Editors' Choice

The Unexpected at Delphi

by Nancy Middleton

Discovering Delphi.

As we boarded the bus outside our hotel in Athens, I took a look at my five students and wondered if we should skip the day trip to Delphi. We had been touring for seven days straightevery morning an early oneand the boys (yes, they were all boys) were visibly exhausted. Much of this, I knew, was from staying up too late. Every night I reminded them what time they had to be ready the next morning, but you can’t take a group of 16- and 17-year-olds to Europe for the first time and expect them to tuck in at a reasonable hour. (As chaperone, I had learned this the first night.) And since they were always up, packed, and ready to go at the designated time, I had decided the late nights weren’t a problem.

Today, though, I was tempted to grab us all a break. The list of historic sites already under our belts included: the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Pantheon, Pompeii, ancient Olympia, Mycenae, Epidarus, and the Parthenon. It had been marvelousan eye-popping array of ancient history at our feetand we still had a week to go. Surely we could skip Delphi, a site I was only vaguely familiar with, without causing undo harm to the boys’ education. I knew they had wished for more time yesterday to hang out in the Plaka district, plus the three-hour drive each way to Delphi and back to Athens sounded grueling.

“Could we just stay here in Athens today?” I asked our guide, careful to stay out of earshot of the boys. I wasn’t sure what the answer would be.

Paolo frowned. “Sure,” he said. “But I think you should go.”

He seemed so disappointed I began to reconsider.

Was Delphi that important? Sure, I knew it was historically significantthe Oracle and all but I honestly couldn’t see anything in my guidebook that proved it would be much more than a pile of ruins on a hill. And we’d seen a lifetime of ruins already. Spectacular ruins like the Coliseum and the Parthenon. Compared to heavy hitters like these, Delphi seemed, well, so minor league.

I was skeptical.

I also suspected Paolo didn’t want any disruptions. We were a group of 46 altogether, with students and chaperones from California, Georgia, and Texas in addition to our group from Pennsylvania. One defection might lead to another and, as our tour guide, it was his job to stick to the plan.

A day off sounded pretty tempting, though, so I decided to plunge ahead with my idea. A mid-trip break, I rationalized, as I floated the option of staying in town to the boys. Three of them lit up at the prospect of a day to themselves, but two surprised me by expressing sincere interest in Delphi.

“Ok, then,” I said, sounding a bit too much like a general leading troops to battle. “We’re going.” If I had learned nothing else in my role as chaperone it was to be decisive. I sensed a whiff of disappointment from the three as their free time was snatched from them, but there was no other option. I couldn’t leave part of the group alone in Athens, and it seemed unfair to deny the interested ones the trek to Delphi.

“It’ll be fine,” I said, trying to convince myself as well as the boys. “You can sleep on the bus.”

As we drove out of Athens and north toward Mount Parnassos, I thought about the sudden twist of events that had landed me here in Greece. The tripfor mehad been completely unexpected. I was not the boys’ teacher, but one of their mothers. I had only stepped in at the last minute to chaperone when their teacher had fallen ill and couldn’t travel. Staring out at the magnificent scenery, the cliff-faced hills that began to surround us the further north we traveled, I felt ridiculous for my initial reluctance to take Ann’s place. I had actually told her “no” when she first asked. I was behind in my writing, I’d said. I was also committed to a workshop that started right when the tour did.

“Sorry,” I’d said. “I’m sure you’ll find somebody else.”

After I hung up, I’d tried to go back to work, but my mind got to weighing the virtues of a trip to Italy and Greece for the mere price of exchanging my name on a plane ticket. Soon my excuses began to pale, then plain evaporate. I could do this, I thought. My passport was current. Besides, the students had been looking forward to this trip for months. If someone didn’t step forward, they wouldn’t just lose their trip but also significant money. True, I didn’t know the boys very wellbut, hey, one of them was my son. I also knew Ann had offered the trip only to students she believed to be responsible.

As one of my friends put it: “Ok, chaperoning five teenagers…but Athens?”

So, here I was on my way to Delphi: the navel of the ancient world.

My knowledge of ancient history and mythology was admittedly rusty, so I decided to read up on the place while the boys dozed.

Delphi, I learned, was dubbed “the center of the world” when Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth and they met in the sky over Delphi. For more than 1,000 years, beginning in about 1400 BC, pilgrims traveled to Delphi to consult the Oracle, which was guided by Apollo’s spirit. Priestesses seated on a tripod in a temple inhaled vapors, fell into a trance, and answered questions posed to them. From farmers to world leaders, they came seeking advice–but the answers left a lot to interpretation. King Croesus of Lydia, for example, asked whether he should attack the Persians. The answer was that if he went to war a great empire would be destroyed. He forged ahead with war and suffered a horrific defeat. Yet, the Oracle had told the truth. A great empire had been destroyed: his own.

How human, I thought. To hear what we want to hear. To stop when we get the answer we’re looking for.

By the time we arrived in the town of Delphi, I was warming to the place. For one thing, the scenery was spectacular. The bus parked beside an overlook and our group filed out. We stood on the edge of a cliff looking down on a valley of olive and cypress trees, and beyond that the blue waters of the Gulf of Corinth.

“I didn’t think it would be thisbeautiful,” I said to no one in particular. The boys snapped pictures as I stood transfixed by the drama in front of us.

“Yeah.” One of them agreed. “I always pictured Greece as grassy hills and sheep.”

Paolo pointed out some gift shops across the street and told us what time to rendezvous at the bus. The plan was to tour the museum, then meet a local guide who would lead us up the mountain to the temple ruins.

The group dispersed. I wandered into a shop and purchased a vacuum-sealed packet of olives. It would make a good gift, I figured, if I didn’t eat them myself. I’d always loved olives, and total immersion in an olive-loving culture had only fueled my passion. “We eat them like you Americans eat peanuts,” our guide at Mycenae had told us. “One after the other while we’re watching the ball game.”

There was still time to kill, so I crossed back to the overlook. As I gazed down at the river of olive trees, I was overcome by a feeling that was pretty much extinct in my normal life, and it was this: I had no expectations. I was simply existing here in Delphi, accepting what was laid before me with no idea what was coming next.

And the best part of this? I loved it.

Funny, I thought, as I joined the others for the short ride to the museum, to find myself in a place famed for its answers just as I embraced the joy of not knowing.

After touring the museum, we met our local guide. She led us up the Sacred Way toward the temple, reminding us, as we walked, of Apollo’s lasting advice: Know Thyself and Nothing in Excess.

Sound advice, I thought. Our guide thought so, too.

“Perhaps,” she said, after relating the story of King Croseus, “he would have fared better if he had taken the time to ask the next question: ‘Which army will be defeated?’” She paused and scanned our group for some reaction, but she had lapsed into lecture mode and the students’ discomfort was palpable. They had been infinitely patient with the numerous dates and facts thrown at them on this trip, but their tolerance for morality lectures had limits. This was their vacation after all.

Thankfully, she moved on to a geology lesson.

According to our guide, the story of the priestesses breathing vapors emitted from the earth had a logical explanation. Around 2000, geologists had discovered two faults that intersected directly below the temple of Apollo. When major earthquakes occurred in ancient times, methane and ethylene gases could have traveled through the permeable rocks of Mount Parnassos and risen. The enclosed temple where the priestess gave readings could have easily trapped enough gas to induce a trancelike state.

“So she was just high on gas?” someone said. “Not channeling the gods?”

“So it seems,” our guide said with a shrug.

There were murmurs of surprise all around as we walked on toward the temple remains, but I didn’t say anything. As fascinating as all this was, I was crushed that the Oracle could be explained away by science. Was nothing sacred? I mean, couldn’t there have been some sort of divine presence here on Mount Parnassos? Without realizing it, I had become captivated by the placeand strangely protective of it. There was a power here, although I couldn’t tell what it was. Divine? Manmade? Geological?

Certainly, the sheer majesty of Mount Parnassos had power. I stopped and gazed down the winding Sacred Way below me. With the mountain at my back and the valley below, I understood utterly how the ancients believed this was the center of the world. I watched the boys continue on the path above me, again feeling the strange joy of not knowing, of having no expectation but to be here on earth.

I walked on. The path was winding, but gently so, and there were many places to stop along the way. And every spot provided a different vantage, a new experience. We stopped outside the temple ruins and sat on the old rock wall and on the remains of columns that now served as stools. One of the boys reclined on the wall to listen to our guide, and when he stood up his shirt was covered in ancient dust. Everything was dusty, the rocks turning to sand with time. Our feet were coated with it.

We walked on. The path was longer, much longer than I had imagined, and there were surprises everywhere along the way. Another temple ruin, treasury buildings, column remains. I stopped and had my picture taken sitting on a rock wall overlooking Apollo’s temple. Some of our group was ahead of me, some behind. There wasn’t much talking anymore. It was as if everyone recognized the significance of the place.

At the top of the site, a small path opened out to an impressive stadium–the site of the Pythian Games, which rivaled only the Olympic Games in prestige for ancient Greeks. The stadium was enormous, flanked on both sides by bleachers carved out of stone. We stood and stared, overwhelmed by its size, by its detail, and by the fact that it had stood there since the 5th century B.C. No one spoke. It was all moremuch more–than we’d expected.

We lingered there at the top. It seemed too soon to walk down, but in time we did. And the hike back down felt different. On the way up, I had questioned and wondered the whole time. How much further? What else was there to see? But on the way down, I saw the sky and path more clearly. The view seemed even more beautiful because I thought to look at it rather than wonder where I was going. But it was also less exciting, less mysterious. I had an overwhelming desire, the closer I got to the bottom, to turn around and walk the path again, to have the experience anew, to sit on the dusty rocks and wonder and not know.

I stopped at the bottom of the Sacred Way and waited for our group. I still couldn’t put my finger on what I was feeling. I only knew that this place had existed for thousands of years–that all these years others had known about it, but I did notand I was grateful to have seen it. And to think I almost didn’t come. My feet were covered in ancient dust. I was hot and thirsty, but felt strangely at home. Elevated, and yet at ease.

And perhaps this was Delphi’s power, I thought. There was something shockingly simple about the place. For all its powerful legacy, it was, at its core, elemental. Rocks, sky, and earth. A place of mystery and answers. Of solid rock and unstable ground. I thought of all the strange vicissitudes of my lifeof anybody’s lifeand felt its connection to this place. Who of us hasn’t known certainty only to have the ground shift unexpectedly beneath us? And who of us has not been visited, from time to time, by sudden grace or good fortune? A second chance, forgiveness . . .an unplanned trip to Greece.

This was Delphi’s power. I watched the boys approach on the path. I turned and looked up the mountain again. This was indeed a sacred place. I felt it.

And, like grace itself, completely unexpected.


Nancy Middleton won the Travel & Transformation Silver for "The Unexpected at Delphi" in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Nancy Middleton

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