across the street from the museum was Ancient Olympia, the site where the Olympic Games were hosted every four years starting in 776 BC, and where excavations are still going on today. When I was done in the museum there were several large display cases that gave a bird’s eye view of the areas of excavation, which helped me figure out where I wanted to go next. Some people visit in the opposite order especially if the day is especially hot so they can take a look outside while it is still relatively cool, and then retreat to the Museum when the sun’s rays are hotter. I was glad I had gone to the museum first though to gain an understanding of the area and excavations, and see the pieces that were found.
Crossing the small gravelly road I immediately came to an area of excavation, which was closed off to tourists.
I walked a little further and came to the sites open to tourists. You had to have a good imagination since most of the site consisted of pillars and square foundations, but a couple of signs shared information such as that of the baths that were built in the 5th century BC with an open air swimming pool. The rooms were heated underneath, creating heated pools. Pretty cool, and some of the mosaic floors are still visible. I loved being able to walk among the structures without a gaggle of tourists, and there still weren’t more than a handful of people around. There also wasn’t a specific path that you had to take so I could wander wherever I felt like going, in any direction.
Walking through the site at my own pace, I looked closely at one of the columns and saw that the limestone had been eroded away to reveal tiny seashells that made up the rock long before it had been turned into a column. So neat.
After picking my way through the stones and structures, I caught a glimpse of the Krypte which is the archway where athletes ran through to get to the stadium. Who wouldn’t want to run through that?
I scrambled down the side of the hill, ready to make a dash through the archway but suddenly I halted. I had found the tour group from the cruise ship who obviously had the same idea I did. They must have started in the ruins, which is why I hadn’t seen anyone in the museum, and then they’d been at the far end of the ruins when I was just starting.
I walked through the archway and along the path that the athletes would have followed into the stadium, trying to imagine how it had been for them so long ago. The stadium had seating for 40,000 spectators, and even though it appeared as just a dirt square there were still remnants from the past. The starting lines that runners stood behind were done in marble, and there were notches where they used to place their feet. There were also areas denoted by stones where judges and spectators sat.
If you are exploring by yourself without a guide, I do recommend bringing a guide book or reading a little about the amazing historical significance of the site first. I was able to recognize the Temple of Hera, the Palaistra where the athletes lived during training, and the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I’d left my guidebook at home though and knew that the ruins of a freshwater fountain were there somewhere but wasn’t able to locate it.
The sightseeing had taken several hours but there was still plenty of time before heading back to the ship so we decided to walk about 5 minutes to the main street that was filled with restaurants and shopping.
As we walked, we passed several of the tour buses, and remarked that our parking had been much closer to both the Museum and the Archeological site than they had gotten since we had been able to park right next door to the Museum.
The walk passed by orange trees, and they looked delicious. There was a lovely citrus scent too, which was definitely welcome. I wondered if I could find a place that served fresh orange juice since there were so many nearby trees.
Walking down the street was a casual affair. No vendors shoved items in my face or followed me begging for a purchase. I was free to browse, and if I stopped to take a look then a shopkeeper would offer assistance. It had a low-pressure feel even though there were plenty of touristy trinkets like soaps and shirts and jewelry.
Maybe if there had been a throng of tourists at once it would have had a different feel, but I liked watching everyday life. One of the restaurants even took delivery of some fish.
There were restaurants, but we didn’t have quite enough time for that. Besides, the meals on the ship were free.
I was in luck, and we happened across a cafe that served freshly squeezed orange juice!
I’d had just enough time in town and had seen the sights I had wanted to. We retrieved the rental car and drove back to the ship. Dropping off the car was a snap, and we were soon onboard the ship.
I was extremely glad we had rented a car and done our own thing instead of doing an organized ship tour. Difficulties with the local Avis person aside, renting at this port had been super easy because the location of the rental car lot was so great. Click here for the website for DIAS car rental which I wouldn’t hesitate to use in the future. We were able to be on our own timetable and could spend more time in the places we wanted, and even got to walk through the village which the first tour hadn’t included.
The drive to the sites was easy, it was great not to be stuck on a bus surrounded by 50 people and we saved a ton of money. How much? Our car rental was 35 EUR + 9×2 EUR for admission fees + 6 EUR for two fresh orange juices and a coffee = 59 EUR total (about 65 USD) for the entire day for the two of us. Cruise ship organized tour with exact same itinerary = 74 EUR per person. The ship tour didn’t include admission fees or meals, so assuming the same drinks and sites the total cost for the entire day for two people using the group ship tour would have been a whopping 172 EUR (about 190 USD). That’s a savings of 113 EUR, or 125 USD.
Next up: Day in Piraeus, Athens Greece