Sounio, Attica, Greece Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The Thursday after Helen left us we decided to leave the caravan in the safe hands of Dionysus and his team at Camping Bacchus and head back north to Meteora, the land of monasteries. We passed through Thermopylae
and made a detour to see the memorial to Leonidas and the battle, and Kolonos Hill, where the Spartans made their last stand. The site is much as it was when I first saw it in 1965, apart from a mass of power lines in the background.
Then it was over the hill at Lamia and on to the central Greek plain, perhaps the most boring part of Greece. Here the road passed through recently harvested cotton fields and cotton waste lined the roads and hedges much the same way as straw does at harvest time in the UK. The towns and villages we passed through were not even one-horse towns, boasting only a donkey or two and the usual army of Toyota pick up trucks. There were several large Roma encampments, and the thought occurred that perhaps the Roma were being used in Greece just as the slaves were in the cotton areas of the southern States. To make the journey even more depressing it became misty, whether through the climate or pollution we could not tell.
Eventually we reached the other side of the plain, past Trikala, to Kalambaka, at the foot of the Meteora range. Our hotel was at Kastraki, a little village just past Kalambaka and right at the edge of the famous valley. Through the mists we could make out the shape of the massive cliffs above us.
Next morning was an early start, due mainly to the fact that the hotel's water was to be cut
off at 9 am for road works outside. We made good use of this, travelling up the valley in the morning sun, doing the full circular tour, then after lunch in Kalambaka doing the tour in reverse to catch the different light effects of the afternoon
sun. The journey is perhaps one of the most stunning we have ever done. At every twist of the road is a new vista more spectacular that the last. Cliffs tower hundreds of feet above (and below), and on top of many are precariously perched monasteries (and,
for the sake of political correctness, one nunnery). Six are open to the public; all involve a strenuous ascent of uneven and sometimes slippery stairs. On that day I think I climbed more stairs than I had done in the past 10 years.
The biggest of the monasteries is Great Meteoron, which has been extensively renovated, including putting in stairs instead of hoisting visitors up in a rope basket. In the 1950's Patrick Leigh Fermor, the traveller and writer, asked the Abbot how often the rope was changed. The answer was "when it breaks". The church here was covered with ancient frescoes mainly of saints being killed off in countless horrible ways. To add to the macabre feeling was the ossuary room, where shelves of skulls of deceased monks were on display. There was a fascinating museum devoted to the assistance and in some cases the leadership the Meteora monks had given the Greek freedom fighters in the war of independence, the Balkan war and the Second World War. There were pictures of monks in full regalia, armed to the teeth with pistols and cutlasses, fighting off the infidel.
Close to Great Meteoron was Varlaam, (spelt Barlaam, but nothing to do with sheep). A smaller but no less spectacular monastery, this was also approached by 250,000 steps. Another church full of frescoes, this time not so horrific, and yet more incredible views.
At all the monasteries there is a strict dress code. Women should not show bare arms or wear jeans, trousers or pantaloons. (?) Given that this is the attire of virtually every female visitor, (apart from the pantaloons, of course!) each monastery has a supply of wrap round skirts for women. So Lesley had to don one to hide her trousers. A nice change from the convent church at Mistras, some years ago, where I had to wear a wrap round skirt to disguise my shorts, in case the sight of my naked legs aroused the nuns to a fit of hysteria.
We had had enough of stair climbing, so although we visited all the other monasteries, we did not go in. Just the views of them and from them, and the views from the many parking
and walking spots on this spectacular road were reward enough. Of course some of you will recognise the area from the Bond film "For Your Eyes Only"
We did however visit the cathedral in Kalambaka, a 14th Century church built on and from the remains of a much earlier church. Here our visit was a bit uncomfortable. We were the only visitors, the priest was chanting away, the one member of the congregation was chanting back, and then the priest marched down the aisle towards us ringing bells and waving his incense holder at us. Scary. Was he blessing us, purifying us or exorcising us? The lady who took our entrance money was risking RSI, she was crossing herself so quickly and frequently.
Next day we crossed the Pindos range, via Metsovo to Ioannina. This is the highest mountain pass in Greece and was quite amazing. Metsovo, on the way down is more of an Alpine than a Greek town, and is populated mainly by Vlachs. The Greeks are in the process of building a motorway across the Pindos here, and the engineering achievement in simply building access roads for the construction traffic was incredible. We used the 10 miles or so of motorway that was open, mainly through tunnels, but never have I had to go through two hairpin bends on a motorway slip road. A unique experience.
Ioannina is a bustling university town on the banks of a large lake. Its claim to fame is that it was the seat of the tyrant Ali Pasha, whose tomb is in the grounds of the citadel here. However, the highlight of the town for us was the hotel we stayed in, which had the first bath we'd seen since last Christmas! Although showers are more than adequate for personal hygiene, you cannot beat a soak in a hot bath, especially when suffering the after effects of the previous day's 250,000 stairs.
To get back to Athens we decided to come down the west coast, that is across to Igoumenitsa, a pleasant port, then down to Parga. This is a well-known holiday resort in a beautiful setting, but it was a bit dead out of season, putting paid to our plans to overnight there. So we continued down past Mesopotamos, where the Necromanteio, the ancient Oracle of the Dead, was situated. This was believed by the Greeks to be one of the entances to the Underworld, and the bereaved would come here with offerings in the hope of communicating with the spirits of the dead. I wish I could say we felt creepy vibes, but on a warm sunny day it was quite a cheerful place! Then we passed Preveza, where there's not much apart from the airport for Parga, and on to Patras, crossing the gulf by the Rio Bridge, a truly magnificent piece of engineering.
So, as it was dark by now, it had to be Patras for the overnight stop. In a big port city, there should surely be somewhere to stay, we thought. There was nothing on the outskirts, and the city was just one huge jam. We spotted a city centre hotel with a parking space just becoming vacant outside, so that would have to do. Grim room, no breakfast, no private parking, over-priced, and worst of all the car had to be moved from the street before 7 in the morning or it would be towed! We were too tired to argue or to start looking again. We dropped our stuff and went in search of something to eat. Here we found that whilst the rest of Greece sits down and enjoys a meal, Patras does not. All we could find was a few fast food joints and streets and streets of modern, trendy, young people's bars, all absolutely heaving. Super for a First Direct night out, but not for two tired hungry pensioners. We settled for a pizza and an early night.
It was good to get back to our own " home" next afternoon, to be greeted by the 16 cats demanding to know where we had been and why hadn't we fed them!