August 28 – September 1
Our last day with the tour would be a long one with a stop at the monasteries at Meteora, a jog back up north to Thermopylae and then a lengthy afternoon’s drive back to Athens. The climb by bus up to our first destination took a bit of time on a narrow winding two-lane road but was worth all the effort once we got our first glimpse of the monasteries.
The Meteora, meaning lofty or elevated, is a rock formation that hosts one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries, second in importance only to Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on immense natural pillars and hill-like rounded boulders that dominate the local area.
We would tour the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen, the only one in the Meteora visible from the nearby town of Kalambaka. Founded around 1400 by St. Antoninus Cantacuzene and now a nunnery, its long history includes ownership by Holy Antony in the 15th century and Holy Philotheos, who, in the middle of the 16th century, rebuilt its small single-nave church. Also during that century the first frescos of the church were created..
A new Catholic church was built in 1798 in honor of Saint Charalambos, whose skull is kept there as an heirloom. The monastery suffered much damage in the 20th century: it was bombed during World War II and desecrated during the subsequent Civil War. In the latter period, Communist rebels defaced most of the frescoes and St. Stephen’s was virtually abandoned until 1961, when it became a nunnery that is currently inhabited by 28 nuns. The damaged frescoes are now being re-created by a modern day artist in a current style.
We would spend a considerable amount of time inside the monastery, George describing in detail its history, the nature of Greek Orthodoxy, and the symbolism behind the frescoes. He would also chide a number of tourists who showed a distinct lack of respect for being in a house of worship, a practice we’ve witnessed many times over as we consistently visit cathedrals and other houses of worship only to find fellow tourists forgetting they are not at a theme park.
We left St. Stephens and with a bit of time left before boarding the bus, walked to a number of viewpoints to take pictures of the surroundings, including some with folks we’d spent the last week with. Finished at Meteora we drove down to Kalambaka for our last lunch together, at the well-known and highly regarded Restaurant Meteora.
George had promised us that we would all be served quickly with a variety of entrees to choose from and our doubts were erased when we lined up at the entrance to the open kitchen to see multiple giant pots of simmering goodness. We each would pick our entrée and a side or two to accompany it and sit down in the dining room to enjoy a substantial and delicious meal. Joanna chose the fish and I pork or chicken, I can’t honestly recall, but do remember that it was good a meal as we’d had all week. With a drink apiece our tab came to $29 euros, money well spent.
Back on the bus, we made our way north to Thermopylae where we paused briefly to view the Statue of Leonidas, a tribute to the warrior king of Sparta. The 17th of the Agiad line, a dynasty which claimed descent from the mythological demigod Heracles, Leonidas whose participation in the Second Persian War, where he led the allied Greek forces to a last stand at the Battle of Thermopylae while attempting to defend the pass from the invading Persian army has been well documented and memorialized in the popular movie 300. This monument was erected in 1955 and features a bronze statue of Leonidas. Under it a sign reads simply: “Come and take them”, which was Leonidas’ reply when Xerxes offered to spare the lives of the Spartans if they gave up their arms.
From there it was back to Athens where we arrived around 7:00pm. Almost the last to be dropped off, we bade farewell to George, tipping him a pittance (20 euros apiece) compared to what we’ve tipped in the past. Trying to determine what to tip in these circumstances is difficult, online information spotty at best. This seemed to be an appropriate amount for this circumstance, likely, as George is adequately compensated as an employee and not reliant upon tips as is common in other tour guide circumstances.
We retraced our steps back to the Phaedra Hotel, glad that we had decided to stay there again, as we wouldn’t have to navigate to a new hotel at the end of a long day. Our plan for this short stay in Athens was simple; spend the night, breakfast in the morning, store our luggage with the Phaedra and spend the afternoon at the National Archaeological Museum before reclaiming our stuff and heading out to the port at Piraeus for our overnight ferry ride to Crete.
I walked around the corner to pick up a bottle of wine at the small shop I’d used before, again glad to be back in the Plaka, feeling familiar with the surroundings, always nice when you are on the road. Still full from lunch, we’d just split a slice of pizza from a nearby shop and enjoy our last evening in Athens for a couple of weeks, the next phase of our adventure, the Greek Islands, beckoning. One week in and we were ready to go full speed on our own and that is a very good place to be. Let the fun begin.
Meteora Monasteries: https://www.visitmeteora.travel/en/what-to-see/the-meteora-monasteries
Restaurant Meteora: http://www.meteora-restaurant.gr/restaurant%20in%20meteora.html
Battle of Thermopylae: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Thermopylae
Statue of Leonidas: http://culture.lamia.gr/en/blog/thermopylae-monument-leonidas