Delphi - The heart of Paranassus
Where once was the Center of the Earth
The 5 hour bus journey from Athens begins to get interesting only as it tails off towards its end, once you turn off the main road and reach Livadia. That’s when the hills make a first appearance, still a mere suggestion on the horizon but a promising one. And as we get near, the narrow winding road doesn’t begin the climb straight off; it curls its way to the belly of the valley, like a mystery writer taking you deep within the story, wary of revealing the plot, keeping the big picture out of sight. And then the slow and labored ascent begins. The bus charges on, losing its momentum and breath as it stretches towards its apogee, a distant town just below the peaks, revealed to us in glimpses but already looking like a picture from the postcards, immeasurably beautiful. That is the sleepy little town of Arachova, famous for its wondrous ski slopes. But this is the beginning of summers. The winter chill may not have totally dissolved yet but the snow has. And that’s when action shifts further down the road. It’s early May and halfway into the valley ahead; Delphi is just waking up from the slumber of winters, like most of touristy Greece.
The whole town is all but two streets which seem to exist more out of a modern-day necessity then slow organic growth of history which this quaint little town is famous for. The older one rises uphill hugging the towering mountain to the east, the Paranassus. It is a single lane which now serves the onward traffic and the more homely side of the town. It then declines into the road a few hundred meters down. The other one crawls downhill, clinging desperately, to the almost vertical cliff and eventually becomes the main road again. On this you would find the few tourists that have trickled in, downing their morning coffee in one of the many cafes.
We chose to get our first taste of Greek coffee at the oddity on the main street, the Telescope Café. There’s a mild chill in the air, a tad too much for our Indian frames, but the bunch of school students out for an architectural tour seem to be least fussed about it. They merrily hog the many telescopes placed in the patio of the café, which looks down the cliff towards the valley and the harbor town of Itea. We get curious. Yes the telescopes did come first, the name followed. Even without the telescopes, the beautiful hills and the Gulf of Corinth in the distance are enough to take your breath away. “It snowed last night”, says Tom, our barista and the proud owner of the café. He has kind but melancholy eyes. “Not here, up there on Paranassus”. There is a certain quality to the way he says Paranassus, as if it were a person.
Centuries ago, it was Paranassus, the very heart of which was carved out by ancient Greeks to sculpt Delphi (or Pytho as it was known in those days). It was a city dedicated to Apollo himself (as the myth goes) and marked by Zeus, god of all things, as the center of the earth. Its trademark amphitheater played host to the Pythian Games, one of the four PanHellenic games that the modern day Olympics are born out of. It is this amphitheater that is first to emerge as you turn the corner on the main road. The sanctuary is made up of buildings set on terraces in tiers. A curling path crawls up the tiers right up to the temple, the stadia and the amphitheater. Along the way are numerous statues and buildings of varying purposes and importance. Such is the incline of the Paranassus, that the all the buildings are almost distinctly visible from the road at the bottom.
The first buildings of importance you encounter as you make your way up are the many treasuries of the Greek City states, including Greek territories in the Seas. Used to store the bounty the states would dedicate to Apollo, five of the many treasuries have been distinctly identified. The city states would dedicate a part of the battle spoils after each battle, typically a tenth (a tithe) of their plunder. Only the Athenian Treasury survived neglect and vagaries of nature and has been reconstructed almost fully. Many other buildings dot the path as your rise further to reach the temple of Apollo.
The most important building of the set, the temple of Apollo was reinvented thrice, constructed thrice in the 7 th , 6 th and 4 th Century BC, before finally being destroyed in 392 AD. Like all mighty cities of the past, Delphi also fell prey to the rise of a belief system contrary to its creators. While Christianity continued its determined march through central and Eastern Europe, Theodosius I, lay waste to the temple to silence the iconic Oracle of Delphi for eternity. And Christians pillaged all of the remaining sites in a quest to wipe “Paganism”, leaving behind only ruins which stand to tell a broken story.
My humble imagination doesn't quite grasp the sheer glory this place would have seen, until we had climbed up almost half-way up the towering hill to the highest site in the sanctuary, the amphitheater. That is when the spectacle unravels before your eyes. A site so grand, only Gods must be worthy of it.
The Pythian Games, whose rise and fall was synonymous with that of the city, would showcase the glory of this sanctuary to all who came to bear witness. And, as if particularly to flaunt it, the amphitheater was designed to enable exactly that. The Koilon or the seating gallery not only offered a spectacular view of the Scena or the stage, but further down of the entire sanctuary of Delphi and even further of the valley of Delphi in its entirety and vastness. It was a view designed for a single purpose, to inspire awe. And as you stand in the top tear imagining how it would have looked, it does.
Getting to Delphi
Athens: The easiest and cheapest way is to catch one of the 6 buses that leave Athens daily from Bus Terminal B near the PRAKTORIA bus stop in Athens for Euro 15 a side.
Across Greece: The coastal town of Itea has regular buses from other towns across Greece from where a shuttle would leave you in Delphi in no time
Recommended: If you are the kinds, I seriously recommended considering driving in a rented car.
Most global car rental companies have offices at the Athens airport and very reasonable rates. Fuel costs vary but remain below Euro 2 per liter and if you have plans to travel on to other destinations like Patras or Meteora, having a car makes your life much (MUCH) easier given that alternatives include multiple bus / train changes.
Best Time: Winters if you like Skiing and don’t mind the snow, Summers if you are of a fragile construction like me and get misty eyed in front of grand history.
Buy: Fresh Olives. The region is obviously famous for them. Reach out the owner of Telescope Café, his grandfather’s hand-grown 100% organic olives were plain divine.
I sit and wonder often how in many ways the world has become more inaccessible in spite of faster travel & information age. Even the nature of hardships an Ibn Batuta faced, like belligerent kings or ruthless savages, would have been far more enriching and informing than the mundane problems that we face today like border controls or stubborn cabbies. I often wonder about the past, its people and their imagination. And how much of today is just that...how people of yesterday imagined and willed it to be.. And I travel, learning about them.