I don’t plan to spend much time in Patras – basically I want to get to the station and catch the train for Olympia, about 100 miles south. Olympia was the site of the ancient Olympics, described in the travel literature as an idyllic glade surrounding the ruins of the games’ facilities.
It’s also well off the beaten track. From Patras, the rail route is to Pyrgos, a center of the farming community that comprises this part of the Pelopennese. There’s a train change at Pyrgos for the short trip inland to the site where Olympic athletes competed every four years for more than 1,100 years.
As I make my way to the Patras station, a few hundred yards from the ferry dock, I notice that my Harley friends have been joined by scores of their buddies. There are motorcycles everywhere. Then I find that the last train to Olympia – there are three daily – departed at about 11:30 a.m. It’s now about 3 p.m. Next train is tomorrow at 6 a.m., with the second at 9.
I walk out of the station, pulling and carrying my luggage as I dodge Harleys and cross the street. Luckily, there is a vacancy at the first hotel I walk into, the Astir, a large, well-kept edifice that looks to have been built in the 1930s.
Tomorrow, Saturday, will be the day for my Olympic run. Later, exploring, I discover that Patras is hosting a Europe-wide Harley-Davidson rally. The riders number in the thousands and they dominate the city. Greek kids are mesmerized by the big bikes, some of the more adventuresome clamboring aboard for photos. I don’t see any get caught by bike owners, most of whom I’m sure would not be amused.
The next day, I make the 9 a.m. train for Olympia. There are three cars. We ramble out of Patras, through a trackside slum that seems to be occupied mostly by black Africans. Next is an intensely cultivated agriculture area. There are expanses of olive trees, with citrus trees interspersed, fields of tomatoes and melons and cucumbers, and, of course, vineyards. The towns are small and clustered around tiny train stations. The only roads are dirt.
Finally, we reach Pyrgos and I get off for the short hop to Olympia. This time, there are only two cars. Besides a couple of Greeks who apparently have gone into Pyrgos for supplies, the only other passengers are a Dutch couple.
The train stops wherever the Pelopennese want to get on or off, whether there is a station or not. The driver seems to know his passengers and where they want to disembark. He stops at one dirt road to pick up a woman and her child, then lets them off at the next dirt road, maybe a quarter mile away. No one ever asks her for a ticket.
At another crossing, he stops to trade jokes with two acquaintances, and then continues. This train is truly a local.
Finally, Olympia. By this point the Dutch couple are my only fellow passengers. The town is tourist-oriented, but still quiet and quaint, only four or five blocks long, with residences arrayed around a hill overlooking it.
The ruins and accompanying museum are a short walk away, occupying space between two streams. The musem contains several true masterpieces, in a country where such relics are commonly unearthed. And yet it is uncrowded, though several busloads of tourists are present. I will appreciate my time here later when I’ve been hurried and harried through Athens museums.
Outside are the remains of the gymnasium, the stadium, the baths, and the temple of Zeus (original home of the one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the sculptor Phidias’ statue of the god), as well as a dozen or so other buildings. One was Phidias’s workshop. There, archeologists unearthed a cup that is inscribed, “I belong to Phidias.”
An Olympian thunderstorm cuts short my visit and I return to the museum, taking shelter in its garden.
Time is short, and I return to the train station, where I’m soon joined by my Dutch friends. The two-car train returns to Pyrgos in the post-storm sunshine and I’m faced with two hours before the train back to Patras. During the wait, I realize that no matter how exotic the locale might seem, Saturday afternoon in small towns is the same everywhere. The quiet is broken only by songbirds and church bells as everyone rests up for Saturday night.
On the trip to Patras, we pass groups of families and neighbors gathered in back yards alongside the dirt roads and the train tracks, tables and chairs pulled out in yards, games of backgammon and cards contested by adults, soccer balls being kicked by children.
Later, back in the middle of the bikers at Patras, I enjoy dinner at a taverna on the pedestrian walkway that dominates the downtown area, watching the motorcyclists as they posture and puff on cigars. A Harley club from Athens has taken over a nearby group of tables. It is dominated by two older men with much-younger female companions, females who have the appearance of being expensive to maintain, much like their chrome chargers.
The next day, as the bikes stream out and as the city cleans up from its busy and noisy weekend, I head to the train station, Athens-bound.