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Sun Jun 12 2016: The Hermit Monks of Meteora

Our search for Ancient Greek temples and ruins in the north have proven fruitless, so we are heading further south into the mainland.

Once again, warm and dry weather continues to greece our travels.

We ride past green rolling hills with churches at the top. So pretty!

Trivia time: the milk thistle plant was used by the Ancient Greeks to treat a variety of ailments related to blood and liver problems

"Here Socrates, drink this. It's only a bit of milk thistle..."

As we get closer to our destination...

...we see these magnificent rock formations breaking through the ground and reaching up to the sky

These rocks are called Meteora or as the Greeks write it, Μετέωρα. Greek writing is so cθθl. Every word looks like a math theorem. Apart from being the name of a great Linkin Park album, Meteora means "middle of the sky", "suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above". It's the same root as the word we use for the weather: meteorology.

I wasn't wrong about the rocks looking like they broke through the ground. About 60 million years ago, these rocks were part of the seabed but a huge seismic event pushed them above the waters and over time vertical cracks formed in the rock to create the pillars we see today.

This picture doesn't do justice to the size and scale of these rocks

Because the closer we get, the larger they appear to be

We reach the town right at the base of these rocks - Kastraki. This is our apartment!

Kastraki is not even a town, it's more like a village. When we researched places to stay in Meteora, there were two choices: Kastraki, tiny and quiet with little amenities, or the larger town nearby called Kalambaka - where all the shops and restaurants were. Kalambaka was more expensive, so we picked Kastraki because we had our own wheels. I think Kalambaka would better be suited for backpackers since that's where all the public transportation runs to and from.

It turned out to be a great choice. We loved the cosy, village atmosphere and if we wanted to get some groceries or go out to eat, we could just hop on the bikes and head into Kalambaka about 3kms away.

We didn't stay long in Kastraki. Our host gave us a map of Meteora and we were immediately back on the bikes and off to explore!

Neda had to remove puppies, seashells and her leaf collection from her tank bag to make space for the Meteora map

The nice tourism people have built a great road that climbs up to and around the top of the rock formations. I feel that riding our motorcycles up to the top is a way better option than hiking, although I'm sure crazy people do just that. I'm looking at you, Neda.

Riding towards the rocks of Meteora. Hey, are those buildings on top of those rocks?

Not just any buildings, these are medieval monasteries!

And not just one. There are six of them up here. This one is called the Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

There are caves around Meteora that have been inhabited by people for thousands of years. In the 11th century a bunch of hermit monks took up residence in the caves and fissures in Meteora, many hundreds of meters above the ground. They *REALLY* wanted to get away from people. They started building monasteries at the top of these rocks (about 400m high) in the 14th century, using only ropes to get building materials up to the summit. What an engineering feat!

They also used removable rope ladders to keep other people away. My brother and I used to build pillow forts on the living room couch when we were kids. So I totally see the appeal of this.

However, I'm not feeling the whole rope ladder thing. Fortunately there's a cable car that goes from the lip to the Holy Trinity Monastery! :)

Unfortunately the cable car is not currently operating. :(

So we have to walk down to the very bottom of the rocks and then climb back up to get to the monastery. Why even tease me with that cable car line?!?

A 400m hike down and then a 400m climb up. Then we have to do it again to get back to our bikes. Surprise hike is about as thrilling as a pop quiz...

Fortunately in the last 600 years, they've done away with the rope ladders and carved stairs into the rock to climb up to the monastery.
Thank you, Tourism Board of Meteora! The hermit monks probably weren't too happy about that...

Speaking of which, there are still monks living in the monasteries. There are six monasteries in total, four monks live in this one. With all the tourists coming in and out, they're probably not hermit monks anymore.

There's a strict dress code for women in the monasteries. Wearing pants is not enough. Neda was given a wrap to put around her trousers.

A peek inside some of the artwork inside the Monastery of the Holy Trinity

You get some awesome views of the valley below from the monasteries

A couple of other monasteries in Meteora. The one in the foreground, the Monastery
of Rousanou, is actually women-only. There are 13 nuns in residence there.

Looking down into the town of Kalambaka at the base of Meteora

So it turns out that the monastery that we just visited, the Holy Trinity, is the most difficult one to reach. The rest are more accessible and don't require such a long hike up and down. We ride over to another one that looks interesting, the Holy Monastery of Varlaam. This one has a bridge to get to it across the chasm. I like bridges.

Great view of the Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas from above

The Monastery of Varlaam has a nice big courtyard big enough to play basketball in.
The monks here have put together a team called the Varlaam Globetrotters.

The Varlaam Globetrotters play in an inter-monastery league. Their fiercest rival comes from the neighbouring Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas - they call themselves the Nicks.

Varlaam is a lot bigger than the Holy Trinity. The nice people at the Tourism Board have recreated many rooms to reflect life of the monks in the middle ages.

Storeroom. Those berries are fake. Don't ask me how I know...

"What's in this room?" -- "Oh, this is where we keep our skull collection!" I don't think these are fake.

And of course, my favorite subject for photos - votive candles!

"This is just the coolest thing. Monasteries on top of rock pillars!"

It's as if someone went to Arches National Park in Utah and built churches on top of all the weird Road Runner-like sandstone formations in the desert. Well, seeing how quickly those are eroding... probably not a good idea.

Cannot get enough of this scenery!

Monasteries on rock pillars aren't the only interesting structures at Meteora. Here's another one in the distance.

Well, it's 5PM and the monasteries are all closed to the public. That's okay, we're kind of monasteried-out anyway. At €3 per person per monastery, it was getting a bit expensive. They say the best time to view the rocks of Meteora is around sunset - the light casts amazing hues and shadows over the landscape. We're only a few days away from the summer solstice, which means sunset is... check the Interweb... 8:50PM. Wow, that's a lot of time to kill.

We could ride back to town, wait and then come back, but we'll only have a couple of hours in the apartment before we have to head back to this same spot, so we decide to just hang out here. The weather is so pleasant and the scenery beats staring at the wall or a computer screen.

We ride around the rim of the valley overlooking the rocks to find a suitable viewing area. A friendly local dog follows us, in search of snacks

I think Meteoro, the dog, has temporarily adopted us. He's following us everywhere. I wonder why...

Playing with Meteoro really helps pass the time. We get a little bit jealous when other people start arriving and he goes off to greet them. We really need our own dog. One that will love us, and only us...

Neda practices some yoga. Watching all that activity makes Meteoro very tired. Me too, pooch. Me too...

My R1200GS and I. This is pretty close to the correct scale... Hεε hεε

Meteoro tires of us (Neda ran out of snacks) and went off to find other humans to mooch off of. The sun was getting lower in the sky and it was starting to get quite cold!

We rode back and forth on this road on the lip of the canyon catching different views of Meteora

We settled on this spot on the cliffs overlooking the rocks of Meteora to wait for the sunset

This feels so familiar. How many times during this trip have we taken pause at the end of the day and just picked a spot to watch the sun lazily drift back down to earth? How many times did we do that before this trip? I think this to me is so representative of our life now. Literally taking the time to smell roses and watch sunsets. And not just for these cliched moments, but being mindful and present for all the extraordinary and ordinary events as they unwind in front of us. Instead of allowing time to turn into an automaton, scrolling our lives away with little accountability.

I can feel the sunset coming because the last little bit of heat from the sky is slowly leaving my face.

Nice. Okay, we can go back to our apartment now. :)

Where to now, Neda? Oh yeah... still my turn... :(

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