Exploring Meteora

Meteora 2Driving across the vast, flat plain of Thessalia, from Volos we are struck by the fertility of the soil and the variety of crops being grown. It feels strange after the landscape of barren soil and olive trees that we are used to in other parts of the country.

Feeling the effects of the scorching sun, we seek some relief by stopping off at Trikala, an unremarkable town famed as the birthplace of Asklipios, Greek god of healing. But the heat from the plain seem to be intensified in the streets of the town and even under the shade of the trees in the central square, it’s hard to cool down. We head off as soon as we can to Kalambaka where we have booked a room for the night.

The reason for this journey across northern Greece is to visit the famous monasteries in the air of Meteora. As we approach, Kalambaka massive grey rock pinnacles like elephants’ legs loom up out of the flatness and uniformity of the plain.  Relaxing on the balcony of our hotel room and recovering from the heat, we start to get a sense of the strangeness of these rock formations.

Meteora 1

The rock face is smooth and pitted, a bit like pumice, but these rocks aren’t volcanic in origin. They are the sedimentary remnants of a sea that covered Thessalia millions of years ago.

Meteora 2

Hermits started to inhabit the caves in the rocks in the late 10th century and in the 14 century two monks, Athanasios and Grigorios from Mount Athos came to live in the area. It was Athanasios who built the first monastery, the Megalou Meteorou in 1344.

Meteora 16

A winding 10km circuit roads with sharp bends takes you round the main monasteries. The first one you encounter on the clockwise circuit is the 14th century Agiou Nikolaou Anapausa, the smallest of the extant monasteries perched on one of the lower peaks.

Meteora 15

As the road climbs up out of the plain more of the monasteries come into sight and the next one on the route is Roussanou, a convent built in the 16th century and dedicated to the Transfiguration and to St Varvara.

Meteora 4

Continuing up the road we come to Varlaam, named after a hermit who scaled the peak and took refuge here in the 14th century, while the monastery started to be built about two hundred years later. It is the most Byzantine in style of all the monasteries in Meteora.Meteora 5

Every view here is a potential photograph and above Varlaam there’s a wonderful natural viewing platform.

Meteora 6

The light is also constantly changing, now spotlighting certain monasteries, now casting others in dramatic light, as in the shot below of the Megalou Meteorou. I could spend days, months even, photographing this ever changing scenery in its many moods. This monastery was founded by St Athanasios, the monk from Mount Athos in the late 14th century.

Meteora 18

It became the richest of the Meteora monasteries when the Serbian Emperor, Symeon Urfos, retired here to become a monk and donated all of his wealth to it.

Meteora 13

Access to Agias Triadas (first build in the 14th century), dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is via a cable car which looks quite old and rickety. Certainly not something you would like to use in a wind.

Meteora 7

The final building on the route round Meteora is the nunnery of Stefanou, first built in the 14th century.

Meteora 9

Despite c.1m visitors Meteora attracts every year  (we were there at the end of the tourist season), it has a wonderfully peaceful, silent atmosphere. I wonder how disruptive visitors are to the life of the monks and how much contact the monks have with them. Can visitors stay in the monasteries, as they can at Mount Athos? Do they have to follow the monastic regime? What is the monastic regime? How do they survive in such solitude? Do they grow their own food? I suppose they make their money from visitors (entrance fee is 2€).

It makes me think again that I would like to do a pilgrimage to the monasteries of Mount Athos. Time to start planning this trip – even if it takes a few years before I get round to it.

It is easy to see what is was that attracted hermits and monks to seek refuge here for contemplation and prayer. When Byzantium fell in 1453, icon painters sought refuge here (as well as at Mount Athos and in Crete) to be able to continue their work.

There are a couple of icon workshops at the bottom of the circuit that cater to tourist buses. Most of the pieces are mass produced, but there are a few icon painters work here. They paint on canvas, having sketched in the outlines first, applying the paint from the darkest to the lightest colours. The painted icon is then glued to an old piece of wood and gold leaf painstakingly applied. The whole process for an A5 size icon takes 2-3 days and they sell for 300€ apiece.

At the second icon workshop we fall into conversation with a Romanian girl who has been working in Greece for 8 years, and a Polish lad who works in Greece during the tourist season (May-October) and then returns home. Both love living in Greece because there’s no stress compared with their homelands. “I feel younger here”, says the Polish lad. They tell me about a senior executive from Siemens in Germany who has retired to this area with his wife to live in peace and quiet away from the stresses of corporate life. Apparently he has his own well and generates electricity from solar panels.

It seems as though Meteora is still attracting people who are seeking refuge from the pressures of daily life.


Fire and Ice: similarities and differences between Greek and Russian

It’s some time since I last did a post in my little Fire and Ice series looking at the links between Greek and Russian cultures. This time I would like to have a look at the similarities and differences between the two languages.

As noted in a previous post the most obvious similarity is in the alphabet: Greek was used by SS Cyril and Methodius as the basis for providing a written form of Slavic languages to facilitate the translation of religious texts. The second most obvious similarity is in the religious terms that Russian borrowed following the conversion of Vladimir of Kiev, as priests, monks, translators, icon painters and church builders headed north to support the country’s Christianisation. So we find bible, icon, monk, monastery, angel, patriarch and liturgy.

However, Greek and Russian have different linguistic roots and the similarities that we see in vocabulary are due to these borrowings, rather than to common root forms. In other ways the languages are quite different. They sound quite different for one thing. Greek has sounds for ‘th’ and ‘ps’ which Russian lacks. Equally Russian has sounds for ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ which are not present in Greek. Greek has definite and indefinite articles, Russian does not. Russian has an infinitive, but although Ancient Greek had one, modern Greek does not. It fell out of use during the Byzantine period: one of the odder linguistic losses that a language can sustain.

Also on verbs, Russian has personal pronouns which go with the verb (though verbs can also be used without them) whereas Greek does not.

Both languages though are stressed. Greek, very helpfully for foreign learners includes the stress marks as part of the spelling (indeed it is considered a spelling mistake to miss them out). How I wish that Russian, which to a foreign leaner can seem to have a capricious stress system, has a similar approach. In Russian, you only find the stress marks in dictionaries and texts for foreign learners. Both languages are also inflected (the endings of nouns and adjectives changes depending on their function in the sentence and on whether they are singular or plural). Russian has six cases, Greek has 3 (4 if you count a vocative that only has any noticeable impact on masculine singular forms).

There is one other curious similarity between the languages in terms of their use of verbs. Russian has two forms of the infinitive, an imperfective and a perfective form which relate to whether the action they refer to is ongoing / iterative or completed. There is something similar in Greek where in the construction used to express an infinitive form, you use the indicative for an ongoing / iterative action and the subjunctive form of the verb for a completed action. As far as I am aware this is coincidental and not due to some mutual influence.


Paris in the autumn – the Promenade Plantée

Promenade plante 2

The Promenade Plantée is a 4.5km path that runs between the Bois de Vincennes and the Place de la Bastille following the track of an overground railway. For most of its course it runs on a viaduct giving an unusual perspective on the rooftops and buildings of the surrounding area.

Promenade plante 3

The railway that used to run on this line stopped functioning in 1969, but it’s only over the past 10 years or so that its old track has been restored and turned into a wonderful urban walkway. The path has been planted in a variety of styles that make for a delightful stroll. We did the walk on a Sunday morning when it was so thronged with joggers, that you had to keep your wits about you to avoid being crashed into by earplugged fitness fanatics.

Promenade plante 6

Promenade plantee

At this height you really start to notice the elaborate ornamentation of the mainly nineteenth century buildings along the Avenue Daumesnil:

Promenade plante 4

Promenade plante 5

The oddest site on the walk is this building on the Rue Abel (I think) near the Gare de Lyon with its giant narcissistic statues.

Promenade plante - statues

Promenade plante - statues 4

Promenade plante - statues 3

The building that they grace is a police station, but it’s hard to believe that these statues were commissioned by the police. I have not been able to find out anything about them online, but it would be interesting to know who they depict, why they were commissioned, how they came to be there and what the building was originally.

After the peace and quiet of the Promenade Plantée, the descent to the Avenue Daumesnil and then on to the busy Place de la Bastille is a bit of a shock.


Paris in the autumn – street scenes

Here are various shots from my visit to Paris:

Art installation outside the Tuileries

An interactive art installation on the edge of the Place de la Concorde just outside the Jardin des Tuileries:

Metro sign

The classic sign for a Paris underground station.

Now some shots from the market in Boulevard Richard Lenoir, one of Paris’s biggest Sunday food markets:




Finally a street singer in the same market. I am not sure what instrument he is playing, but he fed pianola paper through it while he turned a handle. You can see a pile of the sheet music behind him to bottom left.

Street singer

Paris in the autumn – Notre Dame

Notre Dame 2

Here’s another iconic Parisian building – the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Work started on the building  in 1163 and took 170 years to complete.

Notre Dame

Just opposite the Cathedral on the left bank is a little haven of calm around the old bookshop Shakespeare and Co. The original bookshop was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and became a gathering point for expatriate American writers such as Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Pound and Gertrude Stein. Sylvia Beach also remembered as the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. However that bookshop was in a different location in the rue de l’Odeon and it closed during the German occupation of Paris in World War II.

The current Shakespeare and Co was set up in 1951 by an American ex-serviceman in rue de la Bucherie and has recently opened a great little cafe next to it.

Shakespeare & Co

Paris in the autumn – Place de la Bastille

Place de la Bastille

The Place de la Bastille, the former site of the notorious prison of the Ancien Regime famously stormed by the Paris mob on 14 July 1792,  is dominated by two monuments.

One is the glass-fronted monstrosity of the Opera National de Paris Bastille opened in 1989. The other is the Colonne de Juillet pictured above, a memorial to those who died in the street fighting that led to the overthrow of Charles X in  July 1830.

Paris in the autumn ; Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

Work started on building the Arc de Triomphe in 1806 after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, but it wasn’t completed until 1836. One of the most iconic monuments in Paris, it’s difficult to get a good, clear shot of it because of the many lanes of traffic that circuit it. Fortunately, an underpass allows access to the arch so that when you are actually standing next to it you get a true sense of it size.

I particularly liked the four huge statues on each side of the main columns.

Arc de Triomphe - statue 4 Arc de Triomphe - statue 3 Arc de Triomphe - statue 2 Arc de Triomphe - statue 1