Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On High. Meteora.

Posing with Varlaam Monastery in the background.

As interesting as it was visiting the museum at Delphi was, I'm really eager to get on the road because what I think will be the highlight of our road trip through Greece lies just ahead. 

It was nearing 10am as we pulled away from the museum.  Goodbye Delphi!


Our final destination for today was the small village of Kastraki, located near the larger town of Kalambaka.  Both places are common stays for visitors to the monasteries at Meteora.  I was beyond excited to finally be able to see, in person, the monasteries that I had already seen countless images of.

Today's drive would be about 230km long. I figured it would take us about 3-4 hours to get to Kastraki.

It was Day 4 of our roadtrip and we had settled into a comfortable routine- Bro behind the wheel and me *expertly* navigating with Ms Google fired up on my Samsung smartphone and the map of Greece laid out on my lap.

The weather in Greece has been picture perfect since we've arrived.  Sunny blue skies and temperatures in the low to mid 70's.  Great weather for driving as long as we're not heading towards the sun.

Except for the coast, I have to admit that the interior landscape of Greece is not all that pretty.  It's a lot of arid valleys and mountains dotted with stubby greenery.

We have noticed an absence of animals grazing.  So it was quite a surprise when we actually had to slow down to let a small flock of goats cross the road.





 
The roads have been excellent so far - (no potholes, no construction detours well signed) and we've been making good time on each of our drives.

We've encountered very little traffic on the roads probably because we've mainly been traveling on toll roads. I have to say that the tolls have pretty reasonable - ranging between 2 and 4 Euros and there haven't been that many of them.  The toll system does accept transponders but we don't have one with the car so we've been whipping cash as necessary.

Except for breaks to eat, we've mainly been driving from one destination to another.  Bro's stomach, which seems to be well tuned to when meal times are, has been dictating when we stop over for a bite.  On this trip, Bro pulled in to a gas station which had a restaurant attached to it.  It was our lunch break.  For lunch, we shared some spanokopita, pork souvlaki and a drink.  Just something small to tie us over to dinner.  Most certainly, I'd rather that Bro not stuff his belly - he'll want a nap afterwards and that's not good when you're the one who's behind the wheel :-)

By mid afternoon, we had passed through a series of small towns.  Ms. Google was indicating that we were soon arriving in to Kalambaka.  I saw craggy mountains up ahead.  Could that be Meteora?


St. Nicholas Monastery, perched high on the hill, in the far distance.


We followed the road signs pointing the way to Kastraki.  Once we arrived in to Kastraki, it was a bit of a trick trying to find our guesthouse, the Villa San Giorgio  The small village is nestled up in the hills.  The streets were narrow and winding and it was a bit of a challenge determining exactly where to take a turn.  Eventually, we did make it! 

Bro parked the car while I headed inside to check in.  I headed inside what looked like the front door and the place was dead - not a soul around.  I shouted out, "hello" a few times and didn't get a response back.

I headed back outside, walked down a hill and entered via another entrance.  I once again shouted out to make my presence known and once again, no response.  I walked up the steps and found myself back at reception.  As I turned out to head back out, I came face to face with a young woman.  She was the receptionist. By now, Bro had found me and we got checked in.  Flavia, the young woman, led us to our room.  We were on the lower level ground floor with a small patio. It was clean but very basic accommodations but it didn't look anything like the rooms I saw in the photos which were taken on a balcony with a view of the monasteries. Ah....but I can't complain, this is a budget guesthouse and we're only here for one night.

The modest guesthouse advertises that it's within easy walking distance of Meteora which was one big reason why I selected it.  I did't realize exactly how close it actually was to the monasteries until I spotted one as we were retrieving our luggage from the car.  So cool!

Roussanou Monastery as viewed from the road leading up to Meteora.

We spent a few minutes resting in our room but I was too excited to sit still.  I had planned for us to visit some of the monasteries today and some tomorrow.  As I explained to Bro, at least one of the six Meteora monasteries is closed on any given day so by spreading our visit across two days, we would have a better chance of covering them all....presuming we had the time and desire to visit them all.

Bro went over his map and with some driving instructions from Flavia, we set out.  Ms. Google was also running. Despite all our navigation assistance, it still took us a while to figure out how to make our way out of Kastraki.  Later, we would find out just how easy the route really is.

The six monasteries all located within a few kilometers from each other and a well marked road takes you past each of them.  What makes this area so cool is that with the exception of the region of boulders that make up Meteora, the rest of the landscape is flat.


It was probably less than a 10 minute drive from the time we left our guesthouse to when we spotted the firt tour bus.  It was pulled over and parked alongside a few cars. We figured we were at one of the monasteries and so we pulled over and parked as well.  Women visitors are required to wear long skirts when visiting the monasteries.  I had bought a cheap, black colored one from Costco.  Before I got out of the car, I pulled it over my head; I kept my pants on underneath but rolled up the cuffs so they wouldn't show, peeking out from below the skirt.

From where we were parked, we could see two of the six monasteries.  St. Nicholas and Varlaam.

Tiny St. Nicholas on the lower left and Varlaam on the right.

A closer view of St. Nicholas.  You can see how it's perched up on the boulder.

A closer view of Varlaam.  It looks like a huge place!

Another view of Varlaam.  Amazing how it's positioned atop the boulder.  So high up!

We found the steep steps leading up in the direction towards the monastery.  I don't like steps.....especially steep ones and I swear that visiting anyplace that involves monks and nuns entails steep steps or hiking up.  Why?


At the path, there was a small footbridge that connected two boulders.  From the footbridge, we looked down to see a small building with a lovely garden out front.  Amazing to see something like this sandwiched between boulders.


At the end of the footbridge was a set of steps leading up to small entrance.  We knew we were at a monastery, just had no clue which one.

From the top of the steps looking back down at the footbridge and the path that brought us here.


At the entrance, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the valley below.  St. Nicholas on the right; the village of Kastraki is located
around the large freestanding boulder.


Another view from the entrance.  In the very far distance is another monastery.

A closer view of that monastery, Holy Trinity.

The monastery's bell.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis





It turned out we were at Roussanou Monastery which is actually a nunnery.  It's no longer a working nunnery but a museum though the place seems to be maintained and operated by nuns; there were a few wandering about.

It cost 3 Euros to enter the monastery.

 If I remember correctly, we entered into two different rooms both very dimly lit. Both were very small rooms.  Every inch of space was painted with a religious figure or symbol of some sort.  Lots of gold paint. It was all very ornate; the kind of space that just makes you go, "Wow!"

Photos weren't allowed inside so I have none of my own posted. I did find this one on the web, which shows the interior of the katholikon i.e., the church. It will give you an idea of the splendid interior that we gazed at.

From Roussanou, we decided to head to Varlaam.  We parked the car and headed towards the entry.  It was much too quiet, no one around and so we suspected it was closed for the day.  Indeed it was but we still hung around and took some photos.

Our first view of Grand Meteoron, the largest of the six monasteries.

From Varlaam, we could finally see Roussanou!  What an amazing sight! 

The view as I saw it through my wide angle lens.  Roussanou looks so small.

Holy Trinity Monastery.  Had to zoom in to take this photo.

From Varlaam, we headed to Grand Meteoron which was closed today but we decided to check it out anyway.  As expected the place was indeed closed but again, we hung around to take some photos.  Mind you, all this photo taking is just fueling my aching desire to visit these places!  Lucky that will come in a few hours.

Panoramic view of Grand Meteoron with a glimpse of the valley it overlooks.

Grand Meteoron.  Somewhere in there are the several hundred steps that take you up the side of the boulder to the entrance.

As we were standing, looking up at  Grand Meteoron, Bro struck up a conversation with an older couple.  They were from Barcelona and he was conversing with them, with ease, in Spanish.  I am so envious that he knows the language well enough to actually hold a conversation.  I only know words here and there.  They seemed like a very nice couple and of course, proudly touted the beauty and famous landmarks of their home city.  Having been to Barcelona and fallen in love with the place, I couldn't disagree with anything they said.  It was also the woman who pointed to the remains of a religious fresco, painted on a nearby rock face.

I had to use my zoom lens but best I can tell, it's three figures.  Saints perhaps?

Beautiful view of Vaarlam and Roussanou from Grand Meteoron.

Close up of Varlaam.  The bricks seem to just emerge from the rock.

It's beautiful scenery high up on Meteora.

From Grand Meteoron, we decided to take the short drive to take a quick look see at the last two monasteries - Holy Trinity and St. Stephens.

Holy Trinity

Holy Trinity was closed for the day.  What was interesting was that we couldn't figure out exactly how to enter it.  There was no obvious path.  There was a cable car but it was far too small to carry more than a person or two.  As we were trying to solve the puzzle, I saw a car drive out from under us.  There was a monk behind the wheel and he had just pulled out of a small garage.  Hmmmm.....monk has wheels and pretty sure easy access to the monastery but what about everyone else?  We weren't going to solve the mystery today so I just went about taking more photos. I am just so in love with the spectacular scenery here. I have to give it to the monks and nuns.  Of all the places they could have picked to have built their monasteries, this was indeed a scenic one!

View of Roussanou, St, Nicholas and Varlaam from Holy Trinity.

Seeing Roussanou from a different angle showed us that the monastery is not as small as we thought it to be.  We may have visited just a
few rooms but indeed there were more!

A view of the town of Kalambaka between the boulders.

St. Stephens, the only other nunnery and one of the only two working monasteries.

I'm not the only one taking photos.  This woman and her tripod were perched on the ledge of a stone wall.  Big drop on the other side!

After Holy Trinity and St. Stephens, we had seen what we could and were ready to head back.  On the way back to the guesthouse, we discovered the more direct route.  It actually less than a 10 minute drive to get back!

The monasteries might have closed for the day but we weren't ready to call it a day quite yet.  Back at the guesthouse, we decided to take short break before heading out on a walk.  We took the path leading away from our guesthouse heading towards St. Nicholas monastery.

One the right side of the path was wild landscape and boulders; on the other side - homes.  Our guesthouse was located in a residential neighborhood. No wonder it's so peaceful here.


As usual, we were curious nosy about the houses and the 'hood  -  what are those vines hanging across the gates, look at those pretty flowers, hi doggy, nice doggy, look at that pomegranate tree.....It's amazing how we can be so easily occupied :-)

Aside from enjoying the lovely views all around me, I had to stop Bro from foraging.  He was constantly on the look out for a fig tree with fruits to pick.  Alas, we're a bit late in the season and there was not a single ripe fig to be had.


Normally, I wouldn't bother taking a closer view at a rock face but here, it was the opposite.  I found myself staring up all the time as there was frequently something to see.

See the little dots in the middle of the photo?

They're climbers.  It's a popular activity here and we saw quite a few people scaling the sides of the boulders here.

The most surprising thing I saw was this.  From a far, it looked like graffiti and trash.  My brother thought it was someone's laundry.


Zooming in this is what I saw.  Colorful bits of fabric hanging from a line.


Hmmmm....loooked like an odd shrine of some sort but what exactly?  Definitely not laundry though, as I told Bro.

Update November 2, 2014.  I kept remembering this photo and reading somewhere about a shrine that few people visit.  I did some Googling and finally found the explanation.  Behind this cliff is St. George's church. On April 23, each year, young men climb up the rock face to leave behind colorful scarves in honor of St. George. They retrieve the old scarves and keep them at home as a token of good health.  Located behind and slightly under the Greek flag, in the photo, is the entry to a cave monastery dedicated to St. George.  The annual tradition of St George the Mantilas (mantila means "scarf" in Greek) is held for good luck and health.  It is believed to have originated during the time of Turkish Occupation in Greece. In the 17th century, a local Muslim landowner had an accident while he was chopping down some wood.  His wife offered her colorful headscarf to the Saint hoping for a miracle. After a few days the man clearly was getting better and become completely healed shortly thereafter.

Enjoying our walk.

Before it got too dark, we headed to the center of the teeny, weeny village of Kastraki looking for a place to have dinner. Not many choices so we just picked one.  The only tables were outside so that's where we sat.



Across the street was a pretty little church and nearby was a small park where children were gleefully at play.  This is definitely a very picturesque village with an authentic Greek feel to it.



















Dinner for me was pork souvlaki. Can't go wrong with meat on stick.  We shared a salad....it was a big and very satisfying Greek salad.  By the time our dinner arrived, the church bells had already chimed 8pm.  It was dark and it was getting cold.  We ate quickly, paid the bill and had a brisk walk (thankfully, short) to the guesthouse.  Tomorrow, we're heading back to visit the monasteries.  Can't wait!!  I'm excited but tired.  I shall now lay me down to sleep.

Goodnight from Kastraki!