Imagine if you will a quaint little town with excellent restaurants. It has a loop that goes through town--the lower loop goes into the center of town until it reaches a triangle where you are not, in fact, supposed to U-turn. Everyone does. The upper track is probably a good ten feet higher in elevation than the lower track, and goes back out toward the highway. Lining both sides of the loops are hotels with mythic names, restaurants that reference Dionysus (one that serves an amazing salad with fruit, pine nuts, and feta on top of a bed of vegetables all seeped in a yogurt-dressing that doesn't taste like yogurt at all). There are plenty of shops selling post cards, most of which also sell clay urns, pitchers, and jugs; plates decorated with scenes from mythology; key chains depicting the gods; and playing cards that vary between mythology, ancient Greek sports, and ancient Greek sex scenes.
Between the low road and the high road are steps. Lots of steps. Such steps that an American with a bad knee has a really rough time of it when trying to find a laundry that serves tourists. In fact, there isn't one: only a laundromat that serves the hotels. In good weather and health, the steps are actually quite charming, made from local stones that are arranged in order to be flat instead of cobbled, and lined on both sides with residential homes.
The low road leads out of town toward the ruins, and it is only a short hike to the site from town. Along the way, local beekeepers place their hives, so there are plenty of bees floating along the mountain side of the road. There is a steep drop on the other side of the road for a good chunk of the walk, but as there is a stone fence keeping people from falling, it's a good bit safer than the bees.
The site rises up on the mountain, while also dropping down below on the cliff-side (which opens up so that it's no longer a fall, but a slow descent to the Temple of Athena and the gymnasium). Climbing up into the ruins is also a strain on a weak knee, but the roads are well traveled at least, which keeps it from being the type of challenge you'd expect from a Christian pilgrimage in, say, Ireland. (No one asks you to take off your shoes and climb up sharp rocks until you reach the top of the mountain, for example.) The way from the bottom is lined with what were once treasuries. They held riches of many kinds, I'm sure, but now are marked with palimpsestual crosses and other Roman intrusions, making it difficult to see what might once have been there. All of them are labeled with small plaques of marble, little triangles that sit on the walls and say, "X Treasury," the X standing in for names of cities I neither recognized at the time nor remember now.
In the midst of the treasuries is the Sybil stone, where the ancient prophetesses plied their trade. These were the pre-Apollo priestesses, servants of Rhea or Gaia or whatever goddess or titaness was credited with the mountain's day to day oracles. It's a large thing, bulbous and pocked; if a rock could look like chaos, it would be this rock. Sitting nearby is the stone I mentioned in my recent entry--the bullet-shaped thing that would become Zeus in rituals remembering the defeat of Kronos. This is much like chaos and order juxtaposed: here is a place of oracles, which often led to a frenzy, next to a smooth stone near the height of a woman, used in prescribed rituals. This is much like the distinction between Rhea and Apollo--the cthonic force of chaos next to the heaven-bound source of order.
At the first turn up the mountain (perhaps the second), is the Athenian Treasury, which is still mostly held together. Its columns are still upright, and it retains some of its carvings. It is, as I recall, the last treasury before you reach the temple. The temple itself is a large flat place with some pillars still standing. You can tell that it was a temple, but little else, due to the number of earthquakes that shattered its foundation. I want to say that the temple that still exists is the sixth or seventh incarnation of the building; despite constant worship given to Poseidon, the earthquakes continued to come, causing the Greeks to rebuild over and over again, only to have rocks shatter down from the mountain on their work when the lord of sea and earthquakes decided to set the mountains roiling.
There is a crack in the foundation of the temple now, one which scientists have said actually does access some of the noxious gasses--psychedelics--that lurk beneath the surface. From beyond the ropes, it is hard to guess how far down the crack goes--or whether it was even over this crack that the priestesses of old stood to deliver their prophecies. The maps held by tourists recreate the place, and show the home of Apollo, where few were allowed to enter, and the home of Poseidon, where all were allowed to worship.
Farther up the mountain is the theater, a great open space not quite so large as the theaters in Ephesus or the Acropolis, but an impressive structure none the less. Unlike its companion theaters just mentioned, the seats are roped off, as they are in a state of disrepair, but the stage is open. It is perfectly flat, and a row of rocks line the other side, so that, facing away from the seats, the speaker does not have the benefit of acoustics, but can at least perform from the stage to his audience.
Still farther up is an arena of sorts, a place like Olympia made for sports and games--but this weak-kneed American sat instead in the shade, next to a Japanese painter and his assistants, who were eating lunch.
Then down down the mountain to the Temple of Athena, a place in far worse repair than the temples above. Part of it is circular in nature, and half of the pillars form a semi-circle that still stands against the ravages of time. Much of the rest of the site has been invaded by falling rocks, large boulders that sit, content in their holy places, dumped by Poseidon from the higher slopes. There was once a rock-cult at Delphi, and it is easy to guess why--the rocks are everywhere, and seem to do as they will, and land where it pleases them.
From the Temple of Athena and back into town is a gymnasium (the ruins there are little more than ruins--and as the trip was about myth, we spent little time there), an open bath where priestesses once purified themselves to perform their oracles, and a hidden spring that once ran into the baths. It has been a dry year in western Turkey and southern Greece, from what I could gather, and so no spring actually reached the roadside, as it had six years ago.
At the end of the gymnasium is a small tourist shop that sells cookbooks for Greek food and ice cream, which was desperately needed in the heat of the day. I've made shade sound available above, and it was--but it was far between: ruined temples don't cast large shadows, and the trees are small and far apart. Little grows on the mountains above Delphi: mostly scrub. The rock face is dotted with small bushes, but it is the rock itself that draws attention. The rock--and the sky beyond, large above the valley below.
This is, of course, memory now, and subject to more flaws than if I wrote this from the hotel, looking out over the city. But outside of photographs (of which I have several; I'm still figuring out where to post them), this is perhaps the best I can come to describing Delphi. It is the mountain as much as the ruins, and at its foot, fruit ice cream coming out of a tube to touch my lips is the feeling of heaven.