Climbing Mount Parnassus

Oh thou! in Hellas deemed of Heavenly birth,
Muse! form’d or fabled at the minstrel’s will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I’ve wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sigh’d o’er Delphi’s long deserted shrine,
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale – this lowly lay of mine.

Lord Byron – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

One of my favourite moments in further education has to be when my tutor was checking the level of classical knowledge among our deeply dispirited early morning seminar group by asking if we’d ever heard of Mount Parnassus, legendary home to the Nine Muses of Ancient Greece.

I immediately perked up, and said that yes, I’d climbed it (well, a little bit of it).

This surprised her no end, and she went on to talk of the Welsh equivalent being Cadair Idris. Should you fall asleep on Cadair Idris, you will wake up either a poet or a madman. This I had also climbed, but had excused myself from trying the experiment on the grounds that I was already rather too much of both.

It was in the summer of 2009, in the last few months of my gap year, when I first came to Delphi, the ancient oracle and sanctuary which nestles in beneath the two cleft peaks of above it, supposedly broken in sunder by Apollo himself when he smote the areas resident monster, the Python, and became the tutelary deity of the shrine. There’s a Homeric hymn on the subject for the classical of inclination. In the modern day, Greece was obviously feeling the economic crash, but the harsh austerity measures had yet to kick in, as had the riots, the anarchists and the neo-nazis. Athens was peaceful, the buses and trains were running, and the biggest complaint on everyone’s lips was that Greece had just followed Britain in instituting an indoor smoking ban.

The town of Delphi is mostly hotels. It’s a small and sleepy place best enjoyed in the early morning, before the tourist coaches start to barge their way through. It’s vital to get a hotel room that looks out onto the valley rather than the street – this we accomplished. Delphi, like most towns in the area, is perched precariously on the the mountainside, and from our room we could look down for hundreds of feet to the bottom of Pleistos gorge – then up the same distance to Mount Kerikos on the other side of the glacial valley. To our right the Gulf of Corinth gleamed in the evening sun as my friend Sam and I drank our retsina and soaked in the atmosphere.

At that stage of my life, Romantic poetry was to me what Gothic novels were to Catharine in Northanger Abbey – less a literary interest and more a way of seeing the world. Our next stop on the trip would be Missolonghi, where Byron died of Malaria fighting for Greek, fighting for Greek independence. When he visited Delphi much earlier in his life, he had bathed in the Castilian spring, supposed to infuse poetic inspiration in the bather – but this was closed off due to the risk of falling rocks. He had also visited the Corycian cave, an ancient grotto sacred to Pan, high up above the ancient sanctuary. According to my guidebook and map of the area, this seemed eminently practical. One sunny morning, before the aforementioned coaches had begun to growl and elbow their way through the town, I set off up the mountainside. My friend, whose solitary pair of sandals had already proved inadequate to padding around the many sights of Athens, remained behind.

Zig-zagging my way up the two thousand year-old stone path, with Pleistos gorge gaping below me even more glorious than I’d seen it from my balcony, I had proof of my being the first one to take the path that day in the spiderwebs stretched across it, which came tangling perpetually around my ears. It was a hot and thirsty day, and by the time I’d reached the top, the litre of water I’d brought with me was bloodwarm and near empty. Finding a spring on the level ground beyong, I took huge gulps, and flung great handfuls of water on myself in bliss.

As I passed into the forest, I saw a dozen sheep huddled together under the shade of a single tree, which should have warned me what was coming – but the day was so bright I could hardly credit it. Thunderstorms sweep in fast from the Gulf of Corinth, however, and while they seem to avoid breaking over Delphi, they regularly drench the heights of Parnassus.

I took shelter under the wide bough of a stunted pine tree (it’s perfectly OK to shelter under a tree in a thunderstorm, so long as said tree isn’t the tallest in the forest), ate my small lunch of bread and dates and wrote a few letters home. By the time I was done the thunder, if not the rain, had stopped, and I decided to make the best of it.

I was nonetheless completely drenched by the time I bumped into a tourist information centre – one of the least likely I’ve ever encounted. It was more a hut, really, without electric light or telephone, tended by a remarkably pretty Greek lady called Aspasia, who was kind enough to offer me a piping hot cup of tea and set me on the right way to the Corycian cave.

The place, when I got there, was extremely creepy. It was a great round amphitheatre, and I suppose with a blazing fire in the middle one could just about it as the site of the wild Dionysian revels the guidebook hinted at. As it was, it was dark, damp and deeply Gothic. I had left my torch ebhind, so the dim rear of the cavern was difficult to explore, but I was determind to investigate the flickering orange light I saw in the distance. It turned out to be a candle, set into a recess in the rock: beyond it the ‘range of caverns difficult of ascent, and apparently leading to the interior of the mountain’ mentioned by Byron. The thought of exploring further by the light of this single candle flickered through my mind – but I’d had enough drama and Gothic sublimity for one day, and set the candle, with a twinge of regret, back in its resting place.

Farther down the mountain, Aspasia was waiting for me, and offered to walk me down into Delphi, as there was a public lecture she wanted to catch. We walked down together, talking of geology, of sketching, of the outdoors – with time the subjects of our conversation have faded from my mind, but the music of her voice remains. She pointed out to me a wild tortoise I would otherwise have stepped headlessly over, and handed to me a lump of orang quartz that sits on my desk at this very moment. Need I say that by the time I reached Delphi, I was hopelessly infatuated? But alas – it was not to be. Perhaps if I were Byron – but I was but a pale imitation. She went back up the mountain, and I went off to the next stop along the tourist trail. My only mementoes of her are the aforementioned lump of quartz and the fifteen Spenserian stanzas I wrote in her honour over the next two days, which sensations of acute embarrassment prevent me from affixing here. Yet even if the Muses were unimpressed with my ascent of their ancestral home, and refused to smile upon my verse – it was certainly the most poetic excursion I ever made.

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