A Pilgrimage to Meteora
Story and photos by Dave Seminara

Returning to Greece 15 years after a magical visit to Meteora, a now-father with his kids along finds the object of his quest hidden among an explosion of international tourists.

Meteroa Greece

The narrow, rocky track hugged the mountain at a menacing 45-degree angle. We were motoring up this lonely country road in Greece, hoping for the best in a rented Hyundai sedan, on what looked like a donkey path. We were searching for a village called Chrisinou, where I hoped to find Father John Palatzaz at the Holy Monastery Dormition of the Virgin Mary.

My wife and I had met Father John fifteen years before at Meteora, an atmospheric complex of clifftop medieval monasteries perched precariously on soaring sandstone columns of rock astride the mountains of Northern Greece's Thessaly region. We learned that he had moved into the countryside to re-open a long dormant 400-year-old monastery that was, at least to us, lost in the clouds.

My family—wife, Jen, and two boys, Leo, 10, and James, 8—were in open revolt.

"We're not going up that rocky track!" Jen exclaimed.

"We can't turn back now," I countered.

"Monasteries suck!" cried James from the backseat.

Returning to a beloved place years later is a hazardous business. Places change, people move on, prices always go up. The great seafood shack you fell in love with is now a KFC. This is why when planning trips I default to novelty rather than familiarity. But on a summer trip to Greece in 2018, I stepped out of this pattern, returning to Meteora after a fifteen-year absence.

It wasn't just the colorful frescoes or the dramatic clifftop views that drew me back. I wanted to find out what happened to Father John, the charismatic monk who had befriended Jen and I on a visit in November 2003. At the time, I was in the Foreign Service, working at the American Embassy in Skopje, and we had taken a holiday week road trip to Meteora, a UNESCO World Heritage site about five hours to our south. Sitting in stiff wooden chairs at the Holy Trinity Monastery, built in 1476 atop a massive 1,300-foot stone column, Father John told us that he was losing his eyesight but had seen doctors in Arizona who were helping him.

He radiated kindness and our friendly interaction with him made our experience feel like a pilgrimage. There were a smattering of tourists visiting the six monasteries (one is a nunnery) that are open to the public but the vibe was serene and it felt more like a holy place than a tourist attraction.

This impression was confirmed a few weeks after our visit, when I got a package in the mail at the embassy from Father John. He sent a short note, along with candles and two books, one on Meteora and the other on the Orthodox faith. I have moved more than a dozen times since I got those books, but I've kept them. I had the Meteora book with me as we twisted and turned our way through the Thessalian countryside.

The Meteora monasteries are perched on top of what locals call a Stone Forest of massive rocks, perched high above the village of Kastraki and nestled between the mountains of Pindus and Chasia. Film buffs might recognize the place from the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, where 007 climbed the massive rock up to the Holy Trinity monastery where he pushed or flung a series of bad guys, sending them plunging to their deaths.

Meteora view

It's an otherworldly landscape befitting a Tolkien novel that's just a few minutes down the road from Kalambaka, a town lined with hotels, guesthouses and all the ordinary trappings of any tourist town. We drove to Kalambaka on a cloudy Thursday afternoon from Parga, a seaside town nearly four hours along torturously windy roads to the west. As we inched our way up the steep hill just outside Kalabaka, the boys got their first close-up view of the towering cliffs but I was dismayed to be stuck behind a pair of lumbering tour buses—something we hadn't seen on our previous visit to Meteora.

As we pulled into the parking lot of St. Stephen's Nunnery, I knew that Meteora had become a very different place. St. Stephen's is the only monastery that one can reach without climbing a number of steps, so it's particularly popular with package tour groups from multiple countries on 10-day bus tours of Greece. It's also the preferred holy place in the area for the disabled and elderly$mdash;or frankly, those who are just lazy or carrying too much extra weight to manage.

Mobs, Not Monks at Meteora

In 2003, we saw as many monks and nuns as tourists at the monasteries and there were no big package groups. On this day, St. Stephens was under siege. My mood brightened, however, when the first person we asked, a nun with a severe-looking black habit who was selling tickets in the entrance booth, knew Father John.

"Father John, the one with the bad eyes, yes, I know him," she said.

She said he had been sent to another monastery, a forty-minute drive outside Meteora, and scrawled a phone number in Greek in my notebook. I was relieved to know he was still alive and in the area. But at our next stop, St. Nikolaos Anapafsas Monastery, a 14th century beauty that's a steep climb up from the serpentine road that connects the monasteries, my sense of disappointment with what had become of Meteora deepened.

The small church, filled with incredibly vivid frescoes, was quiet when I first walked in, and I thought I might enjoy a few moments of peace. But then a large bus full of Russian tourists barged into its narrow confines. One particularly crass member of the group, a middle-aged man in an Adidas sweatsuit, entered the church filming with a video camera, loudly narrating in Russian despite numerous signs warning against photos and videos.

I stepped outside the church and ascended to a kind of grotto with a collection of church bells. There were signs in at least six different languages warning tourists not to ring the bells, but one after another, members of the tour group ignored them, gonging away for their videos. There were no monks around to tell them to stop.

Indeed, I saw no monks at any of the monasteries we visited in the days to come. It seemed as though the place had been conquered by mass tourism. Just as the monks had fled to this remote place to worship in peace in the Middle Ages, now they had apparently fled to the hinterland to escape the onslaught of tourists.

China Comes to Greece

The four-star Divani Meteora Hotel sits on the outskirts of seemingly characterless Kalabaka across from a gas station and a cluster of budget hotels. The place seemed to embody the sort of mass tourism that had subjugated Meteora. It was deathly quiet when we checked in—it felt eerie to have a four-story hotel of a few hundred rooms seemingly all to ourselves. But then right after dinnertime, the tour buses started to pull into the parking lot and the mood changed to frenetic as scores of Chinese tourists pored in. After greek monasterybreakfast, the groups departed and the place would be stone cold silent again until after dinner when new groups would arrive to replace their departed package tourist comrades. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Breakfast was a manic affair. The Chinese tourists ate as though there were by-the-pound monetary incentives to do so. Rather than form lines to approach the buffet from one direction, they ambushed it from all directions, creating a chaos of limbs reaching for spoons. The din in the football-field sized room was akin to a sports betting room in a casino during a championship game. I asked a helpful woman who worked at the hotel about the groups after they departed one morning.

"Some of them, they don't even know what country they're in," Eleni said. "They get out of the bus, and start going click, click, click with their cameras and that's it. They get back on the bus and move to the next place. They don't know anything."

She dragged out her pronunciation of the word "anything" so that it sounded like it had approximately 18 syllables. I asked her to call Father John on my behalf to get directions but she said there was no need. She knew him and had grown up near his new home.

"He built this castle from nothing in the middle of nowhere," she told me. "He got donations from around the world. You have to see it."

From Holy Intentions to the Lure of Capitalism

That evening I had a hard time sleeping, so I pulled out the book Father John had given me on the history of the monasteries. It said that the first hermits sought refuge in the mountains and caves of this area in the 11th Century, founding the first monastic community by the beginning of the 12th Century. In the 14th Century a monk named Athanasios from Mt. Athos, the so-called Monks Republic on a narrow finger of land below Thessaloniki, came to the area and founded a monastery on a rock perched 413 meters in the sky. He called it Meteora ("in the air" in Greek) because it "seemed to be suspended between earth and heaven."

Athanasios built a chapel and a few cells, gathered 14 monks, and formed a brotherhood that built the foundation that grew to become the Meteora we know today. Until the 1920s, when paths and steps were established leading to the monasteries, monks and visitors needed to be pulled up and back down in baskets connected to winches.

In For Your Eyes Only, Bond used a winch to help his allies propel themselves up into the complex to hunt the bad guys. According to the website huntingbond.com, the monks didn't want Roger Moore and company defiling their holy monasteries. But the mayor of Kalambaka knew that filming scenes there would give, what was in 1981 still a very sleepy place, a much-needed tourism boost.

The Greek Supreme Court ruled that the monasteries controlled only the churches but not the rocks they were built on, so the monks were unable to stop the crew from filming scenes of the actors scaling the stone pillars. The monks hung old rags and dirty laundry off of their roofs in an attempt to disrupt the filming. It didn't work and soon the age of Meteora as major tourist attraction was born.

A Quest After a Decade and a Half

My new hotel friend's theatrical directions ("let the road lead you where it will take you...the valley will unfold before you...") led us the next morning to the narrow, steep rocky track that seemed destined to exterminate our humble Hyundai. Jen wanted to turn back, but I couldn't abandon the quest. Meteora had changed beyond recognition and I was craving something authentic from the past, a slice of my life from a carefree period when I was young and healthy.

Road to Father John's

It had been a brutal year. A brutal year and a half, in fact, since I'd been diagnosed with Pan Sclerotic Morphea, a nasty skin disease that had robbed me of the ability to stand and walk without severe pain. Climbing the hundreds of steps to reach the monasteries had been hell on my feet, a kind of penance I endured but did not enjoy.

I knew Father John couldn't cure me. But somehow, I wanted his blessing. He had gone through health problems of his own, and I felt like perhaps he'd understand what I'd been through. It was Father John or bust.

We backtracked along the main road to a threadbare café, where I walked through a dense haze of smoke to approach a group of locals seated around the only table occupied by morning coffee drinkers. None spoke English so I grabbed a napkin off their table and made a fantastically rudimentary drawing depicting the steep rocky track and my best guess of what the monastery looked like.

A spirited discussion ensued that I followed roughly none of. A beefy man with enough exposed chest hair to carpet the Taj Mahal told me something in a hoarse cigarette voice and I pretended to understand, so I could retreat from the smoky haze, which was dense enough to turn healthy patrons of the café into stage IV lung cancer patients. He wrote down the name of the monastery on a slip of Café Chicco D'Oro stationery and gesticulated toward the direction we came from. I think he wished me good luck on the way out, or perhaps he told me to f#ck off or asked me to send my wife in to perform a topless cabaret. It was all Greek to me.

"Did you get the directions?" my wife asked as I returned to the car.

"Yeah. Well, pretty much," I stammered.

"I don't want to go up that track," she said.

"No, I think they were saying there's a better road up ahead."

"Is it paved?"

"Let's just see."

We found another road. It snaked up and up and up to dizzying heights and it wasn't paved until we were almost on top of it. It actually did look like a castle perched in the clouds, literally in the middle of nowhere. It resembled a mini-fortress, and was complete with a stone wall, an imposing gate, and two flags (Greece and the Orthodox Church) flying from tall flag posts. I felt butterflies in my stomach as I passed through the gates holding a package of the Greek equivalent of Boston Creme donuts we'd purchased from a bakery in Kalabaka.

Eleni had told me Father John lived alone at the monastery but there was a line of supplicants outside the church who were waiting to see him.

"There he is!" my wife muttered quietly to me, gesturing toward a man in a black robe with one eye and thin greying hair pulled back in a small ponytail. It took me a minute to register that it was him and that he had lost his right eye. I called out to Father John and he greeted us like old friends—hugging us and then locking his arm in one of mine as he led us past the line of people and into the old church. Eleni had told him we were coming but did he remember us? I doubted it but he acted like he did.

We stepped into the dark, 400-year-old church, which was covered in faded frescoes, and Father John motioned for us to join hands in a circle with him and a few older women who were heavily made up and dressed in fancy clothing. Father John began to recite a series of prayers in Greek, stopping periodically to bless us individually, kissing our hands and foreheads in turn as we then kissed a silver medallion of some sort. I had no idea what was going on but I felt strangely moved.

Gate at Father John's Monastery

After perhaps ten or fifteen minutes of this, the women left and a man named George, who spoke fluent English came in to interpret. Years ago, Father John spoke passable English but he'd either forgotten it or simply preferred to speak to us in Greek. Through George's interpretation, he told us of his eight and a half-year long effort to re-open the long-closed monastery from the ground up. I asked him how it felt to go from a hive of activity and community at Meteora to this lonely outpost and he shrugged.

"I was sent here to do God's work, so I came."

I showed him the Meteora book he'd given me fifteen years before and he studied it very closely, perhaps an inch away from his one good eye. I told him briefly of my medical problems and he blessed me once more before telling me about a few of his own. Cancer caused him to lose his right eye and he could only taste a pinky full of the frosting from the chocolate donuts we brought him due to his diabetes.

I felt guilty detaining him for too long, as there were at least 20 people waiting outside the church for an audience. Our reunion was brief but important. He radiated kindness and acted as though he wasn't the least bit surprised to see us again. We gave him hugs, said our goodbyes, and walked out with George, who told us that he lived about a hundred kilometers away and came about once a month to see Father John.

"Why?" I asked. "There must be a monastery closer to where you live?"

"Of course," he said. "But there's something special about Father John. And this place, it's beautiful."

Finding Peace in Meteora

It was 7:00 A.M. and the crowds of tourists had yet to arrive at the Holy Trinity Monastery where I had first met Father John. I turned up alone on our final day at Meteora. Jen and the kids, who were "monasteried out." elected to sleep in late.

Zurich natives Andrea and Mike Kammerman were already outside the gates well before opening time, with their ten-year-old Belgian shepherd, Aimee. The thirty-something newlyweds had slept in the parking lot in their Mercedes Axor 4x4 the previous night and were enjoying their morning coffee in the cool, humid air. This was just one stop in a yearlong, 19 country, 35,000-kilometer expedition to the most extreme places on the planet.

They hadn't seen the big tour buses yet and had never been to Meteora before and their enthusiasm for the place was infectious.

The night before, we had made a wrong turn on our way back to the hotel and had stumbled upon a stunning Byzantine church from the 11th Century. It was in the lower town, not part of Meteora, located just blocks up a hill from Kalambaka's main drag, which we had traversed countless times without knowing there was an older, more attractive neighborhood hidden from the flocks of tourists.

Holy Trinity Church

The steep street leading to the church was too narrow for tour buses and there was no one else around. It was nearly 9 p.m., almost an hour past closing time, but an incredibly kindly woman named Paraskevi waved us in. Greece is a country where the rules are often skirted and things rarely run smoothly. This can be maddening, or, at times like this, exhilarating.

The frescoes were so vivid, it was hard to believe they could be more than 800 years old. And Paraskevi couldn't get enough of James and Leo. She hugged and kissed them so many times I was afraid she might try to adopt them.

I made the trek up 140 steps to the monastery with Andrea and Mike and were the first to enter when it opened. There was no one there, save a guy who took our tickets at the entrance. I sat alone in the cool, colorful church, built in 1476 and situated at the top of a rocky precipice over 400 meters high, and closed my eyes. This was how I had remembered Meteora—serene, mystical, timeless.

This church, so precariously perched high in the clouds, has stood for nearly 600 years, serving as a house of worship and a spiritual retreat for those in need. The book Father John gave me detailed the fact that monks transported the materials needed to build the monastery over a period of 70 years.

The hotel was quiet when we checked out on our final morning in Kalabaka and Eleni asked if we had found Father John.

"How were my directions?" she asked. I lied and told her they were fine before describing our experience.

"He really touched your heart, didn't he?" she asked. "All these years and you never forgot him. Maybe you'll come back again, eh?"

Just as I was ready to put Meteora in the "ruined by the ravages of modern-day tourism" column, everything changed. We found Father John. We found Paraskevi and a slice of authenticity so close to a dismal main drag, yet hidden away up a hill. And then I met Andrea and Mike, and found a little early morning hideout away from the tour buses. Meteora was still alive and well, it just took some time to find it.

Dave Seminara is a writer, former diplomat and self-diagnosed pathological traveler who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is the author of Bed, Breakfast & Drunken Threats: Dispatches from the Margins of Europe, which was a runaway bestseller in Liechtenstein and Malta, and Breakfast with Polygamists: Dispatches from the Margins of The Americas. Dave's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, The Washington Post, Chicago Magazine, ESPN and numerous other outlets. Dave has two more new books coming soon: Footsteps of Federer: A Fan's Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts, and Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed and the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth.

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