The fields of dreams

The town of Elis isn’t much to look at now, but for about 1000 years, it was the administrative center of the Olympic Games and one of the largest cities in the Greek world.

Athletes would come here for a month to train and to qualify for the Olympics, so this was a busy and prominent place. There were exercise courts, gymnasia, baths, dorms, dining halls, and judges’ quarters.

Today Elis is a very small and sleepy village. Its fields have yet to be completely excavated – and maybe they never will be.

Regardless, the very quiet of this place, which we had almost to ourselves, holds whispers of feet pounding, discuses whizzing through the air, chariots racing and wrestlers grunting. Or, maybe that was just the wind and the grasshoppers.

The entrance to the site is a replica of a Roman house, which signals the role the Romans played in Elis. The remains of the training fields are few, except for the theater, which held 7,000. It and other buildings were reconstructed by the Romans in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

There is also an archaeological museum in Elis, which is quite new and extraordinarily grand. It far outweighs the number of exhibits there, but we are told it has not yet been fully stocked. Our favorite things were the discus and the Roman strigils, used to scrape off all that athletic perspiration.

Lovely views, though.

We also saw the outside of a nearby medieval Frankish fortress built in the 13th century by crusaders. They absolutely had a great view.

Don’s Food Corner

A young Greek man named George (of course) drove us around today. He gave us some insights into Greek culture that we would not have otherwise discovered on our own. In the food department, he talked about the sixteen olive trees that his family owns. They harvest the olives and then take their crop to a local processor who crushes the olives to the family’s specification based on temperature, with the “cold press” being the least productive method but also the one that produces the highest quality of “cold-press extra virgin olive oil.” The family keeps that olive oil for their own use — lasting about two years — until the olive trees recover to produce a new crop.

We got an added instruction in nationalism and a description of why Greek olive oil is the “best in the world.” He was particularly dismissive of the method that the Italians use to gather olives: “They put cloths on the ground around trees and catch the olives when they fall off. Then they are too ripe. Greeks pick the olives when green. Makes best olive oil. More work, but better.”  Who are we to argue?

At the end of our drive he suggested a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel where we are staying.  I think that he wanted us to go to someplace that was modern and “chic” and not a traditional taverna.

I knew I was in a “modern” restaurant when I spotted on the menu a kale salad with black lentils, salmon and goat cheese baked in a pecan crust. Although this sounded as cliched in a “modern” sense as those dishes served endlessly in countless traditional tavernas, I ordered it anyway. It was gigantic. But with all that kale, I felt righteous eating it. Later, to balance all this righteousness, we stopped at a bakery and loaded up on various versions of baklava. (Sorry, those goodies got consumed before photos were taken).

At the restaurant, Jo had a risotto dish that featured some trendy beetroot (which made the risotto an odd-looking pink) along with Greek cheese.  It too was a very large portion.

We had started by sharing a tarte with a hot custard filling inside a pie crust with asparagus and more Greek cheese on top. Although this was billed as an appetizer, it was so large and rich it could have been enough as a complete meal for the two of us.

I think we’ll try to stick with traditional Greek options from now on. We learned that lesson after diving into that heavenly baklava. They really know how to make it!

A note about the Greek yogurt here:  It’s not like the stuff labeled Greek yogurt at home. Here it is very thick — as thick as the thickest sour cream that we get — and it is never sweetened or flavored. It is eaten at breakfast with honey to sweeten it and dried to fruits to sprinkle on top. Since honey is as pridefully produced in Greece as the olive oil, there are wide varieties. At breakfast today we were offered wildflower, fig and oak honey. I tried the oak — very dark in color and, as you would expect, very earthy.

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