In the mountains outside town, I turned off a paved road onto a steep track, intrigued by a rusty metal sign that read, "Monastery." The track is rugged, and a brief hailstorm added to the plagues of mud, narrow roadway and hairpin curves. After 10 miles the track ends, and to proceed meant going on foot. A footpath leads to Prodhromou monastery, stuck like a swallow's nest on a cliff above the Lousios River gorge.
Vasilis Ilios, one of 12 monks cloistered here, answered my knock on a thick wooden door. His beard and hair are as black as his robe, his eyes as soft as his voice.
He leads the way through whitewashed tunnels into the cliffside.
"Beginning in the eighth century, monks lived in caves here," he whispered, pointing to 14th-century frescoes on the rock walls.
"I am from Macedonia. Then I stay many years in Athens. Then I say to God, 'You show me what to do.' And I choose this life."
"This life" is as simple as it is isolated, for the monks' needs are few. They live in cubbyhole cells that extend precariously, cantilevered out of the cliff face along a wooden catwalk. Hundreds of feet below, the river rumbles unseen. Just to live here seems an act of faith.
Near the monastery I stopped, intending to spend the night in Karitena, a village that clings -- like the monastery -- by its fingernails to a mountainside. But first, I bought dinner -- a round loaf of bread, fat olives and feta cheese bought at a tiny store that also sells bolts of cloth and hammer handles.
In the midst of the purchase, a sudden power failure plunged the village into darkness. Not missing a beat, the merchant threw in some long candles, most of which he stocked for church services. We completed the transaction by flashlight.
Without electricity, the village looked as it must have centuries ago: people living by candle and lantern light in stone houses terraced one above the other along narrow streets designed for carts, not cars.
Near a 13th-century church overlooking the valley, Athalasia Papadopoulon rents rooms in her home for $15 a night. The rooms are unheated, but blankets are plentiful.
The next morning, the village lights were back on, but visibility remained poor, limited by a thick fog that rolled down the mountainside like a ghostly glacier.
Papadopoulon invited me into her kitchen, containing a fireplace, wood stove, electric stove, television and bed. Animal hides hung on the porch.
She shooed me toward the fireplace to break the chill and brought coffee in a demitasse cup.
Like most people in the mountains around Olympia, she speaks little English. But also like most people here, she displays a friendliness that transcends the language barrier.
It was difficult to leave her cozy kitchen, but 150 miles to the east are more mountains that figure prominently in Olympic lore. Almost 2,500 years ago, a Greek ran across them and right into the language of the Olympics.
His name was Pheidippides, and he was a long-distance foot messenger, what the ancient Greeks called a hemerodromi. In 490 B.C., when the Greeks defeated invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides was dispatched to run 26 miles from Marathon to Athens with news of the victory. When he reached Athens, he proclaimed, "Rejoice! We conquer!" Then he dropped dead.
To honor him, the marathon race was made an Olympic event when the games were revived in 1896.
When Pheidippides made his run, he was in a hurry. I was not. As I approximated his route by car, I, heeding the advice of Aesop, enjoyed the luxury of plodding, leaving plenty of time to stop and talk with people like Constantine Tsekouras.
He manages the hotel where I stayed in Nea Makri, near Marathon. Tsekouras is also an amateur historian who loves to talk about the Battle of Marathon. That's understandable -- his house is on the battlefield.
At the slightest provocation he gets out a Greek history book and shows diagrams of the battle, explaining the strategy of both sides:
"The Greeks, they lined up stronger in the flanks than in the middle. This deceived the Persians, who could not see the greater depth of the flanks. The Persians defeated the middle of the Greek forces, but then the two Greek flanks surrounded them."
As he talked, his left hand represented the Greeks, his right hand the Persians.
South of the village of Marathon stands the Tomb of the Marathon Warriors, a 30-foot-high mound where the 192 Athenians killed in the battle are buried.
Turning west toward Athens, I got out of the car and paused at a tranquil scene. Beside the road a woman sat on the grass, minding her sheep while two small children orbited around her. With words, pantomime and smiles, we exchanged basic
biographical information. She is named Anna, as is her granddaughter, and her grandson is Yannis.
Anna's willingness to join in my attempts at communication was typical of the open friendliness of the Greek people. We waved in parting, a gesture that required no interpretation, and I drove on.