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Dispatch, Greece: The mythology of Delphi

By Kate Rice

Travel Weekly’s Kate Rice is on vacation in Greece with her family. Her third dispatch follows. Click to read Kate’s first and second dispatches.

On our trip to Delphi, Gavriela found a soul mate in our philosopher-guide George, who we hired though ShoreTrips. His highly personalized (and commissionable) shore excursions work as well for land-based tourists like us as they do for cruise passengers.

George met us at our hotel and the three-hour drive to Delphi went swiftly, as he pointed out landmarks from Greek history. There was Marathon, site of a decisive Greek victory over the Persians.

According to legend, the messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver the message of victory, and collapsed and died after delivering it. His run was the inspiration for the modern marathon race.

The route to Delphi is also the site of the tragedy of Oedipus, fated to kill his father and marry his mother. George pointed out the mountains where the infant Oedipus was said to be abandoned and then raised, ignorant of his lineage. And it's also where he had his fateful encounter with his father, and then is awarded his mother's hand after solving the riddle posed by the fearsome Sphinx.

My daughter Gavriela, as it turns out, learned the riddle but didn't know that it was Oedipus who solved it.

At Delphi, we toured the museum first. It was filled with French and Italian students who were about Gavriela's age, and they clearly were as enthusiastic about the ancient Greeks as she was. George, who knows everybody — the museum staff, the other tour guides (some of whom he helped train) — took a quick look at the worksheets some of the students were filling out and gave a nod of approval.

He pointed out the international nature of Greek archaeology in general and Delphi in particular; exhibit descriptions were in Greek, English and French, since the French led the initial excavations of Delphi when they were discovered in the 1860s.

George used a tour of the museum to prepare us for touring the site itself. He was very appreciative of Gavriela's knowledge about Greek history and often had her give us the context for the statues and artifacts we were looking at.

One piece that stood out for Gavriela: the Chariotter of Delphim, a bronze statue that is considered one the world's finest examples of ancient bronze statues. But why bronze? Because, George explained, bronze was highly valued because it was functional; gold might be beautiful, but it had no practical applications.

From the museum, we walked to the ruins, which are set into a mountainside that overlooks a broad valley filled with 3 million olive trees. It is a place of serene beauty.

We walked up the steps, past the agora. Then we ascended the steps past the treasuries holding the valuables brought to the Oracle of Delphi. Some, like heavy statues, were left outside because they were too heavy to steal. (The Romans did loot Delphi, but took so many statues that the ship carrying them sank into the sea, where they remain today.) "The Romans were greedy shoppers," observed George.

The treasuries held smaller gifts. All have been destroyed, but the Athenian treasury has been restored.

Then, we finally came to the ruins of Apollo's Temple, where the pythia, the middle-aged woman who would interpret the god's answers to supplicants' questions, had her visions. Priests would turn her responses into verses that were often elliptical and open to interpretation. But, said George, the gods are perfect; misinterpretations were human error.

My favorite part was not the temple, beautiful as it is, but the theater just above it. Cut out of the rock, it could seat 5,000, and, said George, was essentially a repository for intellect. That is, intellectuals could present their knowledge for it to be judged and, if deemed worthy, passed on to future generations.

If you won applause for your presentation, you were golden. If the response was only silence, "at least you tried," George said.

One presentation I found particularly interesting. It was by Democritus, who presented his walking stick, broken in half, to the crowd. He broke it in half again, and then again.

He got to a piece too small to break.

Democritus was formulating atomic theory, George said.

"When we break this," Democritus said to the crowd, "we unleash the wrath of the gods."

We started our walk back down the mountainside, George lamenting to Gavriela that on each visit, he finds that there seems to be more steps.

He stopped to pick some greens, after asking me if Gavriela is an adventurous eater. She is, I assured him.

When we stopped for lunch at an old hunting lodge that is now a restaurant, George had a quick exchange with the kitchen crew. Part of our lunch included a Delphic omelette with mustard greens that George picked at Delphi.

We drove back to Athens. George said he should make Gavriela his "lieutenant" on his tours.

Gavriela pondered that for a moment.

"Now I know what I can do in the summer during college," she said.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.