Voyage to the Center of the World

Voyage to the Center of the World

The peaks of Mount Parnassus shimmered on a warm spring afternoon above the temples of ancient Delphi. In a verdant valley below, silver-tipped olive trees stretched to the sea. The sun traced a golden arc in the azure sky. On a flat plateau surrounded by this natural theater, I looked up to find myself standing at the center of the world.

At least, the center of all things as the ancient Greeks knew it. In front of me was a black ovoid stone, known as the omphalos, set on the spot in Greek mythology where two eagles loosed by Zeus crossed paths at the earth’s nexus. It marked Delphi as one of the greatest enigmas of the ancient universe.

I had come for what was supposed to be an afternoon visit during a recent trip to Athens. Delphi is best known as the home of the famous Oracle — a powerful priestess who saw the future of kings and nations — and I wanted at least a glimpse of the mystery before pressing ahead with my travels.

But as I stood on the archaic plateau, I was riveted. The broken columns of once-mighty altars rose like spirits in the pure air. A timeworn stadium and a prodigious stone amphitheater reigned silently over the mountain. The Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle dispensed her cryptic prophecies, was ringed with paths trod by truth-seekers who had labored up the steep valley from the Corinthian Gulf.

While most travelers tend to use Athens as their base for seeing Greece’s classical highlights, reversing those roles, and choosing Delphi as an exploratory hub for a multiday tour, can bring unexpected rewards. After all, for ancient visitors, Delphi was the trip of a lifetime.

A Unesco World Heritage site, Delphi alone merits a full day to wander the extensive marble ruins and the fine Archaeological Museum of Delphi showcasing sublime sculptures, delicate friezes and other excavated gems. A second day can be spent touring mythological caves and springs during a birdsong-filled hike in Delphi’s lush forests.

The town of Delphi, with terraced hotels, rustic tavernas and sunning cats, is a charming and convenient base. It has uninterrupted views over the immense valley of ancient olive trees, the largest grove in all of Greece, to the azure waters of the Corinthian Gulf.

You can get to the gulf in less than half an hour by car. But that drive should be turned into a third full day of discovery, visiting scenic villages that antiquity’s travelers would have passed on their way to Delphi from the gulf. In springtime, the villages bolt to life with Carnival festivals celebrating pagan customs.

Ancient Delphi is a short bus ride or a pleasant walk from town. A wide road hemmed in by pines, laurels and cypresses leads to the entrance and up toward the Sacred Way — the path taken by King Oedipus, Alexander the Great, the Roman Emperor Nero and countless ordinary men and women determined to hear the Oracle’s pronouncements.

With Apollo’s priestess as the main attraction, Delphi’s renown grew as Greece’s wealthy city states, and powerful conquerors, built sumptuous treasuries filled with rich offerings to encourage the sun god to favor them in war and politics. Many paid tribute to victories gained through the Oracle’s guidance — and Apollo’s help — with grandiose sculptures, including a giant silver bull and a replica of the Trojan Horse.

Despite the ancient bling, Delphi’s supremacy as a sacred power center was epitomized by the simple stone omphalos that had riveted me during my visit — what the Greeks called the “navel of the world.” While the temples have crumbled, seeing the omphalos gave me goose bumps, and left me awe-struck over Delphi’s sublime place in history.

At the top of the Sacred Way, the Temple of Apollo, now razed to its foundations, greeted visitors with these wise words: “Know Yourself,” and “Nothing in Excess.” Inside, the Oracle, a woman older than 50, would sit entranced over a crack in the earth answering questions. A centuries-old debate still rages over whether her divine inspiration came from an ether-like vapor formed by an ancient water source, the nearby Castalian Spring.

Whatever the truth, visitors can explore the remains of the spring in a rocky crag near the Delphi museum, an archaeological time capsule whose centerpiece is an exquisite, life-size bronze statue from 475 BC known as the Charioteer. With flowing robes, gems for eyes and regal poise, this masterpiece by an unknown artist embodies the mystery of Delphic lore.

The next day should be spent visiting the Corycian Cave, an obligatory stop for ancient supplicants after encountering the Oracle. A three and a half-hour trek (each way) from the ruins, this sanctuary for the nature god Pan dates to the neolithic era. The hike starts above Delphi’s marble amphitheater and winds through lovely pine forests. At each turn, there are outstanding views over the ancient site. In hot summer months, those preferring not to sweat it out can also drive.

After a long day, it’s essential to refuel at a traditional Delphi taverna. To Patriko Mas, with a stunning position overlooking the valley, is a lively gathering spot offering charcoal-grilled meat and fish, as well as roast peppers, stuffed mushrooms and other vegetarian fare.