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The Heavenly Meteora Monasteries

Beautiful sunny Greece is mostly known for its picturesque islands and classical Hellene ruins, however there is at least one other wonder which no traveler should miss. I am referring to the group of six monasteries known as ‘Meteora’, which literally means ‘suspended in the air’, and which are situated at the edge of the plain of Thessaly, in central Greece.

One of the Meteora Monasteries

Defined by UNESCO as a unique phenomenon of cultural heritage, these Eastern Orthodox havens of ancient cultural and religious artifacts and icons, perch majestically on enormous columns of rock rising precipitously from the ground. This rare geological peculiarity is truly one of a kind. As we navigated the winding roads on our rented car, I couldn’t help but wonder at the original monks who, fleeing from the encroaching Ottoman raiders at the end of the 14th century, found refuge in the isolated caves, and then later further up the rocky slopes of Meteora. Originally there were 24 monasteries atop these impossibly imposing natural formations, however unfortunately only six remain active today, as the others all fell into ruin, most notably after the depredations of the second world war, when many were bombed and their art treasures stolen. The six remaining monasteries – testaments to the piety and art of the Orthodox culture, are all situated near each other, so though I recommend renting a car or purchasing a coach ticket to arrive to Meteora itself, one can still continue walking on foot from one monastery to the other. Of course, if you plan on visiting, I would also suggest dedicating at least one full day to visit all six monasteries. There is so much to see!

We rounded a corner and suddenly there it was – a sight I will never forget. I could hardly assimilate how far up we were, not to mention take in the amazing panorama of abrupt vertical rock pinnacles topped with exquisite red-roofed buildings, without wondering how on earth anyone could have built them up there. Especially knowing that the oldest and largest monastery, that of Great Meteoron, had been erected in the 14th century, when construction materials and aides were very limited. We stopped the car to take some photos and realized that we were not the only ones there. Yes, Meteora is underrated, yet there are still many people visiting all year round – not just pilgrims and history buffs, but also rock climbers, trekkers, and simple tourists. Beware though – Meteora is not a site for those who don’t like walking, in fact one must brave a myriad of stone steps cut in the rocks themselves, sheer bridges and wooden platforms, to access the fairytale buildings. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

My silly boyfriend trying to give me a heart-attack by prancing on the edge

Unfortunately we did not have time to visit all six monasteries, seeing only four of them. The first we went to, the Monastery of Great Meteoron, is surely my favorite one of the lot. It is situated on top of the highest of the inhabited rock pinnacles, reaching more than 613 metres above sea level, and was founded by a monk who later became a Saint of the Greek Orthodox Church. Facing the rough vertiginous steps hewn into the rocks, which one must climb to reach the monastery, I admit, my fear of heights started to make itself known. Then, I was told that I was lucky to be using steps at all, since before the 1920s, the monks used to access the buildings using large baskets, pulleys and ropes! It must surely have taken years to carry construction material up the high rock formations using nothing but nets, cordage and folding ladders. Not to mention great fortitude and strength of will.

The Monastery of Great Meteoron!
I just fell in love with this beautiful courtyard

As I paid the meager €3 entrance fee, I was given a long colorful skirt to wear over my shorts. Skanty attire is in fact not permitted in the monasteries. However, I soon forgot my momentary discomfort over the ugly garment as soon as I started exploring. The medieval kitchen, the gold Byzantine paintings in the main church, the frescoes in the smaller chapels, and the ancient illuminated manuscripts in the museum, were all wonders to behold. Not to mention the ossuary in the sacristy – literally a room full of skulls belonging to the monks who had lived there! After a delightful hour clambering throughout the building, we found ourselves in a large courtyard. The pink-leaved trees framed a really magnificent landscape, as not just the other monasteries on their pinnacles, but also the tiny-looking town of Kalampaka below, the Pindus Mountains, and the Pineios River, were all spread before us. A litter of kittens frolicked amidst the serene splendor striking a cute note amidst the grandiose spectacle.

The Ossuary

A small suggestion – don’t buy any souvenirs from the pricey vending stalls outside. Each monastery has its own small shop where one can purchase the monks’ own products! I bought a small hand-painted censer and some sweet incense from Great Meteoron, and I really prize it knowing the dedication and effort it took to make it, especially since each monastery contains not more than 15 monks at one time. Much more original than any mass marketed fridge magnet, keychain or snowglobe for sure.

Next up was the Monastery of Varlaam. This is the second biggest monastery of the Meteora complex and is located directly opposite Great Meteoron. The most curious and interesting thing I saw here was in the old tower, where they still keep the original net and windlass used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock pinnacle. There are also a number of graceful and colourful ancient icons which one can admire in the museum, as well as over 300 religious manuscripts on display in the sacristy.

One of the medieval religious illustrated manuscripts

The third monastery I visited was the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, which it is rumored, is built upon the foundations of a tiny chapel even older than itself. Roussanou monastery is inhabited by nuns and it was founded in the middle of the 16th century. Currently only 13 nuns live there. It is more accessible than the other monasteries, as the spire of rock it is built upon has a lower elevation. All you have to do to reach this monastery is cross a small bridge from another peak. If you suffer from vertigo however, don’t look down while you are on the bridge!

The scent of incense was amazing!

The last monastery I visited was that of Agia Triada, or the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which is the hardest one to reach. One must in fact climb 140 uneven steps cut into the rock to reach it, however once you reach the top, the captivating view of the surroundings is totally worth it. Part of this monastery was also used as the setting for the final scenes of the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to visit the Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Monastery of Nikolaos Anapafsas, as we had a long drive ahead of us, and all the Monasteries close at around 5pm.

Visiting these monasteries was truly mystical, magical, extraordinary and impressive. The immensity of nature’s beauty, coupled with the history, and architecture of Meteora, embodies man’s everlasting desire for spiritual elevation. One of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever been to.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

Antwerp – the Cult of the Phallus

Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.

This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady, we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.

The Het Steen also known as the Fortress of Antwerp

The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology. 

As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.

The statue of Semini

Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.

After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.

It was quite a romantic oasis of peace in the bustling city.

Exploring Venice on a Budget

When one hears the word ‘Venice’, the first adjective which comes to mind is ‘romantic’, the second one is, undoubtedly, ‘expensive’. This is what the majority of people think, and what I myself assiduously believed during my teens, when visions and dreams of visiting this unique floating city would cross my mind. Finally, a couple of years ago, I actually looked into the option of visiting Venice seriously, and when I did my research what I discovered was that visiting Venice was not at all as expensive as I had expected! On the contrary, going there for Valentine’s Day in February became an entirely do-able option. Of course, I had to do my homework first.

A commonly-made mistake is that of believing that because Venice Marco Polo Airport falls within the Commune of Venice itself, it is the most advantageous one. Personally, I found that using Treviso Airport instead was much less expensive, considering that this smaller airport caters for low-cost airlines. When it comes to flights, it is imperative to book at least six months in advance when travelling to very popular destinations such as Venice. This minimizes costs considerably, both when it comes to airport fees, as well as accommodation. The 2-hour flight from Malta to Treviso Airport for example, when using Ryanair, rarely costs more than €140, return and all, when this premise is taken into account. One can then buy a ticket for the shuttle bus either online or from the plane itself. The ATVO shuttle bus for example, costs only €18 (return ticket included) and left us right in Piazzale Roma in Venice. More information can be found on the official website here

My heart soared as we booked the flights and shuttle bus, only to crash in despair as the time to start looking for a beautiful, clean and preferably central accommodation came closer. Beset by the idea that any hotel within Venice itself would be stratospherically expensive, I was actually flabbergasted when after only some minutes of searching I found what would be our refuge for our much dreamt-of four nights in Venice. Hotel Ca’ Zose , set in a 17th century building, is to be found squarely in the center of Venice, being almost exactly next to the famous Chapel of Santa Maria della Salute. This Chapel, built in 1681, is richly decorated with statues and a prevalent Baroque-style. Its two domes and two bell-towers dominate the skyline, and it is, in fact, present in most popular photos, pictures, and paintings emblematic of the city of Venice.

Venice has become widely known for its element of elegant decay. Its rich and diverse architecture, most notably the Venetian Gothic style of its Palazzi, combining Byzantine and Ottoman influences, has enchanted poets and painters, writers and musicians. This graceful style with its intricate designs, and rich window frames, is perfectly exemplified in the famous Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti – a veritable dream upon the water.  Built in 1565, visions of the Palazzo delight anyone who ventures on the Grand Canal, not to mention offering various exhibitions and events throughout the year, since it is also the seat for the Venetian Institute of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. I was also wowed by the beautiful Ca’ d’Oro, also on the Grand Canal, which with its floral Gothic architecture and colonnaded loggias, is a fairytale-like testament to Venice’s more prosperous past as a seaside port.

The Venetians prized every inch of land, not so surprising when one takes into account the huge number of canals running through the city, and the fact that throughout the years, slowly but surely, the land is being inexorably reclaimed by the sea. Its magnificent buildings are sinking, its charming artwork is slowly decomposing. This too, somehow, seems to add to its sad and sinister beauty. So much to see, so many entrance tickets to purchase, and yet, I still found a way to circumvent even this issue. Not by plunging head-first into palaces and art-galleries, forcing astonished receptionists and irate security-guards to come running after me, breathless with indignation – but by buying the Venezia Unica City Card. This is basically a card (or more accurately, a voucher), which offers the historically-minded traveler a chance to access a large number of monuments, churches and museums, including the famous Palazzo del Doge, by paying one single price, instead of purchasing a ticket at the door of each attraction. This is cheaper of course, if you are interested in visiting a certain number of such architectural gems. The Card also offers a number of other services, like a toilet pass and use of public transport. It can easily be purchased online here.

Venice is not a solid landmass, but an archipelago, that is, it consists of a myriad of tiny islands interlinked with bridges. On the first day of my stay, I was simply gutted to finally cross over to the district of San Marco, after walking across the famous and incredibly imposing Rialto Bridge, which is the oldest bridge spanning the Grand Canal. Flanked by small cute coffee shops and restaurants on the one side, and a market sporting Venetian masks, side-by-side with renowned brand-names like Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani on the other, this powerful structure built in the 12th century stretches between sea, sky, and land. It would have been utterly perfect, had it not been so hard to take a photo with all the hundreds of tourists jostling me, however finally I managed.

An important tip – don’t wear heels if you are going to be walking around Venice! Amazed by the grandeur of Piazza San Marco, flanked by Saint’s Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, I couldn’t stop from gazing upwards, thereby causing the underside of one of my shoes to scrape the pavement the wrong way and the platform to literally disintegrate, resulting in a panicked and frenetic search for a pair of cheap yet comfortable shoes in the most expensive part of Venice. Fortunately, the Venezia Unica Card proved to be a blessing in this case as well, since afterwards, instead of having to wait behind interminable queues to enter the Italo-Byzantine Basilica of Saint Mark resplendent with gold designs and opulent mosaics, I could join those smart few who had already purchased their tickets online, and who were therefore waived through reception without delays. Next to Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, overlooking the lagoon on one side, and the Piazza on the other, houses one of the greatest museums in Europe, magnificently offering a glimpse of Venice’s opulent youth, through the Doge’s Apartments and the Senate’s Chambers. Its portego; a long corridor of Gothic arches, was truly a treat.

As I made my way back to the hotel on the last day of my stay, I also made it a point to look for and visit the Bridge of Sighs, adjacent to what was once the prison, and where convicts would, according to legend, take one last look at the world outside, before going to face their fate. Ironically enough, for a brief moment I could understand their sense of loss, since I too, was leaving Venice.

A Sea Adventure – The Inner Hebrides Archipelago in Scotland!

As the ferry broke away from the mainland and onto the cold Atlantic, I clapped on my fluffy ear-muffs and took a deep breath of the freezing pure air. I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the seaside town of Oban, on the West Coast of Scotland, towards the Isle of Mull, one of the largest islands within the archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides.

The port of Oban

My camera clicked madly as the crossing took us through a large number of small islands, both habited and uninhibited, which form part of this archipelago. Random ruined castles, modern lighthouses, tiny hamlets, and small forests standing proudly amidst the roar of the surf, filled my vision.

The one-day trip to visit three of the most famous islands within the Inner Hebrides had not been a spur of the moment decision. We had in fact, booked and paid for it online weeks before actually setting foot on Scotland, in order to make sure that the date was solidly set beforehand. We were lucky in that we managed to visit during the last week of September, since passage for tourists to two out of the three islands we were visiting, is never possible during winter-time. Bookings were accepted up to the beginning of October, subject to weather conditions of course.

Oban – On the West coast of Scotland

Leaving our rented car parked snugly at Oban, we collected our combo-tickets from the ticket office, and set off towards the Ferry Terminal Railway Peer. There are a number of cruise companies which offer combo tickets at not much more than £45 per person. Such tickets usually include all the ferries to and from the specific islands one wishes to visit, as well as any possible coaches or busses, and the relevant guides. In our case, we opted to visit the Islands of Mull, Iona and Staffa.

The comfortable ferry, which sported a wine-bar and cafeteria, made port at Craignure on Mull, the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides after the Isle of Skye. We were greeted by our coach-driver and guide, who was herself a native of Mull, and who proceeded to drive us around the picturesque island for around an hour, recounting anecdotes about the various ruins, legends, and even personages who had lived there. I must admit that without her lilting cheerful voice narrating so many colourful stories, I might have started to feel a little cramped at this point. This was because we had no time to stop anywhere or to walk around and visit Mull properly, since we had to travel directly to Fionnphort on the other side of the island, in order to catch yet another ferry to the Isle of Iona. The day was cloudy, windy and quite cold, and the gentle Scottish rain pattered on the windows of the coach, making it impossible for us to take any photos along the way. We could still admire the isle itself though. A lush picturesque symphony of moorland, mountain scenery and coastal views, dotted with small cottages and many many sheep. Our guide informed us that on Mull there were in fact three sheep for every human being.

The Isle of Iona

The ferry we boarded at Fionnphort was markedly smaller than the first one. There was a middle space reserved for one or two small cars, and some railings for pedestrians to perch on at the sides. The presence of the wind was much more pronounced on such a small craft. A couple of dogs yapped steadily as we bobbed up and down towards the smaller, yet more well-known island of Iona. Renowned for its natural beauty, Iona is famous for its Abbey, which is the one of the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages. The Abbey is of particular historical and cultural interest in that it was here that Saint Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland, settled and built his first monastery. It is also the place of origin of the wondrous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript which is today kept at Trinity College in Dublin.

Iona Abbey

Personally, I am not much of a religious pilgrim, yet history, art and architecture fascinate me, which is why the Benedictine Abbey of Iona attracted me so much. The medieval arches, romantic columns, and amazingly crafted stained glass windows were the perfect complement for the natural landscape of the Hebrides. Shaggy highland cows with long horns and a peaceful expression looked at me quizzically while I breathed in the salty air and strolled along the rugged beach directly behind the Abbey. The chill actually got to me at this point and I was very happy to purchase a pair of white cotton ear-muffs from the Abbey’s souvenir shop itself. I must have been quite a sight. Perhaps that’s why the cows were staring at me.

After eating some lunch at one of the handful of small pubs on Iona, we prepared for the highlight of the day – the trip to the mythological tiny island of Staffa, and the visit to the legendary Fingal’s Cave. Being part of a Nature Reserve, and managed by the National Trust for Scotland, Fingal’s Cave is a unique natural monument formed entirely of hexagonally jointed basalt columns, similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, which I had visited a couple of years back.

We boarded an even SMALLER boat (our third one), with a capacity of not more than 25 people. The wind had really picked up at this point, and I started to get a tiny bit worried. What’s more, before starting the craft, the captain said that he had to inform us that the crossing would not be an easy one, and that in fact some people from an earlier cruise had been pretty sick. Going to the Isle of Staffa and back was going to take us approximately an hour and a half of sailing. He asked us if there was anyone who preferred to remain on land and be reimbursed the trip, since he would not be taking responsibility for any accidents. Five people got off the boat. I was scared to death. My boyfriend was looking at me breathlessly, excited by the prospect of such an adventure. I gritted my teeth and sat down. How bad could it get? Right?

All went well at first. The wind was behind us, so the boat crested the waves blithely and I got used to the rock and roll motion of the deck. It was fun actually. The waves sprayed all over us as we tried to keep steady enough to use our cameras. There was so much to take in! The Inner Hebrides are comprised of 35 inhabited islands and 44 uninhabited ones, and Staffa is one of the latter. As we drank in the blueness of the sea and sky around us, caught between them like flies in amber, our captain told us of the facts and legends surrounding Fingal’s Cave. The 72 feet tall and 270 feet deep cave itself was known to to the ancient Irish and Scottish Celtic people as Uamh-Binn, meaning ‘the Cave of Melody’, due to the eerie sounds which emanate from its arching cathedral-like features when the wind and the echo of the waves sound just-so. Legend has it that the Irish warrior and leader Fionn mac Cumhaill, who was as big as a giant, built a bridge here between the Isle of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, in order for him to reach his nemesis and rival Benandonner. The legend which connects the two structures is geologically correct in fact, as both of them were created by the same ancient lava flow, which may have, at one time, formed a ‘bridge’. We are talking of around 60 million years ago here, so there were no human beings around to see it at the time.

Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa
The fractured columns on the Isle of Staffa

As we got closer and closer to the islet and to the cave itself, anything seemed possible. The cave has a large arched entrance and is filled by the ocean. When I had booked our cruise, we had been promised that we could actually land on the island and walk the short distance to the cave, where a row of fractured columns form a walkway just above water level, permitting exploration on foot. Unfortunately, the captain at this point informed us that the sea was becoming too rough, and that landing was dangerous. So, we had to be content with looking closely at the island from the sea. We didn’t even enter the mouth of the cave. I admit that I was, and still am, bitterly disappointed about this. Scottish weather is fickle and changeable however, especially at sea, so there was nothing to be done. It was after all, the end of September. I would strongly recommend anyone who would like to visit the Hebrides to go during high summer, when the weather is calmer.

Seeing Fingal’s Cave, even from afar, was a great experience. No wonder the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to create ‘The Hebrides Overture’, also known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’, after visiting in 1829! Famous landscape painter J.M.W Turner painted it, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria all expressed amazement after visiting it, and Pink Floyd even named one of their earliest unreleased songs after the cave.

Coming back, all the feelings of awe and amazement totally fled. The sea had gotten even rougher, and this time, the boat was going against the wind. I don’t usually suffer from sea-sickness, but that trip was truly a nightmare. I sat down in a corner, held on for dear life, and ended up hugging a fire hydrant in an effort not to fall or roll off, as the now huge waves crashed against the tiny boat and all the other passengers gasped in terror, trying not to cry out. I admit, those were the longest 45 minutes of my life. Cutting a long story short, after our arrival at the Isle of Mull, we still had to suffer through an hour-long trip in the coach, and another 45 minutes on the ferry from Fionnphort back to Oban where we had left the car.

It wasn’t an easy journey to say the least, but the enchantment of Fingal’s Cave, the charm of the Inner Hebrides, and the depth of emotion I felt there, will be truly remembered forever. As will, unfortunately, the hellish boat-ride amidst the stormy Atlantic Ocean!

A slightly different version of this article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Remembering Utrecht

Following the Dutch shooting which took place on a tram in Utrecht three days ago (read all about it here), I can’t help but remember the beautiful day I spent in Utrecht when I visited in December 2017.

It was a clear crisp winter day. The sun was shining, white snow lay everywhere from the previous night, the air was refreshing, and the cobbled streets of the medieval city center bustled with joyous students on bikes, excited tourists and busy locals. The scent of freshly baked bread was in the air, and colorful flowers adorned many shop-fronts.

The canals were so pretty in the early morning light! It is such a romantic city.

My first stop was gothic Saint Martin’s Cathedral. Although the current cathedral was built in the 13th century, it rests on a much older church which had been damaged in a fire. The church itself had been built on the ruins of a Roman fortress.

The cathedral’s vaulted interiors, stained glass and beautiful sculptures are really a sight to behold, and I was truly enchanted by the atmosphere of mystery and historical meaning attached to it.

Apart from the Cathedral, another amazing stop in Utrecht is the Dom Tower, which is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. The tower was built in the 14th century to showcase the power of the city, and with its 14 enormous bells and incredible height, it surely does that!

Unfortunately I was suffering from severe back problems caused by a slipped disc at the time, so I wasn’t able to climb up the 465 steps to the top of the Dom Tower (there is no lift). Instead, I walked around the city, enjoying its flavor.

Needless be said, I somehow gravitated towards the local bookstore (for those who haven’t taken a peek at the ‘About Me‘ section yet, I’m a total bookworm and book-hoarder) and I took the opportunity to purchase Isabel Allende’s ‘Eva Luna’, which I had been hankering after for some time.

After walking around some more, I stopped at a pretty little bar for my lunch, and even tried out one of the local beers.

There are many other attractions to be found in the city, such as the Central Museum, the Railway Museum, the underground archaeological ruins, Utrecht Botanic Garden and the Grand Canal, among others.

Later on in the day, after having enjoyed roaming around the city to my heart’s content, I visited the Castle De Haar, which is to be found around half an hour away (by car) from the city itself. This fairytale location however deserves a blogpost of its own,… more later 🙂