Delphi

Delphi Travel Blog

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view from where we were staying
view from where we were staying

"When Zeus wished to establish the exact location of the navel of the world he released two eagles from the furthest perimeters of it and made a note of where the flight of these two birds crossed.  They did so at Delphi, and Greece became the place where East divides from West, and North from South, the rendezvous of mutually exclusive cultures, and the crossroads of the rapacious and itinerant armies of the world." - Corelli's Manolin

When I was in the fourth grade, I loved Greek mythology. I’ve never stopped loving it, but in the fourth grade, I was obsessed. Stories about antique gods and goddesses meddling in the affairs of lowly humans consumed my daydreams. Images of nymphs and centaurs pranced about in my mind, while I looked for proof of their existence in everyday life. I liked to picture Apollo dragging the sun up every morning in his golden chariot, and I would imagine Zeus throwing the thunderbolts that would sometimes awake me during a storm.

see, everything in Delphi is magical like this
see, everything in Delphi is magical like this

One time, at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I came across a book about Greece. I don’t remember anything about the book specifically, except one page, which had a giant color photograph of the Oracle at Delphi. I stared at the picture for a long time, amazed at how the oracle had fallen into ruin, and wasn’t the misty, mysterious place I’d imagined, with a priestess in seclusion translating confusing messages from the gods. Instead the photograph showed three standing columns, once part of the sanctuary, set against a sunny sky and impossibly green, mountainous background. I was enraptured with this one image, and I never forgot it. Even as a fourth grader, I wanted so much to see this magical oracle in person.
the picture I'd seen so long ago...
the picture I'd seen so long ago...

Since this story already borders dangerously on the line of disgustingly sappy, I’ll cut right to the point and tell you that last week I finally saw the Oracle at Delphi.

The first semester ended, and now I’m in an entirely new class. The professor is a Greek archeologist with a good sense of humor. The new class consists of 22 students, only one other is from the west, everyone else is from the Midwest or east coast. The class has been considerably easier than the last one so far. In the last class we would have 50 pages of reading a night, with quizzes that were impossible to prepare for and no free days. So far in the new class the reading load has been lighter, I haven’t had to hike up nearly as many mountains and we even get a free day. I won’t even know what to do with myself.

now I'm in the picture!
now I'm in the picture!

After spending a few days in Athens with the class, seeing the Akropolis, The National Archeological museum and some other relevant sites, we’re off to Delphi! We loaded onto the air-conditioned bus (literally heaven on wheels). Our first stop was the battle ‘field’ of Thermopylae.

I put ‘field’ in parentheses, because Thermopylae is a series of small hills. It’s a lush area with wild overgrowth and dusty clay earth and you can see the bay, which was much closer to the hills in 480 BCE. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t seen the movie 300. There are STILL advertisements for this movie all over my neighborhood in Athens, and the Athenians didn’t even like the Spartans back in the day. Even with out seeing the movie I still understand what a crucial battle this was for Greece, and had the Persians won, the entire progress of western civilization would have been completely different. So be thankful that King Leonidas brought his ‘300’ soldiers and other locals through the Anopaia Odos to Polonius hill to defend Lakonia from the monstrous Persian King Xerxes.

The rock that fell during the convient landslide when the Persians invaded
The rock that fell during the convient landslide when the Persians invaded

Since my subtle, yet perfectly executed sarcasm is sometimes lost through writing, I’ll just tell you that I hate King Leonidas, and it didn’t really matter if they won, because the Athenians would have conquered them anyway 10 years later at Marathon. I’m not entirely convinced that the Persians shouldn’t have conquered the Spartans. The Persians had a very sophisticated culture, and the Spartans threw all the old people into a giant well. (and you think our health care plan is bad) The only thing I can credit the Spartans for is that Spartan women enjoyed many freedoms that the Athenian women did not. These freedoms included: going outside, going to the gymnasium and going to military training camp. That being said, I think I’d give up being able to go outside and choose the Athenian democracy. Maybe I’d get a house with a view of the Parthenon. The Spartans lived in huts; they didn’t care about magnificent eternal marble buildings.

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On the other side of the freeway across from the battle field is a monument dedicated to the courageous Spartans. It had a very impressive large bronze statue of a Spartan, it was a great monument. The only strange part is that it was right on the side of a freeway. We stopped for lunch at a pretty terrible rest stop (like no toilet seats kind of terrible) but they had fresh, icy cold watermelon so I forgave the lack of toilet seats. Then we made our way up the mountain to Delphi.

Delphi is on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, a truly monumental, awe inspiring mountain. I was ready to climb it, but no one else seemed quite so enthusiastic, and I wasn’t going to go alone, so I’ll have to do that another time. We had a little time to get settled in our hotel. The Hotel Parnassus, was one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in during my time in Greece. We met at sunset to have a small evening lecture. After the lecture we went for dinner, a small group of us went to dinner with our professor Stavros, who knew a nice restaurant where we could see the sunset and the beautiful mountainous scenery.

The Athenian Treasury
The Athenian Treasury

I loved that Delphi is so high up on the mountains, it reminds me of great memories of ski trips. The air smells so fresh and fragrant. The town was really laid back, after dinner we slowly meandered through the streets, walking right in the middle of the road, only having to move for the occasional moped. Bouzouki music plays in the street side cafes where people sit and drink coffee for hours. Occasionally a united uproar could be heard from several bars where people go to watch the Euro cup game. Trying to explain the atmosphere in Delphi is really difficult, I wish I could capture the air so you could smell it, or blow the wind so you can feel how it was soft but strong enough to be refreshing. I wish you could hear all the foreign sounds of birds and bugs engaged in their own conversation, playing harmony to the sounds of multilingual exchanges and television commercials. I know this is all ordinary, but in Delphi, it just seemed so magical.

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Some Magical events have been recorded in the history of Delphi, my favorite are:

480 BCE – Persians try to loot the oracle, but there is an earthquake and a landslide, a giant rock destroys the temple to Athena, so nothing is taken from it. The rock is still there today.

278 CE – Celts attack Delphi, but some ancestral ghosts appear and scare them away. It’s a very mystical place indeed.

Friday morning we had breakfast in the lobby. Greek ‘continental breakfast’ is identical at every hotel. It consists of bread, yogurt, peaches, jam, ham, cheese and hard boiled eggs, coffee and orange juice. A culinary masterpiece, truly. After breakfast we walked out of town down the road to the archeological site, passing pink Mercedes tour buses labeled ‘excusiones en espanol’. Our professor is the fastest walker I’ve ever seen. We literally have to jog to keep up with him. Today visiting the site I had enough excited adrenaline to keep up, but this is rarely the case.

All thats left of the temple to apollo
All thats left of the temple to apollo

Delphi possibly comes from the Greek word ‘Delphini’ meaning dolphin. The ancients worshipped the god ‘Apollo Delphious’ here since the archaic times. The god Apollo arrived relatively late to the Greek Pantheon, possibly a version of his name shows up on Linear B tablets, or possibly he was introduced from Asia Minor, circa 10th century BCE. Before Apollo the goddess Gaia, was worshipped here by Neolithic cultures. Late Neolithic finds from the 3rd millennium BCE have been found at Delphi, including paraphernalia of the Pythia - a female symbol, or trademark of Gaia. These Neolithic religious activities involving Pythia occurred in the ancient cave, the Korykeion Antron, which is still being excavated. A giant snake protected the cave, until Apollo arrived and conquered it, a symbolic death of the Neolithic religion. The tradition of the Pythia continued however, this name was used for the priestesses at the oracle who intercepted messages from Apollo. Rich and powerful people received messages from the priestesses. Poor people would come to visit Delphi and sleep outside, hoping that Apollo would visit them in a dream. I too wondered if Apollo would make an appearance in my dreams, but no such luck.

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Delphi was not only important because of the oracle. This magical place was recognized by all of the Greek city states. We first visited lower Delphi, which was dedicated to Athena. There is the remaining fragment of the Tholos monument that I’d seen in the picture so many years ago, along with a gymnasium. Gymnasium comes from the Greek word ‘gymnos’ meaning ‘naked man’ because all men were naked in the gymnasium, no women were allowed. They were crucial to all Greek cities.

The Tholos was just as great as the picture in my grandparent’s book, and all the excitement came rushing back to me, amplified by the feeling of accomplishment that I’d really made it to Greece despite some opposition. Only three of the original 20 columns stand today. Round buildings like this are really unusual and therefore special. Prehistoric people often used circular buildings for initiation rights. The archaic version of the Greek letter Θ (theta) was just a circle with a dot in the center, and possible it comes from the word Theos- meaning god. So this circular shape is intended to be sacred and holy.

the theater
the theater
 
After exploring lower Delphi we made our way the slope of the mountain to upper Delphi. This is where the enormous temple to Apollo was, unfortunately no longer standing. Around the temple were the treasuries of the Greek city States, where the offerings to Apollo would be kept. My favorite was the Athenian treasury (bet you didn’t see that coming) It’s a Doric order building, resembling the temple to Athena Nike on the Athenian Akropolis. It has been completely reconstructed from original parts, so we can see it standing today. Also in upper Delphi there is a theater, and then a stadium, which is VERY far up the mountain and the hike up there was made very difficult by the extreme heat.
the stadium
the stadium

We spent most of the day at Delphi, until it got too hot to stay, then when visited the museum, to see the Delphi Charioteer, a rare surviving bronze statue of a charioteer that was uncovered at the site.

In the late afternoon our bus drove us down the mountain to the beach, for some relaxation and swimming. I saw my first jellyfish and sea sponge. We were very exhausted this night, and went to bed early. To my disappointment, Apollo still didn’t visit my dreams.

Saturday morning we met our class in the hotel lobby at 8am for checkout. Another large group of French tourists were checking out at the same time. There are a large amount of French people in Delphi. Café menus which are usually just in Greek and sometimes in Greek and English, were all in Greek, English and French. I am going to attribute the large amount of French influence in the city to the fact that the archeological school that has done the excavations at Delphi is French. I think they did a lovely job. I wanted desperately to speak French with someone, but the opportunity never arose, luckily my roommate Bridget speaks French.

Kleobus an Biton, mythological twins, supposedly the 'happiest young men on earth'
Kleobus an Biton, mythological twins, supposedly the 'happiest young men on earth'

We loaded back on the bus (I adore the bus) and stopped at the medical center for one student with an allergic reaction and then a pharmacy for 3 other students who were sick and then went to a Byzantine monastery, called Hosios Loukas. This monastery is still used today, it was really gorgeous. We visited the chapel, which was dark and mysterious, lit only by candle light. I passed around a corner and bumped into the glass coffin of Loukas himself! His face was covered but you could see his skeleton hand. I almost screamed. I was not expecting to see a skeleton, so it was a little traumatic to say the least.

looking good
looking good

The book Corelli’s Mandolin describes a scene where a Saint buried in the church comes out on his Saint’s day to cure the sick. It’s what I thought of immediately when I saw this skeleton. I’ll insert an excerpt here for your convenience: (but everyone should read this book anyway)

“St Gerasimos (or Loukas), withered and blackened, sealed inside his domed and sarcophagus by the reredos of his own monastery, dead for five centuries, rose up at night. Decked in scarlet and golden robes, precious stones and ancient medals, he rattled and creaked his way discreetly amongst his flock of sinners and the sick, visiting them in their homes, sometimes even going abroad to Corinthia, there to visit the bones of his fathers and wander amongst the hills and groves of his youth. But the dutiful saint had always returned by morning, obliging the garrulous nuns who attended him to clean the mud from the golden brocade of his slippers and resettle his emaciated and mummified limbs into a posture of peaceful repose.” (Louis de Bernieres, 71-72)

Emperor Hadrian's boyfriend Antinuous.
Emperor Hadrian's boyfriend Antinuous.

We spent some free time at the monastery, sitting peacefully in quiet, enjoying the scenery, before getting back on the bus and going back to Athens. It was an interesting way to end our visit to Delphi, going to a Byzantine monastery, but both places were very mystical and old, and had similar ambiences of ancient importance that has faded in history, but is not forgotten.

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Delphi
photo by: EmyG