Delphi was not one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But when it came to status and importance, few sites were as powerful as Delphi, an easy two and a half hour road trip from Athens. For a thousand years, people rich and poor, kings and peasants from across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, visited and venerated the sanctuary of Apollo. Its oracle was the spiritual centre of their world.
Delphi was a place you went to foretell your future: from questions about marriage and planting crops, to weighty matters of state like whether to go to war. The fortune teller—a middle-aged, devout village woman— is thought to have entered her trance by chewing bay leaves or perhaps something mildly poisonous. Her prophecies were famously obscure and open to various interpretations. Among the most celebrated was the advice given to Themistocles when he asked how to defend Athens against the Persians: “Trust in your wooden walls.” Themistocles set about reinforcing his fleet, which trounced the Persians in the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The cryptic oracle thrived for centuries and those who came seeking answers made offerings as payment, turning Delphi into one of the Hellenic world’s wealthiest shrines.
Of myths and mountains
Delphi would surely have also made the list of antiquity’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. Even today, its setting alone makes it worth the pilgrimage. The ruins run horizontally and vertically on the south-facing slope of Mount Parnassos, one of Greece’s highest mountains, and overlook one of its largest olive groves, with the Gulf of Corinth in the background. The pilgrims would purify themselves in the famous Castalian spring at the foot of the dizzying red-gold cliffs of Phaedriades.
Myths abound as to Delphi’s origins as a sacred nexus: from other-wordly fumes rising from a chasm that induced the uttering of prophecies; to Zeus releasing two eagles from separate ends of the earth and declaring the place where they met to be the omphalos (navel) of the world. (You can see the rather homely boulder that was the ‘belly button’ in the museum, which lies a few metres south of the main entrance to the ruins).
Getting site specific
The oracle was originally dedicated to Mother Earth. But by Homer’s day (8th century BC), Apollo, the god of prophecy and light, had made it his domain. Walk up the Sacred Way that zigzags to his temple and you will pass the bases of the various treasuries donated by Greek city states and colonies (models of these are on display in the museum too). The temple itself is much ravaged, but enough has been restored to give you some idea of its former might. As they approached it, worshippers would have seen two famous commands at either end of the massive foundation: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess”. Words to still take to heart.
Above the temple lies a perfect small theatre and, above that, the stadium where the Pythian Games (only slightly less important than the Olympics) were held every four years. Believe it or not, so much of Delphi was once pillaged, buried by earthquakes or built over, that once upon a time this stadium would have been all you could see here. But French archaeologists in the late 19th century went to work. After persuading the villagers to relocate to the new town nearby, built specially for them, the archaeologists gradually peeled back the layers of these astounding ruins, revealing sculptures, inscriptions, and offerings to Apollo and his spokeswoman, Pythia. The place from which Pythia uttered her advice has not been found, though it was thought to be under the temple.
Before you start wandering about this riveting site, visit the museum, where you’ll find models of what it was like in its heyday, as well as maps and information to help you find your way around. The prize attraction, in a room of its own, is the so-called Charioteer, a masterpiece in bronze whose glass eyes and beautiful toes will mesmerise you. Don’t forget to explore below the road, too. You’ll find the temple of Athena and a delightful tholos—or circular monument—in pink and white marble.
Good to know
Delphi is a terrific place to visit off-season. Most people say they can sense a certain “something” in the air here and that tangible feeling is stronger when there are fewer visitors around. Exploring ancient Delphi in milder weather - or first thing in the morning, if you’re there in summer - also makes for a more comfortable experience. A map and a guidebook should be more than adequate for poking around Delphi on your own. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to drill deep and leave the scheduling to someone else, you can always book one of the many Delphi tours from Athens. Alternative Athens and Athens Insiders are two operators providing good packages.
Things to see and do in and around Delphi
The most impressive thing about the modern town of Delphi are the dramatic mountain and sea views you’ll catch from the balconies of its many hotels and restaurants. You might even spot Zeus’ eagles in flight below you. For a seaside lunch, you could drive about half an hour through splendid olive groves to the coastal town of Itea, directly below the site. Or from there head 7 km west to photogenic Galaxidi, a serene port that was surprisingly busy during the age of sail.
Or stick with the mountain theme and drive just east of Delphi for a traditional taverna lunch at Arachova. This rustic village, famed for its upscale boutiques and cheese shops, is a popular alpine escape for fashionable Athenians, with ski lifts and lodges nearby. Hikers wanting to explore the trails on this majestic mountain also use Arachova as their base.
If you have your own car, do stop at the Osios Loukas monastery before you get to Arachova. Founded in the early 10th century by a hermit who was also blessed with prophetic powers, you’ll see some remarkable frescoes and mosaics – among the finest in Greece. Nestled in a grove of almond trees, this Unesco World Heritage Site is especially wondrous in early spring.
Osios Loukas lies a bit beyond Distomo, the site of one of Greece’s most brutal massacres. In 1944, the Nazis slaughtered 214 men, women and babies in reprisal for the death of three German soldiers at the hands of guerrillas. You can visit the commemorative monument bearing the names of all the victims and a small museum. If only the Nazis had considered the words of the Delphic Oracle when the Spartans, victorious over Athens in the final battle of the decades-long Peloponnesian Wars, asked if they should raze the city to the ground. The answer was clear: “It is not your duty to destroy the central hearth—and undying fire and flame—of Hellas.”