We drive to Delphi, and Bern and I will later agree that it was not at all what we expected. I knew that, on the slopes leading to the temple, there were monuments – treasuries, primarily, small buildings built by cities where their tithes were stored (Won a battle against Persia? 10% of the spoils to the gods – store them here…) – but we had pictured essentially a mountain-goat path adorned with the occasional ruin.
In fact, Delphi was a temple complex – a city unto itself. Just the identified buildings are a thick mass. A single path leads through most of this, carrying us ever upward. From the Roman Agora, where visitors could undoubtedly buy animals to sacrifice to the gods, past the treasuries – Sicyonians, Crateros, Argos. The nearly-intact Treasury of the Athenians with its tiny triangular platform in front, used to display the wealth Athens sent to Delphi. Past the replica Omphalos (Delphi was considered the center of the world, and the so-called ‘navel stone’ marked that spot inside the pre-Apollonian temple). Past the rock of the Sibyl (in older times, the priestess was said to sit here and give her oracles. After Apollo took over, the oracles were said to speak in tongues, requiring Apollo’s priests to ‘translate’ for them). The Halos, where Apollo’s defeat of the Pythos was reenacted every 8 years. The platform that once held the massive pillar topped by the Naxian Sphinx, now housed in the museum. And finally, the temple of Apollo.
Before we turn up the stairs that will lead us from the temple’s foundation up to its entrance, Bernie takes my photo. He has me stand next to the sign for Omphalos at the Altar of Apollo, “his proof that I am, in fact, the center of the world.”
We follow the path above the temple to the amphitheater. I stand at the stage and raise my arms to the empty seats – because who could resist Speaking at Delphi? Bernie captures a picture of it, and we look down over the ruined roof of the Aethenian treasury. In the distance, we can see an arch which we know is dedicated to Athena. It is not part of the Delphi complex, and nobody is sure exactly what its purpose was. We turn to walk further up to see the stadium, but the path is closed (everywhere, earthquakes and war have done damage – unpredictable closures, scaffolding and repairs are the order of the day at most of the ancient monuments). The ancient gymnasium where the athletes practiced is visible across the entry road.
We descend again, around the other side of Apollo’s temple, coming upon the ramp where seekers were allowed to stand and wait (they could not enter the temple – only the priests and oracles did that) and the nearby altar where their sacrifices were made. The square Pillar of Prusias is discordant next to the rounded columns of Apollo.
In the museum, we see the massive Naxian sphinx. For so long, people imagined the carved works on Greek buildings as white marble, but recent scholarship shows they were painted, and now the scientists are examining pigment remnants and such to identify what they would have looked like. Some of the stone work from the buildings still bears ancient pigment. We see them as they were, their bright reds and ochres faded with time but still clearly visible.
One room highlights the roman achievements at Delphi – the Romans (not just Hadrian!) were great admirers of the Greek achievements. One large stone inscription remains intact, and hangs on the wall inside the museum. “The Emperor Caesar Domitianus, son of the divine Vespasian, Augustus Germanicus, Chief Priest, three times holder of tribunician power, father of the fatherland, hailed Imperator seven times, consul ten times, designated consul eleven times, repaired the temple of Apollo at his own expense.”
The last thing we see before leaving the museum is a recreation of what the temple complex may have looked like with its buildings intact. The massive Temple of Apollo dominates, but we can clearly see the triangular porch of the Athenian treasury, the theater, and a half-dozen other things that are now recognizable to us.
We stop for lunch in Levadeia, capital of Boeotia. We park near the headwaters of the Herkyna and as we walk the cobbled path, we turn a corner and find the headwaters, adorned with a statue – well, a large head, emerging from the water – of the nymph Herkyna. The springs here were famous in antiquity as waters of remembrance – they could reverse the Lethe, the “waters of forgetfulness” through which you passed at death, and allow you to remember past lives.
When the Crusaders sacked Constantinople, they found the treasures that the Turks had looted from Greece and decided that they wanted some of that – so they essentially invaded parts of Greece, set up shop, and began pillaging. Mystras, which we would visit later, was only one such site. Levadeia’s Crusader castle is mostly in ruins, and its chapel is built over the earlier temple of Zeus. In the hills above stand an unfinished temple of Zeus Basilius, and a cathedral of Saint George.
After a quick lunch we continue on to Plataea, site of decisive moments in the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. Niko stops at a roadside ruin, unidentified other than a sign reading ‘archaeological site.’ It is the Acropolis of Plataea. Looking down the gentle slope, we see the long sloping fields where the Persian army stood in this final Greco-Persian battle; behind it, Thebes (allied to Persia) stands looking back at us.
When the Greeks pulled back to this location to meet their supply lines, the Athenians became disoriented and the Spartans refused to pull back (Spartans don’t surrender); the resulting disarray convinced the Persians that the Greek forces were fleeing, so they attacked. The naval battle at Salamis had already been lost – these 300,000 Persians were all that remained of Persia’s invading force. The 100,000 Greeks met the attack and prevailed, ending the Greco-Persian wars by killing all but 6,000 Persians, who were able to flee to Thebes.
Niko drives us to see the Corinth Canal – a marvel of 19th century engineering. The Greeks essentially cut through an entire isthmus in order to create a shipping channel that is 25m wide at the base. Its intensely blue water is beautiful. He tells us that the Nazis blocked the channel by dumping train stuff off the trestle bridges, which took years to clear out again.
We drive through modern Sparta – it is a busy little town, with the distinction of being the first in this part of the world to be built according to a city plan. Niko points out the hotel we are supposed to stay at. He then tells us that on a recent tour, he had a family with relatives in this region, who showed him a little town he hadn’t been in before. He found a new hotel, and this would be his first time there. “So, if it turns out not to be good – there (he points at a hotel on the main road) is where you should have stayed. You can blame Niko!”
He needn’t have been concerned. Xirokambi is a charming little village, and Taleton is a wonderful inn. Our room faces a private garden, with the bed above us in a loft area. Margy and Niko stay in an area that looks, from the inside, like a castle tower. It is comfortable and I could have stayed there a week just as happily. In the lobby is a sort of skylight in the floor. When we ask, we are told it is the top of an olive oil storage tank. They invite us to walk down and look at it from below, which we do.
Niko must be starting to get used to us, as he joins us for dinner at “Picadilly to Petrino,” and shares some of his art. He is a good photographer and an amazing artist – some of his charcoal sketches are near-photographic! Once again, I find a new preparation of lamb I haven’t tried, while Bern gets bold and tries the Bekri Meze, which he loves.