Hear about travel to the mainland of Greece as the Amateur Traveler talks to Margherita Ragg from thecrowdedplanet.com about one of her favorite countries. Margherita comes from Italy, so she has traveled to Greece on numerous occasions. We talk at length about Athens, Delphi, and Meteora.
Why should someone go to Greece? Margherita recommends that for those of us from western civilizations, it has special significance. “In terms of culture and in terms history, it has a lot to offer and also in terms of nature.” Normally when we think of Greece, we have the idea of the islands with the beautiful white houses, the mainland is very different but still offers some amazing nature, mountains, a lot of opportunities when it comes to trekking. It’s definitely worth a trip.”
We start in Athens as most trips to Greece will. “Athens is a really amazing city. Not only the main sites like the Acropolis, all the ruins, the Acropolis Museum, and so on, but also because of the artsy, creative vibe that’s been emerging since the crisis. There is a lot of street art. There are a lot of independent cafes, independent restaurants.” Getting from Athens Airport is easier than it used to be.
The Acropolis is not to be missed. “Even the view from the hill is just stunning.” But Margherita also recommends the less well-known Kerameikos cemetery located to the northwest of the Acropolis, as well as the sunset view of the Acropolis from Mount Lycabettus and the large Temple of Zeus.
We also talk about some of the great neighborhoods like the Plaka, Psiri, Anafiotika, Monastiraki, and the Central Market, as well as odd things like getting a fish pedicure at Lake Vouliagmeni.
Monastiraki then moves us on to the area around Delphi, which is near Mount Parnassus. It is the site of the ancient oracle and makes a great day trip from Athens.
Further from Athens, we talk about the UNESCO site of Meteora, where first hermits and later monks scaled the rock pillars to build heritages and 22 different monasteries. One of the most beautiful natural spots in the world, Meteora is also rich with history. A couple of these monasteries have been in continuous use since the middle ages.
- Here is a useful post on things you need to know about money in Greece.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – One of my favorite guidebook series
Answer my travel question on Trippy.com and I will read my favorite responses on next week’s episode. This week’s question: What is the most dramatically beautiful place you have seen?
The Crowded Planet
Acropolis of Athens
Temple of Olympian Zeus
National Archaeological Museum
Street Art Tour
Athens Central Market
Old Royal Palace
Big Olive City Walks
Temple of Athena Pronaia
Battle of Thermopylae
Great Meteoron Monastery
Holy Trinity Monastery
Visit Mount Athos
Hiking and Scrambling Tour of Great Saint
When James Bond Went to Meteora
Meteora, the Real Life ‘Eyrie’
U.S. gets closer to Cuba
In what foreign city did you feel most at home?
No 15 day trip to Morocco with Amateur Traveler
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 449. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about ancient oracles, medieval monasteries and, of course, the Acropolis, as we go to the mainland of Greece.
Chris: This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by trippy.com, which is a leading travel community filled with experienced travelers who can answer your travel questions. Great answers, great people. Check out trippy.com next time you plan a trip. This episode is also sponsored by DK Eye Witness Travel Guides. These beautiful and informative guide books are my guide book of choice. Learn more about DK Travel Guides at dk.com.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. Before we get into this week’s interview, let me just say that we are going to be taking a week off for Christmas. We’ll hear from both our sponsors later on. But first, lets hear more about Greece.
Chris: I’d like to welcome to the show Margherita Ragg, who’s coming to us from thecrowededplanet.com and come to talk to us about Greece. Margherita, welcome to the show.
Margherita: Oh, Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
Chris: You are not originally from Greece. People are going to be able to tell by your accent here.
Margherita: No, no, no. My accent really reveals where I’m from. I’m from Italy, but I do love Greece. I’ve been several time, and it’s actually one of my favorite countries, mostly because I feel that Greek people and Italian people are very similar.
Chris: One of the things that I enjoyed about the Greek people . . . I had been some places like Africa, where Americans stand out because we are loud. We have a reputation for being loud. But when you’re in Italy or in Greece, there’s a love of life, and I don’t feel like I stand out as much.
Margherita: No, everyone’s loud. If you’re not loud, it’s a problem.
Chris: So when we talk about Greece here, we’ve done other shows on the Greek Islands. So we’re not going to talk about that so much. We’re going to focus more on the Greek mainland today. Why should someone go to Greece?
Margherita: Greece, in general, I think because it’s a country that . . . Talking about western civilization in general, that’s pretty much where we all come from. So in terms of culture, of course, in terms of history, there is a lot to offer, and also in terms of nature, which is why normally, when we think of Greece, we have the idea like of the islands with the beautiful white houses.
Margherita: Blue sea and so on. The mainland is very different, but still offers some amazing nature, mountains, a lot of what people think is when it comes to tracking. So I think it’s definitely worth the trip.
Chris: Okay. Great. What itinerary would you recommend for someone who is going to the Greek Mainland?
Margherita: I actually have two different itineraries. Actually it’s one that then forks, let’s say. So you have two options.
Chris: Sounds terrific.
Margherita: I would say I would assume everyone is going to start in Athens. So Athens . . .
Chris: Yeah, both because it’s a good place to fly in, and there’s a few things to see there.
Margherita: Yeah, just a couple. Yeah, I mean, Athens is a really, really amazing city, I think, not only again because of the main sights, like the Acropolis, all the ruins, the Acropolis Museum and so on. But also, because of the new, let’s say artsy, creative vibe that’s been emerging since the crisis. There’s a lot of street art. There are a lot of independent cafes, independent restaurants. So it’s really interesting to see. I took street art tour, and I was really amazed by the creativity of the young Athenians. So I think that’s definitely worth a couple of days.
Whichever is your cup of tea. If you prefer, let’s say, the traditional stuff, like looking at the Acropolis or the historical connections, that’s a good option. If you prefer something a little bit more creative, a bit more unusual, you also have a lot to see in the city.
Chris: Of the historic sights, before we go away from that, which would you say, for you, are “must-see?”
Margherita: Well, I think the Acropolis cannot be missed, even though pretty much every single time I’ve been, the Parthenon has been covered in scaffoldings.
Chris: Yes, I think that’s always the case.
Margherita: Every single time. Once, it was like one side. Once, it was the other side, but I’ve never seen it without. But it’s still really impressive, even at the view. The view from the hill is just stunning.
Margherita: You can just imagine what a sight it must have been. So I think that’s definitely one. Then I also really like the Kerameikos Cemetery. I think that’s really amazing.
Chris: Oh, I haven’t been to that. Okay.
Margherita: Oh, yeah. It’s really nice. It’s kind of . . . I can’t remember exactly because I didn’t go this last time. The last time I went was five or six years ago, but I remember really liking it. It’s like an ancient sort of cemetery. So there are a lot of carvings. Also, the incredible thing . . . I’m a lover of quirky sites.
Margherita: There’s an underground river running through Athens, which is called the Eridanos, I think, something similar. If you remember the Monastiraki station . . .
Margherita: Yeah, it’s like the main underground station. You can actually see some of the ruins that have been unearthed when it was being excavated, and the underground river is there. So you can see it running out at Kerameikos.
Chris: Okay. I did . . .
Margherita: So I thought it was quite cool.
Chris: I did not know that. You mentioned Monastiraki station.
Chris: That also begs the question of how to get around Athens. We could rent a car, or we could get around on the subway or the public transportation. I know I have a recommendation. What’s yours?
Margherita: I’m into public transport, at least the subway. That’s the one I used while I was there. I think it works quite well, and it’s very reasonably priced.
Chris: Well, and it also goes all the way out to the airport. So I know that one of my friends . . . We were both in Athens, I should say, at the TBEX conference recently, and somebody else I knew rented a car . . .
Chris: . . . to get into the city. I thought, “I don’t know why you would ever rent a car to try to drive through Athens . . .
Chris: . . . and think that would be faster.” No, it’s a very good transit system.
Margherita: Yeah. Public transport in Athens is very reasonably priced. If you consider that, for example, in a city like London, the tube, like the subway there, is going to take up a big chunk of your budget because a single ticket is going to be about four pounds . . .
Margherita: . . . if I’m not mistaken. In Athens, it’s just a euro twenty or something, and it’s very efficient.
Chris: Right. Okay. Did you have other must-see stops for you, just in the historical for now, focusing in on that, in Athens?
Margherita: Just focusing on the historical side, well, I don’t know if I could call it historical, but definitely the Lycabettus Hill. Lycabettus Hill, it’s a hill, and it has a church on the top. It’s mentioned a lot in history. I’ve done some classical studies. So I remember reading about it at the time. I guess it probably comes under, let’s say, the historical bracket.
Chris: Sure. That’s the one that has the view of the Acropolis. Okay.
Margherita: Amazing. Amazing view, yeah. It’s really beautiful to be there at sunset. Then there’s another temple. I think it’s called the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Margherita: That is also very nice to see.
Chris: The large temple not that far from the Acropolis.
Margherita: I think it’s further down.
Margherita: It’s not as high up. I think that’s really nice to see as well.
Chris: Okay. Then I also like . . . Last time I was there, I was at the older Archaeological Museum, which I thought was very good. This time was the first time . . .
Margherita: Oh, yes.
Chris: . . . I had a chance to go to the Acropolis Museum, and I think both of those are incredible just in terms of what they have. Obviously the Archaeological Museum has a greater breadth of things, because it has things from the Minoan culture, and it has things . . .
Chris: . . . from classic Egypt and from way back in the time of the Trojan War. But the Acropolis Museum has just some of the more iconic things, like the freezes from the Acropolis and things like that, those that are not in the British Museum.
Chris: Let’s take a break here to hear about our first sponsor, and that is DK Eye Witness Travel Guides, as you’ve heard, one of my favorite guide book series. I happen to be holding in my hand the Greece, Athens and the Mainland guide book. Now, mine is a little older than the current version. The current version is about 15 years newer, in terms of release, than my very used older version.
One of the things I noticed in my version is that it says that this one contains 1,000 full-color photographs, and that is, again, one of the things that I enjoy about this. Also, it contains unique cutaway floor plans and reconstructions. For instance, this guidebooks has a cutaway from one of the monasteries, which we will be talking about later on in the show from Meteora. It also has maps of important neighborhoods, like the Plaka, as well as a map of what the city looked like both in ancient Greece and also in Roman times. So check out the Eye Witness Travel Guides from DK at dk.com.
Now, moving away from historical, other like neighborhoods or things that you would . . .
Margherita: Yeah, exactly. I was just about to say that.
Chris: . . . definitely wanna see or, yeah, or do while you were in Athens.
Margherita: Having a look at the street art is definitely worth a visit. I’m a big fan of street art around the world. Often, when you think about it, you think of just graffiti or tags and so on, but the stuff in Athens is really like amazing pieces of art. It’s scattered all over the city, but there’s a lot of it near, again, Monastiraki, in a neighborhood called Psiri.
Margherita: I think it’s something like that, Siri. Yeah, you just see amazing big pieces on the sides of buildings that have . . . Some of them have been actually commissioned by the municipality. That’s a good treat. Also, I would say the market. I thought the Athens Central Market was really amazing.
Chris: That’s predominately a food market that we’re talking about there.
Margherita: Mostly food market, yeah. But you know what? I was really surprised when I visited, because it is probably the cleanest market I’ve ever seen.
Chris: I don’t know that I was really paying attention, but it was relatively clean.
Margherita: Yeah, yeah.
Chris: It’s funny. The first time I visited Athens, it struck me as a city that wasn’t a clean city, that it was a little more grimy. That was a few years back, and it was before the Olympics. I have to say our opinion was shaped also by the hotel that we stayed in. That was a pit.
Margherita: Okay. Yeah.
Chris: Check out your Trip Advisor reviews. But I really love the city much more this time than I did the first time that I visited. I think partly was . . . We did get to the central market. In fact, we ate at one of the restaurants in the central market. That was good, home-style Greek food.
Chris: So not the usual, euro or Souvlaki or whatever, but a lot of stews and big pots of things. Then I think also the chance to wonder around some of the neighborhoods. You’ve mentioned Monastiraki a couple times and some of those neighborhoods, like the Plaka that I had been to before, but in Monastiraki that are just fun neighborhoods to walk through. Possibly shop if you’re looking souvenirs, but I don’t. I’m not a big shopper.
Margherita: Yeah. Just something came into my mind. Another neighborhood that is definitely worth a look is Anafiotika. I think Anafiotika is really quite remarkable because it’s tiny. It’s only like a couple of streets, and it’s, let’s say, kind of halfway up the Acropolis hill. If you wandered down, you’d probably stumble through it. It’s funny because it’s built like in a Cyclades style.
Chris: Well, that’s the one that the people are from the Cyclades.
Margherita: Yes, yes.
Chris: Yeah, okay.
Margherita: Yes, the Cyclades, yes. The Cyclades Island. I actually know this story because our guide told us this story. Do you know there’s a big building on Syntagma Square that is now Greek Parliament, but it used to be the palace of King Arthur? That was the German king that Greece had. I think it was the mid-1800s.
Chris: Yeah, it would have been when they first declared independence from Turkey, the western powers that helped them get their independence said, “Okay, now you have to have a king,” and somehow they ended up . . .
Chris: . . . with a German king.
Margherita: Yes, exactly. Yes, of course, the German king needed a nice German palace.
Margherita: Nicely built, efficient palace. So they called some builders from the Cyclades Islands to build it. The builders, of course, built this palace that is now the parliament, but also they built some houses for themselves in the style of the houses they had left behind. So now, you have this tiny memory of the Greek island right in the center of Athens.
Chris: Excellent. I remembered part of that story, but I didn’t remember that was what they were there building. Then of course, a lot of people go to that palace there in the square for seeing the traditional changing of the guard.
Margherita: Exactly. Yes, which is also quite cool.
Chris: Okay, which of course, they wear the unusual army uniforms, which almost look like they were wearing hose and slippers.
Chris: That’s one of the reasons it’s very photogenic. We did something odd. I don’t know that I would necessarily say everybody who’s there on a short . . . I would say it takes three days to see the city or something like that.
Chris: But we did something I wouldn’t necessarily recommend for that, but maybe for a longer trip. I went out into LakeVouliagmeni with a tour and board group because we were being sponsored by the Tourism Board when we were there. This is one of those places where you . . . They have little tiny fish in the lake that will chew on the dead skin on your feet.
Margherita: Oh, wow.
Chris: So when you basically are wading through this lake, you are getting a pedicure. I have a video up on my Instagram account. It’s the oddest thing, and it tickles like crazy. So my wife would just never, ever do this. She thought it was the grossest idea possible, but it was just very funny. Bbasically there was a . . . It’s a small lake, and there was a resort area there that you could swim or bathe or sunbathe or whatever, but the oddest thing I have done in Athens.
Margherita: Okay. I have not heard of that. So something to remember for next trip.
Chris: Right. Anything else that you would recommend before we leave Athens and talk a little further afield?
Margherita: Well, I would say definitely have some good meals because the food is really amazing in Athens. So even, I must say, I am a big fan of the one Souvlaki, but also . . . Oh, yes. There is something that I recommend. I think it was in the basement of the central markets. There are some restaurants called . . . I think it’s something like “oinomegelo”, and they’re actually 24-hour establishments. Their specialty is tripe soup.
Chris: Okay. Well, you had me up until the tripe soup.
Margherita: Okay. Not just that. They also make . . . I remember you mentioning like big stews and home-cooked food.
Chris: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
Margherita: So basically if you walk in, you see like a big stove with lots of pots and a chef behind, just stirring and seasoning and so on. You go, and you are allowed to inspect what you are about to eat. He shows you and is like, “Okay. Do you want this? Oh no? Okay. Let me show you that.” Then you choose. You get your plate, and thought it was a nice experience.
Chris: We did a walking tour of Athens, a religious walking tour, and I was looking for the name of the company, and I’ll come up with that later on and put that in the show notes that we did that with. But our guide took us to the central market to that place to get the home-style food. As we’re walking basically from where we ended the tour, which was closer to the Plaka, all the way over to the central market, you’re passing a lot of restaurants.
So it’s like, “What is so special about this?” But this is, for him, really home-style food, and this is the kind of food where they get in the morning at 6:30 in the morning or 5:30 in the morning, and they start cooking these stews, and they cook them all day, just lots of very rich, savory things. So it was very good.
Chris: I understood why we walked so far.
Margherita: Yes. Yeah. No, the food is really good. I mean, we also had . . . It was kind of a food tour but not just a food tour. The company is called Athens Insider, and the theme of the tour was discovering unusual Athens, discovering it with a local. Some of the places we stopped at, we didn’t have like full meals. We had like lots of little tastes. My favorite was loukoumades, which is another typical dessert that’s like fried donuts. I had a sweet tooth. So that’s why it was my favorite.
Chris: You had me more with the fried donuts than you did with the tripe soup. I’ll have to say.
Margherita: Yes. Yeah, so loukoumades. They are called loukomades, and they’re really good.
Chris: Okay. Excellent. The walk that I did, by the way, I did find the name while you were talking, was with Big Olive City Walks, and I did the Athens Religious Walking Tour. We talked about both some of the Muslim history when it was under the Turkish occupation, as well as went to a couple of the Jewish synagogues. There’s synagogues there of different types of Judaism, as well as some of the churches and such as well. Then talked about the temples. Had a great guide, terrific. We did it in the pouring rain, but other than that, it was terrific. It’s something that I would recommend. So we’ll put a link to Big Olive City Walks in the show notes as well. Okay. Anything else in Athens? Or should we head further afield?
Margherita: I think we can head to Delphi, which would be the first stop I recommend on the way to Northern Greece.
Margherita: Delphi is an amazing sight because I think it combines natural beauty with history and culture.
Chris: Okay. This is where the Oracle of Delphi was in historic times. Okay.
Margherita: Exactly. Exactly. These are the places that I prefer, when you have nature, because I’m a big fan of nature, but also you have history. You have culture. You have something else, not just nature. Delphi is very near Mount Parnassus. I don’t know if there are mythologists out there, but Mount Parnassus is a location that features a lot in Greek Mythology. Yeah, of course, the Oracle of Delphi, we have all heard of it. I think Delphi is definitely worth a visit. It’s about. . . If you’re just staying in Athens, you can do it as a day trip.
Margherita: Because it’s about two and a half hours away. There are many companies that run tours, day tours, to Delphi. We did it with a company called Key Tours, and it was like . . . I think we left about 8:00 in the morning, and we were back at about 7:00. So it was perfect as a day tour, not too long, not too short. We traveled through some really nice scenery because we went through like a mountain area. Actually Mount Parnassus has some ski resorts, which is something that really surprised me.
Chris: Oh, I didn’t know that. Okay.
Margherita: I never would have though that skiing was possible in Greece. But then thinking back about it, it’s a very mountainous country.
Chris: Oh, sure. It is quite.
Margherita. So they’ve got skis in the resorts as well. If you look up pictures of Delphi, a place, let’s say the signature picture, the one that’s everywhere, is all around this sort of temple.
Chris: The Temple of Apollo.
Margherita: That is actually not the Temple of Apollo.
Chris: Oh, Sorry.
Margherita: It is the Temple of Athena.
Chris: Oh, okay.
Margherita: I was very surprised because I used to think that it was the Temple of Apollo, but it’s called the Temple of Athena Pronoia, if I’m not mistaken. I’m not very good with Greek, to be honest. I think pronoia means a little further out or something, because it’s not in the main archaeological site. It’s maybe about maybe 200 or 300 yards away. So it’s a place that you need to go and see. You need to search it out because . . . Say you’re on a day trip, and you get the positive at the gate. You may not see it if you don’t know that the round temple is not there.
Chris: Okay. So this is the most photographed spot there.
Chris: It wasn’t necessarily the most significant temple at the time that it was in use, but it’s the one that’s best preserved.
Margherita: Exactly, yes. I think so.
Chris: Okay. Which is why I was guessing Apollo, because that was the central . . . Okay. I got it.
Margherita: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because if you see the main Delphi site, where you have the temple of Apollo and all the rest, it’s not amazing in terms of how it’s preserved, because a lot of it has been restored, and it hasn’t been restored particularly nicely. But it’s amazing because of its significance, thinking back like what they were doing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the history of the Oracle.
Chris: Oh, sure. Yeah. Pretty much before you do anything major, you would go and seek the advice of the oracle, and you’d have the slaves, I think they were, generally were taking the vapors and going into this trance and giving you this very cryptic information that you may be able to figure out later on. It was supposed to mean something or other, but it was quite often a riddle.
Margherita: Yes. Yes. It was very dull, and then it was up to you. Basically at the end of the day, I think kings and rulers and whoever was in charge would do what they wanted.
Chris: Then you use the oracle to somehow justify it. Sure. Yeah. We have some missing actions today. Okay. Excellent.
Margherita: Yeah. So it’s definitely worth a visit and I think . . . I always believe that it’s worth taking a guided tour because when you have places like that, its not one of those ruins that are so stunning and fantastic that they’re just worth looking at. This one is not really that amazing, but the history behind it is really great.
So its worth having someone to talk you through it, to tell you like what used to be where and where the oracle used to be and where the temple use to be. Pretty much, if you enter the site, you have several places where . . . How can I say? There used to be like smaller temples that were built by the cities as an homage to the oracle.
Margherita: So that’s worth seeing. Then when you get to the top, I know there’s like a theater. There’s a theater high up. But when we went, because it was raining, and it’s very slippery. It’s a very steep trail. So it was actually closed, but I heard it’s nice because that’s in the mountain area. So you get amazing views from the theater at the top.
Chris: Interesting. Let’s take a break here and hear from our second sponsor, which is trippy.com. Trippy is a travel community. Trippy exist to encourage more people to travel. As they say, we believe travel makes the world a better place. Experiencing new places, cultures, and people leads to tolerance, understanding, and empathy. Trippy is a community of travelers who believe in our mission and share our core values.
As you know, we have been doing a question of the week in trippy.com that I’d like you to come over and answer it. This week’s question, in which foreshadows the rest of the show is, “What is the most dramatically beautiful place that you’ve been to?” You can check out that question at trippy.com by going to amateurtraveler.com/trippy5. Please come over and share your travel experiences.
We’ll be reading some of the best answers that we see on next week’s show, or actually the week after I suppose, which is the next show. Later on in the show, we’ll be reading some of the answers that we got for last week’s question, which was, “Where in your travels have you felt the most at home?” trippy.com.
You were mentioning things that were historically significant but not that interesting to see. I think on your next stop, as we head out to a different place, which I won’t give away just yet, we stopped at the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, which is a very significant sight in the battle between Greece and Persia. It is very interesting. I love the history of it, read the book “Gates of Fire,” watched the horrible movie, 300.
Margherita: Yeah, I was about to say that.
Chris: Which has nothing to do with the history of the battle of Thermopylae, but basically it’s a roadside stop. I mean, it is not at all interesting to see in terms of what is there right now. Even as you take pictures of the statues, you get the power lines behind it and such, but for me, it was still interesting to be at from a historical place.
Margherita: Yeah, no, definitely. I have not seen that place, but it sounds…
Chris: It’s worth about five minutes.
Margherita: Yes, yes. As you said, a roadside stop.
Chris: Exactly. Exactly.
Margherita: Stretch your legs. Take a picture of the Thermopylae. Imagine Xerxes is marching down in his big carriage, and that’s it. Keep going.
Chris: Exactly. Where should we go next as we march on as well?
Margherita: In my opinion, and it is probably my favorite place, you should be going to Meteora because Meteora, in my opinion, is really, really, really special. It’s a site that is not very well-known internationally. I have known about it for a long time but totally randomly, because my grandfather has been there in the ’70s and has told me about it, and I have always been intrigued.
Yeah, it’s just stunning. Again, both in terms of landscape because the landscape is just stunning, because it’s surrounded by mountains, bigger mountain range. I think they’re called the Pintos Mountains or something. But in the area of Meteora itself, there are these remarkable rocky pillars, which look like . . .
Chris: We would call them hudus, or towers of rock.
Margherita: They are very strange type of rock. I remember we heard this . . . They did explain us, but I’m not very good with geology. So I forgot. Sorry.
Chris: I want to say that they are limestone, in terms of type of rock, because that’s usually typical with a hudu, I wouldn’t swear to that because there was also sandstone in the area.
Margherita: Yeah. I’m pretty sure it was conglomerate.
Margherita: But I don’t know anything else about it, but there’s definitely limestone, and there’s definitely sandstone, both. What makes the material special is that about . . . I think it was in the 1400s, monasteries were build on top of these rocky pillars.
Chris: When you say on top, I don’t know that people have the mental image of this, but we’re talking about pillars that sometimes are the size of the monastery, the size of my house, with a monastery on top. Some of these monasteries were very small. So I agree with you, first of all, that this is a place people should go. It’s about five hours from Athens. So it takes you a little while to get there.
Margherita: Yes. Yes.
Chris: I was originally supposed to go to the Peloponnese, which we’ll do another episode about the Peloponnese and that area. I’d love to get down there and see the Corinth Canal and all that, but I ended up going to Meteora instead and was so, so glad. One of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen.
Margherita: Yes, absolutely. I am totally with you on that. That’s just stunning, stunning place. Again, because it blends. In my opinion, it’s so special because it blends like natural beauty with cultural with history, and you get amazing sunsets, which of course is always a bonus.
Chris: Right, right. I wish to say that if you do get there, please stop by the Visit Meteora office and say hello to George and his brother whose name escapes me, who were our hosts there, but also just really great guides to the area and can give you an idea of what you should see and what restaurants to go to and such. But they are wonderful hospitality there as well.
Margherita: I definitely second that, and I think George’s brother’s name was Vangeles.
Chris: Yes, Vangeles. Right.
Margherita: Yes, yes, yes. I mean like really top guys, really nice. We also did some tours with them, and they are like extremely knowledgeable about the area. They know everything there is to know. They can give you advice depending on what you’re like doing and what you want to explore, what you want to experience or so, depending on your style. Yeah, I just loved it. I thought it was brilliant.
Chris: Well, the other thing is that you mentioned the monasteries, and that basically somebody climbed up these big spires of rock, and then they started hauling up their materials. Up until the 1950s or ’60s, I think they said, that you still had to get up to one of these monasteries basically on a rope wench or climb it.
Chris: Until they built bridges and paths and made it easier to visit now than it was. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Sight because it is both stunning visually, as well as historically significant. But before the monasteries, which you didn’t mention, was the hermit caves. Did you see some of those?
Margherita: Exactly. I did. Yes. That was just great.
Chris: So hundreds of years before that, before they built the monasteries, where these hermits would go, and they would live in these caves. Basically they would come down basically on Sunday and go to church, but the rest of the time, they were just meditating basically up in these niches of the rock. Each one with their own, and they’re still there, still have the old ladders and the old platforms and such where they were.
So they took us around to one of the other little valleys that you couldn’t see from the city, and we saw some of these very well-preserved hermit caves that looked like the people who were there just left.
Margherita: Yes, absolutely. I had exactly the same feeling. I thought, “Is there still someone there?” They said, “No, there hasn’t been anyone here for like 150 years.” I was like, “Wow.”
Chris: Right. I also liked right outside of the town. There was one particular cave, one of these hermit caves, that was apparently a shrine to Saint George, if I recall correctly, with all of these scarves hung.
Margherita: Yes. Yes, the scarves. Yeah.
Chris: The story they told us is that apparently a Muslim couple was, during the time of the Turkish occupation, were down there, and they were cutting wood. A tree fell, something went wrong, and he is now very seriously injured. She goes for help, but they basically say, “Well, he’s going to die. There’s nothing we can do, unless you pray to Saint George, whose shrine is right above you.” So she prays to Saint George. She takes off her headscarf and prays.
Chris: He recovers. So the scarves that are hung are basically in commemoration of that event, of her headscarf, basically. Young people will climb this ridiculous climb up this side of this mountain to leave or take the headscarves once a year, I think on Saint George’s Feast Day, and that’s supposed to bring you luck or fortune or marry the right woman, or basically one of those sort of things. But as you’re driving past this pillar of rock, it looks like somebody’s left their laundry out on the side, but it’s an interesting story.
Margherita: Yeah, I remember that too. That was really nice.
Chris: Yeah, I think there were 22 monasteries total, if I recall correctly, and I want to say around six are currently inhabited, and two have been continually inhabited since the middle ages.
Margherita: Yes. That’s right. Yes. I think it was the… One was definitely the Megalo Meteoro Meteora, which was the biggest monastery and also the first one to be built.
Chris: Right. Exactly. Right.
Margherita: I think the other one was probably Varlaam, which was like the second biggest, but I’m not sure. But yeah, you’re definitely right.
Chris: I think you’re correct. That sounds right.
Margherita: Yeah, six monasteries are still inhabited, some by nuns, some by monks. Funny enough, there’s more nuns than monks, nowadays.
Chris: Well, especially because for many, many years you weren’t allowed to have women there at all. So yeah.
Margherita: Exactly. Yeah, we visited during our . . . We visited two days. No, actually three days.
Chris: Oh, wow.
Margherita: One day, we just walked down. We did an independent hike, just went walking on our own. You can do some independent hikes, especially there’s one from the village of Kalabaka, takes you up to the Holy Trinity monastery. It’s a very easy one. It’s very well marked. You can’t get lost.
Chris: And that’s the one that’s no longer inhabited.
Margherita: No, I think it’s still inhabited but, of course, it closed at 5:00, and we got there at like five minutes past 5:00. So we didn’t see it.
Margherita: Yeah. One day, we spent visiting the monasteries, a little bit further afield. That one was by car. Then the third day, we did a hiking trip for, I think it was about five hours. That is the one I really, really recommend because it gives you a chance to both explore the nature and explore the monasteries. You get the best of both worlds.
Chris: We did that also, and I enjoyed it. Not all of the . . . I was with a group of travel bloggers, and I think some of them found the hike to be longer than they were interested in, but I thought it was an enjoyable walk, an enjoyable experience, as you hiked sort of up and around the back of some of these.
Margherita: I thought it was nice. Yeah.
Chris: The other thing that is interesting is the actual visit to the monastery, as you see, for instance, the chapel, where unfortunately I have no pictures of that. You can’t take pictures in the chapel with these wonderful iconography.
Margherita: Yeah. Exactly.
Chris: And also the room full of the skulls of the former monks of the monastery, where they apparently end up for hundreds of years.
Margherita: Yeah. Yeah, that’s just stunning. Isn’t it?
Chris: And then speaking of skulls, we also had a chance to visit just outside of town. There is a cave with some of the oldest hominid habitation in the area. So that goes back more than 10,000 years, as I recall. So that’s also worth a visit, but it’s one of those things you’re going to probably have to ask. You’re not going to stumble across that unless it’s . . .
Margherita: Definitely. Yeah.
Chris: It’s a relatively new. They’re building a museum still to it, but there isn’t one there yet.
Margherita: I was really intrigued by why were the monasteries build on top of the rock. Yeah, I was really curious because I thought, “Is it because of like security reasons, defense reasons?”
Chris: Defense. Yes.
Margherita: Is it because there was a time of when the Ottomans coming? The Ottomans were conquering Greece. I can’t remember exactly the year, but I think it was like 1450 or some around this time. So it was the time of the Ottoman invasions.
Chris: Well, the Ottomans captured Istanbul right around the same time that Columbus gets to the New World, is a good way to remember that.
Margherita: Okay. Okay. Exactly. So 1492.
Chris: So then they come into Greece in the 1500s. Yeah, I think that’s when actually a lot of the monasteries start to be built.
Margherita: Yes, there was definitely that point. I remember reading up on the history of Meteora and the monks that started building the monasteries. There was this monk. I think he was called Athanasios He was like the father of Meteora. He came from Mount Athos. Have you ever heard of Mount Athos?
Chris: I have. In fact, we have the blog post about that on the Amateur Traveler site.
Margherita: Oh, wow.
Chris: But another very significant religious site. You have to be a man to go there, as I recall. So I’m guessing you have not visited there.
Margherita: Yes. Yes. No. I have not, unfortunately, unfortunately.
Chris: Another UNESCO World Heritage Sight. Yeah, but it is one of the only UNESCO World Heritage Sights that is limited in terms of who can visit.
Margherita: Yeah, I think they just recently allowed chickens to get in. Because for a long time, they couldn’t even have female animals, but now because they like eggs, so they allow chickens.
Chris: Oh, that’s funny.
Margherita: So the monks were coming from from Mount Athos, but because Mount Athos is near Thessaloniki it’s like right in front of the coast.
Margherita: It was targeted by Ottoman’s coming, raiding, and whatever. So they decided to move further inland. When Athanasios and I guess his followers as well, found Meteora, they thought that’s it. This is the perfect place. That was, of course, because the rocky pillars allowed them to have the security by building the monasteries at the top, but also for another reason. Have you ever heard of the stylites?
Margherita: It’s an ancient form of hermit-ism, in which the hermit just climbed on top of a column and spends his life there. Those were the real hermits, like the hardcore, the ones that really wanted to reject all comforts of ordinary life and just be near the sky, near god, be able to mediate and get this vicinity. In a way, because of the rocks of Meteora, are reminiscent of columns, if you see them like that. It is said . . . Of course, this is just a legend because there are no documents, but some interpretations have said that was why they decided to build the monasteries there, because it was seen as, let’s say, a version of stylites.
Chris: Interesting. Well, that makes some sense. Is there anything else we should talk about Meteora?
Megherita: This is for adventure people. I am quite an adventurous person. I did not have the chance to do this tour, but I will be back for it. You can also do, with Visit Meteora, a hiking and scrambling tour, I think they call it. That is by way of the Via Ferrata. The Via Ferrata is a sort of a system of fixed ropes and ladders on the mountainside. It’s kind of like mountain climbing, but its much easier, of course. You don’t even need to know how to mountain climb for that. Yeah, I know you can do that, and you can get to the top. It’s like a view point, and that’s the place where traditionally the habitants of Meteora, both the monks, I think, and the villagers, used to go when they were being raided.
Chris: Oh, okay. Interesting.
Margherta: Yeah, I think it’s called the Great Saint Rock Hiking and Scrambling tour. I think I heard from some people that did it that it’s really worth the effort.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else we want to add into our itinerary for mainland Greece?
Margherita: This is one I mentioned that there are forks, and there are two ways that we can take.
Margherita: These places I don’t know very well. So I won’t be able to get into as much detail, but I know that they are both directions that are definitely worth visiting. So for example, from Metoera, if you head west, towards Albania, there’s a region called Epirus I think it is. I know that it is . . . I’ve seen pictures of it, and I’ve researched the destination. That is also really, really worth visiting because, again, it’s a mountain region. It’s very, very beautiful, in terms of landscape.
I think one of the, let’s say the peculiarities of the regions are the stone bridges. There are really amazing stone bridges. Some of them really ancient, still original. I think that there’s one that’s called the Plaka Bridge, and it’s the largest . . . I don’t know if its the longest or the highest single arched bridge in the Balkans.
Margherita: If one maybe wants then to continue over land and maybe visit Albania, that’s probably a good stop.
Margherita: I think the main, let’s say, the main hub of the region is a town called Ioannina. If you prefer going, let’s say, the other way, so heading east rather than west, from Meteora and Kalambaka, the main towns of the region. You can go to Thessaloniki.
Chris: Okay. Sure. The second largest city in Greece.
Margherita: Excatly. Then, of course, I already mentioned Mount Athos but I’ll mention it again because this is the one place that I would love to visit, but I know I can’t.
Margherita: If any man is listening, you guys can go. So just make the most of it, because I heard from some friends that have been that it is really, really, really stunning place. Because, again, it’s unique. I think it’s kind of an independent state.
Chris: It certainly has a degree of independence. I don’t know if it’s a state, but yeah.
Margherita: Exactly. Then because apparently it’s all run by monks.
Margherita: It’s a very mystical place. It’s very quiet. It’s the perfect place to relax, to switch off, to spend maybe some days just away from the world.
Chris: As we sort of start to wrap this up, one thing that surprised you this time you were in Greece.
Margherita: Well, I think one thing that surprised me, and that’s generally speaking, not necessarily about Meteora, Athens but kind of everywhere, was the creativity, just how creative the people are, because of like the terrible crisis they’ve just been through and are just coming out of. How many of them were able just to come up with a job for themselves, just to come up with a little enterprise or open a business or start like a tool company, for example. Or maybe, as in the case of visiting Meteora, filling the void that was there because there was no official representation.
Chris: Right. It’s a private company in this case. Yeah.
Margherita: Yeah, and so I was surprised by that. Then again, Meteroa . . . I would say it wasn’t a surprise because I knew about it. So it’s a place that had been on the back of my mind to visit for like over a decade.
Chris: For me, it had been two decades or so, since it had been featured in a Bond film way back in . . . I don’t know when. In fact, there’s one monastery that they’ll point out as the Bond, James Bond monastery, because it was in a James Bond film, a number of years ago. So ever since I saw that, that was one of those, “Now what is that? And where is that?”
Margherita: Yes. Well, talking about films, maybe some Game of Thrones fans should definitely go to Meteora because that was . . . It wasn’t actually filmed there, but it was the backdrop of a very famous scene, which is the, let’s say, the location of the Erie. I don’t know if you’re a fan.
Chris: I’ve only watched the first episode, first season. Sorry.
Margherita: First season. Yes, so you would have seen it. When Tyrion Lannister is in imprisoned in the Erie, and he is staying in the sky cells. Remember, those like little cells on the inside that are open on the one side? The backdrop of that is Meteora.
Chris: I think I remember them saying that.
Margherita: Yeah, they had to edit it because being a UNESCO Site, they had to get extra permissions.
Chris: Right. Right. It’s all done in CGI. Yeah.
Margherita: So it couldn’t be exactly the same. Yes. It was a bit done on CGI, but it was definitely the inspiration for the scene and the inspiration for Erie as a whole.
Chris: Right. So here’s a tough one. You’re standing in the prettiest spot in all of Mainland Greece. Where are you standing? And what are you looking at?
Margherita: I would say that is the place where we saw the sunset near a monastery, because there is one big, let’s say, the most famous sunset spot, which . . . If you ask George from Visit Meteora, he will be able to tell you where it is. It’s a place where you’ve got your birds’-eye view on the whole valley.
Chris: I know where you’re talking about.
Margherita: You can see four monasteries at once. That’s very nice, but for me, there’s another one that’s even nicer. That’s the one I mentioned before, Holy Trinity Monastery.
Chris: Oh, okay.
Margherita: Yeah, again, there are a couple of view points. One, it’s not so nice because it’s on pretty much its own side, but you get a really pretty view of the pillar, atop which the monastery sits. Then there’s another one further down the road that’s a lot quieter, and it has . . . Not a roadside stop, but let’s say the road’s a bit wider. So you can get off, and you can walk around. I think the sunset there is even better because, of course, you know what happens. When you go to the famous sunset spot, there’s always a lot of people there.
Chris: Everybody else is there. Yeah.
Margherita: Yes. This was special because there’s not really many people there, and it’s just . . . I would say it’s on the main street. I don’t know how it’s called again. This is why probably asking George or asking someone in Meteora will help. You definitely get a view of Holy Trinity Monastery, but it’s not the main sunset spot. It’s further down.
Chris: Okay. Excellent. Before we get to our last three questions . . .
Chris: Anything else that you want to say to somebody who is going to Greece?
Margherita: I would say that I know that some people are worried of finding a lot of poverty and a lot of misery, especially after watching the news of the riots and the protests that they’ve had. But really don’t worry about it, because it’s very safe. People are really nice and helpful. So security is really not an issue. Of course, just exercise the usual caution.
Chris: I’m sure you’re right, but even surprises me that people would be concerned. So I completely agree with you. In fact, I don’t know that I saw anything, that there was any indication, other than people would talk to us about it, that they had just gone through a difficult time.
Chris: Yeah. Okay. Last three questions. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Greece.”
Margherita: The fact that they put chips with everything.
Chris: Chips, what we would call French fries.
Margherita: They put chips. I told you I quite like the gyros.
Chris: The gyro.
Margherita: Yeah. They always put chips in it. That, for me, is really Greece. You know?
Chris: Oh, chips in it, not just chips with it.
Margherita: Chips inside. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.
Margherita: Inside. Yeah. I thought that was really odd because I’ve never had chips in a sandwich before. It’s quite . . .
Chris: Excellent. Finish this sentence. You really know you’re in Greece when what?
Margherita: When there are more people having iced coffee, even in the winter, than hot coffee.
Chris: Okay. I did not notice that. Okay.
Margherita: Did you not?
Chris: I don’t drink coffee. So I didn’t notice.
Margherita: Oh, okay. In Athens, again, Monastiraki, that’s where I was staying. There’s a really great coffee shop. I cannot remember the name because I think it was called like Coffee Okay or something boring like that, but it’s right in . . . Monastiraki Square has a big pedestrian area.
Margherita: Then has a part where you can drive. Then you have the big main street going towards Omonia Square. Now, you don’t need to get into the street to Omonia. It’s still there. You just need to cross the road. There’s this coffee shop. Where I was staying was just around the corner. So I used to go there every morning. Honestly here in Italy, we also like our coffee, but it’s always like espresso.
Chris: Sure. Right.
Margherita: There in Greece, you go to the shop, and you can recognize it by the noise of the blenders, because they were having crushed ice, sort of frappaccino things with everything. You were there at the same time as me. It was really quite cold some days.
Chris: It wasn’t summer weather. Yes, the last time I was there, it was in the middle of summer.
Margherita: I was like, “Why?” But that’s what they like.
Chris: Excellent. If you had to summarize mainland Greece in three words, what three words would you use?
Margherita: I would say mountains, mysticism . . .
Margherita: . . . and sunsets.
Chris: Excellent. Our guest, again, has been Margherita Ragg. Margherita, where can people read more about your travels?
Margherita: You can read about my travels on my blog, which is thecrowdedplanet.com. Mostly we write about nature and adventure travel, but let’s say for the next few months, we are also having a special series about Milan, my hometown.
Chris: Oh, your hometown. Okay.
Margherita: Yeah. Because in Milan, there’s going to be the expo in the second half of 2015. So if you’re thinking of coming, I’m going to have lots of useful information for you.
Chris: Oh, okay. Expo, the World’s Fair.
Margherita: Yeah, that’s it.
Chris: I did not know that was coming to Milan. Excellent.
Margherita: Oh, you should come.
Chris: I have been to Milan, lovely city.
Margherita: Oh, have you? Okay.
Chris: Oh, absolutely.
Chris: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for coming on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for Greece.
Margherita: Oh, it was a pleasure. I hope more people will go and experience Greece, let’s say. The islands are amazing, nothing to say, but also let’s say a different side of Greece.
Chris: Some interesting news for travelers this week. We’re coming from the US, and that is that the US is moving towards normalizing relations with Cuba. I find this interesting because there were years that I was predicting that this would happen, and I finally gave up predicting it, I think, about four years ago. But on an annual basis, I would predict that we would get here, and apparently we finally have.
Last weeks’ Trippy question of the week, amateurtraveler.com/trippy4, was: In what foreign city do you feel most at home? Valerie, from Seattle, her answer was, “London,” which is not too surprising. “I felt at home from the moment I arrived.” That was the top answer.
But probably more surprising would be Justin’s answer, Justin from Phoenix, who said, “Helsinki, the bike culture there is amazing. Public transit is spot-on perfect. It just plain looks cool. The food is pretty good. The national park’s nearby. Great hiking, easy to access, well-marked hut systems. They must be great in winter too, cross-country skiing.”
I also liked Donna from San Pedro, California. Her answer is, “The minute I laid my eyes on San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I knew that I was home. I was not even off the bus from Mexico City, but the sight of the town out the bus window, glowing in the winter sunshine, drew me in and whispered, ‘Stay.’ I couldn’t stay then, but I came back again and again, and now I live here. It will always be home.”
I found Donna’s answer particularly interesting because we have an upcoming episode with Tim Leffel on San Miguel de Allende and the region around it. With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. Remember, we’re not doing an episode next week.
It does look like we didn’t get enough people to do the 15-day trip to Morocco. I was disappointed in that, but we are still doing the 10-day trip. That trip is on, for sure. If you have any questions. send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or, better yet, leave a comment on this episode and amateurtraveler.com.
Transcripts of this episode are, again, sponsored by jwaytravel.com, a leader in Eastern European travel. You can also follow me on Twitter, @chris2x. As always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.