Exploring Delphi, the heart of ancient Greece

Once a sanctuary dedicated to the god Apollo, Delphi is more than the sum of its showstopping ruins. Perched high above the Gulf of Corinth, it’s dotted with extraordinary details that mark it as the true heart of the ancient cosmos.

By Kerry Walker
Published 4 Mar 2021, 08:54 GMT
The ruins of the Tholos of Delphi, now part of the Delphi UNESCO World Heritage Site. ...

The ruins of the Tholos of Delphi, now part of the Delphi UNESCO World Heritage Site. The circular temple, made from marble and limestone, was constructed between 380 and 360 BC.

Photograph by Getty Images

It’s a hot day, the kind where the Greek gods might have gleefully stripped off their chitons, frolicked on the slopes of Mount Parnassus and leaped into the nearest spring-fed stream. Or perhaps they’d have sought shade in a cave such as the one I’m about to enter, where the cool comes as sweet relief. 

I blink in the half-light of the Corycian Cave as its lofty interior and stalactites slide into focus. It’s impressive — even more so when you know the cave was sacred to Pan and the nymphs, and the surrounding slopes were the site of orgies celebrating Dionysus. This morning, however, it’s just me, a pocket torch and my overactive imagination, trying to decipher ancient mysteries in the gloom. 

Hidden on craggy, forested slopes at 4,300ft above sea level, the cave is an evocative prelude to ancient Delphi. And the trail that leads from here to the archaeological site further heightens the anticipation. 

I walk for hours in silent wonder along zigzagging paths, listening to cicadas strum and breathing in the scent of unfamiliar herbs. The view is divine, reaching across plains embroidered with olive groves to a shimmer of sea. Suddenly, and without warning, the ruins appear like a mirage in the heat haze. Ancient Delphi sits throne-like on the mountainside, as if cupped in celestial hands and held up as an offering to the gods. The Doric columns of the Temple of Apollo and the Athenian Treasury are so perfectly, anciently etched, they look like a stage set. 

The crowds thicken as I take the Sacred Way through the ruins to the spectacular, fourth-century BC temple. Here, the heat becomes more intense, which seems fitting for the home of the Greek god of sun and light. This is where Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi and Apollo’s mouthpiece, gave her prophecies: lore has it that she went into a trance-like state as she predicted the fates of lovers and leaders, warmongers and wayfarers. 

The startlingly well-preserved 5,000-seat amphitheatre, which once hosted the quadrennial Pythian Games, holds me in its thrall. So too does the Serpent Column, commemorating Greek victory over the Persian Empire at the 479 BC Battle of Plataea, and the polygonal wall, which features 800 inscriptions concerning the emancipation of slaves. One rock in particular grabs my attention: the beehive-shaped omphalos, or ‘navel’ stone, that, according to legend, Zeus placed here. Finally, I’ve reached the centre of the ancient universe.

How to do it
Ancient civilisations travel specialist ArchaeoMuse offers a six-night tour of central Greece, including guided tours of Delphi, Athens and the Argolid, from £1,750 per person, including accommodation, transfers and some meals. 

Three more unmissable ancient sites in Greece

1. Meteora
Perched atop rocky pinnacles, Meteora’s six Byzantine monasteries were built by 14th-century monks seeking refuge from invading Turks. Moni Agias Triados is particularly worth visiting. 

2. Ancient Olympia 
In the ruins of Olympia’s temples and sprint track, you can almost hear the fanfare of the Olympic Games. They were held here for over 1,000 years before being abolished in AD 394. 

3. Mycenae
Homer speaks of ‘well-built Mycenae, rich in gold’ in his epic poems Odyssey and Iliad — and the UNESCO-listed archaeological site still astonishes with riches.  

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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