My blog has visited some of the greatest religious sites in the entire world, but, for me, none can compare to Delphi in Greece! Some of my favourite ancient and religious sites include; Stonehenge, Vatican City, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Petra, the Pyramids of Giza, Lhasa, Bali, Xi’an, Angkor Wat, Kyoto, Ayre’s Rock and Machu Picchu. Can you believe that I think all of these pale in significance to a trip to Delphi nestled in the mountains of Phocis in Central Greece? Delphi holds its own power over the imagination and psyche of visitors!
The ancient Greeks revered Delphi as the site of the Omphalos, the navel of the earth. The Greeks believed this was the exact centre of the earth and a place of immense power. Delphi was inhabited from the late Stone Age and was a significant location of religious observance by the Mycenaean period of 1600 – 1100 BCE. It was renowned for the Oracle of Delphi, a priestess who entered a trance and recited ecstatic verses that were interpreted by priests into answers to questions posed by supplicants.
Delphi gave a connected cultural experience to all Greek-speaking peoples from the Black Sea to the far western reaches of the Mediterranean and everywhere in between. Delphi was the one place where warring city-states could meet to seek mediation from the Oracle. Similarly, even if they were mired in battles, the Greek-speaking peoples would meet in peace in Delphi for religious festivals and athletic events. Delphi was referenced in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
In 392 CE, the last great western Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, caused all non-Christian worship at Delphi to cease. By that time, Christian churches had been built alongside the pagan temple precinct. Theodosius’ edicts effectively discontinued the 2000 year history of Delphi as a religious centre but it was kept alive in popular thought. Delphi saw a great revival in interest during the Renaissance. Great poets, writers and artists have captured the essence of Delphi. Michelangelo painted the Delphic Oracle into the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Serious excavations started in the late 19th Century. Today, Delphi is a wonderfully curated site full of power even though most of it is in ruins.
Probably the best way to reach Delphi is by Bus or car from Athens. The mountainous region does not allow for airports. The drive from Athens is beautiful and passes by famous sites like Marathon (where the eponymous victory over the Persians occurred), Ancient Thebes and Mount Parnassus. Delphi sits above the Gulf of Corinth and it is possible to sail from Corinth to Delphi in a few hours by motorised boat. Whichever way you arrive, the views are spectacular and awe-inspiring.
Once in Delphi, there is a lot to see. Here are my favourite sites in this beautiful place:
- The Delphi Museum – this well-curated museum contains one of the most important and beautiful collections in the world; all gathered from this single site! The museum is just adjacent to the temple precinct. My favourite in the Museum is the Charioteer, an ancient bronze sculpture that is still impressive more than 2500 years after it was made.
- The Via Sacra – this is the walkway through the temple precinct and contains some incredible ruins and panoramic views. I love the partially reconstructed Treasury of Athens where the spoils of war were deposited after the victory at The Polygonal Wall is interesting because its massive stones were neatly constructed out of blocks that are not rectangular.
- The Temple of Apollo – this is the focus of the entire precinct and is still impressive despite being in ruins. The Pythoness, or priestess of Apollo recited prophecies from a room deep in the ground under the main altar of the temple. Chemical analysis has shown that she breathed in strong aromatic gasses from a fissure in the floor that must have caused her to hallucinate and thus be possessed by the god.
The Theatre’s shows are definitely in colour!
- The Theatre – this beautiful structure is sited above the Temple of Apollo and looks down over the entire site. Still mostly intact, the Theatre hosts performances. Impressive acoustics mean that no artificial amplification is required to hear perfectly even from the top row of seating.
- The Stadium – this arena for sporting events is even higher up the mountain above the Theatre. From here, athletic and musical events were staged in front of a crowd of more than 6,500. Partially in ruins, the starting line for the races is still in place with fine pieces of marble.
- Other ancient sites – Delphi is full of impressive constructions including; the black marble Altar of the Chians, the statue-lined Stoa of the Athenians, the Rock of the Sibyl where the Pythoness might have originally declaimed her prophecies, the circular Tholos with its impressive position over steep drops, the Castalian Spring with the ruins of ornate fountains and the Gymnasium where athletes prepared for competitions.
- Skiing on Mount Parnassus – if you tire of ancient ruins, you can visit the nearby Ski Resort of Mount Parnassus. With ski runs open from late Autumn until early April, Parnassus offers incredibly views in a one-of-a-kind setting – even if the slopes are not too challenging. During the summer, try their Segway tours.
- Sailing in the Gulf of Corinth – once one of the busiest sea-lanes in world, the Gulf is still a wonderful place to sail and explore. Frequent excavations also bring up incredible artifacts from the seafloor.
Delphi, situated as it is between Heaven and Earth, offers the best of the lands and sea for food. Here are my favourite restaurants near the ancient site:
- Epikouros Taverna – situated with a beautiful view over the Gulf of Corinth in the nearby modern village of Delphi, this wonderful restaurant is my go-to place when I’m in the region. The local recipes are wonderful!
- Taverna Christos – located in nearby Arachova, this restaurant is known for its lamb and other meat dishes. The hearty meals are full of flavour and the location of the restaurant is lovely.
Dinner might be a bit mezze!
- Maritsa Restaurant – located close to the water in Galaxidi on the coast of the Gulf of Corinth a short distance from Delphi, you can expect that the seafood is fresh and wonderful! I love the grilled octopus for its tender meat and wonderful flavour.
Delphi has a surprising variety of nightspots given that it is close to an ancient site. The nightlife is greatly improved by the proximity of the ski resort at Parnassus which means there are several après ski venues. Here are my favourite nightspots in the area:
- Club Katoi – this youthful venue is below the village of Delphi and is always full of young tourists and visitors. The mix of nationalities makes this a great place for dancing while enjoying drinks.
- Emboriko Tsitsi – this elegant bar is housed in a beautiful chalet just outside of Arachova. The mixologists make creative cocktails in a relaxed but upscale environment.
- Red Six Bar – this is one of the oldest venues for après ski in Arachova and is still one of the best. It is a restaurant earlier but then turns into a nightclub as the evening turns into night. Expect a good DJ to keep everyone dancing until the early hours.
Located at the base of the mountains, there are some cool hotels and guest houses in and around Delphi. Here are my favourites:
- Tagli Resort & Spa – this wonderful property of just twenty rooms is my favourite because of its relaxing spa. Located in Livadi, it is close to nightlife and still close to the ancient site at Delphi.
- Archontiko Art Hotel – this wonderful hotel located in nearby Galaxidi is centrally located in the village and offers wonderful views of the Gulf as well as Mount Parnassus.
- Kartalia Boutique Hotel – this comfortable and traditional property is right in the village of Delphi and thus is really close to the ancient site. I love the restaurant associated with this friendly hotel.
I’ll race you in the Stadium!
I don’t know if it is the setting, the sites reputation or whether some places are truly divine, but you’ll feel the mystical presence strongly in Delphi. There is a reason this place has been revered for more than 4,000 years!