The inevitable magnet of the central province of Stereá Elládha is Delphi, 175km northwest of Athens. If you have your own transport, there are ample rewards in approaching it along the old road to Thebes, and you could also easily include the Byzantine monastery of Ósios Loukás. Legendary Mount Parnassós above Delphi offers skiing and walking opportunities depending on the season, while to the south, on the Gulf of Korínthos, the port towns of Galaxídhi and Náfpaktos are good for a seaside sojourn. Further east, Áyios Konstandínos provides access to the island of Évvia, while heading inland brings you to Lamía and the mountainous Karpeníssi Valley.
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Ósios Loukás monastery
Ósios Loukás monastery
Some 6km east of Dhístomo (which by bus is 35min east of Delphi), the monastery of Ósios Loukás was a precursor of the final flourish of Byzantine art found in the great churches at Mystra in the Peloponnese. From an architectural or decorative standpoint it ranks as one of the great buildings of medieval Greece; the remote setting is exquisite as well, especially in February when the many local almond trees bloom. Approaching along the last stretch of road, Ósios Loukás suddenly appears on its shady terrace, overlooking the highest summits of the Elikónas range and a beautiful broad valley. The complex comprises two domed churches, the larger katholikón of Ósios Loukás (a local beatified hermit, Luke of Stiri, not the Evangelist) and the adjacent chapel of Theotókos. A few monks still live in the cells around the courtyard, but the monastery is essentially a museum, with a souvenir shop on the grounds.
The design of the katholikón, built around 1040 to a cross-in-square plan, strongly influenced later churches at Dhafní and at Mystra. Externally it is unassuming, with rough brick-and-stone walls topped by a well-proportioned octagonal dome. The interior, however, is rich, with multicoloured-marble walls contrasting with gold-background mosaics on the high ceiling. Light filtering through alabaster windows reflects from the curved mosaic surfaces onto the marble walls and back, bringing out subtle shading.
The mosaics were damaged by an earthquake in 1659, replaced at many points by unremarkable frescoes, but surviving examples testify to their glory. On the right as you enter the narthex are a majestic Resurrection and Thomas Probing Christ’s Wound. The mosaic of the Niptir (Washing of the Apostles’ Feet) on the far left (north side) of the narthex is one of the finest here, the expressions of the Apostles ranging between diffidence and surprise. This humanized approach is again illustrated by the Baptism, up in the northwest squinch (curved surface supporting the dome). Here Jesus reaches for the cross amid a swirling mass of water, an illusion of depth created by the curvature of the wall. On other squinches, the Christ Child reaches out to the High Priest Simeon in The Presentation, while in The Nativity, angels predominate rather than the usual shepherds. The church’s original frescoes are confined to vaulted chambers at the corners of the cross plan and, though less imposing than the mosaics, employ subtle colours, notably in Christ Walking towards the Baptism.
The Theotókos chapel
The chapel of Theotókos (“God-Bearing”, ie the Virgin Mary), built shortly after Luke’s death, is nearly a century older than the katholikón. From outside it overshadows the main church with elaborate brick decoration culminating in a marble-panelled drum, but the interior seems mean by comparison, enlivened only by a couple of fine Corinthian capitals and the original floor mosaic, its colours now faint.
Finally, do not miss the vivid frescoes in the crypt of the katholikón, entered on the lower south side of the building. Bring a torch, since illumination is limited to three spotlights to preserve the colours of the post-Byzantine frescoes.
- Mount Parnassós and around
GALAXÍDHI is a charming port town appearing mirage-like out of an otherwise lifeless shore along the Gulf of Kórinthos, just 35km from Delphi. With your own transport, it makes an ideal base for visiting both Delphi and Ósios Loukás, and it’s also worth at least two days in its own right. Amazingly, given its size, Galaxídhi was once one of Greece’s major harbours, with a fleet of over four hundred two- and three-masted kaïkia and schooners, trading as far afield as the UK. But shipowners failed to convert to steam power after 1890, and the town’s prosperity vanished. Clusters of nineteenth-century shipowners’ mansions, reminders of those heady days, reflect borrowings from Venice, testament to the sea captains’ far-flung travels, and to their wealth. Despite some starts at gentrification, the town retains its authenticity, with an animated commercial high street (Nikólaou Máma) and a good range of places to eat and drink.
The old town
The old town stands on a raised headland, crowned by the eighteenth-century church of Ayía Paraskeví (the old basilica, not the more obvious belfried Áyios Nikólaos, patron saint of sailors). With its protected double harbour, the location proved irresistible to early settlers, which explains stretches of walls – all that’s left of ancient Chaleion and its successor Oianthe – between the two churches and the water on the headland dividing the two anchorages. What you see dates from 1830–70, as the town was largely destroyed during the War of Independence.
Nautical and Historical Museum
Just uphill from the main harbour is the Nautical and Historical Museum, whose galleries do a well-labelled, clockwise gallop round this citadel-settlement in all eras. Ancient Chaleion is represented by painted pottery and a bronze folding mirror, then it’s on to the chronicles of Galaxídhi – the place’s name from Byzantine times onwards – and its half-dozen shipyards, mostly alongside the northwesterly Hirólakkas anchorage. The local two- and three-masters are followed from their birth – primitive, fascinating tools for ship building and sail-making – to their all-too-frequent sudden violent death. Along the way are propeller-operated logs, wooden rattles to signal the change of watches, a bouroú or large shell used as a foghorn and – best of all – superb polychrome figureheads.
Strolling or driving around the pine-covered headland flanking the southeastern harbour leads to tiny pebbly coves where most people swim. The closest “real” beaches are at the end of this road, or at Kalafátis just north of town, though neither is brilliant – harsh shingle underfoot and occasionally turbid water. With transport, head for better beaches at Ágios Vassílis (4km west) or Áyii Pándes (11km west).
The myth of Oedipus
The myth of Oedipus
Pausanias identified the fateful Triodos crossroads as the site of Oedipus’s murder of his father, King Laius of Thebes. As the tale recounts, Oedipus was returning on foot from Delphi while Laius and his entourage were speeding towards him from the opposite direction on a chariot. Neither would give way, and in the ensuing altercation Oedipus killed them, ignorant of who they were. It was, in Pausanias’s supreme understatement, “the beginning of his troubles”. Continuing on to Thebes, Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx – which had been ravaging the area – and took widowed Queen Jocasta as his wife – unaware that he was marrying his own mother.