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.