Traveling Classroom Foundation
Friday September 22nd 2017

The Road to Delphi

Today our destination is the center of the world and home to the famous oracle of Delphi. A story tells how Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, released eagles from opposite ends of the world and commanded them to fly towards one another. The place they met was Delphi, where the great temple of Apollo was built.

Mr. Papakonstantinou, our landlord, has kindly offered to drive us across town to stathymou beta (the bus station for destinations in mainland Greece). Otherwise we must haul our heavy backpacks to the local trolley stop, ride to Sintagma Square, and then take the number 24 bus to Liosion Street. This helpful lift saves us a lot of bother. We carry our gear into the station and have a cup of coffee while we wait for the bus.

People coming and going at the KTEL bus station on Liosion Street

In ancient times, one who wished to travel from Athens to the shrine of Delphi, to consult the oracle on some great question, faced enormous difficulties. He traveled for several days seeing the giant Mount Parnassos as his goal, but it was not until he reached the towns of Thebes and Livadia that he found himself leaving level roads, and entering a wild and dangerous region, which brought to mind a tone of superstition and of awe. Departing from Livadia he would have go about half-way around Parnassos, from its east to its southwest side. This could only be done by threading a path along torrents and precipices, mounting steep ascents, and descending into wild glens, where dangerous animals would happily make a supper of him.

Depending on circumstances and the season, this journey through the highlands could have taken several weeks in ancient times. In order to increase their income, the old priests of Delphi became the first systematic road-builders among the Greeks, had made a safer route from Thebes for the use of the pilgrims thronging to their shrine. Even so, traveling to Delphi was not easy.

For us it is a three-hour bus ride. We travel across the Attica plain and, so in ancient times enter the hill country around Thebes. Since we left Athens at about 10:40, the drive stops at a way station so that people can buy snacks and walk about for a short time. We sit on stone wall and eat sandwiches and fruit we have packed. In fifteen minutes we are off again, stopping briefly in Livadia to pick up a few new passengers.

Climbing into the mountains, we are struck by the realization that this region has never supported a large population – not in ancient times and not today. These rocky peaks never contained more than scattered villages. It is a country in which human imagination grows not of solitude, but of smallness – a land of vast forms far too big for mortals to comprehend is the ideal dwelling for mysterious gods and monsters.

After steady climbing and many switchbacks, we pass through the town of Arahova, which is perched on the slope of precipices some 3000 feet or more above sea level. This is an ancient town of mountaineers and shepherds. It is still known far and wide for the woolen goods and rugs produced here, but modern city folk now think of Arachova as a ski resort town. There are excellent ski slopes on Parnassos, and Arachova is pleased to offer skiers a place to eat and sleep.

Town of Arachova clings to the mountainside

At two o’clock, we climb into the “rocky Pytho,” past the ancient terraced sanctuary and into nearby modern Delphi. Until 19th century archeologists uncovered the ruins of the sanctuary of Apollo, the village of Kastri (as it was called then) was literally on top of a buried treasure. When the archeological find was revealed, the entire village was moved down the road – nearby but out of sight. The villagers might have considered it a good trade to be paid to move their old village and then get jobs digging for antiquities.

Temple of Apollo with Parnassus in the background

As in ancient times, the village harbors pilgrims who come from every corner of the world to visit the sanctuary. We find a hotel only a short walk from the tiny bus station. Our room has a balcony overlooking a deep gorge formed by the Pleistos River (a bit dry today) and downstream to the town of Itea, which was once the port for the sea route to Delphi. Across the bay from Itea, we also see Galaxidi town and, beyond that, the Gulf of Corinth and the mountains of the Peloponessos to the south.

View from Delphi Hotel to the SeaView from hotel balcony to the sea

It is much too hot under the afternoon sun to attempt to climb the ancient sacred way to the temple of Apollo. After organizing our belongings, we decide to have a snack and then visit the museum of Delphi. At the far end of town we find a pleasant cafe beneath a huge, spreading plane tree at the intersection of the two main roads in the village (one leading in and the other leading out). We have olives and tzatziki (yoghurt, cucumber and garlic) with fresh bread and cold drinks, and then we are off to the museum.

It is not the museum we remember from our last visit. The old museum was housed in a rather small stone building. The new building is large and elegant, with a broad ramped stairway to the entrance. Inside, we are amazed by the treasures uncovered at the sanctuary. It is even more amazing considering that these are only a few poor remains of the artistic wonders plundered by invading armies (Phoecians, Romans and others) or destroyed by religious zealots who hated the old religions.

Sphinx sculpture in the Delphi museum

Even so, the remaining artifacts are marvelous to see. The frieze from the treasury Knidos, which has been cleverly restored, shows us a small decorated temple, or sacred house, before the end of the sixth century. Its ornaments show us where the builders of the Parthenon, a hundred years later, might have got their design ideas. Sculptural work from the treasuries Siphnians and Sikyonians is wonderful.

The most famous of the artworks in the museum is called “the bronze charioteer.” Dedicated around 500 BCE, it is one of the most important relics of all Greek sculptures. It is only a part of a large sculptural group. The chariot and horses of this splendid group are lost, but the arm of an attendant boy, and some fragments of the bronze reins show that the figure was one of such a group, and dedicated in gratitude for the victory in a chariot race. The figure is stiff and sober, the face with little expression, but the molding of the arm and feet and the exquisite patina of the surface, show a mastery which any modern sculptor would envy.

The “bronze charioteer” at the Delphi Museum

There are also some curious specimens, such as the huge pillar supporting three dancing girls, with a capital composed of acanthus leaves, and acanthus leaves growing out of the stalk at intervals. It is very strange piece dating from very early Hellenistic days, and it does not seem to fit in the world of “balanced” Greek design. Some claim that this column is dedicated to the god Dionysos, who rules over Delphi during the winter months when Apollo is elsewhere. This theory makes sense, because Dionysos is often considered the opposite of “balance.”

Column of the Dancers may be a tribute to Dionysos

There are countless other works of art, large and small, that make us linger for a long while in the museum before returning to town. We managed to explore the entire village – at least the two main streets of it – in less than an hour. There are a great number of small hotels, restaurants, tavernas and bars to entertain visitors from the sanctuary of Apollo. Not many of them attracted us.

For dinner we decide to return to the little cafe where we had stopped before. At the dinner hour – around 10:00 oclock – the giant plane tree was lighted and beautiful. The cafe owner recognized us at once and welcomed us to our “regular” table.

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