It felt like the top of the world while I stood at the foot of Mt. Parnassus in Delphi 2,000 feet above sea level in the mountains of central Greece. According to myths of the ancient Greeks -- when gods and goddesses ruled – mortals, from military leaders to farmers, trekked the distance to seek the advice of the Oracle.
“This is the Holy Path,” our guide told us, as my small group walked the ascending dirt trail of what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. “…It leads to Apollo’s temple.”
I was awestruck by the terraced plateau surrounded by sheer peaks hovering above and a steep verdant valley below. Myth also had it that Apollo, god of the sun, light, music, and truth had come to Delphi to slay the serpent Python after which Apollo “became the Master” and was granted the gift of prophecy. It was through Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, that he delivered predictions, albeit in an unintelligible tongue.
Apollo is also said to be the creator of the Pythian Games in 582 BC -- the precursor to the Olympic Games. Rather than sports, though, music, dance, and poetry were the focus. It was later that gymnastics and chariot racing were added.
Continuing along the holy path we passed the ruins of temples and monuments that were the offerings of city-states made to the Oracle when predictions had favorable results. The size of the offering indicated status and power. Like the 37 statues brought from Sparta when by the end of the 5th century BC it won the long Peloponnesian War against Athens.
The bases on which statues once stood were also among the remains. The statuary unearthed during excavations at Delphi and the surrounding area (between 1892 and 1903) along with many other antiquities can be seen at the adjacent Archeological Museum of Delphi founded in 1903. It is one of Greece’s most important museums and was last renovated in 2000.
I was humbled by the “colossal size” of the Sphinx, an offering by Naxos, the largest and richest of the Cyclades islands during the Archaic period.
With the face of a woman, the body of a lion, and wings of a bird, the imposing Sphinx was carved from a giant block of Naxian marble. It’s hard to imagine that it sat perched atop a column over 40 feet high!
The Charioteer is another masterpiece at the museum (I had to tip-toe to see its eyelashes). The bronze life-sized statue was discovered in 1896 fully intact except for a missing forearm. The Charioteer had escaped destruction or theft thanks to an earthquake in 373 BC that buried it until its discovery. A charioteer was always a male youth of nobility. This one was dressed in an ankle-length tunic designed with vertical pleats representing the flutes of a column.
With great interest about undiscovered Delphi, archaeologists and historians during the late 19th century trekked also to the ancient sanctuary chomping at the bit to learn more.
Up the hill at 3,200 feet above sea level, the mountain village of Arachova became the home base for the researchers. Soon, Arachova achieved fame as the passage to Delphi.
From the winding roadside, the sight of the ancient village-turned-chic-but-unpretentious year-round getaway, was magical to say the least with stone buildings and red-tiled roofs terraced on the mountainside.
The 18th century Clock Tower is the centerpiece of the town. We climbed to the top and took in spectacular views of Arachova and the valley below.
Today, cosmopolitan Arachova (only two hours’ drive from Athens) is Greece’s highest-altitude and hottest ski destination. It’s a regular holiday spot for Athenians and the rich and famous who come here for healthy mountain air, alpine scenery, gastronomy and fun nightlife – no wonder this utterly charming village of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants is nicknamed the “Mykonos of Winter.”
But Arachova’s finest quality is its authenticity that I witnessed in its people and its traditions.
Arachova’s famous textile and craft industry is kept alive at the Ethnographic Museum and Workshops of Traditional Arts, a joint project between Greece and the European Union initiated in 2009 where workshops, restoration, and scientific seminars are conducted.
Inside the Neoclassical building, we got a crash course on the town’s rich history – the 1826 Battle of Arachova when it defeated the Ottomans, early equipment used to make carpets and tapestries – and a sheepherder’s naturally waterproof coat made from goat.
People also come to Arachova to savor or stock up on Formaella cheese – made only in Arachova and is a protected designation of origin. We visited the small factory/store run by the Christos family who shared how the hard mild-tasting cheese is made -- from sheep and goat milk -- and offered lovely tastings.
Our tour of the town was getting tastier by the hour when our next stop was a candy factory owned and operated by Thomas and Effie Papasthathis. They welcomed us with the warmest smiles as chocolate melted in a nearby vat, then sliced a fresh batch of the chocolate mixed with walnuts, almonds and gorgeous pistachios – that had been “resting” on a table teasing our taste buds – and offered them as divine tastings.
I completely embraced our lunch at Taverna Kaplanis where farm-to-table dining reached a glorious level. The husband, a winegrower, also raises the sheep and goats that his wife, Chef Stella, transforms into exquisite dishes. Our feast: Salad (from their own garden) of finely chopped cabbage, lettuce, carrots, green onions and dill tossed in vinegar; spinach pie; grilled Formaella cheese with lemon; bean soup; pork and lamb sausage; lamb chops; lamb sweetbreads, heart, and liver wrapped with intestines (a delicious delicacy); and rooster fettuccini. The finale was Moustalevria, a luxurious pie/tart-like dessert, prepared only in the fall, made from the sweet of musk.
With a (really) full stomach and ready for an invigorating walk I was thrilled when Kaloussa, the owner of my lodging (Skamnos boutique mountain hotel), offered a mushroom-hunting excursion in nearby Mount Parnassus National Park. Along with other adventure-seekers in my group, we tramped through the dense fir forest in search of mushrooms – there are 280 different species here. We had a few fungus sightings including large flat odd-shaped ones and the tiniest twice the size of a Starbucks mint.
Having exceeded our meat quota for the day, we drove 30 minutes down to sea level for a fabulous seafood dinner at Valaouras Fish Restaurant in Antikyra, a lovely port town on the northern Corinthian Coast with a population of barely 1,500.
On the patio in view of fishing boats and the lighthouse, we finished off the day with a “lighter” spread of beautiful fish soup, grilled octopus, calamari, clams, snapper, and crispy Atherina, tiny fish that look like small anchovies.
It’s a paradise in Arachova and Delphi – the top of the world in my book. But if you were to ask Zeus, the king of all gods, this is the center of the earth. He came to this conclusion when he searched for the answer that came to light after the two eagles he released in opposite directions flew until they crossed paths here.
Let’s just call it the best of both worlds.
IF YOU GO:
For complete information about visiting Arachova and Delphi, visit www.visitgreece.gr
Ethnological Museum of Arachova: www.arachovamuseum.gr
Taverna Kaplanis: www.kaplanis-taverna.gr
My accommodation: Boutique Hotel SKAMNOS: www.skamnos.com
Gallery 1 (12 images)
Gallery 2 (10 images)