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.
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.”
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.