Thursday, 27 March 2014

Day Return to Delphi

The Centre of the Earth

The story goes that Zeus sent out two eagles from each end of the earth, east and west, and Delphi was the place where they met, marking it out as the centre of the world. You can reach the centre of the world by public transport, it is possible, once you have hazarded a plan and surrendered your will to that of the gods.

The day begins early, even earlier than anticipated, as I discover the first flaw in my calculations. The 8 am bus turns out to be 8.05 and, given that the times are never rigidly adhered to, and buses are often late, I suddenly fear that I might not have enough time to dash across the road from the last stop, past the Balkan Crossroads where the men in black leather jackets hang out at the To Mesaio café, zip past the Sanctuary of Asklepios into the Ktel Fokidas office, and make the necessary negotiations, full of potential pitfalls, to secure a ticket before the bus left at 8.45. So I decide to get the earlier bus to Nafpaktos which, thanks to the fact that I was awake early, and got up in plenty of time, is possible. I leave the house at 7.40 and discover that I'm getting the bus that all the schoolchildren get. I've never seen the bus so crowded, and lots of people have to stand. More people get on at every stop, and we shuffle further up the bus until it starts to remind me of a Paris metro train. The driver is brilliant though, never a hint that he might turn anyone away.

The bus takes forever as people mount the steps slowly, validate their ticket, look in disbelief at the crowd and move reluctantly into it; the bus then wheezes away from each stop with its newly increased passenger load. At the school, all the students pile out, and for the last few stops the bus is almost empty. I have plenty of time at the KTEL office to buy my ticket, which all goes smoothly. The bus times have not changed since the day before, though the ticket seller has, it is now a fair haired woman who looks slightly cross at having to go through the procedure of selling me a ticket and indignant that I should ask if it's possible to buy a return (no, it's not). But in the morning sunshine the office looks less seedy and sombre than it did the day before, and even if it had not, its empty, down-at-heel aspect held a singular charm for me, inciting a private upwelling of joy. The sun shines on the green garden of Asklepios where a man is walking his dog, and on the bronze bust of the god which gleams in the morning light.

KTEL Fokidas bus station with Sanctuary behind it

Unusually, the day continues sunny, not a hint of rain. The bus follows the coast road, dipping down to small seeming deserted villages, with faded taverna signs, long promenades adorned with skeletal awnings, and bay after bay of blue sea. We change at Itea for the Athens bus, and I am the only person to alight at Delphi.

Valley below Delphi

The land tumbles down into the valley and the air is scented. I make my way to the ruins of the temples of Apollo and Athena, pay the entrance fee, and start up the path.

The Temple of Apollo (where the priestess pronounced her oracles)

The ruins – of temples, altars, treasuries, theatre – lie on the mountain slope, facing the sun. Apollo was after all, a sun god. As you climb the path through the ruins, you look out onto the mountain opposite. At some places, at some bends in the path, you can see right down into the valley. But for most of the ascent, it is hidden from view, so you are as if suspended in air, not truly part of the human world, with its bargains and conditions, its trade and compromises, its sense of incompleteness, its search for what will make it whole.

Altar of Apollo

Another view of Apollo's Temple

Looking down on the Theatre

My run of luck (or Asclepios) that has made this visit possible stays with me, as, despite the cloudy weather and heavy rainfalls of the past few days, I am able to see this place on a morning of clear sunlight, the mountains surrounded by a cupola of blue sky. The warmth and slight breeze carries changing scents of flowers and herbs. But by the time I leave, and walk the short distance from Apollo's temple to the narrow streets of present day Delphi, with its houses and shops, its cafés and restaurants, the clouds have already moved in.

Back in Nafpaktos, waiting to board the sixth and last bus of the day, a ferocious downpour forces me to shelter under a shop awning and I decide that the next morning, I would have to buy an umbrella.

But as I wait in the downpour for the bus, I think about the Sanctuary of Asclepios, just a few minutes walk away. The setting of the ruins at Delphi is truly magnificent and the columns of Apollo's temple indicate the grandeur of the architecture. But it was his son Asclepios who was the kindly and compassionate god.

In offering dreams, he is never didactic, in contrast to the Oracle's messages which were always, apparently, interpreted by Apollo's priests. So Asclepios encourages independence rather than subservience to unpredictable gods, who might choose to wish us well or act against us according to some whim of their own, despite all the offerings and prayers we might make to them. He reminds us too that the healing of an illness is not only to do with the treating of symptoms but also involves understanding the meaning of it.

And Asklepios feels accessible in time as well as place. He is just a few metres up the road and he is also a constellation in the sky, Ophiuchus, which depicts a man encircled by a large snake. People may not go to his temples any more to request healing dreams, but his symbol of staff and snake is still visible outside pharmacies and he will still assist you today if you ask him.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Asclepios Points the Way

Nafpaktos town centre

I was exploring the eastern boundaries of Nafpaktos, following the bus route, to see where it goes. I find what is probably the last stop, where the roads converge (prior to that, they were in a separate one way system). This meeting point of the roads is only a few metres from the elegant shops and polished paving stones, but has quite a different atmosphere. The café's awning is a slightly stained beige, the chairs and tables are dark brown. On the corner there's a kiosk and next to it, two phone booths and a yellow post box with empty cigarette packets lying beside them, and a group of men in dark leather jackets standing between kiosk and café, talking, gesticulating, calling out a greeting to another one who walks past. These men don't look as though they are passing by, they are not on their way to somewhere else, this is their place, their territory, this is where they gather, communicate, pass on information, do business.

I've called this area the Balkan Crossroads because of its slightly unkempt and unpolished look and atmosphere, a kind of authenticity which always makes me feel at home when I come across it, whether it's in Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria or other parts of Greece. And this area turns out to have a magnetism all of its own as, when I look across the road I can hardly believe my eyes. A clear sign in both Greek and English declares that right here is a Sanctuary of Asclepios.

Now Asclepios is my most favourite ever god or demi-god. He's the god of healing dreams and he's often represented holding a staff with a single snake curled round it. This symbol, only slightly modified, can be seen outside almost every chemist in Greece and in other parts of Europe too. 

and, not changed at all it can be seen outside hospitals here in Greece,

and I even found it on the tube of the brand of toothpaste which I regularly use (which just shows how healing it must be). And since I've been fascinated by dreams for almost as long as I can remember, it's not surprising that I should love the god (or demi-god) who is helpful in bringing them to you.

I like the way that dreams are your own in a sense, even if belonging to the larger psyche rather than the rational everyday mind, and so encourage independence rather than dependence on any external god, especially those unpredictable beings who might choose to wish you well or act against you according to some whim of their own, despite all the offerings and prayers you might make to them. So in that way, Asclepios is very modern, he is helpful but he also says now it's up to you, he hands you responsibility. And he is modern also in that he is flexible, he can move through space and time he is not confined to an era of the past, or any particular place, even though he was a true child of Greece, he has never been stuck or rooted there. A great book to read that describes the workings of Asclepios in the present day is Edward Tick's The Practice of Dream Healing.

The Sanctuary is a small square of green garden with a rocky promontory on the left, olive trees and cacti growing between the rocks of an uphill path. And by the garden entrance, a bust of the god of healing dreams himself.

Another reason I like Asclepios is that he is down here on the ground, among us, not perched on some ridiculous pedestal that sets him on high so you have to crane your neck to see anything at all of him, the suggestion being that he is superior to mortals and we will never ascend to his heights. But that's not Asclepios' plan at all.  He is here, in the marketplace of human life, he is accessible, and his aim is to be helpful to human beings.

I follow the path up from the flat green square and only a few steps up, tufts of grass appear between uneven rocks, and there's the first level, a square of stones showing, I presume, the layout of his ancient temple or Asclepion.

The path ascends steeply between spiny grasses, bushes and cacti.

A fence marks the boundary between sanctuary and people's gardens but up at the top, beside the big rocks at the summit, the ground falls away abruptly, shrub covered but cliff steep. No boundary fence is needed here.

Emerging from the sanctuary I look left and see another sign. 
It's in the background at the right in the picture below

There is somewhere I very much want to visit (a dream of mine you could say) but getting hold of the information has been problematical. It appears that there is no centralised system for transport information in Greece if you want to travel from one district to another (which, apparently, I do). Unless of course you want to go to major cities like Athens and Thessaloniki (which I do not).  I'd been given contact numbers for the relevant offices but my lack of Greek proved an insurmountable barrier.  But I couldn't help thinking that if I could just speak to someone face to face, I could surely get my meaning across, times can be written down after all and figures, thankfully, are the same in all languages. And here, right next to the sanctuary of the god of healing dreams, there is this sign, which seems to be the coach company office (KTEL) for the region I wish to travel to (Fokidas), rather than the one I am in. Could it be possible that someone there might be able to give me the information I'm looking for?

 It's a small building on two floors and the office is on the ground floor. Its doors are almost full length glass and when I push the door open I enter a small room. The counter on the right is made of panelled wood, the walls painted  pale yellow and slightly scuffed with use. A couple of posters, depicting the glories of Greece – scenery and statues – are pinned on the walls, their colours faded, their edges curling slightly.  The room is bare of furniture apart from an oversized box, also a pale cream yellow, serving as a table, its only adornment a crumpled tin ashtray stuffed with dark brown cigarette ends. A young man is behind the wooden counter, gazing at a laptop.  I tell him that I would like to take a bus to Delphi, and it becomes clear that I have found the secret source of that most elusive of information – bus times to the oracle. Buses are not frequent, but they do exist, and he writes down the figures on a very small piece of fragile paper, makes a phone call to another source, to check the time of the last bus back, adds this to the tiny digits, and hands it to me with a flourish. I thank him, put it carefully into my wallet and make a mental note to copy it onto something more robust as soon as I get home.

Monday, 3 March 2014

It's all about the bridge

The Rio-Antirio bridge crosses the narrowest span of water east of the island of Kefalonia. It's named after the villages on each side of the Gulf of Corinth, Rio on the south, and its opposite, Antirio, on our side of the water. It is visible from almost every angle, all along the coast and from the road too, from Nafpaktos, about 10 kilometers away.  I just need to walk a few metres from the house to the water, to see it. It is the way to Patras, and to the ferries that leave from there, to the Italian ports of Bari and Brindisi, and the Ionian islands of Corfu and Kefalonia. It's also the way to Athens and Piraeus and the ferries to Crete and Cyprus and who knows how many other places. It is the gateway to all of Greece south of the Gulf of Corinth.

It's not the only way. Just beside the bridge there is a ferry for  pedestrians and cars, that will take you across the water of the gulf, from Antirio to Rio, beside Patras.  But most of the traffic, -  cars, vans, buses and trucks, speeds over the bridge, looking down on the diminutive, slow-moving ferry.

It is possible to cross the bridge on foot. The other day, we walked a few kilometers along the stony beach, stopping every so often to empty our boots of the tiny stones that somehow manage to slip inside. 

For the last part we had to leave the beach and follow a narrow slip road that emerges near the beginning of the bridge, climb the metal staircase over the toll booths at the bridge entrance and down on the other side, to the  pedestrian lane. The traffic thundered and thumped on the other side of the protective metal barrier. There was no-one else walking on this immense structure. It was windy, perched high up above the water, on these curving, steel grey and sturdy wings.  And it was raining.


Today I walk along the beach in the other direction, towards Nafpaktos, to where a narrow channel of water goes into the sea. But it is now a brown river, way too wide to cross. On this side, a figure stands, dressed in a bright yellow oilskin cape. He's fishing. He smiles at me and agrees that I can't get across. I go back to the path edged with the tall bamboo grasses, that leads out onto the road. Just before the bakers, it begins to rain. And by the time I come out, it is heavy, so I stand under the awning, for shelter.

The bridge is still in sunlight. Its 4 uprights are like the spindles of the Fates. They hold the bridge between upper air and water, each with their flares of wire, fine as spider webs, thrown out as if caught in mid-spin, each filigree with its own thin shaft of reflected light.

The mountains that the bridge leads to, are also in sunlight. The long red boat that has been in the gulf mouth since yesterday, sits under the dividing line between blue sky and handfuls of bunched greyish-purple fabric, that sometimes billows, a pulse runs through it, and its tendrils hang down over the mountain slope, over the sea, folded curtains.

When the rain eases off, I continue walking. Cafés and small shops are open in Nafpaktos, and the sun comes out.

I walk back along the beach, and clouds gather over the bridge and the mountains. They spread out, like fingers opening wide.

The sun is still just beyond the pall of this fabric, like a cover thrown too carelessly across the sky, a net that fails to catch the sun, but tugs at the light around it, thickening it like a muddy paste. This weather closes its fingers slightly, and rubs out the mountains. The turquoise of the sea is striped with mud-coloured water.

The rain could so easily slip over the bay. I take the narrow track, Agios Kyriakis, lined with lemon trees on one side, and olive groves on the other, back to the main road.