Saturday, 5 January 2013

Battlefields, oracles and temples

After visiting the ancient city of Sparta a few days previously, we couldn't turn down the opportunity to stop at the battlefield of Thermopylae to see how 300 Spartan soldiers could hold off the Persian army. Actually finding it, however, proved to be a little more tricky than we'd anticipated. After jumping off the motorway at the wrong point twice, we eventually spotted the statue of Leonidas standing to the side of the road. After some customary posing, we nipped across the road and up the hill to the famous plaque commemorating the event, before finding a path and heading off on an impromptu hike through the nearby valley. We passed a natural thermal pool in which a number of locals were bathing, the warm waters a crystal turquoise but stinking of sulphur, and wound our way up into the hills, imagining the Spartans arriving after days of hard marching through the mountainous landscape. It was a great opportunity to really stretch our legs and break up the long drive.

A short while longer in the car, and we had made it to what was my favourite of all the archaeological sites we visited on mainland Greece - Delphi. Built on the slopes of Mount Parnassos, Delphi dominates its landscape. Overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, its setting is picture perfect and the ruins extremely well preserved (although partially reconstructed). Standing at the top, looking down over the stadium and temples to the tree-filled valley below and the gulf beyond, it isn't surprising that the Greeks regarded it as a centre of the world. Atmospheric and beautiful, the ruins are awe-inspiring.

You need a good few hours to explore it fully - the path winding up the mountainside reveals small temples and buildings and superb viewpoints over the valley, culminating in the extremely well-preserved stadium at the top. There's a huge amount to see, all helping to build a picture of what the city must have been like. It's no wonder the most powerful oracle in Greece was situated here.

I was also impressed with the accompanying museum (as I was with all those at archaeological sites we visited). Well preserved parts of friezes line the walls, depicting the labours of Hercules and the battle of the Amazons, and the beautiful Bronze Charioteer at the far end of the museum is definitely worth a look. Well set-out without being overwhelming, it contains many treasures recovered from the site.

The following day, we drove back south, temporarily by-passing Athens to reach the southern coast and the temple of Poseidon. Overlooking the deep blue waters, the temple stands prominently on a cliff, a fitting tribute to the sea god. Although I was interested in the temple itself, I must admit that part of my motivation for visiting was to see the fabled graffiti left by Byron, one of my favourite poets.

Despite there being no actual proof that he was the one to record his name, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to find it, and we spent a good half an hour searching through hundreds of names carved onto every available surface of the stone columns. Typically, I'd assumed it would be a simple task, and hadn't researched the exact location, so it took much longer than anticipated, but eventually we succeeded (if you are considering visiting yourself and want to save some time, his name is located on the side of the temple facing away from the ocean, on the second column in on the right, just under half way up).

It was a hot day, the sun relentlessly beating down upon us, so we grabbed a cold drink, and walked up an adjoining hill to sit and watch the waves gently crash against the cliff, the temple safely sitting high above and forever looking out over the water.


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