Meteora

DSC_0009Meteora has been on our bucketlist for quite some time. It’s a four-hour drive north of Athens, with about two hours of windy, mountain roads. Not an easy feat with our car sick kiddos. But with a healthy dose of Dramamine, we were good to go. We even came prepared with a list of gas stations that take our special embassy coupons. Normally a tank of gas is stupidly expensive here (upwards of 70 dollars a tank for our car), but with the coupons we’re exempt from the taxes, so the amount is more like 25 dollars. Seems worth it, right? Except…the first place we stopped the attendant had no idea what were were talking about. It was getting late and we were anxious to get to the hotel, so we just paid full price for 50 Euros worth of gas. On the way back, we finally found someone who knew how to use the coupons…sort of. It took him 20 minutes on the phone to figure it out. Still…16 Euros beats 47 in my book.

I’m realizing I’ve turned into my late grandfather, who would regale us with tales of gas prices all the way from Oklahoma City to Kansas City whenever he would visit. Sheesh.

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At any rate, we arrived in Meteora in the pitch black on Friday night, but even so we could make out some of the impressive natural stone pillars as we drove by them. Our hotel, the Doupiani House, was nestled right in among the rocks, and we had a nice view of one of the monasteries out of our window. (Which we found out the next morning.) The hotel was quite nice, and the staff very polite, with a firm grasp of English. In fact, we heard several tourists speaking English, so it appears we weren’t the only Americans staying there. After grabbing a quick bite to eat in a taverna down the street, and dodging stray dogs that were EVERYWHERE (James had to carry Liam to the car because he was so nervous), we finally got everyone settled down to sleep. Sort of. Sigh. I think our family is just not meant to share one hotel room.

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After a hearty hotel breakfast, we set off in the Subaru down the street to tour the monasteries. Our first stop was Roussanou, a nunnery that is perched precariously on the very tip of a narrow spire of rock, and is probably the most spectacularly located of all of the monasteries. The church was built in 1545, and it houses some beautiful frescos. After poking around a bit and marveling at the fog that seemed to swallow the mountains whole, we bought some lovely hand-painted rocks depicting monasteries up on the cliffs.

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Next stop, Varlaam. Founded in 1518, it was named after the first hermit to live on this rock in 1350. It amazes me that in 200 or so years they went from living in caves to building these impressive stone buildings on top of these impossible to climb spires. Historians theorize that the first hermits reached the tops of the vertical cliff faces by hammering pegs into the rocks and hauling building materials to the top. Or they may have flown kites carrying strings attached to thicker ropes which they could make into rope ladders. Wild stuff. Varlaam was our favorite of the three monasteries we visited. A lovely courtyard afforded stunning views of the valley and spires.

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We continued up the hill to Megalo Meteoro, the largest, oldest and highest of the monasteries. There was much more to see in this monastery — the old pulley system the monks used before they cut stairs in the 1920s, a huge, two-story chimney, and a couple of museums housing books and clothing. There was also a lovely interior courtyard the kids enjoyed running around in. (And we could let them without fearing a deadly drop-off. There are railings, but they don’t seem very toddler-proof.) All three were still working monasteries, so women are required to wear skirts (which they provided) and shirts with sleeves.

Afternoon rain and tired feet kept us from exploring the caves at the foot of the spires. We’ll save that for our next visit. Saturday night we had a fantastic dinner at Taverna Gardenia in the center of Kastraki. We sat by a roaring fire and feasted on bread, feta-stuffed peppers, chicken souvlaki and fries. I ordered something called Wine Leaves, which were, as I suspected, dolma, one of my favorite Greek delicacies. But these were swimming in a lovely white sauce. I also (finally!!) tried Retsina, a wine fermented with pine resin that I’d heard about when I first came to Greece. To be honest, I was expecting it to be revolting — a cross between dry white wine and Pine Sol. It was only 4.50 Euros for a half liter, so I figured it was worth a try. But I have to say…it was actually rather pleasant. James didn’t care much for it, but he’s not much of a wine drinker. A half liter is a little much, even for the…experienced drinker (ahem.) So I left a lot of it in the carafe. I didn’t want to embarrass James by asking for a “to-go” cup.

The beauty of this place truly captures the imagination, especially (and in spite of) the dense fog. We will definitely be making a return trip before our tour is up. Next time we come, we hope the kids will have more stamina for hiking to the caves and seeing the other three monasteries we missed. And with any luck, the youngest in our party will be able to sleep through the night without waking us all up every hour!

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