Monasteries of Meteora

In many ways, this week will be a personal challenge. To drive and navigate in a country where I don't speak the language, and to do that alone, is something new for me.

During my week in Athens, I was still deciding what I would like to see in Greece. I was enticed by the islands, particularly Santorini, but the islands take some time to reach, and they are expensive. And, once you're on the island, that's all you're gonna see. So, I opted toward the side of renting a car and seeing the Greek mainland.

I talked to people at the conference all week searching for validation of my plan. It finally came yesterday afternoon, when I bumped into my co-worker, Carter, at the Acropolis. He mentioned that he had spoken with one of the local conference organizers who told him that the real Greece is not in the islands, but north in the mainland. This was a relief to me, and put an end to second-guessing my itinerary.

To bolster my newly found confidence, I talked with someone in the hotel bar last night who was from Spain (but schooled in England and Australia, so he had a wicked English accent), and I explained my plan to him. He responded by saying that Meteora and Delphi are a must.

Finally, I felt I could embrace my plan wholeheartedly.

I set out from the airport where I rented a silver, four-door Opel Corsa. After talking with Eduardo, the Spaniard, last night, he recommended that I go to Meteora first, then south to Delphi, and on to the Peloponnesus, which made more sense to me than my original plan.

Greece is in the process of building a national system of highways. Around Athens the highways are in good shape. They are also very crowded, but no worse than those in New York. I was taking the road around Athens, which connects with the National Road north. It took me awhile to understand the relationship between the scale on my map and reality, but I successfully navigated around Athens and found the highway north.

Driving on the highways was pretty easy, but later I would be on smaller roads that pass through city centers and wondered whether I will lose my way.

The main highlight on the highway north was passing through the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, where the Greeks held the Persians for three days in 480 BC. The Greeks ultimately were defeated, but the Persians suffered disproportionate losses.

At Lamía, I turned off the highway and headed northwest to Trikala, then to Meteora. I passed over a mountain range, then descended into the fertile, flat Thessaly plain, where I saw cotton and other staples growing.

Meteora is the name used for a group of monasteries built atop massive rock outcrops. As I drove north toward the mountains, it began to rain, but I could see the towering rocks on the horizon. As I grew closer, the Sun began to peek through the late-afternoon storm.

I booked a room this morning at the Sydney Hotel in the small town of Kastraki (population 1,203). The larger town near the monasteries is Kalambaka, but I decided to stay in the smaller, closer town.

By the time I found the hotel (and the town for that matter), the Sun had returned and the rain had cleared. The view toward the smooth rock pinnacles was spectacular. I rushed to check in and unpack so I could catch the last hour of sunlight.

I ran into town and took some shots of the quaint village beneath the rocks.

After walking around Kastraki, I rushed back to the hotel, grabbed the car, and drove up into the mountains to see the rocks and the monasteries. The light was wonderful and I drove from lookout to lookout until it was completely dark.

I returned home and walked around the streets of Kastraki. I ate at a restaurant and took a few pictures, but this town is pretty buttoned up after sundown. It's dark and so quiet I can hear my own thoughts.

While I was paying for dinner, I noticed that my ATM card was not in my wallet. This seemed odd to me; I always put it back in the same place. I walked back to the hotel and looked through my suitcase, but I knew it was gone. I believe I left it in the bank machine in Athens—I've grown accustomed to dipping my card instead of surrendering it to the machine for the duration of the transaction, so I probably walked away once I received my cash.

I used my phone card to call Citibank and cancel my card, which also terminates my on-line access. I was sorting this out on the phone for a couple hours. Some of the phones in this small town do not work too well, so I had to try a few, which is about all the phones this town has. We talked about the possibility of getting a card delivered to the city of Patra, but going there would screw up the entire trip. I will have to survive on the cash that I have and charge when I can. I have about €250 and I wonder if that will be enough.

I met a couple from Minnesota in the hotel. They were having a beer in the hotel lounge and, had I not lost my bank card, I would have joined them. I did join them the following morning for breakfast. Well, we were talking across tables. It is heading into the low season so there was only me, the Minnesota couple, and a family of four from Sweden.

The Minnesota couple were heading to Delphi this morning. It turns out we booked a room in the same hotel there too, but I was heading for the monasteries this morning. I finished my breakfast—slices of ham and cheese wrapped in saran, a tiny glass of juice, tea, a hard-boiled egg, and bread—and checked out.

It was a bit hard to pull myself away from the Aussie-Greek who runs this place. The Sydney Hotel is in fact named for Australia, and Australian tchochkis, including stuffed kangaroos and a boomerang or two, decorate the lounge. The owner is a friendly man in his early 70s who seems constantly disenchanted with the red tape of Greek society. In Greek cities there is reliable phone service, electricity, and plumbing. Out here in the country, it is a different story.

Meteora is an otherworldly place. It is known for the monasteries that were built atop stunning rock formations that protrude from the Thessaly plain. The geology alone would make this area an attraction, but the monasteries give the rock towers an added cultural significance.

The rocks lie at the edge of the Pindhos Mountains but were once at the bottom of the sea. About 60 million years ago, the sea floor was pushed up, exposing the sandstone to weathering, which sculpted the rock formations we see today.

Monks began living in the area in the 11th century. Over the next few hundred years, Byzantine power of the Roman Empire was waning while Turkish attacks were on the rise. This drove the monks onto the seemingly inaccessible rock towers, where they built their monasteries. Early monasteries were reachable only by removable ladders, but later, rope baskets were used to hoist supplies and people up the sheer rock cliffs. In the 1920s stairs were built, and occasionally carved through rock tunnels, for easier access. However, these are for tourists. Today's monks use tiny cable cars suspended on wires. They hit a switch and slowly inch their way over vast gorges to reach their home.

On my way to the monasteries this morning, I passed a fellow traveler hitchhiking up the mountain. Many people arrive by bus to this area, and then have to walk up the mountain roads to see the monasteries. Contrary to my American common sense, I decided to pick one up. He looked like a foreigner in a foreign land and was certainly a traveler. Travelers are well acquainted with the feeling of inexperience, which is always easier to endure if you share it with someone. This creates a bond among travelers and, perhaps naively, prompted me to lower my guard. I also knew how far it was to the top and felt I had plenty of space in my car.

His name was Marc and he was from a town outside Barcelona, Spain. He did not really speak English, but we were able to communicate with my piecemeal Spanish. He was a nice kid. When I asked what he did when he wasn't traveling, he responded by saying and gesturing that he juggled. I wondered how he was able to make a living, but I didn't ask.

We drove up to the 14th-century Moni Megalou Meteorou. Meteora means suspended rocks, suspended in the air, or in the heavens above. This monastery was the richest of the dozen or so that were built here, thanks to the Serbian emperor Simeon Uroš, who donated his fortune to this monastery and became a monk in the 1300s.

Marc paid for my admission and we explored the monastery together. It is an amazing place. How people built these complex buildings hundreds of feet up without modern machinery is amazing.

Marc and I parted after touring this monastery. He was off to see one, while I was heading to another. I needed to be on my way to Delphi by mid-afternoon, so I could not see all the monasteries. The other monastery that I wanted to see is the Moni Agias Triados, or the Holy Trinity Monastery. It is the most remote monastery, so I hoped it would be relatively empty. On my way, I took a few more pictures (of course!).

The Agias Triados monastery is one of the most difficult to reach. The path leads down a steep hill, then up the rock tower. I hoped there would not be so many tourists here and, aside from two other tourists and two monks, I was alone.

Meteora is an incredible sight to see. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site—one can't travel too far in Greece without bumping into one—and it is a living relic to the Greek culture. Many believe there would be no Greek culture today without the monasteries' work to preserve their religion and culture from the occupying Turks.

I headed down the mountain to get lunch in Kalambaka. After I got out of my car, I stopped an older American couple and asked them if they could point me to a decent restaurant in town. They asked me about the car and driving in Greece; they were on a bus tour and I sensed they envied my car, wishing they could see Greece at their own pace. Most people do bus tours, but I just don't think it's for me. I don't want to hear you have an hour to see... at every stop. I overheard countless people say that at each monument I visited. While one might meet some interesting people on these tours, I would have a hard time with the constraints.

After lunch, I'm off to Delphi, the center of the ancient world.