Write it all down I was told; let’s give it a try. Here I am on a bus thundering north out of Athens to Delphi, scene of the Oracle, then to Meteora where the famous monasteries perch on top of their pinnacles, then to the memorial at Thermopylae. Already we have passed the site of the Battle of Marathon where the Athenians defeated the Persians, after which a soldier (Pheidippides) ran the 27 miles into the center of Athens to spread the word of the victory. Poor guy dropped dead from exhaustion but his name lives on, and every year the Athens Marathon follows his route from the site to the City center. It takes place in a couple of weeks.
I’m live blogging this and wondering when the last time I did that was. Could it have been the marshrutka ride between Khujand and Dushanbe in Tajikistan? That was certainly memorable. I digress! This is a good road, three lanes in each direction, up and down through low hills, passing a couple of reservoirs which look to be in good shape, unlike those in California where the reservoirs have all but dried up after the long drought. There are cotton fields; Greece is the major producer in Europe. Solar and wind farms. We pass Thebes and lurid tales of Oedipus (the King). We all know the story but not perhaps that it is the first part of a trilogy by Sophocles and that the premier was in 429BCE. That is BCE! Old!
Delphi, high, high up in the mountains with fabulous views over the surrounding hills, valleys and down to the sea beyond. Of course the ruins are perched precipitously with endless steps up and down, still not easy, but quite a delight to explore. In the height of summer it must be hellish but here in late October the temperature is cool and the crowds, reasonable. Two hours to look at the ruins and then another hour in the museum. I’m not a big museum person but this one was fascinating. Lots of gods, gold and statues, I absolutely loved it.
Off into the foggy mountains we go, in the dark, heading for Meteora. Hope we get to see something of it.
Monasteries we saw, and a convent. The day broke foggy but in the elevator in the early light I saw, for the first time the rocky crags above the town of Kalabaka. Quite majestic, impossibly high, but no sign of a monastery. A hasty breakfast with my tour mates, two Grandmothers from Melbourne (I really have an aversion to cold fried eggs) and off out to pile into the van, pick up the younger folk, one from Argentina (Diego) and the other from Kazakhstan. There was a bit of a kerfuffle finding the local guide that resolved itself and away we went, up. Up and up. Have I mentioned I suffer from vertigo? I was nervous. We stopped for a quick look and craned, craned until we nearly fell over backwards. Meteora translates to ‘Suspended in the air’ and so it appeared. We were looking up at the Great Meteora Monastery where building started in possibly the 13th Century, nobody really knows, and on that day it was closed to tourists. There are six occupied monasteries surviving out of the original twenty-four and they take it in turns to open their doors to us tourists. The monks built their monasteries in such a remote and challenging environment to both be as far away from the humdrum of life and also to be nearer to God.
The word piety sprang to mind as we made our way through cathedrals, churches and chapels. I know nothing about Orthodoxy, perhaps I should read up on it, these religious sites are all dedicated to Greek Orthodoxy and, it is claimed, maintained the Hellenistic way of life during the Ottoman occupation (mid 15th – early 19th). This of course was a very good thing and I don’t think you will go far wrong if you imagine the monks, crouched over desks, copying ancient books and manuscripts to preserve the culture for future generations. They are there, the copies made and more are being discovered, because in times of trouble the monks would hide their treasures within the walls or bury them in the grounds. Perhaps one day the lost plays and philosophical tracts from Ancient Greece will reappear. We can always dream. I could wax on about the ever present incense, the extremely graphic paintings and drawings, the tranquility of the monks themselves, the quiet, the views out over the precipitous drops. You get the picture.
And of course there was James Bond. Yep, For Your Eyes Only was partly filmed at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora. The result was that the small town below, Kalabaka, doubled in size within five years, and, more than half the monks left. I’ll leave an opinion to you…
On the way back to Athens we stopped at the site of the battle of Thermopylae, with the accent on the second syllable in English but in Greek, Thermopiles with the accent on the third syllable. I got some very strange looks when I said I wanted to go there. Actually there is not a lot there, as I was constantly informed. There is a rather large memorial to King Leonides and a bit of a plaque where the battle took place. Behind the memorial there is a four lane highway and above it, electrical pylons. I was pleased to visit and see that the memory lives on (480BCE) but disheartened today to read that the site is now a beacon for far right wing lunatics from all over Europe and America. The article was in today’s (November 7) Washington Post if you care to Google it.