… continuing yesterday’s post.
Maria was our tour guide for the second tour and, unfortunately, the tour didn’t allow for much conversation due to its rushed nature, and we couldn’t learn much about her other than the fact that she found the ‘Gorilla Rock’ in front of Varlaam Monastery absolutely hilarious. Oh and she told us a local joke:
A tourist asks a monk, “when do you change the rope for the pulley system?”
The monk answers, “when the rope snaps!”
(Of course, this is only a joke. Hopefully.)
#1 Random facts about Greece and this area
- ‘Kalampaka’ means ‘look at the castle/ fort’ because from a great distance, the rocks look like a castle/ fort.
- Greece has the largest consistency of religion — 98% Orthodox Christians, 1% Muslims, 0.5% Protestants, 0.5% Jews.
- Pomegranates are a religious symbol here and one could see many pomegranate trees line the roadsides. “The Greeks consider the pomegranate to be a symbol of abundance – a fruit that spills over in plentitude and good luck.” Read more here.
- In the Greek mythology, the plain of Thessaly (Thessalia) became known as one of the main battlegrounds in the war between the Gods and the Titans. When the Titans lost, the Greeks believed that the body parts of the ‘petrified Titans’ were scattered all over the area — that’s why some rock sculptures here look like fists (the rock that the Holy Trinity sits on) and even heads!
- Limestone, a natural cement, was used to form the foundation of the monasteries. The limestone they used was taken from the bottom of a nearby river. Researchers know this because the limestone foundation have contains sea shells and fish skeletons lodged in it.
- The entire area of the Meteora rocks is private property and belongs solely to the monks who live in the monasteries. The monks don’t answer to the Greek church/ Greek laws (this means they don’t get government funding and their sole income is the 2-3 Euros entrance free), but instead answer to the patriarch in Istanbul (Byzantine Empire) BUT because the patriarch has no real power, the monks can pretty much do anything they want… even close the roads to the public!
- This is the difference between hermits and monks: HERMITS (meaning: wants to be by oneself) live in caves, while monks live in monasteries. To become a monk, one would need 3-4 years of training and questions (Are you sure you are ready to leave everything behind?). Well, monks could quit and leave, but their reputation in the villages would be destroyed in the villages and that would in turn have a negative impact on their social standing.
#2 Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron (aka. Transfiguration of Jesus Christ)
The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoro, which was built on the largest flood rock in Meteora, is the biggest (15000 sqm) and oldest one of all. It was called the monastery that was “suspended in the air” (meteoro), because of the formation of the gigantic rock on top of which it was built. Also, get this: It is the biggest monastery but only 4 monks live in it!
The main cathedral in the central courtyard was embellished with beautiful 16th-century frescoes — the artistic details, we learned, are some of the best samples of Greek Byzantine art. After that, we headed to the history and folklore museum, where historical codices and religious icons of high value are on display.
We also visited the carpentry room and the ossuary which shocked me out of my wits because we had to look through a small opening in a locked wooden door to view the inside of this room — no one before me told me what to expect! On our way out, we peeked into the monastery’s old kitchen, still black with smoke, with the original bread oven and soup hearth.
Maria told us that no bells can be found in this monastery because all of them were stolen by the soldiers of the Ottoman empire, so instead, wooden blocks are used to announce masses.
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A plaque I spotted on a wall in Great Meteoron read:
Ancient Greece — the universal birthplace and eternal cradle of civilisation, the everlasting spiritual provider of the universe, the great teacher and bright beacon of Europe, yesterday, today and always.
Plastic arts, architecture, poetry, prose, music, philosophy, oratory, the sciences — all intellectual pursuits reached their peak and found charismatic expression in Greek Classical antiquity.
Freedom and Democracy — intricate conceptions that were put into practice and glorified in their deepest and most fundamental sense in Athens.
Marathon, Thermopylae andSalamina — eternal symbols of an elevated ethos, patriotism, generosity of spirit, self-denial and self-sacrifice.
Homer’s epics and the Parthenon — unique, imperishable monuments of global civilisation, a glorifying, guiding hymn to the Written Word and Art throughout the centuries.
Ancient Greek philosophy — instructor of mankind. It broadened the horizons of thought and prompted the search for truth. It dealt with the concept of one deity, “paving the way and progressing that which Christ brought to completion”.
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The Holy Monastery of Varlaam is the second oldest, second biggest monastery and is the home of 7 monks. It is located opposite of the Great Meteoro Monastery and it was founded in the mid 14th-century by the exercitant Hosios Varlaam.
This is the monastery where you can visit the tower of the old preserved net, used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock… until it was “God’s will to have it replaced”!. Fun fact: Varlaam Monastery is currently the only monastery using the pulley system!
Maria kept telling us, “look out for the very large, very impressive 16th-century oak barrel! I’ll tell you what it is for afterwards.” The old refectory had been turned into a museum, where we could admire the excellence of painted icons – mostly contemporary to the Renaissance period – and precious holy vestments of the priests. Other old buildings in the Monastery were the kitchen and the hospital.
Women were not allowed in the monasteries until the 1920s – and that was only because local village women helped put out a fire! I’ll elaborate on this: In the past, the Meteora monasteries were like those in Mount Athos (which, by the way, has 20 monasteries) in the sense that no women are allowed entrance. However, one day Varlaam caught on fire and since all the men were busy in the fields, it was a woman who saw the smoke and immediately went up to the monastery to extinguish the flames. Ever since then, women have been allowed into the monasteries and even 2 nunneries opened! Queen Marie of Romania was the first official woman visitor in 1921.
As we drove away, Maria shares with us that the oak barrel was used for water storage. The rock that the monastery sits on is too porous and a water system couldn’t be carved into it so they stored water in barrels. The problem was that if water was in it for more than one year, the water gets bad because of the lack of protective film between it and the oak. Hence, every year, children from Kastraki go inside and scrub the barrel!
This monastery is one of two nunneries, the other one being The Holy Monastery of Roussanou.
St. Stephen’s Monastery is the most accessible monastery — instead of steps, we simply crossed a small bridge to reach the entrance. The view we got just by looking over its veranda was towards the vast valley of Thessalia (Thessaly), the river Pinios and the Pindos mountain range across the plain — spectacular.
The beginning of monastic life on the rock of Agios Stephanos dates back to early in the 12th century. This monastery includes two cathedrals; the old 16th-century chapel which was severely damaged during WWII and the consequent Greek Civil War, and the 18th-century main cathedral that is dedicated to Saint Charalambos and includes his holy relics.
Maria told us that the public and even the nuns are not allowed to enter the church inside this nunnery because the humidity of our breath would destroy the frescoes inside.
One thing that I noticed while I was here was that the nuns were much more sociable and welcoming compared to the monks in other monasteries. The nuns were selling entrance tickets, serving customers in the souvenir shop and interacting with tourists roaming around the site… worlds apart from monks who tried to avoid tourists at all costs, which was why it was quite a big deal that we saw a monk in Varlaam earlier on!
Fun fact: One of the nuns in this nunnery is an Australian who initially came to this nunnery as a tourist but felt so much peace here that she decided to leave everything behind and live the rest of her life as a nun in this very nunnery.
#5 Returning to the sunset location from yesterday — this time in mid-day…
Maria instructed us to turn our vision slightly to the left, “do any of you recognise the rocks in the distance?” She then told us that these rocks were photoshopped into the Game of Thrones — it was the Castle of Eyrie! Filming didn’t take place here because the monks feared that filming here would ‘offend the sanctity’ of the place, thus the producers settled for photoshopping the scene into the film. (I wonder why the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’ could be filmed at the Holy Trinity years earlier though…)
#6 Getting to know some South Islanders
So there was 18 y/o Benjamin, 15 y/o Sarah and Dad Nigel. I was especially curious to find out what was Ben’s name because his parents kept calling him something that sounded like ‘Bin’ and I thought it was impossible that any parent would name their child after a dumpster. I found out that New Zealanders usually pronounce ‘e’ very similarly to ‘i’ — ‘ten’ becomes ‘tin’, ‘egg’ becomes ‘igg’, and so on.
Anyway, Ben is doing a 3-month backpacking trip in Europe after splitting with his family’s plans in Greece. He will be covering places like The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and a few more places in Eastern Europe. He has plans to begin with a course in Engineering in a North Island university next year.
Sarah is in Year 10 and has played the flute for about 5 or 6 years. She plans to major in the Arts in the future.
We were talking about travels when Ben told us that once in Scandinavia, Dad Nigel taught everyone in the dinner hall the Haka, which is a type of ancient Māori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield, as well as when groups came together in peace. Have You watched an All Blacks rugby match? The players usually perform the Haka before a match. Now this is the catch: Dad Nigel didn’t actually know the Haka very well, so he ended up making up random words!
As recommended, we had lunch at the Restaurant of Meteora and I had the most amazing dish of stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes, potatoes and peas. We bought some traditional Greek clothing for ourselves and for our parents before bidding farewell to Kalampaka, which has been such an adventure.
During the train back to Athens, the lady beside me rested her bare feet on the unoccupied seat in front of her, i.e. beside my sister, and got reprimanded for it. It was so embarrassing, but I thought it was necessary — such disrespect for other passengers is despicable! This train, by the way, chugged.