A Journey to the Centre of the World

For the first time in 5 days the road has disappeared and the sound of cars has been replaced by birds singing in the twilight. Amongst the olive trees I feel I can actually breathe. God it feels good to be away from the overwhelming assault on my senses. I love this time of day, of the evening, when a relaxed feeling encompasses everything, as nature prepares for darkness. Somehow, no matter how far I have walked, I am reinvigorated. Which is good, because I am not planning on stopping for the night just yet, despite the fading light.

Instead I keep my eyes working, looking around for the signs I know are here somewhere. I’m searching for a time-worn trail which climbs from the village of Kissa on the coast to the religious and spiritual centre of the Ancient Greek world: Delphi.

According to the tradition, it was the meeting point of two eagles dispatched by Zeus from the ends of the universe to find the centre of the world.

The Omphalos, meaning navel, was a stone ercted at the centre of the world.
The Omphalos, meaning navel, was a stone erected at the centre of the world. Omphalos stones marking the centre were erected in several places about the Mediterranean Sea; the most famous of those was at Delphi.

In the most sacred of places – in Greek Mythology it is called the navel of the world – all who came sought advice, travelling for clarity, for approval, for solutions and answers to their problems, and for justification. Delphi was my destination, home of the most ancient and important oracle, where the future was cryptically revealed by the Pythian priestess.

I was beginning my second year of travel, and what better way I thought than to visit Delphi and ask the oracle for guidance. At least that was what I was hoping for. The last 5 days had been some of the most difficult mentally and physically since I started walking over a year ago. 120kms of tarmac, paved road is one way to walk in a new pair of shoes. My feet were screaming, but my brain was working overtime, questioning my crazy decision to walk to India. How will you make it to India if you’re having so much trouble on a tiny little stretch of road? What is all this for? Why are you on this journey anyway? In times of difficulty these questions rise to the surface, and challenge all the certainties I felt before. I was hoping for answers. The real question was would I find them? Would the oracle speak to me?

I was following in the footsteps of an age-old tradition: for centuries the path I was searching for had been traversed by so many different feet. Pilgrims, truth seekers, kings and peasants, philosophers and farmers, warriors and slaves, Greeks, Romans and so-called barbarians from far off lands. Many of them walked this path and all of them had a question they needed answering.

They came alone as private individuals or were sent as official representatives (theopropoi); they travelled in groups or as delegations; they bore gifts, each one mirroring the status and importance of the individuals or their cities. Many of these gifts were of astonishing wealth and craftsmanship: statues of great size – nowadays considered treasures of the ancient world; and smaller, elegantly worked statuettes and figurines of equally impressive workmanship; beautiful ceramics, artistically decorated with myths or scenes from nature; or simple dedications which symbolised something more. Also a huge number of architectural sculptures which adorned the temples. They were made from different materials: gold, silver and bronze, marble, Ivory and stone, iron and chryselephantine (overlaid with gold and Ivory). And all were dedications to the Gods…to THE God! For Delphi is the abode of the sun god Apollo, who became the principle deity of the site after defeating the Python that guarded the oracle of Ge. And from the 8th century BC the sanctuary began to take shape, growing in importance from the 6th – 4th centuries BC.


“And thence he (Apollo) came into this land of Parnassus, and at his side, with awe revering him, were the children of Hephaestus, preparing the way and taming the land that was once wilderness. And he was received with honour by all the people and Delphos, their chieftain-king”

Aeschylus. Eumenides 

The streaks in the sky turn from orange to purple and then to grey and black. Night falls as I emerge from amongst the olive trees and a sign stands out in yellow, filled with Greek lettering.

Damn, after 9 months I still haven’t mastered the Greek alphabet, and I stare at it for a few minutes, trying to decipher the strange letters. Eventually I work out the words: monopati meaning footpath, and Delphos. I am on the right track. But now night has fallen, and a fearful voice from an hour before comes back to me…”you’re going to Delphos now? But it will be nightime and you have to walk through the mountainside. AREN’T YOU SCARED?” It is the voice of a middle-aged lady who came after me as I walked into the olive groves. “No, no, no, not that way. The road is here” she said, pointing to a perfect, 2 lane road filled with whizzing cars. “It’s better…you can’t get lost”. This is the same voice I hear every day from people who think that security is the best, that easy means quickly, and that the unknown means the impossible. Unfortunately that is why I ended up walking along a coastline of monotonous road rather than taking the “difficult” and unknown path through the mountains, which everyone advised me against, but would have been undoubtedly the best option.

The ancient footpath to Delphi
The ancient footpath to Delphi

Fortunately the stars in the sky are shining bright and I am able to follow the monopati through a wilderness of shrubs and rocks, the painted signs and the lights of the village of Krissi guiding my way. Krissi sits just below Delphi and I find a place to camp underneath pine trees, outside the church. I have decided to wait until the morning for the final ascent to the Sanctuary of Apollo.

I awoke to the sounds of birds singing their morning chorus and it was soon replaced by the cars, motorbikes and buses carrying kids to school. I packed quickly and jumped back onto the path up to Delphi…

As I climbed I took in the landscapes around me: a vibrant green sea of olive trees stretched out below me, dotted with islands of rocks. Mountains towered ahead and back where I had come from dark storm clouds were gathering. But in Delphi the sun was shining, illuminating the way ahead and the modern village which has grown up next to the archaeological site.

A sea of olive groves stretch to the sea
A sea of olive groves stretch to the sea

After an hour and a half, in streaming sunshine, I arrived at tourist central, jam-packed full of hotels and shops selling I love Delphi tourist tat – all the typical stuff you find next to one of the most visited sites in Greece. And then suddenly the light went out. I took refuge as the sky turned black, the heavens opened, and an awesome storm raged for the next half an hour, thunder rocking the mountainside, forks of lightning streaking the skies.

I headed for the museum first, hoping the rain would subside and I would be able to visit the site without getting completely soaked. As I wandered the rooms filled with fabulous artefacts and artwork, I met Paraskevi – she was working as a guardian, making sure tourists respected the rules, didn’t touch the priceless works, or take silly pictures posing with statues! When we started chatting she told me I could stay at her place for the night. The road from Patras had left me feeling exhausted and so I was very happy to accept the offer of shelter, a bed and a shower for the first time in a week. And I was looking forward to making some new friends!

But outside the rain continued to pour…

The misty mountains around Delphi
The misty mountains around Delphi

Perhaps this was a message from the gods? Was the oracle speaking to me? Maybe not directly, but one cannot fail to understand the superstitious mind of an Ancient Greek arriving at Delphi under the same conditions. Zeus was the prevailing power, and all day he stalked the ruins and the mountains, a challenge to the wanderer – do you really want to continue? Are you on the right path? What are you searching for? Walking through the ruins in the rain, a torrential downpour interspersed with thunder and lightning, I felt happy for the first time in a week. And all those questions were answered – seeing Delphi, after so many years, I understood the magic all around me and why I was there. Like Ancient Olympia, Delphi exudes an aura of magnificence, draws the eye and fills the visitor with a sense of amazement. I found myself imagining the sanctuary as it was in the past (at least how I imagined it!): extraordinarily flamboyant temples decorated with the votives of eminent families and individuals, set against a breathtaking mountain backdrop. The sense of sanctity, incense burning, holy fires casting their shadows on the faces of the waiting worshippers. In a luxurious room priests speaking with devotees, accepting gifts, dedications…and bribes! And of course the priests performing their sacred duties and the Pythia (the oracle) giving her cryptic divinations to be interpreted by the priests for the devotees.

And in some way my trip to Delphi was my own cross-examination. I had unexpectedly challenged myself and asked a lot of questions, and the difficulties of the previous days were wiped away by the overwhelming sense of relief I now felt.

IMG_0298


In the evening Paraskevi introduced me to Aristoteles. He is one of only a handful of pottery makers in Greece who still make red and black Attic pottery in the ancient style. He uses the same techniques as the Ancient Greeks and his work is truly outstanding. I visited his workshop with Paraskevi – she is learning from Aristoteles – and it was a fascinating insight into ceramics, especially after visiting the museum and the sanctuary. This is the type of stuff which should be promoted alongside the historic remains. Surely for a tourist visiting Delphi, having the opportunity to see firsthand how the artefacts were actually created is much more interesting than a shop filled with Chinese copies?

Some of the beautiful artwork on the pottery
Some of the beautiful artwork on the pottery

He collects the clay from the mountains and uses handmade brushes made from animal hair, some of them made from just 1 individual hair for fine definition of the images.

the paintbrushes
the paintbrushes

Aristoteles himself is…enigmatic. He clearly has a passion for pottery and it has been his life – he discovered the secret of how to make the pottery himself when he was working in a workshop in the village. But he showed no inclination to talk about it. Instead we discussed philosophy and life…and the three of us made food! And that’s how I learned to make hortopita (here’s the recipe here). As I tried rolling out my first filo pastry sheet ever, Aristoteles told me I might be the first person to make a square sheet when trying to make a circle. Hey, it’s an art form which they do with such ease here in Greece. I’ll just have to practice some more…or make square pita!

Hortopita!
Hortopita!

So what did I learn in Delphi? Did the oracle speak to me? Somehow it did, through making new friends and spending an extra day relaxing in Delphi, I had time to think about the journey ahead. I realised that I need to listen more to my heart and less to other people. The truth is I was afraid to leave the security of the road – the fear of everyone else was infectious. But what they, and in fact I, failed to realise, is that my needs are very different. Because most people do not travel by foot, it is impossible for them to comprehend how I travel – how I want to travel. So Delphi has given me direction, in a round about way. Which is fitting for an oracle that was always ambiguous and open to different interpretations!

I left Delphi on a beautiful clear morning and climbed the E4 footpath up into the mountain. Finally I had a suitable path to follow through the mountains. And as I climbed I felt free and easy. I looked down onto Delphi, dwindling below me, and thanked the oracle for giving me some direction…

The view of Delphi as I climbed up the E4
The view of Delphi from the footpath above
The E4 climbing from Delphi and the stunning view
The E4 climbing from Delphi and the stunning view

An ode to Delphi
Not for me the open road,
No sound of nature, only woe
The sound of cars ringing in my ears
Every step a torment,
The minutes feel like years
I would rather have a thousand stairs,
A mountain path that winds and tears
The breath from deep within my bosom
My heart beating, my brow dripping.
Show me the way oh fam-ed oracle
Light my path and guide my step
My pack is heavy, and I am weary
But there’s a way to go
And I cannot stop yet.

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