Today was the day. We are at Delphi, the most beautiful ancient site in Greece, and we had the great good fortune to visit it early – almost alone – on a day that was overcast, but not rainy.
For about 1000 years, visitors throughout the known world traveled to Delphi because it was the home of the Oracle who provided fortunes to those seeking her advice. The Oracle, always a middle-aged woman, delivered her messages from the Sanctuary of Apollo, in a small room under the temple floor, where she inhaled the intoxicating gases coming through a crack in the earth. In an altered state, she would become the medium through which Apollo would speak.
The Romans adored Dephi. It was one of the world’s first tourist attractions, complete with professional guides and souvenirs. One of the first things you see when entering the site is a Roman wall, made with a typically decorative pattern. Outside the original main gate is a Roman Forum, where visitors could buy last-minute offerings to Apollo.
The road up to the temple, known as the Sacred Way is strewn with the ruins of war memorials, statues financed by satisfied pilgrims and treasuries – buildings of different Greek city-states where visitors could leave offerings. The most intact is the Treasury of the Athenians, a small temple built to honor their victory over the Persians at Marathon.
And then there’s the Omphalos, the symbol of a navel, which indicates that Dephi was the center of the world. The original was kept in the Temple, and there were several copies in ancient times.
The retaining wall of the Temple is quite amazing. Known as the Polygonal Wall, it was built in the 6th century BC and has survived earthquakes and other disasters almost in perfect condition, due to its remarkable mortar-less masonry. Near it is the Rock of the Sibyl, the wise woman who proceeded the Oracle as a source of advice before Apollo took control of the site. In front of it was the Athenian Stoa, the open-air porch where the Athenians displayed their war booty from the Battle of Salamis, won thanks to a prophecy from the Oracle.
And then we entered the Temple courtyard, with its partially restored Great Altar of Apollo. Worshipers would make their sacrifices to Apollo surrounded by huge statues and columns with sculptures honoring the god. It was a dramatic introduction to the Temple itself.
While what we see today is a ruin, the remains of what was the third temple built here – funded by Philip of Macedonia and dedicated in the time of his son, Alexander – was a impressive edifice. One entered up the ramp and, led by priests, entered into a small room in the back of the Temple to meet the Oracle and receive the answer to a most pressing question.
Very close to the Temple is one of Greece’s best-preserved theaters, built in the 4th century BC to host song contests honoring Apollo. It seated 5,000 and had a large backdrop for the stage. That has not survived, but we instead now have a unobstructed view of the floor of the Temple and the Athenian Treasury – minus a roof.
At this point, we were 1,800 feet above sea level, on the slopes of glorious Mount Parnassus, but we didn’t stop there. We climbed what seemed like another mile up the mountain to see the stadium where the Pythian games were held every four years. They were one of the four sites for Panhellenic Games, though the most important were held at Olympia.
The stadium was built in the 5th century BC, and is quite well-preserved. Our generous friend Herodus Atticus, who built the theater in Athens, remodeled it in the 2nd century AD. It provided seating for 7,000, including nice marble chairs for the judges in midfield.
We were somewhat perplexed by the Braille descriptions here and elsewhere in the site. It is hard to imagine someone making the arduous trek up to the stadium and not being able to see it.
That completed our visit to Apollo’s home base, so we reversed course and took one more look at some of the wonderful images that are perched on this mountain. The setting itself is spectacular, and having it almost to ourselves for most of our visit added to the mystical feeling the site is intended to evoke.
We left to tour the museum and see the treasures that were found here. I’ll leave you with a mélange of the wonders that remain there, including an image and several views of a scale model that represent the original site, along with a representation of the Treasury of Athens.
Don’s Food Corner
Sometimes when you are in place that is devoted exclusively to serving tourists you just have to go with the flow. In the case of restaurants, that means the ubiquitous “tourist menu,” which almost always consists of three courses — appetizer, main course and dessert — at a set price, usually very low. In France, it is the law that every establishment serving lunch has to have one of these set price offers. When we traveled through France we lived off these lunch specials, which were almost always of a high standard of preparation and presentation. Those high standards in France are not always shared in other countries.
But, here we are in Greece and now that we have a pretty good idea of what to expect, we opted for the tourist menu in one of the interchangeable tavernas that line the streets of this most touristic of tourist towns. (It was a tourist town in the ancient world as well. People came here to consult the oracle but were entertained by theater presentations and games with audiences numbering in the thousands, so there must have been some type of food and lodging services offered to all those people.)
The tourist menu at the taverna we visited today had six different options — to be ordered by number. I had a plate of stuffed grape leaves. Jo ordered something that promised to be a “beef steak.” Each of these choices came with a Greek salad and a dessert choice of either baklava or yogurt.
Well, the whole thing was great. My stuffed grape leaves, which were served in a thick lemon sauce, matched the quality of the dish that I had at a much fancier place in Athens. Jo’s “beef steak” was more like a slice of meatloaf that had been sauteed in a pan. It was very tasty and came with a side of thinly sliced, fried potatoes.
The Greek salad was better than average; the tomatoes seemed particularly ripe and the feta cheese slice was generous. The baklava and the yogurt came with nicely ripe strawberries. It’s strawberry season here and they are as luscious as early summer. The yogurt was also topped with a bit of orange gelée.
With a beer for me and a Diet Coke for Jo, the whole meal cost, with tip, an astonishing $30. Sometimes it pays to be a tourist!