Wednesday, July 17, 2013

God on the Rocks -- a Visit to The Metéora

One of 6 remaining monasteries at The Metéora
She introduces herself jokingly as the Jungfrau Maria (the Virgin Mary), and the tour group--the one waiting for our tour group to remove itself from the cooler, inner area of the chapel--laughs boisterously. Her name is Maria, an informative guide who speaks fluent German, and also one who doesn't shy away from talking about religion as well as the current crisis in Greece.

Maria, our tour guide
Our trip from the port of Thessaloniki to the rock monasteries of The Metéora takes about two and a half hours, past Mount Olympus and through the town of Larissa, the capital of the region Thessaly. Maria speaks generously about the simple Greek person's problems and the causes, in her opinion, of the financial crisis in Greece. About thirty minutes into her talk, I begin to feel uncomfortable. I know there are people on the bus who wish she'd change the subject to something more touristy, something happy, something mythological maybe. Maybe I'm wrong about this, though. The bus is full of German tourists, who tend to be a bit more serious and interested in politics than your average Anglotourist. I turn to check out the reactions my fellow touries. Most are asleep.

Mt. Olympus speeding by through the bus window
As we pass Mount Olympus, Maria tells stories of Zeus hiding his kids in his head and in his calf, of his exploits and his sexual escapades. She tells a couple stories about his jealous wife, Hera. Interestingly and ickily, Hera is also Zeus's sister. Maria's stories are much more interesting than the backdrop of Mount Olympus, which the ancient Greeks thought was the highest point on Earth. Boy, were they wrong.

As we drive through the city of Larissa, I keep seeing graffiti screaming MONSTERS! and I at first think this must be a message to the politicians about this mismanagement of the country, maybe a message to the Germans. HOMELESS is also scrawled everywhere, so I think my guess could be on the money. But then I see MONSTERS! in connection to a(nother) football team. Yesterday, at the Greek restaurant near my home in Munich, our waiter--who's from Larissa--confirmed that Monsters is a football team--but I think HOMELESS probably isn't.

As the UNESCO World Heritage site The Metéora appears on the horizon a few miles ahead, Maria turns to the group and says, "I know what you're thinking: 'We drove all this way for those rocks?!!'" The group laughs. "Just wait," she says. "You'll see."

Caves of the ascetic, hermit monks at The Metéora
And we certainly do. Metéora means "suspended in the air" and the remaining six of more than 20 monasteries built on these sandstone pillars are feats of engineering and contruction. The monks who built these monasteries, however, weren't the first inhabitants of Metéora. A community (ironically) of ascetic, hermit monks lived in the cutouts and fissures in the rocks as early as the 9th century. From the looks of these caves, I can only assume these monks began to feel a bit crowded. The last thing a hermit wants is neighbors, right? I don't know. I like my peace and quiet. I wonder if they had rules about playing loud music and grilling. And I'm almost positive they kept building higher so they wouldn't get peed on by their neighbors.

Around the late 11th century, simple monastic structures began popping up (and up and up) atop these rock formations. I'm told (by Maria) that there were more than 24 monasteries here. Most remain only as ruins now, but six have survived. We visited two. At the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, pictured directly below, pilgrims and monks were raised and lowered by a rope and a basket for centuries where the newer-looking balcony is on the left. The rope was replaced only when 'The Lord let it break', which meant people risked death accessing the monastery. We took the steps.

The steps here are a modern addition of course.

At the bottom, just above the trees is the ruins of a monastery built on a narrow ledge.

Sadly, a great deal of the artwork inside the monasteries has fallen to the brutality of time, war and robbers. Taking photos inside the monasteries isn't allowed, but I took these outside where it is allowed....

I'm not the best at remembering facts and dates and people's names, but I have a very good head for a statement well put. As we are standing in the cool, inner chapel of the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Maria stops telling us about the iconic art on the walls and says, "You know, it doesn't really matter if you are Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant--we all pray to the same God. Or even if you don't believe in God at all. Everyone should be able to live as he sees fit. And that's what really matters."

The cynic in me tries to convince me statements like this are said to assure a good tip in the end, but I resist. I hum a pleasant tune to block out the cynic.

Maria's statement reminds me that we in the Western World live in a time of great tolerance, that despite isolated instances of hate and bigotry we actually do widely respect/tolerate one another. The overwhelming majority of us will never be tortured because we believe or don't believe the doctrine of one religion or the other. Still, we could all be more tolerant of other people's beliefs, or as I so quite often: We could all be nicer.

Due to the heightened irritation in Greece with the policies of the European Union, I assume, and specifically the leadership of Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, we--a busful of German tourists--had a police escort during our trip to The Metéora--which is sad. Maybe there were threats we were blissfully unaware of? I hope the situation in Greece improves quickly, that employment increases, and that life returns to normal soon.

Next time, I'm going to take you to Yalta, Ukraine and show you the most adorable sleeping lion.

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to H is for Hamburg.

I must be off,

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day.