Eggs, cheese, bread and Nescafe again. It’s monotonous but adequate. In fact it’s a very nice breakfast, but we don’t eat cold cuts, honey drenched pastries and olives for breakfast much. Emma gets cornflakes. Lily struggles the most. Oddly, she doesn’t like breakfast food categorically anywhere.
The hotel is packed packed with children, one of which is playing some kind of very loud video on an iPad. I rarely grumble about kids while travelling for the obvious reasons, but the ones in this hotel are getting to me. We could hear crying throughout the night. It does give me a break from thinking about how odd the music is. They are playing muzak – of the most insipid kind, with some really weird versions of things like the X-files theme song.
We’re just happy to be on vacation and we didn’t pay much for this place. The front desk arranges a taxi. The weather outside is absolutely gorgeous, with a clear blue sky. It’s cold, but not damp. We layer up.
Winter in Southern Europe can be great. Fewer crowds are the main benefit, but cooler temps and lower prices make it the better season as far as we are concerned. But it can be overcast and rainy, so I know we should get out while the sun is shining. Our Taxi driver, also Vassily, takes us back to the top of the panoramic viewpoints for more photos and gorging on this crazy scenery in the sunlight.
The contrast is too much for a great photo, but out there in the clean cold sun-filled air it’s intoxicating. The edge of the cliff is only feet below us, and a fall would certainly be deadly. This is one of those spots that will, perhaps rightfully, be all fenced in with a few more years time.
One of the cool parts of the Monastery lore is that they used only ropes to get up and down for most of their existence. Only in the 19th century did they add footholds in the rocks, and this century roads were built. They would lift and lower each other with a winch and rope that they would replace ‘when god was ready’ meaning when it broke, hopefully not with a Monk in tow. God’s will is hard for us mortals to understand sometimes…
After this cliff-side frolic, Vassily drives us down int the village of Kastraki, the daughter town to the local city of Kalabaka. It reminds me of a dozen other small towns in Spain and Italy where a subsistence agrarian old world merges with high volume new world tourism. It’s nearly barren but then there are a dozen cafes and some junk souvenir shops and glossy travel agencies.
A short hike up the hill into the gigantic pillars that make meteora famous are two old but uninteresting orthodox churches. Perched just above them is a strange monolith, our destination for the day. It’s a smaller pillar that is remarkable mostly because it hasn’t yet toppled over. It’s like a big fuck you. We walk back and eat at a small cafe – bean soup, spaghetti, greek salad on a sunny empty terrace. We are the only tourists here.
Back at the hotel after a rest and a pizza dinner that wasn’t very good (Lily devoured her chicken Souvlaki though) I propose a plan change to Amanda – and she agrees. It’s $500 more, but the next day we’ll go to the center of the earth – Delphi.
Day Four – Delphi
We get the same taxi driver, Vasilly as yesterday. He says there are only 15 or so taxis in Kalabaka so this wasn’t very unlikely. He patiently waits as we finish some email and grab the usual breakfast. The ride down to Delphi is 3-4 hours and the sun streams in the car, putting us all to sleep. At one point we see Mt. Olympus in the background. Emma is passed out and I decide not to wake her.
She is the most excited about Delphi. The Greeks thought this was a sacred, spiritual site for millennia, although it probably only had been inhabited for a handful of centuries before the classical period. This southwestern slope of Mt. Parnassos was considered spiritually sacred because it is the place where Apollo killed the serpent python, the home of Pegasus, and the place Zeus determined to be the center (navel) of the earth by sending two eagles in opposite directions and marking where they crossed. And of course, the oracle of delphi was the most important of the Greek Oracles they used to divine the future.
We grab a quick coffee outdoors, looking over the brightly lit Gulf of Corinth before we walk the ruins. The small area was built with massive contributions of wealth from other cities. It’s situated on terraces of a fairly steep slope making an impressive view from both below and above, almost like a isometric viewpoint.
The centerpiece is the temple of Apollo, the god of art, knowledge and beauty among other things. Only six of the columns remain, but the whole foundation and floor is very well preserved, giving us a good sense of the scale. Here was inscribed one of the most famous Delphic Maxims ‘Know Thyself’. The other 137, including ‘All things in moderation’ were associated with the temple.
It is on that floor that oracles – a succession of women chosen from local sheepherders – would have either taken drugs or perhaps become delirious on noxious vapors from cracks in the mountain-side and prophesied the future.
Oracle rants and exultation were translated into poetry by the priests for consumption by kings, generals, priests and wealthy men. The oracle tradition was embraced by Turks, Egyptians, Romans but ultimately not the Christians who shut it down permanently in 390 AD by ransacking the area and destroying any surviving statues. Fortunately because of earthquakes, some statues remain.
Around the Temple of Apollo are treasuries, that held offerings and money used to build and support the site. The Athenian treasury is the best remaining of them. It was built in dedication to the victory at the battle of Marathon over the Persians which was the last time Sparta and Athens would be friendly for a long time, and also made way for the Greek classical age.
There is a theater that seats 4,500 people, with the most magnificent view of the valley. Emma tells us each of the Greek gods, and several of the stories associated with them. “I’m a greek myth nerd. I need to snapchat video this to my friends.” she says. ” Apollo was god of a lot of things from the sun to knowledge to archery’ she tells Lily.
Lily brings her own interest in Delphi. She played Oedepus in a mash-up of the Oedepus plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Oedepus and his son visit the Oracle of Delphi in the play. It’s very likely that Oedepus Rex was performed right here in this theater over two millennia ago.
Apollo was the god of music and arts, and Delphi hosted the earliest known festival and competition alongside a more traditional athletic one every 4 years. Originally it was every eight years and may have started with music only – adding sports and drama later to build more reputation, although it was hardly needed. Several smaller wars among the Greeks were fought over control for Delphi which attracted a lot of money and power.
It’s a stunning day out – cool and clear and sunny. We are taken with the beauty and power of this place. It reminds me, in that way, of Macchu Pichu. The place itself seems majestic, even magical. They whistle us off the top, signaling that it’s time to go down. We get half price tickets here in Greece, but all the attractions close early. They have also been generous calling the girls ‘kids’. Most places we go want obvious teens to pay the full adult fare.
Our final stop is the museum, which has several great originals including the Charioteer of Delphi and the Sphynx of Naxos (No photos allowed in the museum) – both among the best examples of their style from Ancient Greece. Vasilly picks us up and gets a suggestion for a dinner/lunch place. It’s 4pm, and more likely lunch for Greeks than dinner but we eat like it’s our last meal of the day. We get served some amazing semolina bread and good salads in a covered porch restaurant as the sun went down.
More amazing is the sunset over the ski town Arachova, on the snowy side of Mt. Parnassos where ski season is just beginning. The tiny town had streets only large enough for one car at a time and according to Vassily were only for the very rich – I’m guessing like an Aspen or Veil but thousands of years old. Hadn’t really thought of Greece as a ski destination but one can apparently get some downhill action here.
And with another few hours in the car, and a crawl through north Athens, we arrive at our hotel, which is blocks from the Parthenon. Have I mentioned how much we like Europe in winter? Our room has a view of the lit Parthenon from our bed for only $80 a night with breakfast. Tomorrow we see the greatest ruins of Western Civilization.