On my most recent cruise, exploring the Black Sea with Princess Cruise Lines, my favorite travel companion, Jo, and I toured the port of Volos, Greece, with a private company who picked us up at the dock in a stylish black Mercedes, the most popular car in town. Costis, our guide, was pleasant and provided us with a quick run down of our day, allowing us to make changes, seeing that it was “our” day to tour. Costis gave us cold bottles of water and we set out on the 90 minute drive from the port to the city of Meteora, where the cliffs are dotted with 600 year old monasteries atop spectacular granite rocks. Meteora translates to “hovering in the air”, which is how it looks when you first see the gorgeous rock pinnacles crowned with medieval monasteries. It leaves you wondering “how the heck did they get the materials up there to build that”? The monasteries were built so high, atop tall sharp rocks, due to the monk’s quest for solitude and as a safe haven from danger.
The first monastery we visited was St. Stephen, small but manageable, built around 1400, with virtually no steps involved. A nagging nun collected our 3€ admission fee, threw our change at us, yelled for us to put skirts on over our pants, and continued her yelling with the next guest in line. It is customary and required for women to enter the monasteries wearing skirts and with their shoulders covered. The monasteries provide these so do not worry about dressing appropriately; it is hotter than Hades in Volos so be sure to dress cool for the rest of your day.
We arrived in Kalambaka, home of 24 monasteries (of which only 6 are currently active and open to the public) to find the St. Stephen Monastery, currently serving as a nunnery. St. Stephen does not allow photography, so unfortunately I have no pictures of this shiny golden gem. The monastery walls were lined with brilliantly painted specimens of biblical scenes, some risqué and daunting, others majestic and hallowed. Heavy gold brass light fixtures hung over heavily ornamental embellishments around the room. The walls, seats, and tables were decorated in intricate hand-carved woodwork. The beauty was astounding, though some of the scenes in the paintings very disturbing. Unfortunately, we were unable to understand the nature of the paintings since we did not have a private guide inside.
Our second stop, the Great Meteoron Monastery (Transfiguration of Jesus) is the biggest and oldest of all the monasteries in Meteora. It was purely for photographs as there were 400 or more steps involved and after our busy walking day prior in Athens, we politely declined. The monastery looks as if it is suspended in midair. The Varlaam Monastery, which we did enter, was not as beautiful or interesting, but offered a gorgeous spot for panoramic views of the majestic cliffs and neighboring monasteries. There were 100-200 steps for this one, but it was not a strenuous hike. The crowds were far thicker though, and again, no photographs were allowed. I did like the fat, bubbled stained glass lights, shining red and gold, in this monastery, which separated it from the others. Varlaam’s grounds were more photogenic, too.
We made a few stops along the road leaving Meteroa to capture the panoramic vistas and then stopped for lunch to have a traditional Greek meal. I informed Costis of my two favorite dishes, Mousaka and Pastitsio, so he made sure our restaurant offered both. Polyzos Taverna, was beautiful, had huge glass windows, large canopies, comfortable chairs, and gorgeous flowers all over the property. We all ordered different dishes and shared tastes along with saganiki, flaming cheese, though no flame graced our cheese, and I missed my chance of cheering “Opa!”. I preferred the flavorful vegetables of Jo’s moussaka and she preferred Costis’s simple meat and potato dish. Nonetheless, the meals were superb, delightfully rich and creamy, with thick slabs of bread that can be described as “dreamy”. Entrees were under 8€ each which was a huge plus.
We all returned to the car for an optional side trip to Makrynitsa, which was an additional 25€ per car to visit. Costis shared with us the WIFI code, (Yes, our car had WIFI!) and passing on our car ride naps, we both dove into sharing pictures of our fabulous day with our friends around the world.
Costis informed us when we arrived in Volos and we began our very long journey through the hills, snaking up the Pelion mountains (known for legendary Centaurs who lived there) , for what seemed like 20 minutes. We passed the famous Centaur statue along the way. The drive was so similar to that of the Amalfi Coast, and the houses that lined the mountainside were just spectacular. The villages we passed looked friendly and inviting. We arrived to a congested mess of cars, buses, and vans, to the biggest surprise of our trip yet, the exquisite village of Matrinitsa.
Matrinitsa, known as “the Pelion Balcony”, is the kind of traditional village that seems to cast a spell on its dwellers. The pedestrian-only cobblestone lanes, high atop the mountains, welcomes visitors to a series of souvenir shops, quaint cafes, restaurants, and spectacular scenery. Cats wander aimlessly, fat grapes grow on grapevines outside boutique hotels, and hollow trees make both a photo op and playground for children. The views from the village are stunning, and allow for capturing images of the cruise ships in the Gulf of Pagasae. Do not miss St. John’s Church and the lion’s fountain. This is a perfect place to see the balance between old world charm and modern attraction.
Finally, our tour had come to an end and Costis drove us down the windy hills, through the modern port city of Volos, and made one last stop to satisfy my historic curiosity about the Argo, the mythical ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, which was docked in the harbor. We got out and took pictures, noticing how much this seaside area looked like Fort Lauderdale. This is one romantic and fairytale town I would like to return to for a land trip.
History/Trivia: Four monasteries, St. Stephen, Varlaam, Great Meteoreon, and Holy Trinity make up the UNESCO World Heritage site entitled “Meteora”.
FYI: All roads were in perfect condition and good repair.
Interesting: Communication from Volos to other parts of the Aegean Sea is documented as early as 4000 B.C. Also, Volos is not an island, but part of the mainland.
History: A centaur is half human, half equine, with supernatural powers and incredible wisdom. According to mythology, the Centaur Chiron was the tutor of legendary Homeric hero, Achilles. Myth has it that Centaurs lived on Mount Pelion over the Thessalian mountains, which explains the region’s extraordinary wild life.
Souvenirs: Tsipouro is the local drink and can be purchased in 80 gram bottles. It is served with seafoods and other dishes and is a way of reflecting the local people’s way of socializing and having fun. (it is a little like Ouzo though not as strong)
What Is That? The Argo ship’s bow is decorated with a decoration from the sacred speaking oak tree from Dodoni by Goddess Athena.
Cheers to another fun visit to Greece. The beauty of the different regions of Greece never cease to amaze me and I encourage you to broaden your travel destinations to some of these smaller, less known spots. Have you ever heard of Volos, Greece, or visited?