The Great EU Quest: Greece – Meteora

There aren’t many things that I would do a ten hour round trip for. Especially when it only means three and a half hours to be able to appreciate a place. However, this is exactly what we did today in order to see the precariously perched monasteries of Meteora.

So long and so infrequent are the trains between Athens and Kalabaka that you really have to make sure you book a seat and make it there on time – otherwise that’s your day gone. The train left at 8:20 from a platform that was only announced about 2-3 minutes before the train came in, so you can imagine me in a slight panic trying to work out where the hell to go.

This also meant us having to be up and out of the apartment by 7:20. Breakfast was some sandwiches I made the night before containing mortadella and some unidentified cheese that bore more than a passing resemblance to Gouda. Keep in mind that yesterday was a Sunday and that very few grocery stores are open – so we got what we got and it helped us last until the train back.

Despite being 5 hours long I must say that the trip pretty much flew by. Watching Frenzy for two of those hours definitely helped, but so did staring out at the passing scenery – something I find myself doing as I write up this blog post on the train back to Athens.

For the most part the train goes through the Greek countryside with views of rolling fields and tall mountains of all shapes and sizes being on offer if you sit on the correct side of the train. As you get closer to Kalabaka and the Thessaly Valley the more farmland you see with cotton as far as the eyes can see. I know I’ve seen cotton fields in Gone With the Wind and in a Geography textbook about lake shrinkage in Russia, but in person they look like something from a Doctor Seuss book.

At about 13:30 we arrived what Kalabaka and loaded up into a small (air-conditioned, yay) minibus for our three and a half tour around Meteora. From the station you can actually see one of the many monasteries resting atop one of the many huge rock formations that are unique to this area. According to myth, these stone structures are petrified Titans having lost in battle against Zeus and his Olympians – something that only endears me to this area all the more.

As you go up the winding roads to Meteora proper is is seemingly impossible to stop somewhere without finding an excellent opportunity for a photo (trees willing that is). The huge rock formations are, in places, pock marked by caves – which originally provided schedule to hundreds of Christian hermits prior to the establishment of the first monastery.

In total there are six monasteries open to the public, with each one closing on a different day of the week for the purposes of upkeep. We purposely chose to do this tour on the Monday because it meant the oldest and largest of them would be open – which is the place that we visited first.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 82/100Sight: Meteora
Location: Kalabaka, Greece
Position: #119

The Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoro is over 600 years old and towers above all the other monasteries in the area. Despite being the size of a small village, very few monks reside there anymore due to the tourists (tourists that they need if they are to keep it open, as it is the tourist money that now pays for upkeep). This was the first of two monasteries we were going to see today and despite having an hour here, we could have had a lot longer.

The views from the wooden balconies were spectacular and started theme of myself and the hub wanting to get back into a game like Skyrim. The wide panorama photographs really do not do justice to what you can see from there.

Inside the monastery itself there are a number of rooms set up to be mini-museums as well as a church and an ossuary. The walls and ceiling of the church itself, the first Greek Orthodox building I’ve ever been inside, were covered in frescos. Thanks to the painting method, these frescos look like they cook have been painted 5-6 years ago rather than 5-600. The only damage having been done by the Turks when the Ottomans took over Greece and scratched off a number of saints’ faces with their swords.

From here we were driven to a number of photo points in Meteora. The first, showing the landscape that Game of Thrones used to depict the Vale in Season 2 (the monasteries were removed digitally as they wanted no part in an X-rated TV show).

We were then taken to an outcrop that is a popular spot to take wedding photos. It looks a lot narrower than it is and did allow for some exceptional pictures of the area – even if I was a bit scared at first to make it onto the rocks, let alone towards the edge. I was fine though and found my inner mountain goat to be alive and well.

A few more photo stops later we got to the second monastery – which is now a nunnery because all the monks have left. The Roussanou nunnery (named after the founding monk who was either Russian or a redhead or both) is quite young for this area… having been founded in 1545. It’s a lot smaller in size, but still has a lot of stone stairs in order to get up there.

Everything about this monastery feels a lot quainter, down to the ticket office being operated by an actual orthodox nun. With this smaller size came the problem of other tour groups. When we got there an Italian school group took up all the room in the, admittedly small, church and in the way out not only did we have them to contend with but also a huge tour group coming in the opposite direction. I’m go glad that I was able to get the pictures I could when I did.

Then that was it for Meteora. The time passed in a flash and yet I feel that we saw an awful lot in the time we had allotted. It was back to Kalabaka in order to buy a late lunch/dinner for the way home. Also a final photograph so I could remember what I saw when the train pulled in.

Dinner was a big slice of spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) and chocolate cigars. Writing this has helped me to kill the first hour and a half of this journey and now, as long as my iPad battery holds up, I’ll be indulging in a second movie now that the sun has set over the Greek mountains.

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