Today, we’re flying home on a jet plane across the Atlantic. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was ready to go home, but leaving here is always bittersweet. Among the things I’ll miss are beautiful ocean views everywhere I look and a sense that things are today exactly as they were two hundred years ago.
About six years ago, my dad planted three fruit trees on the lower terrace of our house – cherry, pear and apricot. They were tiny little things barely taller than my knee, but they were planted with the promise to one day bear all of the fruit that we would need. This year, the apricot tree delivered. Big time.
As a general rule, my driving is usually limited to the island. That’s primarily due to the fact that Greeks on the mainland (well, most Europeans) consider the lines in the road simply a recommendation. Dotted lines, double lines, curves with zero visibility…all places where passing is completely acceptable. Driving in the shoulder? Sure, why not. You see, as an uptight American driver, it drives me crazy when people drive on the line or expect me to take a 120 degree curve at 50 miles an hour in our top-heavy Jeep.
But I digress. Last week, we opted to drive across the country instead of flying because there are so many places that I’d never been in all of my years here. That meant that in order to see the Greek countryside, I was going to have to take my turn holding my own against the Greek drivers. So, I popped a couple of tranquilizers and gave it a whirl. Just kidding, folks. Truly, once I got over my own cultural shortcomings and stopped being shocked at daredevil driving maneuver, it was a beautiful drive, especially on the new EU funded highways.
First, we passed Mount Olympus. Yes, THE Mount Olympus, from where the ancient Gods ruled the mortal world. I heard that you can hike up to the peak and that is definitely on my future to-do list. Any takers?
There were so many gorgeous vistas that I couldn’t stop to photograph (since we were basically on a cliff), but when there was space to pull over, I would stop and snap the picture like this one of the River Venetiko.
Then, I would hop back in the car and off we’d go. A couple of times, we would take a detour to a place that my parents had heard of, but never been to, like the village of Kastoria.
The town of 80,000 inhabitants circles two natural lakes, a rarity in Greece. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the water, but we didn’t stay long since it looked like rain was on the horizon. Boy was it ever. An hour after we left, we drove right into a hailstorm.
What’s worse, the cars in front of us sped to an overpass to protect their cars…and blocked the road. Yes, you read that correctly. They lined their cars up side by side from guard rail to shoulder and no one could pass. We had to wait in the road (getting pelted with grape-sized hail) until enough people behind us laid on their horns and bullied the others into clearing a lane to pass. The hail was so loud that Parker took cover underneath my scarf. Poor little guy.
Eventually though, we cleared the storm and made our way home several hours later. Our poor Jeep has dozens of small dents on the hood. Scars from taking the road less traveled.
Almost a decade ago, I took a road trip to the Grand Canyon. Even though I had seen pictures of the deep valleys, I wasn’t prepared for the awe-inspiring site. As I caught my first glimpse of the vast expanse, I had a visceral reaction feeling simultaneously insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet comfortable that humanity fit into the natural order of the world. I tell you this because the same thing happened upon my first sighting of Meteora, which is almost a Grand Canyon in reverse.
Huge sandstone pillars shoot up thousands of feet into the sky. They are so immense and beautiful that it doesn’t seem real.
Apparently, 30 million years ago, the plains of Thessaly (where Meteora is located) were submerged under the ocean and these rock formations were created.
It’s no wonder that the first inhabitants of the Meteora were hermits who chose to live in natural caves in the rocks in order to be closer to God.
I can completely see the appeal. If there’s a holier place on this earth, I have yet to experience it. The calm magnificence of the rock formation is almost palpable.
The first monasteries were built in the 11th century and at the height of the monastic community (16th century), there were 24 monasteries. Currently, there are only 6 still in operation, but these are still quite impressive.
We drove up the mountainside, but prior to access via paved road (in the last 30 years or so), the only way to get to the monasteries was by walking up and then using retractable ladders. With the violent history of the region (with invasions by Franks, Serbs, Catalans, Albanians and Turks), the inaccessible nature of the monasteries was practical. There was this entertaining depiction of a German soldier were plunged to his death as he tried to climb the rocks in order to place a Nazi flag at the top. It was, naturally, divine intervention.
We personally visited two of the monasteries currently in operation. The first was Grand Meteoron, which is accessible by 200 or so steps.
As you can see by the sign, women could only be admitted if they were in dresses with shoulders covered (hence my scarf in all of the pictures). I didn’t see any monks during our visit, but there were a number of private areas where visitors could not go.
There were also a number of Holy cats. They seemed well fed and well cared for (not the norm here) and there was even a fat, little 3-legged kitty who clearly got extra helpings at the dinner table.
Even though the monks currently have a more modern kitchen, they kept the only one in its original condition (very enterprising of the church). They also had the old cellar and other previously functional rooms necessary for the day to day operations.
The vistas were breathtaking.
The next monastery we visited was Saint Stephen.
This monastery did not require a cardio workout to get in. You just had to cross a small bridge over a deep (1000 foot) ravine.
I was surprised to see that this was a women’s monastery (or so I’m assuming by all of the nuns that I saw). In fact, it actually looked more feminine. There were a number of lovely gardens and there were feminine details, such as lace curtains. Grand Meteron felt much more utilitarian.
After visiting the Meteora, this site has been bumped up to the top of my “must see” list of things in Greece. Perhaps it’s that I’ve been to the Parthenon dozens of times, but to me, these monasteries were far more impressive.
If I didn’t have to be a nun to gain entrance (they would surely kick me out for my language alone in the first 24 hours), I could certainly live there. The setting suits my hermit-like nature to a “T.”
On the hill of Kolonos (behind where the 3-day fight occurred), an epitaph was placed to honor the dead soldiers that states, “You stranger, go to Lakedaimonians and let them know that we lie here, faithful to our laws.”
My hero worship certainly explains why for years, I was desperate to trace my lineage back to the warriors or Sparta instead of the intellectuals of Troy. I’m sorry ancestors, but it’s true. If you overlook the small little detail of mass genocide (they methodically bred out the weak genes), the Spartans were seriously cool.