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    December 29th, 2010adminFood, Greece, Nature

    Grapes -- just growing in the mountains

    I visited Greece over a month ago. But, upon my return, I was so busy. So, I only sat down and wrote about Thessaloniki, Meteora and Kastraki much later. And now, I’m finished! So, this will be my last GREECE entry for now …that is, until I visit again.

    Below, I posted one last picture of the Meteora rock formations.

    As I wrote before, the rocks were originally underwater. But, about 60 million years ago, tectonic shifts pushed the seabed upwards. Today, I also learned a new fact about the rocks, though: Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (who was born in modern day Bodrum, Turkey), wrote about the rocks. In the 5th century BC, he recorded that the people of Thessaly believed the rocks to be from the sea — so, centuries before modern science, the people knew!

    The strange, science-fiction-like rocks of Meteora.

    So, that’s all for Greece. Before it gets really cold, I would like to take 2 small trips, if possible: Edirne and Bursa. They were both former Ottoman capitals — and, conveniently, they’re both close to Istanbul. So, they’re perfect weekend excursions. However, it’s already getting really rainy and nasty …so, if I go, I better go soon…

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    December 28th, 2010adminGreece

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    The village of Kastraki in Thessaly, Greece

    Beauty may be a subjective thing. Or it may be a silly thing. John Ruskin wrote that beauty exists in the most “useless things, peacocks and lilies, for instance.” I have read that beauty aligns with organic symmetry; there is geometry to flowers in bloom. I have also been told the opposite …that beauty is human vanity — our fear of natural disorder — a cowardly attempt to organize and, thereby, dominate nature. And some people measure beauty: symmetrical features, well-proportioned women, or a mathematical balance of shape and color. But I could never define it, and I doubt I ever will.

    The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

    Beauty, when I truly encounter it, is overwhelming. Like Meteora.

    But what is “true” beauty? I doubt there is such a thing. When I walk in certain American neighborhood, I know that they are not “beautiful” — they are ugly, charmless and common. But they strike me as beautiful, perhaps due to my memories. Or, sometimes, a man tells me that he finds a woman beautiful — and she leaves me cold (I don’t understand the appeal) — and, other times, I’m drawn to a painting or a song deemed uninspiring by another. So, maybe I should clarify the beauty of Meteora.

    Climbers almost at the top...

    The place felt unreal — like out of a landscape painting by Cézanne. We looked down upon lush meadows, absolute verdure. The land was mostly quiet, except for a quiet Greek village, Kastraki, where women cooked moussaka and pinned old skirts on clotheslines and sheeps and dogs frolicked in the open air. And, within that world, massive rock formations jutted out of the ground — these surreal, science-fiction like mountains, which once rested underwater until tectonic shifts brought them above ground. Now, they stand in the central Greek region of Thessaly, like some haunted grey palace on Mars.

    And, in this world — isolated & sublime — there was a spiritual human story. Beginning in the 9th century, ascetic monks began moving to this area. They lived in the hollows of the rock towers.

    Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron -- built in the 14th century, restored & embellished in the 15th and 16th centuries

    By the 11th century, an ascetic community had developed in Meteora. The first monastery was established, which still stands today. In the mid-14th century, a monk from Mount Athos (known as the “center of Eastern Monasticism”), Athanasios Koinovitis, brought a community of followers to Meteora. As a result, a new monastery was established.

    Close-up of section of Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron (the largest Meteora monastery today).

    The Meteora mountains are located in the Thessaly region of Greece. This area was constantly invaded by great powers, including the Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians ( …during the medieval period, the Bulgarians did all right for themselves, okay?).

    And, centuries later, it was the Ottomans. By the 13th century, the Ottomans had advanced into the Balkans, conquering Serbia and Kosovo. They pillaged Thessaly in 1309. Then, following the victory over Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans captured Athens (1458) and, by 1500, successfully seized most of the Greek mainland. Though the battle over some islands (particularly, Crete) was a longer struggle, Greece was essentially taken by the Ottomans, and a new period in Greek history thus began.

    It was at this time — during and after Ottoman invasions — that monks ran up to their rock fortifications of Meteora.

    So, how did these monks get up to those monasteries? The answer is less obvious than expected. After climbing into the mountain region of Meteora, the monks would be hoisted up to the monasteries by roped nets, as seen in the image above.

    The crank

    Once a visitor asked the monks how often they replaced the nets. They simply replied that God tells them — in other words, when the net breaks (!). The nets were supported by a large crank, which slowly pulled up the precariously supported monks.

    Stairs were not constructed until the 1920s.

    An old style (i.e. medieval) kitchen in the Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron.

    To return back to my meandering thoughts on beauty ….Meteora was so radiant — such a bewitching, distinct moment in my trip, which I still remember so clearly — that I’ll post photos in the next few days, including those showing the interiors of the monasteries, scenes of holy virtue and utter damnation, and a Greek monk picking persimmons from a tree… But, for now, I need to go to bed.

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    November 22nd, 2010adminGreece

    I was in Greece for 5 days and returned home yesterday. On this trip, I spent all my time in the northern and central regions of the country — definitely not the typical tourist route of a quick stop at the Parthenon and then party-hopping Mykonos/Ios/Santorini. Quite the contrary. We had a relaxing stay in Thessaloniki, then headed to the small village of Kastraki to visit the gorgeous mountaintop monasteries of Meteora. In the process, we drove through the city of Larissa, too.  In the next few days, I’ll provide photos & observations from my travels — including, perhaps, some comparisons with my last  time in Greece (I visited Athens, Corinth, Delphi and Sounion in 2009). Anyway, I already miss the Greek food and the adorable old men, curious and good-humored, wearing jackets much too big for their slight frames.

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