I scheduled in about five days to make the journey between Thessaloniki and Lesvos, so I could see some of the sights that Greece has to offer before heading to my volunteer placement.
Rock formation at Meteora
My first stop was Meteora, a large rock formation that hosts a bunch of monasteries and nunneries built atop the rocks, which was absolutely incredible.
I spent two nights at a hostel in the town of Kalambaka, just below the rocks, and hiked from there to the various monasteries.
Monastery of the Holy Trinity
The first day, I set out after my arrival to explore what I could before dark. I hiked for an hour or two going up, up, up and eventually came to the above view – the first monastery on top of a huge rock.
I learned that monks have been living a secluded life here since the 11th century, when they started inhabiting caves in these rocks. The monasteries were built a few hundred years later, and at that time, the only way up was to climb a rope ladder that the monks at the top would lower or to be hauled up in a large human net, both of which could break when the ropes got too weak. Talk about a leap of faith.
Nowadays there are hiking trails and a big paved road that go from Kalambaka to most of the monasteries. Getting to some from the road still requires some climbing of stairs, but most can be accessed easily by car.
I was kind of disappointed to find the proximity of the road when I had hiked all the way up from the back, feeling pretty spiritual about the long journey on foot to discover these holy places that were so remote. Then I rounded a corner and saw a tour bus heading towards me on this nice road and I thought “oh no…”
But I kept hiking, ignoring the road and the cars passing, and I visited all of the monasteries easily in the two days I had. Walking to each one was definitely the best way to do it for me, though it’s nice the road is there for people who aren’t physically able to do the hike.
St. Stephanos Nunnery behind me
The weather was clear and perfect for hiking – not too hot and not too cold. And because it is the low season for tourism in Greece, there weren’t many other people around, so I could take my time in all the best spots.
Meteora feels like a thin place to me: a place where the space between God and earth is diminished.
Thin places don’t have to be religious places, and honestly, before this trip, the places I experienced as thin were rarely of the religious sort.
I first discovered a thin place in Uganda, in a rural school my study abroad program visited, where hundreds of smiling, uniform-clad children ran around joyously. When I got home, I found another thin place when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Boston where weary, cold people sat at round tables and encouraged each other over a meager meal. Then I moved to Benin and experienced even more thin places: the dirt road where I would run each morning and see my neighbors heading to their fields as the dew glistened on the crops growing next to the road; a tiny mud church with a straw roof in the middle of nowhere where we stopped to vaccinate the children against polio one day on our way to another village. Then of course I discovered the Sahara Desert in Morocco, a magnificent and sweeping thin place.
And in Meteora, I swear I could feel the presence of the monks and nuns at each monastery/nunnery. It was like a kind, loving spirit in the air and it was beautiful. I am so glad I visited this place.
When it came time to leave Kalambaka to go to Delphi, there were only two options for the train – either 5:30am or 5:30pm. And because the train didn’t go directly to Delphi but rather to Livadia nearby, where I would have to get a bus to Delphi, I figured the sensible option was to take the morning train, though I am NOT a 5:30am kind of person. I avoid that time of day if at all possible.
The 5:30am train turned out to be the most magical transportation experience of my life.
The first hour was in the dark, and then we had to transfer and wait in the cold for a while for the next train as the sun rose. I fell asleep almost immediately upon boarding the second train, and when I awoke, we were high up in the most gorgeous mountains, bathed in a beautiful early morning light.
My face was glued to the window as I took in the blanket of dark green that covered the mountainside, and the sun peeking over one mountain and illuminating the snow-capped peaks of the others. There were wispy clouds suspended in midair, tinted red and yellow by the sun, standing out brilliantly against the bright blue sky. Below, groups of sheep and goats huddled under tin-roofed structures on the mountainside.
Each time we passed through a tunnel, there would be a new valley, or a new perspective on the same valley. There were farmlands in a checkerboard pattern, bright green squares next to dark brown, with villages nestled into the corners and small orchards dotting the plains.
A flock of birds glided around in the open air of the valley and then soared under one of the metal bridges the train had just gone over.
It was truly magical. I tried to take several pictures, but each time, all that came out was my own reflection in the train window. I guess it was destined to be a memory that I have to keep in my mind, not on camera.
Out another train window
Once I got to Livadia, I was so thankful that I chose the early train, because the bus to Delphi proved to be elusive. This particular bus does not depart from the bus station, for some reason, but from an unmarked bus stop near the edge of town. It took me more than two hours of traipsing back and forth across the town carrying my bag and asking random Greek people if they knew where the bus to Delphi was before I finally found the bus stop.
Then there were another two hours of waiting while bus after bus came by, none of them apparently going to Delphi. But when I finally boarded the correct bus, it only took about 45 minutes to drive partway up Mt. Parnassus to the town.
The town of Delphi from above at sunset
Delphi was another incredible place. Full of history and ancient ruins, being there was a powerful reminder of so much humanity that has preceded us. Delphi is most famous for being home to the Pythia, the high priestess at the Temple of Apollo, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. People would come from all over to consult with her, and her counsel probably influenced some major decisions that changed the course of history.
Temple of Athena at Delphi
Though I usually enjoy missing out on the crowds and spending less money by visiting places in the off season, I think Delphi may have been the exception to that rule. It was so quiet and deserted that it was almost spooky. I could walk through most of the town without seeing another person or hearing sounds of life anywhere. I ate dinner in empty restaurants both nights I was there, and though the food (and the service) was amazing, it was a bit disconcerting.
Incidentally, I learned that the Oracle of Delphi was never available for consultation in the wintertime, so apparently Delphi is just a place that is meant to be visited in warmer weather. Good to know!
Some of the sites were also not open to visit while I was there because it was the off-season, like the gymnasium, pictured above. Considering that I was pretty sore and tired from all the hiking I did in Meteora, it didn’t bother me too much to miss out on more walking, but I didn’t realize before I arrived that I wouldn’t have the option to visit all the sites.
Still, I feel like I was able to experience the meaning of the place and definitely able to see its magnificent beauty.