Traveling Classroom Foundation
Saturday November 18th 2017

Searching for Odysseus

Kefalonia was an important late Bronze Age center and probably was the island known to Homer as Same (or Sami, pronounced Sah-mee in English). Our sources declare that Kefalonia was probably the hub of the kingdom of Odysseus. Ancient Sami was the most important Mycenaean city in the Ionian and it bore the old name of the island. Because of this, some suggest it could be the home of great Odysseus. This possibility is so intriguing we decide to visit the acropolis of ancient Sami, a few kilometers outside modern Sami. From the balcony of our apartment, we can see the outer walls of the ancient city crowning a high hill to the east.

The town of Sami extends only a few blocks inland from its harbor

Since we will be traveling the coastal road, we also want to visit Antisami Bay, where the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed several years ago. The movie is set during World War II, when Italian and German forces occupied Kefalonia. However, nearly all the buildings on the island were destroyed in the 1953 earthquake. Therefore, it was necessary to recreate a 1940’s town with sets and Hollywood magic. The movie cast and crew lived in Sami for months before and during the filming. They must have made a big impression on the Samians. One cafe was renamed “Captain Corelli’s” and photographs of the movie stars with local folk are pinned up all around town.

We drive out of town along the community beach and then immediately begin to climb the coastal hills on a narrow road. As we drive south we can see beautiful coves far below with crystal clear water and empty beaches. These places can be reached only be boat or goat trails that wind down the steep hillside. We continue past a sign that directs us to the acropolis, planning to first visit Antisami Bay. At the precipice above the bay we see a broad expanse of turquoise water and a long beach. The road down to the beach requires slow driving through a series of sharp turns.

This beach on Antisami Bay is surprisingly empty on a summer day

When we finally get down to the sea, we find a pleasant beach with nearby parking along the road. Across from the parking area is a very large field extending inland many acres towards the hills. It seems unnaturally flat (probably smoothed out to build the movie sets), but there is no remnant of any movie-making activity. Every remnant of the make-believe movie town was evidently hauled away with the cameras and the crew. There is only a herd of goats munching on the weeds.

Retracing our route through the hills, we take the turn-off towards the acropolis and drive until we reach a valley between two hills, where a sign points us to the right. After parking in the shade of a large tree, we survey the area and see nothing but rocky land with a few goats roaming about. Looking up, we see a large cyclopean wall at the top of the hill. This is a sure sign of Mycenaean architecture. The stones used during the Mycenaean period were so large (each weighing many tons) that Greeks of later periods thought the Mycenaean structures must have been built by the giant Cyclops race.

Section of Cyclopean wall at Ancient Sami

Realizing we are just below the summit of the giant hill we could see from Sami town, we begin to trudge up the slope. After only a few minutes of walking we see a pickup truck pull into the clearing below. A man and his son climb out and begin to unload things from the back. We immediately become aware of bells all around us. One by one, or in small groups, goats begin to emerge from the brush all around us and gather near the pickup driver – who must be their owner. He takes a small motor from the back of the truck, carries it to a pile of rocks, and then removes several large stones to reveal a well head. The “motor” is a diesel-powered pump. The man puts a hose into the well, primes the pump with a large container of water, and starts it with a rope pull.

Water begins to gush from a large hose into several old watering troughs that we had not noticed on our arrival. At the same time, the boy unloads several large sacks, pushes his way through the waiting goats, and dumps the contents on the ground at several different places. It is grain to supplement the animals’ grazing diet.

Turning away from the feeding, we continue uphill and past the section of cyclopean wall we saw from below. Along the way we can see where trees and brush have been cleared away, and at one location is a series of rectangular ditches, each carefully fenced with stakes and string. Next to the ditches is a pile of pottery shards. This is clearly an archeological excavation.

After climbing through a gap in the outer wall of the acropolis, we discover that we are not alone. About fifty meters away there are two archeologists and several diggers working in the shade of a twisted old olive tree on the edge of a wall. They seem uninterested in us, so we continue to walk through the ancient city.

Diggers working at the acropolis excavation site

There are more piles of brush and tree limbs, and areas that have obviously be cleared and leveled using bulldozers. We find the foundations of heavy stone buildings and some walls of the ancient city still standing. As we wander across the site to the outer walls on the seaward side – looking down to the bay and modern town of Sami – we begin to appreciate the size of this acropolis. It is larger than the acropolis of Athens, perhaps as big as the great citadel of Mycenaea itself.

Structures in the Ancient City

At the museum in Argostoli we saw a few artifacts from ancient Sami, but there must be much more buried beneath our feet. The archeological work here seems to be in the very early stages. It can take many decades to thoroughly explore a place like this.

We return to where the current excavation is progressing. The diggers are taking turns in a deep trench while the two archeologists seem to be checking their notes and giving directions. Next to the trench is a pile of large pottery shards – probably enough to glue together a fair number of big ceramic vessels. However, no one seems interested in these finds. They are looking for something else.

Since they are very intent on the excavation, and have completely ignored our presence, we are reluctant to ask what they are up to. We walk around the dig, taking care not to step across the stakes and strings that define the work areas, and find another excavation on the other side of the olive tree. This appears to be an intact dromos (a passageway) a little over a meter wide with stone walls. It extends down to a doorway in the outer wall of the acropolis. It is clearly not the main entrance of the acropolis, which would be a large, reinforced gateway at the end of a paved road. But it is another interesting piece of architecture uncovered by slow and careful work.

Passage to a doorway in the fortified outer wall

After hiking around the acropolis in the hot sun, our water bottles are nearly empty, so we decide to hike back to the car. Descending from the hill and seeing the many olive trees in the valley, and the goats still gathered about the water troughs and food, it is easy to imagine the great acropolis of ancient Sami with a town, workshops and farmland spread out beneath its walls. Foundations of smaller buildings are evident everywhere. It must have been a beautiful city.

The goats watch us as we come near to them. Whether they are afraid of strangers or expect us to feed them again, they gather around and stare at us with large yellow eyes. If we try to move closer, they back away – so we leave them alone. We return to the car and drive back the way we came. Along the way we pass another herd of goats being tended by the same man we saw earlier. He must own a lot of goats.

Goat herd gobbling grain below the Sami acropolis

According to legend, Odysseus owned many goats. In those days, goats and trees and crops were the greatest wealth a person could possess. It may not be so different today.

After hours under the sun, however, the most valuable thing we can imagine at this moment is a cooling swim in the sea. So we head back to Sami town and the beach.

Exploring Kefalonia

There are several explanations about the beginnings of Kefalonia. Stone Age tools have been uncovered in caves around the island, so we know that people have been living here for a long time. However, legends sometimes present different pictures of how things happened. What an archaeologist does is measure each picture (or hypothesis) against physical evidence that can be found – not unlike a detective trying to solve a mystery.

One story says the island derives its name from Kefalos, an Athenian who founded four cities named after his children – Sami, Pali, Krani and Pronnoi. Others say the island is named for an ancient people known as Kefallines, who lived here when Athens was little more than a village. In fact, the first mention of these “Kefallines” is found in Homer’s Iliad, in reference to the people ruled by King Odysseus (called “Ulysses” in Latin) on several Ionian islands. At that time (around 1200 BCE) Kefalonia was part of the kingdom of Odysseus, the wily king who devised the wooden horse that ended the Trojan War. Some evidence suggests Kefalonia was actually Homer’s Ithaki and the Mycenaean ruins excavated here were once home to Odysseus and Penelope. Kefalonia and Ithaki have not always been known by their current names, so legends can be misleading.

Legendary island of Ithaki, across a narrow channel from Kephalonia

Whether fact or legend, as we sip our morning coffee on the quay and look across the channel to the dry and rocky island of Ithaki, it is easier to imagine Kefalonia as the center of a kingdom. After breakfast, we rent a small car so that we can begin to explore this island kingdom. The woman at the car rental office says we should always honk the horn when we come to a curve. When we ask why she explains all the roads on the island are like – and she draws twisting lines in the air.Our first destination is Argostoli, the main port and capital of Kefalonia. It is on the other side of the island, and so we must drive through the mountains to get there. Soon after leaving Sami we realize the truth of the car lady’s warning. Climbing into the hills it seems that every curve turns back upon itself in a never-ending series of switchbacks. With sharp embankments on one side of the narrow road and steep drop-offs on the other side, it is prudent to toot the horn several times at each curve to warn drivers coming from the opposite direction.

We travel our winding road through the Ainos mountain range, which extends through the southern part of the island. Its highest peak, at 1628 meters, is called Megas Soros (Great Mound) and is the site of an ancient sanctuary to Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. It is interesting that high places are often chosen for religious activities. On the western side of the Ainos range is the old monastery of Sision, which was founded in 1218 by Francis of Assisi himself, who briefly visited the island during the Fifth Crusade. It was destroyed – along with almost every other structure on the island – during the terrible 1953 earthquake, but it was rebuilt and is still operating.

Remains of bell tower from original Panayia Sision monastery

The most amazing thing about these mountains is the dense vegetation. Every hillside is covered with forests of fir, pine, arbutus and oak, and the deep valleys are filled with olive groves and citrus orchards. The entire range is a natural preserve that provides a home for many species of animals, including beautiful wild ponies that live only in the highlands.  The wild Ainos ponies, which some believe are a unique breed, owe their existence to the villagers’ old custom of keeping herds of horses free on the mountain in order to avoid the cost of feeding them. They were abandoned in the wild during and after World War II.

The wild Ainos ponies of Kephalonia

Descending from the mountains, the western coast seems to spread out beneath us. We can see a long, narrow gulf with the towns of Argostoli on one side and Lixouri on the other. As we approach the lowlands the road splits. A road sign indicates both ways take us to Argostoli, but one direction is for buses and trucks. We take the car route and continue down until we reach a slender stone bridge that crosses the harbor to Argostoli on the far side. This is the bridge of Drapanos, built during the time of British rule (1813), and there is no way a bus or truck could pass over it. Even with our subcompact car we pass within teeth-grinding inches of cars coming from the other side.

As we enter Argostoli, we can see it looks very much like Sami, but more cosmopolitan and much larger (actually about ten times bigger). The buildings are all very colorful (in the Venetian style) and have red tile roofs. Like those in Sami and the rest of the island, the buildings appear to be quite new – even those built in older architectural styles. This is because of the great 1953 earthquake, which I mentioned earlier. Before the quake there were around 360 villages on the island; today not nearly so many, and very little pre-earthquake architecture can be seen anywhere.

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Market street in Argostoli

To find out more about the town, we go to the Historical and Folk Museum located on the ground floor of the library. It provides a peek into the 19th century life of Kefalonia, but this is only a small segment of history – the period after the decline of the Venetian empire, when the French and English ruled the island. Only a few foreign governors did anything to help the people of Kefalonia, and these few are memorialized in the museum. What the foreign powers wanted most was the strategic location of the island – relative to Greece and the Ottoman Empire – and the tall straight trees of the Kefalonian highlands, which were used to build warships.

Sir Charles Napier, was one British governor who gained favor with the locals. He loved the island, supported many development projects to improve the lives of the people, and even supported the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire, despite Britain’s official opposition. One of the most famous supporters of the Greek War of Independence, Lord Byron, lived not far from Argostoli in the early 1820’s – just before he joined the patriots fighting for freedom. When the Greeks won their struggle for independence, and after the “great powers” of Europe carved up Turkish holdings, Kefalonia and the other Ionian islands joined the mainland as part of the newly formed kingdom of Greece. But their troubles with foreign invaders were not over yet. The island, and most of Greece, was occupied during World War II by both the Italians and the Nazis, and the islanders suffered greatly at the hands of the latter.

The historical museum showed us only a small part of the island’s history, and we want more. We walk a short distance to the town’s small archaeological museum. It provides some interesting artifacts from prehistoric times, when the inhabitants of Kefalonia used stone tools. There are also many examples of the Roman occupation, when the island was used as a harbor from which to launch the conquest of Greece. However, there are surprisingly few examples of ancient Kefalonian culture during the Mycenaean and Classical periods. We know that such artifacts exist, because there are photographs of major archaeological digs and tantalizing accounts of the discoveries. We suspect that most of the “good stuff” was shipped off to the national museum or to other countries. We know that archaeological work is still being done on the island, and we are determined to find out more. However, that will have to wait.

After leaving the museum, we explore more of Argostoli town. It is a bustling place with a lot of tourists, many of them arriving from Italy on large ferries. However, it is a bit too commercial for our taste, and we begin to miss the little village of Sami. After pausing for a cool frappe at Plateia Valliano (the main square), we climb into our car and leave. Rather than using the nerve-wracking old bridge across the harbor, we take a different route out of town. This leads us past the site of the Mycenaean citadel Krani and southward towards a mountain pass different from the one we used earlier. As we drive through the little village of Travliata, we see a sign for Kastro Ayios Giorgiou (Castle of Saint George). When we look up, we can see a gigantic citadel sprawling over the summit of a great hill. It looks too good to miss, and so we follow the signs and find ourselves climbing a narrow ribbon of pavement that, surprisingly, terminates at a small community of pretty houses clustered around the main entrance of the castle.

Ayios Giorgios has a strategic hilltop location

The castle was originally built by the Byzantines to control this part of the island and to keep watch for pirates or foreign invaders who might land here. Under the Venetians, the castle grew and grew from the 12th through the 15th century. Unfortunately for the Kefalonians, in the late 15th century the island fell to invading Ottoman Turks, led by the blood-thirsty Ahmed Pasha. The Turkish soldiers garrisoned at Ayios Georgios castle were notoriously cruel to the local population, who fled the low lands almost immediately, leaving their homes and crops untended. Historians record that Pasha “chopped up all the nobility” and transported many of the peasants to Constantinople.

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Ottoman invader Ahmad Pasha

Control of the island changed hands several times over the next several years – Turks, Venetians, and then the Turks again. Then in 1500, after a three-month siege of the castle, the Venetians regained control, established their rule on the island and fortified the castle, which became the administrative center for the governors of Kefalonia. It remained the island’s political center until a huge earthquake severely damaged the fortress in 1757, and the capital was moved to Argostoli.

Over nearly 500 years Venetian culture has been deeply embedded here. From Venice came fashions, art, music, letters, its education and health systems, its laws and architecture and even the tomato! Venetians planted many of the olive trees that can still be found on the island (olive trees can live hundreds of years).

We park the car and hike up the castle entrance, which has two gates – an outer gate protected by a high wall and battlement that could be manned with an armed garrison, and then a passage through the wall to an inner gate that could be used to trap any invaders who managed to get past the first gate. It is difficult to imagine what would be necessary to defeat a behemoth fortress like this one.

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Entrance to Ayios Giorgios Castle

As we walk along the battlements and turrets, we can see places where the walls have been breeched by cannon balls. There are old bronze cannons still lying near the walls they protected during the last great battle, and we explore some buildings that were never destroyed – still standing after six centuries. Lord Byron once stood here in the 19th century and imagined escaping the embattled fortress through the secret, underground tunnel that once connected Ayios Georgios to the town of Argostoli. The tunnel was destroyed long ago.

One of the fighting towers of Ayios Giorgios

The fortress is encloses hundreds of acres of land and supported many thousands of armed men and town folk who lived in the suburb (borgo) outside the entrance. Most of the borgo is gone now, but there are Byzantine churches and other buildings among the newer homes that were built in that area. The metropolis church in the borgo is a good example of “Ionian baroque” architecture, which occurs nowhere except on these islands. Some important post-Byzantine icons from the ruined churches of the castle are stored here.

After a fair amount of exploration, we decide it would be wise to continue our journey through the mountain pass before it gets too late. We do not want to be driving on that road after nightfall.

Voyage to Kefalonia

After eating breakfast in a small outdoor cafe near the Patras waterfront, we spend the morning exploring more of the city and then return to our room to gather our gear. As promised, our hike to the dock is short and the ferry arrives soon after we do. After the arriving passengers disembark, we are able to board and find comfortable seats with a table (there are advantages to arriving early).

Kephalonia ferry prepares to load cars in the port of Patras

During the first hour of our voyage to Kefalonia, we are in the Gulf of Patras passing some historic coastline. This is scene of some major events in the War of Independence. An uprising of Greek patriots in Patras led to immediate action from the Ottoman rulers. As it happened, however, the Ottomans had their own problems. Ali Pasha, an Albanian who ruled the northern region of Epirus for the sultan, planned to break away from the Ottoman Empire. After 400 years of foreign Ottoman occupation, the Albanians had developed a national consciousness, and increasingly rallied for independence. Ali Pasha used this nationalism to further his own goals.

Turks tolerated Pasha’s behavior because they found him useful, but when he ordered the assassination of an opponent in Constantinople, the Ottoman sultan sent troops to depose him. Turkish troops were diverted from fighting Greek rebels in the Peloponessos in order to capture Ali Pasha. In a strange way, he played a vital part in the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire by engaging the Turkish troops when they might have been putting down the Greek rebellion. This enabled the Greeks to gather more troops, organize and become stronger.

Bishop Germanos of Patras rallied Greek patriots to revolt

The Greek struggle for independence attracted the interest of nations who wished to see an end to the Ottoman Empire, and many individuals who wanted to see the Greeks – who created the first democracy – finally throw off the chains of slavery. Some of these supporters became directly involved in the struggle, giving their wealth and their lives to the Greek cause. The most famous of these was the romantic poet and adventurer George Gordon (better known as Lord Byron), who organized a battalion of British sympathizers and led them into battle alongside the Greek fighters.  However, the battle did not go well.

“Exodus of Messolongi” (by Vryzakis) depicts the battle of 1821

As our ferry continues westward, we can barely make out the city of Messolongi on the northern shore of the gulf. It was here that 10,000 Greeks were killed battling the Ottoman and Egyptian forces, or trying to flee to freedom, and it is where Lord Byron died. Because of its heroism and sacrifices during the early days of the revolution, Messolongi was named Hiera Polis “Sacred City” by the Greek people. Those who perished are remembered in the Garden of Heroes, near the entrance of the city.

The entire coastline is slipping beneath a thin veil of mist, which persists as our ship passes into the Ionian Sea.  Small islets appear as pale shadows in the dark blue sea, and for a time there is nothing to see before us. We go into the lounge and play gin rummy to pass the time. In another hour we look out to see the huge mass of Kefalonia drawing nearer. With an area of 780 square kilometers, it is the largest of the largest of the Ionian islands. However, we are unprepared for the massive appearance of the island. It is a mountain range trusting out of the sea, with forested peaks as high as 1628 meters (very rare in a Greek island).

Mist clears as we approach Kefalonia

Kefalonia grows larger as we approach, and we realize we are also seeing a second island, Ithaki (Ithaca), the legendary kingdom of Odysseus. To reach the bay of Sami, the town where we will stay, the ferry passes through a wide channel between Kefalonia and the southern end of Ithaki. It is easy to see that Ithaki is very different from Kefalonia. It is a rocky island with little vegetation, and no towns visible along this coastline. Vathy, the main town, is on the eastern side of the island.

Nearing the dock at Sami, we are delighted to see a small, colorful town stretched out along the shore, with olive groves and forested hills rising only a short distance inland. By “colorful” I mean many colors. In most Aegean towns nearly every building is white, often with traditional blue-painted shutters and doors. In contrast, Sami is an explosion of warm colors – yellow, peach, salmon, vermillion – topped with red tile roofs. This is the influence of Venetians, who ruled here for a long time.

Arriving in the port of Sami

We halfway hope to find someone waiting when we get off the ferry. Because our friend Nikos regularly visits this island, we asked if he could find us a small apartment. He phoned a few people, made the arrangements, and gave us a telephone number to call when we reached the island. Since our mobile phone needs recharging, we go looking for a public phone. When we make the call, there is no answer. We walk across the street to a small cafe along the waterfront and order two iced coffee frappes meso gliko (medium sweet). We wait and call again, then sip frappes, and phone again.

Fishing boats and cafes along the Sami waterfront

When we reach the apartment manager, we are given directions on how to find the place. It is only a short distance away (nothing in this town is too far to walk), and we are at the front entrance of the apartment building in ten minutes. The manager shows us to our new residence, which is a perfect little studio with kitchen, bedroom and a nice balcony looking out to the tree-covered hillside behind the town. What makes it even better are the market and bakery conveniently located a few minutes away.

After shopping for supplies and unpacking our bags, we take a nap. In early evening the hills shade the town of Sami, and a steady breeze cools the air. We cook supper in our apartment and go out after dark, like most folk, for an evening volta (walk) around town. The waterfront street is closed off to traffic and the restaurant tables on the quay are all filled with late customers. As we are walking we hear music and singing voices. The local men’s choir, with an accordion and guitar to accompany them, has decided to serenade the town. It is a wonderful way to end a busy day of traveling, and so we let ourselves slip into the mood of Sami.

From Mountain to Sea

Our bus for Patras leaves in the early afternoon, so we have plenty of time after breakfast to pack our belongings and even take a final walking tour around Delphi. We carry our backpacks to the tiny bus station at the edge of town, about a hundred meters from our hotel, and claim a small table on the sidewalk. The only other table is already occupied by a British girl waiting for the same bus.

Main street of downtown Delphi

To pass the time we settle in for a game of cards, which stretches longer than we expect. The bus is running a bit late because of the various pickup fares in small villages. When it finally arrives, we discover there are few seats available. Duane and several others must stand in the aisles until some of the passengers get off at the next stops.

The road down the mountain is extraordinarily twisted. I would not want to drive a small car here, but the driver manages to swing the bus through many tight, hairpin turns as we descend to the Amphissa plain and towards the port of Itea on the sea. The entire region is planted in olives, all the way up the hills in every direction. Amphissa olives are famous throughout Greece.

We make several stops in tiny villages, and some passengers get off – leaving seats for others. At the bus station in Itea, just across the street from the waterfront, we discover that all passengers continuing to Patras must wait for the next bus. We join a number of passengers to collect our packs, and then settle down on the sidewalk to wait.

Itea waterfront near the bus station

Duane walks to the bakery a few doors away and buys tyropitas (cheese pies) for our lunch. They are fresh from the oven and very tasty. We finish eating minutes before the Patras bus arrives. The trip to Patras is longer than we expected – or maybe it just seems so because of a many stops at small towns along the coast.

Rio-Antirio bridge crosses the Gulf of Corinth

It is several hours before we pass through Nafpaktos to the new Rio-Antirio bridge.  Officially called “Charilaos Trikoupis” bridge, after a Greek statesman, it spans the Gulf of Corinth at its most narrow point, connecting mainland Greece with the Peloponessos. It is a beautiful bridge with giant towers and cables supporting the highway high above the sea. As our bus approaches, the bridge looks almost like a modern sculpture. Beneath it is the old Antirion fortress, which once guarded this part of the coast, and the ferry landing that still caters to those who prefer the sea route to Patras.

On the southern side of the bridge is Rion fortress. It was built by Turkish invaders in 1499 and was the scene of numerous battles and revolts for centuries after. In 1532 it was taken by the Spaniards and Andrea Doria, and then retaken by the Turks. In 1603 the Knights of Malta wrought significant destruction. In 1687 it was taken by Morosini, a Venetian warlord. Drastic repairs were made and it received the form it has today: new towers – bastions, strengthened ramparts. The fortress was captured by the Turks in 1715. More than a hundred years later, after a siege, the Turks surrendered the fort to Greek freedom fighters.

Rion fortress near the Rio-Antirio Bridge

We are in Patras within minutes after leaving the fortress, and a short time later at the waterfront bus station trying to get our bearings. We plan to stay overnight near the port, so we can easily catch the ferry to Kefalonia. However, on the map this bus station seems to be farther west than we expected. Duane decides to hike eastward on the waterfront boulevard to find Tofalou street, where our rooming house is located. He returns a half hour later in a taxi, saying that our room, the ferry landing, and another bus station, are many blocks to the east.  We take the taxi to our destination.

Port of Patras, with shipping, railroad, trucking and passenger traffic

The room is very nice, and only a few blocks from the place where we will board the ferry. We leave our backpacks and set out to explore the city. Patras is a fairly large and very busy port city that extends along the coast and up to the hillside to an old Venetian castle. It is named after Patreas, the leader of Achaeans who moved here from Laconia more than 3000 years. It was a farming town in ancient times, but became an important port under Roman rule (it is the first major Greek port for ships coming from Italy).

At the archaeological museum we find a lot of Roman artifacts, and we are told there are many Roman sites in the area. The most interesting Roman monument in Patras is the ancient theater, built shortly before the famous Herodeion in Athens (161 CE). It was uncovered by archaeologists in 1889, and is now reconstructed and used for open-air performances and concerts during the summer.

Roman Odeion of Patras

Interior of the Odeion, still used for performances

It was during Roman times that St. Andrew came to Patras to preach, and it was here he was crucified. From then on he was considered the protector of Patras and nowadays there is a magnificent church on the exact place of his execution. It is a magnificent and rather new church contains the remains of the Christian martyr.

Ayios Andreas (Saint Andrew) church

During the Byzantine period Patras prospered, mainly due to the production of silk, but its wealth invited attacks by the Arabs and the Slavs. In 1205, it was conquered by the Franks, and then plundered by the Turks in 1460. Patras remained under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, but played a crucial role in breaking free from oppression. It was Bishop Germanos of Patras who raised the Greek flag at a local monastery and organized Greek patriots who fired the first shots in the War of Independence. In 1828 Patras became part of the free nation of Greece.

Now Patras is a thriving commercial center with a large university and many visitors. We see as much as we can in one afternoon and evening. After finding a gyro cafe for a quick supper, we return to our comfortable room near the port. We must be rested for our journey to Kefalonia.

Climbing Parnassos

Promptly at eight o’clock, we are eating breakfast in the hotel’s cafe. We want to be sure of getting our nutrition before the kilometer walk to the archaeological site and our ascent into the terraced city of old Delphi.

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Sacred Precinct at Delphi

It is a place where pilgrims from every corner of the civilized world came for prophesy or knowledge of the future. We come for knowledge of the past. The ordinary histories which we read give us little appreciation of the tremendous influence of this place in a time when people believed in magic and divination.

No one knows exactly when Delphi became famous. It happened some time in remote antiquity, long before Apollo and the other Olympian gods were worshipped by the Greeks. As the story goes, a shepherd grazing his flock noticed the goats, when they approached a rock cave, springing about madly, as if under some strange influence. He came up to see the place himself and right away fell into a trance.

Scientists recently discovered two geological faults intersecting beneath this cave, which expelled volcanic gases to the surface. Anyone breathing these gases quickly experienced hallucinations and loss of mental control. In ancient times this was seen as some sort of religious trance. So the reputation of the place spread very rapidly and, early on, a fortune teller known as the Pythian Oracle began to operate at the site.

Rock of the Sybel

Before a temple was built, Oracle sat upon this rock.

By the time the cult of Apollo had taken over at Delphi, this is the way it worked: the Oracle (a woman who supposedly communicated directly with Apollo), would be placed on a tripod in the Temple of Apollo — directly over the gas vent. After the vapors had their effect, the Oracle was carried to a public chamber, where she would wave her arms and babble in a nonsense language. The priests of Apollo would “translate” the gibberish and present it as “prophesy” to the waiting client.

Now the priests were very well-informed about what was happening in the world, and they did a lot of research on the people who came to consult the Oracle. So it was that they were always able to craft a prediction that met the expectations or desires of the client – and vague enough to have several different (and sometimes opposite) meanings.

The rise of the Delphic Oracle to greatness coincides with the spread of the Dorians over Greece – which comes after the legendary Trojan War. It seems that the influence of this oracle was, in old days, always used in the direction of good morals and of enlightenment. When neighboring states were likely to quarrel, the oracle was often a peacemaker, and even acted as arbitrator in disputes. By the sixth century BCE even the selection of political leaders was often sanctioned and promoted by the Delphic Oracle.

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The treasure-house of Athens on the Sacred Way

At the same time the treasure-house of the shrine was the largest and safest of banks, where both individuals and states might deposit treasure, and from which they could also borrow money, at fair interest, in times of war and public distress. Delphi was thought to be the center of the earth’s surface, and certainly in a social and religious sense this was the case for the entire Greek world.

We walk to the entrance of the shrine, the lowest terrace where pilgrims of old began their journey along the sacred way up to the Temple of Apollo. In ancient times, pilgrims would first visit at the Kastalia spring, which bursts out from a fissure between the Phaedriades – two peaks that stand up a thousand feet over Delphi. A great square bath was cut in the rock, just at the mouth of the fissure. This was the place where arriving pilgrims purified themselves with hallowed water before approaching the temple. We cannot climb up to the site of the bath, but we fill our water bottles where the spring water bubbles down near the entrance of the sanctuary.

delphi_spring.jpg

Pilgrims purified themselves at Kastalia spring

The great winding avenue leading up to the temple was once a perfect street of national monuments — treasure-houses, colonnades, giant votive statues. Now only the foundations and walls of these remain. Except for the Treasury of the Athenians, which has been restored to some degree, most of the important archaeological finds here are now displayed in museums. It is amazing to see how many monuments were once displayed along the sacred way. One of the most interesting we see is the stone “omphalos,” the navel of the world (it is shaped rather like a huge gum drop).

delphi_omphalosi.jpg

The stone omphalos – belly button of the world

When we finally reach the Temple of Apollo, we find main floor of the building and a number of columns, as well as the base where a giant statue of Apollo once stood. Most of the great statues were carried away by invaders long ago, and we can only imagine how they looked by reading ancient writings, which still exist. Walking around the temple, we can see that there are underground chambers. This must be where the oracle was exposed to the vapors that sent her into a trance.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi
The temple of Apollo is built over a geologic fissure

Above the temple, on the next terrace, is a well preserved theater built in the fourth century BCE. It seated about 5000 spectators for ceremonial performances. It is here that dramatic and lyric (singing to the accompaniment of a lyre) competitions took place. We stop here to rest and drink some water. It is very hot under the morning sun. After a short break, we continue upward to the stadium.

Theater at Delphi

Theater where plays were performed during festivals

The stadium, which is outside the sanctuary, has many rows of stone bleachers and a grooved marble starting line for the racers who competed in the Pythian Games every four years. These games predated the ancient Olympic Games by hundreds of years. In addition, to athletic competitions, musical events were also held in the stadium. Above the stadium is a pine forest, which extends up a steep slope to the foot of the mountain cliffs. It is a beautiful location, and we are happy to be here ā€“ especially since a cooling breeze has started up and clouds are beginning to shade us from the sun.

Sports Stadium at Delphi

Stadium at Delphi hosted the Pythian Games

On the way down the mountain, we see crowds of tour groups beginning to hike up the sacred way. One can imagine that it was something like this in ancient times, with pilgrims from every part of the known world coming to visit the Oracle.

The national importance of the Delphic Oracle lasted from the invasion of the Dorians down to the Persian War; but it never fully recovered from the bad advice it gave about the Persians. When the invasion of Xerxes was approaching, the Delphic priests, who knew about the immense power of the Persian army and navy, made up their minds that all resistance was useless. They counseled the Athenians to surrender or run away, which seemed at the time to be a good idea. Xerxes had assembled the largest army the world had ever known to defeat Greece.

But Delphic priests did not figure on the ingenuity of the Athenian leaders. The Athenians deserted their city and tricked Xerxes into believing that they were hiding in the waterway between Elefsina and the island of Salamina, a short distance from the city. Xerxes ordered his entire navy into that passage, and soon realized that he was trapped. Greek forces ambushed and destroyed the fleet, and then drove the Persian army out of Greece territory.

The Greeks had won, and Athens became the leading city state in Greece. Athenians very soon developed a secular and worldly spirit, and they were by no means awed by Delphic prophesies that threatened them or weakened their resolve, when their own courage and skill had brought them deliverance. At this point we can imagine Athenian leaders looking upon the oracles as little more than a convenient way of persuading the mob to follow a policy which it was not able to understand. Still, this was the beginning of a long decline for Delphi.

When Emperor Julian, the last Roman champion of paganism, desired to consult the oracle on his way to Persia, in 362 CE, it replied: “Tell the king the carven hall has fallen into the dust. Phoebus (Apollo) has no shelter left, no prophetic laurel, no speaking spring. The stream is dry.” So the shrine finally confessed that its power had passed away. The old religion was gone forever.

Tholos Temple of Athena

Temple of Athena, called “Tholos” because it is round

We pass hundreds of visitors on our way down the mountainside, and we are thankful that an increasing cloud cover has lowered the temperature. At the beginning of the sacred way, we continue on down the road for another kilometer to another ancient site, where a Tholos (circular building) temple of Athena stands, along with a couple of other temples, a gymnasium, and possibly a treasure house of the Phocaeans. Along the way we meet a school teacher from California and discuss some the wonderful sights we have seen.

We get back to the village and our hotel just as the rain begins.

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