Friday, September 16, 2016

Delphi, Sacred Places, and Listening to Apollo

Some places just have a vibe about them. You can feel it when you go there. It's in the air -- or something. There's just something special about the place, something perhaps a little other-wordly, something....

This is how "sacred places" become sacred.

Last month during our trip to Greece, we visited Delphi, site of the famous Oracle. Delphi has a vibe to it. It's been a sacred site since as far back as the 14th century BC, and you can feel it. The vibe is subtle, yet powerful. It can be (and probably often is) overpowered by the hustle and bustle of the modern world, by the diesel exhaust of the tour buses, by the buzz of hundreds of tourists flitting about snapping selfies and pictures of ancient ruins...

But if you can get alone for a few minutes and clear your mind, you can definitely feel the vibe. A vibe that's probably been there for thousands of years. A vibe that's probably why Delphi became a sacred site in the first place.

While we were at Delphi, I managed to shake off the tourist crowds for a few moments. Or, more accurately, the crowds went off in search of some other momentary pleasures, while I lingered almost alone at the ruined-yet-still-massive-and-impressive temple of Apollo. I tried to imagine what it might have been like 3,000 years ago: some people coming to offer tribute to the god, others coming to query the Oracle about some upcoming venture, perhaps some singers preparing to perform in the theater or athletes preparing to compete in the stadium.

I walked slowly around the temple and came to the spot where our tour guide had said the Oracle actually sat when she made her prophecies. I stopped, in contemplation. It was surprisingly quiet around me -- almost everyone else had gone away.

This was a sacred spot. In the quiet, I could feel it.

As I stood pondering, I began to experience a sense of insight -- almost as if an idea or feeling was being placed into my mind. It was a positive, calming feeling, which eventually translated into the words, "You're on the right path." This made me feel good in a very unique way: It provided reassurance that everything was going to be alright, while it also instilled in me the confidence that I'd be able to handle any challenge that might arise. I guess more than anything else, it helped to remove doubt.

But... where did this idea, these words, come from?

I decided they had come, through the Oracle, from Apollo himself.

As if as a sign, I suddenly noticed that the god had placed a small talisman in front of me, upon one of the stone platforms that in ancient times had led to the Oracle. I retrieved the talisman, held it for a minute, felt the vibes emanating from it. It would keep the god, his protection, and his power close to me. I felt grateful. I looked around. There was another talisman, which I retrieved for my wife. These were special objects from a special place.

As I began to look around for still another talisman, words came gently into my mind: "Don't be greedy." I sort of smiled to myself as I realized that, yes, I was beginning to get greedy. But I accepted the god's suggestion and decided to be satisfied with, and thankful for, the good fortune that was already mine.

As I began walking away, I realized that this apparently minor incident was actually having a rather profound effect on me. I can be a bit of a mystic, yes, but I'm not really one given to hearing voices. But here I was at a place where a god has been speaking for thousands of years, and simply by quieting my mind for a few moments, I could hear him, too.

Then, just a few days ago, I came across something rather astonishing.

I was reading about Delphi, and the article said that in ancient times there were two maxims carved into the entrance of Apollo's temple. One maxim said "Know thyself." The other said "Nothing in excess."

I did sort of a double-take as I realized immediately that "don't be greedy" is essentially "nothing in excess" in other words.

My experience at the temple was validated. I had no earthly clue that the phrase "nothing in excess" was an important factor in Delphic wisdom and ritual -- so important that it was actually carved into the entrance of the temple itself. Yet that is the exact concept that was given to me as I stood contemplating at the temple.

Not only is the site sacred, but it is consistent in its teachings.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Delphi and the Oracle of Apollo

The remains of the temple of Apollo at Dephi
Almost everyone has heard at least a little bit about the Oracle of Delphi. This ancient priestess who prophesied in the name of the Greek god Apollo is mentioned at least briefly in most history books. But the mentions in the history books don't do justice to the magnificent, sprawling temple complex, situated high on the side of a mountain, where the Oracle made her cryptic pronouncements. You simply have to be there to grasp its true grandeur and to feel its mystical vibration.

First, though, pronunciation. Many of us have gone through our lives pronouncing the location as "delf-eye." The Greeks, however, pronounce it as "delf-ee." Hearing this caused us to change our pronunciation to the way the Greeks pronounce it. They should know, after all -- it's their language. (You may, of course, pronounce the word however you like. This is just for your information.)

The ancient temple complex at Delphi has existed as a religious center in one form or another since as early as the 14th century BC. The heyday of the site, and of the Oracle, was from around 800 BC through around 400 AD -- over 1,000 years. The Oracle herself was not a single person, but instead a series of women who held the position as priestess/prophet/oracle in the temple of Apollo.

Looking down the mountainside from Delphi
The complex itself sits nearly 2,000 feet up the side of Mt. Parnassus in the southern part of Greece, about a 2-1/2 hour drive from Athens. The site is spread over many different levels, following the slope of the mountain. You will need to be in fairly decent physical shape to visit, as there is a lot of climbing involved. Indeed, as you stand among the ruins and look down the mountainside, you wonder how the ancient people actually got there, especially those coming from a great distance. The roads were not what they are today, of course, and the mountainside is rough and steep. It could not have been an easy journey, and those people must have really wanted to consult the Oracle to go through it.

We visited Delphi in August, 2016, so we had summer heat to deal with as well -- the midday temperature was in the 90s. The air-conditioned tour bus only drops you at the entrance. After that, you trek up the slope on your own. The walking paths are good, but it can still be some work.

The centerpiece of the complex is what remains of the once-great temple of Apollo. Little more than a ruin today, with only a few columns still left standing, the temple remains impressive nonetheless, with a scale that reflects the grandeur of the god.

Getting water from the "Fountain of Youth" at Delphi
In addition to the temple, the site contains numerous "treasury houses" (buildings where offerings to the god were stored), an outdoor theater, a large stadium, and numerous other features. There is also what our tour guide referred to as a "fountain of youth" -- an ancient spring which since antiquity has been said to provide magical waters. You can fill your water bottles from the spring so that you, too, can reap its benefits. A more-modern addition at Delphi is a museum containing many artifacts from the site.

The location where the Delphic Oracle sat
to deliver her prophecies
It is at the side of Apollo's temple, over a crevice in the earth, that the Oracle sat when she delivered her messages as the mouthpiece of the god. Even today, this location feels mystically "charged." When the crowd of tourists wanders off and you stand quietly beside the stone platforms alone, you can sense the presence of higher powers and perhaps gain insight into some greater wisdom. Apollo, via the Oracle, may even speak to you, provided you are open to hearing what he has to say.

Our tour guide, Anastasia, was quite knowledgeable about Delphi and its history. But she pooh-poohed the mystical background and vibration of the site. Indeed, she went so far as to say that the entire complex was constructed as a massive con game concocted by the temple priests for the sole purpose of separating the pilgrims to Delphi from their money!

This seems to be a rather extreme interpretation. Even if you yourself don't believe in the ancient Greek gods and the mystic powers of the Oracle, most people would concede that the Oracle, the temple priests, and those asking for advice all actually did believe in these powers. To cynically claim that it was all just a con game and that not even the priests believed it is... well, a bit much, it seems.

For our part, we did feel and connect with the mystic vibration of the site. Apollo speaks, if you are open to listen. And the two maxims which were carved into the temple in ancient times -- "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess" -- are still worth pondering and following.

Here are some interesting tours of Delphi from

More photos from our trip to Delphi:


The remaining columns are at what was the main entrance to the temple

Closeup of the temple entrance

The Omphalos of Delphi. In ancient times, Delphi was considered to the center
or "navel" of the world. The Omphalus was a stone thrown by Zeus to
mark the spot.

Another Omphalos from Delphi, this one on exhibit in the museum.

Looking down at one of the treasury houses

The theater

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Visit to Dracula's Castle

Bran Castle in Romania
Bran Castle in Romania
The castle marketed to the public as "Dracula's Castle" is actually Bran Castle, a fortress perched high on a mountain above the town of Bran in Romania. It sits at the border between the Romanian regions of Transylvania and Wallachia.

Construction of the present castle was completed in 1388, and for nearly 500 years thereafter it served as both a customs house and military stronghold to defend Transylvania from invasion.

We visited the Bran Castle in August, 2016. As our Romanian tour guide repeatedly reminded us, the castle has only a tenuous connection to either the fictional character Dracula, or to the real-life Vlad Tepes ("Vlad the Impaler"), also known as Vlad Dracul, who is said to have been at least part of the inspiration for Bram Stoker's classic vampire. Its real value is its role in the history of Romania. Yet there are indeed a couple of Dracula connections, as we shall see shortly.

Looking at the town below from Bran Castle.
Historically, the castle served the function of most castles -- i.e., to defend its region from invasion. The castle is situated strategically above a mountain pass. Thus, its occupants are able to see for long distances all around, and they are also able to control the only entrance to the area. But by the late 1800s, for a variety of reasons, the castle had lost its strategic importance and fallen into disrepair.

In 1920, after Transylvania had become a part of the Kingdom of Romania, local residents offered the castle as a gift to Romanian Queen Maria. She undertook an extensive restoration of the castle and turned it into a residence for the royal family. They remained there until 1948, when they were expelled by the newly installed Communist government, who also seized possession of the castle.

In the early 1990s, the people of Romania overthrew the Communist regime. And in 2006, Bran Castle was legally returned to the heirs of the royal family.

The castle is now open to the public as a museum, housing pieces from all of its eras -- from medieval torture devices to a secret staircase to early 20th-century royal furniture.

There is also a room devoted to the Dracula connections.

Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia
Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia
In terms of Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, the bloodthirsty Transylvanian Count Dracula, Bran Castle is said to have been the inspiration for Stoker's description of Count Dracula's sinister residence in the novel. According to the castle's website, Stoker himself never visited Romania. But he did have access to pictures and descriptions of Bran Castle, from which he developed his own description of the fictional Dracula's Castle.

In real life, Vlad Tepes -- also known as "Vlad the Impaler" or "Vlad Dracul" (Dragon) -- was Prince of Wallachia, a region bordering Transylvania, in the 1400s. Vlad was a fierce defender of both Wallachia and Transylvania against repeated invasions by the Ottoman Turks. Today he is revered as a hero in Romania.

Although Vlad did not live at Bran Castle, it is said that he would stay here as he traveled between Wallachia and Transylvania. It is also said that Vlad was once captured and imprisoned for two months in Bran Castle, after his relations with the Transylvanians had soured.

We visited Bran Castle on the 2-Night Dracula City Break from Bucharest. This is a great tour where you not only visit Dracula's Castle, but also have guided tours through the cities of Brasov and Bucharest. We learned more about the history and culture of Romania than we even knew existed, yet we left wanting to learn even more!

For more information on Bran Castle, you can check out the castle's website and its Wikipedia article.

Here are more photos from Bran Castle:

Fittingly, the castle contains a room full of torture devices. Here are a couple of ways  to make your guests feel welcome.

Some of the furnishings used by the royal family.

The King's bed

The King's crown and sceptre. This display is located in his bedroom.

The Queen's bathroom

Here are some views from outside the castle.

The secret staircase. A bit confining, but handy when you need to make a quick getaway.

The King's fancy-dress uniform.

Old suit of armor. Note the weapon: a crossbow.

Vicky in the courtyard of the castle
Ed with a picture of Vlad

Ed, Vicky, Jeanine, Norm (l-r), with the castle in the background

Dust and shadows, but a few beams of light... time for Dracula to crawl back into his coffin...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Italy Earthquake, August 2016

So devastated about the earthquake in Italy. We were in Umbria two years ago this week, not very far from where the earthquake struck today. Lovely countryside, and many tiny villages with buildings almost 1,000 years old.

Our hearts go out to the people affected.

This is a view from the house where we stayed, near Spoleto.

View of the Appenine Mountains from a country house
outside Spoleto (Umbria), Italy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Athens at Night via Segway

The four of us on our Segways. It's easy!
The four of us on our Segways. It's easy!
Segway for Seniors. :-) We did a tour of Athens on Segways after dark. It was GREAT!! None of us had ever ridden a Segway before, so we were a little nervous. But Vera, our tour guide/instructor, had us riding, turning, stopping, and even backing up in literally five minutes. It was incredibly easy.

After an hour, we were navigating through throngs of tourists, avoiding the occasional car or motorcycle, and riding along bumpy, winding, even pitch-dark streets like pros.

I don't know how many miles we did, but the tour went for three hours. We Segwayed up to the Acropolis, then all around the city. Vendors, musicians, food and drink, and tourists everywhere -- Bourbon Street on steroids, and then some. Thousands of people. And we got to see it all, along with some historical sites, from the backs of Segways.

This was an extremely cool adventure, and riding the Segway is far easier than you might imagine. If you are heading to Athens, book this tour. You will not be disappointed.

View of the Acropolis at night
View of the Acropolis at night

Looking out over Athens from the Acropolis
Looking out over Athens from the Acropolis

Ruins of the Keramikos area of Athens
Ruins of the ancient Keramikos area of Athens

The nightlife in the city squares is hopping - this was a Wednesday night!
The nightlife in the city squares is hopping - this was a Wednesday night!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Located in Pisa, Italy, it was built over a period of about 200 years beginning in 1173. The tower originally served as the bell tower for Duomo di Pisa (Cathedral of Pisa), which is located beside it.

Galileo Galilei, who was born in Pisa and who both studied and later taught at the University of Pisa, is said to have dropped two balls of differing masses from the top of the Tower (which leaned even in his day) to demonstrate that they would fall at the same rate.

The Tower of Pisa is about 185 feet high and contains just under 300 steps in an uneven, winding, circular staircase constructed from stone. The top floor is the bell chamber, containing seven large bells, and providing an expansive and panoramic view across the city.

Although the staircase is not a particularly difficult climb, you should be in at least moderately good physical condition to attempt it. There is no handrail along the steps (important to some people), and there is also no handicapped access or elevator. So if you have difficulty walking or climbing stairs, you will probably not be able to go up inside.
The shadow of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as seen from the Tower
The shadow of the Tower, as seen from
a window partway up the staircase.

Additionally, climbing an uneven spiral staircase inside a tilting tower can lead to a strong sense of dizziness. If you are susceptible to this sort of thing, you will want to be prepared, or forego the climb.

For security reasons, bags, purses, backpacks, etc., are not allowed to go up into the Tower. Lockers are provided so that you can secure your belongings while you are inside.

Pisa is about one hour's drive from Florence (about 52 miles, 84 kilometers). On our trip to Italy in 2014, we visited Florence in the morning; then, after lunch at a friendly outdoor cafe, we set off for Pisa for the afternoon.

In advance of our trip, we had purchased "skip-the-line" vouchers, which we were to exchange at the site for tickets to go up inside the Tower. These vouchers cost around $35 and guarantee you entrance to the Tower within a certain time frame -- our appointment was around 4:30 in the afternoon. Because we were driving ourselves, we also had to deal with Pisa's traffic and parking. So we dropped off one of our party to fetch the tickets, while the rest of us tried to find a legal parking spot.

Photographing the Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Tower is tall enough that it is
hard to fit it all into a single photo.
Although the vouchers would allow us to "skip the line," it turned out when we arrived that there was no line to skip. This might have been because it was late in the afternoon, or we might just have gotten lucky. But there really was no long line like you see at many other tourist spots in Italy. In fact, the person who was holding our place while we parked the car actually got up to the Tower entrance at one point. But since the rest of us were still not there, she allowed a number of others to go ahead of her. We still got in very quickly when the rest of us arrived from parking the car.

(Parking the car was an adventure in itself, and netted us two Italian traffic tickets with fines of 125 euros each. To help prevent this from happening to you, whether in Pisa or any other Italian city, read our post on the subject.)

Climbing to the top of the Tower takes about ten minutes. As noted earlier, the climb itself is not too, too difficult. But if you are injured, handicapped, or very out of shape, it will definitely not be easy. Be aware, too, that people traipsing up and down the stairs for hundreds of years (how many people is that?) have worn down the stone very unevenly. You need to watch your footing!

Tourists at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa
At the top of the Tower, you are treated to a sweeping, panoramic view of the city of Pisa, and of the Tuscan landscape beyond. In addition, if you stop to think about it, you are sharing the stage with history -- standing in the same spot where Galileo himself stood is rather awe-inspiring! You're permitted about 15 minutes at the top of the Tower to explore and take pictures, before you have to begin your descent in order to make room for the next group.

Click here for some Pisa tours you might like.

Here are a few more pictures from our own trip to Pisa:

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Tourists pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Almost every tourist who visits Pisa
has a picture taken of them "holding
up" the Leaning Tower.

One of the bells at the top of the Tower of PisaAt the top of the Tower of Pisa

View from the Tower of Pisa
You can see for miles. The view is
spectacular in all directions.