A Greece to Be Discovered

Not far from the tourist-trammeled ruins of antiquity are monasteries in the sky, pirate coasts, and friendly islands
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FEW places on earth rival Greece when it comes to numbers of historic sites -- or tourists. Often travelers arriving with lofty expectations of Mediterranean ease and Hellenic splendor depart complaining of indifferent service and of hordes of package-tour vacationers traipsing dusty circles around the ruins, bumping into one another and excusing themselves in a babble of French, German, and English. This disappointment may be traced in part to the crowd-drawing grandeur of Greece's ancient past and its marbled legacy of temples and agoras, and in part to the much-advertised beaches and nightlife of the islands, which in the summer months seem to attract half of northern Europe. As a result, the Greece of rugged mountains, solitary islands, and regal hosts -- though in fact nearby -- can feel as remote as Homer's Troy or as mythical as Atlantis.
Much of the less-trammeled Greece belongs to an era many Westerners know little about: the post-Hellenic Byzantine and Ottoman centuries that gave birth to what has come to be known in Modern Greek as Romiosyne (from reference to Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire's capital, as "the second Rome"). This "Romaic" Greece is historically Orthodox Christian, not pagan, with a heritage of monasteries and barrel-roofed churches, black-garbed widows, a lamb-and-pita cuisine savoring of the Middle East, and a language rich in Turkish and Italian borrowings. Because the Romaic aspect of Greek


The Convent of Saint Varvara RoussanouThe Convent of Saint Varvara Roussanou
 

history is less celebrated than the legacy of the ancients, Romaic sights draw fewer visitors, and the people living near them tend to be unjaded, and even disarmingly hospitable.

When the classical Greece of Athens and the Peloponnese declined, power shifted away from the south and finally found its locus in Constantinople, now Istanbul. Many Romaic sights, therefore, including the cloud-encircled Meteora monasteries, are located in the north of the country. Others dot the peripheries -- the hauntingly desolate Mani peninsula, once the domain of pirates, was, until the digging of the Corinth canal, the southernmost point of mainland Europe. Romiosyne's culture lives on as well, and often does so within a short ferry hop from Aegean tourist meccas -- the Isle of Folegandros, for example, has determinedly preserved its time-honored feasting traditions.

Visits to the Romaic enclaves described below may be the focus of a tour or be combined with travels elsewhere in the Hellenic peninsula. Almost nowhere in Greece is truly remote -- the country is relatively small, about the size of Alabama, and well-established bus and ferry networks cover all destinations. Away from resort areas expect accommodations to be basic but clean. Off-season $50 a day per person will suffice for meals and comfortable lodging in family-run hotels (in-season costs are about 20 percent more). In the smaller towns and villages well-maintained private rooms with bath may be found through local cafés, or by following the ROOMS signs that are often posted on the central square. For maps, prices, and detailed descriptions of what you will encounter off the beaten track, I would recommend or the guide. You may also wish to be in touch with the Greek National Tourist Organization, in New York, to obtain illustrated brochures and more information: the number is 212-421-5777.

IN the central region of Thessaly, about a five-hour drive northwest of Athens, rise the aptly named Meteora -- slate-gray cones and buttelike outcroppings reaching as high as 2,000 feet. They appear in their crookedness to be staggering, as if fatigued from surviving eons of tectonic tumult. The rocks themselves might merit a visit for their curiosity value, but the Byzantine monasteries that top them have made them one of Romaic Greece's most spectacular sights. Though monks seeking respite from temporal woes began establishing themselves in sketes, or retreats, on lesser peaks in the tenth century, legend has it that the first anchorite to reach the highest summit -- that of the Great Meteoron -- to found a proper monastery did so on the back of an eagle in 1340. Within 200 years twenty-four idiorrhythmic, or self-governing, monasteries crowned the Meteora. By that time all of the Byzantine Empire had fallen to the Turks, but in keeping with Islamic tolerance of monotheistic faiths, the sultans permitted these religious communities to thrive. Today six monasteries (including two convents) are still functioning and may be visited, using either the town of Kalambaka or the village of Kastraki as a base. I found the two described below the most impressive.

Although a paved road dips, rises, and loops its way amid the rocks, to taste their renowned solitude I decided to hike the three-mile trail from Kastraki to the Great Meteoron. After passing the Monastery of Saint Nikolaos, the path wended upward into the brush-cluttered crevasse between the Great Meteoron and the rock of Saint Varlaam's Monastery. Wisps of morning mist drifted about the chasm walls, which billowed skyward, convex and lichen-mottled; ravens croaked and falcons screeched as they flitted across the divide above. I sensed the almost empyrean isolation afforded by the rocks, the spiritual treasure sought by the monks.

A half hour later I stood breathless in the loggia of the Monastery of the Great Meteoron (a steep stone staircase now leads from the base of the rock to the top, obviating the dubious rope-and-pulley windlass by which monks, dangling over the chasm, were formerly lifted aboard). Several Montenegrin pilgrims joined me, and we entered the adjacent church together. Fearful of disturbing them, I took a seat in one of the oaken miserere-stalls in the back while they walked to the head of the katholikon, which glowed with the halos of saints on Byzantine frescoes. From the cupola's ceiling a gilt Pandokrator (Christ the Almighty) stared down. Crossing themselves, the pilgrims kissed the three icons beneath the iconostasis. Then they lit tapers for loved ones lost and said a prayer, and we all walked out. After this we visited the charnel house -- a dim vault containing the bones of monks who had served in the Great Meteoron -- and the ancient, soot-blackened kitchen as well. The pilgrims' awe before their Orthodox relics rubbed off on me, and we wandered around the monastery for an hour uttering not a word.

The Convent of Saint Varvara Roussanou (on a lower spindle of rock across the valley from Saint Varlaam's) possesses frescoes of martyrdom that deserve special attention. A peaceable sister there leads visitors into the narthex beside the chapel and leaves them before ceiling-high depictions of Christians suffering death by caning, quartering, stone-crushing, horse-dragging, throat-slitting, and burning. What stands out particularly, however, is the decapitations, which are shown effected by saws, swords, daggers, and axes, with each martyr's gold-nimbused head rolling away from its neck stump, its face serene with the surety of coming beatitude. One can imagine the nuns of the past contemplating the gore and finding it perfectly mundane; in the village below, the Ottomans meted out similar punishments to Greeks fighting for the glory and freedom of Romiosyne.

The monasteries of Meteora constitute some of the greatest attractions of Romiosyne, but keep in mind that they are functioning places of worship and dress accordingly: women should wear long skirts, men long pants, and both sexes should cover their arms at least to the elbows. It is best to visit in the morning, when you may be nearly alone; in the afternoon buses filled with Orthodox pilgrims from the Slavic countries to the north come rolling in.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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