Delphi and the Oracle

Delphi is an easy bus trip from Athens (we were told) so we got up in the morning and took the metro to a stop that was allegedly close to the bus station.

Rick Steves is usually good about giving directions but his Greece book had very little info about inter-country travel and we had no map that gave us information about the exact location of the bus station.

I voted for a taxi.

Corey thought maybe we should walk around a bit and see if we could find it. A taxi won out for time considerations and as we rode to the bus station, I looked out the window and thought “I would NEVER find this place without a map” just as Corey said out loud “This is basically where I thought it was. We should have walked.”

Reasons why we travel well together and yet another reason why everyone I know is astounded I ever find anything by myself.

We bought bus tickets to Delphi and treated ourselves to a Greek Frappe – Nescafé and condensed milk whirled into a highly caffeinated sugary mass – and then got on the bus behind an American couple where he was wearing a cowboy hat and she was complaining about the squat toilet she’d just used.

Times I like to pretend I don’t speak English.

The bus ride went up into the mountains for about two hours and then dropped us off at the town of Delphi. The actual historical site is a half mile back out of town – down the way the bus just came – and then a solid mile and a half trek up the mountainside gaining almost a 1000 feet in elevation. If you want the knowledge, you gotta make the climb.

Delphi

This is the view from the top looking down

Delphi

Ready for me to lay a little learnin’ on ya? Alright then.

Delphi was once considered the middle of the known world.The ancient Greeks believed that Zeus himself had determined this location by releasing eagles at either end of the world and when they met in the middle, there was Delphi. These cone shaped stones are omphalos, which means navel.

Omphalos

And what better place for an Oracle to predict the course of human destiny than the navel of the world??

Pilgrims did a ritual cleanse in the spring at the bottom of the mountain, which still runs, and then toiled up this mountain bringing offerings – a loaf of bread was the minimum entry fee – before going into the Temple of Apollo to confront the Oracle.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

For a thousand years there was at least one woman as an Oracle in this temple. Until 394AD this temple had a woman sitting on a cauldron on top of a tripod, likely stoned out of her mind from the gases coming thru the rock under her, and listening to questions from pilgrims, kings, conquerors and philosophers asking about matters ranging from finance and farming to military coups.

This is the temple from above

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The priests around the Oracle interpreted her answers in “vague haiku like poems” after which the supplicants went home and puzzled out the haiku answers in any way they wished.

Some pilgrims didn’t have the patience for this process, like Alexander the Great. Legend has it that the Oracle gave him some kind of mystical answer to his military campaign questions. Her vagueness displeased him so he took her by the throat and shook her until she said “You’re unstoppable!” so he took that to be his answer.

It’s a testament to people’s basic need for advice that this system persisted for 1000 years, isn’t it?

Of course I am not above some good advice or a shot at Oracle wisdom, so I asked some questions of the Ghost of the Oracle, threw some money into her coffers – a couple euros, an American quarter and some Turkish lira – and then cleansed myself in the springs below on my way out. It was all backwards but I think she’d be ok with that.

I can’t tell you her answers because A. they’re haikus and B. you have to make your own trek and ask your own questions!

We also visited the theatre

Corey at Delphi

and the stadium of the Pythian games, a little brother to the Olympic Games and the second largest athletic competition in ancient Greece. This is the running track/stadium, just slightly shorter than the one in Olympia.

Pythian Games stadium

We then staggered back down the mountain and went even further down the road to see the Sanctuary of Athena, a gorgeous ruined tholos of unknown purpose, likely dating back to Mother Goddess/Gaia worship and the well deserved “most photographed spot in all of Delphi.”

Sanctuary of Athena at Delphi

This was my most favorite spot of the entire site. It’s a bit of a hike down the road and then down the hill but really worth it.

Sanctuary of Athena at Delphi

Plus there’s this plinth on the way that provides an excellent photo op!

Kaitlyn at Delphi

I look cranky but I promise I’m just hot.

Our bus ride back home included a handful of loud Italian girls, a very prominent nose picker and a man spreader in front of me taking up all my space. Sigh.

And back at our hostel we went to the roof top bar. The pamphlet at the front desk advertised a “bucket of beer” and even showed a picture of a bucket with several beer bottles in it but when we asked, the bartender got this look on her face and said “what is this ‘bucket’??”

I would call this #americanproblems but she was standing in front of a sign that said “No Smoking at Any Time/No Wifi” while at the bar there were 12 people smoking while using internet on their phones so… clearly no one knows what’s happening.

We chalked it up to “promises unfulfilled,” got a couple big beers, sat on our balcony looking at the lit up Acropolis and then called it a night.

Acropolis

Next up, Mykonos!

Athens and Anafiotika

Back when I was a younger traveler – both in age and experience – I was all about Lonely Planet guides. And they were all great until I had literally the worst experience ever in Ecuador with a LP guide that – upon research – had terrible reviews, inaccurate outdated information and generally terrible guiding in a country where you actually need it.

Whereas Latin America often requires a guide book since the tourist sites aren’t well marked or easy to get to, as an English speaker in Europe, you really don’t need a guidebook for the most part. The major sites are well traveled, they all have English information pamphlets and most of the picture/statuary legends are translated into English. Plus there’s the entirety of the internet for hotel and food recommendations so traveling advice is everywhere if you want it.

But I still buy guidebooks because I often don’t have internet access when I’m wandering about in a city and when I travel to Europe, I buy a Rick Steves guide because he has kick ass city walking tours. Really, that’s my main thing. I love a good tourist site but what I really want to do in a new city is walk around, see the neighborhoods, find some beautiful stuff and learn a few things. Overall, Rick Steves is great for that kind of traveling and I’ve had great luck with his guides in Berlin, Istanbul, Spain and Belgium.

Rick Steves and Greek Coffee

The Rick Steves guide to Greece, however, has some great walking tours but he admits to bias for mainland Greece over the islands and he doesn’t like Athens. Weirdly, he wasn’t alone in that! He – and almost everyone else I talked to before I left – said “don’t stay in Athens any longer than you need to. Get in, see a few things and get out.”

I totally disagree.

Ya’ll, Athens is cool as hell. I found the city to be colorful and intriguing and full of a captivating cast of characters.

Athens Balloon Man

There were international groups of backpacking kids with 1 euro beers sitting in the Monastiraki square, rich European ladies dragging YSL luggage in their stiletto heels on cobblestones (!), craggy Greek men sitting around small café tables with permanently installed cigarettes discussing the world’s problems and crowds of young Greeks bustling about the business of life.

The city is full of street art. A lot of it is scribble but there are some really legitimately beautiful pieces all over the city.

Athens street art

Corey in Athens

It reminded me of Berlin. I suspect that with Athens’ economic issues, it’s like Berlin circa 1993 after the wall fell but before the city got back in its feet.

My favorite neighborhood was Anafiotika in the Plaka, a gorgeous neighborhood built by islanders from Anafi. It climbs right up the hill to the Acropolis

Anafiotika

Via long sets of stairs

Anafiotika

It’s a beautiful windy space full of cozy white buildings tucked into corners with blue shutters, blooming bougainvillea

Anafiotika

Trees growing into the buildings

Anafiotika

and always the neighborhood cats

Anafiotika

I saw the best street art in the whole city up in this neighborhood, like these Three Graceful Harpies

Three Graceful Harpies

This Humpty Dumpty reading

Humpty Dumpty reads

These lovers by our cafe table

The Lovers - Anafiotika

These tiny murals

Anafiotika

And this memento of the ocean

Anafiotika

The views of Athens were stunning from this hillside perch

Athens from Anafiotika

And I found myself dreaming of coming back here and living for a few months. I would rent a tiny place in this neighborhood and I likely wouldn’t ever come back with a view like this every day.

Anafiotika

We only spent a few days in Athens but I would go back in a minute. I found the city easy to navigate, full of beautiful things and I wanted more time to explore the neighborhoods and find some decent food. We had crap luck with food until the end of our trip.

But for real, Athens you’re a stunner. I can’t wait to revisit you!

Visiting the Acropolis

Back when I was looking at hotels in Athens I was all “ooooh, this one has a view of the Acropolis! Let’s stay there!” and then I got here and realized that everything in the city has a view of the Acropolis. It’s not quite the tallest thing in the city but almost.

View of the Acropolis

And of course that begs, the question “How does one get up there and do we have to climb the whole way?” All you cliff climbers can definitely do the whole thing on foot but we took the Athens Happy Train, a tiny little intercity trolley that whips you past all the highlights of the city and is on a schedule I can only describe as erratic. It’s supposed to run every half hour… it doesn’t. As with most conveyances in Greece, it’s best to be patient and not in a hurry. Get a coffee. Settle in. You’ll get there eventually.

The Happy Train took us most of the way up that cliff top and dropped us off at the foot of this ticket line

Acropolis ticket line

But even though this looks like a crazy number of people pouring in through those massive gates

Acropolis gates

Once you actually get into the Acropolis, there’s space for days.

Acropolis

Of course we visited in not quite high season so I expect August to be wall to wall sweating bodies. I recommend the end of May.

The site itself is a stunning mass of scenic rubble. And I mean that in the best way possible.

Acropolis

For funsies, here’s some reality for the history nerds amongst you:

The Parthenon was constructed between 447-438BC.

10 YEARS.

That’s it.

Most massive sites around the world took centuries to complete (Sagrada Familia, I’m looking at you…) but these Parthenon guys just got it done.

Acropolis

This is all the more impressive considering each capital – that little frilly carved bit at the top – weighs 8-9 tons and the marble quarries were 16 miles away. Also, Athens is at sea level and the Acropolis is 490 feet up. There’s approximately 100,000 tons of marble in this building alone that was all dragged up this cliff by people and animals.

Acropolis

Imagine what they could have done with machinery…

On an artistic science-y level, these genius Greeks figured out that there’s a difference between a mathematical straight line and how the human eye perceives things. It bugged them that a long straight floor might be seen to sag as it recedes into the horizon so they crafted a subtle rise in the floor so that we see it as a straight line. And the columns were crafted individually of varying thicknesses and at a series of slants so that we see them as long straight lines. Allegedly if they go up high enough, they all meet at the top.

Acropolis

So much of the art and statuary of these sites has been removed into museums but these columns are originals and they’re serious works of art.

Down the slope from the Parthenon is this theatre, renovated enough to be useable but left wrecked enough to be scenic.

Theatre of Dionysus

In strict contrast to the Theatre of Dionysus, which is just wrecked

Theatre of Dionysus

Our ticket included the Agora but we did the Acropolis first and neglected to notice that the Agora closed at 3pm… The first of many random opening and closing times in Greece so for all future travelers, pay some attention to that when you visit.

Instead we saw Hadrian’s Arch, a Roman triumphal arch that once divided the city of Athens into the old city of Theseus and the new city of Hadrian. Would that all territory wars had such beautiful artistic divisions.

Hadrian's Arch

It’s separated by a fence from this Temple of Zeus.

Temple of Zeus

You can see the Zeus Temple through the fence and we definitely saw Temple tourists photographing the Arch and Arch tourists photographing the Temple. So, that’s a possibility. The other option is to pay 6E and go through the fence and walk around the Temple. Which is what we opted for.

We did not get site tickets inclusive of all the Athens sites. I think if you want to do that, you have to go to smaller sites first because all small site tickets give you an option to include the Acropolis. But the Acropolis site has no inclusive tickets for the smaller sites. Strange but there it is.

I enjoyed this cracked up column, they call it “bottle caps,” that allows us to see how they put these massive pieces together.

Temple of ZeusThis temple was once the largest in the Roman world but was “pillaged by barbarians” in 3AD and never repaired. That means it’s been a wreck longer than it was ever a temple.

I have a lot of thoughts on these ruins, as you might expect, but I’ll save them for another post because are we done with crashed out Greek temples? No my friends, we are not.

Up next, Delphi.