Monday, September 10: For my last three days on the mainland, I have arranged tours with G.O. Tours. Today’s tour is a two-day tour to Delphi – Meteora Monasteries. I usually try to avoid tours because I hate getting stuck in large groups that include people I don’t like, I dislike the large-scale “tourist restaurants” where they invariably take you for meals, and I don’t like not having the freedom to linger in a place I find fascinating or to rush through a place I find boring. Not only that, but I hate being captive on a bus that has no toilets. Neither do I like having to stay in a group and listen to a long-winded tour guide. I also get extremely irritated when the tour takes you to a large-scale tourist trap where they sell a bunch of overpriced souvenirs.
However, I decide now to take these tours because I don’t really want to hassle with going back and forth to the airport to rent a car; nor do I feel like driving the five hours from Athens to Meteora or the several hours to Delphi and then to Meteora. I have determined I want to see Meteora on this trip to Greece, and I’m tired enough by this time on my trip that I want someone else to do the logistics.
The total cost for this tour is 162 euros, which includes the tour, entrance fees to the sites, dinner, hotel and breakfast. Drinks and lunch are not included. On top of that, because I am a single person, I get penalized and have to pay a single supplement of 28 euros. So, my total cost is 190 euros, or around $248. Very steep, I know!
The first day of the trip, we leave for Delphi via Thebes, Levadia and the picturesque village of Arachova, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, arrive in Delphi and visit the Archeological Site. After this visit we are to depart for Kalambaka, the town at the foot of the Meteora Monasteries.
On the way there, our tour guide, an older frumpy woman with orange dyed hair, tells us a bunch of random facts about Greece. I have no idea of the truth of these “facts,” but I’ll give them to you just the same.
She tells us that Salonica, also known as Thessalonica, is the second largest city in Greece with 2 million people. It is the capital of the Central Macedonia region. The Sea of Thessalonia is part of the Aegean Sea.
All of Greece has 11 million people and Athens has 5 million. We drive today along the Sea of the Saronic Gulf. She says you can swim in these seas from April to the end of October. Piraeus is the main harbor and is 10 km from Athens.
She then tells us about the Greek flag. The cross represents Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the established religion of the Greek people of Greece and Cyprus. Ninety-six percent of Greeks are Greek Orthodox and 4% Catholics and Protestants. The blue color represents the sea and heaven. The nine stripes represent the nine syllables of the Greek phrase that means “Freedom or Death.”
Other flags that you see in Greece are the blue flag with a star which is the European Union flag. Greece has been a member of the EU since 1991.
On the highway, we pass by the town of Thebes. Here legend has it that Europa was kidnapped and taken to Crete. The guide points out the pistachio tree orchards in the area. She also points out the numerous little shrines along the highway for people who died in car accidents. They are filled with olive oil and water. Sometimes people stop and take the oil and water and light the lamp. Sometimes they put flowers in the shrines. Or they put coins in them, and then the local priest collects them and gives them to poor families. Sometimes these shrines have pictures of the people who died.
Mount Parnassus is a 2,500 meter mountain of limestone that towers above Delphi, and offers scenic views of the surrounding olive groves and countryside. According to Greek mythology, this mountain was sacred to Apollo and the Corycian nymphs, and the home of the Muses. Today there are two ski resorts on the mountain. Windmills dot the surrounding mountain tops. Also, aluminum is made from the bauxite found on Parnassus.
Delphi was not a town but the religious and spiritual center of the ancient Greek world, used for the worship of Apollo. It was considered the geographical center of the earth, where two eagles released by Zeus from opposite ends of the universe met. There is a conical stone there that is considered the navel of the earth. Delphi sits majestically on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and spreading into a valley of olive and cypress trees.
The guide tells us the story of Apollo, and I apologize if this is a little disjointed, but this is how I heard it and wrote it down. When Apollo was 4 days old, he left the island of Delos. At Delphi, he killed a python. He went to Thembi (?) to purify himself and spent 7 years there. He was born on February 7. In honor of the number seven, the games were held every seven years. (This is what our guide tells us, but I find later that the Pythian Games were held every 4 years to commemorate Apollo’s victory over the python.) Apollo converted to a dolphin and asked sailors to become priests, or priestesses (pythias). First young priestesses served as the Oracle of Delphi, but the young maidens kept running off with the pilgrims who were seeking answers. Later the priestesses were required to be 50 years old, and even later 80 years old. They had to purify themselves in the Castalian Spring before entering the Temple of Apollo.
Delphi reached its pinnacle between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, when multitudes of pilgrims came to ask advice of the Oracle, which was believed to speak for Apollo. The rituals at Delphi were kept alive until the 2nd century AD, when the oracle’s influence began to fade. The Byzantine emperor Theodosius abolished the sanctuary in the 4th century AD.
We walk past the Roman Agora up the Sacred Way, climbing up the hill past the Athenian Treasury. Here, I take off from the rest of the tour group because they’re moving too slow for my taste. I come to the 4th century BC Temple of Apollo, which had in its day a statue of Apollo and an eternal flame. This is where the Oracle of Delphi was housed. I can’t linger because I want to climb all the way up past the Theater, where dramatic and lyric contests were held, and up to the top of the hill where the Stadium is. The Stadium was home not only to the athletic games, but also to musical events. I make it to the Stadium, but I’m very winded from climbing so quickly. Then, because there is not time allotted in our tour to see the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, I run back down the hill, and quite a distance down the road, then down another hill to the Sanctuary of Athena, which is the coolest place in Delphi. Why the tour has no time allotted for this, I don’t know. I barely make it back to the bus on time, and I’m covered in sweat.
The Sanctuary of Athena is the site of the 4th century BC tholos, the most striking of Delphi’s monuments. This circular structure had 20 columns on a three-stepped podium. The columns look like camouflage because some were re-erected in the 1940s. The white blotches on each column are the original marble, and the darker portions are new material.
The Delphi Oracle
There are more than 500 supposed Oracular statements which have survived from various sources referring to the oracle at Delphi. Many are anecdotal, and have survived as proverbs. Several are ambiguously phrased, apparently in order to show the oracle in a good light regardless of the outcome. Such prophesies were admired for their dexterity of phrasing. One such famous prediction was the answer to an unknown person who was inquiring as to whether it would be safe for him to join a military campaign; the answer was: “Go, return not die in war”, which can have two entirely opposite meanings, depending on where a missing comma is supposed to be – before or after the word “not.”
To read more about the oracular statements, see Wikipedia: List of Oracular Statements from Delphi
After we finish at Delphi, we head to lunch at one of those large tourist-type restaurants that exist solely for large tour groups. I have some Symposium Feta in a pot with tomatoes and peppers. For dessert I can’t help but try some rich Greek yogurt with fig preserves. It is delicious! I eat with a couple of women I have met along the way: Elena from Moscow, Vanessa from Montreal, and Gina from New Jersey.
Finally, after lunch we drive through the flat lands of Thessaly, the granary of Greece, toward Meteora. Here they grow cotton, grapes, tobacco and rice. Our guide points out Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece at 3,000 meters. All the gods of mythology lived here.
The guide tells us that the Thessalonians burned their fields when they saw the Turks coming, in one of the wars. She also tells us that women were allowed to eat with their husbands in Thessaly, where in other parts of the country, sharing a table with their men was strictly forbidden.
Finally, we arrive at the town of Kalambaka near Meteora, where we have dinner and stay the night at the Orpheus Hotel. Tomorrow we will explore the Meteora Monasteries….