Dropping gently down the slopes of Mt Parnassos from the Corycean Grotto to the village of Delphi is one of the loveliest day-hikes in the Mediterranean. This well-marked, mapped, 13.7 km route down the mountain sacred to Apollo and Dionysos is a blend of two historic footpaths. One is the Ancient Footpath (Archaio Monopati) that took Pan worshippers up from the ancient temples of Delphi to the Corycean Grotto to celebrate rites of Pan. The second footpath is the European Union E4 Long Distance Footpath that passes over Mt. Parnassos on its way from Gibraltar to Crete.
The Archaio Monopati may be the oldest still-used footpath on the planet. Hewn out of the rock face of Mt. Krokos that rises behind the Delphi archeological site, and wide enough for a donkey cart, the Archaio Monopati led Delphi residents to the Grotto both for Pan and Dionysian worship, and to hide during the Persian invasion, the War of Independence, and during World War II. Delphi itself has been inhabited from 1400 BC.
The E4 Footpath is modern history. As part of the open border agreements of the 1990s, the European Footpaths Commission worked with the countries of the EU to set up twelve cross-Europe footpaths, each publicized and maintained by member countries. Two EU Footpaths cross Greece. The E6 travels east-west from Igomanitsa on the Ionian Sea to Alexandropoli near the Turkish border. The E4 travels north-south from Florina near Albania to Gythio at the tip of the Pelopponese, then skips to Crete.
The E4 crosses the west flank of Mt. Parnassos on the saddle between Mount Giona and Parnassos, at the “51st Km”, the highest point of the Lamia-Amfissa Road. The route then passes under the summit to the village of Eptalofos (Agoriani) and meanders down to Delphi with side-trips to various monasteries. Just above Delphi, the E4 merges with the Archaio Monopati coming from the Corycean Grotto.
While ancient Greeks worshiping Pan may have wanted to struggle upward to purge their souls, modern hikers can enjoy the Archaio Monopati and the E4 more by hiking downward-taking a taxi from Delphi for about 45 minutes (around 15 Euros) up Mt. Parnassos to near Kalivia on the Arachova-Agoriani road. A sign indicates the footpath to the grotto. (After passing through a meadow, a sign points right, up a steep slope to the grotto.) Alternatively, a pleasant dirt road leads directly to the grotto, a half-hour walk.
The dusky and cavernous Corycean Grotto has a satisfying murky echo. Stalactites and stalagmites loom up in the gloom. Named after korikos, a boxing-sack, the Grotto was a cult shrine in Neolithic and late-Mycenaean times. French archeologists in 1970 found cult statuettes, vases, coins, rings, and engravings to Pan and the Nymphs estimated to be 4th to 6th century BC. Above the cave were the Dionysian orgies.
Mornings in late fall or early spring may be foggy or it may appear to be raining on the mountain. Appearances can be deceiving. Drive to the start-off point before making weather decisions. In any case, the hike along the road to the cave is less than an hour. A taxi driver might wait. Or the road can be negotiated by taxi, driver willing. On one Easter hike, we set out in light fog with snow patches but glimpses of Parnassos through the clouds showed a sunny peak. Before long it was shirtsleeve weather.
From the Corycean Grotto downward to Delphi, the path starts with a sharp descent to pick up the trail leading west. From then on, the grade is gently downward with occasional mild rises. Blazes in black on yellow or red expertly mark the route. At the entrance to Mt. Parnassos National Park, the path passes an information center in a meadow where cattle are pastured.
In Greek mythology, Mt. Parnassos was named after Parnassos, a son of Poseidon and the nymph Leonora. Parnassos founded the old oracle of Pith and could tell the future by observing the way birds flew. The mythology gets complicated after that, involving Apollo, Hera (queen of the gods) and a nasty serpentine dragon whom Hera liked named Python who lived by the Kastalia springs at Delphi and destroyed men and beasts. The cult of Apollo eventually took over and resulted in the Oracle of Delphi and her famous predictions. In a parallel myth, Dionysos, son of Zeus and Persephone, lived on Parnassos and was pursued by Hera. Complications of Greek mythology aside, there’s definitely something about this part of the “Middle Earth” that puts Delphi on the maps of even eastern religions who consider it an energy point of the universe.
Mt. Parnassos National Park was set up in 1938, 36 million square meters of protection for the unusual ecosystem of the mountain. Bauxite deposits are plentiful and Parnassos bauxite remains the main primary material for Greek aluminum production. Below 700 meters of altitude grows Mediterranean vegetation which needs little water-thyme, oregano, Holm-oak, cedar, arbutus, laurel, lentisk. Olive groves carpet the foot of the mountain, especially in the Pleisto River valley below Delphi and the Itea plain. Between 700 and 1,000 meters grow forests of pine and Kephallonian firs with their sharp needles. Above timberline is little but rock.
Depending on bird migration patterns, hikers may see thrushes, linnets, woodpeckers, and robins. Higher are orioles and birds of prey that nest among the rocks such as vultures, harrier eagles, and golden eagles.
The trail meanders through woods that are masses of bright leaves in autumn, and glades that are carpeted with wildflowers and snow patches in spring. Small waterways are the water sources for Delphi and the Kastelia Springs by the archeological site. Lovely views open unexpectedly to Mt. Parnassos and the mountains to the West. The trail merges occasionally with a dirt road, then veers again into woods.
Armed with a map, the hiker can choose between two routes. One leaves the Archaio Monopati shortly after the National Park entrance and heads west to catch the E4 trail. The second route follows the Archaio Monopati and slope south-west to merge with the E4 lower down. Either route is many quiet hours of encountering virtually no other person. The changing topography and varied vistas are perfect for making regular stops for photos, watercolor painting, and picnics. Hours of walking pass swiftly and without seeming effort.
The arrival at the top of the cliff above Delphi is so abrupt as to be startling. From a tunnel-like gully lined with white rocks, the vista explodes outward. If the timing has been right, the sun is just lowering over the Ionian Sea, silhouetting the mountains to the west. To the south, the Gulf of Corinth is a slice of silver below the purple mountains of the Peloponnese. To the left are the twin Phaedriades (Shining Rocks) so called because they reflect the light. There the ancients threw off people convicted of sacrilege. Straight down are the tiny red tile roofs of Delphi and the final zig-zags of the Archaio Monopati.