Giant shoulders of rock jut into the bright cerulean sky above. Below, the ever-decreasing tiers of Delphi's amphitheatre create a stone concave in the earth that could easily be the "bellybutton of the world". That's what the ancient Greeks used to call this mystical place high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.
Olympian god Zeus is said to have released two eagles to meet in the middle of the earth, and Delphi is where they crossed. The conical Omphalos stone still marks the spot, and around it the ancients built the home of a revered oracle presiding in the mighty Temple of Apollo and providing a link between humans and gods.
There is still an amazing resonance about the place. Maybe it's the sheer sense of history – even Odysseus and Alexander the Great came to seek the Delphic oracle's riddle-like pearls of wisdom. Perhaps it's the awe-inspiring view. Or maybe there's something in the water…
Room with a view
Travelling to this mystical mountain town just to the north of the Bay of Corinth is the pinnacle of my ancient Greek odyssey, and I'm excited to spend a few days exploring a place that has drawn pilgrims for millennia. I took the bus from Athens through the parched plains of southern Greece and up along a winding mountain pass between cloud-shrouded peaks. I was tempted to get off at Arachova, a gorgeous old Greek town knitted into the slopes. It's actually more attractive than the new town of Delphi (Delfoi), which was picked up and moved downhill when the remains of the ancient sanctuary were excavated at the end of the 19th century.
I booked a cheapish room at the Pan Hotel on Delphi's main road. It's on the left-hand side of the street heading into town, which is important because these are the hotels with uninterrupted views down to the Bay of Corinth and balconies perched right over the ravine. As I checked in, the friendly English-speaking owner handed me a map of the town and was happy to offer up local knowledge. Though fairly small, my room was clean with a panelled wooden ceiling, a cosy rustic air and double-doors out to the balcony. I sat out there as giant purple shadows started to creep across the valley, watching locals tend a stepped allotment below and listening to the clinking of cattle bells as they were herded together at the end of the day.
New Delphi is built on a series of terraces cut horizontally into the mountainside, and at twilight the place takes on a slightly haunted air. Cosy hotels and cafes glow along the few narrow streets linked by a series of steep lantern-lit passages and steps. I climbed up an alley between little houses onto a deserted residential street where a dog lay across the middle of the road, rising to follow me up to the attractive Basilica-like church and later appearing at my dinner table. Local families had gathered at the cobbled area in front to socialise and watch the orange-streaked sunset over the valley.
I settled on dinner at In Delphi restaurant, sitting at a cheese-cloth clad table on the outdoor terrace in the fork of the road, between mature plane trees festooned in lights. Like most eateries here, it serves up decent Greek food alongside pizza and pasta. I tucked into a plate of stuffed tomatoes and moussaka recommended by the friendly and helpful waiter while eavesdropping on the conversation of an old American couple at the next table, just because I liked their St Louis accents.
"I was proud of you today steaming up those slopes like you were ten years old."
Said the man.
"And you know it's strange I don't even feel tired!"
Answered his wife.
"Must be something in that water."
She added, referring – I think – to the famous Castalian Spring.
At dawn the next morning, I watched birds circling the valley adjacent to the hotel breakfast room as I took full advantage of the included morning buffet to get ready for a day exploring the vertiginous sanctuary of classical Delphi.
It sure is a steep hike through the site, requiring fairly sprightly legs or lots of leisurely stops. The walkway leading up into antiquity is littered with archaeology, with pieces of Corinthian and Doric columns strewn about and stacks of carved stone stele. I made it into the sanctuary before the tour bus crowds arrived and climbed past the countless ruined monuments and shrines that line the "Sacred Way" to the oracle's Rock of the Sibyl where the priestess originally stood to give prophesies.
Beyond, the giant foundations and soaring pillars of the Temple of Apollo slowly came into full view. The simple phrase, "know thyself", once etched in the forecourt, has a playful irony given that many people came here to seek answers to the most pressing questions of their lives, and the oracle's words were often ambiguous at best.
There is also a kind of natural voodoo at work here, a geological anomaly that meant intoxicating gases were once released through springs and chinks in the rock. If you look close enough at the cliffs you can still see the green-and-ochre stained fractures in the stone today, and there is rumoured to have been one such siphon below the oracle's sanctuary, where two ancient fault-lines intersect.
In fact the oracle – who was nominated from the high priestesses at the temple – is said to have delivered her prophesies in a trance-like state, speaking in tongues and raspy sounds that were interpreted as prophesies and wisdom by priests. Interestingly, Apollo's oracle was named the Pythia after the python Apollo is supposed to have killed at this spot, and snakes hold huge symbolism in Delphi. The entwined Serpent Column once stood at the entrance to the temple, though today it's planted in Istanbul. The ancients also used to hold the Pythian Games at the stadium high on the mountainside, to commemorate Apollo's victory over the snake.
Beyond the temple, I filled up my water bottle at an old village fountain fed by Delphi's spring and climbed the stairs beside the amphitheatre, stopping to let a curious cat wind around my legs while a Japanese tourist stole a photo. Running alongside, the stone water channel built by the ancients has endured for a mind-boggling 2,500 years.
I followed the cat into the shade beneath a mature tree and sat for a while just looking at the mighty mountain flanks and fathomless valleys that, in the in the far distance, melt away into the glittering bay of Corinth. It's a stirring sight that no doubt has always added to the magic. Aside from the sheer ancientness of the place, the uplifting view is one of the most wonderful things about Delphi.
In all, more than 3,000 statues, monuments and temples have been excavated at the archaeological site, but most of the statues and smaller treasures have been moved into the climate-controlled museum below. I explored the Delphi Archaeological Museum later in the afternoon to get some respite from the heat. I found myself actually coveting the cute collection of 2,000-year old winged idols discovered all over ancient Delphi, and to see the famous Charioteer bronze up close was an unexpected highlight.
Most haunting of the early Greek statues is the Naxian Sphinx, who like a blind seer seems to sense your presence in the room. The mythical eagle-lion hybrid with an enigmatic woman's face is carved from fine marble and once sat atop a tall ionic column surveying Delphi, but has been transplanted to this blank room for the purposes of preservation. The oversized, almost ancient Egyptian looking, marble statues of The Brothers are also etched in my mind. Powerful and archaic, they perfectly represented the might of ancient Argos, whose heroes were famed for their brute strength.
Something in the water
After cooling off in the museum's air-con, I ventured a little out of town to see the sacred Castalian Spring that's fed from the top of Mount Parnassus and is said to have health benefits. Today it gushes forth from a lion's head where renowned writer Henry Miller drank during his transcendental journey through Greece. I can't help but wonder if those ancient narcotic vapours are still wafting from the water, as like many other visitors and residents, my mood is consistently elevated during my time in Delphi. Even on a baking hot day I have spent hours exploring the steep inclines and terraces and still have plenty of energy and curiosity left over for the ancient gymnasium and remains of the Temple of Athena.
Situated abit further down the slope, to the south of the main road, the round Temple of Athena is one of Delphi's most photographed monuments, yet visitors often bypass it, perhaps by mistake. When I visit, there are just four other people there including the security guard so I can have a good mosey round without dodging the camera-toting hordes.
To explore Delphi at my own pace, I got the coach from Athens bus station, bound for Amfissa, and the journey took around 3 hours along sun-baked plains and up into the awe-inspiring Parnassus massif where clouds shroud the very highest peaks from view. I recommend staying at least one night in Delphi so that you can get out early and explore the main archaeological site before the tour group crowds arrive. Later, you can retreat from the heat of the midday sun into the cool air-conditioned museum and see all the amazing artefacts and statues that are no longer in situ.
If you carefully plan the trek, you can hike up the mountain to the super-ancient sanctuary of the Corycian Cave and back again in one day, something I intend to do on my next trip. It's also possible to walk the ancient pilgrimage route – the Sacred Way – down into the valley to Itea. The trail starts just below the main road. For people with your own transport, it's worth stopping over in the nearby mountain town of Arachova, which is older and more scenic than modern Delphi.
Nikos Kazantzakis wrote in Zorba the Greek:
"...the highest point a man can attain is not knowledge, or virtue, or goodness or victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing – sacred awe."
If true, it's little wonder that people have continued making the pilgrimage to Delphi for thousands of years. It's an absolutely perfect spot for eliciting sacred awe, and one of the few places where I may have experienced it for myself.