Student Zoe has appeared unexpectedly (again) to escort me from Meteora to Delphi. This time the driver with her really is Nikos, complete with a ‘new’ car. He is a total contrast to Quiet Kostas, boisterously lively and he spends the whole journey telling me that I have beautiful eyes and that he loves me. Zoe takes great delight in translating and giggling. I'm very tempted to put on my headphones.
It’s raining and,, except for the artificial Plastira Lake (there's a dam), the landscape is dull. This is the area in which a rare medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) hit last week and many of the cotton fields around Trikala are still muddy lakes. Streamers of escaped bolls are gathering along the sides of the tarmac. The driver says that this is an important crop, the financial mainstay of this area since ancient times.
We stop for a break at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, where Leonidas' tiny army met Xerxes of Persia, seeking revenge for the Battle of Marathon. Nikos wants to re-enact the battle in front of the statue of Leonidas, who wields an impressive Gorgon monster emblazoned shield. Both Zoe and Nikos are, worryingly, under the impression that the Greeks were victorious. Then Zoe tells me that it was Hercules that killed the Gorgon monster; they are clearly not the best informed of guides. There is an exhibition centre with a diorama (for a fee) and happily Nicolas turns his charms on the lady behind the counter in the café instead.
From here we climb the zig zag passes and pine scented ridges of the Pindus Mountains to Delphi. The forests and peaks are interspersed with less than elegant flat roofed buildings, spur roads and lorries. These serve the many local bauxite mines located in the limestone crags and have resulted in great scabs across the beautiful landscapes. Above are two ski sections, Kellaria and Fterolakka, which together make up the largest ski centre in Greece. Ski House, Ski Café the shop facias proclaim. The villages are still very traditional, with narrow streets and large squares full of men, drinking their post church service and pre Sunday lunch aperitifs.
Delphi is built into the south western side of towering Mount Parnassus, which sadly has not been immune to bauxite scarring. Otherwise, Delphi has as heavenly a setting as the name suggests. It's built up the steep pristine slopes, with views across gorges and a sea of rippling olive trees, down to the Gulf of Corinth. Parnassus was sacred to both Dionysus and Apollo. The name literally translates as the mountain of the house of the god. Some scholars argue that Parnassus was also the home of the Muses, who were led by Apollo, so Parnassus has become synonymous with music, poetry and learning.
Because of its importance, the Ancient Greeks considered the centre of the world to be in Delphi; it was marked by a stone monument known as the omphalos (navel). Delphi grew rich, as it was venerated by most of the important ancient Greek city-states, who built various treasuries and monuments here.
The most renowned building is the temple Sanctuary of Apollo, the site of the Oracle. An eternal flame burned in the inner hestia (hearth) and the rich and famous came to hear their fate from the ranting Pythia. The most familiar building, that features in all the pictures of Delphi (there isn’t so much of Apollo’s temple left) is the beautiful circular tholos from the temple of Athena. This is idyllically situated, much lower down the slope.
This UNESCO site is not to be missed, and I decide to risk the ominous dark clouds gathering and stroll up the road from Delphi village. It's built along a precipitous ridge, so the hotels can all boast panoramic views. To the Delphi Enclosure, where there is good news and bad as always. The good news is that it’s a European Heritage Day and so it’s free to enter. Like everywhere else at the moment the site is relatively quiet with a few small groups of tourists and only one small coach parked up.
The bad news is that the lady in the ticket booth is horrified when I ask for a site map. So, I just follow the path, which has a few low stone signs and meanders relentlessly uphill. It’s torture for my calf muscles, still suffering from yesterday’s literally meteoric ascent.
Past the ruins of assorted temples and shrines, pillars arranged artistically against settings of cypresses, the theatre (surely one of the best open air backdrops in the world) and right up top to the stadium. Apollo's sacred precinct in Delphi was a Panhellenic Sanctuary. Every four years, starting in 586 BC, athletes from all over the Greek world competed in the Pythian Games here. I expect the athletes were fitter than me and their muscles didn’t complain.
The rain has returned with a vengeance so I nip into the museum. There’s an impressive range of artefacts, the earliest tiny clay figures dating from the eighth century B.C. Some of the pediments and column topping figures, including the omphalos itself are exquisite. (No pictures allowed.) It’s a shame that they can’t be admired in the actual buildings to which they belong.
Then, ten minutes along the road to Athena’s sanctuary and the tholos. It definitely takes centre stage amongst all these ruins, uplifting in the tranquillity of the olives.
The Kastralia advertises itself as four star boutique though I’m struggling to see why. Outside, it's prettily traditional with wooden doors and wrought iron balconies. Indoors my room is more Premier Inn with laminate furnishing and plain white linen. It’s not exactly atmospheric. And I’m smarting, as the hotel, like everywhere else in the time of Covid is not exactly bustling. And they still haven’t given me a room with a view. I’ve got the main street and the attendant noise below.
To be fair, you do get the view from the terrace restaurant, where the food is good, the staff friendly and they give you blankets to fight the chilly wind.
Next stop Milos.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.