Exploring Meteora / by Heather Martin

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After a month in India, David and I found a cheap flight to Athens and traveling from one cradle of ancient civilization to another seemed like the perfect next step. When we landed in Greece, we were hit with the familiarity of the Western world, after the amazing, beautiful, sad, exotic insanity of India. We gulped in the perceived normalcy like fresh air and we might as well flown all the way back to the States for how comfortable we felt. I think experiencing and embracing discomfort while traveling is valuable, but if I’m being honest, being in Europe felt good.

Very peaceful Acropolis.

Very peaceful Acropolis.

My favourite part was the relative stillness and quiet. Sure, I was in the heart of a big capital city. Sure, we were staying in a part of the city where we watched a man inject heroin into his neck.  But compared to New Delhi, Athens was a quaint country village, where you could sit on the side of a little stone street, under a tree and hear birdsong and a quiet chatter from local cafes. Personal space had meaning again and no one would approach you.

 Well, almost no one. There was a group of buskers in one of the larger squares, trying to pull crowds for their shows. Despite being Jamaican, they approached tourists with an exuberant, “Hakuna Matata!” Alright then. One of the men came up to David and I as we were eating dessert at a little outdoors café and started giving us his spiel. He pulled out a handful of bracelets and said he wanted to give them to us as a gift. David and I practically rolled our eyes to each other across the table. Please, do you even know where we’ve been for the past 30 days?? We both sat back in our chairs, relaxed as we declined, almost relishing how easy this scam was. He insisted and started to tie a bracelet around David’s wrist. David said,

“ Look, you can put that on me, but I guarantee in under five minutes, you’ll be taking it off again.” No, no, the guy insisted, this is a gift for you, so you can remember to come see our show. That’s very nice, David said, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to come to your show. Right on cue, the busker said no problem, okay, 5 euros for the bracelet. David and I both feigned surprise at the price suddenly bestowed on our nice gift.

With the battle worn confidence of someone who has lived through the gut-wrenching emotional manipulation of a thousand smooth Indian scammers, David simply said no.

 “Okay, um, well you know, it costs money to make these bracelets…so um, I’m need to take this one back…” And the busker untied his bracelet off David and left.

 ……………………………………………….

 From Athens, we wanted to explore a place we had come across in research and were VERY excited about. Seeing pictures of Meteora is to imagine an otherworldy fantasy land, tucked between the mountains of Greece’s interior.

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 Meteora’s human history began in prehistoric times, with Paleolithic and Neolithic artifacts found in the region’s numerous caves. However, the area seems skipped over during times of the Ancient Greeks and wasn’t inhabited again until the 11th century, when ascetic monks moved into the caves and even higher rock fissures that were very difficult to access.

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This reclusive complex began to grow in the 14th century, as Orthodox Christain monks feared persecution by invading Ottomans. These monks moved up higher and higher until they began building the monasteries on the tops of the rock peaks, using ropes and baskets to create this incredible architecture. Up until the 20th century, the monasteries were still only accessible this way, with local legend claiming that ropes and ladders were only replaced “when the Lord let them break.” Thankfully, today there are steps cut into the rock faces, making access less of a leap of faith.

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In the 16th century, at the complex’s peak, there were 24 monasteries, but today only six remain in use, though the ruins of others can be seen from afar. Four of these monasteries are inhabited by monks, while nuns live in the other two. Visiting the monasteries themselves is a fascinating look into an unusual and simple life, but it does take some coordination as all the monasteries are open different days with different hours. You can find the timetable here.

There is also a small fee for each and you must make sure you are dressed very modestly.

Don’t let this guy fool you, women’s knees are not a-ok in monasteries.

Don’t let this guy fool you, women’s knees are not a-ok in monasteries.

  While planning out how we would get around Meteora, I struggled with understanding exactly how to get from monastery to monastery without a car, until I found this photography blog post about the layout of all the sites and the nearby town.

In the Google map, you can see a small trail leading up from the bottom village of Kalampaka to Iera Moni Agias Triados and that’s the quickest way up the mountain to reach your first monastery. The road snakes past each site, with small trails leading to the monasteries themselves in most cases. You can continue all the way through, down to the village of Kastraki (or start your journey there and go the other way).

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Most visitors to Meteora travel from one spot to another by car or tourist bus. We were there in the shoulder season, but the buses we did see gave me exhausting visions of summers and the future of Meteora as huge groups of people poured out at each stop. That’s why I highly recommend walking from monastery to monastery, if you’re able. It’s a long walk from end to end, so ideally your visit should be split into several days to tackle it by sections. Meteora is more than just its famous monasteries, and walking allows you take the beautiful valley in slowly and quietly. You’ll skip the crowds and if you do get really tired, it’s easy to ask for a quick ride to the next stop from visitors in cars.

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Another delightful component to walking is the animal companions you’ll make along the way. We had several stray dogs join us for sections, trotting next to us on the side of the road. But our favourite furry friend was a small cat we encountered after our first monastery visit. She came out from behind a roadside wall to demand pets and attention as we were walking.

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She was also very interested in our breakfast pastries and would run over to gobble up crumbs. After I saw her jump from one wall to another, I had the idea to start my own kitty circus in order to capture a unique picture. I had David sit on one wall, petting our little friend while I positioned myself between two wall pieces, framing one of the monasteries in the background.  Then I’d have David run over to the other wall and put down some pastry crumbs. The cat would obligingly jump between to the two walls to reach the crumbs. Back and forth they went while I tried to capture our acrobatic model. I’m sure it made an odd sight, but I got my shot, while our cat friend got a hearty breakfast.

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I’m not really a cat person, but this is a great cat.

I’m not really a cat person, but this is a great cat.

  Ultimately, David and I only visited the inside of two monasteries. As interesting as they were, we found the surrounding valley even more so. Next to the Grand Meteoran, the largest of all the monasteries, we climbed a small hill overlooking the vast valley below and took a nap in the hillside meadow. These are the types of perks the tour buses don’t offer.

The view from our nap site.

The view from our nap site.

 The next day, we walked through the village of Kalstraki and explored roadside hermit caves and other ruins left from long ago. We followed monopatia (old monks’ trails) through villages, forests, and the ubiquitous rock formations that filled the landscape.

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Ancient monk dwellings.

Ancient monk dwellings.

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As the trail climbed higher through the pinnacles, we heard an odd crunching sound that had now become familiar to us after some time in Greece. Peering through the bushes, we could just see the culprit…small tortoises, munching their way through underbrush. Their presence made the atmosphere of the valley even more magical, as we continued our way through wildflower fields and sun-soaked forests.

Eventually we reached an obstacle I had read about from a blog, a rail leading up the side of a cliff, with a narrow path that you were meant to pull yourself up along. We climbed up the precipice precariously, hugging the rail until we reached a spot where the trail somewhat leveled out and led into the pinnacle’s side. It was almost like a notch had been taken out of the side of the cliff, and we scrambled over rocks until we were almost at the top of the pinnacle and that’s where we encountered a small gate.

 This was strange. What would we find on the other side of this gate? An aura of mystery and magic hung over the entire valley and with so many ruins and odd dwellings tucked into each crevice, it was easy to let the imagination go wild. David went through the gate first, climbing over some more rocks on the other side to reach the top of the pinnacle. I could tell he was tense and I was too. Would we find a long-forgotten hermit, angry at us for disrupting his peace? A secret cloister of nuns, living in some distant time on top of this rock? I heard David’s voice, then he quickly leaned back over and motioned me to join, immediately at ease. I wondered what in this strange, cryptic land could have made him feel so comfortable. I scrambled up to the top of the rock and saw a very hipster lesbian couple hanging out in a grove of trees. They looked like they walked right out of Somerville, Massachusetts, our millennial headquarter hometown. Our people! They said hey.

 At the top of this pinnacle was a small clearing with a few trees and the church of Aghio Pnevma, a tiny chapel dedicated to the Holy Spirit that was built in the 10th century.

 After a relaxing break overlooking the entire valley, we scrambled our way back down, to follow more paths to a Monk Prison, tucked within the forests and cliffs. In my opinion, there wasn’t a clear difference between an ancient monk prison and an ancient monk hermitage, but I’m sure they would have their own perspective.

Cozy monk prison.

Cozy monk prison.

From the scrubby forest trails, we hiked up again, this time to the main road of the monasteries, where we wanted to photograph the sunset from one particular vantage point. David really wanted a picture of us on this one perfect rock. He had scoped it out earlier and decided it would be a glorious spot for a portrait in the sunset light.

 Unfortunately, this particular rock outcropping happens to be THE spot for sunset views over the valley and as we clambered over hillsides (and fell down them a bit too), we were greeted by a large group of tourists, setting up their tripods and waiting for that perfect light. On our rock (yes, OUR), we found a man sitting in a meditative pose, eyes closed, earbuds in. We figured we still had enough time before the perfect light to hang out and give him a chance to relinquish the choice spot to others, so we waited patiently.

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 Well, sort of patiently. As the minutes went by and the sun dipped lower and lower, I became filled with a quiet rage, the kind you get when someone is driving too slowly in front of you or pulls out coupons in the checkout line. Didn’t this guy know that he was taking up the nicest, most photogenic spot in an amazing vantage point where people where clamoring for photo ops? Standard tourist practice is to give everyone a turn! He wasn’t even taking a picture or watching the light, just silently sitting, oblivious to the tripods and cameras around him. My cynical heart hardened as I got myself more and more worked up, urged on by the difficult journey we walked to get here. The light slipped further and further away and I took some test shots of him so I’d have the right exposure on my camera. Finally, in a desperate race with the light, I approached him and, swallowing the frustration in my voice, tapped his shoulder and asked if we could take a picture on the rock.

 I immediately felt like a jerk when he looked up, startled by my shoulder tap and instantly scrambled to accommodate us. I had built him up so much as this inconsiderate guy in my mind that the second he spoke to me, I was taken aback by the sincerity and kindness in his voice. He jumped up right away and gathered his things, looking around in surprise at the crowd around him.

 Another person took our picture on the rock. It was fine. But I felt guilty for my unreasonable thoughts and realized that one way I could redeem myself was with the test pictures I had taken of the guy. The lighting in them was great…he looked ethereal and at peace. He had relocated to another rock and I approached him again, showing him the pictures and offering to email them to him. It’s hard to get nice pictures of yourself when traveling solo and he happily accepted. His name was Steve, and David and I ended up talking with him while the sun finished setting.

 It turned out Steve was awesome. Soft-spoken and British, he emanated sincerity and an enthusiasm for life. The sort of person who could actually be meditating in a crowd of people. He was in the midst of a half year trip and was even continuing on to Santorini, as we were. Once the sun set on the rocks, everyone else pulled out in the cars and we realized that Steve had also walked up from the village. So we ended up walking a couple miles back down with him in the dark, talking travel and delighting in his come-what-may life philosophy. We ended up seeing each other again in Santorini and visiting an amazing spot in Albania, the Blue Eye, based on his recommendation.

 I never really look at the picture of we finally got on the rock. But I love the picture I took of Steve. It reminds me to keep kindness at the forefront of my mind and withhold judgment. It’s so easy as travelers to romanticize locals and hate your fellow tourists, blaming them for crowding YOUR experience and making YOUR destination less sacred. And sure, there are definitely obnoxious ones that are actually rude or litter or vandalize. But we are all explorers in our own ways and celebrating when our journeys cross on the road is a sure way of coming home with more than photographs.

And also photographs. Photographs forever.

And also photographs. Photographs forever.

 All in all, Meteora was a cleansing experience for us. Awash in nature, history, and kind people, it was a place to leave refreshed and amazed at the ingenuity of humanity.

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