I first heard about Delphi when I read the drama Oedipus whose story is set there and the basic storyline revolves around the King of Athens (Oedipus' father) hearing an oracle in Delphi saying that he would give birth to a son who would kill him and marry his own mother. Through the twists and turns of the drama, Oedipus did eventually marry his mother, and when he realized this he uprooted his own eyes. Although I read that story when I was in my late teens, it remained planted in my mind all these years, and I nurtured a desire to see the place.
For this trip, we joined a group tour, and were picked up from our hotel in the morning. The distance of 170 km was covered in nearly three hours with a brief break on the way. The major part of the journey was through the Greek countryside with rugged mountains and farm lands on two sides. But as we were approaching Delphi, the scene changed, with the mountains becoming higher. We passed through a small village on the slopes of the mountains that contained hotels and restaurants, and eventually arrived at the foot of the mountain where the shrine of Apollo was located. With high mountains on all sides, the spot itself smacks a bit of mysticism.
The site of the ruins here extends from the foot of the mountain up to nearly 600 metres towards the top. From the description provided by our experienced guide (and a photograph of an artist's drawing that we saw later at the museum of Delphi), I was able to form a picture of what the place may have looked like in the pre-historic times. One starts at the base with purification using water from a spring that flows by the side and goes to the second level for buying offerings for the shrine. With the offerings, one proceeds to the third level for meeting the priestesses through whom oracles could be obtained. People used to come from all over the world to hear about their future in personal, political and professional spheres. A room marked as the consultation room has been restored quite well and stands nicely (photo) just before the site of the actual shrine of Apollo. The whole process sounded very familiar to what one does while visiting a mazaarin South Asia.
The fourth level of the mountain slopes had a big theatre that could accommodate nearly five thousand people. It is remarkable that the gallery of that typical Greek open air theatre has remained in pretty good shape even today. The fifth level was for the physically fit – a big stadium for holding various games. Given the time available and the height we had already climbed when we reached the theatre on the fourth level, our guide advised us against going up further. But we had already climbed nearly 300 metres from where the bus dropped us without too much trouble and felt proud about our physical fitness. From where we were standing at the fourth level, we could have a good view of a part of the sea of Corinth and the port of Delphi that served as the gateway to the shrines there.
The story, in a nutshell, is like this. Two priestesses selected from amongst the old peasant women of the area, who led blameless lives, used to serve as the medium of receiving the prophecies from Apollo and conveying them to the visitor. But the oracles would usually be expressed in rather ambiguous terms (especially as the ancient Greek language did not use any punctuation), and kept flexibility of interpretation. As time went, and doubtful prophecies were made, the oracles started losing their credibility. Around the early part of the first millennium, they were stopped altogether. So, I had no possibility of obtaining an oracle. But I was happy to be there anyway.
A trip to Greece cannot be complete without setting foot on at least one of its many beautiful islands. But which one to choose? On this, we were influenced by our daughter who had spent part of her honeymoon on the island called Santorini. The notable feature of that island is its formation out of volcanic ashes and the possibility of taking a boat trip around the caldera. Another attraction of the place is that one can see both sunrise and sunset from there.
It was sunny but quite windy when we landed in Fira (the main city of Santorini). We had booked our accommodation in a resort type hotel with Cycladic type architecture. Our room provided views on the open Aegean sea on one side and the caldera of the other. Since the hotel was located in the narrow part of the island, the wind was blowing without hindrance. The strong wind was sneaking into the room with a hissing sound and the door was rattling – reminding me of a poem by Buddhadeb Basu: Chhoto gharkhani money ki porey, Surongoma, … sara din rat haowar jharey sagar-dola …
The sunset cruise that we took was in a Viking type open ship. A bus took us down the cliff to the jetty. The road contained several hair-pin turns with each of which we were descending nearly 30-40 feet. The strong wind had made the bay quite rough, and the ship was swaying quite violently. However, it stabilized after a few minutes from the start, and by the time of sunset, reached a vantage point from where we could have a good view. But the western horizon became a little cloudy, and the sun went out of view a few minutes before the scheduled time. Of course, before disappearing, it did spread its crimson rays around the sky, thus creating a sublime atmosphere.
The following morning, I woke up a little late and missed the exact moments of sunrise. But it was not very late, and the first rays of the rising sun were still there when I woke up and looked out of the window. This is the second time in my life that I saw both sunset and sunrise from the same place (the first was many years ago in Kanyakumari – the southernmost tip of India).
Although the day continued to be windy, it was sunny, and we had a good walk along the cliff of the island. View of the caldera from the promenade was breath-taking and could be enjoyed from the many restaurants and cafés located along the cliff. For our mid-morning coffee, we chose one with a terrace providing good view. I ordered “cappuccino freddo” (iced cappuccino) with whipped cream and caramel syrup – a drink that is widely served in cafés across Greece (and in certain parts of Italy). For me, both the view and the drink were quite exotic. For lunch, we selected a restaurant where we finally found moussaka without beef. They had, on their menu, vegetarian moussaka which we ordered alongside another dish with feta cheese that was presented very nicely with lacing of honey on fresh spinach.
Greek tragedy continues
While the historical ruins in Greece are preserved for us to see, the economic ruins that resulted from the global economic crisis of 2008-09 and its aftermath do not become so apparent especially if one remains confined to the main touristic areas. Moreover, the Greek people generally seemed to be lively and pleasant. But the situation is far from normal, and it becomes clear when one carries out a bit of conversation with common people. The sales girl in one souvenir shop was mentioning the uncertainty that they are suffering from and how difficult life has become because of reduced incomes. Likewise, a young shop-owner mentioned that he works from morning till midnight because he does not earn enough profit to be able to hire a help. That is what one calls self-exploitation in the face of a difficult economic situation.