According to myth, Zeus sent out two eagles from the ends 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.
I was living near the small town of Nafpaktos, on the Gulf of Corinth, and one day in early spring I explored the edge of the old town where two main streets converge. Across from the pedestrian area where a group of men in black leather jackets were standing near a café with a beige awning, I saw a sign for the Sanctuary of Asklepios. This was a flat grassy area with a path at one side leading up among high rocks, dotted with pine trees and cacti. At the entrance, there was a bust of Asklepios himself. If I hadn't stopped to explore the sanctuary I might not have noticed the sign just beyond it for the ticket office for buses heading east.
I had already tried, without success, to find out the times of buses to Delphi, from the main ticket office in Nafpaktos. But this office just behind the Sanctuary was for buses heading into a different area, and the young man behind the wooden counter spoke English, was very helpful, and wrote down the times of buses to Delphi. There are two each day.
The next morning I take a local bus to Nafpaktos and alight at the terminus next to the To Mesaio café, the kiosk, and the assembled men in leather jackets. I then cross the busy road and skip past the Sanctuary of Asklepios to the KTEL ticket office. The bus is not direct I'm told, I will have to change at Itea. I am, as it turns out, the only person to alight at Delphi and on the return journey, I am the only person to get on there, too. The centre of the world is not a truly popular destination for local travellers, but as it is on the way to Athens, which is, I'm in luck.
Itea is a small town by the sea, with a few souvenir shops on the promenade, and a long stone pier. Next to the ticket office there are two cafés where some old men are sitting peaceably, smiling. The sun shines over the water and there is time for me to have a coffee before my next bus arrives, the bus to Athens.
From Itea in the plain, the road sweeps up hairpin bends, rising higher and higher, up the foothills of Parnassus which is glimpsed in the distance, capped with snow. The view becomes more and more overwhelming. I get off just after the small town of 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.
When it comes to ruins, I feel ambivalent. They capture the imagination and turn it to thoughts of past civilisations, their wonders and magic, their mysteries, culture and artefacts. It is exciting to view objects or fragments from the past and glimpse the routines and rituals of daily life, and thrilling to know that you are placing your feet in the footsteps and on the same ground as so many did thousands of years ago.
Yet I sometimes feel an accompanying sense of loss and nostalgia for something that was once whole and is now broken, no longer a living entity, but the debris of a civilisation. I don't feel that with all ruins: there are some places where the presence of the past is a rich and joyous experience, but in Delphi I had this wistful feeling of sic transit, so it passes and passes, though the stones or fragments remain.
The land itself has a feeling of concentrated power. The approach from the sea, the road winding and rewinding itself up the steep slope, coiling and uncoiling, with a view back down to the level plain, a flat semi-circle round the bay, like a piece of card stuck onto the sea, some irrelevant label. Then the land rises up abruptly as if declaring its real nature, tired of dissimulation, stretching effortlessly up towards the sun which hangs in the sky, high above mountain tops, making everything possible.
The ruins – of temples and oracle, 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.
The path is scented with herbs and flowers and the sun beats down on the hill slope and its shapely litter of stones, taken from the earth and worked on, carved and polished, and now, all these centuries later, lie in fragments on the earth.
I was lucky to have visited this place on a sunny morning to really appreciate its grandeur, for in Nafpaktos, further west, it had rained for several days. And by the time I get back there, waiting for the last bus of the day, it's getting dark, and a ferocious downpour forces me to shelter under a shop awning.
But as I wait for the bus, the rain thudding on the awning roof, I think about the Sanctuary of Asklepios, 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 Asklepios, the god of healing dreams, who was the kindly and compassionate one. His symbol of staff and snake can still be seen today outside hospitals in Greece, and, only slightly modified, a snake curled round a receptacle, outside many chemists in Greece and other European countries too. So in that way, his presence is still recognised, his influence and his values have never been lost.
And I like the fact that, in offering dreams, Asklepios is never didactic, in contrast to the Oracle's messages which were always, apparently, interpreted by Apollo's priests. Asklepios gives you the possibility of greater understanding through the images of your own dreams, rather than emphasising your dependence on unpredictable gods who rule your fate. He leaves room for your own insight, he hands you responsibility.
Another reason I like Asklepios is that he is down here on the ground, among us, not perched high on some pedestal, suggesting that he is superior to mortals. His aims are helpful and compassionate. He is here, overlooking the marketplace of human life, accessible to all.