Sunday, July 1, 2007

Delphi, navel of the world

Delphi soundtrack: greatest hits of the 80s -- Bette Davis Eyes, the Eurythmics, the Pointer Sisters. One exception is this gem I heard several times on the radio during our two days in Delphi:
I've had enough.
Baby, I'm leaving.
Elvis has left the building.
You had your chance.
I gave you the honor,
but, baby, you're no Madonna.

Apollo figured out Delphi was the center of the world by releasing two birds at opposite ends of the earth at the same time -- they met at Delphi. I'm not troubled by the releasing birds at opposite ends of the earth at the same time - he's a god, after all. But how do we know the birds flew at the same speed? What if one of them was a slacker who coasted on zephyrs while the other was flapping his little heart out? And what about the weather - did he make sure it was clear sailing all over the world for the duration of the flights? At some point, wouldn't a headwind for one have been a tailwind for the other? I think it's much more likely that someone looked at the mountains and views, calculated the distance from major population centers, and thought: this is a good place to build a shrine -- far enough away to make a pilgrimage feel cathartic, impressive enough to make a pilgrim feel gratifyingly small, but accessible enough to make the construction of large monuments possible.

I've wanted to see Delphi since I was a kid obsessed with Greek and Roman myths. So, in spite of the fact that I don't like vacations that involve a lot of running around to various places, we scheduled a two-day stop in Delphi at the beginning of our vacation. The bus from Athens takes 3 hours, which seems much shorter because the countryside is so stunning. The hills and mountains are rounded but craggy, equal parts bare stone and thick forest. Olive trees are everywhere, silver-green, short, twisted, and perfectly accented by the occasional cypress trees, tall black-green spires. The roads are lined with pink and white oleander, orange trumpet flower vines, and purple-pink bougainvillea. It's a landscape that feels, not like my actual home, but like my inner aesthetic home.

I was surprised to find that Delphi is a tiny mountain town. I'd always imagined the Oracle's cave in a secluded forest glen for some reason. Another thing I didn't realize is that Delphi was a sort of cross between the Vatican and the Way of the Cross. The Sacred Way, which leads to the Temple of Apollo is long, sweeping, magnificent, and really successful at putting one in mind of the greatness of the gods. And that's in its completely ruined state - it must have been dazzling in its prime. Walking the Way took almost an hour - if you go, bring a large bottle of water. We brought small bottles and they were empty before we got to the stadium at the top of the hill -- and that was on a day when the temperature was in the upper-70s. You can read all about what there is to see here. At the museum, which is definitely worth visiting, you'll see several reconstructions, both paintings and models. One thing I didn't understand were buildings that the reconstructors called stoas. They're long buildings with a back wall, three sides of pillars, and a roof. There's one at the start of the Sacred Way and another about half way up. The very fanciful painting in the museum shows them crammed full of highly decorative statues. I'm not convinced. They look to me like perfect places for peddlers of souvenirs and refreshments. Pilgrims brought all sorts of offerings: pigeons and other sacrificial animals, small figures of gods, goddesses, and navels (seriously - it was the navel of the world after all). It doesn't take much in the way of entrepreneurial smarts to figure out that at least some of the pilgrims might have forgotten to pack their sacrificial pigeons or perhaps realized that a homemade navel might not cut it with Apollo once they got a look at the offerings of the guy in line ahead of them. And that stoa halfway up is the perfect location for a cafe. I'd have gladly handed over several Euros for a cup of watered down wine at that point in the trek up.

The village itself is a couple of streets backed by a mountain facing a world of magnificent views. Have dinner in one of the restaurants facing the view to the sea. Swallows swoop, the sun sets, and slowly you start to see the lights of villages that aren't really visible during the day. Life is good.

On the downside: the national anthem of Greece should be "Everybody smokes" (to the tune of REM's "Everybody hurts"). Hasn't anyone told these people about the dangers of smoking, not to mention of second-hand smoke? So far Athens, Delphi, and Hydra have been horrific. Paros, where we are now, is heavenly by contrast, but that could be because of the constant wind.

Nest installment: Hydra, isle of ugly cats.

1 comment:

Chiefmot said...

Well M, I enjoyed your Greek travelouge. I do have some questions. First regarding the birds, were they sparrows and if so, were they English or African, finally were they laden or unladen (as in what is the air-speed velocity of an unladen sparrow?)?

Second, did you collect much lint from Delphi?

All of that silliness aside. I also enjoyed the landscape when I visited there, although I only got to Athens. Loved the cheese & olives.

I'm still miffed that you didn't bring me along to carry your bags...yes it's yur bro.

Great blog site, you've inspired me to start my own.