After a late dinner and bed by midnight, the thought of rising early wasn’t appealing. But we set our alarm and crawled out of bed by 6:00am.
Our destination today would be Meteora where we would be visiting the Greek Orthodox monasteries of Saint Steven and The Grand Meteoron. Although we had serious misgivings on the condition of our bus, we decided not to abandon the tour for two reasons. First, we were exhausted and couldn’t think straight. Second, we weren’t sure about transportation back to Athens….. about five hours. So we hesitantly stayed with the group and hoped for the best.
After a nice breakfast at the hotel we loaded the bus for a relatively short drive to our destination. In the distance we could see the the rock formations upon which most of these 14th century monasteries were built. You could also see various caves where many years ago some hermits and monks took up residence. There is estimated to be around 1,400 of these shelters in the cliffs.
At one time there were 24 monasteries in Meteora, but today there are only 6. It’s estimated that there are only about 60 monks and/or nuns residing in these remaining monasteries. Today these monasteries primarily function as tourist attractions.
As for told, the Meteora monasteries have strict dress codes. The men were instructed to wear pants, no shorts. Women were required to wear dresses, no pants. Also if we didn’t have the correct attire there would be skirts available. True to form, as we entered Saint Stevens, there was an assortment of skirts and shawls. I quickly picked out a wrap while Lila purchased our entrance fees.
Saint Stevens is by way of a bridge the most assessable of all the monasteries in Meteora. It has a varied history dating back to the Byzantine era. More recently though, part of its chapel was heavily damaged during WW11 and subsequent Greek conflicts. Then in 1961 it was turned into a convent.
Our tour begun in the old refectory which now houses a museum. We saw many old relics such as manuscripts and artworks dating back to 330 AD.
As we explored Saint Stevens further we came across the sacred skull of Saint Charalampus, it’s second patron saint. The skull is housed in a box under glass and caught us by surprise. It was donated to the monastery in 1398 by the Prince of Wallachia Vladislav.
On our way to the next monastery we stoped at a rocky overlook which required a bit of climbing. The climb was well worth it with an outstanding view of the valley below and some of the pillar formations that make up Meteora.
Our next stop was The Holy Monastery of The Grand Meteron. It’s the most impressive of the 6 remaining monasteries being the largest, oldest and highest. To reach the sanctuary it required walking up a steep staircase which switch backed it’s way up the rock. Viewing from a distance the visitors making the ascent looked like ants on a hill.
After conquering the hill we all met up for our guided tour. We gradually moved up through the monastery while Lila pointed out a wooden board which I believe represented the wood of Noah’s ark.
She also discussed the history of the various frescoes adorning the walls. It was about then when several priests walked past on their way to the chapel where they began to sing in this beautiful Gregorian chant. This was truly a mesmerizing moment and I wished our group had moved another 20 feet to watch the priests perform. Eventually we did make it into the chapel….. after the priests had left.
The chapel was amazing though and filled with beautiful frescoes depicting the Apostles and various biblical scenes. Lila then spoke for what seemed like an eternity about the artwork. Unfortunately due to the crowd size, she was hard to understand or follow what she was pointing at. In comparison a French group near by were decked out with the latest hearing devices and the tour guide had a laser pointer. After a quick presentation their group moved on.
Eventually the tour concluded. We now had free time and Lila was gracious enough to point out things to see such as the old nursing home/ hospital on site, gift shop, an observation area for taking photos as well as the location of the restrooms. Great! Then she said that we’d meet up at the bus in about 30 or 40 minutes. Wa what???? You see it would take at least 20 minuets just to descend the stairs back to the bus not to mention the line for the women’s restroom!
Like disciplined disciples we obeyed and took a few photos on the way to the restrooms before making our way back to the bus. The chilly weather we had enjoyed in the morning was now warming up. This was even more evident as we boarded the bus which was again hot and stuffy. Were we going to have another “bus breakdown”? I dared not entertain the thought in fear of jinxing our return to Athens….. and subsequent flight back home.
At this point all we wanted was a good lunch and a safe trip back. With our lunch destination not far, we focused on food and the fact that all the meals on this tour had been good. So after arriving at the overpriced cafeteria style eatery, we were understandably disappointed.
Oh well, I admit we were tired and cranky. Frankly it was time to end this tour. We just wanted to get back to Athens and take a shower. I felt like there was sludge covering my entire body. I was also going crazy from the Mosquito bites I acquired while standing on the side of the highway during the 3 hour “bus breakdown”. I also was now acutely aware of the itchy bites covering my right arm, which was probably a consequence of dust mites. An educated guess of course since I only sat on the right side of the bus with my right arm constantly rubbing up against the dusty curtain.
I’m not sure how long we were on the road before our bus pulled over at a unplanned rest stop. Out the door the bus driver flew. Our fear was realized when we saw the side of the bus opened to expose the bottled water.
Yep the bus was overheating. After hydrating the bus we traveled about 20 minutes up the road to a small village, where Lila was arranging for a new bus. I suppose I don’t need to mention that this should have happened sooner, but grateful that she was prepared…. this time.
We were told there would be a coffee shop in the village. There wasn’t, but a merciful winery owner open her doors and offered us all fermented beverages.
After about 45 minutes a shiny new bus arrived and the luggage was swiftly transferred into our new ride. Our new bus was so wonderful! It looked clean, it felt clean and the curtains were so nice….. not to mention the vehicle just seemed to purr down the highway.
When we arrived in Athens it was dark. The tour groups passengers were dropped off in various locations based on their accomidations for the evening. We choose Syntagma Square. Here we hailed a taxi to the Sofitel Hotel, about a 45 minute ride, which is adjacent to Eleftherios Venizelos Airport. The hotel was awesome and perfect for catching our early flight home.