Okay lets start with the punchline:
Great! We’ll get back to that in just a moment.
So we’re on our way down to Greece and I’m wracking my nerves, because I just bought three plane tickets but I only have 5 days left in the Schengen region (which includes Greece). All I can imagine is getting to the Greek border and they tell me, sorry, we don’t want you to come in with that few days. Of course all of this was for nothing. I think any white male between the age of 20-30 and dark hair could have gotten into Greece with my passport.
It’s always fun transitioning between countries by car. You get to see the gradual shift. The architecture seemed to be a bit less dilapidated than in Macedonia but not significantly different. I think that before coming here I had all these preconceived notions about Greece because it is an EU nation and a popular destination and I thought that Serbia and Macedonia would be so run down because I knew so little about them. In reality, yes Serbia and Macedonia are very poor, but they are not all that culturally different from us. They are still definitely European. And the greeks seem like a bit of a mix. They have a larger influx of foreigners between both immigrants and tourists which make them more westernized, but they still are a poor country and have many similarities to the Balkans.
We got to Thessaloniki. Grabbed a coffee. They are apparently all into Nescafe’s also called Frappe’s here. They are sorta like a Frappocino? I’m not really sure because I’ve tried to order one twice now and it has been some bullshit that is in no way a Frappe. They were expensive and crappy. I’m a little bitter. Hmph! Continued on, stopped at an awesome nut store. Similar to the Balkans they seem so into nuts and chocolates and all the other goodies of this sort. I got some white and black polished pebbles that were actually coated chocolates with walnuts inside. Holy delicious.
So Vlad dropped us off at the bus station where Kristina and I parted ways with him. Thanks for everything Vlad! We’ll be sure to be harnessed up the next time we meet! Got on the bus for a 4 hr trip to Μετέωρα (Meteora).
We arrived late at night in Kastraki, one of the two towns right by Meteora, and just out of the faint light of the moon I could see these awe striking massive pillars looming overhead. I couldn’t wait for the morning to come so I could see them in the daylight. The brief description of Meteora is that it’s this:
Meteora is this area of incredible rock formations in the north eastern region of mainland Greece. They are the home to a bunch of christian monasteries and…wait for it…climbing!!!
We grabbed a quick dinner in Kastraki. This was the first time that I noticed the stark difference between Macedonians and Greeks. The staff was overall cold. Kristina ordered and then asked later if there was cheese in the eggplant melitzanosalata because sometimes it does and she had forgotten this. The woman stated that it did and asked if Kristina wanted something else, but then continued to reiterate time after time that if she didn’t want milk she should have asked when she ordered. Holy shit. Okay. We get it. I just felt that in Macedonia people are almost overbearingly friendly. Kristina speaks the language but even for me they were so friendly. She ran into the bathroom at some barbers once and in the meantime the woman sunbathing outside started enthusiastically talking to me even though we didn’t share a common language. Eventually the barber came outside to see if everything was alright, and with his limited english he quickly got enveloped in the conversation, asking about me and translating for the woman. I looked in to see how the customer getting her hair cut felt about this, and she was just as happy as could be with life.
We get up nice and early the next morning and head to Doubiani, one of the formations closest to Kastraki. On the back side of it there is some easy climbing that was recommended as a good introduction to Meteora. I was happy to accept an easy introduction after hearing that this area is infamous for 30 ft bolt-free runouts. For the non climbers: if you fell right before clipping the bolt that means 30 × 2 = 60 ft of falling, oh and the rock is low angle conglomerate so you’d be bumping on all the lodged stones the whole way down. Well fortunately that is not what I was subjected to, and it was pretty casual climbing so I didn’t fall and everything was all fine anyway.
The climb is called Ostria; it’s a 2 pitch 5.fun that runs right up the center of Dubiani. The climbing was so cool. Nothing physical but at some points it got this and required some technical climbing. I wouldn’t call this the best climbing I’ve ever done but it I will say that it is absolutely a one-of-a-kind experience and so worth experiencing at least once in your lifetime. So much fun!
Made it to the top! There’s a sign in box at the top of every tower here, and as Vlad explained, “If you don’t sign it…you didn’t climb it”. <queue signature Vlad laugh>
We were at the summit by noon and I was so tempted to do another. The climb was mostly in the shade and I wanted to find something in the sun, but unfortunately we were only in Meteora for a single day. We opted instead to take the rest of the day to hike up to one of the monasteries.
After only about 25 minutes of hiking we made it to the Great Monastery. This is the most popular and iconic Monastery to visit in Meteora. There is no admission cost and it has some really incredible history.
The most incredible part was by far inside the church. The church is cluttered with chandeliers and other ostentatious shiny decorations. The walls are coated in frescos. At first I glanced at these, the typical Jesus paintings, and then carried on through, but I just happened to take a better look at the paintings on the way out. I unfortunately don’t have photos as they are not permitted in the church itself, but I can try to describe the craziness that I saw. The walls are all christian martyrs being tortured. They have gold halos around their heads that make them easy to identify against the…Romans? that were torturing them. Some were getting burned alive, others boiled alive. There were sections of the walls showering with the heads of martyrs with extra beheadings above them. One guy in particular had his hands tied to a post above him and there were two soldiers raking at his stomach and back with what looked like a gardening fork. What at first glance was just a bunch of colorful paintings of saints was in reality probably the most morbid scene I’ve even witnessed documentation of.
Checking out the gruesome frescos was appropriately followed up by an ominous doorway outside the church with a dark window that could be looked through. I grabbed my headlamp and lit up the inside and…I’ll let you see for yourself.
I made the decision that in the next life I want to be a monastery cat. They just chill and sunbathe all day and get fed and I mean…look how awesome their home is.
We made the ~20 minute walk to the next town of Kalabaka, the other town right by Meteora. The objective: check out town + eat greek food. We found a quaint restaurant near city center and not a moment had passed after sitting down when two locals walked in and picked up some stringed instruments. The one guy was playing a bouzouki, a double stringed greek traditional instrument and he was shredding. The other guy was holding a classical guitar and he was terrible, but he held the beat with his one chord and sang and he brought the happy energy to the pair.
The food was overall very good, but in particular the mussel saganaki were amazing. They were cooked in a tomato and pepper sauce and by the end of the meal I had used a few pieces of bread to wipe the plate clean.
The train leaves at 5:40am tomorrow. Time for bed!
* * *
After a disorienting morning, Kristina and I arrived tired and delirious in Αθήνα (Athens). On the way, we had some spectacular views of the rock features in Greece. Much of the rock looked similar to Kalymnos, if not, of course, as grandiose. I think there is a great deal of potential for development of the climbing scene in Greece, even past the rich amount of climbing the country already offers.
I’m not sure how much of this was due to my preconceptions about the country, but looking out along the train ride I couldn’t stop imagining a messenger running down a path from one city to the other, or a great army marching across the open fields. There is something about being in Greece that brings you back in time.
The train station in Athens is in a weird part of town. We walked into the city and for a while it was very run down and frankly felt dangerous. There are many very poor immigrants in Greece from less fortunate pasts.
Well things started to get simultaneously a bit nicer and more touristy. I got a good lamb gyro for really cheap and then we stopped at a cafe and I mapped out all of the historical sites in Athens. Most of them are in fact concentrated in a very small walkable area, which was fortunate, because we only had about five hours left in Athens before needing to head to the airport.
For essentially all of the sites in Athens you have to pay to get in, so I tried to enjoy from afar on the first few. I buckered up (is that a thing?) and bought the 10€ pass for Acropolis. Fun fact: acropolis is greek for acro “high” polis “city” as in the highest point in the city. This is a generic term that was used in every ancient greek city, but long since then the Acropolis in Athens has become so famous that it is associated uniquely with the word. I have to say, the money to see it was totally worth it. It was a bit crowded with tourists, but not anything intolerable. Just the views of the rest of the city are incredible. You can see every other historical site in a matter of five minutes from afar. And then you get to stand next to the Parthenon, which is so much bigger than I expected. I actually liked one of the smaller buildings next to it the best because it had been restored and there was no longer any construction. I spoke with an Athens local who explained to me that they have been doing construction on the Parthenon for as long as he remembers.
I need to make a quick rant here. Fuck germans and fuck americans, and in that I partly include myself before this trip. Okay, okay, not all of them. But after being in Macedonia where I really got to see a culture of incredibly friendly people, coming to touristy Greece and seeing how people from other cultures behave really got on my nerves. While I was looking at this smaller building next to the Parthenon I was reading an information plaque when a man walked up next to me to read it. I pointed out to him that this building was “originally a temple for the gods under greek control, then a church under roman control and then later a house under turkish control.” I made a joke that the neighbors must have been jealous, to which he made a half-ass snicker, and then said something else. I heard the accent, so I asked where he was from and as expected he replied “Germany”, to which I replied, “Wo kommst du hier?”. (where are you coming from), hoping for a more specific answer. He goes “yeah yeah yeah” and waves his hand as if, “okay, you had your fun. I get it” What exactly is it that makes it special for him, that he can speak my language to me, but then when I speak his language he patronizes me and refuses to reply in german? I tried to continue for moment, he explains that he’s from this small town in south west Germany, i.e. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it. I nag him on to give me the name, and what do you know, it’s Freiburg. I was there. I know about it. I tried maybe one more time to carry on a conversation that he stopped in its tracks and then he walked off. I don’t know what it is, but I’m starting to realize that there is a very different attitude in these other countries, at least specifically in comparison to Germany and the US. (I had some similar run-ins with Americans). They look at you like you’re trying to rob them. In Macedonia, yes people are poor, but shit, at least they’ll give you the time of day. I’m in Jerusalem right now, writing this, and I’ll get into more of this in an upcoming post (look for the one titled in Hebrew). Okay, deep breaths.
So along those same lines, I met a Greek guy who gave me a whole bunch of information about Athens and was incredibly friendly. He said that the nearby Acropolis museum was a must see, so I used the waning rest of my time to check it out.
The museum was pretty sweet. Very cheap too. Looking at the artifacts I was just imagining how frickin’ cool it would have been to dig these things up; to be brushing through some dirt and then find a gold coin that dates back 2300 years. Insane. One of the coolest things was actually these models of acropolis that showed what the entire city of Athens looked like during different centuries. Check out the photos!
There was also a huge lego set of Acropolis. I bring this up really just because I want to mention that I chatted with two girls that were also looking at the lego set at the same time. One of them was from Athens and the other was originally from South Africa but she happens to now be living in Paphos, Cyprus, where I was flying out to that night! The local gave me a recommendation for the best gyro in Athens and I exchanged contact info with the girl from Paphos, so that we could hang out the next day. These are things I don’t think I may have even done before having gone on this trip, but the more I observe, the more I experience, the more I realize that people are really nice and there are a lot of awesome people in the world and in general, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
So I left the museum, stopped by a few more historical sites on my walk back to meet up with Kristina. Saw a cat park where a man was feeding…it must have been 30 cats. Weird.
Got to Sabbas and ordered both the chicken and the lamb gyros because why not? (They were only 2.20€). And then we were on our way to the airport!