topics: tighanopsomo (food), Delphi, Apollo, oracle, equinox; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: March 21-22, 1998

Food of the Day: Tighanopsomo (tighanopsomo, in Greek)

Tighanopsomo, or fried bread with cheese, is yet another Greek specialty involving cheese (see also salanaki, kaltsounia, and tiropatakia). Tighanopsomo is a heavy bread with a layer of cheese in the middle, all fried in olive oil and served hot. Padraic compared it to a focaccio with a mild cheese inside.

Person of the Day: Mr. Vasilis Diamantopoulos and his daughter Tanya

The President of the Patra Cycling Federation, Mr. Vasilis Diamantopoulos, and his daughter Tanya (who acted as translator), showed us great kindness by helping us find a place to stay and by arranging three free meals for BikeAbout at a local restaurant, the Majestic click to view a photograph. We truly appreciate their efforts, especially since they were both overwhelmed with preparation for a bike race in Patra that begins in a few days. We wish him and his cyclists the best of luck.

Place of the Day: Delphi (Delphi, in Greek) visit the World Heritage Site page

Today BikeAbout paid a visit to the "navel of the world." To the ancient Greeks, Delphi was the "omphalos," or the center of the world. Zeus himself had determined this by simultaneously releasing two eagles on opposite sides of the world and dropping a holy stone at the point at which the birds met. The Greeks marked this spot with a huge sculpted cone. click to view a photograph In case you're wondering, that stone is now on the second floor of the Delphi museum - sorry, we couldn't get a GPS reading from there.

The center of the earth could hardly have a prettier setting. The ancient site of Delphi is 10 km (6 miles) from the coast, high up on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus. click to view a photograph Flanked on one side by high rocky cliffs click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and on the other by a steep valley with the sea visible in the distance click to view a photograph, Delphi boasts the most dramatic backdrop of any ancient site we have yet visited.

However, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre named Delphi as a World Heritage site visit the World Heritage Site page not because of its stunning natural beauty, but because of Delphi's historical and religious significance. Delphi was one of the most important religious centers of the ancient world. Considered a sacred site even before the development of Classical Greek civilization, Delphi was originally recognized as the sanctuary of the earth goddess Gaea, mother of the Titans who preceded the Olympian gods. However, Apollo, who coveted this sacred spot, forcibly evicted her by killing the python that guarded her temple. From that time on, Delphi became Apollo's sacred stomping ground. Considering that (among his many other attributes) Apollo was the god of prophecy, it is not surprising that Delphi became the site of the most important oracle of the ancient world. For more of a reintroduction to the Greek gods, see the Person of the Day from February 19-20.

An oracle is not a person; it is a god's answer to a mortal's question, and also the place at which the answer is given. By the 8th century, such an oracle had developed at Delphi at the Temple to Apollo. Many people believed that the Delphic oracle provided a direct connection to Apollo. Individuals and even governments from all over the Mediterranean traveled to Delphi to ask Apollo's advice, and Apollo, through the oracle (as spoken by a priest or priestess), essentially predicted the future for them.

Although Greece had many oracles, between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC, Delphi reigned supreme as the greatest fount of predictions. Many leaders of city-states and important persons refused to make a move without its advice. Whether they wanted to fight a war, found a new colony, contract an important business deal, or simply discover whether sickness or health lay in their futures, they felt safer consulting the oracle at Delphi first.

The keepers of the oracle did not have Apollo whispering succinctly phrased predictions in their ears, or carefully written telegraph replies sent down through a dedicated line from Mount Olympus. Instead, the keepers of the oracle had, by the 6th century BC, developed a complex ritual by which to obtain the prophecies. The procedure involved cleansing baths at sacred springs and a high priestess of the temple inhaling volcanic gases while sitting over a crack in the earth. Thus inspired, she spoke in apparent gibberish. Fortunately the priests of Apollo not only interpreted her divine utterances, but also put them into verse! Not being idiots, the priests (or Apollo, depending on what you wish to believe) worded the verses carefully, making each prophecy ambiguous - giving each prediction a number of possible meanings or interpretations.

Of course, there was also the matter of the fee, or tribute to Apollo. Treasuries full of expensive offerings to Apollo given by various states (including Athens, whose treasury has been reconstructed click to view a photograph) lined the "Sacred Way," or pathway from the entrance up to the site of the oracle. In the 4th century, contributions allowed the construction of a glorious Temple of Apollo, which was built around the volcanic-gas-spewing crack. Here's a photo of what is left of this once great temple. click to view a photograph Today Apollo would undoubtedly have a 900 number, accept credit cards, and have a host of operators standing by to help you. Still, wouldn't it be better to get your prophecies from a god than from a psychic friend?

Because the ancient Greeks consulted the Delphic oracle before making any big decisions, and because of the immense wealth that the oracle generated, some of the Greek city-states formed a federation, called the Amphictyonic League, to protect the oracle. Unfortunately the league could not prevent, and often precipitated, wars over access to the site. Between 595 and 339 BC, the Greeks fought four "Sacred Wars" over Delphi. Control of the oracle - and thus the future! - passed from one state to the next. Ironically, in the end, fighting over Delphi helped bring an end to Greek autonomy. The Third Sacred War gave King Phillip II of Macedon greater influence into Greek affairs, while the Fourth gave him the opportunity he needed to bring all of Greece under his control.

The Sacred Wars and Phillip's usurpation had little effect on the oracle itself. Individuals and states continued to trust the Delphic oracles despite the wars. However, the importance of Delphi declined under Roman control. Although (or perhaps because) Augustus Caesar took a special interest in Apollo, later Roman emperors ransacked Delphi of its treasures. Earlier raiders had occasionally plundered its treasuries, but the Romans did so more systematically. Emperor Nero alone reputedly took 900 statues! The Christian emperor Theodosius abolished the heathen oracle in the late 4th century and Delphi faded into obscurity. By modern times, a village had grown up on top of the site of the oracle. Only after this small town was uprooted and relocated to its present location did archaeologists find the remains of ancient Delphi.

Apollo would probably even have (and need) a series of self-help "How You Can Know the Future Too" infomercials and $29.99 videocassettes to help him carry out the prediction business today. His temple is in ruins click to view a photograph and the crack in the earth that released those prediction-producing gases cannot be found. Moreover, thousands of tourists, paying only a few thousand drachmas apiece in tribute (free on Sundays), have overrun the place, making any serious prognostication impossible.

Yet, the site still seems to hold some of its previous supernatural powers. As he passed Apollo's Temple, Ethan, overcome by something (either the magical landscape or the odd smells emitted by the sweaty tourists as they strained to climb up the Sacred Way) began to speak gibberish. click to view a photograph Corinne and Anthony, figuring he had finally snapped, ignored him, but Padraic managed to translate some of his nonsense into verse. It went, "The big bald beast who eats all; should his fingers watch; or risk their loss." And "Buy donuts in bulk." We found the second message particularly enigmatic.

Puzzled click to view a photograph, we climbed to check out the rest of the site. Just beyond Apollo's Temple, we passed Apollo's Theater click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, a well-preserved amphitheater where poetry contests and concerts were once held. From the top we enjoyed a spectacular view of the site and the surrounding countryside. click to view a photograph

Above the theater we found the ancient stadium click to view a photograph click to view a photograph in which the Pythian games were held. Sponsored by the Amphictyonic League, the games were held every four years (like the more famous games at Olympia) to honor Apollo and commemorate his victory over the Python. Here Anthony participates in the little known ancient sport of competitive lounging. click to view a photograph

On the way back down the Sacred Way, we stopped to take a picture of the many stones and pillars covered with Greek inscriptions. click to view a photograph Inscriptions like these have been crucial in enabling archaeologists to reconstruct ancient Greek civilization and culture.

After visiting the ruins, we next took a spin through the museum to see some of the few remaining Delphic treasures. We found these statues to be among the most impressive we have seen (and had enough light to photograph): an early classical bronze statue of a charioteer (who seems to have lost both chariot and horses) click to view a photograph, this late classical statue depicting dancing girls click to view a photograph, and an uncannily realistic Hellenistic bust. click to view a photograph Compare this Siphinian sphinx click to view a photograph to some of the other sphinxes we have found. click to view a photograph

We also saw more interesting evidence of the inter-relatedness of Mediterranean cultures. One exhibit featured treasures from an underground burial place of a sacred bull - just like a much smaller version of the Serapium found in Saqqara in which the sacred Apis bulls were buried. However this bull had a full suit made of silver which is displayed in the museum.

Finally sated with the archaeological treasures of Delphi, we headed back to the bus station click to view a photograph to find some transportation home. Our attempt to find bulk donuts failed.

Tech Fact of the Day: Vernal Equinox

An equinox happens when the sun crosses the earth's celestial equator (the imaginary plane which extends into space from the earth's equator). In the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox usually falls on September 22; while the vernal (spring) equinox normally falls on March 21. On these days, since the sun is directly over the equator, there should be precisely as many hours of light as of darkness. However, March 21 is just used as an approximate date. As you can see by the sunrise and sunset above, we already passed the actual vernal equinox (on the 19th).

The Vernal Equinox is also considered the first day of Spring, but our high hopes for a warming trend were soon dashed by the frigidity of our unheated accommodations.

Group Dispatch, March 21-22
picture of Padraic

Hoping to get into Patra early the group rolled out of Olympia before the fog had burned off. Fortunately the sun soon shone through and the group arrived in Pyrgos under bright sunlight.

At Pyrgos, Ethan (whose stomach has been staging an ongoing revolt demanding reduced taxes [on its system]) and Corinne hopped on a train to Patra. Anthony and Padraic decided to take advantage of the sun and their early start to ride the remaining 90 km (56 mi). After downing some pastries and chocolate milk, they took off on a flat, relatively uninteresting ride along the main road into the city. A headwind delayed them, but they still reached town before 3 p.m., about 30 minutes after Ethan and Corinne had arrived. Fittingly, both cyclists and train came into town right along the coast. click to view a photograph Patra's most distinguishing feature is its busy port right next to the center of town. Though an ancient city, Patra is primarily known as the hub for passenger ferry traffic between Greece and Italy.

After the team had reunited, found a place to stay, and grabbed its first free meal at the Majestic Restaurant (see Person of the Day for more details about this), they set off to find a place to send and receive email. For days they had been waiting communications regarding the next parts of their trip (in northwest Greece and then beyond in Albania), so they descended upon Patra's one and only Internet Café and took care of business. Exhausted from their effort, the group returned fairly early to rest for their big expedition to Delphi the next day.

The BikeAbout gang woke up early to catch the first bus towards Delphi. Unfortunately, though they arrived a half an hour before the scheduled departure, the bus was already completely full. Knowing they couldn't catch the next bus and still return to Patra by the evening, they searched for an alternative way to get to the ancient site. After some wandering around, they found a bus that would take them to a town called Rio, where they could take the ferry across the waters of the Patrakos Kolpos to Andirio, from whence they could take another bus to Nafpaktos, where they might find a bus to Itea, where they could probably find a bus to Delphi. The process took even longer than the preceding sentence. The group waited for the bus in Patra, waited for the ferry, waited for the next bus to Nafpaktos, and found they would have to wait two hours before they could catch a bus to Delphi.

At this point they decided to take a short cut. Figuring that a taxi would only cost a few dollars more than four bus tickets, they hopped in the first they found - evidently driven by Mario Andretti's long lost son. The road along the coast to Delphi offered stunning views, but Anthony spent most of his time checking out how G-forces contorted the faces of his comrades in the back seat. If not for the soothing Yanni melodies blaring over the car radio speakers, things might have gotten ugly.

After a thrilling climb up to Delphi, the group still had plenty of time to visit the site before catching a bus back to Patra. (For more about our time at Delphi, see the Place of the Day.) However, because of a slow connection and an even slower ferry, the ride back to Patra took hours.

After our second free dinner at the Majestic Restaurant, Corinne and Ethan headed back to bed, while Anthony and Padraic decided to have a night out on the town. By this they meant they wanted to stick around to see a movie (both of them like watching movies, but would rather direct). Like giddy school children, they clapped excitedly at the opening credits - come to think of it, this is often also their response when the first course of a meal comes. Regardless they need to get out more often.

Go to Previous Rider Notes PageGo to Next Rider Notes Page

Questions? Ask Padraic Go To Padraic's Page!

Return to Fast Facts

BikeAbout Itinerary & Journal Discussion Groups About Greece eDscape Projects BikeAbout Scrapbook
Discussions About

About BikeAbout Mediterranean Journey BikeAbout Partners Resource Library

FORTHNetInternet access while in Greece has been provided by FORTHNet.

Daedalus Design Group Computer Curriculum Corporation Compaq

Copyright 1997-99 BikeAbout. All rights reserved.