The Best Part About Joining A Monastery Is The View

The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece
The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece

I’m not big on the idea of joining a monastery. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about self-sacrifice, devotion and the return to a simpler lifestyle. I just have a real issue with the idea of wearing a robe all the time, and in my case, would find it physically impossible to fulfill a vow of silence of any length over two minutes. Well, maybe two and a half if I’m thinking real hard.

But if circumstances ever required that I run off to join a monastery – such as evading an angry loan shark or testifying against a mob boss – I know exactly the place where I would join: The otherworldly monasteries of the Meteora, in Thessaly, Greece.

I know. Most people conjure images of boxy whitewashed houses overlooking the sapphire blue of the Mediterranean when they think of Greece. Either that or pockmarked marble pillars such as at the Parthenon or Delphi, which serve as reminders of the faded glory of one of the world’s greatest empires; one that endowed us with gifts such as theater, democracy, and an alphabet that is essential to fraternities everywhere. But there is more to Greece than just the usual suspects, and the Meteora is the quintessential poster child for the ‘other’ history that played out in this ancient land.

Reachable via a three to four hour drive from Athens, the principal town for this World Heritage Site is Kalambaka, which is nestled at the base of the enormous pillars of rock that provide both the backdrop and namesake for this unique landscape. From a term meaning ‘suspended rocks’, the Meteora are towers of erosion-smoothed sandstone jutting out of the fertile plain, and are dotted with several still-active Greek Orthodox monasteries perched precariously on top of their impossibly sheer-sided pinnacles. Originally the site of a religious retreat founded by a cave-dwelling hermit in the year 985, the first of over twenty monasteries was built in 1382, though today only about six remain active.

Sure the climb's a strain, but what a view!
Sure the climb’s a strain, but what a view!

Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that anyone bothered to install stairs to reach the tops. Before that your only option was a harrowing ride in a winch-drawn basket. Though I can’t even begin to fathom the kind of faith it takes to make that ride (not in God but in the power of monk-made ropes) if you think about it, it all kind of makes sense. What else could make you more aware of your own mortality and draw you closer to your Maker than a basket ride up a towering cliff side? I’m sure I’d be contemplating the meaning of life if I were in such a position where I might not have much of it left.

The Great Meteoron
The Great Meteoron

The biggest, oldest and highest monastery is the aptly named Great Meteoron, situated on a peak at 2,045 feet. The day that I saw it, the clouds above conveniently parted just enough to allow a few shafts of light to surround it like a halo. I mused that regardless of the beliefs of its occupants, the setting alone truly lent itself to a search for the divine.

What is perhaps the most photogenic of the monasteries is that of Moni Rousanou. Capping a narrow spire of rock, it is dwarfed by an even larger pillar of stone situated directly behind it, thereby providing a sense of scale that is hard to grasp elsewhere. And if you care about such things, that’s the one that always makes people say “Oooooooh” when they see it in my photo album.

Moni Rousanou
Moni Rousanou

Along the winding road are various lookout points, allowing for some tremendous views. My personal favorite was one accessible only by scaling a slightly-sloped rock face with what I felt were God-given footholds, so that even an amateur, unequipped rock climber like me could observe the awe-inspiring view of this forest of rock and the cluster of Kalambaka town far below. My friend Paul and I had made sure our wives weren’t watching when we climbed up, and as Paul – blonde-haired and dressed all in black – was splayed against the rock in an attempt to lower himself down, I just could not resist asking him if he had six fingers on his right hand. If you don’t get the reference, well . . . then maybe you belong up there with the monks.

With Paul at the divinely-positioned lookout point
With Paul at the divinely-positioned lookout point

Given its remote location and the distances (not to mention steep climbs) between monasteries, if you plan to visit the Meteora on your own, I recommend that you rent a car. However if you’ve come to cast off the shackles of modern society and renounce all worldly comforts, then skip the car and get ready for the calf workout of a lifetime. It’s just a shame that the robes won’t allow you to show them off.

Depending on how interested you are in frescoes, icons and other Orthodox paraphernalia, the Meteora can be comfortably seen in just a day, though an overnight in Kalambaka (alternately spelled Kalampaka) will allow you to do so at leisure and with greater opportunity for some great souvlaki and baklava. And if the former doesn’t convince you of the existence of a deity, the latter certainly will.

Of course, if you really need a place to crash, you could always join one of the aforementioned monasteries. The lifestyle might be hard to swallow, the robes may be itchy, and the images rather creepy, but the view from the Meteora is just shy of heaven. And if you decide to run off there, take solace in the fact that you’re not the first to do so, and you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate life’s big questions as they’re hauling you up in the basket. Amen.

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Maximization & Other Made-Up Travel Philosophies

In my previous post If You’re Going To India, Turn Right At Finland, I mentioned the concept of ‘maximization’—a self-invented term of travel philosophy—when discussing the art of the stopover. I will now elaborate further on that concept and how it applies to planning travel. Just a word of caution: I WILL be using some made-up words. English language purists beware!

 

While one can certainly maximize their vacation by means of a well-placed stopover, my maximization philosophy encompasses a wider scope. In a nutshell, it posits: While you’re in the area, see as much of it as you can. That may sound so simplistic as to hardly count as a philosophy at all, but there’s actually a lot more to it than that.

 

Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d'Argent, La Digue, Seychelles
Bonus Beach Time! Anse Source d’Argent, La Digue, Seychelles

Take as an example a trip I took in early 2009 to South Africa. This country is richly blessed in natural beauty and attractions, and could have easily filled the entire two weeks I had at my disposal. But—and here’s where the maximization philosophy comes in—while we were in the relativish area (yes, that’s a made-up term, in this case indicating a radius of a thousand miles) I opted out of a full two weeks in South Africa, and spent one of them in the idyllic Seychelles Islands. The benefits are two-fold. For starters, this gave us great variety in our vacation activities, allowing us to go from a safari in the bush to some gorgeous tropical beaches—the ultimate surf and turf if you will. We also saved ourselves another 16 hour flight to return to the ‘neighborhood’ of the western Indian Ocean, not to mention the cost of another set of airline tickets. In doing so, we mostified (got the most out of) the fact that we were already going to be within relativish striking distance.

 

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Another example would be in 2007, where we took advantage of an open jaw ticket. As the name would suggest, this is when you fly into one city but leave from another. Arriving in Istanbul, Turkey, we saw some of Turkey’s amazing attractions (See the post The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia) before taking an overnight train to Greece, and then renting a car to explore all the way down to Athens, before hopping on a plane to finish up in Rome. Again whilst (I know it’s not a made-up word but Americans never use it) in the relativish area, why not take in not one but three former seats of empires?

 

So how can you go about maximizing your next travel plans? You can hire a competent travel professional such as myself to do it for you at a reasonable price (Pardon the blatanistic [i.e. shamelessly self-serving] plug for my Trip Accomplice travel service) or you can get out a map and see what else is in the general area you’re seeking to visit. With a little thought, some imagination, and a handful of guts, you can take your plainified, humdrumicated itinerary and turn it into an awesomotic, fantabulous maximized adventure. Just be sure to turn off spell-check.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Miles

One of the most frequent questions I get asked when people peruse my travel photos is: “What made you go there?” followed by the inevitable: “How did you even hear about that place?” The response is the same for both: “I saw it in a picture.”

Yes, just as the beauty of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, so too a few travel photographs have sent me on a chase of many more than a thousand miles, just to witness the scenes depicted in person. My earliest recollection of this was an old book my parents had on a shelf in the crude entertainment center my dad built on his own when I was still a young boy. In it was the iconic scene of Machu Picchu, and I knew then and there I wanted to see it for myself. (I made the attempt to do so back in 2010 but was denied due to mudslides, so that goal is still pending).

Is it a sign of weakness that my mind (and wallet) are so open to suggestion? Perhaps. But there’s no doubt I have consistently had my expectations either matched or surpassed when I finally got to see the real thing. Below are just a few examples.

 

The Meteora, Greece

The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece
The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece

The first time I saw the image of ancient monasteries dwarfed by enormous pillars of stone, I thought I was looking at a scene from a video game (specifically something out of MYST). When I found myself in the general neighborhood of Greece I made visiting this otherworldly setting a priority and was thrilled when I was able to add hundreds of inspirational pictures to my own collection.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey
Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey

This surreal landscape captivated me at first glance. I mean, where else can you wander entire villages of sculpted rock right out of a Dr. Seuss book? Add to that the opportunity to stay in an authentic cave hotel (the coolest thing ever, btw) and I knew that despite being literally in the middle of nowhere (well, Turkey actually) it was worth the effort. My photo album is in complete agreement.

Jodhpur, India

Image
Partial view of the Blue City

 

While India had always been a dream destination of mine, nothing stoked my wanderlust quite as much as a picture of Jodhpur, The Blue City as seen from the imposing Mehrangar Fort. Other than the intriguing color, the warren of flat houses, alleyways & staircases seemed a real-life M.C. Escher drawing. Considering its use as a setting in the Dark Knight Rises installment of the Batman series, apparently I’m not the only one to consider it as worth the trip.

Parati, Brazil

Sunset over the Historic Center, Parati, Brazil
Sunset over the Historic Center, Parati, Brazil

It was in a book of travel photography that I first caught sight of the cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses of Parati. Having always wanted to go to Brazil anyway, I not only included it in my itinerary but also decided to spend the bulk of my time there. Sure, I had read up on all its fine attractions, charming pousadas and artistic vibe, but it was those first pictures that made me say “I have to go there” and made me feel so very glad that I did. In fact, very shortly I will be posting about what a marvelous place it is.

These are just a few examples but by now I’m sure you get the point. So the tip is: If you’re lacking in inspiration or have always taken the road most traveled, do yourself a favor and go down to your local library, take out a book on a destination that intrigues you, and flip through the pictures (or alternately, view my photo gallery.) Inspiration is never far away so long as there are pictures, and so long as there are pictures, there will always be a reason to travel.