Europe | Greece | Central and Northern Greece – Monasteries in the air
My problems with the Greek alphabet were further compounded when I was travelling through remote Greece a few days ago. When the bus stopped at a small town, I went to the toilets only to find that the signs for the ladies’ and gents’ were in Greek script, with no man or woman symbol. Peering into each bathroom I tried to see if there was any clue which would tell me which one to use, but there was none. Hearing a flush I retreated into the corridor to wait and see who would come out. A gruff looking man appeared and regarded me suspiciously like some weirdo who got his kicks from hanging around public toilets. But at least the first Greek word I memorised is “Men’s”.
From Athens I caught a bus to central Greece where I stayed at a small town called Kalambaka at the foot of the Meteora rocks. The town was so quiet I wondered where all the residents were. There is basically the one main street running through it with smaller streets branching off to residential areas. I half expected a tumbleweed to come billowing across the street. The main street is lined mostly with shops and small eateries specialising in Greek food.
As I wandered down the street (which took all of two and a half minutes) I peered into each establishment and saw most of the eateries devoid of customers. There was just the lone proprietor sitting idly and looking bored, playing with his beads (see previous issue). From the number of eateries I saw with a lack of customers, I wondered how they could afford to pay the rent. Kalambaka of course must surely rely on the tourists passing through to visit the Meteora monasteries nearby, and I could only conclude that the place would be busier during the peak summer months.
Monasteries of Meteora
The next morning I split a taxi with a French couple to take us up to the monasteries. The Meteora rocks are giant rock formations which were formed millions of years ago by wave action. Reaching several hundred metres into the air, the amazing thing is that some time in the 14th century, twenty one monasteries were built on top of these rocks, perched precariously high in the air. They were built by monks of the Orthodox order, and today six monasteries are still used and inhabited.
In those days the monks built the monasteries by hauling materials up slowly. To get to the top they also used a net where visitors and pilgrims would spend a few terrifying minutes while being hauled to the top. Thankfully there are now steps hewn into the rocks for visitors.
The taxi dropped us off at the foot of the biggest and highest monastery, The Great Meteoron. From here it was a short climb up some steps to visit the monastery. I did not see any monks in action, so to speak, but they probably lock themselves away when tourists visit. I suppose I wouldn’t want some American in a loud tracksuit jacket asking me “Hey buddy, how long did it take you to grow that beard?” either. There was the odd monk though, scurrying from one door to another, long beard and black robe and all.
I had an interesting time looking through the centuries old building, imagining the life of solitude and poverty they lead up here. Although these days they don’t exactly lead an impoverished life, as from what I saw they have electricity, running water and telephone lines.
At this altitude I also had an excellent view of the surrounding rocks and a couple of the other monasteries nearby, all perched high on their own rocks. The town below could also be seen between breaks in the rocks. After finishing with the first monastery, we decided to visit the other five. The roads leading to the others is a proper road winding through the mountains, with the odd tourist bus full of Germans trundling along.
My French companions and I walked all the way to the farthest two monasteries, then doubled back to visit the rest. We must have covered quite a few kilometres as my legs were dead by the time we reached the last one. All along the way we marvelled at the scenery and the rock formations which looked as if they had been smoothed by a giant sander. It also happened to be an overcast day, and from time to time the fog would roll in and envelope the peaks, at times making the monasteries look like they really were suspended in the clouds.
Meteora is definitely one of the most amazing places of beauty I have seen, and for anyone travelling through mainland Greece I highly recommend it to be part of their journey.
Gathering thoughts at Thessaloniki
After Kalambaka I headed north to Thessaloniki. Greece’s second largest city didn’t really excite me a lot. It has far less to see compared to Athens and is a large metropolis with an equal amount of traffic and pollution. I only spent a night here as it was really intended to be somewhere to sleep, take a break, gather my thoughts, and organise my onward journey to… well you’ll just have to see.