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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…?