Archive | November, 2013

Meteora: “Middle of the Sky” Monasteries

You know when you’re a kid and you see something – a person, an image, an arena – that seems too amazing, too big, too beautiful to be true? That’s how I felt about Meteora and its famous complex of monasteries.

I first laid eyes on Meteora in a James Bond movie. The Monastery of the Holy Trinity was used as a backdrop in For Your Eyes Only, the 12th in the series and the 5th with Roger Moore starring as 007 (my father’s a huge fan of the James Bond films). Although it appears the original intention was to film inside the building, the monks living there weren’t too appreciative of this idea. After all, the cliffs and pillars of Meteora were first used as a place of refuge by a group of ascetic monks in search of quiet and solitude. They literally lived in the rocks, about 300 years before the first monastery was built.

Once upon a time there were 24 monasteries up on the cliffs, but today only 6 remain above the town of Kalabaka and the village of Kastraki, more tourist sites than working monasteries although all still have residents.

 The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is visible on the left pinnacle overlooking the town…DSC_0966

The weather for my visit was mostly cold and grey, although there were a few moments of sunshine to be had here and there, mostly in the afternoon. Only warm clothing and an incredible amount of patience and luck led to a few photos with blue skies.

I stayed in the village of Kastraki at a lovely little hotel called Pyrgos Adrachti. It sat right below the cliffs and, following the suggestions I’d read, I requested a balcony room that allowed me to sit and marvel at the sandstone pillars whenever I wanted. There was a little pathway that led down from the cliffs – every so often, I’d hear a rustle and would wait for my eyes to catch the movement of a couple of adventurous trekkers making their way through the trees, surprised at finding themselves basically on the back lawn of this hotel.

The owners gave me a map to follow, but the monasteries were pretty easy to find: make sure you’re going uphill (there’s only really one main road in Kastraki) and follow the tour buses. The map was far handier for what the proprietors added – opening hours. The best days to visit are Sunday and Monday because only one of the monasteries is closed during that two-day period; all other days of the week contain a motley mix of open monasteries and visiting hours. To avoid the crush of tourists, go early and try to hit the two largest first: Megalou Meterou Monastery (also known as Great Meteoron) and Varlaam Monastery. While both offer visitors with the most amount of wandering territory (i.e. not as much of the monastery is private), they are also relatively accessible with ample parking space for tourist buses, hence the larger numbers. By comparison, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity involves a long walk down followed by more than 100 steps up; and, of course, the reverse when you leave.

The outskirts of the Varlaam Monastery can just be seen in the top right corner of the cliffs,while Agiou Nikolaou Monastery (St. Nickolas Anapausas) can be seen in the middle, just to the left of the large wall of sandstone cliffs…DSC_1027

The dual nature of tourism, though, made this a bittersweet moment for me. As a very popular landmark, visiting the monasteries is very simple and straightforward: a 3 euro entry fee and a wrap around skirt (provided by the monasteries) for females is all that is required. By comparison, visiting the larger Eastern Orthodox complex of monasteries at Mount Athos requires that 1) you be a male; and 2) that you obtain a special entrance permit (signed by 4 of the secretaries of leading monasteries) valid only for a limited stay.

The downside is that little to none of the meditative character remains: tour groups file through while their guides loudly provide running commentary and multilingual yells and shouts punctuate the air interrupted intermittently by the roar of bus engines. Additionally, as all 6 still have monks and nuns in residence, the 4 smaller monasteries offer very little in the way of viewing for architectural or historical context: you can walk through some in as little as 5 minutes.

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Having said all this, the views alone from the area and from each of the monasteries I visited (I didn’t make it to Agious Nikolaou Monastery) made it a very worthwhile visit. Photos will never do justice to this amazing place: there is no way to capture the scale, textures, and colours of the natural beauty of the cliffs and pinnacles, nor the dramatic vision of the monasteries perched upon them. I hope, though, that these images ignite your imagination – as one once did mine – and create in you the desire to travel to Meteora and see these sites for yourself.

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P.S. If you are planning a visit, stop by the Restaurant Boufidis along the main road to Meteora, at the edge of town – best pork souvlaki of my entire stay in Greece. You can’t miss it – the chef (and co-owner?) mans the charcoal grill outside by the side of the road.

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Osiou Louka Monastery… Finding my Way, Being Blown Away

First, a little tip – beware your GPS. Remember that it gives you the shortest route, not necessarily the best route – this little tidbit will make another appearance in a later post….

As I left the village of Distomo, the signs that gave me hope I was headed in the right direction towards the Osiou Louka Monastery were no longer visible. The directions my GPS gave me led me into the heart of the village, told me to make a left and then drive right out of it. I was starting to have my doubts. Might the plains of dry grass and hills in the distance have been a sign that something had gone awry? Perhaps, but I doggedly continued on; after all, my GPS hadn’t failed me… yet.

And so it was that I found myself making a sharp left turn that led me down yet another Greek winding mountain-side road, that, of course, next required a hairpin turn, then another, then… well, you get the point. I found myself wondering how two cars – never mind me and one of the massive tourist buses I’d seen trailing behind me – could fit on this pathway, particularly where it curved around… luckily, I didn’t have to try this out myself.

The monastery wasn’t visible yet, but I was blithely distracted instead by a beautiful valley full of trees that lay to the northeast. Unknowingly, I was actually on the road named after the monastery itself, EO (an abbreviation for a national road in Greece) Arachovas Osiou Louka, but honestly, I think you could only know this if a) you live there; or b) you memorized the map because I could see not a single street sign.

The road led me around a corner and happily, I found myself pulling up in front of the distinctive stone pattern and structure of the 11th century Byzantine monastery. I pulled onto the gravel driveway and marvelled that there were so few cars. Was it open? In Greece, opening hours are somewhat random and flexible, so I couldn’t be sure. Then, I spied the the door, tucked into the corner of the courtyard, agape. Odd place for the entry, I thought, walking through and stepping down and into a courtyard. Staircases sat to the left, leading up to a viewing platform and small rooms, which were once used for storage, sat off to the right.

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A few tourists seemed a little startled by my appearance. I wondered: Was I too casually dressed, not wearing enough for the weather? Perhaps, a solo female traveller at the monastery is an oddity? No, no… as I was to discover after making my first pass through the grounds, I had come in through the back where the monks and employees typically park and enter. Ah, yes… that would explain why there were no signs telling me where I had arrived.

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The Osiou Louka Monastery (sometimes written as Osios Loukas or Hosios Loukas) is named after its founder, a monk known as St. Luke. The monastery is one of three Byzantine monasteries included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The structures are stunning, its stones a mix of shades of orange (burnt orange, peach and terracotta), indian red and grey-white, along with the nationally ubiquitous terracotta tiled roofs.

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The grounds include a vault or crypt which once housed the tomb of the hermit, a sculpture museum, and two churches standing side by side (St. Luke’s tomb was moved to a point where these join). As beautiful as the complex was from the outside, it was the inside of the Katholikon (the second church to be built) that made me want to simply sit, crane my neck up and stare. The mosaics, the iconography, the light, the high marble walls that led one’s eye upward to the archways and domed ceiling…. The dark black walls age worn to a slate gray, backgrounds of gold, punctuated with royal blue and dark ruby red robes and ribbons of green. The soft white light that brightened the dark shadows under the domed ceiling. I could’ve sat there forever just staring at that light, struggling to come up with the words to properly describe that quality of light. That light that left me feeling as though it was lifting my cares up into the sky, that drew my eyes heavenward, as it were.

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I’m not particularly religious, nor do I strongly associate with a religion, but it is at moments like these, moments of beauty that captivate, hypnotize and leave you questioning what’s possible that I find myself drawn to the belief that there is something bigger and greater than us humans out there. It’s not about churches or monasteries or any other religious building – it’s about a feeling in response to the universe’s natural beauty or to a man-made structure working in harmony with that beauty. Yes, our ability to perceive colour is simply a process that occurs in our brains in response to wavelengths of light reflecting, emitting or transmitting from objects, but why do we find these combinations of light and colour at the very least, appealing, and at its most, breathtaking? It’s not the process that I relate to something spiritual, it’s the feeling that we get from the process.

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That feeling – awe, wonder, breathlessness – and the desire to stay, the difficulty of walking away… it’s an addiction: every time I experience it, I wonder what else is out there in the world that will equal or surpass what’s before my eyes now. What else awaits me…?

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I’m Exhibiting as part of inFOCUS3 @ the Moniker Gallery – Nov 14th through 20th

If you read my previous post, then you’ll understand why I’m very excited to have been selected to participate in the Moniker Gallery’s inFOCUS3 group photography exhibition.

When I first returned from Greece, I had been toying with the idea of a solo exhibit for the end of this year, but the truth soon became clear that there was not enough time to properly plan, organize, print and promote for this, never mind also having to deal with the pressure and nervousness that would accompany it.

The idea had been suggested by an acquaintance and it really took hold, but when things didn’t work out as I’d hoped, I started to get concerned: was this a sign that I shouldn’t be going down this path or was this my fear taking over, convincing me to give up all too easily?

I really didn’t know, but thankfully, I thought, there’s always plan B and C.

Plan B fell apart soon after; plan C’s still hanging around.

In the end, though, it was as a consequence of plan A and plan B going down the drain that I found an unconsidered alternative: calls for submissions on craigslist. I’ve since learned that another great resource not only to learn about calls, but also exhibits and shows that will be held is akimbo.ca.

Coincidence? Luck? A little of both, I think…. Continue moving forward. Don’t give up.

Moniker Gallery’s inFOCUS3 will be held from November 14th through to the 20th, with the opening exhibition on the night of the 14th from 7 – 11pm. Come join me and 16 other photographers on opening night: check out some photography, have some food, a drink or two and be sure to say hello.

Hope to see you there!

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