“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
David Foster Wallace
On day 110, at the exact halfway point of our time abroad, we flew to Greece to start the European leg of our journey. We had scored $600 tickets to Athens (that’s the price for both of us!), on a 3:00am Scoot flight from Singapore. While neither of us was thrilled about the 7 hour layover at Chiangi Airport, we were pretty stoked about the price tag on the Asian budget carrier.
Considering that Singapore is a major hub for flights to the remainder of Asia and Europe, we weren’t the only ones enduring a long layover. Trends show the Chinese as the fastest growing outbound tourist country in the world, with over 140 million traveling to foreign destinations and spending over double the international average while on vacation. Throughout our travels, we’ve encountered Chinese tourists at almost every major sight. You can easily recognize the large buses and throngs of people, wearing matchings t-shirts, hats, or badges and following a very prominent tour guide. We’ve even seen several groups of Chinese scuba divers, a pastime that has yet to gain a lot of popularity.
As we walked along the concourse to our gate, we passed no less than 6 flights headed to different Chinese cities which explained the number of Pokémon backpacks and cat-ear hats (yes, this is a thing) that we encountered in the main terminal.
Upon boarding the 12 hour flight, we were expecting a full plane. Dean and I had decided to upgrade our seats at $20 each to a forward economy cabin, just behind business class, that promised quiet. Considering that everything on the Scoot flight costs extra money – food, headsets, and even water ($4 for a small bottle of Evian), we weren’t expecting much of the upgrade. However, after everyone finally stowed baggage and took their seats, the main cabin was packed while our’s remained only 15% occupied. I immediately ditched Dean to grab my own row and lay down across the three middle seats. It was one of the most delightful long distance flights I’ve ever experienced – I slept for 7 hours, waking up for a brief sandwich, previously purchased at the airport, and then watched several episodes of A&E’s Pride and Prejudice. Dean, who never sleeps on flights, was able to get 5 hours in spite of his 6’4” frame being cramped across the three seats.
Arriving in Athens at 9:30am we took a 45 minute train ride into the city to meet our AirBnB host, Eleni. Having dropped off our bags, we marveled at the view towards the ancient Acropolis crowned by the Parthenon from our balcony before leaving to find food.
In typical Krista fashion, I made Dean walk up several streets, eyeing the open air patios filled with people drinking espresso freddos (iced espresso) and perused menus until forced to turn around and sit down at a restaurant that had only one table remaining.
Surrounded by locals, drinking their mid-morning coffees, smoking and gesticulating in their beautiful language, I couldn’t help but feel content. The feeling could be attributed to having just eaten semi-familiar food – delicious kebab, ground lamb and beef patties resembling a hamburger, or Dean’s mousakas, a Greek shepherd’s pie.
After three weeks in Bali, enjoying the tropical temperatures of 85 degrees with 1000% humidity, we were both hankering for cooler temperatures. The mid-60 degree weather was perfect for strolling down the pedestrian-friendly streets, occasionally passing ancient ruins and more frequently looking into tavernas.
Sitting outside, even throughout winter, appears to be the norm in Athens, every restaurant spills out onto the sidewalks and offers options for dealing with the cold – blankets, portable gas heaters, and roll down walls/windows – allowing for seamless people watching and enjoyment.
Over lunch, both Dean and I mentioned that we were going to need to upgrade our wardrobe for the cooler temperatures and trendier surroundings. Most of my cold weather clothes had been packed with our trek to Nepal in mind, prioritizing function over style. I had originally packed two long sleeved, ¾ zip base layers to be used instead of sweaters as a second layer but unfortunately lost one in India – the second has developed a hole in the right elbow.
Searching the old town shopping district of Athens, I was specifically looking to replace these articles with something similar, not caring how many different stores I needed to peruse to find exactly what I wanted. Dean on the other hand is an efficient shopper. He walked into the Toms store, tried on one pair of shoes and bought them within 5 minutes. To be fair, he owns a pair almost identical to those he bought, but even so, he’s not a patient shopper.
Over the next few days, as we walked all over Athens, enjoying the ancient sites, I covertly window shopped. A difficult task as most of our time walking through the shopping district was in the early morning before the doors were open.
On the first of our two big sightseeing days, we awoke early to grab a coffee and spanakopita (spinach pie) at a neighborhood corner cafe. We then ambled through the small, meandering back streets to the Acropolis Museum while enjoying our coffee, entering the museum just after opening. This is a little trick we learned in Paris when visiting Notre Dame and the Louvre – most tourists prefer to wake up late and enjoy a leisurely breakfast at their hotels before heading out for the day. In getting to the sights early, you not only get to watch the city wake up, but you also enjoy shorter lines and more often than not have “the sights” to yourself for a few hours.
We wove through the museum, looking at the ancient statues and artifacts preserved from the Acropolis. Dean, in particular, enjoyed the museum as it boasted a complex and elegant modern architecture, relating to the footprint of the Parthenon crowning the Acropolis above. The views from the upper floor of the museum got us excited to see the ruins for ourselves. So after a quick snack of pork gyro, we bought our tickets and started the climb up the hill, passing several ancient temples, caves, and amphitheaters on the way.
The Acropolis is the name for the large, bluff that overlooks all of Athens and is home to multiple ancient ruins dating back to the fifth century BC. The most famous of the ruins is the Parthenon, but also located on the hill are the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike, each in different states of restoration.
Having come up the backside of the hill, Dean and I encountered a handful of large tour groups at the West side of the bluff, where a paved road allows easy access to the masses. We walked up the stairs of the Propylaea, the monumental gateway that serves as entrance to the Acropolis. Walking through the ancient marble pillars, you get your first real sense of the magnitude of this place.
And then the top of the hill opens up – on the right the Parthenon, shrouded in scaffolding on one half, and to the left is the Temple of Athena. We immediately started wandering the south side of the Parthenon, which overlooks the museum that we had just left. I spent time marveling at the view, both of the Parthenon as well as Athens’ patchwork quilt of old buildings, parks, and ancient ruins surrounded by mountains. The weather was overcast and windy but occasionally a ray of sunlight would sneak through the clouds, illuminating a certain area of the city.
Dean was focused on taking pictures, his camera sporting a large lense, so I was left to enjoy the scenery at the top of the hill mostly by myself. This is fairly typical as we each have a tendency of moving through sites at a different pace, leaving me plenty of time to find a nice place to sit and reflect while Dean catches up.
Over the last several days, I’d been thinking about how travel makes you feel small. You get to experience the culture, but always from the outside. Often giving you a glimpse into alternative lifestyles, challenging your ethnocentricity and helping to realize that people define happiness differently across the world.
While being in Europe definitely feels more comfortable, it throws into contrast how really out of place I felt in Asia. In my opinion, we had done a fairly good job of trying to experience the local culture and try things outside of our realm of comfort. Eating at a night market in Thailand was unnerving as I couldn’t easily identify what was being offered, but we challenged ourselves navigating the different street stalls for our Saturday night dinner. Being scammed in India and working to get our money back was daunting but we figured it out. Getting accosted by a mob of angry cab drivers in Bali, and feeling threatened as one followed us for 10 minutes screaming, “I’ll kill you” was extremely unsettling but we ended up being ok.
Immediately after each one of these experiences, I felt very insignificant and lonely in the big world. But after dealing with each situation, often with a positive outcome, I continually built confidence.
And don’t get me wrong, we’ve had many more amazing experiences than bad. Trekking the mountains of the Himalaya, watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, being contorted during a traditional thai massage, marveling at jungle waterfalls, playing with elephants, scuba diving with mantas – too many to list. And oftentimes, with a little extra work and a bit of luck, we find ourselves getting to experience places that most people never see. Leaving me feeling overwhelmingly grateful.
With those thoughts in mind we decided to forgo the popular Greek isles to instead travel to a rural part of central Greece to celebrate my 36th birthday. The area, called Meteora, is a famous rock formation hosting one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece. Six working monasteries are built atop immense natural stone pillars, and offer a glimpse into Greek monastic life, as well as fantastic views and hiking. While it isn’t the secret destination that it was twenty years ago, the area is still very quaint.
After a 5 hour train trip from Athens, we arrived in Kalambaka, the small town of 15,000 people at the base of the stone pillars. We checked into our family run guesthouse, Iridanos, and were welcomed by the proprietress, Niki – a Dutch transplant who moved to Athens before the Olympics in 2004, married a local, and then opened a guest house in his hometown. I had written to her previously, letting her know that we intended to hike around the area during our stay and she pointed us to a local tour group (VisitMeteora.com) to sign up for a hiking tour, and provided a map of the footpaths that traverse the area.
Since we had three full days to explore the area, we decided to do the hiking tour on our first day to learn the history of the area and get a local’s perspective on the culture. But first, we walked to the center of town to Palladinios, the Greek taverna run by Niki’s husband. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of pork leg, cooked in the oven for 5 hours, the meat falling off the bone, and meatballs cooked in tomato sauce. The food was so amazing (and the table wine cheap), we ended up going back to Palladinios everyday for lunch over the next 4 days.
Afterwards, we went to the Visit Meteora offices to set up our hiking tour and met an American couple from Virginia who were also signing up for a tour the next day. Upon both exiting the office at the same time, we decided to walk up the street to get a drink together. Two hours and a liter of red wine later, we had some new friends.
The next day, we were picked up at our hotel at 8:30am, to start our hiking tour. We shared our guide, Vaggelis, and hike with an Italian couple from Sicily.
We started, overlooking a large rock with a number of caves carved in the sides and an overview of the history of the area. The first monks traveled here searching for solitude and found the caves on the sides of the rocks the perfect place for a hermitage. After a while, the hermits started to form monasteries, located high on the rocks to ensure isolation as well as protection from the conquering Ottomans and raiders.
Our trail led us around the rocks, providing an overlook of the river valley and snow capped mountains beyond. Winter comes to this area in the form of rain, instead of snow, providing an environment for the plants to thrive and moss to sport green coatings on the conglomerate stone cliffs. While brisk, the weather was a perfect 57 degrees. Just cold enough to require a coat in the shadows of the looming cliffs but warm enough to make the walk comfortable. Since we were hiking in the winter, the deciduous trees had lost their leaves, leaving us with unimpeded views.
We walked for 40 minutes, enjoying Vaggelis’ stories about the area and information on the local plant life. We took a quick break at a small stream, then rounded a corner where the first monastery peeked out.
The monastery of Ypapanti is one that most tourists never see as it’s located on the North side of the main monasteries, and instead of perching on top of its own cliff, it’s cleverly tucked into a fissure, clinging precariously to the side about 100 feet above the ground. Ypapanti was once used as a retreat for the monks of the Great Meteora monastery and has recently been renovated and opened to tourism in the summers.
After marveling at the beauty and engineering from the ground, we climbed an opposing hill to view the monument of a local hero, as well as to bask in the sun, take pictures, and enjoy the sweeping views.
We continued our journey upward, over a brook, past a wild boar watering hole, and eventually found ourselves cresting the hill to look down on the monasteries, each perched on their own rock cliff. The view was stunning. Winter sun directly above us, made the red tile roofed monastic enclaves pop with color against their grey and mossy green plinths. We stood on the side of the hill while Vaggelis regaled more history of the monasteries, explaining that each operates autonomously from the others, managing it’s own money and lands. The 4 monasteries have less than a handful of monks each, as most devotees are located at the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Athos. However, the two nunneries house 13 and 28 sisters respectively, as these are a female’s only option for a religious cloister.
We scrambled down the hillside on goat trails, until reaching the road and walking down to Varlaam, one of the larger monasteries just below us. Up until the 1920’s the monasteries were only accessible via wooden ladders that could be drawn up in case of invasion or by climbing into a large net and then being winched, as two monks walked in circles at the top of the tower to pull you up. Now there are bridges and stone stairs, carved into the rock, and several have a metal tram for moving supplies and the less mobile.
Dean and I were left to explore Varlaam by ourselves as Vaggelis remained outside and the Sicilians had visited the day previous. We started climbing the impressive stairs, stopped to pose for a few pictures and entered through a heavy wooden door which is barred at closing. While Dean paid our €3 each at a small admission stall, I tied the provided skirt wrap around my waist as women must wear long skirts to show respect.
We continued up the stone stairs to emerge into the sunlight on a large stone court, opening to the south, providing a fantastic view of the rocks and slivers of Kalambaka beyond. A small garden was planted to the side and several stone benches were provided, I would like to think for religious contemplation, but more likely to aid the winded travelers after they’ve made the climb.
In the spring and summer, this area is overloaded with tourists. Filling every guest house and restaurant in town and jamming the small monasteries with teaming crowds. Vaggelis had told me that during the high season, he and another guide hike every day and each will have as many as 10 people in a group. This still blows my mind, as that means that no more than 20 people per day will get to explore this area by foot and enjoy the hidden Ypapanti and gorgeous views.
I had little time to think about this as Dean and I continued to explore the areas open to the public. We enjoyed the court, the winch tower, and the museum which showed relics of books, vestments, and paintings from the monastery. The cathedral had been recently renovated, the frescoes on the walls looking nearly new, making me question the authenticity of the images. After learning that they were originally painted in 1548, I understood the need for a touch up.
Upon returning to our group, we began hiking down a cobble paved trail just below Varlaam. This path had been built roughly 500 years ago and was the main thoroughfare for monks from Varlaam and the Great Meteora when visiting town for supplies. The trail followed a lively stream, the trees overhead were bare of leaves but a number of wildflowers were still in bloom on the ground. After only 15 minutes, we were on the road and walking to meet the large, Visit Meteora bus, where we joined the group who had just finished the half day driving tour. Our friends from the previous day, Chris and Mary Carol were part of the crew and we decided to grab lunch together before they continued their vacation in Northern Greece.
The next day was my birthday! I awoke to a kiss and a “Happy 36th,” before watching a gorgeous sunrise and eating a huge breakfast of hard boiled eggs, pastries, Greek yogurt with honey, cold cuts, cheese and coffee. More than adequately fueled, we laced up our boots for another full day of hiking.
Grey clouds threatened rain but we were undeterred and starting making our way into town to find the footpath leading up to Holy Trinity. Similar to the path from the previous day, this trail was paved with stones and clearly marked for the first part of the journey, snaking vertically up the side of a hill leading to the stone plinth. We walked through the forested hillsides, appreciating the glorious views that the fallen leaves afforded and vowing to return during a different season.
After an arduous climb that left us both breathless, we reached the top and made our way into Holy Trinity. The public areas of the monastery weren’t as impressive as the larger Varlaam, however it is posed on a larger cliff top and therefore had much more open area for gardens and we sat to enjoy the views of the valley and town below. Pulling out the hiking map on loan from Niki, we debated following the road to the farthest nunnery, Saint Stephen.
I’m certainly happy that we did as this was my favorite of the 4 monasteries we visited. Its buildings cover every available inch of clifftop and the open spaces in the center have been utilized to their fullest. We passed no less than 3 different gardens, two of which sported both flowers as well as herbs, the last being a greenhouse growing tomatoes and other vegetables that feed the 28 nuns who live there. The chapel has been beautifully renovated and while marveling at the inside, I happened upon a young nun, holy book open upon her lap, having a quiet conversation with an older nun, who was crocheting a doily. It was such an out of the ordinary sight that I couldn’t help but be taken aback. I lingered in the chapel, looking at the frescos while keeping an eye on the two women, thinking about how their lives are so different than my own.
After fruitlessly searching for a small goat track indicated on our map, we decided to walk along the paved road to our next stop, the Holy Monastery of Rousanou. We made a few exploratory stops along the way, walking out to the edge of the rocks in several places to see the views and get more pictures. We made it to Rousanou with 30 minutes before closing. A good thing, as the public areas were very small and we had just entered with a large group of devout Greek women, who had arrived on a large bus. We quickly went through the chapel and museum, as there was little else to see and then decided to make our way back to the footpath we had come up that morning, but from the other side where a trail was clearly marked on the map.
We started off on the small footpath but must have lost the trail while crossing several large rocky areas as we spent the remainder of the hike scrambling down a dry creek bed in the center of the gorge. Having ditched my hiking poles in India, I had to use tree limbs and large boulders to keep my balance. After an hour of scrambling, we finally made it back to the footpath and trudged into town to find a very late lunch.
The meal was a decadent affair, with a liter of house red, saganaki (fried cheese), salad, sausages, and fruit. Dean had promised to take me to a local bakery for a treat, so after lunch, we headed over to buy some birthday baklava to take back to the hotel. Overall, it was a perfect way to ring in my 36th year!
Waking up the next morning, we talked about what to do on our last full day in Meteora. Dean wanted to draw for a few hours at the vantage point we had seen our first day of hiking above Varlaam and Great Meteora. So we ate our huge breakfast and then walked into town to find a cab to drop us near the monasteries where we scrambled up the steep hillside, dodging fresh cow pies.
We sat in silence, sitting on a large rock and drinking our coffee. Dean made progress on his drawing while I sat with my thoughts. I kept going back to the two ideas that I’d had in Athens – how wildly outside of my comfort zone I felt in Asia and how travel makes you feel small. And in thinking on it further, I did feel small. I’m one of 7.6 billion people on this earth (for reference, 1.4 billion of those are Chinese), each making decisions and living their lives in a way that they think best and oftentimes, in a way very different than my own. I’ve seen countless examples of this over the last 3.5 months, the most recent in the chapel of St. Stephen.
But here’s the thing – sitting on that hillside, enjoying a view that only a handful of people will ever see, I also felt big. Infinite. Significant.
As I’ve said, the last several months have helped me to build confidence as well as cultivate gratitude. But I also think there’s something else – something that I’ve overlooked and after our time in Meteora, has become glaringly apparent to me – spending time in nature will always heal my soul and no matter where I am in the world, it’s a place where I will always be a fish in water.