Friday 23rd May 2008, Meteora
Yesterday was spent driving the switchback mountain route between Ioannina and here. We passed through some very beautiful, wild and remote countryside along the way. Eventually there will be a motorway cutting through the mountains but it has been years under construction and as yet only small stretches are open. Up near the top of the pass the air was decidedly chilly and there was still snow on the surrounding mountain peaks.
It was mid afternoon when we came down towards the plains and saw the massive, strange rock formations of Meteora in the distance. They are a geological phenomenon of some three hundred massive peaks of conglomerate stone comprising limestone, marble, serpentine and metormophic rock as well as sandstone and shale. These vast rocks stand proud of the surrounding fertile plain of Thessaly. Over millions of years they have been eroded and scoured by winds into fantastic shapes soaring hundreds of metres into the sky.
In mediaeval times monasteries were built on the very pinnacles of some of them but they eventually fell into disuse and ruin. Now only about seven remain, of which six can be visited. The word Meteora means suspended in the sky, which exactly describes these ancient monasteries. How the monks ever got up onto the rocks in the first place is a mystery let alone managed to build a complex of living accommodation and stunning Byzantine churches up there as well! We gazed up in awe at the huge brown mass of one of the peaks as it loomed over the little town of Kalambaka near the campsite we were seeking. How could we ever hope to get up there?
Today we discovered there is now a driveable road that winds its way for several kilometres up between the stacks, and since the 1920s steps have been cut into the rocks to make access to the monasteries possible. Until then, the only way was to be winched across or hauled up in a basket! These methods are still used for bringing in supplies, building materials and even some of the priests!
As we were exploring Kalambaka yesterday afternoon we discovered a tiny Byzantine church dating from the 9th century. It is the cathedral of the town! The only other visitor was a wild tortoise who looked as if he was returning from a mulberry eating spree. There are so many mulberry bushes around here the ground is dyed purple with their squashed fruit.
Our campsite turned out to be very pleasant, clean and shaded, overlooked by some of the massive stacks and with its own swimming pool. Modestine will probably be covered in dark red spots by the time we leave as the mulberries continue to tumble around us. They are aided in this by the activities of three super-agile black squirrels, one of whom shows a surprising eagerness to bring his mulberry red footprints inside Modestine! Already some Dutch and Austrian people have each greeted us like old friends saying they recognise Modestine from other campsites and asking what we have done with her friend Erik!
After a leisurely breakfast, interrupted by the antics of the squirrels, we drove the few, near vertical kilometres up to the highest monastery known as Grand Meteora or the Transfiguration of Christ.
On arriving I was told my calf length shorts were unsuitable and was asked to wrap myself in a cloth. Other women wearing full length trousers were also expected to use a cloth even though it was shorter than their trousers! However, one has to respect the customs of different faiths. Until today I'd vaguely assumed the Greek Orthodox religion was very similar to the Roman Catholic one with certain differences. From what we have seen and read today in the museum attached to this monastery, we realise it is very fundamentalist in its practices and makes the Roman Catholics seem liberal by comparison! It is extremely powerful and well supported by the people who are fervent in their faith, kissing the icons, leaving paper messages and money tucked into their frames and crossing themselves repeatedly. From the material in the museum it would seem that the Greek struggle for independence from years of oppression by their Islamic rulers and their desire to practice their own religious beliefs without persecution have resulted in Greek orthodoxy and Greek identity becoming so intertwined they have fused together. Byzantium is synonymous with Greece.
It is rather disturbing to realise quite how jingoistic the Orthodox Church can be, and we were rather disquieted to see an exhibition of military history within the monastery, complete with exultant captions on the overthrow of both the "aetheistic" Ottomans and the "barbaric" Germans. The modern icons of the "neomartyrs" under the Turkish rule also manage in their captions a jibe against the Jews. But monks from Meteora fought in the Wars of Independence sword in hand and were not simply involved in the contemplative life.
The teachings of the priests must never be questioned. The texts displayed were quite explicit and dogmatic. These following texts gave us cause to think.
"Rationalism is an excessive confidence in our own powers of reason, its elevation to the supreme and absolute value. In essence, it is a form of disbelief, a lack of faith. It is not a simple sin, but a sinful state of mind, a sinful view of life. Rationalism is the most typical and most evil manifestation of pride, concealed beneath all our other sins, latent in all our actions, poisoning all our good deeds, leading to an absolute belief in the supremacy of the self, and finally to the inability to repent - thereby closing the door to divine mercy."
"Faith is not a matter of understanding but of confidence. And confidence is not unreasonable, it transcends reason. It does not contradict logic and reason, but goes beyond them. In the Orthodox Church, this transcendence of reason is not its denial but its elevation to the point where it can accept the experiences of divine revelation. The transcendent reason of faith is the absolute surrender of our self, the abandonment to the will and mercy of God."
Sadly, with other faiths equally dogmatic in their teachings there is little hope of rational discussion and understanding between religions.
However, back to more lightweight matters! The photos say far more than we can describe. The views were magnificent and the monasteries seemed welded to their vertiginous pinnacles. It has been a magnificent day of stunning vistas, beautiful churches filled with icons dating from the 14th century to the present day. There were even some as yet unfinished, which was helpful for working out how they are actually done. We visited several exhibitions including one showing ancient manuscripts produced by scribes at the monastery, which included not only theological and liturgical texts but also texts of the classical Greek writers. It is one of the largest collections of Greek manuscripts, the earliest dating back to the 9th century. Some of the texts were in scroll form and generally the illumination was relatively sparse.
We spend hours longer than we expected and by closing time had only visited three monasteries. However, eventually Jill began to suffer culture fatigue. All the icons began to merge and one Byzantine monastery began to look very like another. The views from outside gave a more refreshing pleasure. It was at one of the monasteries here that part of the James Bond film "For your eyes only" was filmed. I was led to wonder how the monks coped with Bond's scantily clad co-star! Did they rush out with a piece of cloth to wrap around her?
It was time to go home! We'd been walking around all day and the only toilet facilities in the monastery were of the Turkish variety. Using them is always an unpleasant experience for women but when the monks have insisted on swaddling you in a large piece of cloth over the top of your clothes it becomes well nigh impossible! So we returned to the convenience and cool shade of our campsite. While Ian took a nap Jill went to cool off with a swim in the deserted pool.
Saturday 24rd May 2008, Meteora
Today has been very pleasant and a complete contrast to yesterday's high culture. We drove some 20 kilometres along the flat, fertile plain to the bustling market town of Trikala with a population of around 50,000 but seeming more. This is where Asklepios, the Greek god of healing is reputed to have been born. We found a few neglected ancient Greek remains but it is Epidavros that is mainly associated with him.
Temperatures have been uncomfortable today. At 11am it was 35 degrees on the streets, even hotter in Modestine. Such weather makes us feel exhausted and ill. So we have kept to the shade, trying to avoid walking across large squares and open spaces. Ian always heads immediately for the highest point so first we clambered up to the citadel. Just as I thought we'd finally reached the summit he discovered a clock tower with an internal staircase leading to a viewing platform. Four floors higher we had excellent views over the town even if our legs had turned to jelly and we were both red and sticky.
At a little cafe in the pleasant park below the citadel we sat beside a cool fountain under shady trees. Here we indulged in a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a "kafes frappe" - we'd finally worked out what everyone was drinking as they sat with friends and fiddled with their worry beads. It's strong cold coffee whisked with cream and served on ice with a huge blob of iced cream floating in it. As usual we were also served with large glasses of chilled water as a welcome accompaniment. It was Saturday and we lingered beneath the cool trees watching families and friends meeting together while the children played in the spray from the fountains.
Back down below again we found the old Turkish quarter with its cool narrow streets and overhanging storeys. These were all constructed in lightweight timber, lathe and plaster, as could easily be seen where the fabric of the old buildings were crumbling.
We found Trikala a very agreeable town, divided by a river flowing through the centre with shady promenades on either side. The main shopping area was filled with smart shops and we even discovered a branch of Marks and Spencer where we lingered to enjoy the air conditioning. Very nice M&S ladies summer tops at 55 euros - £44. Are they that expensive back in England?
The town is famed for its cafe culture. There is a whole network of streets lined with restaurants and bars where every table was packed with people enjoying a weekend drink with friends.
From the citadel Ian had seen a mosque and was determined to discover it. We eventually found it, no longer used of course and covered in graffiti, the minaret seemingly reduced in height. Behind it we found a smaller mosque complete with some of the original internal decoration.
The best bit of the day though was stopping off at the air conditioned Champion supermarket on the way home to restock our fridge and food cupboard. It was sheer bliss just hanging around the deep freezers dangling two hot arms in amongst the eight frozen ones of the packaged octopuses that appear to be the mainstay of Greek cuisine. Feeling cooler we selected chicken pieces for our own supper and returned to the shade of our campsite near Meteora. It was Jill's turn this evening to fall asleep while Ian unpacked the shopping. As our lemon chicken with onions and potatoes cooked away in our remoska we sat outside with glasses of retsina gazing up at the awesome cliffs above us.
Sunday 25th May 2008, Meteora
We are feeling rather pleased with ourselves this evening! We are fitter than we imagined! Despite the temperature being in the mid thirties we have climbed those enormous rocks right to the very top! Not with ropes of course! We found a footpath marked around and between the rocks, through what must be one of the largest rockeries in Europe, crowded with flowers and stunted holly bushes! Although it was little more than a couple of kilometres to the isolated monastery of the Holy Trinity they were pretty well vertical ones! There was too much sun and not enough shade. Whenever we found a patch we stopped, hot and sticky, gasping for air. On the way we saw as many tortoises as humans – just two of each. Everybody else either drove up or went in coaches. Modestine was grateful for the day off however and we have to treat her wishes with respect.
Eventually we clambered up to the entrance to Holy Trinity. It is the smallest and most isolated of the monasteries. Even driving up the winding road means a long, steep descent on foot to the neck of rock that attaches the stack on which the monastery perches to the road. Very few people were inclined to struggle down and then up the steps cut into the rock to reach the entrance. So we had it almost to ourselves. It is cool, tiny and austere but has a beautiful church, the walls covered in ancient frescoes. There really was a sense of serenity about the place. From the pretty, blooming rose garden there were stunning views back down the route we'd climbed, right down onto the town of Kalambaka. This is where "For your eyes only" was filmed.
Having struggled up this far we decided we could cope with the extra mile or so to the final monastery of Saint Stephen. It meant an extra climb but once on the road it was easier walking. When we arrived it was packed with coach parties and it lacked the atmosphere of the Holy Trinity. St. Stephens is managed by nuns rather than monks and they were being kept pretty busy in the souvenir shop selling cheap icons, candles, worry beads and chilled drinks. There was a museum that would be interesting if it were the first one we'd seen. It contained the monastic treasures which were very similar to those in other museums – chalices, icons, silverwork, intricately carved wooden crosses and beautifully woven and embroidered church vestments. We have now seen all of the still existing monasteries of Meteora and been into four of them. It is enough.
We have wondered for some time why so many of the faces of the icons are disfigured. At first we thought they were worn away by the faithful kissing them, but soon we came to realise this could not be the reason. The ones at St Stephen showed signs of hacking and even burning and many were too high on the walls for people to kiss them. So many were damaged that Ian asked one of the nuns the reason. She explained that they had been damaged, not by the Turks, but during the Greek Civil War between 1945 and 1947! This is an aspect of Greek history that we have not really been aware of as we have been travelling around. The county's history really is so complex! After the struggles for Greek independence from the Ottomans during the 19th century, Greece was plunged into the turmoil of the WW2 during the 20 century. Resistance groups struggled to free Greece from Nazi occupation but they appeared to hate each other just as fervently. Once the war ended the various factions turned on each other with Monarchists fighting Communists and several other factions also involved. What was achieved by wantonly destroying religious icons that had survived the Ottoman Empire and the Nazi invasion intact is beyond our understanding. Civil war is a tragedy that has all too frequently affected the Balkan regions of central and eastern Europe. More people were killed in those brief few years than died in Greece during the whole of WW2.
The four kilometres back down hill were less exhausting but so steep, slippery and uneven that our leg muscles were turning to jelly long before we reached the bottom. One of the tortoises we'd seen on the way up came out of the grass to cheer us on our way. At least we'd made better progress than he had!
Down in the town we cooled off with an emailing session in the internet cafe before returning to the delicious shade of our campsite. While I swam 30 lengths of the pool Ian sat in the shade reading some of the Greek myths and legends. On the other side of the pool sat the German contingent from the campsite. They were deeply bronzed and glistening with oil. How can they bear the heat for hours at a time, just sliding into the water for a few moments when it becomes too much? Even in the shade it has been 33 degrees and Modestine's thermometer registered 39 at 6pm. It's now 10pm, our windows are wide open behind our fly screens and our fan has been running for hours but it is still 28 degrees. Will we sleep tonight?