Tag Archives | Winding Roads

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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Water & Mountain: The Village of Galaxidi and the Town of Arachova

When I decided to come to Itea, I knew that renting a car was a must for me because I very much wanted to be able to explore the region at will. It didn’t hurt, either, that I knew many of the routes would be by the water or in the mountains and, being a stick-shift driver, there is nothing more fun than getting to put the gears of a car to full use on the winding roads that both terrains engender.

Two of the places that local contacts recommended I go see were Galaxidi, a village with nautical roots just a 20-minute drive northwest along the shoreline, and Arachova, a town roughly 1000 metres above sea level set on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.
Galaxidi
On a clear day, from Itea, you can see Galaxidi across the water. The village rises up on a hill with St. Nicolas church sitting on its peak. Until recent times, Galaxidi was only accessible by water and as such, the authentic architectural style of homes and buildings has been retained.
The first entrance off the main road is so non-descript that I drove right by it, despite the instructions of my smartphone’s GPS navigation tool. I was sure it was malfunctioning when it told me to turn off onto what looked like a wide, gravel driveway for the nearby beach.
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Choosing to make my way on foot for as long as possible along the shoreline, I parked in the first available lot past this beach. The dirt road quickly narrowed to a footpath that fronted several fairly new and sizable houses on the shore. The land was drier than expected with the tall grass crunching beneath my flip flops as I picked my way around trying to find the best angles for photos.
The path eventually turned into concrete and led me into town, passing an inner harbor and a cute small house turned tavern/café that sat alongside. Its small outdoor porch looked like the perfect place to sit and spend the afternoon, but this was an exploratory trip for me and so I pressed on, with full intentions of returning to enjoy that serene spot.
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Arachova
If you’re anything like me, the road to Arachova is a dangerous one. As the pathway twists and turns up the mountain, your eyes are uncontrollably drawn to the view: the jagged edges of the rock face that loom above you; the side-by-side line of hill and mountain ranges, the strength of the details melting away with distance; the faded, dry green valley of olive groves below; the blue-green, almost dark turquoise waters of the Gulf of Corinth.
What’s worse, most of the other drivers on the road are from the area and have driven this road over and over again, each curve, turn, rise and decline clearly embedded in their muscle memory. A word of advice: if there’s a Greek driver following you (and it’s always a Greek driver if they’re on your ass), don’t hesitate for a second – find a spot to slow down and pull to the right and let them pass. Don’t be fooled into thinking that he/she will wait until there’s a designated spot to pass: the double white lines in the middle and the fact that you’re on a mountainside S-shaped road don’t mean anything here. Somewhat worryingly, once I started edging up one too many times behind a camper van that was overly fond of its brakes, I found myself having the same urges.
Arachova is just a short drive past Delphi, and I would guess, has inherited much of its tourist overflow. In the winter time, this town is also used as a base for a major ski hill further up the mountain. With the number of visitors they receive, the attitude towards tourists is… more direct. The souvenir shop owners here are aggressive. They pounce on you as you walk past: it’s okay, just come and look they say. Is it ever really okay to just look? There are more restaurants here that cater to the non-Greek palate, more high-end and fashionable clothing shops and a fair number of tourist buses, even now, in the shoulder/off-season.
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The view, though, is no less breathtaking upon arrival than on the drive and once you’re off the main road and wandering the inner streets of Arachova you can understand its appeal. The lanes and walkways are usually steep, turning haphazardly one way or the other, sometimes leading you off to another branch, other times to a dead end. It has a mix of architectural styles, but many of the houses still retain the traditional architecture with the quintessential terracotta tiled roofs. I’m sure a map of the town would look a spider web and I’m can’t be sure how many of those lanes had names… in short, it is a town built for a roamer like me.

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