Day One – Travel from Thessaloniki to Kalambaka/Kastraki
I set out from Thessaloniki in the morning, caught the bus to Trikala and arrived at about 3 or so. I’m growing to really like bus travel. If you have music, it’s really not so bad. (See new page added under “So You Want to Travel?” with music suggestions for long bus rides!)
(Solo Traveling Premise #1: Music can turn bus time into excellent introspection time.)
I was in such a blissful daze as I waited for the bus in Trikala, listening to my music, people-watching and wallowing in excitement for the rest of the trip…
…When I realized I had two bags with me when I left Thessaloniki, not just one.
(Solo Traveling Premise #2: Don’t do anything stupid, ok?)
I ran into the station, found the information booth and managed a quick “Signome!! Milate Anglika?” (“Excuse me! Do you speak English?”) to the woman at the counter before, at her nod, I burst out, “IleftmybagonthebusfromThessaloniki!!” Very slowly, as if making any sudden movements would make me cry or throw up or combust, she told me to wait while she made a phone call. In a few minutes, she led me to a room that was very clearly The Place They Bring Idiot Tourists’ Bags When They Forget Them. And there was my bag. Laughing out loud at myself, I caught the bus to Kalambaka, one of the two towns right underneath the rocks of Meteora.
The ride to Kalambaka was only about twenty minutes long, and within fifteen, the cliffs of Meteora suddenly swung into view. And I don’t believe I’ll ever forget that moment. I was listening to “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens, and I almost cried. I thought instantly of Edward Abbey’s writings on Delicate Arch:
“If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder. A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”
I got off the bus and spent at least five minutes just staring upward in awe. An angry old Greek woman with whiskers yelled at a stray cat nearby, and I remember wondering how anyone could be angry if they lived in a place like this. I was absolutely, wholly captured by Meteora from the first instant I saw it.
So captured, in fact, that I had been wandering around in awe for about thirty minutes before I realized…
Oh. Sweet. Jesus.
(Solo Traveling Premise #3: Read #2 again. Good.)
If, at this point, you’re wondering how I got a Fulbright scholarship, I don’t blame you. In fact, all I could think as I was running back to the station was, “I’m here on a freaking Fulbright scholarship and I left my bag on the bus twice in one day?!” I ran into the tiny bus station, and there was my bag, safe and sound.
When I got to Kastraki (feeling very lucky to still have my bag), I was pleased to find my very cute little hotel (The Doupiani House, which I highly recommend to anyone traveling to Meteora) and a killer view of the cliffs. I ventured out for dinner that evening and found–I know it’s hard to believe I hadn’t had it yet, but it’s true–my first moussaka. It is my new definition of comfort food. So rich, creamy, comforting and luxurious-tasting. I managed to tell the waiter in Greek that it was my first moussaka and how much I loved it, and he promptly asked if I was Greek-American. So many tourists come through Kastraki while seeing Meteora who don’t speak a word of Greek that even my stumbling three-minute conversation left him thinking I was part Greek. This I found incredibly flattering but really quite depressing.
Day Two – Meteora
I knew my day at Meteora would be incredible, but I had no idea how utterly enthralled I would be for the full day I spent hiking the cliffs and visiting the monasteries. I absolutely fell in love with Meteora, and though I’m usually of the philosophy that one should go to new places instead of going back to old ones, I may have to make an exception in the future for Meteora.
I visited four monasteries and walked somewhere between 8 and 10 miles, both on roads and on the once-secret monks’ paths that wind through the area.
It was not an easy walk. First, it’s tricky on foot; it’s far to walk, the roads are narrow and winding, and the paths are steep and treacherous at times. Second, there are some serious uphill climbs to be done when hiking up to the monasteries themselves; they’re very high up and the monks weren’t dilly-dallying when they made the path. (Hee hee, dilly-dallying.) Third… I’m quite afraid of heights, as it were. I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t let it stop me, but there were many moments of clinging to the rail and trying not to let the internal string of curses running through my head actually come out through my mouth and echo into the sacred valley below. The bridges were the worst!
All that said, the challenges just made everything better–I wouldn’t want to see Meteora by car or bus because making the journey on foot was, first of all, so much more authentic considering what centuries of monks did on a daily basis, and second of all, it was also much more symbolic of my quest as a solo traveler–learning, observing, practicing, working, taking wrong turns, sweating and, by degrees, becoming.
When you reach a monastery, you can go inside: there’s an entrance fee of 2 euro, and women must put on a tie-on skirt to enter (even if you’re wearing full pants). In each one, you can see the church (which has wonderful frescoes all over the walls and ceiling inside) and some extra things depending on the monastery: an old mess hall in one, a museum in many, and so on.
Many emotions ran through me on my Meteora pilgrimage: awe, gratitude, contemplation, triumph (I had a quadri-lingual day!!), tinges of sadness that my friends couldn’t be with me to experience this amazing place, and, most of all, the chest-filling sense of adventure that comes with thinking of oneself as a Citizen of the World.
That night, my spirit was truly overwhelmed–I was full to bursting with the day I had just had. And I remember thinking that my feeling of contentment was only sweetened by how sore, tired, freezing and hungry I was when I got back. What a lucky soul am I.
(Solo Traveling Premise #4: Wallow in it all.)