The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

The Odyssey Revisited – From Meteora Back to Athens

Today we visit Meteora (Greek for suspended in the air), one of the largest Orthodox monastic complexes in Greece, built from the fourteenth to sixteenth century on gigantic sandstone pillars towering over the northwestern corner of the Thessaly Plain. Of the original 24 monasteries, only six remain and are still home to small religious communities.

Monasteries in the Clouds

Meteorga Monastry Complex

The monasteries of Meteora overlooks the Plain of Thessaly

It is one of the most visited historic sites in Greece and we happen to be here during a long holiday weekend. Anticipating crowds, our Tripology Adventures leader Yoav Barashi, has called for an early start and arranged a mid-morning privately-guided tour for us at Great Meteoron (a.k.a. Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ).

 

 

Grand Meteron

Steps hugging the chasm lead to the entrance of the monastery.

Perched on Platys Lithos (or Broad Rock) over 400 meters (1,300 feet) above the plain, Great Meteoron is the highest as well as the oldest and largest of the monasteries. It is slow going on the recently built road up to the nearby plateau. From the small parking area, the monastery is reached by a footbridge that straddles the chasm and leads us to the base of the 300 steps cut into the rock face.

 

Just a Basket on a Rope

Grand Meteoron pulley tower.

At Grand Meteoron the pulley system is still used to lift up supplies.

I recall a friend who had spent a summer roaming around mainland Greece in the mid-1970’s telling me how she had happened onto “a forest of colossal stone pillars topped with medieval monasteries” at the edge of the Thessaly Plain. It was a well kept secret then, with no visible mean of access other than an oversize basket pulled up and down by a basic rope and pulley system to transport the monks when they went down to the village for supplies.

After several days’ wait she was able to make contact with one of them and get a lift up for a visit. That was before James Bond gave Meteora its moment in the limelight by tracking villains to the Holy Trinity monastery for the suspense ending of its 1981 caper “For your eyes only,” and UNESCO anointed the complex a World Heritage Site in 1988.

 

 

Grand Meteoron Wine Cellar

Meteoron Wine Cellar

Much has changed since then. A licensed English speaking local guide leads us on a comprehensive tour of Grand Meteoron. With only three monks remaining in residence, the original kitchen, pantry, wine cellar and the artifacts of everyday life they still hold have become museum exhibits.

The original refectory with its elegantly vaulted ceiling now holds the monastery’s rich collection of ancient manuscripts and icons. The ossuary can also be viewed, with its grizzly display of skulls of the earliest residents neatly lined against the back wall. For me the gem of the visit is the katholikon (orthodox equivalent to a conventual church in Western Christianity).

A Repository of Hellenic Culture

Grand Meteoron Katholitikono Dome

The Katholiticon is topped with an elaborate twelve-sided dome.

Due to its isolated location, Meteora became an academic and artistic safe heaven during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation of Greece. Hellenic culture and traditions were kept alive here, especially at Great Meteoron. The monastery attracted among its early disciples Saint Iosaph, a Serbian king who became a monk here in 1373 and endowed his fortune to the monastery. The Church of the Transfiguration built in 1388 and the nave and narthex added in 1545 are in the Greek square cross floor plan and topped with a striking twelve sided dome. They are a fine example of orthodox architecture and a perfect backdrop for the icons adorning the sanctuary.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Ancient frescoes still decorate the passage way to the cloister.

Painted in the late fifteenth century, the frescoes of the katholikon are in the Macedonian style, depicting the Virgin Enthroned and scenes from the life of Christ. I especially note images of Christ Pantocrator that remind me of the early Christian mosaics in Istanbul’s Agia Sophia. The nave and narthex frescoes, painted in 1552 are in the more rigid style of the Cretan school and recount the early gospels as well the gruesome martyrdom of early saints. They also include portraits of the monastery’s founders Athanasios and Ioajph. It is a rare pleasure to come across ancient frescoes that have been so well protected by their isolated environment that they are still in their original state and in remarkable condition.

Zebekiko Send-off

Athens - Acropolis at Night/

The Acropolis aglow against the night sky.

We head back to Athens to next morning. The smooth, multi-lane highway with its slick roadside rest stops and souvenir shops is a bit of a culture shock. After a detour for a long seaside lunch of freshly fished seafood at a small resort on the Gulf of Corinth we get back into our vehicles for the last leg back to the Hotel Alexandros. The mood is subdued. I trust I am not the only one to feel a pang of regret to have arrived at the end my Greek Odyssey.

 

Athens - Psiri Neightborhood Tavern

Psiri Tavern

But I am premature in my assumption. Izhar Gamlieli, the Tripology Adventures co-founder who has been in the background all week orchestrating our off-road expedition, has one more treat in store for us. As the starry night falls on Athens we follow our Tripology hosts through the trendy streets of the once gritty Psiri neighborhood to one of its oldest taverns for an epic farewell dinner of the best local specialties, live Rebetika music and laughter.

 

Athens - Zebekiko Dance

Nikos’ farewell Zebekiko

As the evening wears on, Nikos Manolis, our wonderful lead driver (and a national figure in the Greek rally racing community) who has led us though this unforgettable off-road adventure, finally breaks into the Zebekiko dance we have been begging him to do for us for the past week. Move over Zorba! Before long a couple of other patrons come to watch, respectfully waiting for Nikos to acknowledge them with the traditional tap on the foot before taking part in the dance. And then we, a group of reserved strangers a mere eight days ago and now a band of friends, all join in. And the Zebekiko (which traditionally is danced by men only) turns into a would-be Sirtaki kicking line with much joking and laughter.

After this unique opportunity to encounter the Greece of the Greek people, I have fallen in love with the country and can’t wait for a return visit. As for off-road touring? This experience was so intoxicating that I feel the Tripology Adventures logo should include a warning label. I am already poring through their itineraries for my next destination.

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Grand Meteoron, Greece

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

Blame it on Homer, my impression that Greece was all about the sea. Even before I ever set foot in the country I knew of its myriad islands and endless coastline. Accordingly, the Greece of my prior visits had mainly consisted of sun baked islands rising from aquamarine waters, warm sand beaches and gleaming white cubist villages punctuated by indigo domes. Add a plethora of archeological treasures in various stages of restoration, bountiful dinners of taverna fare and soulful rebetika music. I felt I had Greece covered.

An irresistible proposition

Greece - Pindus Mountains.

We are headed into the Pindus Mountains, the spine of the Greek mainland.

Greece - Triplogy Adventures driving.

Our itinerary wends up and down steep slopes on roads that are little more than dirt trails.

That was before I came across Tripology Adventures, an off-road travel company that has been leading self-drive caravans of four-wheel drive vehicles through Central Greece and other remote, history-rich areas of the planet for over two decades. The eight-day itinerary went from Athens to the Pindus Mountains, the southeast to northwest labyrinth of high ridges and deep valleys that forms the spine of the Greek mainland. The impenetrable forests of its central region, the Agrafa (Greek for unchartered), allowed it to maintain its autonomy throughout the four centuries of Ottoman occupation. During World War II it became a center of resistance against Italian and then German invaders. This wild, sparsely inhabited region remains relatively unspoiled to this day. And the roads that wind their way up and down its steep slopes are still little more than dirt trails.

This, combined with the self-drive bit causes me to pause. I am a highway driver, an erstwhile soccer mom. Although no stranger to off-road adventure travel, from the African bush to the Himalaya, I have always left the driving to local experts. But an opportunity to discover this other Greece I hadn’t known to still exists is hard to pass. Fortunately Tripology assures me that, while the driving on their itineraries is challenging, many participants actually want to drive. They’ll get no argument from me! There remains one last nagging doubt before I reach for my passport. We are talking group travel, my least favorite way to go. But this trip is so far off the beaten tracks that I could never undertake it on my own. Count me in!

In the beginning…

Greece - Athens. Ezvone changing of the guard,

Evzone Honor Guard march to Parliament building on Syntagma Square for the ceremonial changing of the guard.

Greece - Athens. The Acropolis.

The Acropolis glows against the Athens night sky.

We meet at our Athens hotel, the Alexandros, on the afternoon prior to our departure, fourteen of us ranging in age from thirty-something to twice that, three couples, the rest of us solo. After a short get acquainted briefing led by Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology, he shepherds us into the metro for an evening on the town. It’s just a couple of stops to Syntagma Square (Constitution Square), the modern heart of the city. We catch the ceremonial changing of the Evzones, the white-skirted honor guard in front of the Parliament building. Then, after a leisurely walk through the vibrant center of town and past the entrance of the ancient Agora, we settle at the terrace of Diodos, a popular Lower Adrianou Street taverna. Our reserved family-style tables are immediately piled high with the entire gamut of traditional dishes, salad topped with slabs of sweet fresh feta, hummus, melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), tzatziki (cucumber with yogurt and dill), calamari, tiropita (cheese pie), spanakopita (spinach pie). It’s all just freshly prepared and delicious. But it’s only the beginning. Next come platters of grilled chicken, sausage and lamb chops. Our group is starting to connect. It’s impossible to remain strangers for long while tucking into succulent Greek mezedes washed down with hearty local wine, with the Acropolis glowing against the night sky in the background.

The level of camaraderie goes up another notch the next morning as we pile our luggage into our assigned vehicle, one of four shiny late model Jeep Patriots lined up in the hotel’s driveway behind the lead car, a massive land cruiser. I meet my Car # 3 traveling companions: Mary Bailey, a cookbook author, editor of The Tomato Food and Drink and all around foodie from Edmonton, Canada, and Tim Campbell, a travel writer from the U.K.

Lead car, do you read me?

Greece - Delphi, The Archeological site.

The archeological of Delphi sits on the Western face of Mount Parnassus

Delphi's Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Delphi’s Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Our cars have two-way radios with a frequency dedicated for our convoy. Yoav Barashi, our tour leader and a passionate grecophile who has been guiding here for a decade and our lead driver Niko Manolis (who turns out to be a national champion rally racer) give us a brief primer on the use of the radio and the protocol for convoy travel and we are off. The instructions are simple enough: follow the car ahead, keep your assigned place in the convoy and above all follow the directions Yoav is giving over the radio. Also, when you make a turn wait until the car behind you starts its turn before continuing on. That one is a real challenge with traffic lights, determined drivers and motorcyclists buzzing all around us. But somehow we all fall into formation again at the tollgate to Highway #1. We can relax now and congratulate Mary for seeing us this far. Nothing could have us bond faster than a narrow escape from the Athens morning commuter traffic.

Greece - Delphi. Archeological Museum.

The museum at the archeological site of Delphi.

The hills are getting more rugged, especially once we turn onto a country road toward our midday destination, a lovely seaside restaurant tucked in a secluded cove of the Gulf of Corinth. After another Greek specialties extravaganza we continue on to the archeological site of Delphi. Perched high on the southwestern spur of Mount Parnassus, it was decreed the Navel of the Earth by Zeus himself. Yaov has begun sharing tidbits of mythological lore over the radio during the quieter moments of the drive with such an irresistible blend of wit and erudition that we will soon be begging for more at every opportunity. But for now, we are getting our first taste of off-road driving, on a rough trail that is getting rockier and narrower as we zigzag toward the top of the ridge. There is a modern paved road of course, for the busloads of visitors to the site. But not for us the road more traveled, that would deprive us of the ever-changing panorama of hills fading into of the distant sea and our first glance at Delphi and the temple of Apollo from a unique vantage point high across the valley.

The Navel of the Earth

Greece - Delphi Archeological Site.

Guide Penny Kolomvotsou eplains the overall site.

Dedicated during classical time to the god Apollo, an overachieving multi-tasker variously recognized as the god of truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry and more, Delphi was a seat of the Pythia. This priestess was believed to channel the pronouncements of the Oracle (itself the intermediary to Apollo) that would then be interpreted by the priests.

Yaov introduces us to Penny Kolomvotsou, a licensed local guide and perfect English speaker, who makes the site and the adjoining archeological museum come alive for us. Tripology Adventures has arranged private visits with her for almost two decades. To book a visit, Penny may be contacted at +30 6944 644427 or kpagona@hotmail.com

We spend the night in modern Delphi at the Amalia Hotel, a smart contemporary four-star property with glorious vistas of the mountains and the Ionian Sea. Gazing from my balcony at the valley below, covered with olive groves all the way down to the sea, I reflect that, off-road travel notwithstanding, this Greece still feels quite familiar. Little do I know the adventure of traveling Tripology-style has barely begun…

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Delphi, Greece.