Thursday, November 18, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 4

It is Sept. 26, a Sunday, and we are heading east toward the Meteora area. We drove out of Athens just a week ago, and a very full week it’s been. This is not a long drive, and our plan is to stop on the way for lunch in Metsovo. In recent years Metsovo has unabashedly and successfully promoted itself as the home of the Greek Alps. Tourism is Metsovo’s ‘thing.’ The central square is packed with cars and buses for the groupos. Souvenir shops and souvenir seekers are everywhere.

So why bother? Because we’d be in the area around noon or 1 p.m. and because Ms. Sandra had a restaurant she was interested in checking out, the Galaxias. It turned out to be a great decision. The Galaxias is a large, high-ceilinged room filled with authentic local handicrafts and artifacts. Outside around the square the name of the game is kitsch. Inside the Galaxias it is appealing local charm and hospitality. And really good food. We had veal with pasta, meatballs with leeks and local red wine.

Meteora is derived from the word meteoros, which means ‘suspended in air.’ It consists of massive pinnacles of smooth rock that rise vertically and dramatically up out of the trees in the flat Pinios Valley to a height of 1,000 feet. Perched on top of these thrusting spires of rock are monasteries that date back to the 14th Century. Questions come to mind. How could anyone get up there in the first place? And even if rock climbers got to the top how could they possibly build anything there? And if they managed to build a monastery how would an average person go up or down?

Originally the only access was by means of very long ladders or by baskets suspended from winch-drawn ropes. Steps have now been cut in the rock face and a good road makes it relatively easy to move from one monastery to another.

By the 16th Century there were 24 monasteries in Meteora. They were perfectly suited for the lifestyle of monastic monks. And obviously it would be tough for any invader to disturb them. Today, monks inhabit five monasteries, all of which are profusely decorated with frescoes and icons. We would spend time in one of them, Varlaam.

The gateway town to Meteora is Kalambaka. It is new and uninteresting, having been burned to the ground by the Nazis in World War II. But it is a convenient location, so we set ourselves up for two nights at the Monastiri Guesthouse. Again, my Internet research led me to choose the Monastiri. The reviews were good and since it described itself as a traditional monastery style inn built with a unique combination of stone and wood and since the main reason one travels to Meteora is to see unique monasteries, why not?

I had some problems with the Monastiri that I’ll get into shortly, but a wonderful couple who own and run the Guesthouse, Spiros and Ditta, easily temper any criticism I might have. When we arrived we found I hadn’t booked a room with a view of the Meteora, which I thought I had. The mistake was mine, not theirs, and since the Monastiri was full that night they weren’t able to do anything about it. As it turned out a larger room with a view was available for our second night, and they graciously offered it to us. The switch made our stay much more pleasant.

Spiros and Ditta have obviously put their hearts and souls into turning what was a rundown, unoccupied structure into an attractive and viable place to stay. They’d been open for three years. I had the clear sense that it hadn’t been easy – especially with the global economic downtown and Greece’s financial crisis.

Lighting was the main problem with rooms at the Monastiri. The main area in both rooms we occupied was dimly lit and filled with deep brown furniture, making it really dark. And the bathrooms were really, really dark. I used a flashlight to shave. My dilemma was whether to shine the flashlight in the mirror to see my face or to shine it on my face so that it would be visible in the mirror. Neither way worked well.

I guess you could say that a Guesthouse with a ‘monastery style’ design would be exotic – or you could say that it would be more akin to an orthodox monk’s cell that was short on candles. Whatever, I mentioned this to Spiros and Ditta. I think they were not well served by their architect and interior designer. And while they wouldn’t directly confirm this, my sense was that they felt the same way.

Meteora up close is as impressive as from a distance. Looking at it from Kalambaka I couldn’t imagine how there could be road that would get us there. But there was, and it didn’t take long to reach the topmost monastery, Megalo Meteoro. Megalo is the most well known of the Meteora monasteries and draws the most visitors. So it was quite crowded. Many groupos disgorging from their big buses. From a viewing area we looked across a ravine to the monastery. What we saw was an unbroken line of visitors (mostly students) headed down the hill and then up the path on the other side toward the entrance. We had decided to climb up to one of the monasteries. Given the number of people headed into Megalo Meteoro we concluded this wouldn’t be the one.

So off we went to Varlaam over on a nearby pinnacle. Less crowded. A climb that looked doable. Said to house a remarkable collection of frescoes. This would be the one. Varlaam was built in 1541. Inside is the All Saints Church, which incorporates the Chapel of the Three Hierarchs. Frescoes are everywhere – on every wall, on every ceiling. They are late-Byzantine art. Stunning! There are also carved and gilded icons and inlaid furnishings. Additional buildings include a refectory, an infirmary and a storeroom. The storeroom is home to a huge (12,000 liters) wine barrel and wine press. I hope the wine was as impressive.

We were back in Kalambaka for lunch. Spiros had recommended a restaurant, the Meteora. We’d looked for it, unsuccessfully, the previous night, but found it today. A very good choice. Outdoors next to the town’s main square – so much to our liking that we went back for dinner. We had pork, lamb, meatballs, good wine and a little extra ouzo for our final night on the road before heading back to Athens.

We also had a good talk with Dimitri, Meteora’s owner. We told him that Spiros had recommended the restaurant. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Spiros. He teaches my daughter English.” We hadn’t known that Spiros was a teacher as well as an innkeeper. Dimitri talked at some length about the challenges of being a small businessman in a place like Kalambaka. Turns out the restaurant next door to his on the square is owned by his sister. My sense is that while they are facing challenges he and his family are doing fine. What impressed me about Dimitri is that while he clearly isn’t without self-interest, he seemed to be thinking from a larger context. So his opinions about what is required of the people and government of Greece to meet their challenges went beyond self-interest.

Originally we’d planned to drive back to Athens on the 28th and leave the next day for Sicily, where we’d spend a week with our good friends in Carranco. Then I learned that an all-Europe strike was called for the 29th to protest austerity measures being taken by various governments around the continent. It was likely that air and other transportation would be affected. So we changed our departure date to the 30th and would spend an unplanned day in Athens.

We didn’t expect the drive to Athens to be difficult, and it wasn’t. But finding our way to the hotel to leave our luggage and then to the Hertz office to drop the car was a daunting prospect. The Oracle to the rescue! She didn’t let us down. Even though I took a wrong exit off the highway onto local streets (my fault, not the Oracle’s) she guided us through the maze and the traffic and finally to the Magna Grecia Hotel, where we would again stay and again have that extraordinary view of the Acropolis from our room. We had a high level of anxiety around dealing with the logistics of Athens, the hotel, Hertz, luggage, etc., but it all worked out. I was ready for a beer.

It felt like we’d come home. We were in familiar surroundings. For example, we’d been friendly with a young man who worked part-time at the hotel reception desk. I’d forgotten his name and when I asked he told us an interesting story. His name was Vaggelis, also called Evangelos. How did he get that name? He was born on the same auspicious date that two things happened. On that date, March 6 in 1821, the Greeks beat the Ottoman Turks in a battle that began the Greek War for Independence. It was also on that date that Mary was told she was going to have a baby. You never know what you’re going to learn.

We also returned to the Taverna Platanos, where we’d eaten our first night in Athens. The ambience was still wonderful. The food wasn’t as good as we remembered it.

And the next day, our final day in Greece, we did what we do best – walked around, ate, read and relaxed. Sandra had come up with one final restaurant to try, Daphne’s, more upscale than our usual on this trip. The setting was lovely. The food was OK. The service was a little stuffy. The price was a little high. The calamari, scallops and wine were good. I didn’t like the rabbit. I was ready for some pasta, which we’d be able to have starting tomorrow in Italy.

On our flight from Athens to Rome, Sandra and I had our usual end-of-the-trip conversation. What were our five favorites for this journey? I’d say that on average we come up with two or three that are the same. This time we shared four of our favorites and almost a fifth:

First Night’s Dinner at Taverna Platanos

View of the Acropolis from the Magna Grecia Hotel

Breakfast on the balcony of our room in Naflpio at the Aetoma Hotel

National Archaeological Museum

My fifth was the Meteora area. Sandra’s was the Frescoes at the Varlaam Monastery in Meteora.

Overall, we gave the trip a B+. We enjoyed it. We’re glad we went. Good but not great.

And where will it be next year? No final decision yet. I’ll let you know.


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