Monday, August 7, 2017

My Solo Trip to Meteora Greece—Monasteries in the Clouds

Greece Travel, S.R. Karfelt
S.R. Karfelt/The Glitter Globe

This year I went to my writing workshop early so I could play tourist a bit. 

It's astonishing how much travel happens without really seeing a place.

My guy just returned from Asia and I peppered him with questions.
     How was Taipei?
     Did you do anything new in Japan?
Other than the nice hotel and the interior of conference room five he had nothing man.

I cannot travel vicariously through this guy.

So I go myself, and yes I have details for you.

I flew into Athens (big, short white buildings, hot, lots of ruins and graffiti, perfectly imperfect, but that's another blog post), and spent a day there visiting the Acropolis and Parthenon. The next day I took a bus tour. (Key Tours.) It went to Ancient Delphi and Kalambaka/Meteora. It's a two-day tour, one night, very reasonably priced and included accommodations/travel/site tickets/dinner and breakfast.

The drive from Athens to Kalambaka is long, but we visited ruins and monuments to break up the day. Plus just seeing the lay of the land was interesting. Who knew growing cotton was such a big thing in Greece? The tour bus stopped at a place that was basically a Greek Cracker Barrel. I bought a pen and a bar of a type of divinity candy. Because sugar crack ho. 

I'm going to quit.

We arrived at our hotel just before twilight. I was thrilled to see formations right outside my room. I knew they were behind the hotel, and walked down the hall dragging my suitcase over carpet, and talking to myself about my room.
     Please be on the left.
     Please be on the left.
And it was! How lucky is that? Half the rooms face the road and town, but I'd seen roads and town. So I was thrilled. The room was spacious even by American standards. A bit austere, but spotless, with a wide balcony and chairs. There was a monastery on one of the formations, and you could hear church bells from time to time. 

That night I sat on my balcony and watched bats flying around, feeling like the luckiest person on earth. I mean really. I kept tearing up. 

It reminded me of a college professor who'd read haiku's like that one about the frog (it might be Matsuo Basho), where the frog jumps in a pond...PLOP, and he'd cry. I mean tears cry. We were all like nineteen and looking at each other like TF man? 

I get it now.

And this was no frog. 

But there were bats, and these amazing otherworldly formations.

The next morning we were up early. On vacation I can wake up before daylight with zero effort. I don't drink coffee either. I'm just like, I AM ON VACATION OH MY GAAAAAH.

See another reason why solo travel is my thing? 

It's for the best.

Some of the monasteries are impossible or near impossible to get to, and women aren't allowed at all of them. We visited the Grand Meteoron Monastery and a Nunnery. The bus ride there can make your stomach drop a bit. I thought the one up to Mount Vesuvius was dodgy. That was nothing. 

But I have this mantra for when things get dicey and I really want to do it anyway.

     You've had a good run.
     You've had a good run.

It works for me.

Women have to wear dresses and have their shoulders covered. I'd brought a long t-shirt dress to wear. In orange. It may be the ugliest thing I've ever worn. If you show up without a dress, they have wraps made out of a lightweight parachute-like material you can borrow.

Greek Travel, S.R. Karfelt
Grand Meteoron Monastery 

Both sites I visited were approachable by stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. All the stairs. 

Greek Travel, Karfelt
Way more stairs than this.

Supplies are brought in by cables stretched from the mainland. I saw people of all ages and fitness levels huffing up those stairs. (I've heard that Agios Stefanos is wheelchair accessible and the easiest to get to for those with limited mobility.) 

Karfelt Greece
Monastery Meteora

There are no photos allowed inside the churches. Greek Orthodox churches are shaped the same inside, with shallow domed ceilings. From the smaller ones to the larger ones I've seen, there are usually four domes surrounding the main altar. The difference is sheer size and decor. The Grand Meteoron Monastery interior is decorated with exquisite biblical scenes. The purpose was so those who couldn't read could still know the stories.

Relics are also popular in this religion, usually the bones of a saint. It might seem odd, but this is a culture that holds tightly to loved ones and onto the past. I found it beautiful and reverent. 

The most enjoyable travel is done when expectation and judgement are left behind. 

Greek Orthodox art is unique. There's often a lot of gold gilding, and the paintings of saints and bible stories cover the walls and ceilings in the more ornate churches. The smaller simpler island churches of Greece often have bare walls with maybe a few icons hung here and there.

They're different than Roman Catholic churches. While they can be decorated with gilding and functional chandeliers, and they're unique and opulent in their own way, they aren't as extravagant as the churches you see in Rome. 

What struck me was the lack of seating. You stand. There will be a few seats around the walls, but most people stand. They're smaller than churches I'm used to. People come and go, say a prayer and light a candle. I'd wondered the last few times I was in Greece and wandered in and out of churches on the islands, how everybody fit in there.

Meteora Kalambaka
This view!

Aren't the formations spectacular? Early holy men simply climbed them and lived in caves. It kept them safe from invaders. Eventually, around the 14th Century, they began to build the monasteries. They're beautiful, with terra cotta roofs and elaborate gardens.

A Garden from a Meteora Monastery

This area was once under the sea, and that's why the formations are so other-worldly. I could easily imagine them under water. They're dotted with caves, and I'm immensely curious about them but I didn't get to see any this trip.

These formations look over Kalambaka

You can probably imagine the amount of photographs I took on this trip. Photos are my favorite souvenirs. After we'd visited both sites, the tour bus stopped at a shop that sells icons. Artisans were there painting them. They still train in the same way Byzantine artists have for ages. I don't take many tours, and I'm not wild about stopping at souvenir shops. This one was different though. Maybe because of Greek hospitality. We were met at the door with a bowl of loukoumi. It's Greek turkish delight, sweet but not overly so, and the flavors range from lemon to rose. Then they offered juice or wine to drink. All complimentary. Plus they gifted a painting to someone on the tour bus.

Greece is a very hospitable country to visit, and I did my part to help the economy.

By the time I left I had a bag of worry beads, two wooden rosaries, and paintings of icons. All gifts. And that was only the second day of my trip. It's a wonder my arms didn't just rip out of my shoulders from the weight of my suitcase by the time I got home a month later.

Meteora Monasteries in the Clouds
A far away shot of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity or the James Bond Monastery

We didn't visit the "James Bond" monastery you see in the pictures above and below. It's quite a challenge to get there, and there isn't time with a tour group. I'd like to take on one of the more challenging hikes someday, but maybe not in the heat of summer in a dress. 

Visiting the monasteries of Meteora and Kalambaka was an amazing experience. I'm glad I had the opportunity, and still feel like the luckiest. Before I left home I'd watched the weather obsessively, hoping it would all work out. One cancelled flight and my well laid plans would have been irretrievable. My journey from this chaotic office here in the shire to my writing retreat in the Northern Sporades of the Aegean Sea, is more like a quest than a trip. Fortunately everything worked out as planned. What a treat. I enjoyed the tour, met interesting people, and gathered oceans of story fodder and information for my writing. 

Close up of the "James Bond" Monastery.
For Your Eyes Only

Normally I make all of my own travel plans and book everything myself, but within Greece I use Aegean Thesaurus Travel. I'm slowly learning some Greek from a conversational perspective. But it's no use when I'm trying to tackle a website in Greek. So far I've mastered critical traveler things, like asking for no onion on my gyro, and the usual polite niceties of an introverted solo traveler. 

It wasn't until I got home and picked up my language lessons where I'd left off, that I realized just how many things I'd said incorrectly this trip. Including no onion. 

But I've got it for next year!

I like to make an effort to pick up some basic words when I'm traveling. Plus language is fun, and it builds character when you get it all wrong. That's pretty much my modus operandi. I had wondered at the looks I'd get sometimes. I figured it was my accent. Don't stress if you're going though. It's tough enough to get time away to travel, and to find ways to make it affordable, toss learning a language in there and forget about it. It's not at all mandatory to learn any Greek. 
Greece, Karfelt
S.R. Karfelt Travels

Within Greece most of the people in the cities and islands speak English perfectly.

I hope you can go, or have gone, but if not, I hope I've provided enough details for you. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer to the best of my ability.

Cheers. Because of all the time I've spent in Greece, I've yet to hear anyone say opa! 


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  3. Hi. I'm planning a solo trip to Meteora. Really enjoyed reading your experience. One question: you say you took a tour to Meteora. I wonder if it is possible to do everything on one's own? I mean, take a bus or train and then do everything at one's own pace, 3 days? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Nandita—I don't see why you couldn't do this on your own. You'd need a car, and to rent one in Greece you'll need your International Driving Permit. Making your way around the winding narrow roads alongside cliffs might be something you never forget, and I doubt GPS will help much, but determination makes up for a lot!

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