We reached Kastraki at dusk yesterday, so we didn’t see much around town. We drove through the main drag, but it was filled with tourist shops and tourist restaurants like many of the other small towns we have seen when traveling through this country.
This annoyed me at first, but then I realized that we are tourists too, and we are here too, and there is a reason that all of these other people from all over the world are here, but I had no idea why.
My friend and advisor, Milton Wheeler, told us this needed to be one of the stops on our route. That is why we are here. But to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. The towns around here are all about monasteries.
All of the tourist busses and souvenir shops and pseudo-Greek Taverns are here because of the monasteries in the area. “Big deal,” I thought to myself. We saw St. John’s monastery on Patmos, what could these have that St. John’s didn’t?
In my eyes, we are here to catch up on schoolwork and rest, at a stopping point that is near the north of Greece and close to the Albania/Montenegro/Croatia leg of the trip.
For most of the morning and early afternoon, I tried to catch up on my blogging and the kids did schoolwork. Jill taught. It was time to wash clothes again, so we hesitantly asked the hotel clerk if there was a laundromat in town. We crossed our fingers because the last time we did that— in Ostuni, Italy— we lost Jill in a town of 30,000 people where almost no one spoke English, and a in the middle of the street accosted us.
The hotel clerk gave us good directions to a fluff-and-fold laundromat, we dropped the clothes off, and went to lunch.
We are pretty burned out on Greek food. Any food I might be using for the book was eaten weeks ago. Most of the restaurants we have encountered— save a few— have been aimed at tourists and serve what tourists think Greeks eat. Though when we are led to a restaurant where the locals eat, they’re not much different.
Greek cuisine is not a refined cuisine, so there are no cutting-edge fine-dining restaurants serving Greek specialties that we have encountered. There are a lot of grilled (they call it barbequed) meats, and French fries (sometimes called “chips” like the Brits, other times called “potatoes”). I love lamb. I’ve been eating it for almost 50 years. Jill and I usually fight over which one of us gets to order the lamb.
I don’t think I’ll eat lamb again until France in February.
Other than some local greens in a restaurant in Mykonos, most places have served fries. I have eaten fries with lamb. I have eaten fries with chicken. I have eaten fries with pork. The kids were fired up when we entered Greece because they thought they weren’t going to get to eat fries until France when we ate frites. They are almost sick of fried potatoes. At lunch today I ordered a gyro with pork and it had fries stuffed inside the pita bread with the pork.
I have eaten more French fries over the last three weeks in Greece than I do in three months at home.
Jill and the kids are still pegged as Scandinavians (and it’s not because we’re driving a Volvo). Today I was asked if I was a Russian by one woman, and “from Poland?” by another.
After lunch Harrison and I dropped the girls off at the hotel because Holleman still had schoolwork to finish. He and I drove up the mountain to waste a little time looking at monasteries until they were ready for dinner.
When I rounded the first corner I looked high on a cliff and saw an old stone building hanging on a precipice. I had a fleeting thought— maybe there’s something to see here. Two hours, eight monasteries, and miles of treacherous mountain roads later, I was calling Jill on the phone saying, “You have to see this! We had no idea. THIS is why people come here”
Harrison and I stopped at one more monastery and climbed 200 steps to reach the building. The view was amazing. A nun welcomed us, and the two of us walked through the building to a small chapel. Beautiful.
There were bgeorgeous biblically themed frescos on the walls and a small window with a cool breeze blowing into the room— great engineering. Harrison and I took a seat and prayed. I thanked God for keeping us safe so far, and asked him to keep us safe during the rest of our journey, and asked— as I always do— to make me a better father, husband, son, brother, friend, boss, co-worker, partner, and citizen.
There was a great energy in that place. A few hours earlier— on our approach up the mountain— I was cynically asking myself, “Why build these things so high on a mountain when they’re so hard to get to.” Sitting in that beautiful little chapel, I knew the answer. I know God is everywhere, but I felt closer to him in that space, at that time, than almost any other time in my life.
I also know God is in heaven, but I am sure he visits earth every once in a while. When he does, I’ll bet he spends the majority of his time in these mountains.
We brought Jill and Holleman into the mountains, and I timed it so that we would be at the highest peak with the greatest view of the sunset— and what a sunset it was. We climbed rocks, sat on ledges, and laid on large boulders watching the sun sink over the mountains on the horizon to the west.
On the way down I noticed a road that I hadn’t seen the first time Harrison and I went up. We were still near the highest peak, and there was still light, but this road headed north and to an even higher elevation. Once we hit the summit of this small, seldom-traveled back road, we came upon a small park with a tiny chapel. We got out, walked around, enjoyed another magnificent view, and Harrison found anther cat to pet.
Everywhere we have gone in Greece, Harrison has befriended cats. They are all over the place in this country. He is in heaven.
Once we left the small park (and after I rang the bell outside the chapel—it rang long and loud throughout the peaks and valleys) we were stopped in the road by a goat. He was coming down a small trail to our left. As we looked up the road we saw dozens of goats. Then from up on the trail, more goats began pouring out into the road.
It’s a moment I hoped would happen on this trip. I assumed it would be with sheep in Scotland, but it was with goats in Greece. No problem, I’ll take Greek goats any time. Good stuff, that.
We weaved through the goats and headed back down the mountain. On the way, Harrison said— for the fifth time in 10 days— “This is SO COOL. Thank you dad, for doing this.”
We stopped for one last view of the sunset and sat quietly in the car watching the last of bit of sun sink though the purple and orange. The mountains in the foreground looked to be covered in a light blue mist. Beautiful.
We drove into town, picked up our laundry, and walked through the streets. Everyone was out in the town square. There were old men on benches, Greek women sitting on the side of a fountain complaining about the Greek men, kids racing on bikes with training wheels, and everyone was smoking. There’s a lot of smoking around here.
Being sick of Greek food, we went to a pizza place that served Mexican food. Knowing that we would be in Italy in a few weeks, I passed on the pizza and opted for— what I assumed would be— my last Mexican meal until July. It tasted exactly like what you would think a Mexican burrito served in an Italian restaurant in Greece would taste like.
Again, it’s the setting, not the food during this leg of the trip. It’s also the history. We are starting this journey around “The cradle of civilization” Milton calls it, and moving through the continent almost with the flow of civilization. It’s all starting to make sense.
Have you ever been to a place where you immediately wanted to go out and tell everyone you know— “You have to go to this place! As soon as you can!” Well, Meteora is one of those places. And when you visit, make sure you stick around for the sunset.