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.
The Sanctuary of Athena
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.
Detail of the Tholos
A rockslide in 1905 deposited this enormous stone right into the centre of the large Temple of Athena
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.
On the left of the road is the spot where the Athenians chose to build a monument in the 5th century BC. They wanted it to be the first thing visitors saw on arrival as a reminder of their dominance over Greece. It featured statues of gods and Athenian heroes on the plinths top right. The Spartans weren’t having any of it. Not long afterwards, unable to tear the sacred monument down, they added 38 statues of their own heroes to block the view of the Athenian statues. This was to be one of the only times Sparta bothered to build something.
To hammer home their point against Athens, Sparta built this portico immediately across from the Athenian monument, blocking all views of it from the sanctuary itself. In keeping with tradition, it too was obscured by statues added by the Arcadians after they had overpowered Sparta.
Inscriptions on the Spartan portico
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.
The Treasury of the Sicyonians
The Treasury of the Siphnians
Ancient Athenians would be incredibly smug to know that their Treasury is the best preserved at Delphi, benefiting from some 20th century TLC paid for by the modern city . It dates from around 490 BC, according to Pausanius it was built to commemorate the great victory over the Persians at Marathon. It is decorated with metopes depicting the Labours of Heracles and the deeds of Theseus.
The Athenians built this stoa up against the massive platform built to support the Temple of Apollo to display the spoils of the Persian Wars. The proximity of the stoa to the temple would have been a strong political message to the rest of Greece.
On the left, just before you climb onto the temple terrace, is the huge Altar of the Chians.
The altar is covered with inscriptions, telling us that the island of Chios had been granted promanteia, the right to skip the queue for consulting the Oracle. The Chians were justifiably proud of this great honour.
Opposite the Temple of Apollo stands the base of a once 6 metre high statue of Apollo. It was erected by the victorious Greek city states who had fought at the Battle of Salamis. Although the top left of the dedicatory inscription is missing, French archaeologists have made an educated guess as to what it says. A remaining word ‘anathen’ meaning dedicator, is in the plural. By aligning letters from the lines below, the missing word naming the dedicators has to be eight letters long to fit and also be in the plural. ‘Hellanes’ is a plural Greek word meaning ‘Greeks.’ This would make this amazing stone the first evidence of Greek unity.
This circular structure was the base of one of the most famous dedications in the entire sanctuary. A slim, bronze column formed of three entwining serpents stretched towards the sky. It was erected in 478 BC by the city states who had fought the Battle of Plataea against the Persian invasion forces. The column was carted off to decorate the Hippodrome in Constantinople and is still visible there.
The enormous Temple of Apollo. This 4th century BC temple stands on the site of earlier temples. The previous version had been built in the 6th century BC by the prominent Alcmonidae family of Athens but had been destroyed by an earthquake in 373 BC.
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.
Looking down on to the ruins it is possible to work out the layout of the temple, including the adyton, a private room towards the back where the Pythia would sit.
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.
The temple was inscribed with the now iconic instruction – “Know Thyself.” The Oracle operated 9 days a year. Supplicants queued to ask their questions, those states granted promanteia could skip the line.
Tiny inscriptions cover the theatre as they do nearly every available surface. Archaeologists have found over 3,000 different inscriptions.
A theatre was built above the temple in the 4th century BC. It could seat around 5,000 people.
During the Pythian Games there were artistic competitions and later, athletics as well. The theatre hosted competitions of singing, dancing, acting and the playing of the aulos (reed pipe) and kithara (a stringed instrument.) Writers would also enter plays.
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 starting line. All athletes competed naked.
Races were held here. Other events held elsewhere in the sanctuary included wrestling, boxing and chariot racing.
This inscription highlights the fact that the athletic competitions were a religious event. It instructs the spectators that wine must not be taken out of the stadium. The wine was sacrificial and should not be taken away for personal consumption. Anyone found taking sacred wine away was fined five drachma.
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.
A cafe cat having a siesta
This Sphinx was dedicated by the island of Naxos in circa 560 BC.
Thi Caryatid stood by the door of the Siphnian Treasury
A gallery houses the pediment and nearly the entire frieze that once adorned the Siphnian Treasury. This detail shows a lion attacking a giant as told in the Gigantomachy. Elsewhere the frieze depicts the Trojan War.
This inscription is actually the oldest known sheet music. It has the melody for voice, lyre, kithara and flute. The composers were Athenaois and Limenios and the music was carved into the wall of the Athenian treasury in 128 BC.
The Delphi Charioteer was erected in 478 BC by Polyzalus, tyrant of Gela in Sicily, whose chariot won a race at the Pythian Games. The horses are now lost, but the slave who acted as jockey survives.
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.
The hazy, late afternoon view of the Itean Plain on the right with the Gulf of Itea in the distance.
As the sun sets I watch swallows swoop above the mountainside. The views from Delphi are incredible and I’m reluctant to ever leave.
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.