A Motor Trip To Delphi
( Originally Published 1936 )
It was inky dark. Some Greek and American friends had us out to dinner the evening before and we had stayed a little late. Morpheus seemed to me the one member of the Greek theogony worthy of wooing when a loud hammering on the door and shouts of " five o'clock" tore me from his pleasant embrace.
We were going to Delphi and willy-nilly there was nothing to do but get up. John, the night porter, was taking no chances. He knocked again to see if we were really awake and presently returned with some bread and honey and a pot of coffee that he had himself made.
The trip to Delphi was the one I had most pored over on the maps. It always scaled at a little over sixty miles and I wondered why we were forced to get up so early. I had merely failed to take into consideration the mountains and the lack of roads. We traveled that day more than two hundred kilo-meters, almost entirely over very indifferent dirt roads.
Outside the door was our black driver, muffled in a military overcoat, his car freshly washed and polished. The hotel had packed a luncheon and some bottles of wine and water and the two plush robes were none too many, for it was foggy and there was a sharp chill in the morning air. As we drove through the empty streets we saw only an occasional straggler slinking aimlessly among the buildings, or an industrious householder dusting his sidewalk with a short-handled broom. It is back-breaking work and I often thought that a real friend of the Greek people could do nothing more humane than to pre-sent to the nation a ship-load of honest broom-handles.
The route led to Eleusis, but the modern road skirts the sea instead of cutting across the spurs of AEgalaos, as did the old Sacred Way over which passed for centuries those strange processions of the initiated marching by torchlight to the celebration of the Greater Mysteries.
The rough city streets presently gave way to a wide cement highway that I take to be the only paved road now existing in rural Greece. It is a relic of the usurper Pangalos. He lived out in Eleusis and immediately began a great road for his own convenience. When his brief authority came to an end many sections remained unfinished and have been left in this condition. Our progress here was a succession of great bursts of speed alternated with a veritable crawling through the ruts and mud.
When General Pangalos seized the government the country was so weary of politicians and the disasters they had caused that there was a general ac-quiescence in his coup d'etat. It was thought that things could be no worse and that a dictatorship might be good for the country. He was believed to be at least an honest man. It is common report in Athens that his fall from both grace and power was largely due to his family. His wife was accused of smuggling and in a short time there was so much nepotism that the government seemed to be purely a Pangalos family matter. He fled ignobly before the first uprising and is now detained in a fortress in Crete awaiting trial on a charge of treason, which may, or may not, be pressed.
There is now, I am informed, a real prospect of the construction of a national road system, to replace the mere lanes of mud which now serve the nation. Various financial expedients were considered, and when I was in Athens a proposal of the Asiatic Petroleum Company to build $25,000,000 worth of highways in return for a ten per cent. preference in the tariff on oil products, was a live issue. I believe nothing came of it, but a loan of ten million pounds has been negotiated in London. Soon, I sus-. pect, construction on a large scale will begin.
An influential Greek of Chicago recently told me that the Greek population of that city had raised by subscription enough money to construct seventy-five miles of improved roads out of Sparta, where most of them were born. Now that the program is financed this fund is to be diverted to the building of schools. The completion of a national highway system is the first great step toward making Greece a tourist country.
The villagers were early on the move and we met many carts on their way to the city. The patient little donkeys trotted steadily along and the people sang and whistled as they set out on their holiday. A colony of Syrian gipsies was encamped by the roadside. They had large tents, a herd of horses and two small bears which they kept chained to a tree.
Sunday was hardly a day of rest. The peasants were at work in numerous fields, the railway section workers were busy on the tracks and at least half the brick factories were running as on week days. As we penetrated more deeply into the back country the observance of Sunday further declined and in the remote hills and valleys there was no suggestion of a holiday. I shall not forget the first shepherd we encountered. He stood on a lonely hill, leaning on his crook and gazing vacantly into space. The man reminded me of a rhinoceros shown in one of Colonel Roosevelt's books. The picture bore the caption—" Lost in dim, prehistoric thought." I wondered how much this shepherd either knew or cared for the outside world.
The wayside shrines were thick in the neighbor-hood of villages. As a rule they were little more elaborate than a first-rate bird house, but somebody was devout enough to look after the silver eikons and to keep the candle burning. I do not remember to have seen any acts of devotion before them.
We first stopped at the Pass of Daphne, six miles out from town. Here the road crosses the ridge that divides Athens from the Thriassian Plain. The medieval church and monastery are the chief attraction, but I thought the noted establishment presented but a sorry picture of neglect and decay. If any monks linger here they were not in evidence and a venerable caretaker was the only person we saw. In the cloisters a thrifty peasant had stabled his flock of sheep. Like so many Greek religious houses this church stands on the site of a pagan temple. It was erected by Cistercian monks who came out from France with the Frankish Duke, Otto de la Roche, in the twelfth century. In common with all other buildings of that troubled time the institution was half church and half fortress. The thirty-foot castellated wall is still in sound condition, but that is more than I can say of the gloomy old church. The gilt mosaics of the walls and dome are the chief adornments. Some are discolored and some fallen through the action of moisture, and others were mutilated by the Turkish soldiers once quartered there. Yet even in the dull light the large head of Christ and some of the angels and saints are still fairly discerned.
Descending to the sea we now came in view of the waters where the decisive battle of Salamis was fought in 48o B. C. Ten years had elapsed since Marathon and they had been filled with preparation for the Persian revenge. The host led by Xerxes surpassed all armies of ancient, and perhaps modern times. Athens had fallen and the ships under Themistocles were her last refuge and bulwark. The roadstead in which they lay, with their Greek allies, is a lovely, winding waterway, only a few miles long and hardly a mile in width. The resourcefulness of Themistocles in rallying his wavering associates and in luring the Persians into action are familiar to every schoolboy. Byron has written some majestic verse about almost all the famous fields of Greece, but as I looked on the waters and the hill where the throne of Xerxes is reputed to have stood, I thought none more vivid than this:
"A king sate on the rocky brow That looks o'er sea-born Salamis; And ships by thousands lay below And men in nations—all were his. He counted them at break of day
And when the sun set where were they?"
Though the island of Salamis is so near to Athens that it can be seen from any of the city's heights it is no longer a place of resort. The ground rises high and bare, and there are no ruins, such as the temple of neighboring AEgina. Some thousands of Albanian peasants now dwell in this historic place.
The curving shore of the Bay of Eleusis and the town itself lie beyond the spurs and foothills of AEgalaos. The waters here were of peculiar charm and profoundly blue, but as usual they were empty and neglected. The single man we noted who was concerned with the sea was a peasant who had built a fish trap of rushes which he was adjusting.
Eleusis is really one of the charming villages of Greece, and I think it has suffered great injustice from the writers of late years. I have seen it de-scribed more than once as a marshy, fever-haunted collection of Albanian hovels. It may have been so in the past, but to-day it is a pleasant residential place with something of the suburban air. As compared with Megara, a little further on, it is—to borrow from Harry Franck—even as Rome is to Oshkosh. Still most writers have treated Megara more generously.
The tile factories are a notable feature of the locality and the number of plane, eucalyptus and olive trees gave the town a restful, homelike look. The station is commodious and the cafe in its garden is under real trees and over real grass. The loitering crowd here included every type, from the Albanian farmer to the Athenian fop.
The sacred precinct lies beyond the town at the foot of a hill on whose summit stands a Frankish tower. This, rather than the ancient ruins, is the dominating feature of the scene. Not much remains of the Temple of Demeter, the great gates and the hall of the mysteries. The foundations are easily traced, but there are no lofty columns. The debris scattered around is quite as plentiful and confusing as on the Acropolis itself.
The Greater Mysteries celebrated here were a secret rite open only to the initiated. As these were bound by oath to reveal nothing they had learned there is still great uncertainty as to their exact character and significance. Though the ceremonies were remotely ancient they were still respected when Greece was a Roman province. If the overbearing Roman felt a superior contempt of his Greek vassal he still venerated this institution. Cicero has left us the most important hint of its secrets. Himself an initiate he said: " In the Mysteries we perceive the true principles of living and learn, not merely to live in happiness, but to come to death with a stronger hope."
The reverence in which the Athenians held the Eleusinia brought trouble to one of her most brilliant, if erratic, sons. Alcibiades was in a sense the bad boy of Athenian politics, at once its idol and its terror. No doubt he inspired the fatal expedition against Syracuse that bore the name of the pious Nicias and proved in its outcome to be the ruin of his country. A few days before the sailing of the armada Alcibiades gave one of the gay parties for which he was noted and one feature of the entertainment was a burlesque of the Eleusinian rites. When the story leaked out the campaign was at its height, but such was public opinion that he was called home to stand trial on a charge of sacrilege. He dared not face the ordeal, but in bitterness and fear allied him-self with Sparta and by this act of treachery hastened the ruin of his city. The incident would have found a parallel in recent times if, during the second Marne the French Cabinet had recalled Marshal Foch from the front and brought him to trial on the charge of having travestied the Holy Sacrament at a private party in Paris.
Megara seemed to me one of the most picturesquely mean towns in all Greece. It lies only ten miles beyond Eleusis and as we passed through it on more than one occasion it seemed only a congeries of mud-walled farmyards, enclosing mud houses. Yet this poor hamlet was once called great. It made war on Athens and was the parent of Constantinople.
Every court was cluttered with broken carts, bundles of olive twigs, rushes and the general debris of a Greek peasant establishment. Goats and donkeys filled the streets and there was that in the general atmosphere and appearance of the town that re-minded me of nothing so much as a native village in Sierra Leone. I recall scarcely a green thing, and the people dwell in dust and mud.
It may be that there is a better Megara and that I do the town an injustice, for I never inspected it entirely. But these are the impressions I derived from several visits. The women are reputed to be beautiful, but those I saw in the streets, at the church and at the famous dance would stand no critical inspection. Piety, I will grant them, for when first I saw the town every woman in it was on her way to the church and every man was idling in the coffee house.
The ceremonial dance of the women on the third day following Easter gives Megara her one great day. Hundreds made their way out from Athens and I believe that practically every tourist then in Greece was present. It began after the church service and continued until evening. The dancers joined hands and sang during their strange undulations. The wild music and the strange costumes made a scene not to be forgotten. The national dances followed one an,. other in endless succession—the syrtos, the clistos, the tsiamikos and the leventikos—and some of the leaders were possessed of agility and grace. As the afternoon wore on the wild ceremony became a little monotonous and upon the approach of evening the visitors slowly drifted away.
For some hours our road now passed through a lonely land. We met at long intervals a peasant cart piled high with rushes or cuttings from the olive trees, both bearing witness to the pitiful scarcity of timber which adds so much to the burden of those who dwell on the soil. The wilderness was poor in birds and beasts. Lizards rushed across the path and an eagle soared in the distant sky, but the song of birds seldom relieved the silence of the solitude.
At length we came to the end of the mountains and saw before us the plain of Bceotia, a richer land, full of wheat and flocks, whose shepherds did not always respect the growing grain. The workers were attended by many dogs and their love of the companionship of these faithful four-footed friends is one of the things I admire most in the Greek character. Even on the sea hardly a coasting boat will be seen that has not a dog barking on its deck. Beyond a ridge lay the rich bed of Lake Copais, which was drained by a British company through the opening of ancient natural tunnels. The English still operate the reclaimed lands and the last report I saw of the Lake Copais company indicated that it is prospering.
Soon, passing through two villages we came to Thebes. This was a notable place and our black boy cried out "Theve." We ascended the ancient Cadmea by a gentle rise and came upon a scene that resembled a crowded country fair. The main street was lined with large trees and under them were many cafes. The entire population was on promenade and our arrival was apparently as truly an event as the landing of Lindbergh at Belize. We could hardly make our way through the curious throng and when we came to a barricade marking the beginning of a short detour hundreds rushed up to give the driver directions. We circled around two blocks and stopped at the little museum, set in a walled garden. The grizzled curator had only a small cat as companion and helper, and as neither spoke English we could not make much of the fragments and inscriptions housed within. Outside there was a large cast of the Lion of Chaeronea much handsomer than the original that we saw soon after.
We lunched in the museum of this battlefield, where Philip of Macedon overpowered Greece and the youthful Alexander first won his spurs. The lion is the first landmark to be seen. It is a monstrous thing, standing twenty feet in height above a pedestal. Surely it is not a great sculpture. No lion ever sat in such a posture and I saw in its head none of the nobility of which some scholars speak, but rather an expression of grotesqueness. It was put up, originally, to mark the burial place of the Thebans who perished here, but in the course of centuries it sank into the mound which it had surmounted. For ages it lay forgotten, but some English travelers discovered the fragments in 1818. Lacking facilities for their removal they covered up their work, where it remained until the Greek Archaeological Society excavated the site in 1902 and reerected the badly patched remains. How the massive figure came to be so broken is uncertain. There is a story that during the war of liberation the chieftain Odysseus saw a bit of the figure projecting from the clay and caused it to be shattered in the hope that treasure was concealed within.
The plain of Chaeronea lies between low hills on which are the remains of an ancient fort and a small theatre. The only houses in sight were on a low hill in the rear. From one of these a young man came down and unlocked the building so that we might eat our luncheon and inspect the relics of the battlefield. The building was clean enough, but it was lacking in every convenience and the neighbor-hood was without provision for the decencies of life.
Mount Parnassus was now majestically in view, but there was still a long journey ahead. We paused to give a lift to various wayfarers. Our first stop was of necessity. By the bed of a dry creek we encountered a barricade of thorn limbs across the road. I thought of the tales of old banditry when from the bushes a strong young peasant came out. It was merely his cool way of asking us to carry him to his village sixteen miles away, where otherwise he would have been forced to walk. We assented and without so much as lending a hand to clear away the barrier he climbed into the driver's seat and let the chauffeur do all the work. The Egyptian apparently did not resent this imposition for they chattered merrily along the way.
Next we overtook a rural pappas trudging home from his church, and him we invited to ride. I do, not think the simple man had ever before been in an automobile,' for he could neither open nor close the door. The driver let him in and then he sat holding the half open door with his hand until the negro closed it. He was very grateful when he left us at the door of his roadside cottage and bowed with friendly grace.
Our third passenger was a soldier going home on furlough to his village at the foot of Parnassus. He carried a heavy pack and had a long walk before him. We dropped him into the bosom of his family and turning a great horseshoe curve began to ascend the mountain side. At a point directly opposite the village and perhaps seven hundred feet above the Egyptian suddenly stopped his car and in consternation conveyed the news that the soldier had carried away his overcoat. This was doubly serious, for in its pockets were all our tickets and coupons for the excursion.
There was nothing to do but go back. He blocked the wheels and clambered down the mountain side. Eventually we saw him leave the cottage with his coat on his arm. He started up and it was a heartbreaking ascent. A Ford motorbus that operates on these mountains had arrived meantime and paused to rest its weary engine. We now saw an act of sympathy that I thought a real tribute to the Greek nature. The driver and one of his passengers saw the struggling Ethiopian, now nearing exhaustion. Without hesitation they went down the cliff two hundred feet and helped him to the top. When I see a white cab driver in America do as much for a negro in distress I shall concede that we are as kindly as the Greeks.
The poor black was gray from exhaustion and I thought his heart would burst, but he was for going ahead at once. The road was now thrilling enough with any driver. It hung on the edge of the great declivity and was in places fresh strewn with giant boulders fallen from the mountain side above. The curves around the points were unguarded and at any of them we might meet a peasant cart. These things the chauffeur did not consider so much as the economy of gasoline effected by cutting off his power on every down grade and relying upon his brakes to stop when necessary. By tokens that were both prayers and menaces I induced him to sit still until he had recovered at least enough to insure us that he would not faint at his wheel.
Arakhova, perched like an eagle's nest among the crags, was the most striking village we encountered and soon we descended into the Crissman Plain. It was for the possession of this land that the two " Sacred Wars" were fought. The name still lives in the small town of Chryso, corrupted from the ancient Crissa, which was destroyed by order of the Amphyctyonic Council to free the pilgrims to Delphi from the banditry of its people.
This celebrated plain now holds the prize olive grove of Greece, and the Amphissa olive is justly esteemed throughout the world. In my opinion it is superior to the olives of Kalamata, which some travelers have pronounced the finest ever grown. The ground is doubly planted, for under the thick growth of the orchards there was a crop of wheat or barley.
The Delphian Oracle was the greatest of ancient shrines. Its situation is nineteen hundred feet above the sea, but the road is good and here well safe-guarded. Still the site is so inaccessible that I marvel that multitudes could reach it in early times. On the very road we traveled the chariots of Oedipus and King Laius contested for the right of way, and this petty dispute gave us the immortal tragedies of Sophocles.
The ancient town of Delphi clings to the steep mountain side under the cliffs known as " the shining rocks." Between them flows the water of the Castalian spring, so soon to plunge into the great gorge of the river Pleistos. Beyond the chasm rise the mountains, one of which was to be ascended by a most terrifying road. In it I counted fifteen " V " turns, and I rejoiced that our route did not lie that way. It is a wild and mysterious region, fit home for the dragon Pytho.
The site of the sacred precinct was excavated by the French School in 1892. The only building now standing is the reconstructed Treasury of the Athenians, which in size and general effect is not unlike the Athena Nike—a trifle smaller, I suspect. The great theatre is finely preserved and the large rock of the Sybil still remains close under the ruins of a Pelasgian wall. It is at least twelve feet high, but the fissure from which issued the inspiring fumes was closed long since by some forgotten earthquake. The whole plan is disclosed by the foundations, and what remains of the Temple of Apollo is so high that a ladder must be used to ascend the ruin. The stadium was higher up the mountain in a difficult and limited area.
There was a revival of the Delphic Festival while we were in Greece. The enterprise was the conception of Eva Palmer Sikelianos, the American wife of a Greek poet. This lady has become so inoculated with the spirit of classical Greece that she affected the ancient costume and was a well-known figure in the streets of Athens. Many stories were told of the embarrassment she caused her manly sons by requiring them to go to school attired like young bloods of the days of Aristotle's teaching. The chief feature was a performance of the ".Prometheus Bound," of Aeschylus. It was doubtless the most pretentious and realistic revival of Greek tragedy ever attempted. Rehearsals continued for an entire year and the young beauties of Athens society adorned the chorus.
The music was in keeping with the subject and the place. It was written by Constantine Psachos for this occasion and in it he embodied such ancient themes as have survived. Rows of torch-bearers along the road heightened the classical atmosphere of the scene.
When the French first came to Delphi they found the site occupied by the little village of Kastri, which they built anew around a turn of the mountain a quarter mile away. Here we passed the night at the "Hotel Delphian Apollo," where an excellent meal was served. In the evening I heard the strains of music and wandered down the single street. The two principal cafes were opposite one another and were clearly business rivals. Both had music, but the house on the right hand was easily first in public favor. Within glowed one dim electric. lamp and on the steps sat the portly priest reading a newspaper, while his flock danced and drank within. At one end of the large room two mountaineers were dancing to the strains of string and woodwind. The music was full of wild minor notes and in the half barbaric dance the peasants swung, circled and dipped like ancient Corybants.
I found a seat near the lamp and was soon the center of attraction. From table after table men arose and coming forward told me that they, too, had once lived in America or now had relatives there. Many inquired whether I could- give news of their friends and others wished me to bear messages. It seemed fitting that I buy a drink, but instead of the wines or brandies that were so abundant and so cheap all ordered a spoon of preserves and a glass of water. They induced me to try their confection, which was but an ordinary jam. I cannot account for their eccentric taste unless it be that in their homes they are fairly starved for sugar.
By the time the preserves had been around three times we were a jovial party and I had promised to carry enough letters to New York to fill a mail-bag.
There entered then a man of obvious importance, for he wore a collar.
"Good-evening," he said. " Do you happen to have a cigarette? "
I gave him one and returned the salutation. " You are an American, I see."
"Are you married? "
"Yes, my wife is with me."
"Have you any children? "
This I could not admit.
"How much can you make in a year?" Following our national custom I lied.
" How old are you? "
"Perhaps you would like to guess."
"About fifty, I think."
"Right," I admitted, and being fifty himself his hand went out in sympathetic fellowship.
"I am the curator of the museum," he went on, " and I heard you were down there this afternoon. I am sorry that I missed you, but when you come down again I will show you everything we have."
So the friendly curator, having given me an ex-ample of the curiosity that is considered in no sense impolite in Greece, sat down and we made an agree-able evening together, the remainder of our company standing by to marvel at the wisdom of our talk.
In the blackness of early morning we left Kastri in an ancient American car, again supported by the coffee and honey that had been brought to our room. As we started down the- lofty street I heard shouts from those who had written letters during the night, but the driver would not heed them.
In two hours we had descended the mountain and crossed the plain to Bralo. The train from SaIonica was late, but it was a fair morning and the country-side was cheerful. The station agent came out to ask for a cigarette and returned to beg one for the police-man. The trainmen gathered all the wine jugs on the platform and played with a small dog.
We were now on the State Railways, a larger and faster line than we had traveled in the south. In our compartment was a Captain of Engineers with a waxed moustache and the same emblem on his epaulettes that we would give a general. There was also a dignified man of business, who read a news-paper without removing his well-worn gloves. Aside from his protruding finger-tips he was well, and even elegantly, dressed. In the " Eleutheron Bema, the Great Political and Economic Organ," he had found an article dealing with the battle of the Falkland Islands which he thought engrossing.
He conversed at times with the man of arms and finally, to my astonishment, addressed me in English.
"We are now passing the site of the new reservoir for the water supply of Athens," he said. " I thought it might interest you. I have myself just come from Salonica, and you should not fail to traverse the line just north of Bralo, where you came aboard. In the first hour and a half north from Bralo you would pass through forty tunnels and over thirty-six bridges. For some distance the tracks hang on the side of the mountain so that you can look down nearly a thousand feet. It is like riding in an aeroplane. A friend of mine who has been everywhere tells me that he has seen no such scenery except in the Andes."
I eventually remarked that the line seemed superior to the Peloponnesus Railway.
"That is true," he responded. "The Peloponnesus lines were allowed to run down badly, but one of my friends has now acquired a majority of the shares and he has ameliorated the property greatly."
When next I went that way I wondered how things were before the amelioration took place.