Saturday 1 August 2015

The Monasteries of Meteora

Greece, 21st – 25th July 2015

One of the sights of Greece that had been recommended to us as a must-see was the grand monasteries at Meteora.  Far from the coastal routes we were used to taking, Meteora is sited several hours inland in the middle of the Thessaly plains—an area that would otherwise have little to appeal to sightseers.  This is changed by the existence of the rocks with sheer vertical faces that ascend into the skies, with improbably placed monasteries built at their peaks.

But before we could tackle Meteora, we still had a bit of ground left to cover travelling north along the west coast of Greece.  We left the island of Lefkada with our water tank running dry, so pulled in at a fuel station and bought a small amount of fuel after asking permission to fill up at their water tap.  There were already a couple of other campers who had left Lefkada who arrived at the fuel station before us, and a lady from one of the vans was taking the opportunity to rinse her hair under the tap; presumably they too were running low on water!

Overnighting in Ammoudia amongst the trees
To get to our next point of call, Ammoudia, we had two options: either we could drive 100km to get around the Amvrakikos Gulf, or we could splash out on an underwater crossing to bypass the distance.  At €5 we figured we could justify the expense, and splashed out on our first toll charge since we started this second segment of our trip three months ago.  At Ammoudia there were two different spots with concentrations of campers; one of which was a parking area on the headland that separates the beach from the river, and the other was a part grass, part sand area under the partial shade of trees next to the beach.  The shade beckoned to us, so we found a spot in the trees (GPS: N39.24040 E20.48115) to park amongst a group of around fifteen other vans.

The bay at Ammoudia
A Greek Motorhome Club hire van arrived along with a second Greek van (that may have also been hired), and from there on out we were treated to quite the spectacle.  One of the vehicles proceeded to get almost wedged in an attempt to drive between two trees.  After it moved, it would appear that the reason for its awkward positioning was because it was trying to manoeuvre to tow the other van, who had managed to get stuck in a patch of sand.  There was a French man from a van nearby with a four wheel drive buggy, so he promptly got it fired up and managed to pull the van out with surprising ease (the same French man had been watching us very closely when we parked up – perhaps he spends his time waiting for someone to get stuck so he has an excuse to get the buggy on the go!), but from there was a new problem: to get out, the van had to drive through the same tight trees his friend had got stuck in.  Soon six people were gathered around the van, giving directions and shovelling earth and rocks under one side of the van to give it enough tilt to clear the trees.  Given that six people was probably more than enough to provide help, we decided our time was better spent (discreetly) enjoying the show from a distance.  After our own experience getting stuck in the sand in Portugal, we felt we'd earned it!

The slightly worse for wear walkway on the headland that
separates the river from the beach
A strange place to leave a squash?
We stayed at Ammoudia for two nights, taking the opportunity to get Matt’s windsurf gear cleaned under the beach showers as well as giving the van a good tidy out.  It’s amazing how quickly the van accumulates bits of debris when we spend time near beaches, especially when we’re too hot and bothered to clean; the floor was well overdue a sweep from our stay at Vassiliki.  The laundry bag was rapidly growing again, so we did a bit more handwashing in a bucket to tide us over as the campsite at Vassiliki had had no washing machine.  There was a tap near one of the many beach showers, so we topped our tank up a little more to keep us going.  The tap was too far away from level ground, so we made use of a funnel constructed with an old coke bottle to pour our water carriers into the tank.

From here we travelled to Plataria (GPS: N39.44630 E20.27456) for a night, which was a little closer to the main toll road across to Meteora.  At Plataria we parked on the road running the long expanse of beach next to a group of Italian vans who were fully set up with whole fish cooking on their mid-afternoon barbeque.  There were a lot of vans dotted about all parked up along the main stretch of road, which was fine for the night as the road only led to a dead end at the harbour so there was very little traffic noise, but after being spoiled by all of the isolated spots around the Peloponnese we didn’t find it to be anything special.

Our spot at Plataria
A strange looking sculpture in the harbour!
Also not of special note to us was the town of Igoumenitsa, which we travelled through on our way to the toll road to Meteora.  The town is one of Greece’s main ports with a lot of sea traffic between Greece and Italy, as well as regular ferries to the nearby Corfu.  We found the place to be very busy and the buildings very uninspired and practical in purpose (much of the town had to be rebuilt after World War Two).  We followed the roadsigns indicating the route that lorries should take, which took us through a long street where cars were often double parked and forcing us to slow to a crawl at points to avoid hitting anything.  How a lorry would have got through the same stretch is beyond us.  The Lidl may have been the town’s saving grace in our eyes (however unfortunately not equipped with an in-store bakery!).

An example of a typical car dealership in Greece (this one near Igoumenitsa) with only two used Peugeots in the showroom; the vast majority of dealerships we've come across don't have more than a handful of used cars in their forecourt
We opted to take the toll road to Meteora because the alternative was a twisting route that would have taken at least a couple of hours extra (Daisy the Sat Nav suggested around 4.5 hours, which would have been 5+ in a vehicle of our size).  We took the A2 (Egnatia Odos), which runs all the way from the western coast of Greece to the Turkish border and is the longest motorway in Greece at 670km, with over half of its near 7 billion euro construction cost being on building 90km of bridges and tunnels.  The end result is a long straight road that is certainly a lot more pleasant to drive on that the tight mountain roads we’d grown used to.  After passing through one toll station, we noticed that the main criteria that separated Category 2 (cars) from Category 3 (primarily small trucks) was height.  The cut-off point was 2.7m, but with the windsurf board and pipe tube on the roof we were just under the 2.8m mark.  As the toll-booths used a rotating height check bar on the left hand side of the vehicle (which was where our windsurf board was), we decided to remove the board from the roof and stash it inside the van before we reached the next toll booth.  There was nothing we could do about the pipe tube, but this was on the other side of the roof so was well clear of the height checker anyway.  Our idea worked, and we saved 60% on all additional toll booths between here and Thessaloniki the following day, bringing the costs down to €2.40 / €1.20 from €6 / €3.  In total we passed through four toll booths (two between Igoumenitsa and Meteora and another two on the following day), and reducing our roof height was definitely worth it as it cut costs from €21 to €12 (which could have been €8.40 if we’d known before we reached the first toll booth).

The approach to Meteora
After leaving the toll road we could tell when we were approaching Meteora from the sheer rocks that filled the landscape before us.  Twenty five million years ago, there used to be a sea in place of the Thessaly plains.  Gone is the water that would have made up the sea, but left behind are the strange array of rocks and cliffs that descend into the sky.  It seems beyond madness to think that someone at some point in history took a look at the rocks and decided it an ideal place to live (religious hermits are known to have lived in the caves from as early as the tenth century), let alone build full monasteries.  Perhaps they really weren’t people persons.

I really would recommend visiting Meteora to anyone who is in the area of northern Greece, as there really isn’t much else like it.  At least 24 of the rocks have been topped by monasteries at some point, although many have long since been lost and fallen into disrepair.  Six still stand and are accessible to the public, of which we chose to visit the largest and highest, Megalou Meteora (or Grand Meteora).  We chose to tackle it first thing in the morning on the following day, so as to avoid the crushes of tour coaches flocking in.  Dress code at the monasteries is strict: men are not allowed to wear shorts, and women must be in skirts.  Matt donned a pair of walking trousers and I wore the only skirt I had brought travelling, which I pulled down as low on my hips as possible in order to make it seem longer (which made it appear just above knee length).  It appears we needn’t have bothered making the effort; at the admission point to the monastery, wrap-around skirts and over-trousers were provided for anyone who didn’t adhere to the dress code, so we could have just worn shorts and used the clothing provided when we arrived.  However, some of the smaller monasteries may not provide the same service, so it is something to bear in mind for anyone who is thinking of visiting.

One of the aerial cable systems in action
Most of the monasteries were only accessible by ladders or by rope pulley systems until the 20th century, but today, all of the remaining monasteries have a series of steps that has been cut into the side of the cliffs.  Some of the monasteries still use rope pulley systems or a more modern cable system to bring supplies in, but the main throughput of people is by climbing steps.  Access to our monastery of choice, Megalou Meteora, requires a climb of a little under 200 steps, but the site itself is worth the visit as it is very interesting to see.  The monastery’s church is beautiful, and you can still see the old kitchen that would have been used, of which the walls are all blackened from smoke.  Of particular morbid fascination to me was the ossuary, where shelves of skulls and bones lined the walls.
The ossuary
The kitchen
We've put plenty more pictures of Meteora at the end!

For our overnight parking at Meteora, we used the nearby guesthouse Pension Arsenis (GPS: N39.70849 E21.65433, very well signposted).  The guesthouse is a family run establishment since 1840, and today they welcome the use of their car park for motorhomes to stay overnight (with the intention that you’ll stop by for a meal).  The main man that deals with the guests is Costas, but his mother also lives there and prepares meals, and there was also another man behind reception who gave us a lot of helpful information about the monasteries.  We’d heard from the experiences of other bloggers that Costas has a tendency to be a little, erm, overly familiar with his guests.  We were expecting to be asked if we wanted chicken or pork but today it was sausages he was offering. We went for our meal (sausages homemade by his mother with a generous portion of chips and Greek salad with white wine), and he said to have our meal inside now and then come out on the patio for drinks later, which, after reading about Our Tour’s terrace experience, sent a few alarm bells ringing in our heads.  After we’d eaten he said to come back and pay the bill in an hours’ time (presumably after drinks on the terrace).  He left for a while on his moped, so we took the chance to return to our van.  Later, Matt went back alone to pay for our meal and managed to avoid spending the evening drinking Ouzo with Costas, so perhaps the strategy for getting out of any awkward encounters is to only send one person and not both people when the time comes to pay the bill!

Next stop: Halkidiki.

- Jo

Extra Pictures (click to enlarge):

We're not sure whether these are possessions of hermits living in the rocks or whether they are markers left by ambitious climbers

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