Hear the fascinating stories behind some of Southern Europe’s most intriguing sights – from the original Olympic Games in Olympia, Greece to the small Portuguese town of Fatima. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on a Greece or Portugal Vacation.
Ancient Olympia: The Origin of the Games
Ancient Olympia: While centuries of weather and wear have left the site of the original Olympic Games in Olympia, Greece, in ruins, you can easily imagine the 30,000-seat stadium packed with fans. As you venture here, a palpable sense of the incredible feats that occurred on this hallowed ground will overtake you. The first Olympic Games were part of a religious festival held in honor of Zeus in 776 B.C. and were open to all male Greeks (and later, Romans). Athletes traveled to Olympia from as far away as Iberia (Spain) in the east and the Black Sea (Turkey) in the west. And while Greek city-states were often at odds with each other, a sacred truce during the games helped channel their hostile opposition into athletic competition instead. The ancient Olympic festival lasted five days and included wrestling, chariot and horse racing, the pentathlon and the pancratium (a vicious form of no-hols-barred boxing). And while keeping the Olympics an amateur event has been debated in modern times, the definition of the Greek word for athlete means “one who competes for a prize.” Early Olympic champions received an array of material rewards, including cauldrons, shields, valuable metals and oxen. A victor from Athens could expect to receive free meals for a year and 500 drachmas— more than a year’s salary in those days. And while the front of cereal boxes were not yet invented to venerate winning athletes, odes and sculptures were often commissioned to celebrate the victorious hero. Beyond athletic competition, the games served other noble purposes. Leaders took advantage of the Olympic truce to resolve their differences through discussion rather than warfare. The Games were also an important stage for writers, poets and historians to read their works to a large national audience and served as a critical meeting place for traders to clinch lucrative business deals.
Fatima: Twice a year this small Portuguese town is overrun by pilgrims to celebrate reported sightings of the Virgin Mary in the early 20th century. They crowd a tiny shed like structure known as the Chapel of the Apparitions, where it is said Mary appeared to three devout children above a diminutive holm oak. Today, a small white column marks the spot where the tree once grew, but the passion exhibited by the pilgrims who approach the site walking on their knees in penance is quite remarkable.
The apparitions were said to have predicted WWI and Russia’s separation from the church. To this day, Fatima is one of only a handful of Vatican-approved apparitions in the world.