The baby kicks Amanda’s seat relentlessly from behind. They guy that grumbled when I put my backpack on top of his briefcase in the luggage bin glares at me across the aisle. Emma, discouraged, stares at her inedible plate of gummy pasta and chews the hard bread. The Creekmores are back in economy!
We are flying Austrian Airlines to Europe on award tickets with no privileges, upgrades or special treatment. Our last trip to India and Amanda’s and my honeymoon were in business or first class. Economy isn’t bad, we’ve done almost all our travel in the back, but memories of warm cookies and lie-flat beds dance like sugar plums in our heads.
It’s Christmas eve but we wouldn’t know it. We’re in the Vienna airport on our layover to Athens. Emma and Lily enjoy freshly baked pretzels then Amanda and Emma try to get some needed sleep after the red-eye.
Travel to Greece has been a goal of ours for many, many years and we finally found the vacation for it. There are too many places to go! We do love our ancient civilizations and I’m surprised it took me this long to organize.
From a young age, Emma and Lily both loved the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan that are heavily based on Greek mythology. The chance to see some of the ruins of ancient Athens has been at the top of both girl’s list for quite a while. Plus it’s the most important set of ruins in the Western world. There’s that.
As our Athens airport taxi (yes he ripped me off for 4 Euros, the tolls were definitely included in the ‘flat fare’) turns into downtown we see the Parthenon up ahead giving life to images that only existed in our head. We’ll visit that later this trip, we are only staying in Athens a night. We turn quickly down another street to our Novotel – ‘The Holiday Inn of Europe’.
I nap at the hotel. Amanda sniffles and takes a Day-quil. She caught a cold on the plane. We feast at a nearby Indian restaurant – completely empty. Why Indian? Because we know we are going to get a lot of touristy Greek food over the next week.
Is there any sleep better than the night after a red-eye? It’s Christmas day and though we did our gift exchange a week ago, I saved tickets to the musical ‘Fun Home’ as a gift. Both Emma and Lily really wanted to see it. I give them print-outs of the tickets over a standard European breakfast; cheese, hard boiled eggs, bread, Nescafe.
This hotel was chosen because it’s a 10 minute walk to the train station. Amanda remarks how dilapidated Athens looks. It’s not seedy exactly, just run down and in disrepair. I guess nearly 8 years of negative economic growth will do that to a country. Last night as we passed Syntagma square there were lights but no Christmas tree as one might expect. Our uber driver joked in broken English ‘We haven’t enough money to buy it.’
The train station is surprisingly small for a major European city. The train itself is fine, nothing special but comfortable. I’m glad I got tickets ahead of time because as we depart Athens it’s completely full. Eventually the train empties out and we all sleep away the five hour trip.
Our destination is Kalabaka, the closest city to the Meteora region. We’re met by a van from a local tour agency that takes us and a few Costa Rican tourists around the monasteries of Meterora.
Meteora has the same root as meteor, and means ‘suspended in the air’. There are six monasteries/convents here. Vassily a young, tall Greek guide explains, at peak there were 20.
They came to this area in part to escape persecution, in part because of the remoteness which suited their commitment to chastity, poverty and god. It became one of the most important monastic centers for the Greek church, with some still operating. But it’s mostly a tourist destination.
What suspends the monasteries are tall pillars of rock that have eroded in a very unusual way. In fact the exact geological explaination is difficult. They know it was an inland lake or sea that deposited lots of sediment of very similar type. And an earthquake pushed it up into a high plain. Erosion wore it down, but why exactly it created these local pillars is difficult to know.
The monks didn’t just build monasteries. They inhabited the many caves in the rock for penance and to undertake vows of silence and hunger. Our train was a little early, so we’ll get to see two monasteries. They close early in the winter. The girls have to put on wrap around skirts even with pants on. It’s so cold no one is showing any skin.
Most of the religious iconography appears to have been repainted recently but a few with depictions of monsters eating sinners are pretty cool. It’s gory. Monsters in a lake are dismembering (very?) bad people.
We share some nuts and M&Ms. I thought stuff would be open on Christmas day here, in part because a lot of Orthodox countries celebrate on January 7th, also because when I called ahead it seemed like everything was open normally. But since we ate breakfast this morning at the Novotel, we’ve only had some nuts, M&Ms, a few cookies we bought at a cafe and coffee. We’re all pretty hungry.
Worse, Amanda’s cold has hit her hard and she is ready to collapse, which she does when we get back to our cute hotel called Dellas Boutique hotel. ‘Can you bring me some soup?’ she asks optimistically. I’m skeptical that I’m going to get take-out vegetarian soup in a tiny town in Greece on Christmas night, but I’ll do what I can.
It’s a Christmas miracle! The restaurant we go to, which serves pretty bad pasta has a bean soup and a to-go container which Amanda will love when we get back. Emma, Lily and I laugh a ton about old stores – the time Emma drank hydrogen peroxide, the time Lily twisted her ankle etc… It’s been a good day.