Between Heaven and Earth on the Suspended Rocks

Friday, 14th December, 2012
Meteora and Athens

For all photos for 14th December, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

I had another bad night’s sleep and was glad when finally Fr Peter stirred and I could get up without disturbing him. After my shower and breakfast and packing my bags I went for a bit of a walk through Kalambake towards the rock mountains to take some photographs. It was freezing cold – the puddles were frozen – and not for the first time, I wished that I had packed my thermal long-johns.

We left at 9am and first went into the town where several members of the group needed to use the ATM or visit the post-office. The bus dropped us all off to wander up and down the street for a bit. It was very cold and I asked Sophia if there was somewhere warm we can wait. “In here,” she said, and directed us into a store. Inside it was warm, there were nice couches to sit on, AND it was full of sweets and biscuits and chocolates and everything nice. it was a “zacharoplasteio” – literally a “sweet fashioner’s”. there was a whole glass fronted counter filled with about 25 different kinds of biscuit. I thought I would buy a bagful to share with the rest of the team when we were travelling later on. “One of each, please,” I asked the shop owner (the “sweet fashioner”). When he handed me the bulging bag, I asked “how much”, and was told “3 Euros”!

Back on the bus, we took the road up to the top of the Meteora mountains to St Stephen’s monastery. St Stephen’s is in fact a convent today – although the Greeks call every religious house a monastery, whether for men or for women. They have no religious orders, partly because all religious houses are under the authority of the local bishop (or of Mt Athos, or possibly the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople), and partly because they have no equivalent to our friars and non-cloistered religious. Originally only monks lived on the mountains of Meteora, but at one stage after the Second World War, when the number of monks had decreased to the point that there were only a dozen or so monks on the whole mountainside, the local bishop installed some communities of women in the vacant monasteries. Before the War, there was no road access to the monasteries – you will have in mind, of course, the famous “basket-on-a-rope” method of access to some of them – but the German army built a road right to the top and over the other side during the occupation because they were using the peaks of the mountains as lookouts up and down the Valley of Thessaly. This road has been upgraded considerably and today coaches of tourists are easily able to make the ascent in comfort.

We stopped for several photo shoots before reaching St Stephens. The monasteries are perched like the nests of storks on chimney tops, and their walls seem to grow straight up out of the sheer sides of the rock. There are visible in the holes and caves of the cliff faces small dwellings – the cells of hermit monks, some reached by ladders. It looked in part like Petra or Cappadocia, but these are still in use. There has been a resurgence in the life of these communities, and, in addition, there is money to be made from the tourist trade. This in fact is what powers about 90% of the life in the town of Kalambake, and it is why some of the monasteries are open to the public (at least, some sections). We accessed St Stephen’s by means of a small stone bridge which spanned a deep and narrow ravine separating the island of rock on which the monastery was built from the “mainland”. The walkway down to the bridge was slippery with ice and you had to watch your footing. A slip here could mean a long downhill journey…

St Stephen’s is like a small a fortress – we were amused at the spikes on the outside of the wooden entrance door. We walked through the entrance and across the courtyard to the entrance of the monastery’s church, which is one of its three major attractions – the other two being the small museum and the huge view over the valley from the other side of the monastery. The church suffered damage from German bombing during the war and is still undergoing restoration. Thankfully, although the cylindrical “dome” of the church was destroyed, much of the main sanctuary and nave was saved, including the ornate hand carved wooden iconostasis from the 17th Century. The narthex on the other hand lost most of its roof, and so there is an ongoing replacement of the iconic frescos here. These are very confronting as they are all on the theme of martyrdom – in accordance with the dedication of the monastery to St Stephen the Protomartyr. So there are plenty of scenes of holy men and women being burnt at the stake, flayed, boiled alive, having bits and pieces of their bodies chopped off, etc. etc. Some of these are very up-to-date, and include an icon of Patriarch Gregorios V of Constantinople being hanged from the gates of the Phanar in Istanbul for his part in the Greek riots in the 19th Century (a small detail Hakan forgot to mention to us when we visited).

We went into the museum which was small but well stocked with liturgical items (including vestments and thuribles and manuscript books and ritual crosses). Unfortunately, no photos were able to be taken in either the church or the museum. We then visited the rather nice little store that the nuns run, with a lot of handmade items. It was good to enter a warm room – the church had been freezing cold and even my toes were becoming numb. I selected a small icon of St Stephen and a small orthodox cord “rosary”. When I went to pay for them, my attention was taken by a wooden bread stamp under the glass of the counter. I inquired about it, and the nun told me that it was made in Mt Athos and is of the kind used to stamp a pattern on the eucharistic bread when it is being cooked. It has a cross shape made out of five squares, three of which have the “IX XC NI KA” symbol on them. Before the consecration, the loaf is cut into nine pieces according to the pattern, and the central square alone is reserved to be consecrated in the anaphora. The rest is handed out at the end of the service as “blessed bread” for the faithful to take home with them. A liturgy addict and his euros are soon parted and I purchased this as well. I doubt if I will ever use it for sacred purposes, but I thought it would make a wonderful way of decorating our Easter bread.

We reboarded the bus and descended down the other side of the mountain onto the wide plain below. Sophia then thought we might enjoy a visit to a local icon workshop. The story behind this shop is that some decades ago a local young man wondered how he might enable his large family to survive economically, and determined to go to the Holy Mountain of Athos to learn the art of iconography. Returning as a priest, he taught the art to his brothers and they started the family firm of Pevka, which today continues to hand make icons of high quality. The Church of Greece and the Vatican are among their clients, and they showed us an icon which is being prepared at the moment on commission for the Vatican. Also proudly displayed was a picture from the meeting of Pope John Paul II and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens at the Areopagus in the year 2000. On this occasion a large icon of St Paul was situated between the two leaders – the icon had been made by Pevka.

From the outside, the workshop appears just like any other factory (indeed it is situated among other factories). Inside, we entered a large show room with shelves full of icons of all kinds and colours, and with walls decorated with icon frescoes. After a welcome serve of grappa about 90% proof), we were shown into the wood working room where the board and canvas is prepared. This room was very comfortable and warm – heated by a wood furnace, and had that wonderful smell of wood shavings. They prepare the canvas by a traditional method, which involves stretching and coating the cloth in various natural animal glues and then firing it in a kiln and rubbing it smooth to make a kind of cloth card. The icon is painted directly onto this cloth before it is glued to the wooden board – this preserves the brilliance of the colours of the paint.

We then went back into the show room, in the centre of which one of the brothers of the family was working on an icon of the Theotokos. A sister of the family showed us around, but Sophia did most of the translation. She seemed to be fairly at home here, and I judge that she is well known to the family. We were able to watch the painter at work for a while. He was using a very fine brush to add the final lines to the icon, but what interested us greatly was the long staff like tool with a cloth knob on the end which he used to rest the wrist of his painting hand upon so that it did not touch the surface of the painting (see the pictures!). The paints were made from powdered paint mixed with an egg and vinegar liquid, which created a “tempura” kind of paint. We were shown how the 22-24 carat gold leaf was applied with a broad brush made “sticky” with static from brushing it on the hair of the head. There were questions and answers about the process, and then…

Well, at this point, after having visited carpet, pottery and leather goods manufacturers in Turkey, I expected to be given “the hard sell”. In fact, all Sophia said was “Now you can have a look around the showroom and if you like you might want to purchase an icon.” So we were free to examine the merchandise, all of which was clearly marked with a price. I was pleasantly surprised to see how low the prices were, ranging from 15 euros for a small piece to about 190 euros for larger items. 45 euros purchased an icon of about 15cm by 12 cm, which I thought was pretty good – similar pieces at home would cost about $200. They gave us a 10% discount as well. I had always intended to purchase an icon or two while I was in Greece, and had expected higher prices, so I decided to make my purchase here. I was not alone. One of the priests bought almost a dozen, but each of us bought at least two (or, perhaps, one large one). I bought a St Joseph, a St Michael, a St Mary Magdalene (for my daughters Mia and Madeline) and a Christ icon as a Christmas gift. I also picked up a smaller icon of St Lydia, as I had been regretting not getting a memento of our visit to the baptismal site at Philippi the other day. As well as the certification of authenticity on the back of the icon, the icon writer himself also signed and dated the icon on the reverse side for us (incidentally this also demonstrated how quickly the tempura paint dries).

We were in the shop for about an hour and half, selecting our icons, getting them paid for and getting them signed. Sophia was a bit taken aback by the enthusiasm of these westerners for the icons – she had expected that our visit would only take half an hour. She confessed that she had often had qualms about taking western Christians to the workshop because she was under the impression that many object to icons. While this is true, I told her, it is only so among the more reformed groups. Many Western Christians, such as Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans, are very keen on icons and most of our churches would have at least some icons in them somewhere. Yes, she replied, she was surprised to see that the Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams) had even written a book about icons. In any case, our visit must have seemed like an early Christmas to the Pevka workshop, and when we were back on the bus, Sophia had a boxful of additional little icons – one for each of us. I received a lovely little Theotokos.

However, as a result of our enthusiasm for this “short” visit, we were seriously behind schedule. We had a late lunch at a cafeteria before heading back on the road to Athens. We climbed out of the Valley of Thessaly at about 3pm, and into the hills beyond. We travelled down on the coastal road between the mountain ridge and the sea – that would be the last we would see of the Greek mountains on this trip. While on the journey, Sophia talked to us about many things regarding Greece, from mythology to the current economic and political woes of the country. We stopped at 6pm for a coffee break and then were back on the road again. In the darkness we passed by the city of Thebes (Thiva), seeing only the lights in the distance, and the location of battle of Marathon.

When we reached the outskirts of Athens at about 7:15pm, we were instantly caught in Friday night traffic jam caused by an accident on the freeway. It was therefore after 8pm when we arrived at the hotel. Realising that we would not have time to celebrate mass together this evening, for the first time on the whole trip we skipped mass and said night prayer on the bus. The lobby of the Titania looks like the ground floor of Myers – lots of marble and glitter – but Peter and I were not surprised to find that the room didn’t live up to the image. It is a star or so better than the last place, but is still very small, and we keep tripping over each other. The bathroom door only just has room to open into the room making it a little tricky to enter. Peter immediately struck a problem with the mechanism that was supposed to open the plug hole in the basin – it didn’t – and cut his finger in the process we called room service and he couldn’t get the plug to open either, and said that he would send a plumber in the morning… There are also few power points for recharging, no coffee and tea making facilities (we haven’t actually seen these since Turkey), and the internet is hideously expensive (and limited to the use of one appliance). I asked if there was anywhere to smoke in the hotel and was told no – only in the Olive Garden outside. But I was told that if I bought a drink in either the lobby or the Olive Garden I would get a “free” hour of internet use.

At dinner – which had no soup, nice salads (including dolmades for the first time in Greece) but awful main course (dried out food, luke warm – I think it had been sitting waiting for us for a couple of hours) and a choice of only two desserts – Ian, who had been here before, told us that we should not miss the view of the Acropolis from the roof of the hotel “There’s a bar up there too”, he said. So after dinner I got in the lift and noticed that above the 10th floor was “OG – Olive Garden”. It turns out that the Olive Garden (in which I could smoke my pipe) was not an outside area with trees in it on the ground floor but the name of the rooftop bar and restaurant. The bar area was quite full of people drinking and smoking, and was terribly overheated (as in fact the whole hotel is). I ordered a cup of coffee (the purchase price for the hour of free internet on my iPhone) and asked whether I could sit outside in the cooler air. The waitress looked at me as if I were mad – no, she said, we do not serve outside in winter – it is much too cold. Not half as cold as where I’ve just come from, I thought. I cannot quite understand why, when they have the most magnificent panoramic view of the city from their rooftop, including the Acropolis all lit up like a Christmas tree, they would not at least have a few tables and chairs out for those who wished to use them. But no, all the metal chairs were stacked up in a corner without their cushions, and no tables. So I took my coffee inside, and then went outside to enjoy the fresh air and the view.

I also took the opportunity to Skype home. As Rosemary has said, we are all now looking towards home, even though we have a whole city to still explore. As we hit our thirtieth day on the tour, I am especially looking forward to returning home. Adjusting will be difficult, however, as we have now got firmly into the rhythm of travelling and living out of a suitcase. Most of us are planning to go back to work on the 21st and making that our last day before returning to full time work in the new year. I do need to go into the office at least once before Christmas, but I am regretting having to do this, as I would have liked the time just to get used to being home before Christmas hits us.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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