After dosing myself with Ancient Greece in Delphi I traveled north (not without a few hitches … read about those at the end if you enjoy a travelogue) to experience the late Byzantine monasteries of Meteora. This collection of religious refuges is just a small remnant of the 24 active monasteries which once clustered on the clifftops of this remarkable landscape. Visiting Meteora today, its still possible to see the five active monasteries (and one convent) which are there, although I went inside only two of them.
I arrived in the midday and after dropping of my bags at a hotel resolved to hike up to the cliff height to visit St. Stephen’s, now a nunnery, despite heavy overcast and spitting rain and was well rewarded. It was a cold day but by the time I reached the top, rather winded, I had stripped off everything but a light t-shirt. The misty, mysterious atmosphere seemed to enhance the experience rather than dampening it and as I walked past blocks worth of empty tour bus parking areas I congratulated myself on the solitary afternoon. The complex itself is both intimate in scale and grand in decorative detail – an interesting contrast. Partly hacked out of stone and partly clinging to the top of the mesa it feels very otherworldly. I left with regret as the light started to fade (in time to make my hike back down the cliff path before dark) and when I turned to look over my shoulder the whole place had disappeared into the lowering clouds.
The next day couldn’t have felt more different with the sun almost beating down at times. I picked up water as often as I could. This time I walked around by the road a 10 km loop which goes up past all the monasteries and back down again to the other side of town, passing through the village of Kastraki and approaching the far cluster of monasteries. After I passed the first one (closed that day) I detoured off the road and up another of the pretty well maintained but VERY STEEP walking paths to visit the largest of the six, known as Great Meteoron. As at the convent, I was issued with a mid calf length wrap skirt to put over my jeans lest I offend the monks eyes and then turned loose to wander the complex. Larger and with more museum pieces, there were a number of remarkable frescos to admire and several preserved areas of ancient craft work – the medieval kitchen and the old barrel making and wood working workshop. I understand that now they just use modern equipment but at one point these monasteries were nearly self sufficient, hauling people and a few supplies up the cliffs in large buckets. The cut stone access stairs were installed only in the 1920s. I spent several hours there and then the rest of the day wandering the landscape hiking up and down the clifts twice more in my rambles. At the end of the day I headed back to the hotel, picked up my bag and walked to the train station for the five hour trip to Athens.
Notes on travelling in Greece – excerpts from an email:
I don’t want it to sound like I’m not having a good time or that I don’t like it here. I am and I do. But this country is definitely less smoothly run and organized and less easy to negotiate than western Europe has been. For example i’d give: yesterday. It could otherwise be known as the day in which nothing worked the first time (or the day of the kindness of strangers, if I were more optimistic about it). I was traveling from Delphi to Meteora which is not a particularly easy trip since there are no direct connections – even the indirect ones are less smooth than you’d think. I took a bus from Delphi which dropped me off in the middle of an intermediate town, then had to get to the outside edge of that city to meet the train up to Kalambaka (the mostly tourist industry town which serves Meteora. This kind of discontinuity is exactly why most tourists in Greece use packaged bus tours to get from one major archaeological site to the next – with an organizing company providing transport, translation and food and lodging into the bargain. I’m too independent (and cheap) to succumb to the temptation and also trying to make my way across the country from west to east (these tours all start in Athens) so I’m figuring it out on my own – for better or for worse.
So, yesterday. I had chatted with the ubiquitous desk man at my hotel (also an employee of the museum and I later ran into him on the street at 5:45 am) the night before leaving and he’d mentioned that the earliest bus out out of town, and the one I’d need to make the day’s only direct train from Levadia to Kalambaka, left at 6:10 but when I later tried to confirm that using the internet every source I found listed the bus as departing at 5:30 so I set my alarm for 4:45 and was waiting at the appropriate intersection at the indicated time … but no bus came. I figured it wasn’t worth giving up and going back to sleep in my hotel room until the second time had passed so I sat on my backpack and waited. Pretty soon the desk man himself walked by – the only person I saw outside of a car the whole trip – and explained that 5:30 was the summer time and I’d need to wait for 6:10 … and that it would likely be running a little late. Sure enough, it rolled up only ten minutes late at 6:20.
When I arrived in Levadia 55 minutes later I had a three hour layover and a 5km distance to the train station to fill it with. There was theoretically a bus between them and many people take a taxi to bridge the gap but I decided to walk it, following the directions of my map app. I was probably about 4km along the way, getting into less populated farm country when it started to rain. I harumphed to myself was thinking about how deeply buried in my pack the umbrella was when a car pulled to a stop next to me. A wizened littleGreek grandfather rolled down his window and started interrogating me in Greek. I waved him off and told him in English that I was fine – that I was walking to the train station. “Treno?” he asked and then started off again in rapid fire Greek. After a minute or so it seemed obvious that he was unlikely to pull away without me – the rain was falling harder and my will to protest just evaporated. I shrugged my shoulders and thanked him and got in his car, thinking about the possibility of hurling myself and my bag out of a moving vehicle if necessary. As it happened it was really good that I accepted the ride because my map had placed the station in entirely the wrong direction and I’d have had to backtrack (if I could have figured out where it WAS) several extra km in the pouring rain if I’d kept walking. No jumping from rolling cars was necessary and he dropped me off at the station after an entirely nonsensical conversation in which neither of us understood a word and kissed me on both cheeks before I got out of his car.
When I arrived in Meteora I set out from the train station and found my proposed Hotel – or at least its address – only to see that it is now a vacant building. Fine. I pulled out the Lonely Planet ebook and found another couple of options … but their addresses didn’t match anything on my map – and all the street names were in Greek anyway. I walked the length of the main street feeling peeved about it until I came to the tourist office which offered me a walking map of the monasteries and pointed me in the general direction of the hotel I’d designated as second place. “Go that way and there will be a sign,” was the woman’s best advice. I had not seen this theoretical sign when I paused on a street corner looking quizzical and was accosted by a woman holding three empty ceramic coffee mugs who asked, “Are you looking for a room.” I told her I was and she quoted me a price – the same as the one listed in my guide book. What the hell, I thought, and asked if I could see the room. She led me off on a circuitous route and finally to the room which turned out to be a quite nice hotel room with a little balcony and, more importantly, two beds, one to hold the bags I dropped and one for me as I collapsed feeling wiped out and relieved to be stationary.
I could have gone to sleep then but it was only 2:30 – my hotel search had taken more than an hour – and it felt shameful to waste the day so I pulled myself back to vertical at 3 and set out to find myself a monastery or two. The minute I stepped outside the hotel it started to drizzle but I pulled out my umbrella and aimed my steps uphill anyway. The monasteries of Meteora are clifftop wonders which were sited between the 14th and 16th centuries when monks were trying to escape the constant regional conflicts. They built tiny eagle’s next complexes on the top of impossibly high and narrow buttes in this area and hauled themselves and their supplies up by way of baskets on ropes. In the 1920’s steps were cut into the rock supporting them allowing pedestrian access and later a road was run through connecting all their bases to the town below. A city bus runs the circuit twice a day and many private tour companies also drive people up but I didn’t know the schedule and didn’t care for the method so I set out walking, taking a more direct route to the far end of the roadway by going up a steeply ascending hiking path to the two sites closest to where I was staying. The day was chill and it felt like I was walking not only through rain but up into the cloud level but I was soon stripping off layers as I climbed the 600 odd meters to the top and when I reached it I was wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves shoved up past my elbows and carrying a polarfleece jacket, down vest and raincoat as well as scarf, gloves and hat. In keeping with the pattern of the day, the first monastery was closed even though both the guide book and the photocopied schedule of opening times from the tourist office said it should be open. By that point I was almost expecting that outcome so I turned around, marched back down its hundred or so steps and then climbed back up the road to the cliff level again and around the projecting crag of rock to the furthest location – the areas only convent or “nannery” as one sign proclaimed it. There I was able to enter, after being issued a calf length wrap around skirt to put over my jeans. The space was mystical and nearly empty and I thanked goodness for the absence of the bus loads of fellow tourists which the three block length of (empty) bus parking spots on the approach had implied. I wandered around until I was cold and it was nearly 4:30, then I put all my warm clothes back on and re-opened my umbrella to head back down. The cloud level had been descending as I toured and when I looked back at the convent over my shoulder from several hundred feet away it had nearly disappeared into the mist. I hiked back down the cliff path, switching my umbrella from hand to hand to keep alternating a hand in a warm pocket.