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Greece: Lighting the Flame at Ancient Olympia PDF Printable Version E-mail



Still Carrying A Torch

Barry and Margaret Williamson

The following article was first published in the MMM (Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly) as 'Still Carrying a Flame'. Among other things, it describes the lighting of the flame at Ancient Olympia for the 1996 Olympics.

Full-timing in Rosie, our 27 ft Four Winds Motorhome, Margaret and I had reached Greece in time for Christmas at Delphi and the torch-lighting at Olympia.

It was mid-December when we left Brindisi in the good ship Agios Andreas (St Andrew) for a stormy crossing of the Adriatic to Igoumenitsa in Greece. Motorhome travellers usually sleep in their vehicles on the ship's open deck but it was much too rough for that. Rosie suffered the indignity of being chained to the lorry deck, deep down below, and we got a free cabin with hyperactive bunks that fell away and reared up again, pushing the pillow into our faces and making a trough in the meagre mattress for a suddenly-heavy body. Staggering onto the deck at 5 am, we watched Albania float past on the port side and Corfu appear to starboard, in the pale pre-dawn light.

We soon fell in love with Greece: the people (kind, friendly and very honest); the alphabet (physics had made at least one of us familiar with , , , , , , , , and the rest); the language (which we found hiding behind the symbols); TV (many channels broadcast undubbed English and American films); supermarkets stocked with familiar packets and tins; street markets providing inexpensive fish, meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables; the weather (usually dry and warm/hot); diesel at 38p per litre; the ambience; the light; the music; driftwood bonfires on the beach; snow-capped mountains; the warm and tideless sea; shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats; crops of rice, cotton and tobacco; Christmas-flowering roses, geraniums, hibiscus, heather, crocus, irises, daisies, cyclamen and cactus; almond trees; basil, rosemary and thyme; vineyards; bananas; figs; lemons; oranges hanging from their trees and littering the ground (we made 34 lb of marmalade, gallons of orange juice, curds, cakes, biscuits, puddings and pancakes as well as flavouring our fish, chicken and rice with oranges and lemons); olives lingering from the end of their harvest.

Driving up through the silvery green 'Sea of Olives' above Itea, we arrived in Delphi in time for Christmas and Rosie squeezed under a bamboo sunscreen on the small but comfortable Camping Apollon. On TV, Frank Sinatra was celebrating his 80th birthday: Regrets, I have a few, but then again, too few to mention; on the BBC World Service, Peter Pan had been taken 'Off the Shelf' and was being read to us each morning in the 15 minutes it took to wake up to a new day.

What a wonderful combination. It was Greece and the sun shone. It was Christmas and we made mince pies, Christmas cake and pudding, chocolate rum truffles and fudge. It was Delphi and we spent days exploring the ancient site of temple, theatre, stadium, sacred way, gymnasium, sanctuary and oracle, on foot and by bicycle, in the magnificent gorge of the River Pleistos, under the 8,000 ft heights of Mount Parnassos. This was home to Apollo, god of the Sun, Music and Love!

Athens is the only place to go if you have been cooking for Christmas, and you forgot to fill your tank with LPG before leaving Italy (where it's cheap and plentiful). Later, we bought and connected a 10 kg Greek bottle which could be exchanged at supermarkets and garages. We enjoyed exploring the ancient capital on our bikes whilst we stayed at an empty Athens Camping (open all year) on the Corinth Road, about 8 km from the centre. Excellent advice, which we took, was to visit the city's ancient sites during Greek holidays (such as the Orthodox Easter), when the Athenians themselves escape to the countryside.

Much has been written about the perils of driving and cycling in Mediterranean countries, but I enjoy it (surviving a year of driving in Madras may have helped). Movement is at the heart of the skill - not rules. Visitors make the mistake of getting annoyed that their rules (the rules they bring with them) are being broken. The rule they should follow is to keep moving, tuning in to all the subtle clues about who has the edge, anticipating who might give way and who might not.

In a large motorhome, you can usually find a way through, even in the narrowest and tightest of corners; on a bicycle you can go where you will - the police smile as you ride on the pavement the wrong way up a one-way street. It's rare to see any 'road rage', nobody seems to mind being cut up or jumped at the lights. I find it relaxing and very forgiving, although the navigator sometimes threatens to leave home!

Driving over the Corinth Canal into the Peloponnese, we settled at Camping Mycenae, near the 16th century BC home of King Agamemnon. We soon learned about our former neighbours: his wife, Clytemnestra, was the sister of Helen (of Troy), who was married to his brother, Menelaos, King of Sparta. Helen's elopement with Paris, son of the King of Troy, started the Trojan Wars during which Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. Helen was finally taken back to Sparta, whilst on his triumphant return, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife's lover and avenged by his son, who also killed his mother. And we thought we would miss the Archers!

Everywhere in Greece there are memories of a rich past - Neolithic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Turkish. Overwhelmed, we used the Michelin Guide to make a list of all the places we should see. But, by late March, as we approached Olympia, we were only just at what Churchill called the 'end of the beginning'.

There are 3 good campsites in Olympia but only one was open all year: Camping Diana, small, terraced, friendly and only 800 yards from the ancient site. Developed around the Temple of Zeus, Ancient Olympia is set at the junction of two rivers, the Kladeos and the Alpheios (the one that Hercules diverted to clean out the Augean stables). Although already devastated by earthquakes (massive temple pillars lie where they fell) and robbed for building stone by barbarians and Christians alike, the site was ultimately preserved by river floods providing a layer of silt 12 ft deep. The museum is superb; the highlight is the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles but the frieze from the temple showing the 12 labours of Hercules is also unforgettable.

We had heard a rumour that the flame-lighting ceremony for the Centennial Olympic Games was about to take place but it was hard to get confirmation. The campsite owner, the tourist information office and guides at the ancient site and at the Museum of the Olympic Games all gave us different information - different days and different times. It was only on the Sunday morning itself that we knew, as the crowds began to gather and make their way down the main road towards the stadium. We joined in and found ourselves carried onto the embankment, once reserved for male spectators watching the men-only ancient games.

It was sunny and warm and the simple but moving ceremony was conducted entirely by women, dressed as Ancient Greek priestesses, under the watchful eye of Hilary and Chelsea Clinton. The culminating moment was the lighting of the flame from the sun, using a lens, in the Temple of Zeus (in case it wasn't sunny, they had one that they had prepared earlier). The sacred flame was then used to light a torch which a (male) runner carried out of the stadium.

For many days we watched the progress of the flame around Greece on TV and we heard a scurrilous story that it had gone out once or twice. However, a spare was kept in a following van, guaranteeing the pedigree of the flame in the torch that finally reached the hands of Muhammad Ali in Atlanta.

The Olympic Games are over now and the sacred flame has gone, but we are still carrying a torch for Greece.


Maps of Greece are notoriously inaccurate and contradictory. We were often misled until we got the excellent 1:300,000 Euro-Map of Greece and the Islands, published by RV Verlag in Stuttgart. It's available in the UK. The Michelin (Green) Tourist Guide is invaluable for the ancient sites and the Thomas Cook Touring Handbook is great for doing what its title suggests: Greek Island Hopping. The 781-page Rough Guide to Greece is as useful as ever and, in turn, it recommends further reading. The Caravan Club's Continental Sites Guide, Volume 2 is very helpful, although we supplemented it with the comprehensive German Europa Camping + Caravanning (worryingly subtitled Internationaler Fhrer).

To find out when ferries run to Greece between October and May (when there aren't any timetables), ask several agents from the many that throng the dockside areas in Brindisi, Bari or Ancona. From all the contradictory information you get, choose a boat you think might actually exist, that might leave on the day and at the time predicted, that might have an open camper deck and that is at a price you can afford. Think twice before you buy a return ticket. And then hope for a level deck!