It seems a bit of a shame that when I think of Meteora, I always think back to that one time last June.
It was hot. It’s always hot at Meteora. We had hit a record of six chuckers on the drive in from Thessaloniki; dozens of hairpin turns combined with a couple of sharp drops doesn’t seem to be the best hangover cure known to humankind. Add frappes for breakfast into the mix and all of a sudden you’re a tour guide facing a very difficult day at the office.
I wasn’t feeling so hot myself. Unlike most of the bus, I’d put myself to bed at a kinda reasonable hour, getting myself a luxurious five hours of sleep before the Bus Day From Hell. I’d do this leg of the tour once every two weeks and I grew to dread it; we’d leave Thessaloniki at eight and not arrive in Athens until seven that night. Apart from our couple of hours at Meteora, I was left to my own devices in terms of entertaining forty hungover souls.
I’d been busy that morning, running up and down the aisle and passing out sick bags and my ever-dwindling supply of Imodium. This had kept me relatively distracted from my thumping head and churning stomach. That was, until I turned around to address my charges.
Getting on a microphone in front of anyone is pretty tricky, but try doing this on a very moving bus, upright and with your back turned away from the direction of travel. I suppose I could have faced the front and stayed seated, but I like to eyeball all my passengers to make sure that they’re listening. Hey, I’m the daughter of two school principals, what can I say?
That’s when all of those gin and tonics hit me. And the ouzo that they’d all chanted at me to chug down, despite my insistence that I hated licorice. Plus that morning’s frappe, which had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Straight away I was wishing I’d listened to the advice of the More Beer Club back at Melbourne Uni; milk was a bad choice.
Everybody sported various shades of the colour green and nobody would look me in the eye. Now was not the time to lecture them about Greek monks and promises of solitude. So I did anyway, wiping the beads of sweat off my forehead. And then I turned on some of the Three Tenors, just to give us a bit of atmosphere.
As Pavarotti did his thing, I sat back down again and tried breathing slowly and calmly. At least now I was facing the right way, and was being treated to the dazzling views of Meteora.
Approximately half of the bus knew that they were somewhere pretty spectacular, and were doing the requisite things; going ‘oooohh’ and taking photos through a bus window which would undoubtedly all be deleted later. Along the way, I pointed out the monasteries we could see. Holy Trinity. Saint Barbara. Grand Meteora. Saint Nicholas. Each one would be up in the air above us somewhere, dizzyingly beautiful and serene at the same time.
The other half, however, were wishing they were anywhere but there. They were in all sorts of pain and as we climbed higher and higher and the views got more and more spectacular, some even started verbally worrying about coming down again. Then, nice and quickly so nobody could have time to protest, I informed them that we were stopping to explore Varlaam Monastery and right-o, everyone get out of the bus and come back in an hour.
Diligently, they all followed me up the stairs and into the monastery, without much protest. I headed back, needing to make a few calls as well as seriously considering whacking my head against one of the stone walls, such was the pain around my brain area. I needed some shade and maybe even an icy pole. Ooh, an icy pole, I thought, cheering up. That could work.
But when I climbed back in the bus to grab my notebook, I spotted him. Let’s call him Tim.
Tim had been in a world of pain that morning; it had been a struggle to get him on the bus at all. He’d come straight from Valaoritou and hadn’t even been to bed. He was having his snooze now, while we were parked outside a World Heritage-listed 450-year old clifftop monastery.
I stood there for a moment. I may have even theatrically scratched my head. Then I did the only thing I could do; I shook him awake, yelled at him that he had to see Meteora, and enlisted the help of our jack-of-all-trades driver to carry him out, pretty much by all four limbs.
So there we were, our strange motley crew of Tim, our Croatian Sensation driver, a random Greek dog we had acquired and me. We stood (Tim sort of leaned) and took in our view.
Meteora, for those who have absolutely no clue of what I’m actually talking about, is the name given to the monasteries built on top of the cliffs looming up behind the town of Kalambaka in northern Greece. Even if the monasteries weren’t there the area would still be noteworthy; the cliffs were created around 60 million years ago after the earth was moving around a bit – picture it as if the ground was pinched and pulled upwards various times. The landscape around Kalambaka is pancake flat, making the cliffs look otherworldly.
But then you add the monasteries, and this is where Meteora gets even more interesting. Around twelve hundred years ago, a number of monks moved into the area, seeking solitude and uninterrupted time for prayer. Some stayed in the caves at the bottom, whereas others moved to the tops of the cliffs. Within a few hundred years there were twenty monasteries at Meteora, providing refuge for hundreds of monks fleeing the Ottoman regime in Greece.
Today there are six monasteries remaining, and all are still inhabited by either monks or nuns. Thankfully, they’ve also built some roads and steps up to the monasteries. For much of their history, the only way up was via a series of ropes and ladders. How did they know when to replace the ropes? As the legend goes, only ‘when the Lord let them break’. I wouldn’t want to be their test dummy.
I told Tim all of this, giving him a personal run-down of what exactly we were viewing. I like to think that he took some of it in. Probably not. As soon as I dismissed him, he stumbled back to the bus. Later, when we stopped to take photos at a couple more monasteries, Tim didn’t even get off the bus.
I don’t understand people like Tim. But I do understand the ones that forced themselves get out of the bus and see as much as possible, fighting through the hangover. I’ve done that in the past myself – the Salt Mines in Krakow and the Flanders Fields tour in Belgium both come to mind.
I don’t really understand the people who were back after twenty minutes though, eager to get back on the bus. But I do understand the ones who later told me of their regret, that they’d feel embarrassed when they’d hear about or see pictures of Meteora for the rest of their lives. But I wouldn’t understand when they’d wake up in the same fashion the next day. And the day after that too, and the day following. For the rest of their holiday, the one they’d been saving for and planning for years.
My advice? Don’t go to Meteora when you’re horribly hungover. You’re not going to appreciate it, and you’re going to hate yourself for it later. Instead, stay in Kalambaka, and then spend a full day or two exploring the different monasteries. They are still extremely holy places (Varlaam houses the finger of St John) and are living, breathing examples of history.
I visited Meteora half a dozen times last year. These photos aren’t of that fateful day in June, but two months later when I was guiding my last tour in Greece. There had been no chuckers that day. People were gasping in amazement as we started our climb up the cliffs, cameras clicking away. Pavarotti was belting out something in Italian, and as he reached his crescendo, I heard the sound of sobbing.
‘It’s just so beautiful!’ a girl halfway down the aisle cried.
Well, that startled me. It wasn’t exactly what I had been aiming for, but I’ll take that any day over hungover indifference. I just wish I would think of her rather than Tim whenever I’m reminded of Meteora.
This week I’m connecting with some other travel blogs through #SundayTraveler. Click the below link for some other great stories through chasingthedonkey.com.