on the road

Athens and the Oracle at Delphi

Know thyself.

Inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Back in the 1970s I studied the classics at Monash University – history, philosophy and Ancient Greek language and literature. The classics department (which no longer exists) was on the 6th floor of the Menzies building and while it was fairly small, I remember it being a great hive of activity. It was divided into two camps – the Greeks and the Romans – and although everyone seemed to get on well with each other, I sensed that we were actually in the midst of a cold war. The Greek professors were based down one corridor and the Romans down another, with a great little library as neutral ground in the middle. I was in the Greek camp. Our class sizes were luxuriously small – about 10 or 12 students – and we met in our tutor’s office, a cask of red wine on the desk and a haze of smoke building up in the air as we lit up one cigarette after another. At the time, we were encouraged to travel to Greece to expand our understanding of what we were learning, but it wasn’t really a possibility for me then. Later on, when I did begin to travel, I was never able to fit Greece into my itineraries, so now, arriving in Athens feels particularly special – and very very belated.

Even though I am excited about finally getting to Greece, I am also a bit anxious. I am told that Athens itself is not a very attractive city and I have read reports about the high incidence of petty crime. Well, despite my paranoia, I am never robbed, and although the city certainly has a grungy element, it also has a unique charm, especially at night, when its daytime shabbiness transforms into something quite magical. The monuments are all lit up, the air is mild and still, and everyone is out and about, strolling in a big circular route around the acropolis or meandering through the historic plaka area. There are endless restaurants along the way lit with candles or fairy lights, and souvenir shops or little street stalls bursting at the seams with jewellery, Greek theatre masks, plastic replicas of the Parthenon and Ancient Greek gods, white shirts and embroidered textiles, and all kinds of other trinkets. Dogs sleep on the street, buskers busk, and people line up to buy tickets to outdoor rooftop movie theatres. I am not at all disappointed.

Night 1

At the foot of the Acropolis at night

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In the Plaka

We saw Woody Allen's new movie, starring Cate Blanchett, in a fabulous outdoor rooftop cinema. Everyone was smoking!

We saw Woody Allen’s new movie, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett, in a fabulous outdoor rooftop cinema. Everyone was smoking!

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There are little stalls everywhere

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Gerard and I don’t have long in Athens – the equivalent of 3 full days – but we manage to cram in the major sites on either side of a full day trip to Delphi which is where the famous Oracle channelled advice from the gods.  Our first destination is, of course, the Acropolis, probably the most famous citadel in the world, the walls of which we can see from our hotel room balcony. Behind those walls sit a number of extraordinary buildings that have become the icons of the ideals of classical Greek form, symmetry and beauty. Most notable are the Parthenon, the Erectheon and the Propylaea, constructed under the rule of the visionary Pericles during the 5th Century BC. These buildings, perhaps more than any other structures in the world, have had a profound and lasting influence on the development of western architecture.

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The Acropolis walls from our hotel balcony (the Ava)

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The Parthenon from a street in Athens

We climb up a series of rocky steps that rise from the base of the Acropolis, rest briefly in some welcome shade under the huge gateway that is the Propylaea (and which I momentarily confuse for the Parthenon) and then make our way out onto the flat top of the rocky hill around which all of Athens circulates, and there, just a few hundred metres ahead of us, surrounded by tourists from all over the world, is the Parthenon. I am so overcome by seeing her for the very first time, by the surreality of her existence, by her repeated damage and repair, by her staunchness and her fragility, by her quiet, aged, persistent beauty, that I start to cry.

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Seeking shade at the Propylaea, the gateway that leads to the Parthenon

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My first view of the Parthenon

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It’s hot on top of the rock and there is little respite from the sun. We mill with hundreds of others, taking our souvenir shots, trying to record as much of the experience of being here as we can. I walk all the way around the Parthenon and all the way around the Erectheon, which has replicas of the stunning maidens that are literally the columns of the temple. I show my students images of all Acropolis structures in art theory lectures on classicism – now I can talk about them with a new authority based on the power of personal experience. As I wander about, I also try to imagine what it would have been like here at the height of Periclean Athens. The sculptures and temples were not plain white marble as we see them now, but were painted in bright reds, blues and yellows. I suspect that my contemporary eye, which is rather fond of the minimal and the monochrome, would be rather startled.

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Views of the beautiful Erectheon

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Gerard captures workers moving the base of a column with a crane

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There are also incredible views of Athens from up here, the city stretching out for miles and miles and miles, most of the buildings pale coloured and flat roofed. We can even make out our hotel, which is in the historic plaka area and easy to locate because it is so close to the ruins of the imposing Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch.

The view from the Acropolis

The view from the Acropolis

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Athens seems to go on forever

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Our hotel is on the street that runs towards Hadrian’s Arch (just visible) and the Temple of Zeus.

Eventually we make our way down through the maze of pathways that lead from the top of the Acropolis to the various sites below. I buy two outrageously priced iced lemonade drinks at a little stall near one of the entry gates and we sit in the dusty shade of some scrubby trees to rest and rehydrate. Later, when our legs have given up, we take a ride on the Happy Train, a little hop on and hop off open-air tourist vehicle that takes its passengers to all the major tourists sites and winds through the narrow streets and laneways of the plaka. The streets are so narrow in places that you could reach out and sample food from the plate of someone eating in a restaurant.

Happy train

The hop on hop off Happy Train!

We have views of the Acropolis from our balcony, but if we look in the other direction, we have an even better view of Hadrian’s Arch, constructed in 131 AD by the Roman Emperor. Just behind it is the magnificent Temple of Zeus, with the most superb Corinthian columns, which was begun in 515 BC under the Greeks, but was only completed in 129 AD under Hadrian’s rule. Hadrian was keen to establish Athens as the cultural capital of the Roman Empire, so he also constructed a beautiful library complex in the city, complete with lecture theatres, a transcription room and a big hall, all built around an internal garden.  In a sense, Hadrian’s library is similar to contemporary library design, with an emphasis on cultural exchange rather than just the storage of books and information.

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Hadrian’s Arch from our hotel balcony

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The Temple of Zeus with the Acropolis in the background

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Hadrian’s Library at dusk

night 7

And the library at night

Not far from Hadrian’s Arch are the botanic gardens, where we got a little lost, and the Panathenaic Olympic stadium, built entirely from white marble, where the very first modern Olympic games were held in 1896.

Olympic stadium

The first modern Olympic stadium

At Syntagma Square, in front of Parliament House, we watch the Greek soldiers who guard the tomb of the unknown soldier perform their ritual march. John Cleese, in the tv series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, mimicked elements of the Greek march in his Ministry of Silly Walks sketches in which he was dressed as civil servant, complete with bowler hat and black umbrella. It is extraordinarily hot and I am amazed at the fortitude of the two soldiers, whose uniforms are characterised by thick white leggings and curious shoes with big black pom-poms on the toes. A third soldier, dressed in Khakis, watches over the two guards, mopping sweat from their brows, combing the tassels hanging from their hats and, mysteriously, whispering to them with his face almost touching theirs. (I wonder what he says to them?) When the ceremonial march starts, Gerard and I are transfixed. It is a truly amazing performance, the guards simultaneously raising their legs high in the air in a curved, sweeping motion, marching towards each other, touching their pom-pommed toes together, and then continuing to synchronise their movements perfectly while facing in the opposite direction. I recognise the Cleese Silly Walk immediately.

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The ceremonial march is about to start outside Paliament House and the tomb of the unknown soldier

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Our site-seeing in Athens is punctuated by a day trip to Delphi, organised by our excellent hotel (and run by CHAT Tours, which I can highly recommend!) We are a small group in a small bus and our guide, Daphne, is one of the best I have ever had. Her knowledge is exceptional, she explains everything clearly, has a good sense of humour, and is blessed with one of the most beautiful speaking voices I have ever heard – I never grow tired of listening to her! She rarely leaves us to our own devices, and even when we go to the Archeological Museum of Delphi, she shows us around the collection, selecting the most significant artefacts and explaining their relationship to the ruins we have seen at the  historic site of Delphi.

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Our wonderful guide, Daphne, on the right in a white hat, introduces us to the Oracle at Delphi

The Delphi complex, which lies at the foot of Mount Parnassus and was thought to be the very navel of the world, is the most famous and sacred of all Ancient Greek religious sites.  Everyone – statesmen, philosophers, kings and foreigners as well as ordinary people – came here to leave their offerings to the gods and consult the oracle, a priestess named Pythia who made her predictions from within a chamber in the Temple of Apollo. Her predictions, which were translated by priests before being passed on to those who consulted her, were considered to be infallible. It is said that she sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the ground from which gases escaped. The gases were inhaled by Pythia, putting her into a trance-like state which enabled her to communicate directly with Apollo.

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The remains of the Temple of Apollo

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One of the many treasury buildings at Delphi

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A huge amphitheatre at the Oracle at Delphi site – and extraordinary views

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An Omphalos, or navel, which represented the centre of the world, in the Archeological Museum at Delphi. It was located in the Temple of Apollo and could only be viewed by priests and priestesses.

While there is not much left of the Temple of Apollo itself, and there are only remnants of the treasury houses and many other buildings that were all part of the Oracle at Delphi, the site feels pregnant with something both powerful and inexplicable.  Here too, I try to imagine what it would have been like during the 5th century BC, a series of steep pathways leading from one treasury house to another, the brightly coloured sculptures, the magnificence and sacredness of the Temple of Apollo, Pythia sitting in a cloud of hallucinogenic vapours… it feels like a fantasy rather than a historic reality.

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The Archeological Museum of Delphi has a model that shows how the Oracle may have looked

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The Sphinx of the Naxions, 560 BC, in the Archeological Museum

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A stunning bronze statue of a charioteer in the museum

Our day trip includes an incredibly generous lunch in a hotel in the village of Delphi, where some of our bus companions will be staying the night. The hotel is a marvel of 1960s architecture and design – spacious, open, light, with a magnificent seating area overlooking a sparkling blue swimming pool and the mountains beyond. When I visit again, I want to stay here.

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Inside the 1960s hotel in Delphi where we have lunch

On our final day in Athens, we visit the new Acropolis Museum, completed in 2007. The building replaces a museum that was sited on the Acropolis itself, but became far too small to house its superb collection of sculptures and other artefacts. I love this museum. It is built over an extensive archeological dig, which you can see underfoot as you cross the huge glass covered walkway that leads to the main entrance and continues inside, on the ground floor. Normally, I am not very good with large expanses of glass flooring, which almost instantly cause vertigo, but here I manage quite well, perhaps because the glass is covered with small dark evenly spaced polka dots.

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The Acropolis Museum is built over an archeological dig

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The first floor of the museum

The glass floor tiles

The glass floor tiles

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Looking up from the first floor

Photography is limited in the museum, so I can’t show you images of the stunning sculpture room, which has me completely entranced. A few of the sculptures still retain a little of their original colouring. Others have a replica beside them which shows what the colours would have been. The three original sculptures from the Erectheon are also here, undergoing a restoration process using lasers which you can watch on video or see live if you are there at the right time. The friezes from the Parthenon are on the top floor, reconstructed with a combination of original remnants and replicas of those that are housed in other museums around the world. The British Museum has the largest collection of sculptures from the Acropolis site, taken by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s from the Parthenon, the Erectheon and the Propylaea while Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. It refuses to hand them back to Athens, claiming that the marbles were not acquired legally. The debate continues. Personally, I would like to see them back in Athens.

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Sculptures and friezes from the Parthenon, most of them replicas

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The original maidens from the Erectheon, currently being restored.

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Fragments of sculptures from the Parthenon

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I have grown to love Athens in our short three days here and feel sad to be leaving. The history is extraordinary, the hospitality impeccable and all my paranoia about a grungy, crime-ridden city completely unwarranted. Our next stop is Santorini, one of Greece’s most famous and iconic holiday islands.

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