The fruits of Meteora

The higher you climb in Meteora, the more frequent the synchronicities.

At breakfast one morning, a member of our group — I’ll call him Bill — offered to lead us to the ancient monasteries and caves of Meteora, high above the town of Kalambáka. Bill had hiked the area on previous trips and knew his way around. Before we begin our climb, he suggested, our first stop should be Kalambáka’s own Byzantine church.

The day was bright and sunny as we entered the churchyard, and the instant she saw us, a sweet old yiayiá rose from her taverna chair by the church entrance to greet us. Her shy smile instantly brightened when I spoke to her in Greek, and a flood of information followed.

Dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, the church sits in the oldest part of town, well away from the busy squares and traffic. As it is hidden in the shadows of Meteora’s cliffs, both literally and figuratively, most tourists who flock to the monasteries bypass this church altogether. They don’t realize that it was built hundreds of years before the monks and hermits arrived. That a temple of Apollo stood on the very same spot, making it a site of worship for thousands of years.

We stepped inside. The interior was busy and cluttered, every square inch covered with startlingly bright frescoes from the 11th and 16th centuries. The yiayiá showed us the marble columns and slabs, scavenged from the pagan temple to decorate the interior. She pointed to small sections of the stone floor that have been removed to display pre-Christian mosaics.

Then she began a bitter lament over events that still choked her heart. How the Germans came and stabled their mules inside the church. How they allowed the manure and filth to pile up. How they built fires in the churchyard that blackened the interior and its precious frescoes. How, after the Germans left, the villagers gathered with shovels, brooms and mops to remove every trace of manure. To scrub away the soot and reconsecrate the space with their presence.

Today the icons are once again brilliant, the saints and sinners animate, seeming to breathe and nod in the flickering candlelight.

As we left the churchyard, we thanked the yiayiá and she give us her blessing. Then we regained the path and resumed our climb.

Varlaam Monastery, founded in the 14th century. Tourists visit the famed Greek Orthodox monasteries and caves, high up in Meteora, for a rare glimpse of early Christendom. They also come for the souvlaki, which is kick-ass in Kalambáka.

Perfectly good candles, at Varlaam Monastery.

Pomegranates

Bill turned out to be a gifted wayfinder. He had the courtesy to consult me at every fork in the path, and I listened attentively and nodded every time. But the Meteora map he put in front of me may as well have been a map of Mumbai. Without Bill I would have been utterly lost in a second.

But there was a trade-off. I was the group’s only Greek-speaking member. So, while he took the lead on the paths, I stepped forward at every stop to chat, trade courtesies and translate. We climbed to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, then to Varlaam Monastery. We poked our heads into dark caves, looking for bat shit (none), and hiked through damp, narrow passes where the sun never enters, and where temperatures plummet.

Hours later, we were back at the top of Kalambáka, surveying acres of clay-tiled roofs below.

Instead of taking a busy road back to our guest house, Bill suggested we take a longer route through the laneways that snake through the villages of Kastráki and Kalambáka. It was an inspired decision, as our route skirted fragrant backyards and gardens bright with bougainvillea and oleander, where cats dozed and small iron tables still held traces of that morning’s coffee. Giant red pomegranates, like decorative baubles, transformed every yard into an early Christmas scene. And so the narrow lanes we passed through had a holiday air, and in fact we were tired from our hike and these concluding moments felt like a celebration. As if we’d been soaring for hours high above, and could finally fold our wings and settle back to the ground, weary with exertion, our minds still giddy and crowded with saints and clouds of incense.

At an intersection where several backyards met, we paused to drink from our water bottles, and I watched as Bill reached across a fence to pluck a pomegranate from a tree. Seeing this, two other hikers walked over to another yard and picked their own pomegranates, quickly stuffing them into their knapsacks. I wandered on, pretending to look elsewhere.

But as we continued our descent into the town of Kalambáka, Bill turned to me and nodded at another backyard filled with ruby pomegranates: “C’mon, mate. It’s your turn now.”

A former hermit cave, now just a cave.

In the deepest and darkest sections of Meteora, the vegetation abruptly changes and temperatures plummet.

Pears

Let me recount a story my normally laconic father told often, when he wanted to make a point. (He was more than laconic; he was actually born in Lakonia, as I was.)

It’s autumn and my father is marching on the Taigetus mountains with a band of irregulars. The Greek Civil War has erupted. Little-known outside of Greece, this vicious and partisan conflict will prolong the misery and slaughter of World War II, and will last from 1943 until 1949. It will rip families apart, pit brother against brother, left against right, republicans against monarchists. My father is on Taigetus to fight the Germans or, possibly, other Greeks. And yet, it’s a futile war. The spoils have already been divided, the end preordained. Greece will wind up on the western side of the Iron Curtain.

On this meaningless trudge through the mountains, the only trained and properly armed man is the commanding officer. The rest are ill-equipped and untrained kids. They’ve been issued antique weapons that may or may not fire, that may possibly blow up in their faces. They’re in street shoes and light jackets, slogging all night through the chill and wet of Taigetus, their fingers and ears numb with cold.

Exhausted and hungry, they’re now descending from the mountains and approaching a village. The early sun seems like a herald. Just ahead, they see an orchard of pear trees. Stomachs rumbling, a few drift toward the trees, when a voice rings out: “I will shoot the first one who touches a pear.”

It’s their commanding officer. His pistol is unholstered.

“They say we’re communists, thieves. That we don’t respect private property. I won’t give them the satisfaction. Now move on.”

I have no idea whether this story, filtered through an old man’s bitter self-regard and unreliable memory, is true. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Interior of the Byzantine church in Kalambáka, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. The yiayiá who showed us around attributed the frescos’ still-bright colours to the use of vegetable dyes. I am repeating this photo from my last post because I mis-identified it. (We visited many places; I didn’t always take good notes.) After I snapped the photo, I noticed a sign that forbids photography in the church. Which makes this photo, too, a kind of stealing.

For some visitors to Meteora, the journey qualifies as a pilgrimage.

The last hermit of Meteora

At dinner with our group in Kalambáka, where we spent three days, I led a small lesson in the proper pronunciation of the Greek name for Corfu, where we’ll be wrapping up our trip.

“Ker-ky-rá, Ker-ky-rá, Ker-ky-rá,” we chanted. The taverna chairs were accommodating, the night air was cool, and our table was laden with salads, stuffed vegetables, baked eggplant, saganaki, meatballs, baskets of bread and two half-litres of white wine.

But with talk of Kérkyra, I am getting ahead of myself. For we spent three days in Kalambáka, the large town at the foot of Meteora, where tourists arrive to lodge, eat and drink before making their ascent to the monasteries high above. Along the back streets of Kalambáka, every front yard had a pomegranate tree, heavy with ripe red fruit at this time of year. And in the agora stood crates of large yellow quince, also in season, beside boxes of chestnuts, tomatoes and squash.

The train station at Kalambáka, with the cliffs of Meteora behind.

Tourists come to Meteora to visit the ancient complex of monasteries, nunneries and now-uninhabited caves. Perched on improbably tall and inaccessible geological formations, the monasteries were built from the 11th to the 16th centuries. As for the caves, there’s evidence Neanderthals lived in them 50,000 years ago, later replaced by ascetics and hermits, shivering in the cold northern air.

There were originally two dozen monasteries, but only six are still occupied and tourists are allowed to visit only on certain days. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of a monk peeking out from their private residence, dodging the tourists. You have to wonder about their restricted lives: While we’re gawking at the ancient icons, are they playing koumkán or watching Squid Game on Netflix? After so many centuries, why is this life necessary: To spread the holy word, to bolster Greece’s tourist economy, to pay for the monasteries’ upkeep?

You can see why the holy people loved this place. Closer to God, of course. But also much harder for the Turks to get to and cause their usual mischief.

From the heights of Agios Stéphanos, we watched enormous buses pull up, and out spilled the eager tourists, led by guides holding aloft a pennant on a stick. Since we’re so far north, it’s not just the usual cohort of Germans, French, Italians and Americans. Buses arrive directly from Bulgaria, Albania and Romania, just next door.

As we descend the steep stairs, the new arrivals struggle to ascend. “How much further?” they pant.

“Not far,” we say, conscious of the weight of our words. “Well worth it.”

The landscape of Meteora is otherworldly. You emerge from the darkened interiors, from the incense and icons and guttering yellow candles, and it all makes sense. Anything is possible here, so close to the clouds.

Agios Stéphanos. We visited, looked around and looked out over the vast plain. But it was clear that only a small portion of the monastery is open to visitors.

Before the paths and steps were carved into the mountains, baskets and nets such as this one were the only way for the monks to get their afternoon coffee and cigarettes. There were ladders, too, which could be quickly pulled up if a Turk or a woman tried to get in.

Kyría Kéti

Many years ago, out delivering groceries for my father’s store, I rang the bell of a ground-floor duplex. These were new customers, newly arrived from Greece, a certain Kyría Kéti and her husband. The woman who answered was nut-brown, barefoot, and wearing a white bikini. Twiggy haircut, dyed blonde. Frosted pink lipstick. Extravagant mascara. And, just below the Twiggy do, dangly earrings terminating in cubes of acid green. A Go-Go girl at least fifteen years out of date, but you could easily imagine Kyría Kéti, much thinner and younger, doing the frug in a cage suspended in an Athens disco. But here, frozen in time, she regarded me and my box of groceries and took a drag on her cigarette.

“Ah, yes, Kyría Afroditi’s son. Thank you so much for bringing my things,” she said, in musical Greek. “This way into the kitchen, please.”

I followed, and on the way glanced into her living room. A chaise-long, covered with a towel, had been set up in front of an open window. She had been sunbathing, and over the course of the next few years, whenever I drove down her street on a sunny day, I would glimpse Kyría Kéti reclining in her living room and absorbing the feeble heat.

As for her husband, I remember nothing about him. Except that he was unremarkable to the degree that she was not. And there was another remarkable thing about Kyría Kéti: her brother was a monk, and soon would be visiting from Greece.

A few weeks later, my mother summoned me to the store and introduced me to Father Nektário, the famous monk. Apparently, he’d been waiting some time for me to take him to Park Ex, as he only spoke Greek and didn’t know his way around. Could I do that, on the way to school? In the presence of a stranger, it was impossible to refuse.

I glared at my mother, and then froze. Was I was expected to kiss Father Nektário’s hand, as is customary? But this is a monk, not a priest, so do the same rules apply? Sensing my confusion, Father Nektário immediately seized and shook my hand.

The monk and I rode the bus, and afterwards the subway, and we talked all the way but I don’t remember a word. He was not a learned man, or at least he wore his learning lightly. Except that he radiated both quiet confidence and innocence. There was an unmistakable sense, too, of goodness — and I hesitate to use the word because it’s so vague and old-fashioned.

Like his sister, he, too, was a visitor from another realm.

Since I had to get to class early that day, I gave him instructions for when he got off at the Jean-Talon station: take bus 179 north; when it turns right on l’Acadie, get off at the stop after Ogilvy; turn right on Saint-Roch, and Tis Theotókou will be on your left. You can’t miss it.

He made notes with a pencil stub in a small book, and as we pulled into the Jean-Talon station, he thanked me. I considered kissing his hand. But, surrounded by strangers, I faltered and then my chance evaporated.  He stood on the platform, a diminishing figure in black, and waved until he was out of sight. I never saw him again, for soon after he returned to Greece.

* * *

There was a museum of geology in Kastráki, which I didn’t visit. I miss out on a lot of things. With no real knowledge to speak of, I will say that these giant formations are not granite or some other stone, but a kind of aggregate, like concrete: small rocks of varying size suspended in some prehistoric mud that has petrified over millions of years. Is that clear?

* * *

We emerge from the steep and rocky paths, between giant stone thumbs poking into the sky. Several rock climbers, bright dots on the dark-grey surface, are ascending one of the thumbs. After many hours of climbing to monasteries and caves, and then making a slow and uncertain descent, we’re now just above the clay-tiled roofs of the village of Kastráki, with the monasteries well behind us. Almost home.

We pause to admire a large handsome structure, cunningly built so it seems to emerge from Meteora’s strange geological formations. Workmen are completing the stone entrance, as a security officer smokes a cigarette and looks on. This might be a boutique hotel or a shipping magnate’s mountain retreat, we’re not sure. At that moment a crowd of people appears on the rocky path, led by a tour guide. We ask the guide about the structure but, surrounded by chattering people, and with the sound of hammering and power tools roaring in the background, I can’t hear a word.  

Once we’re away from the crowds and noise, I ask one of my hiking companions to repeat what the guide said. “No one is allowed inside,” she explains. “This is where the last hermit of Meteora lives.”

A view of Agía Triáda (Holy Trinity), a small church at the top of Kalambáka that is 300 years older than the earliest monastery in Meteora. I will have a little more to say about this stunning church next time.

Old things in Delphi

Greece is full of old things. Stick a shovel into the ground and chances are you’ll hit a stone phallus dedicated to the goddess Hernia. The ancient myths tell of how the god Meniscus mounted the sky-sent eagle Psychosis, which carried Meniscus high into lightning-laced clouds. From there, great and powerful Meniscus rained down his potent seed, and up from the sides of Mount Psoriasis sprang three divine sisters, Chlamydia, Nephritis and Diarrhea, handmaidens to mist-borne Hernia…

In Greece the past is everywhere, gumming things up. It’s one of the reasons the Acropolis Museum took so long to complete; same with the Athens subway. Just last May, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation cancelled a €4 million grant to build a cultural centre near Athens, after a mass grave from seventh-century B.C. was discovered at the site. This was the last straw. The project had begun in 2016, with superstar architect Renzo Piano at the helm.

Old and new. These ancient pots, at the bottom of an excavated area, stand beside a metro entrance in Athens.

At the end of a ramp beside the Greek Parliament building stands an important political figure.

At the Benaki Museum we saw an exhibition by the late English artist, John Craxton, who visited Greece early in his life and pretty much never left. He was irresistibly charming and a great companion. He painted and caroused with Lucian Freud, dined with Winston Churchill, befriended Leonard Cohen and was taken up by Patrick Leigh Fermor and other celebrities of the time. But he spent even more nights dancing and drinking with unknown fishermen, waiters and labourers. When he exhibited in England, in 1967, he was dismissed as an artist with “a handicap of happiness.” You can see that in his cats and taverna chair.

* * *

The ancients regarded Delphi as the centre of the world, and placed a bellybutton (literally, omphalós) at this spot. Western civilization was in its adolescence, a smiling self-absorbed youth, so you can understand the narcissism of thinking you’re at the centre of it all.

When you visit Delphi, you can view the omphalós, as well as the temple of Apollo and other structures built by successive waves of civilization, all of them eager to consult the Oracle. When she entered the right state of divine possession, the Delphic priestess could predict the future. So emissaries from many lands arrived with precious gifts to woo and consult her on their plans for battle and other weighty matters of state. Sometimes the oracle was right. And sometimes, maddeningly, she just wasn’t in the mood. So they’d wait and wait and sometimes lose patience and leave.

The museum at Delphi houses many fine statues, which will be familiar, if you’ve ever flipped through a textbook on the ancient world on a rainy afternoon when there’s nothing else to do. But that pretty much exhausts my interest in old rocks and Doric columns and such.

Columns you’re welcome to admire at the site of ancient Delphi.

More columns, just as admirable. I believe the omphalós is somewhere nearby.

Manolí and his revíthia

I’m all for governments and academics digging up, delving into and protecting rocks until we know every damn thing about the ancient world. But do I have to buy a ticket?

I much prefer the living Delphi. That’s the town, a short walk up the road, that used to sit on the ruins but had to be moved so that French archaeologists, late in the nineteenth century, could dig and scrape to their heart’s content.

I much prefer Manolí, who brings me a chickpea (revíthia) salad, fresh bread and Greek coffee. The shops in Delphi sell ugly souvenirs, as they do everywhere in Greece. But the divinity of Greece is in its people, each of them interesting, interested and unfailingly polite. In Greek, any speech between strangers is formal — always with the vous — but richly laced with heartfelt courtesies and endearments accompanied by radiant smiles. What are rocks, after all, next to these beating hearts?

We’re sitting in a sidewalk taverna and an elderly Greek man with long grey hair, parted in the middle, is walking towards me. He wears a lilac shirt with a Betty Boop tie, above purple pants and yellow socks. In his hand, a chocolate ice cream, two scoops, on a waffle cone. Catching my eye, he winks.

Delphi has many fine balconies.

I like the signs here, too.

A view from Delphi, looking down to the Gulf of Corinth.

There are mysteries to be plumbed. Such as, where are the donkeys now? The mountain paths used to be choked with them. In the early hours of the morning, papou would load his donkey with a spade and pruners and baskets, with a small lunch of paximádi (hardtack), tomato, olives and cheese, maybe a hardboiled egg as well, everything tied up in a white cloth and placed in a plastic bowl. Then off he’d go to water and prune his olives and grapes. Dozing under a tree after his lunch, papou would allow the donkey to wander off, to munch on dry thistles and thorny scrub. And as the temperature rose and the crickets began their frenzied sawing, the donkey would commence his sorrowful braying song.

The changing of the guard

Rivers of tourists still flow up and down many of the thoroughfares in Athens, even though it’s September. But the city remains pleasant to walk in, with tiny lanes that branch off and often end at a welcoming taverna. We hadn’t visited since the Acropolis Museum opened in 2009, so that topped our agenda. We also took in the Benaki Museum, strolled through the usual areas and did the usual things. We never ventured up to the Parthenon, however, even though it’s easily the most usual thing. There’s only so much time.

The usual thing, from our hotel’s breakfast and dining room, shortly after we arrived.

When the Acropolis Museum first opened, over budget and overdue, it got a lukewarm review from Martin Filler, an architecture critic I’ve been reading for years. But now that I’ve seen the museum, to hell with Martin Filler. I like it a lot. The displays are ingenious, the story is clear, and the polemics are sharp but measured. On the second floor you’ll find blank spaces for the Elgin Marbles, and throughout the museum you’ll find several understated but unmistakable references to the inexcusable. The Marbles should be returned.

Male beauty in the Acropolis Museum.

On our second day, circumnavigating Syntagma Square (syntagma means constitution), we noticed a crowd in front of the Greek Parliament building. Instantly, I knew it had to be changing of the guard. I first saw the ceremony many years ago, but found myself still mesmerized by its strangeness: the slow, stylized choreography; the oddly swivelling joints; the concentrated power; the compression of time and energy. You are watching a Greek folk dance, as reimagined by an avant-garde artist, but also experiencing Japanese Kabuki and Karagiozi shadow puppets and the unmistakeable menace of a Maori Haka. Apollonian in dignity, balance and poise. But with an underlying Dionysian edge. An unmistakable don’t fuck with me.

As the new guards replaced the old ones, a single armed escort, in camo, stood discreetly at the side, monitoring the crowd and holding a walkie talkie. He followed the soldiers as they exited. More soldiers with automatic weapons were stationed just around the corner. For the guards, in their beautiful foustanéles and tsaroúhia, are purely ceremonial. If an outrage were to occur, the polished antique guns would be useless; they cannot fire. It’s all just a display.

A man in Syntagma Square regards the Greek Parliament Building.

The classic taverna chair is too small for the average size ass, never mind the larger ass, so it’s inadequate for the vital business of eating. By contrast, the classic zaharoplastío (pattisserie) chair is broad, easeful and upholstered. Greeks typically don’t have dessert after a meal. Instead, they will stroll for a long while, talking and smoking and gesticulating, before finally sitting at a zaharoplastío for an elaborate confection, a glass of water and a coffee. Here, the chairs are excellent, in a size generous enough to accommodate asses of every dimension. There’s an essay waiting to be written on this subject.

* * *

I thought it would be impossible to run in Athens. It’s polluted, the sidewalks are cracked and crowded, and every driver is an assassin. But it was our final day, so what the hell! When will I ever have this chance again?

And so I set out for the National Gardens, located near our hotel, with a plan to simply zigzag through the straight and winding paths that fill the 38 acres. But soon, the playgrounds and theatres, the formal promenades, strolling families, avid lovers and twisting paths became boring. So I ventured into the street, determined to always keep the Gardens on my left, to avoid getting lost.

Eventually my counter-clockwise orbit took me past the Presidential residence, where one of the ceremonial guards was posted. Then, rounding the corner into Syntagma Square, I was back in front of the Parliament Buildings, where another crowd had gathered.

The ceremonial guards, soldiers in the Greek army, are selected for their size, beauty and physical discipline. When the ceremony is done, they stand immobile, never batting an eye. Their physical training is intensive. Just watch for a moment as a guard stands on one leg, with the other leg outstretched for what seems an eternity. There’s never a tremor; it’s uncanny.

The guards are also selected for their character and intelligence. For what good is beauty if it’s only skin deep? When beauty suffuses the entire being, then we are closer to the ideal. This lack of shame or ambivalence about physical beauty and its moral dimension is pre-Christian. And this, too, is the genius of ancient Greece.

On my final lap of the Gardens, I stopped for a moment in front of the Parliament Building to watch the changing of the guard one last time. Unexpectedly, my eyes filled with hot tears.

For that’s when I saw the tragedy unfolding in slow motion. These young boys, with their ineffectual guns and lavish ceremonials, are guarding a big idea: democracy. An idea that is under attack everywhere. Italy just elected a far-right prime minister, and I saw Berlusconi by her side, once more in full clown makeup. They’re sending for the clowns in Turkey and Hungary, in Sweden and Russia and the United States.

Greece has not been a paragon of democracy across history, but the flame was lit here, in this city. So there is a sense of responsibility. Meanwhile the beautiful boys, with their toy weapons and slow majestic dance, continue to stand on guard and march back and forth for all to see. They won’t be enough.

One day, we walked by the stadium that hosted the first modern Olympic Games, in 1896. The stadium is still in use, and in front stands a statue of George Averoff, a Greek of vast wealth who largely funded its construction. Spyridon Louis won the first marathon.

Ritsos’s cat

I passed this staircase on Peseidonas Road during my run. Note the cat. There are cats everywhere, and they are well fed and content.

I went running in Vouliagméni, along the Lemos peninsula, which is where you’ll find the most exclusive beaches, restaurants and tourists and, lording over them all, the Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel Athens resort. Most of my runs here are modest in length: to the end of the peninsula and back. But, since the distance is not that great, I add a bit of mileage along Poseidonas Road.

About halfway up the sloping peninsula stands the entrance to the Four Seasons. I stopped to take a photo and almost instantly a suited man materialized from nowhere to shoo me away. It began with, “Can I help you, sir?” in Greek, and quickly escalated from there.

“No thank you. Just taking a picture.”

“You cannot do that, sir. No photos allowed.”

“Just a photo. Not trying to get in.”

“But our guests…”

Yeah, right. I took the photo and moved on.

I think I am temperamentally unsuited to luxury surroundings. At the slightest provocation, I become belligerent.

A few minutes further up the hill is another, smaller entrance to the compound. But I think of the first, bigger one, as the mouth, where luxury guests are first received. Where they are subsequently marinated and processed for several days in the rarest juices — poolside, in the yoga studio, dining room and spa — before being extruded at higher pressure from the smaller opening up the hill.

The smaller entrance, further up the hill on Lemos Peninsula. I was not challenged when taking this picture, but my photo may already be on file at Interpol.

Ritsos on a pedestal

On the way back to our rented place, I passed by a monument to the poet Yannis Ritsos. The base is inscribed with some lines from his poem Eirini (Peace), topped by a statue of a big-hipped woman writhing like a flame. Ritsos is one of Greece’s greatest modern poets (he died in 1990), and was revered as much for his courageous politics as for his writing.

In Greece, it’s possible to sit down for an ouzo with a car mechanic or an academic, and chances are you can get them to recite a few lines and even entire poems by Ritsos or, for that matter, Seferis, Elytis, Kavafis and the rest of the modern greats. Musicians often set their poems to music, and the songs become hits. People dance to them, hum them at work, blast them from their cars and sing them in the shower. Unthinkable in North America.

Panagía Faneroméni Church, on Poseidonas Road. Apparently the church was built by a shipowner to commemorate a daughter who passed away. The volumes and shapes of a traditional Greek Orthodox church are all there, but shorn of any ornament.
Another view of the church. I spied it from our cab when we arrived, and returned several times.

* * *

Years ago, Shari and I visited Monemvasia, in the Southern Peloponnese, where Ritsos was born. Tourists flock to Monemvasia for its famed Venetian fortress, which dates from the Middle Ages. The fort’s ruins rise at the end of a tiny peninsula, and within the tumbledown walls you’ll find meandering laneways lined with small shops and restaurants, as well as beautiful people who own villas facing the sea.

Greeks from surrounding villages also flock to Monemvasia, but for a different reason. They’re after the town’s famed amigdalotá, or almond cookies. Drivers pull up, buy several boxes for family and friends, and zoom off.

On this trip, we had lunch inside the fortress, behind the great fortified gates, whose weathered grey wood still bears rusty traces of the original iron cladding. At that time, the restaurant was still owned by Yannis Ritsos’s sister and, as everywhere in Greece, cats prowled the small square where we sat. I don’t remember what we ate, except that at some point Shari took pity on one of the cats, meowing and rubbing against her leg, and fed it a morsel of fish from her plate. A moment later the cat pissed on Shari’s sandaled foot.

We will be going to Athens tomorrow.

The end of Lemos Peninsula, looking back. The cranes are busily building something new: either an extension to the Four Seasons resort with the longest name in the world, or an entirely new resort.

Beached in Greece

At the beach in Vouliagmeni, with the slap of backgammon and the thwock of paddleball filling the air.

A guy ahead of me in line looks like he spent the previous night pouring gallons of Rioja down his throat, without the benefit of tapas. He’s wearing soiled beige pants and a black and grey leopard-skin patterned nylon shirt. It’s too tight, though. Pale flesh oozes between his pants and shirt like a pouty lower lip. His hair sticks out at all angles, and his unshaven face is pocked with zits. By the looks of him, he ended up on some stranger’s floor just two hours previously, when a chute opened up and he went hurtling along its length, landing in the security area of Barcelona International Airport like a sack of laundry.

He looks bewildered, as if in mid-nightmare, with a where-the-hell-am-I, who-are-all-these-people look.

A security officer glares at him, and since he’s not budging, I take his spot. As I load up my trays, I glance back. The security officer, still glaring, says something — maybe, are you carrying any liquids? The guy reaches into his bag and pulls out a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of something carbonated, that might be Coke but isn’t. As travelers swirl around, he unscrews the top, tilts back his head and guzzles, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a kid on a pogo stick.

* * *

A splash of rooftop colour.

Vouliagmeni

I offer the above as a palate cleanser, before our flight to Athens. We land late in the evening and meet our cab driver, who will take us to Vouliagmeni, a beachy suburb of Athens 25 minutes south of the airport. With its posh resorts and restaurants, Vouliagmeni is often called the Riviera of Greece, which is hardly a recommendation for me. But it did host the triathlon during the Athens Olympics. There’s a nearby ruin. Lots of expensive real estate. And oligarch-scale yachts prowling off the beach at the Four Seasons resort.

Apart from that, our place is perfect: A ten-minute walk from an excellent taverna and bakery. We have fresh figs, grapes, tomatoes and olive oil on our lunch table. And we’ve discovered a peppercorn-studded graviera cheese from Crete. I’ve never seen this cheese in Canada, and it’s so good that, if that slippery rat, Pierre Poilievre, stood up in the House of Commons and made peppercorn-studded graviera a central plank in his trade policy, I would vote for him.

You know where you are, in Vouliagmeni.

* * *

Yiayiádes

I had two grandmothers, whom I got to know when I went to grade school for a year in Greece. They represented two sides of my family; two sides of the Greek character, too.

One grandmother was plump and kind-hearted, and always quick to shed tears, whether in sorrow or joy. She lived in a small whitewashed house adjacent to the church, whose bronze voice would announce the hour and half hour, and burst into song each Sunday morning. I remember a few things from her house. Such as a bench by the fireplace where my mother had sat as a girl. Or the tiny screened cages hanging from the rafters, that would hold saucers of leftover stew or scraps of cheese, so the flies and mice couldn’t get at them. Or an ancient treadle Singer, whose gold decorations had faded after decades of use, and on which my mother had learned to sew.

When I visited again as a young man, I took her portrait with my camera. Later during that visit, she brought out a tape measure and held it to my arms and across my shoulders, around my waist and chest. She brought out her shears and, only by eye, cut pieces from a blue-striped raw cotton sheet, and then sat at her Singer to make a collarless peasant shirt, which I wore for years until it fell apart.

My other grandmother lived on the coast, and she was in many ways the opposite. Thin, severe, undemonstrative. She had been widowed young, when my grandfather was killed in the Balkan wars, leaving her to raise four children during times of war and hardship. Perhaps this had narrowed her. During the year I lived with her and my uncle’s family, my grandmother and I slept in the same room, with a chamber pot in the corner, herds of goats and sheep clattering by just outside, swallows swooping every evening, and dewy white roses wafting their morning scent just outside our open window.

Lying in our respective beds during the afternoon siesta, we would sometimes wake up together and she would read aloud from the newspaper, pausing to make comments laced with sarcasm. I didn’t understand a word of the formal Greek, nor anything about the political actors, but took her reading aloud as an invitation join her in bed. One afternoon, she began reading a letter from my mother in Montreal, asking after my health and progress in school. My father’s business in Montreal had failed, and my father had been obliged to find work on a troky.

My grandmother paused her reading. “What’s a troky?” she asked.

“A truck,” I translated. “My father is now working on a truck.” I thought this was an exciting development, and a fresh gust of homesickness engulfed me.

“Good luck to him, then,” she harumphed, before continuing the letter.

* * *

At the corner of Ermou and Agios Panteleimonos Streets, a few minutes from our rental place in Vouliagmeni, stands an ancient olive tree wearing a sign that suggests she’s 1,200 years old.

The yiayiá is gnarled and twisted with age, but her head is crowned with a lively thatch of twigs and silvery leaves. Elevated a few feet above the road, she stands behind a fringe of grass, honoured and remembered, as I remember my own yiayiádes and honour them with these words.

Officers of the law, steps from the ancient olive tree. They chatted and smoked for about an hour, before zooming off.

Lost in Barcelona

We are in Barcelona, threading our way through the crowds in a tiny square near the Gothic Quarter, and a plaque catches my eye. Plaça de George Orwell. After too many years of education, I’ve managed to memorize almost nothing of value, except this:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

These are the opening words to a 1940 essay Orwell wrote as the Luftwaffe began their nightly pounding of London. I first read these words in my early twenties, and I’ve never forgotten their simple, revelatory power. As usual with Orwell, his plain words cut through the shit, capturing the strange and paradoxical chaos and cruelty our species chooses to live with.

Six years before, after journeying to Spain to fight the fascists — one of the greatest lost causes of the twentieth century — Orwell had written Homage to Catalonia. It initially sold only a few hundred copies, and is the chief reason Orwell’s name is today affixed to a Plaça in the capital of Catalonia. It’s a good book to read.

The Spanish Civil War, often called a rehearsal for WWII, pitted the usual suspects against each other, with infighting and betrayals and the cynical manipulation of trusting ordinary people. Orwell went there to join the fight, and instead wound up writing about it. Homage to Catalonia was the result.

* * *

The first time we visited Barcelona, nine years ago, I set out for a run and, as usual, got hopelessly lost. I’ve been lost before — in fact it’s habitual with me, and a source of strange pride. I’ve gotten lost on runs in Singapore, Seattle, Galway, Cambodia, and in plenty of other places. But this was different. I knew roughly where our apartments was, somewhere down that lane in the Gothic Quarter. But our door had simply vanished. I had no address, map, phone or phone number.

Tired and aching from my long morning run, as an implacable burning sun inched higher every minute, I began to succumb to dehydration. I know the symptoms well: fuzzy brain, crankiness, and a need to immediately lie down on a cool bed in a dark room. I was desperate for a bottle of water, but of course had no money. I felt a rising sense of panic. I wanted to cry, but that would further dry me out. Then I considered begging.

But how do you beg for directions?

Closure in Calella de Palafrugell

That was nine years ago. On this trip, I did not run in Barcelona. Instead, I’ve taken a few tentative runs and hikes around Calella de Palafrugell, the village on the Costa Brava where we’re now staying for a week. A smiling giant lies down and stretches his rocky arms out to the sea, enclosing a sun-washed crescent of small sandy coves lined with hotels, restaurants and bars that nestle in the giant’s chest. Repeat that image several times, and you have a good idea of the Costa Brava.

A distant view of Calella de Palafrugell, from a hiking path.

Calella de Palafrugell is an old holiday town, with sparkling seas and strolling tourists happy to be away from home. To the right and below our balcony, a large stone house with a clay-tiled roof sits right on the beach, with a dramatic patio on the second floor and a private sandy beach below. Apart from its prominent location, the building is not luxurious and looks as though it has stood here for centuries. But, by Old World standards, it’s relatively new, built by the son of the fabulously rich Mr. Velcro. Whether the family still owns Velcro Manor isn’t clear. But the origin story is this: Mr. Velcro, at that time a Swiss electrical engineer with a different name, returned from a hike in his native Alps one day and noticed that his dog was covered with burrs. That’s when…

Mr. Velcro’s famous Alpine walk occurred in 1941, with his first patent filed in 1954.

At the other end of Calella de Palafrugell, imposingly large houses snuggle against the giant’s left arm. These were built by former fishermen who discovered there was more money to be made harvesting cork trees than risking their lives with nets and hooks.

If you hike south from Calella de Palafrugell, over the giant’s right shoulder and along the sea, the path takes you to the sumptuous Cap Roig Botanical Gardens. I didn’t get lost on my way there, but did lose my way in the garden itself, looking for the cacti — always my favourites.

The garden was founded in 1927 by a married couple, the Woevodskys. Nikolai Woevodsky was a former Russian colonel, and Dorothy Webster an English aristocrat. Today, the garden isn’t as well-known as its summer music festival. Apart from Christina Aguilera and Sting, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know any of the other acts in this year’s edition, as they’re all Spanish performers. But pre-Covid lineups included Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Chick Corea, Diana Krall, Peppa Pig and Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan has played Cap Roig Music Festival several times.

In the formal part of the Cap Roig Botanical Gardens. Did I mention I got lost in the gardens, looking for cacti?

* * *

The first day in Calella de Palafrugell, I went for a run, carefully noting landmarks at every turn. Left at the first roundabout; straight at the next three roundabout; then left at the stone building with the FUNKY TOWN sign.

I wear a running watch, but it’s not a fancy model, the kind that tells you where to go and when you heart will explode. But it does keep track of the basics: time, pace and distance. I tell myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going.

Running down to the sea.

Begging for directions

Soon after we arrived in Calella de Palafrugell, I located a book of Orwell’s essays and read “Marrakech.” Like many of his essays from that period, it’s a devastating indictment of racism and colonialism — subjects he knew first-hand, as a former colonial policeman in Burma (now Myanmar). He writes about the invisibility of the subject races, those with brown skin. A bundle of sticks moving down the road is just that, until one day you squint and see the ancient shrunken woman beneath the load. After that, you can never “unsee” her.

In Barcelona, where nine years ago I had been hopelessly lost, the beggars have adopted a new posture. They now prostrate themselves, knees on the pavement, arms outstretched on the ground, fingers balancing a paper cup — and always, always face down. The posture is the thing, you see, for now it’s easier to give. No need to engage, to see the beggar’s eyes. Nor to think about the transaction and what it means, why it’s necessary. Drop a coin into the cup, move on.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a run to the San Sebastià lighthouse, just over the giant’s left shoulder. The distance is short, but the paths are steep and the slanting sun was still burning hot and soon I was drenched in sweat and my pulse was climbing with dangerous insistence. So I kept reminding myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going and, above all, listen to my heart.

Tomorrow we fly on to Greece.

Sa Sebastià lighthouse, and a friend. Worth the climb.

Day three in Barcelona

Columbus sailed from Barcelona to “discover” the New World. But as I learned from my last visit, nine years ago, the keen-eyed explorer is pointing in the wrong direction. Art always trumps fact.

If you like the oldest parts of Barcelona — the Gothic Quarter (El Born), Barcelonetta, and the city’s extraordinary market, then you’re out of luck. Everyone else likes these places too. With every step, you’re surrounded by a vast and flowing shoal of humanity every hour of the day and night.

But no mind. We were only here for three nights, and on our last night we arrived early at La Cañeta and scored seats at the bar. There are booths and dining rooms at the back and upstairs, but the bar gives you front-row seats to the show. La Cañeta is a celebrated tapas place: noisy, packed and operating like a well-oiled machine. You can watch chefs in toques prepare tapas, while waiters in white jackets and epaulets dash back and forth, fetching and clearing plates, and making and pouring drinks. To a man — and they’re all men — they’re irresistibly charming and helpful and funny. You want to bring one home.

Our waiter sized us up and produced an English menu that may as well have been written in Catalan. But, with his help, and furtive glances at what our neighbours were eating, we ordered glasses of Cava and five plates. They were all exquisite to look at and delicious.

There was a reason for our bewilderment. The menu at La Cañeta lists some 50 dishes, under three categories: Appetizers, Snacks, and Specials. But there’s no discernible reason for these divisions. Each dish, in every category, could just as easily be in another category. And they’re all sized so you need several, to enjoy individually or share. Among those dishes was Laminated iberian prey with fine herbs (13.65€).

Walking back from dinner with a friend, we encountered La Pedrera, one of Gaudi’s famous houses, which we’d seen on a previous trip in the daytime. Ghostly and imposing at night, with some of the playfulness gone.

The entrance to La Pedrera.

Crypto in the kitchen

Back in the 90s, Spanish chefs popularized deconstructed dishes, foams, spherification and other culinary cons. It was only the beginning, before cooking spawned reality shows and dedicated channels. You can now watch competing chefs sweating, hating and crying. Always in pursuit of the next big thing.

It’s morning and a celebrity chef stares bleary-eyed at a mirror. A half-shaven face stares back. Business is down. Customers are fleeing. There’s a new place across town where they’ve developed a technique for laminating comestibles. They pioneered laminated Algerian snippets. Now they’ve turned their sights on iberian prey — with fine herbs, no less! The chef’s eyes suddenly widen. Of course! The answer’s been under his nose this entire time! He dabs at the Gillette Foamy on his cheek. Touches it with his tongue. Immediately picks up his phone and barks: “Loic! In the test kitchen in an hour!”

Jagger at the cathedral

The Cathedral of Barcelona.

In Pla de la Seu, there were long low benches crowded with tourists, such as ourselves, where you can rest your tired feet and admire the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona. The topmost part of the cathedral was obscured by a Samsung ad for a Galaxy Z Fold4. Questions crowded the mind.

The 15th-century cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulália, one of the city’s patron saints. According to tradition, the young virgin suffered martyrdom during ancient times, when the Romans stripped her naked and exposed her in the public square. But a miraculous snowfall in mid-spring covered her nudity, to confound the Romans — but only for a while. Because the Romans then put her into a barrel with knives stuck into it and rolled it down a street — an early form of Cuisinart, if you will. The body of Saint Eulalia, or what was left of it, is entombed in the cathedral.

We sat and marvelled at the elegant tracery over the cathedral entrance, every loop rendered in stone. Over the sound of children playing and parents shouting and hawkers selling, an old man with a guitar was singing love songs in a warbly old-man’s vibrato. I watched a boy of about six bouncing a soccer ball with his feet and knees, the ball never once touching the ground. It was a thing to behold. After a full three minutes of this, the boy tapped a pass sideways with his heel. His little sister, all of four, muffed the pass. He glared at her with disdain. But then dad, with a cigarette clamped to his mouth and wearing a vintage Stones t-shirt, stepped in to play with both and keep the peace.

On the second day in Barcelona, we saw a green-painted recycling truck stop in a narrow street to pick up piles of clear bags and stacks of cardboard. One of the green-suited sanitary workers was a young woman with a thick blonde braid halfway down her back. She wore designer glasses, lipstick and pearl earrings. She would have turned heads anywhere, except in Europe.

A fancy hotel near La Pedrera.

On the second day here, at breakfast in this aggressivelyh British-themed restaurant, we learned the queen had died.

Moments of Grace in Montana

Sitting by the pond behind our borrowed cabin in Montana, I’m reading Where the Crawdads Sing, a bestselling novel by Delia Owens. It’s so bad that I can’t put it down. So unspeakably awful that it’s now a major motion picture starring actors I’ve never heard of.

The Swamp Girl, you see, is the main character. Scorned by the townsfolk, abandoned by her mother, beaten by her drunken ne’er-do-well dad. And then befriended by a saintly Black family. Someone teaches the Swamp Girl to read and, before you know it, she’s a scientist. Authoring celebrated books on crawdads, shells and such. Then the Swamp Girl is accused of murder. Courtroom scenes ensue. When all she ever wanted was love. Did I mention she’s beautiful?

I bought the book by accident (don’t ask), and since our cabin lacks wifi, I’m now irrevocably stuck with it. Plus, I paid good money for the Crawdad book. So, just as I would never throw away a piece of barely edible leftover chicken, I’m going to plod through the whole damn thing.

“I want to know what happens to the Swamp Girl,” I say, just a little too defensively.

I’m gamely chewing on another chapter when a movement catches my eye. I glance up. Eighteen inches from my face, a hummingbird hovers, studying me intently, green iridescent body swinging gently between vibrating wings. Satisfied, the hummingbird zooms off.

Trouble in Paradise

In June of this year, record rains and mudslides washed out the northern road into Yellowstone Park, causing tourism to plummet in Paradise Valley. Visitors can still enter Yellowstone on foot, if they’re accompanied by guides. But if you want to drive in, you have to bypass Paradise Valley and enter the park on the south side, through Wyoming. It’ll take three years to repair the road, which is a big economic blow to businesses in Paradise Valley, especially following the lean years of the pandemic. The town of Gardiner, at the park entrance, is particularly hard-hit. When we visit, it seems empty, bereft.

Livingston, you can safely presume

The former rail hub and ranching town of Livingston stands at the other end of Paradise, and we visit one day. Livingston is a handsome town (A River Runs Through It was filmed here). You can easily imagine its heyday: hitching posts in front of freshly-painted buildings, wooden sidewalks, dainty ladies dragging their crinolines over the straw and horseshit as they cross the dirt road.

Icons in Livingston

In a downtown of carefully curated shops, cafes and bars, you won’t find a single fast-food outlet. Except at its very entrance, at Mike’s Beefburger In-and-Out. Mike’s has been here since 1954 (“fast food” entered Merriam’s in 1951), and is open during baseball season, April to October. I wanted to eat there at first sight, but it was Sunday and the place is a shrine, so the lineup was too long.

I returned during the week and was, briefly, the only customer. I ordered a double-patty cheeseburger, fries and a Coke, which I took across the street to a picnic table situated on a patch of grass. I sat and watched the parade of locals drive up and order food, which they mostly ate in their pickups.

Further on, past Main Street, you get to the Teslow, a 75-foot grain elevator, or “prairie skyscraper.” There’s a committee in Livingston dedicated to saving the silo, which would be a good thing.

The Teslow is a “grand example of vernacular architecture.” That’s how the fancy-pants committee dedicated to saving the Teslow phrase their description. They also claim that it’s “a monument to the industries that built our town — farming, ranching, and the railroad.” That, too.

Radio station KPRK, with its spiralling Futurama fake antenna, stands just beyond the Teslow. The station still broadcasts, but not from here.

Another moment of grace

After dinner with some friends in Livingston, we drive the fifty kilometres back to our cabin, along Route 89. In the half hour before dark, colour and depth drain from the Absaroka mountains, reducing them to a high jagged scrim. In the half-light, the mountains flatten to silhouettes: remote, abstract, forbidding. Not so much stone, as the idea of stone. And this, for some reason, chills the heart.

The following evening, our last in Montana, we’re invited to an outdoor concert at the Old Saloon in Emigrant, a dot on the map halfway between Livingston and Gardiner. W.C. Huntley, a South Carolinian who now lives in Montana, is playing his usual set of twangy, old-fashioned covers and originals. I’m told he comes from a family of professionals: doctors and lawyers, mostly. But W.C. can’t quit the old-timey music, knowing perfectly well he’ll never get rich chasing his dream. He’s compact in size but charismatic, with a strong tenor voice and a confident picking style.

In Emigrant tonight it’s drizzling on and off, so most of the saloon patrons are indoors, whooping it up around the bar and taking turns at the two pool tables. The die-hards are outside, in freshly pressed jeans and pale cowboy hats, belt buckles glinting under the stage lights. The appointed bouncer, a baby-faced carpenter by trade, chats with us, “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” softening every sentence.

Under the spitting rain, with the wind whipping down from the Absaroka range, a bearded rancher in heavy boots rises from a picnic table with his girl and, with uncommon dignity and grace, leads her round the dance floor. Soon they’re joined by others, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Cowboy at the checkout

Livingston, Montana. I’m at the checkout at Albertson’s, a big U.S. grocery chain, when I line up behind the cowboy. The man towers over me — easily six-foot-six, with a white Stetson that extends his altitude by another half foot. He has a ZZ Top-calibre russet beard, shoulder-length hair and curling moustaches that give him the mournful air of a bewhiskered nineteenth-century homesteader or a murderer. He waits patiently behind a woman unloading cases of Mountain Dew and chicken parts.

I move to another checkout line for a better view. He wears Wrangler jeans tucked into suede knee-high boots. Under a black vest, a long-sleeve maroon shirt and a red bandana. At his wrists, wide leather cuffs studded with green rhinestones. A gold chain emerges from somewhere on his person, makes a loop, and terminates at a vest pocket. (To a watch? A picture of his mother? Opera glasses?)

I see no evidence of six-shooters, spurs or chaps. But he is holding a basket with several tubes of toothpaste, bottles of mouthwash and hair care products.

As I puzzle over the toiletries, a cashier at another checkout calls to me, “Excuse me, Mister, I’m open now. Would you like to pay?”

I catch the cowboy’s attention: “Sir, I think you were here first. After you.”

He pauses, touches his hat. “Thank you kindly.”

* * *

Our hosts in Paradise Valley have generously lent us a cabin on their property, which is fitted with large windows looking east and west. To the east is a pond fed by mountain streams from Emigrant Peak (nearly 11,000 ft.), which is part of the Absaroka Range. We’re at the foothills of Emigrant Peak, and so the mountain dominates the view and the light. During the morning hours, the three peaks repeat their purple silhouettes in the still water, and all is quiet, until the sun finally rises over their shoulders to stir things up.

Our hosts tell us that in the fall, hundreds of elk descend from Emigrant Peak, where they have been summering, to graze on the stubbled alfalfa fields below and to wait for winter.

Another large window, at the opposite side of the cabin, over our bed, gives a view of the distant Gallatin Range across Paradise Valley.

Approaching our cabin, nestled in the wooded patch on the right. Above us, Emigrant Peak.

The pond, just outside our kitchen window.

* * *

The cowboy at Albertson’s reminds me of The Stranger, played by Sam Elliott in the The Big Lebowski. A hammy cowpoke in a bowling alley, narrating a story to a hippie addled with dope and white Russians. Nothing could be clearer than a poke in the eye. And if The Stranger is the narrator, maybe even the creator, like all creators he has perfected the dramatic device of disappearing at just the right moment.

A poke in the eye. This Cadillac was in a parking lot on Main Street, Livingston, Montana.

When the cowboy at Albertson’s paid, I set the contents of my shopping cart on the counter, fumbled to locate my USD credit card, grabbed my bags, and only then looked up to see where he’d gone. I scanned the parking lot. Vanished. I regretted not following him. Was he driving a pickup or a Civic? And where was he headed? To the open range, or to a kid’s birthday party, to make animal balloons and perform rope tricks? I’m glad I never saw him leave.

* * *

People fly into Montana from all over the world, to cast trout flies in Yellowstone River, which threads its way through Paradise Valley. They buy bear repellent, hike the mountains, ride horses, eat bloody steaks, stare wide-eyed at the vistas, and raise hell in bars.

A voice tells me I should be doing at least some of these things instead of sitting by this pond, watching the light change, moment by moment, along and below Emigrant Peak. I pay no heed.

At mile marker 49, Route 89, along the Yellowstone River, between Emigrant and Livingston, Montana.