Thursday, September 30, 2010

Meteora - the clifftop monasteries of Greece

Until my sister and I started planning our Greece adventure earlier this year, I'd never even heard of Meteora. Whenever I think of Greece, whitewashed buildings and crystal clear water came to mind - islands, certainly not mainland Greece. The clifftop monasteries of Meteora were our reason for heading further north and into the mountains before hitting the islands. Perched high in the sky on rock pillars, I can see why the Greek translation means "suspended in the air". These clifftop beauties certainly didn't disappoint and after a couple of days relaxing in this peaceful location, I would now highly recommend other travelers to Greece to spend some time in this special spot.

Choosing to avoid the rather ugly town of Kalampaka (it had ok shopping though, great sandals!), we stayed in Kastraki - a smaller town, higher up in the mountains. Our hotel was right on the outskirts of town, on the one road leading up to the monasteries and so we were lucky enough to have these fantastic, uninterrupted views of the rocks, a monastery or two, the occasional rock climber and the 'holy hankies', as the kids dubbed them. These colourful little handkerchiefs are strung high up on a rock and once a year, adventurous locals climb to fetch them in a death defying race - no rock climbing harnesses involved in this one...

As well as kicking back with a Mythos in the shade outside our hotel and admiring the views, we also spent some time on the windy mountain road doing some monastery spotting and took a visit inside two of them. The Holy Monastery of St Stephen (a nunnery) was by far my favourite out of the two. As well as having friendly Greek nuns, one of which chatted away to us (or, mostly the kids) in Greek for awhile, the chapels here were amazing. When I think of monks & nuns I think of simplicity - simple clothing, stark rooms with a threadbare mattress, well worn bible and lit only by candlelight... The main chapel at St Stephens totally threw all my previous ideas of a monastery in an instant. No photos were allowed so it's hard to give you an idea of what it was like - but imagine an incense filled room that was so ornately decorated it made you think you were in the Popes private chapel. The walls were carefully painted with bible scenes and there was an abundance of gold - chandeliers, figurines, everything decorated in gold and precious stones. There was also a body, a skeleton in fact, laying in some kind of shrine with rosary beads - couldn't quite figure out the significance of that one but it gave me the creeps...

Meteora really was a special place and these ancient monasteries, high in the sky, became even more spectacular at sunset....

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wandering Wednesday - Delft, The Netherlands

Delft, The Netherlands - despite the fact that I still feel like I've hardly seen any of Holland, I've now been to the home of the renowned Delft pottery three times - and I have to say, I'd quite happily hop in the car and go back again. Like so many other cities in this tiny country, Delft isn't a huge town but with its canals, churches and blue & white pottery, it would have to be one of my favourites so far.

My visit first here was back in early 2008 when Mitch and I were travelling throughout Holland. We caught the train from Amsterdam and really only came here to visit the Delftse Pauw factory to buy our own piece of blue & white pottery. Being the real deal and not souvenir rip-offs, it comes with a pretty price tag but we came home with a lovely little tile which I have to say, was a winner in more ways then one. It fell off our wall at home not once, but twice, smashing into the sink and both times, it came out with only minor scratches - I was impressed, not to mention relieved!

Delft was also the first place I saw a modern drawbridge - it might not seem exciting to some, but for some reason, I love things like this! I've now seen a whole lot more (some whoppers actually!) but I always still find myself fascinated as they go up and down. The next thing I want to see is a canal lock - yes, I've seen them in Amsterdam but I want to see one of the big ones where they drain or fill it as a barge is coming in/out.

Having a tour of a town with a local is always a big advantage. Earlier this year, we met up with a friend from Australia and his lovely Dutch wife here, in her hometown. They gave us a great tour of the sights of which I'm pleased to say I managed to remember enough of to show a friend around a few months later! One of the things I love about Delft is how little bits of blue & white just pop up randomly... Such as a lamp post, or this gorgeous ceramic chair.

Loving my tacky tourist shots, I also love the giant yellow clog on the town square - finding this was the highlight of my last visit to Delft!!!!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The hunt for the oracle cave

In Greek mythology, the mountainside ruins of Delphi are renowned for being the home of the Delphic oracle. Considered the most important oracle, this mysterious lady was rumoured to have lived in a cave above the many treasuries, temples and theatres on this scenic site. Now fascinating ruins, Delphi is a key archaeological site in Greece and one at which we spent a rather toasty morning wandering around in the warm September sun in search of the famed cave (and it's supposed toxic gas emitting entrance)...

We left the hefty guidebook in the car thinking our entrance ticket would provide us with some form of map or explanation of the site - no such luck unfortunately. Despite this, there were limited signs of what each lump of marble was and it was still really interesting to wander around (and read the explanation afterwards while everything was still fresh in our minds!). We were in desperate need of our brother-in-law back in Australia who, strangely enough, can read ancient Greek. Nearly every inch of stone was covered in inscriptions - I'm really curious to know what they said - prophesies perhaps? An inventory of the treasures stored within? Names of slaves? We'll never know... But we had fun making it up anyway!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hosios Loukas

After wandering the ruins at the nameless seaside town in my last post, we headed off to the UNESCO World Heritage listed monastery of Hosios Loukas, thanks to a tip in the faithful guidebook.

Once we made our way up the steps to the entrance, I could instantly see why it was this location in particular that was chosen for the monastery. Founded by a hermit in the 10th century, Hosios Loukas is still relatively untouched and distanced from modern Greece. It's mountainside location was peaceful and calm and although it sounds clichéd, the only noise was the sound of the wind whooshing through the trees.

I hadn't realised we were stopping at a monastery when I got dressed that morning so unfortunately, my shorts were 'too short' to allow entry. Thankfully, someone on site gave me a skirt to wear so I too could wander around this beautiful example of Byzantine art.

In retrospect, although the clifftop monasteries of Meteora were more spectacular (more to come on that), Hosios Loukas was still an impressive place to visit. Considering its age, it really was in remarkable condition and it's fine architecture allowed itself plenty of photo opportunities for my camera happy husband...


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