The Aegean Journey

May 29, 2018

the end

Filed under: Uncategorized — A @ 8:45 pm

Disclaimer: I wrote this several days ago, while on the train from Kalambaka to Athens. I don’t think it’s one of my better offerings, though it certainly is LONG.

Today is our last day (well, last full day) in Greece. I won’t say “the last day of our trip” because we have a nice long layover, of sorts, in Chicago tomorrow. (I say “of sorts” because our international roundtrip airfare was Chicago to Athens and back, and then we just booked some Southwest flights from Cbus to Chicago and back. The trip was SOOOOO much cheaper that way, instead of booking CMH-ATH and back.)

Two days ago, we arrive by train to the town of Kalambaka, Greece, which borders an area known as Meteora. Meteora is a series of column-like rock formations on top of which are centuries-old monasteries. Christian hermits hid out in caves in these rocks during Ottoman rule, and eventually, enough of them decided they liked each other and that they’d band together and form monastic communities. “Meteora” in Greek basically translates to “suspended between the earth and sky,” and it’s a word that was used by one of those early monks to describe his feelings about life on top of the rocks. (So no, the rocks are not grounded meteorites.) Personally, I find that suspended definition interesting, given the “thin place” description of Iona that I was reminded of back on Patmos. Funny that all three places are homes of monasteries.

Anyway, the rocks themselves are very impressive, and, of course, the views from on top of them are, too. We joined a bus tour yesterday to see several of the places; two of the larger monasteries, then a smaller third one that is now actually a nunnery. (In its early years, women were not allowed on Meteora. There’s another place in Greece that houses the largest population of Greek Orthodox monks in the country, and there are still no women allowed there. Don’t even get me started on all that…) There was quite a crowd of tourists, especially at the first and largest that we visited. Most of the monasteries involve climbing a decent number of steps, and those winding, narrow stone stairways were pretty hard to navigate with droves of tourists. Of course, we got back on our little bus, and our guide said, “Imagine three times that many people. That’s what the high season is like.” No thank you.

One of the appeals of these monasteries is their remarkably intact frescoes. Without going all art history on everyone here, frescoes are cool because the artists painted on wet plaster, so they should theoretically stay put (better than your standard murals, say) for a very, very long time. Now, we’ve seen a butt-ton of frescoes on this trip already, in a number of interesting places: the cave churches of Cappadoccia, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and the Byzantine Chora Church in Istanbul. Most of these were either faded due to age or incomplete because they’d been partially destroyed once Islam became the prominent religion (which does not allow for faces to be shown in holy places). You might say it was fitting that the best ones we saw came at the end of the trip; we saved the best for last.

So, our first day there saw up visiting three of the monasteries (well, two plus a nunnery), along with a few other stops along the road for photos and a chance for our guide to teach us more about the area. Since it was only a half-day tour, we treated ourselves to a big lunch of local foods and then had the rest of the day free. Brandon actually took a marathon of a nap, while I made some serious progress in one of my books I’d checked out for the trip. It was a lazy, un-touristy afternoon, but I think we both really needed the chance to relax. Once Brandon was awake again, we found our way back into town and ate again and then drank some ouzo.

For our second full day in the Kalambaka/Meteora area, we decided to hike up into the rocks and to one of the monasteries. When we’d first checked into the hostel where we stayed, we were told that one of the hostel’s employees leads half-day hiking excursions every day from the hostel up into Meteora, so that seemed too good to pass up. Unfortunately, we found out at breakfast this morning that he only goes if more than three people are interested, so… no guided hike. After studying a few maps and checking the weather, we decided to branch out on our own and make our way up to one monastery that had particularly interested us when we first learned about it on the tour.

And let me say… Hiking is not my most favoritest thing in the world. Sure, it’s one of things you tell people you enjoy doing when they ask your hobbies because it makes you sound cool and outdoorsy and at least mildly athletic and healthy. “Oh, you know, I enjoy playing piano, cooking, writing, petting my cats, playing boardgames. And, uh, hiking. Yeah. Hiking….” And sure, it has its moments. But, at the end of the day, it involves a lot of sweating and a lot of exercise. And I always want to drink, like, a liter of water every 100 yards or so, but I’m already SO FREAKIN SLOW, the last thing I need is to carry around more weight in the form of water bottles. Oh, and there’s that thing where I’m really slow that I just mentioned. Yeah, I’m super slow, and I’m super self-conscious about it. I feel like I have to take breaks ALL the time. It’s so embarrassing. PLUS!! Because I sweat so much and get so hot, I always want to wear, like, shorts and a tank top, and that’s not always the most appropriate attire, depending on your location, your destination, and/or the weather. So then I have to wear hot, sweaty pants or leggings and/or a T-shirt that will make me get a bad farmer tan, which, for some reason, I am also really self-conscious about it.

So… Lots of things about hiking that stress me out. But I let Brandon convince me to do one day with the comfortable, air-conditioned bus approach to Meteora and one day of hiking. And y’all, let me tell you…. the hiking day was by far my favorite.

Yep. I was wrong. All the concerns about water bottles and slowness and clothing and general discomfort seemed to just melt away. The path we took was well marked and well maintained, and it was early enough in the day to still be a pleasant temperature, and we encountered very few other hikers for me to even feel embarrassed in front of. And Brandon was cool about taking extra breaks. I tried to always take them at spots where there’d be some good views, so he could play Ansel Adams and get some more photos.

The monastery itself was quite a treat, too, once we got up there. I did have to borrow one of their loaner wrap-around skirts, to wear over my shorts. (See, this is super fun: Even if I’d been wearing pants, that’s still not good enough. Women have to wear long skirts at these places. Once again, don’t get me started.) Since I’d donned a T-shirt in the morning, my shoulders were appropriately covered, so there ya go. Once inside, it’s not one of the most breathtaking buildings in the area, but the frescoes were fun to look at and, of course, the views were amazing. It’s one of the smaller monasteries, so once you’re up there, you’re pretty much right on the edge of this giant rock structure anywhere you go. We had the freedom to linger as long as we wanted, which was a refreshing contrast to the tour company’s rather rushed schedule at each stop. We didn’t encounter anyone – as far as we could tell – who’d come with any kind of tour group or company, so it was also refreshingly uncrowded. It was so nice to have room to breathe and time to wander.

So the moral of the story is… Hiking is okay after all. Especially if it’s partly cloudy, late morning hours in mid-May, and the trail is mostly in shade.

We eventually meandered our way back down the rocks and into town. Our remaining hours were spent being leisurely again. And eating delicious Greek food again. I’m now writing this on the train from Kalambaka to Athens. We plan to basically stay up all night so we’re able to catch our 6am flight to Chicago, I don’t like all-nighters, but since we’ll be spending a good deal of our time checking out some Athens wine bars and actually just transporting us and our stuff to the airport, I think I’ll survive. Besides, it means I’ll sleep on the trans-Atlantic flight, which is a great way to pass those stuffy, long, claustrophobic plane hours.

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