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Delphi & Galaxidi By Rental Car to Delphi & Galaxidi

“Numinous”* Delphi

This past late fall, I retraced my steps on a trip I’ve taken many times, with family and various friends, over the past four decades. I never tire of Delphi, the greatest Oracle of the ancient world, which is one of those few places on the planet that qualifies, without doubt, for me, as “numinous,” and I like to spend one night there, see the sanctuary thoroughly the next morning, then head down to Galaxidi for a night before returning to Athens.

Delphi, some 113 miles (182 kilometers) from Athens, has a history stretching back to the Neolithic, and was a cult center as early as 1400-1200 BC, though the worship here of Apollo dates from a later time, beginning in around the 8th century BC. Temple-building, in honor of Apollo and Athena, began in the 7th century BC, but the heyday of the Delphic Oracle, the great Pythia of Apollo, who told the future here for great and humble alike for centuries, dates from the 5th century BC, when the second Temple of Athena was erected, and such works as the bronze Charioteer (along with his no-longer-extant, four-horse chariot, or quadriga) was executed.

In the early 4th century BC, the enigmatic Tholos was built (which—partially reconstructed—now lies below the level of the main Delphi road, from which it is accessible). Archaeologists conjecture that the Tholos was used for the worship of underworld deities, but we just don’t know for sure. In the 4th century BC as well, the stone theater, and later temples to Apollo and Athena were put up; in the 3rd century BC, the stadium was laid out.

And then, in short order, came the Gauls, to plunder and destroy. The Roman Emperor Sulla, in 86 BC, came also to loot Delphi, followed by Nero in AD 67. In the 2nd century AD, Herodes Attikos, the philanthropist of Athens, restored the stadium in a brief reprieve for the site, but the last prophecy of the Oracle was uttered in AD 361 and, three years later, Theodosius the Great closed the Oracle, destroyed the temples, and abolished the Delphic Games.

Your visit to Delphi will be enriched by reading about the history of the site, and about Ancient Greek history in general, as Delphi and her Pythia figure so prominently in the long litany of political decisions and wars that characterize the history of the Greek city-states. As I write this, I’m glancing at Leda Krontira’s book—for children, actually—“Getting To Know Apollo’s Sanctuary at Delphi” (Ekdotike Athenon), usually available at the Delphi Museum: charming and beautifully conceived. Ekdotike Athenon also has a good guide (for adults) by Professor of Archaeology Manolis Andronicos, “Delphi.” But, whatever you pick up at the site, or before your visit, be sure you have a map-reconstruction of the sanctuary in all its 5th-century-BC splendor. Ideally, you will take a guided tour of the site when you arrive (this can be arranged from Athens), but you need a graphic illustration in hand, as you proceed through the fallen temples and monuments, to give you a better idea of the glory that was Delphi. (I also like Alan Walker’s Lycabettus Press handbook, titled “Delphi.”)

Leave Athens Early

I arranged for a rental car to be brought to my hotel in Makriyianni the evening before my departure. Since I was to be accompanied by Athenian friends, I didn’t think I needed detailed road maps, but the new roads around the city have altered so much in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics that we all laughingly stopped for maps early in our trip.

After breakfast at the hotel, we really did try to get on the road early so as to avoid traffic in the city center and around Omonia Square, but we weren’t totally successful. (In fact, I was pleased we got off to a late start, as we arrived in Livadia just in time for an early lunch. More on that anon.)

Your hotel concierge, your rental car representative and/or my travel agents can help you with plotting a route out of Athens. We ourselves left via Omonia Square (set your odometer to 0 here, if you’re following my directions: I’ll be noting distances in kilometers, in concert with your rental car), turning into Tritis Septemvriou (3rd of September) Street, which morphs into Acharnon Street. We drove out of the city through working-class neighborhoods inhabited by Athens’ burgeoning immigrant population.

About 4.5 kilometers on, we bore left, following signs reading Thessaloniki/Lamia, cities well to the north, and merged into the E75, Greece’s National Road (Ethnikos Othos), or main freeway north. The official speed limit, marked in a red circle, was 60 here, but it will vary from here on out. (You will note that there’s an exit hereabouts for Elefsina/Korinthos, as well as one for the airport, marked with a little airplane.) Be prepared to stop for traffic lights on the freeway. Signs will soon read: Lamia/Larisa. At 25.3 kilometers out of the city, we stopped for a toll plaza, and paid 1.40 Euros, so it pays to have some change along.

The Malakasa Interchange, at 36.5 kilometers out, marks the last turn-off for those heading for Corinth, and the South. At 56.8 kilometers, there’s another 1.40-Euro toll.

Stopping at Livadia

At about 95.6 kilometers, you pass, on the right, Lake Iliki, Athens’ watershed. Pay attention: at 107 kilometers, you will exit off the National Road to the right, following signs for Livadia/Delphi/Parnassos, the latter name referring to the grand, snow-covered-in-winter mountain that backs Delphi and attracts so many Greek and Balkan skiers to its slopes in winter. (By the way, the cotton fluff punctuating the landscape here is just that: cotton. The one-crop cotton monoculture is changing these beautiful valleys in ways we couldn’t imagine a few decades ago.)

At 130.5 kilometers, turn left, then take the first right for Livadia, where you’ll be stopping for lunch, a snack, or just a stretch. The outskirts of this mountain town look a little grim, and often feature encampments of gypsies. At 134.2 kilometers is the turn-off, left, for Livadia. . .and here, my directions always break down. What I can tell you is that every time I try to locate the one, easy (they say) road up, and to the left, to the Springs of Kryas, I get lost but, in about ten minutes’ time, I always find the dramatic water wheels, flowing stream, and excellent souvlakia that characterize Livadia’s high plateia, so don’t give up! Follow signs for the Springs of Kryas, and keep asking locals: they’re used to lost-looking souls in cars. When you arrive, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.

The Springs of Kryas

Livadia has always been a textile town, and all this activity on the Erkina (ancient Herkyna) River had to do with fulling and spinning activities. That castle (Kastro) up above you to your right was built by the Catalans in the 14th century, and is said to have once been home to the relic of the head of Saint George. If you’re a hiker, and the weather is cool, you may want to go up and have a look.

We, however, were content to photograph the river and springs, steaming and frothing in winter, and have an excellent lunch of souvlakia, kontosouvli (lamb innards wrapped around organ meats, all grilled on a spit—well, perhaps you need to be a native to enjoy this delicacy), pork chops, Greek salad, French fries and a superlative rosé wine from the barrel at a taverna just on the square here called Ee Krya (Tel: 22610 26764, 21103; open 10:00 a.m. till late). The four of us ate till bursting for about 30 Euros. Next door, for Oriental sweets, coffee, and ice cream, we repaired to Kafe Erkyna (Tel: 22610 80981; Trofoniou and Aghiou Dimitriou streets; Springs of Kryas).

On to Delphi

Return now to the main, cypress-lined Livadia/Delphi road, which begins to wind uphill as you and the immense electric pylons forge on towards the greatest Oracle of antiquity. Watch out for goats in the road! We also saw hawks, magpies, foxes, and something that resembled a badger on the way up the hill. About 32.4 kilometers from Livadia, you reach the ski resort town of Arachova, above which is the Parnassos Ski Center (Tel: 22340 22693-5).

Another 10.2 kilometers on, and you pass through the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, below and above the road. Just beyond it is your first night’s destination, the modern town of Delphi (Thel-FOOS, in Greek, with the accent on the second syllable).

I suggest spending a night in Delphi at either the Hotel Parnassos, owned by Mr. Babis Kourelis, or the Hotel Acropole, owned by his brother, Socratis. Both hotels are located in Delphi Town proper. The Parnassos is a little more luxurious, and is situated on the main thoroughfare, with its own in-house café and internet café. The Acropole is a street below, quieter in high season, and has lovely views of the sea of olive trees stretching below Delphi down to the sea. (Remember: if you’re seeking a deluxe hotel, they exist in both Delphi and Arachova, so you also have that option.)

We ate (lunch and dinner) at the Epikouros Restaurant, also owned by Mr. Babis Korelis, and were amazed to find such excellent and creative cuisine (courtesy Chef Fani Kostara) so far from the capital.

Try the peppers stuffed with cheese, ham and bacon; the Salad Epikouros (avocado, goat cheese, pine nuts, roka); and goat with potatoes, cheese and lemon sauce.

There’s an extensive wine list here, really good live Greek music on weekends in winter, and a lovely terrace overlooking the plain for summer visitors.

Sanctuary & Museum

The archaeological site, which we visited the next morning, is some 300 meters from the modern town. If you walk, you’ll pass Town Hall, or the Dimarheion, and should stop to have a look at a beautiful model of the sanctuary in its prime, from the 6th to the 4th century BC. Note: the Delphi Archaeological Museum had been largely closed for renovations during my previous two visits, so I was jubilant to find it open, renovated and sparkling in 2006. I and my friends were able to see all of the collection’s precious holdings: the Charioteer; the 470 BC white kylix featuring a seated Apollo; the Hellenstic copy of the Archaic omphalos, or world’s navel-stone (Delphi was considered to be located at the precise center of the world); an immense, if now flattened, silver votive offering of a bull; and the charming head of Antinoos, 130-138 BC, the Bithynian youth beloved of the Emperor Hadrian.

*numinous 1: supernatural, mysterious 2: filled with a sense of the presence of divinity: holy 3: appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense: spiritual.

Down to Maritime Galaxidi

Winding down to Galaxidi, a town whose heyday passed with its great ships, in the 18th/19th centuries, is beautiful in any season, but is especially dramatic in winter, when you’re encircled by snow-covered mountains. As you descend from Parnassos, you look out on a sea of ancient olive trees, and then soon enter them. At 10.6 kilometers out of Delphi, turn left for Itea/Galaxidi, and then left again in about another 3 kilometers for Itea/Nafpaktos/Galaxidi. At 15.8 kilometers, turn right for Galaxidi/Rio/Antirio. Hugging the sea, you’ll now pass ruddy bauxite quarries on your right and fish farms on your left. At 31.1 kilometers, turn right into Galaxidi; then left, immediately.

I recommend a humble little hotel-round-a-central-garden where I have stayed for years. Opened and operated by “Bruno,” who created a charming ambience here, and the best breakfasts in Christendom every morning, the Ganimede has recently been bought by a young, local Greek couple, Chrysoula and Kostas Papalexis, who are busily renovating the hotel, but not changing Bruno’s legacy of charm or fine cuisine. (Kostas is both baker and fisherman, and his homemade breads are delicious. Chrysoula has the secrets of Bruno’s homemade preserves and chutneys, which will still be sold through the Ganimede.) For an added treat, you may get to go out fishing—or to a practically private beach on a nearby islet—with Kostas during your stay: just ask.

Again, please use my travel agents to reserve rooms at the Ganimede or, if they’re full, at the Hotel Argo, another good choice in town which is also located in a small neo-classical mansion, and features excellent breakfasts. The Argo is owned and run by Anastasios Voulgaris, whose fish-taverna, O Tasos (Tel: 22650 41291), located on the little main port of Galaxidi is one of the best places in town to eat. We had fresh baby codfish, crayfish and squid, along with ouzo, during our last visit, and thoroughly enjoyed Anastasios’ cooking.

Just down the port, too, is Ee Oraia Ellas or “The Beautiful Greece” (Tel: 22650 42016), another good place to eat, especially for mezedes, or Greek hors d’oevres, and wine or ouzo.

I have two favorite shops on the main port in Galaxidi, too, though they’re open only in summer: the jewelry shop of Mr. Kosmas P. Dimitriadis (Tel: 22650 41577), which features creative, beautiful designs in gold; and a cornucopia of gifts, including stunning model sailing ships, Ostria (Tel: 22650 41206).

Ask your hoteliers where to swim in summer. I dive off the coast here, and come up with sand dollars. But Kostas Papalexis gets to some places in his boat that I haven’t yet been to. Let me know where they are. If you have time, and are interested in Galaxidi’s maritime history, stop in at the Galaxidi Maritime & Ethnological Museum (Tel: 22650 41795), housed in a neo-classical mansion, in season.

Back to Athens

We chose to return to Athens via the northern coast of the Peloponnese, rather than drive back the way we’d come. Turning left out of Galaxidi, back onto the main road, we headed for the ferry at tiny Aghios Nikolaos. We passed the seaside hamlets of Ag. Pantes and Erateini on our way, with the Gulf of Corinth and the mountains of the northern Peloponnese always in view on our left. The ferry from Aghios Nikolaos (Tel: 22660 31854) to Aigio operates year round. Have your hotelier (in Delphi or Galaxidi) call for the schedule so you can arrange to arrive in good time: there were four departures in January of 2004; there are more in high season.

Some 28.6 kilometers from Galaxidi, the exit, right, to the ferryboat comes up fast: don’t miss it. Buy a ticket—2 Euros per person; 10 Euros per car—inside the little café here. The tiny church on the islet in the bay is, of course, dedicated to Saint Nicholas; hence, the name of the town. The voyage-let to Aigio takes around 40 minutes.

The journey by car from Aigio to Athens, c. 107 miles (172 kilometers), takes you along the northern littoral of the Peloponnese. You could make a side-trip, given time, and stop at Ancient Corinth, or leave this itinerary for another day. Passing over the Corinth Canal—in a half-blink of your eye—you’re back on the mainland. Follow signs for Athina all the way; there will be at least one more 1.40 Euro toll before you return to the city.

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