At the 2,700-year-old birthplace of the Olympics — where Nike was a revered goddess, not a shoe — I push off the stadium’s original starting block and thrillingly run in ancient footsteps of naked Greek men. I never could’ve touched this dirt track eons ago. If I had, I might’ve suffered the punishment — being hurled from the cliff of nearby Mount Typaeum into the swirling river below. Back then, women were banned from even watching the Olympic Games.

Earthquake-toppled remains of the Temple of Zeus, once the most significant structure in ancient Olympia. The Olympic Games were held to honor Zeus. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

All morning I’ve been exploring ruins of this hallowed sanctuary of Olympia, home to the world’s most eminent sporting event for 12 long-gone centuries. I’ll stroll by pedestals once inscribed with names of cheater athletes (fined and possibly flogged) and stand among earthquake-tossed remnants of the massive Temple of Zeus. Bearded, chief Greek god Zeus was the top Olympic celebrity. Somewhere between say, the javelin throw and punching-choking-kicking pankration match, 100 oxen were slaughtered and sacrificed to Zeus’ enormous four-story-tall ivory-and-gold likeness beside his altar of animal ashes.

Patriot Flag Tshirt

Ancient Greece grips you. I know because Olympia is just one legendary stop on my nine-day, 1,000-mile archaeology-focused road trip here. While sun-bathing vacationers jam-pack the idyllic Greek islands, I’m on a brainy journey trekking over monumental history on the mainland. With my small-group Exodus Travels tour, I’ll comb through sword-and-sandal civilizations (including seven UNESCO World Heritage sites), dive into fascinating mystical cults (the kooky fortune-telling oracle in Delphi) and climb sky-high in sensational Meteora, a medieval monastic enclave teetering atop soaring rock pinnacles.

With a view of Greek capital Athens, six maidens hold up part of the Erechtheion temple located on the famed Acropolis. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Some of our itinerary is thinly visited by tourists, although we begin in bustling Athens at the iconic Acropolis crowned with the Parthenon. Here I’m introduced to a fabled dizzying cast of Greek deities, depicted on everything antiquated from roof gables to perfume bottles buried with corpses for the afterlife. Dionysos, god of wine and booze-fueled dancing, is the popular party boy.

For nearly 1,200 years, athletes entered through this vaulted archway to the cheering stadium of the ancient Olympic Games. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Unlike capital Athens, Olympia’s archaeological site is surrounded by an endearingly tiny town with one main street lined with tavernas, evil eye-repelling charms, colorful flags of nations and shops selling mini Zeus statues and donkey milk soap. Theme-dubbed lodging includes Hotel Olympic Torch and Hotel Hercules, but we stay in Hotel Pelops, christened for the great god who was chopped into pieces by his father and cooked in a stew. Resurrected Pelops later murdered his king future father-in-law by sabotaging his chariot. It was that or Pelops’ spiked head was going to be tacked to the palace wall.

“Ah, always there is tragedy in Greece. There is always drama,” affirms my Greek Exodus guide, Eva Karaventza.

Hera’s Altar (at the foreground and in front of her temple) is where the modern-day Olympic flame is lit before being carried by torch relay to the Games’ host city. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

The Olympics, which began in 776 B.C., always had a sacred flame flickering during the Games throughout their 1,200 years in the sanctuary. Since 1936 the flame for the modern-day Olympics is lit on enduring Hera’s Altar, before being toted in the torch relay to the international host city.

In town, after stuffing myself on spanakopita, I have just bought a souvenir torch-emblem T-shirt from a shopkeeper fittingly named Olympia when another merchant beckons me into her Apollo jewelry store.

“Please come in! My brother ran with the torch in the Olympics several times,”  enthuses Catarina Galanis, and soon I’m clutching the 1980 torch her sibling carried in the Moscow-bound relay. “We are very very proud in my village.”

Once a wealthy port city, ancient Corinth had “sacred” temple prostitutes and a busy slave market. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Another day, we amble through stony ruins of Corinth, the wealthy fast-and-loose city of love goddess Aphrodite. “It was like the ancient Greek Las Vegas,” Eva explains. Ritual prostitution was supposedly practiced with “worshippers.” Corinth women were beauty-obsessed; the museum displays their cosmetic secrets, including 2,000-year-old bronze tweezers to pluck eyebrows darkened with black coal.

Elsewhere, I get a sense of the ancient HMO by wandering around Epidaurus, formerly a healing center of hospitals and sanatoriums dedicated to physician god Asclepius, who mysteriously cured sleeping patients on the premises by touching their bellies and toes. Much is gone now; the highlight is the still-used well-preserved 12,000-seat theater with excellent acoustics, constructed in the 4th century B.C. Watching theatrical plays was part of treatment. “Especially for the mentally ill, it was cathartic and would help them forget their problems,” Eva says. Asclepius is typically shown holding a rod with a snake coiled around it — today’s emblem of the American Medical Association.

Part of the ancient city of Delphi includes the amphitheater and remnants of Apollo’s temple where the legendary oracle preached. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

There’s more to unearth. In 3-millennia-old crumbling Mycenae, we enter through the citadel’s Lion Gate near boulder-stacked walls that many Greeks thought were built by Cyclops. Below us is a “grave circle” that contained royal tombs of elite dead men whose faces were covered by chiseled gold masks. Moving on, our group of 16 is nearly alone in little-visited ancient Messene, at the foot of a forested peak where rescued baby Zeus was raised by nymphs. (“Zeus’ father had a crazy habit of eating his children,” Eva notes.) This extinct community is impressive — I jog across the grass in the U-shaped stadium where gladiator fights took place during the Roman period and linger by the colonnaded gym where nude olive oil-slicked wrestlers grappled.

The marble Treasury in ancient Delphi housed offerings — including the spoils of war — to god Apollo and the renowned Delphi oracle. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Finally, in sprawling “navel of the world” Delphi, we mere mortals peer at a half-dozen Doric columns and foundations of lore-steeped Apollo’s Temple, beautifully nestled amid majestic mountains and lush olive groves. The temple was headquarters for oracle Pythia, an all-powerful real woman who advised Greece’s bigwigs on waging war and other matters. Pythia was believed to be the mouthpiece for god Apollo, although some scholars suspect her delirious babbling may be due to inadvertently inhaling gases from the earth.

Delphi’s museum also houses wonders, such as a bronze life-size glass-eyed charioteer and a temple pediment portraying the Gigantomachy, a battle between the gods and brutal giants. The Gigantomachy is a familiar motif we see elsewhere. So is the Amazonomachy, a clash between gods and fierce women warriors. Very sci-fi.

Our quick-paced trip leaps through centuries — we admire Byzantine frescoed churches, a 3,300-year-old excavated bathtub, an 18th-century castle where a revolutionary Greek general was imprisoned in a dank hole. And then we end on an exceptionally serene, spiritual high.

To avoid religious persecution, rock-climbing monks precariously built Greek Orthodox monasteries in lofty Meteora, now a UNESCO heritage site. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Meteora is an astonishing hub of Greek Orthodox monasteries, fastened atop prehistoric sandstone spires vaulting up to 1,200 feet above ground. Starting in the Middle Ages, to avoid persecution from invaders, reclusive monks used ropes and nets to ferry materials and somehow build 24 clifftop holy hideaways. “The hermits were considered the first free climbers,” Eva half-jokes.

We trudge up stone steps, carved in the 1920s, to one of six mural-adorned still-active monasteries. The views are heavenly. And if it looks familiar, that’s because of Hollywood — not Greek — history. James Bond climatically scaled the vertical rock face to a Meteora monastery in the movie “For Your Eyes Only” and the surreal setting inspired the Eyrie kingdom in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

If you go

Exodus Travels offers the nine-day “Highlights of Ancient Greece” trip multiple times through 2020. Prices from $2,099 (also check for sales) include transportation by mini-bus, hotels, breakfasts and archaeological tour guide. Maximum 16 guests. Information: exodustravels.com

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