Meteora, the valley of medieval monasteries teetering on vast monoliths, religious sanctuaries that remain in use by hermetic Orthodox monks even today. Delphi, now ruined temples in ancient times considered to be the center of the world. Two of perhaps the most spectacular places to visit in the world. Both blended our shared passions of natural splendor and rich history. It should come as no surprise then that visiting them was our first and only foray into the world of multi day guided tours. Usually guided tours, especially those spanning more than one day go against our staunch position on budget only travel, however considering the remoteness as well as the linguistic and logistic challenges involved with reaching both places, we decided booking with Antelope Travel was the cheapest as well as the easiest option.
On our first morning, having already spent a few days exploring the Greek capital, we arranged to be picked up by Antelope at the closest hotel to our airbnb. Our guide on day one was a well informed local who gave us a terrific and charismatic overview of the history of the areas we drove through on our way to Delphi. As we began to climb (Delphi is located in a mountain range) our guide began to ramble, reminiscent of how old friends playfully rant to one another over a beer at the pub. Breezing over usually off limits topics like politics and religion with a beautifully tongue-in-cheek tone. His knowledge of just about every era of Greek history, from their ancient heyday, their medieval stagnation, Turkish occupancy as well as both world wars was simply astonishing. To prove that he wasn't simply reading from a memorized script he invited open questions frequently and despite my probing inquiries he always provided answers.
Despite the charisma of our tour guide, the thing both Caitlin and I remember most vividly about our drive from Athens to Delphi was the tiny mountain roads, perilous switchbacks and gargantuan sheer cliff edges seen from the side of the coach. The driver handled these difficult roads, often with coaches coming at him, with natural grace, but it didn't stop both of us having mini heart attacks on several occasions. Between the panic moments on the mountain roads however, we were able to take in some of the most spectacular views of our lives.
Even for a total skeptic such as myself, the moment you first lay eyes on the ancient sanctuary of Delphi is a truly spiritual one, the perfect porcelain white of the stone used on the religious structures only serves to amplify this spiritual feeling. It was advised that we stay as a group with the tour guide so we could get the 'full rundown' of each structure, however we decided that we would rather explore the ruins on our own, allowing us to spend more time at places we were most excited for (such as the Amphitheatre below) and skip over those we had less interest in. We were however very careful to make a note of the time we were expected back at the coach so as not to be left behind!
The settlement of Delphi itself is a total sensory overload. Standing atop the vast pristine amphitheater, gazing down to where thousands of people who are now long gone and forgotten, almost totally lost to history is a surreal feeling. Closing my eyes and feeling the warm embrace of the wind against my face, it was easy to hear the thunderous applause that would have filled the theater and by extension the empty valley below. The now overgrown ruins are a true testament to the unrelenting passage of time. Once a bustling and religious center of the known world to a decaying shadow of its former self. Ironically, its 'decay' is one of its most beautiful features.
A few short hours of awe inspired ambling later and we were back at the coach. The effect of exploring the sanctuary was obvious. Our previously chatty group of mostly Americans, British and Australians were now silent, deep in thought, digesting what we had just experienced. The drive down from the mountain peaks at Delphi was a fitting backdrop to our internal pondering. As the mountains disappeared behind us, we began driving through olive orchards said to be thousands of years old before arriving at the village of Itea where we enjoyed traditional seafood on the waterfront of the town. It seemed although the tour company had a partnership with the restaurant we ate at, but the friendly staff and delicious fish made it worthwhile. The stop was a fairly quick one and before long we were back on the road.
Our next stop was Thermopylae. Thermopylae is the location of multiple ancient battles. Countless thousands of men had died in this bottleneck over last several millennia. Clashes of spear, sword and shield and the exchange of gunfire, what a stark contrast to the tranquility of Delphi. Where Delphi was adorned every few feet with temples and memorials to remember those before us, the vast openness of the Thermopylae was almost eerie. As we stood below the statue of King Leonidas standing with shield and spear primed (to remember the Persian invasion several hundred years BC) our guide began detailing how Allied forces (Mostly Australians and New Zealanders) and German soldiers clashed in the second world war over two thousand years later. A sad realisation that humanity hasn't evolved as much as we like to think sometimes.
The stop was very informative and we learned a lot about the battleground and it's significance in shaping the culture of not only Greece but Europe and by extension the New World too. Our stop at Thermopylae was not a long one however and we fairly quickly got back into the coach and headed towards the place we would spend the night, the town of Kalambaka. Although the sun was already setting as we eventually arrived, excitement for the adventures of the next day in Meteora was quickly building. Seeing the sun fall behind a monastery balanced precariously on a several hundred foot high stone monolith was utterly breathtaking (Below right).
One of perhaps the biggest perks of taking part in a multi day tour with a company as opposed to self planned was that we stayed in high quality accommodation all inclusive. The tour company asked that we visit the restaurant at the same time (to help the kitchen plan perhaps?) and we ended up sitting with an American couple a few years older than us from our tour group. It was nice to reflect on what we had seen with other people to see how they digested it all. The hotels name was the Amalia and the food served was traditional Greek, which was very satisfying after a long day on our feet.
Our second day started early, waking up and heading down to the breakfast buffet to enjoy a cup of tea of some Greek yoghurt before setting out to explore the famous monasteries of Meteora. Its important to note here that Caitlin had paid attention to advice given by our guide the day before (as well as advice found online) about the fairly strict dress code women must abide by to enter the monasteries. Although admittedly it seemed a little unnecessary to hark on about 'modest dress' in the 21st century, we of course accepted that its their turf and their rules and as such Caitlin wore a floor length skirt and a long sleeved shirt. So long as no shoulders, arms, legs or ankles are showing there is no cause for issue. If for whatever reason this might come as a surprise to anyone visiting the monasteries, large scarfs are available to wear as a shawl or a long skirt.
Many of the monasteries have been atop of the monoliths for at least 800 years, and the caves that dot the monoliths have been lived in for as much as 50 thousand years. The monasteries have continued to be used in the same way since their founding with the monks living in them largely uninterested in the political, religious and social changes happening around Greece in the period. Monks received supplies from those living in Kalambaka by rope, pulley and baskets no matter if the region was Byzantine controlled, Ottoman controlled or by the free Greek state.
The main event, the astonishing monasteries of the Thessaly plains. After catching glimpses of the religious structures teetering atop the towering outcrops, I can speak for our entire tour group when I say exploring them was on our minds the night before. The typically strong Greek sunshine beat down upon us as we exited our coach at the foot of the first monastery. It is important that sensible footwear is worn for the exploration of the monasteries, as we quickly found out. The stone staircase etched into the rock was lined with only a 2 foot wall to protect climbers from the terrifying drop down the cliffside. As someone who has a strong fear of heights, at several instances I felt like turning back and waiting at the coach, the allure of Byzantine frescoes and views stretching hundreds of miles of the Greek interior were enough for me to brave the ascent. I suggest comfortable footwear as I shudder to think what might happen if your flip-flop got caught on a step.
Although we left fairly early, we were not the first group to arrive, however the density of people didn't at all take away from the experience of the visit. People were much too preoccupied with the views, the drops and the history all around them. As we entered the first monastery, our guide gave us a quick rundown of it's background, why and how it was established and so on. The guide was careful to make sure everyone would stick together as a group for the tour as time inside the monastery is limited (to prevent overcrowding around relics no doubt). I have always had a great interest in Byzantine (medieval Greek) history and as such I was totally awestruck by the orthodox frescoes, medieval architecture and stories told of the building and its inhabitants.
After touring many of the rooms of the monastery, we had some time to spend out in the courtyard (below) as well as a chance to use the toilet, a squat toilet (reminiscent of our time in China) which came as a bit of a surprise. If you have a strong aversion to using one, be wary of your fluid intake the morning of the visit, and be sure to use the facilities in the hotel and coach (if yours is outfitted with one). If you look closely at the picture below left, you can just about see the pulley cords that remain in use today. Their original use was to transport monks, in wicker baskets. You would never see me suspended in a wicker basket hundreds of feet in the air, never ever.
The second monastery we visited didn't have such a stringent picture taking policy, either that or I snapped a few shots in secret I can't remember exactly. The places of worship within in the monasteries were typical of Orthodox shrines and were adorned in brilliant gold, bold coloured iconography and veneration of saints all but forgotten by western churches. The views of the valley, dotted with villages and the town of Kamambaka are utterly stunning. After touring the second monastery, we decided to sit in the courtyard for a while and enjoy the sights and the sun before a kitten whizzed past us. Perplexed, we decided to follow it and found the rest of the litter as well as the assumed mother cat. Sunning themselves just inches from the sheer drop and certain death below, Caitlin to this day is upset knowing many kittens were likely a little too excited and tumbled. This fear was confirmed when we later asked the guide about the resident felines. As you can see below center, the courtyard of the monastery is sublime and seems unchanged as the centuries pass.
Like the first monastery, the staircase leading to it seemed a little sketchy and having tourists walking in the opposite direction to you (someone has to be next to the drop...) was scary, but the summit is worth it. The picture of Caitlin climbing the staircase through a rock tunnel perfectly demonstrates how narrow it can be at times.
After spending hours wandering around the uniquely beautiful monasteries of Meteora, we boarded our coach and began our journey back to Athens. A short time after boarding our coach, we disembarked one last time for a late lunch in a quaint little village. As Caitlin and I had packed our own homemade lunch, we decided not to buy a great deal in the village, however a local bakery selling Baklava and ice cream was simply a must. Hours later we were dropped off at the same hotel we were picked up at in Athens and decided to explore more of the city.
It's important to note at this point, that the order of the visit as well as many of the details (such as the villages we stopped at and the monasteries we visited) are subject to change depending on the weather, time of year and day of the week. Although this can be checked before booking with the tour company.
Our first venture into multi-day guided tours was an interesting one. At 300 euro per person, initially it doesn't appear to conform to our 'budget' ethos. Included in the price however is all transportation, entry to the monasteries, dinner on the first day, a night in a comfortable hotel, entry into Delphi and a local expert at your disposal. I believe if we had micromanaged every minute detail of our trip, we could perhaps have saved a little on the trip. However for the added stress and difficulty that comes with vehicle hire/driving abroad (plus fees as we were under 25 at the time) I don't think it would have been justifiable. Had the Greek interior been more accessible by public transport and more options for airbnb hire, we no doubt would have opted to travel on our own accord, however we don't regret at all traveling with Antelope. Of course there are downsides to traveling with a company, relinquishing freedom to explore as we wish was very hard to adapt to and we broke from our group on every possible occasion to avoid being suffocated, even though the guide and group were very friendly.
I would thoroughly recommend visiting the ancient acropolis of Delphi and the medieval mountaintop monasteries of Meteora if you ever get the chance.