12th May 2014
I spent a considerable amount of money for my escorted trip across Attica and the Peloponnese and I could have done the same today, but with a single destination it is so much cheaper to travel solo.
I’m finally headed to Delphi. It means an early start but I’m so full of adrenaline I don’t care. Even the dulled weather can’t get me down today. I’ve read (and reviewed) “Delphi” by Dr Michael Scott in preparation for this trip, and his pointers and notes in the travel section of his book will be invaluable once I get to the archaeological site. I advise everyone visiting Delphi to give this book a read, it brings the place alive.
I get to KTEL Bus Terminal B on Liosion St by taxi, as taxis are ridiculously cheap compared to London and I don’t want to get this trip wrong if I attempt it by local bus. I arrive for 7am to make sure I’m at the front of the queue for the 7.30 bus to Delphi. As it is, apart from a couple of Greeks there are only two other intrepid tourists up at dawn with me. I send up a silent prayer for off-peak season.
Tickets cos 15 euros either way. A round trip for a mere 30 euros is phenomenal, considering that each journey takes two and a half hours. The bus is comfy, air conditioned (!) and the route provides you with some lovely views to keep you occupied. Seats are assigned and I’m glad I’ve got a window, although the bus was nowhere near full and a few people did choose to move. Don’t worry, there is a brief stop half way for bathroom breaks!
The bus arrives in Delphi around 10am. The driver will drop you off at the archaeological sites before he heads up to the modern town if you ask nicely. The weather hasn’t improved much, the sky is leaden and there is a slight chill in the air. The sanctuary and modern town of Delphi are perched onto the side of Mount Parnassus and look down on the Phocis valley.
Following in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks, I decide I want to start my visit by seeing the Castalian Spring. The actual spring itself is out of bounds, too difficult to access. However, in the Hellenistic period a fountain was built that was fed by the spring. The fountain is on the right side of the road (as you approach from Athens.) It lies empty and dry now, but walk up towards the sanctuary and you’ll find a modern, unassuming fountain that flows with the crystal clear Castalian water. Try it, it is delicious and wonderfully cold. Athletes competing in the Pythian Games would ceremoniously wash in this water, as would supplicants wishing to consult the Oracle.
The spring marks the spot where Apollo slayed the giant snake, Python, who was said to protect the centre of the Earth. The sanctuary at Delphi was rededicated to Apollo and the Priestess who acted as the Oracle was called the Pythia.
There was more than one sanctuary at Delphi, however. Head further down the sloping road and you’ll come to the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia on your right. I’m told that most coach tours skip this part, that’s a huge shame.
Here there are temples of various ages side by side, all dedicated to Athena. The circular building is the Tholos, no-one can be sure of the purpose or dedication of it and yet the Tholos is an iconic image of Delphi. There is a gymnasium below the sanctuary but when I visit it was sadly closed, probably due to it being off peak season.
It is a short walk up to the sanctuary of Apollo, which appears as if by magic as you turn the corner. There are already a couple of tour buses at the sanctuary entrance, I’d hate to be here in high summer. I like to be as alone as possible. Once inside it was quite easy to find some solitude, I’m not so sure I would have achieved it in August. I’m glad I came in May, not just for the peace, but for the lush green grass of spring and the abundance of wildflowers that decorate the entire mountainside. The air is thick with the scent of jasmine. It’s quite a heady rush. I pop my headphones on, I have downloaded a few albums by Michael Levy who researches and recreates ancient music. He plays the lyre, an instrument sacred to Apollo. The Pythian Games also included lyre playing competitions. Walking around Delphi listening to ancient Greek lyre music is absolutely magical.
My top practical advice is to stock up on water before you head up the slope. Mineral water is less than a euro for a bottle from a vending machine by the ticket office and you’ll be grateful for it when you get to the top of the steep site. It took me a few hours to reach the top as I wanted to pay as much attention as I could to what is left. I’m glad of the dull weather during the ascent as my crippled kidney causes me to struggle in the heat, but I can’t help but regret the subdued photos I’m getting. I get to the top and sit down for half an hour or so, and Apollo must be watching over me as he’s blown away the grey clouds and wheeled the sun out after all. I’m able to walk down (an altogether easier endeavour!) and take some beautiful shots.
Zeus let two eagles loose from opposite ends of the Earth. They met above Delphi and Zeus declared it the centre of the world. It was known from very early times as an important religious centre and home of the Delphic Oracle. Visitors from all over the ancient world were drawn here in their thousands.
The first structure you’ll encounter isn’t actually Greek, the Romans added an agora here and displayed Imperial statues in it.
The Sacred Way zig zags up the slope. Don’t pay too much attention to the grand name, the current route was introduced very late in antiquity. It does pass everything you could wish to see, though.
Treasuries line the lower parts of the Sacred Way. Towns and cities across the Greek world wanted to build structures to honour the sanctuary or commemorate military victories. As people from thousands of miles away came to the sanctuary, it was important to display culture and wealth with your buildings. Treasuries were therefore ostentatious displays, but also a place for cities to house the offerings they made at the sanctuary.
On the left, just before you climb onto the temple terrace, is the huge Altar of the Chians.
The Oracle was a woman, a priestess called the Pythia. Once chosen, the Pythia would have to leave any family, including husbands and children, behind. Only women of Delphi who had led moral lives were chosen, and they would serve until their death. The Pythia sat in the temple on a tripod, entering a prophetic trance caused by vapours seeping from the rock. She would then answer her questions, usually in an ambiguous manner. It was up to the priests and supplicants to interpret her meaning.
Thetemple lies above a place where two geological fault lines crossed, as evidenced by travertine deposits around the temple. Archaeologists believe that ethylene is released at the fault lines, a hydrocarbon that can alter the mind, explaining the trance like state of the Pythia in her windowless room.
The Oracle became the primary place for prophecy within the Greek world. The prophecies became iconic. Croesus, King of Lydia, asked the Oracle if he should attack the Persians. The response from the Oracle was that if he did, a great empire would fall. Croesus attacked Persia and an empire did indeed fall. Sadly for Croesus, it was the Lydian empire.
I’m told that a lot of tourists turn back when they reach the theatre, but if you’re willing to plough a little further up the steep slope, you’ll be rewarded with the stadium built for the Pythian Games.
The Games were dedicated to Apollo and rivalled the ancient Olympics.Like the Olympics they were held every four years and all conflict ceased for the duration.
The museum at Delphi is large and fascinating, containing many large fragments of the ornate decorations of various buildings. Thankfully for me, it also has a cafe. They serve granita in dozens of flavours and I treat myself to a couple to cool myself down a bit. Try the pomegranate, it is divine.
I mentioned previously I’d fallen in love with the Marathon Ephebe. The giftshop at the Delphi Museum has a wonderful range of replicas authorised by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports. I already have a Diadumenos head in my collection, I notice that the shop here has a bust of the beautiful Marathon Ephebe for only 125 euros. I don’t hesitate. He’s coming back to Blighty with me…
I have a little while left before my ride home, having taken the first bus of the day here I’m taking the final bus back to Athens at 1845. The bus leaves from just outside a derelict hotel opposite the ‘In Delphi’ cafe. I use this cafe for their lovely view, proximity to the bus stop, and free wifi. I don’t usually mention food or restaurant recommendations, but they have the nicest gyros plate I have ever had. Gyros is my favourite food anyway, this was transcendental.
A young German woman has stolen my seat on the bus. More fool her, it is on the left side of the bus and on the return journey all the best views are from the right. From my seat at the back I can relax, gaze wistfully out of the window as the sun dies, and keep a protective arm around the bag containing my Marathon Ephebe. This has been an unforgettable day.