About 190 km northwest of Athens is the ancient center of the world, Delphi. We drove up from Athens (via a stop at Hosios Lukas monastery—see separate post). We stayed at the Hotel Varonos located on one of the two main streets in modern Delphi. This hotel has nice rooms, with decent size bathrooms, and our room had a good view of the large valley leading from the sacred city to the Gulf of Corinth in the distance to the south.
Although this post is entitled “Day Trips from Athens,” I highly recommend staying overnight in Delphi if possible, rather than doing a day trip from Athens.
We did our visit in two increments–we visited the lower site (known as the Sanctuary of Athena), which is free of charge and therefore has less restricted visiting hours, upon our arrival in the afternoon. The lower site contains what may be the most famous sight in Delphi, the circular Tholos (about 400 B.C.) which is part of the Temple of Athena Pronaia. There are other ruins in the lower site also, including other structures associated with the temple, and a gymnasium foundation and circular pool.
The next morning we visited the main upper site. By staying in town, we were able to be at the gates of the ancient site early enough to avoid the crowds and enjoy the stunning ruins in peace. Please note that as of June 2011, the main site’s hours were shortened (closing earlier in the afternoon–around 3 pm) due to government cost-saving measures. When the gate opened at 8:30 am the line was short–perhaps about 10 people. One can walk from the modern town to the ancient ruins in no more than 10 minutes, along the main road which ancient Delphi straddles. Parking is limited (just a few small lots along the curving road), providing another reason to get there early before the tour buses take over.
After purchasing tickets (€6 each) at the entrance,we hiked along the Sacred Way all the way up to the stadium, which is the highest ruin on the hill (Delphi sits on a steep slope), and then worked our way down through the various monuments, taking in the grandeur of the setting and ancient ruins.
The location of ancient Delphi is quite beautiful, on a slope surrounded by mountains, and near a small spring (the Castalian Fountain). The fountain was used for purification anciently. From the well-preserved theater, the view overlooking the valley is a treat. There is also museum at the site, which we did not take time to visit.
Although the area was originally settled by the Mycenaeans around 1500 BC, the worship of Apollo began in 7thcentury BC. The sovereign god of Delphi was Apollo, who guaranteed the enactment and observance of sacred laws, which were at the heart of the purpose of the great Oracle and sacred sanctuary. Government leaders and ordinary people from all over the Mediterranean region would come to the Sanctuary to seek the assistance of Apollo in matters of state and even personal problems. In order to hear a prophecy, the petitioner had to pay a special tax, go through a purification process and offer sacrifices. Greek cities also made offerings, housed in the many temple-like treasuries along the Sacred Way.
The famous Oracle, believed to be in a sanctuary below the Temple of Apollo, would inhale the earth’s vapors (through a gap in the ground) and chew on bay leaves (Apollo was associated with the bay or laurel tree), then go into a trance and would provide unintelligible prophecies. Priests would interpret the prophecies, but their interpretations were often vague. Delphi, along with the rest of Greece, came under Roman domination in 146 BC. The riches of the city must have been amazing at their height. These riches were looted Roman leaders by several times, but owing to the vastness of its treasures, even during the reign of Constantine the Great (324-337 AD) there were still many works of art which were transported to Constantinople. The Oracle continued to function until 394 AD when pagan religious practices were largely abandoned as Christianity spread in the Roman Empire. The site of Delphi was buried over the centuries by earthquakes and landslides and a village was built on the top of the ruins. Eventually (late 1800’s) the modern village was relocated, and more thorough excavations by the French brought to light the incredible archeological artifacts visible to tourists today.
Reference: Delphi: The Archeological Site and the Museum, published by D. Haitalis, Athens, Greece, 2008.