Before I decided to go to Greece, I had never heard of Meteora. Greece is famous for Athens and the Parthenon, sandy beaches and Santorini sunsets. I didn’t realize the country was so mountainous and full of interesting sights on the mainland.
Meteora turned out to be one of our favorite places in Greece, but for unexpected reasons.
Meteora is the name given to a cluster of monasteries in central Greece. The monasteries are monuments to God, built high atop cliffs on pedestals made by God. Meteora is obviously not a well kept secret – a photo of a monastery graces the cover of the current Lonely Planet guidebook – but it escaped my attention all these years and I’m willing to wager that many of you reading this are learning of it for the first time.
There are presently six active monasteries on the cliffs north of the small town of Kastraki. The monasteries are linked by a network of hiking trails, some of which are real ass-kickers that take you almost straight up. The super fit, vivacious and healthy people hike, but the lazy (and probably smarter) tourists use the buses.
The highlight of visiting Meteora wasn’t actually the monasteries or stunning natural scenery. Make no mistake, the area was beautiful; but the real highlights of Meteora were the little things that make travel so rewarding.
We arrived on Sunday, a gorgeous sunny day, and every restaurant was overflowing with locals having a long lunch in the outdoor seating areas. It was 3pm, and the Greeks were well into their wine and conversation with their families and friends. We took an outdoor table and actually had a decent bottle of wine, for the first time in Greece I might add. We ate grilled feta and barbecue pork, a perfect compliment to the wine and sunshine, and lingered for hours like the locals.
While in Kastraki, we frequently went to the same shop to buy drinks and snacks. The woman who ran the shop must have been 200-years-old, give or take a decade, and we became like family to her. She would speak to us in a combination of Greek, English and laughter. Kristi would pet her little dog that was the size of a kitten. The old woman, like a proud mother, once showed us how the dog could play fetch. On another occasion, she had us pick lottery numbers for her. The simple act of buying a candy bar took at least 5 minutes.
In a park in Kastraki we noticed an antique, dapper Greek man. He was dressed in a suit with a stylish little hat and he had a yellow rose in his coat pocket, adding a little flair to his already swanky outfit. He walked over to us, plucked the rose from this pocket and presented it to my wife. A lesser man may have been uncomfortable with his flirtations, but I was okay with it. He smiled and walked away. “That just happened,” Kristi said. “That awesome Greek man just gave me a flower.”
On the edge of town, where our guesthouse was located, lived a dog we named Harold. (Why we named him Harold? I have no idea.) Harold slept directly in the road most of the day. Cars slowed and swerved to avoid him; he owned the road. Once, a tour bus pulled up and honked at him. He grumpily got up and moved over a few feet to allow the bus to pass, then plopped right back down on the center line.
On the last day, I hiked to an overlook at sunset; the light show that evening was special. It was partly cloudy with ominous storm clouds rolling in. Rays of light knifed through the clouds; a rainbow formed to the east. All of it was made even more impressive by the autumn colors.
On the walk home after sunset, I happened upon four local women walking along the road. They were out for a stroll and the sound of gossiping, laughter and the clatter of their walking sticks echoed throughout the canyon. I heard them long before I saw them. They took over the entire right lane, and like Harold, cars yielded to them.
I asked if I could take their photo. They got a huge laugh out of looking at their digital representations on the screen of my camera. They said a whole bunch of stuff to me in Greek that I couldn’t understand, but I’m sure that it was all positive and funny. Or they were making fun of me. (There is no way to know.)
The unexpected is what makes travel so special. It is the little interactions with locals, the discovery of new places, that makes travel so rewarding, so addictive.
This is why I love travel, and I why I can’t stop.