27 February 2007

At Last, Greece

Greece fascinated me as a young boy. I have no recollection as to why, but for a year or so of my life I craved this country and its culture. When I was in the sixth grade I even attempted to teach myself Greek. While my lust for this land has waned to mere curiosity, I am still thrilled to finally find myself in this ancient land. After all, this country gave the world the original Odyssey.

Before I go further, allow me to state that my post on Albania lies below this one. I split them up for the ease of reading. The interent is cheap at this cafe, so I have problem with providing many details.

Yesterday morning I walked across the border from Albania and into Greece. A customs agent, suspicious of a lone American young man arriving from Albania, stopped me to search my backpack for drugs. However, I was able to answer all his questions in such a detailed and talkative manner that he trusted me before I even began to remove my clothing from the pack. Completely unpacking my belongings would have been quite the annoyance.

From the border station I took a bus to Ioannina, and from another to Kalambaka. The north of mainland Greece is home to the Pindos Mountains. From time to time the clouds would part and reveal snow-capped peaks. Part of the ride took me high over the landscape, along those aforementioned peaks, and provided downward views of a sea of clouds. As in Albania the views reminded me of the Rocky mountains, but shorter and not as green.

I got off the bus on the side of the road and found myself in the town of Kalambaka. I came to visit the monasteries of Meteora, a region next door to this town. As the daylight faded I checked into a hotel and searched for a place to eat.

I am no stranger to Greek food. In fact, back home I have even picked up the tradition of treating myself to gyro after successfully completing an exam. Only a few other dishes can out beat the juicy roasted lamb, cucumber yogurt sauce, and warm peta bread of a gyro to my taste buds. Baklava, with its layer of filo dough, walnuts, and honey, is the dessert of the Greek Gods. Greek salads, souvlaki, moussaka, I enjoy it all. In other words, the Greek food may be the most dangerous items my budget strapped wallet will encounter on the Odyssey.

I found a taverna and tried their versions of moussaka and greek salad. The first dish is a casserole or potatos, eggplant, ground beef, and cream. The true greek salad is nothing but olives, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, and olive oil. Both tasted outstanding.

This morning I awoke to dissapointingly misty and cloudy skies. Exceptionally dissapointing because those monasteries I came here to visit rest in the sky. Meteora litterally means "in the sky."

The famous monasteries of Meteora lie on the summits of slender rock pinnacles that thrust up from the plains located in this region. An ancient sea created the pinnacles, which stretch up hundreds of feet into the sky. Early religious outposts were built in the area during the 11th century. As the Ottoman Empire expanded, the hermit-like monks in this region wished to remain in isolation. They decided to move their monasteries from the sides of the immense rock pillars to the towering peaks. I suppose in a way the monasteries were the first skyscrapers.
One must understand that these pinnacles are not steep hills, rather they are truly vertical monoliths rising from the plains.

The first monks climbed the pinnacles, centuries before rock-climbing was a recreational activity, and built the monasteries. Until the 1920s one could only reach the monasteries by using retractable wooden ladders or hoisting nets. Since then workers have paved roads as far as possible, and then built steps up to the monasteries. There were as many as 26 monasteries; only six remain today, mostly as museums. Two are still functioning monasteries. The six remaining outposts show off their Byzantine frescos and works of art collected over the centuries. One monastery was even used as a setting in a James Bond film.

Perhaps now you can understand my dissapoint towards the poor weather conditions.

I made the most of it and hiked off to the base of the pinnacles. This being the low season, the bus between town and the monasteries was not running.

Almost no signs marked the way to the pinnacle bases, which are large and forrested enough for one to lose his way. I found a steep trail that led through the Greek wilderness and up to the bare rock. The series of switchbacks eventually led me to the entrance gate to the steps which led up to the Varlaam Monastery. At this point I also was a bit disheartened to find a parking lot with a road leading to it from the other side of the pinnacle's base. Only a few cars were present though and I hurried up the steps hoping to beat more visitors to the monastery.

This monastery turned out to be an active one, with a small number of Greek Orthodox monks residing in it. There were small gardens and split level buildings spread out over the pinnacle's summit. The church and its beautiful frescos were the highlights of the visit. I even witnessed one monk hoisting supplies up to the monastery. These days the rope nets and pullies have been replaced with metal baskets and electric wrinches.

I hiked down as a couple tourist buses arrived, and I walked down the paved road. It led to another monastery's steps, which I ascended. This monastery, Rousanou, had frescos grusomely depicting the martydom of numerous saints. I took the road and a woodland trail back into town.

I bought my first true Greek baklava and gyro as a late lunch. The first was great, but the latter was not as good as some of the gyros I have had in America. The inclusion of french fries in the wrapped peta surprised and displeased me. I by no means intend for that to be the only gyro I will have while in the country.

Tomorrow I leave for Athens, where I think I will spend around four days.

I could get used to this traveling life. At times I realize where I am and what I am seeing and cannot help but smile out of the joy it brings me. I still wake up a few mornings and suddenly remember that I am not in America or Germany. I have learned to rely often on the kindness of strangers, which is especially important with the language barriers (amplified in Greece, where the Latin alphabelt isn't even used). Hostels are not always the best places for privacy and comfort, but they expose me to many people. My expectations of cleanliness have changed as well to meet life on the road. With room only for a few shirts, two shirts, and five pairs of all underwear items let's simply say that I do not always feel Spring time fresh. Do not mistake me though, I am relishing every minute of the Odyssey.

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