In contrast to its close neighbour Mykonos, the tiny island of Delos is an archaeologist’s paradise and the French School of Archaeology has been excavating here for well over a century. Most of the surface area of the island – some one and a half square miles – is covered by ruined buildings from classical antiquity and the island is now preserved as an open air museum. Delos has a pivotal place in Greek mythology. It was on Delos that Leto, pregnant by Zeus and escaping the jealous Hera, gave birth to Apollo – his twin brother Artemis was born nine days later on the adjacent island of Rhineia. For close on a millennium, Delos was home to the principal sanctuary of the Hellenistic world, attracting pilgrims from across the entire Mediterranean, especially at the time of the Delian Festivals held every four years in the month of May. Why on Delos? From atop Mount Kynthos, any sailor will quickly see that Delos provides the last and best anchorage between Europe and Asia, sheltered by Mykonos to the east, Tinos to the north and Rhineia to the west.
By the beginning of the Christian era, the religious functions of Delos were in decline. Today the pilgrims are cultural tourists, most arriving on the ferry from Mykonos. We are truly fortunate in being able to plan our arrival on board the sailing ship Panorama outside the visiting hours of the ferry-boat. The Pilgrim Trail takes in the great fallen statue of Apollo and the ruins of the three temples dedicated to him as well as one dedicated to his brother, Artemis. Then there is the stunning terrace of marbled lions overlooking the sacred lake and birthplace of Apollo and the nearby House of Hermes, named for the remarkable statue now housed in the island’s small but spectacular museum. For lovers of mosaics, the House of Masks, the House of Dionysius, the House of the Trident and the House of the Dolphins need no introduction, the latter portraying four harnessed dolphins in each quarter of its great mosaic floor driven by a winged Cupid. The theater could seat over five thousand pilgrims and close by the houses of the artisans reveal remarkable details of everyday life: narrow streets, drainage systems and niches for oil-lamps. For anyone with an interest in Greek antiquity, Delos is nirvana.
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