Travel Special for 2005

Travel Special for 2005

June 4, 2005 Diary 0

TRAVELS, May-June 2005
May 24, 2005
Frankfurt, via Guangzhou China

This year’s itinerary takes us from the Philippines to Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; Meteora, Greece; Munich, Germany; and Salzburg, Austria. In between are the requisite stops at Frankfurt airport and long flights to and from our destinations, where I can write in preparation for Nanowrimo 2005.

The biggest highlight so far is the Airbus 380 that we’re taking en route to Guangzhou. Rumor has it that we can’t get off the plane during transit to Frankfurt, which I really don’t mind. I’d like to be glued to my seat, asleep, and high on a very nice combination of Antamine and white wine. In other words, this plane looks good enough to be stayed in, even if my sister and I are “only” in Economy Class.

We’ve just finished our snacks of peppered ham and cheese sandwich, chocolate and chiffon cake, and a KitKat bar (which I’ve stashed away for future snack needs), plus some wine and tea for me, to loosen my neurons and get myself writing again. The Airbus 380 is supposedly the best of its class: long and large and spacious, with lavatories below deck. I’m not quite sure about the long and big part, or the lavatories either, but the legroom is pretty much the same: there are seven seats per row now, instead of the usual ten; and everything looks newer, from the mist swirling out of the air-conditioning vents, to the overhead lights that fade in or fade out with the push of a button.

We’re two days delayed in our journey, and that’s pretty much my fault — or rather, my age’s fault. I was nearly charged PhP 19,000 to get on the flight. Looks like someone important in Frankfurt either a) Surfed my website, b) Found my book on Lulu, or c) read an article I wrote in a magazine. This wouldn’t have been possible — this free trip, this journey to Meteora and Rome, Good Lord! — had it not been for daddy’s intervention and a lot of prayers from a lot of people; and, for all this, I am thankful.
I guess this is why I’m suffering from another bout of verbal diarrhea. The thought of me missing another chance to pay more money, coupled with a trip to Meteora and Rome, somehow mirrors my last great escape from the Customs People coupled with sales of my novel. Hardiharhar, and hardiharhar I say again! I am going to Catherine’s Meteora and Illustria’s Rome! I’m — going home?

Rumors have been confirmed — we’re not getting off the plane. The news isn’t too bad: I can sit down and write, or explore the jet. In any case, the arrangement isn’t too bad. Besides, dinner will be served in an hour or so. I can dunk myself in Bailey’s by then.

May 25, 2005
Frankfurt Airport

On the way to Rome, in a waiting area with silent Italians or tourists. How will I learn the language if nobody speaks it?

So far, Spanish might prove useful, so I’ll have to remember all my lessons. There’s also Greek, which I have to catch up with. How I wish I had learned all of this earlier when I was younger and could remember everything!

May 25, 2005
Rome, Italy

I don’t want to have to go through describing the Alps again. We’ve been over them many times, en route to Italy. What was new now was my dread for what would greet us in Rome.

Rome is probably the city I love the most in all the world (unless upstaged by Meteora, also on this year’s itinerary) but the fact that prices have been sky high since the Euro can be really dismaying. Everything is beautiful, more beautiful when free, and so much worse than ugly when overpriced.

If there’s a charm, boy, were we lucky this year!

It felt like a scary homecoming for me, with a filled Termini, and an air of fear clouding my eyes…all until we were approached by someone offering lodgings for about Eu 25 each.
The location was off the tourist map, frighteningly out of the city and too far away for our screams to be heard should anything happen. However, tired and hungry as we were, we had to trust the sweet, middle-aged lady named…
Catherine?

What a fine state of things! Catherine who took us from the Termini, through the two lines in the Metro, through streets and into her home…with breakfast, even tea, and maybe a story or two about Meteora, where she had already been to…Catherine wa going to be the new stewardess of our Rome stay.

Strangely, with all the luggage we had to carry, and all the huffs and puffs we took on the way, we actually ended up thanking our lucky stars for the place! It was a dinner of pizza and seasoned vegetables, a dessert of milk, and a good, generous sprinkle of Spanish Plus Italian before we went to bed.

And a couple from New Zealand and their own European tour too…

The omens and strangeness just keep piling up! There’s a Xenos hotel in Meteora, and a monument to the Greek general Leonidas nearby. I hope there’s a whole lot more I can gawk at come the Greek part of the trip.

If I meet my very own Leonidas or Sebastian, I could always go for a name change.

In the meantime, with all these weird things just happening, let’s just say I’m really enjoying this part of Rome. The roses are in full bloom and are half-a-foot wide. The birds chirp gaily till the early evening. It’s cool, quiet, and calm, with the church of La Storta nearby, and a British school next to it.

Talk about a REAL vacation!

May 26, 2005
Vatican City

For the first time in nearly ten years, I am back at St. Peter’s Basilica, this time to visit the grave of Pope John Paul II. The last time I was here, It was to attend his public mass, take pictures of him, and gasp in awe at the size of the basilica. Now, it’s just to remember, and find new things to see as well.

First was “Cross the Square and Spot the Markers of the Winds,” with the west Ponente immediately below me, and thoughts of Angels and Demons (and not very nice ones of Dan Brown) in my head.

Then there was the tomb beneath the basilica, where St. Peter and the rest of the popes join the last one.

Newest, and perhaps underestimated in value, was a procession of cardinals for a morning mass in the Basilica.

Within it were the same tourists, the same flashing cameras, the same Pieta I saw last — but now with new figures, of marshalls of the Pontificate Laity of Mary Help of Christians, more Vatican ushers, more priests, more people of different faiths. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, especially since traditional Catholicism calls for only Catholics to have the right to attend Mass. Somehow, the Basilica, for a moment, seems less a church and more a museum.

Then again, the awe never leaves me, and all the gold, all the beauty that comes with Vatican City really does make me proud to be a Catholic.

Finally, third time’s the Charm: we go to St. Paul’s outside the walls.

St. Paul’s Basilica, at least to me, is simple but splendid. Grand pillars divide the church into five naves. Above me, and all around, are paintings of all the popes since St. Peter, including Pope John Paul II, whose recently made painting is well-illuminated.

Two statues, one of St. Benedict, and the other of St. Scholastica, stand on one end of the transept. On the other, an altar, with Pope Gregory and St. Bernard flanking it.

The Basilica is built over the remains of St. Paul, marked by the altar and a lamp. The church itself boasts of various relics of Byzantine art: a vaulted ceiling over the main altar, bronze holy doors on one side of the entrnce, and more paintings in the nave telling of the life of St. Paul.

Outisde, the courtyard again boasts of more pillars, before a church decorated with mosaics and marble, anda statue of St. Paul with his sword and book.

Sta. Maria in Trastevere, I think, is one of the oldest churches in Rome. It took us about an hour form St. Paul’s, plus hellish sun and afternoon, so the distinction had better be right!

If it isn’t, very well then, Trastevere still gets brownie points for its intimacy. Its altar is Byzantine, with gold and mosaics covering every inch of wall, until Renaissamce paintings of angels in their Sunday best take over the marble. On the ceiling, and through much of the nave, is gold — gold, and mosaics, and paintings of martyrs, and pillars of scarred stones.

One chapel on the right side of the altar has a painting of Mary flanked by two angels. The figures are clear and distinct; I wonder how Catherine’s supposed likeness will fare on our trip to Meteora?

A statue of note is St. Francis’, holding the child Jesus amidst what seems to be a sudden shower of letters and flowers. Another, though less worthy of praise, is a plaque dedicated to Cardinal Gibbons, whose sermon in the same church spurred the making of (and possibly the approval) the 2nd Vatican council.

A twisted marble candelabrum also stands on one side of the altar, bedecked in gold and stone. What a strange reminder of something I should have been able to see in St. Paul’s as well — I wonder whatever happened to that candelabrum/pillar which was supposed to be displayed?

Another painting of note: an Inquisition session in progress, right next to the chapel of the Virgin and her angels…

…And a monk with a video camera — not a painting, but in human, real form, walking through the nave smack out of Sanctuary. Brother Adelphos? Brother Zeth? Hey!

Just when I think we can turn in for the night after coffee, here comes another basilica. This time, San Crisogono is smaller, and strangely, a less attractive replica of Sta. Maria in Trastevere.

What makes it exciting, though, is the body of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, mother and wife, and member of a secular order of Trinitarians (I think). Her body is uncorrupted, and lies in a glass casket. She is in her old uniform, still with her rosary entwined in her fingers.

It’s on the way home for us after, with Daddy’s friend Anna, who works in Rome as a housekeeper. So far, our stay in Rome has bordered on the outlandish, un-gone to places which out to figure more greatly in the history and tour books. Now, if only I had the time to slip by the Domus Aurea and buy something about Nero’s palace…

May 27, 2005
Fiumicino Aeroporto

I’m sick.

And take that literally.

After days of sneezing and coughing and struggling not to be ill, I finally have a fever. After two days of no sleep and all walking, all my resistance is down and all I’ve hoped to keep has been expended: energy, creativity, and temper.

I am not quite sure we’ve milked Rome for all its worth. Daddy says we should try Viterbo next time (or this afternoon, if we don’t get a flight out to Munich). But that’s without getting our hands into the Bocca Della Verita, or circling the Circo Massimo and Teatro Marcello (which I did on my own, albeit partially), or going to the Pyramide, the Quirinale, the Galleria Borghese, and so many other parks and museums from which my next novel might come.

Still, I’m sick, and that gets in the way of everything. Maybe not Meteora, of course, so I hope that this disappears ASAP so I can get some walking done.

May 28, 2005
Salzburg, Austria

The nice thing about having to suffer a lot of flights an a smattering of happy vriuses is that you appreciate all the good that comes to you.

Our pensione is run by the Stanten family of Salzburg, and lies 5 km outside the city. Bordered by snow-capped Alps and green hills, the pensione boasts of flower boxes, soft beds, a real buffet breakfast, and the occasional whiff of horse manure. Still, it’s one of the best we’ve ever had, and for a surprisingly low price of Eu 115 per night! For the first time, and with the help of a sedative, I sleep soundly and awaken to twittering birds and harsh sunlight.

We set off for the city immediately, on a tram, and get the finest, homiest, most quaint, most beautiful city ever. Flower boxes are filled with dripping pinks, purples, and blues. White pollen, cottony and light, take tours of the streets and run into people’s noses. All around are reminders of what make Salzburg special: the Sound of Music, Mozart, Bach, music, in general, and Alpine costumes! We take a stroll through a park thick with oaks and pines, emerge and quiet streets, and face a recreation — or should I say “maintained image?” — of the past.
It is 12 noon by the time we cross the river into the city center, and church bells ring up and down the alleyways, as though to herald our arrival. Above shines the sun, and upon various living relics, it illuminates things of bright, gilded beauty. There are musicians in Baroque costumes, livery and wigs and all, playing the clarinet; or in liederhosen, strumming on large wooden harps. Engravings and inscriptions decorate the tops of shops and houses; within, we are treated to views of the latest (and most expensive) watches and clothes; or chocolates, most of them stamped with Mozart’s profile.

There is nothing but life in Salzburg, made rhythmic by the clop-clop-clop of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones; nearly drowned out by hordes of tour guides pointing out paintings and houses and nearly invisible street signs; and pulsating beneath the quiet of Salzburg cathedral, intricate, immaculately white, and home to paintings and altars aplenty.
The Cathedral pales in comparison to others in Italy, but what sets it apart — and what sets this visit apart, especially — is a performance by the University of Kansas choir. With a painting of the Resurrection looming overhead, and with an audience silent and observant, the choir fills all the world with music, and somehow brings an air of smoke and mystery to the cathedral.

.

Out of the Cathedral and into the square we go, through shops selling magnets and bags, an outdoor basketball competition, and finally, after much waiting and pretzels, a footpath up the mountain and into the oldest, strongest fortress in Europe.

Hohensalzburg stands atop a mountain overlooking Salzburg, and is accessible by funiculare. For those who want to save, however, and enjoy the sights, there’s a footpath carved into the rock and up to the fortress.

The walk is tiring, of course, but every step adds more and more to the spectacle of a busy, still grand Salzburg below: a river through which ferries run their slow, tourist-friendly course; church spires and domes standing amongst dark shadows of stained glass; and hills, trees, and pastures all around.

Within the sun-steeped courtyards of the fortress are a number of exhibit routes to follow. Route 1 is a guided tour through the fortress, once the seat of the archbishop-princes who ruled Salzburg.

The tour recounts the additions and modifications made to the fortress, dating back to the early middle ages until today. More walking takes us to a prison; then to the battlements atop the highest point of the fortress, where the view of Salzburg is grandest and greatest; and then at the Salzburg bull, a giant pipe organ the archbishop-princes once used to signal different hours of the day.

A second route takes tourists through a smattering of war and festivals, and how the fortress has celebrated and participated in them. On exhibit are plates and jars from as far back as the Roman Empire, furniture, ovens, beds, weapons, armor, religious icons, torture instruments, guns, and loads and loads of war memorabilia. If not for lack of time, I would love to go through each of the pictures and war things in detail. There are badges, medals, pictures of officers, uniforms, and trophies from the enemy.

One more walk on the battlements, and a few more pictures later, we are on our way down the mountain through the funicular. The day is winding down, and most of the tourist attraactions are closed. We do go through St. Peter’s cemetery, however, and look at ornately-carved or -cast grave markers. Bodies here are unearthed after 20 years, to make room for more dead (as opposed to Greece’s 3, and Spain’s 7).

Another walk through Salzburg brings us within reach of chic, trendy shops marked by cast-iron native placeholders. There are roosters, lions, marionettes, and a gold “M” for McDonald’s. Mozart’s house is even more showy: a plaque, a crest, and crowds of posing tourists serve to mark its location. Even Konstanze Mozart’s and Doppler’s homes aren’t as publicized.

Other things of note: a morning walk through the Mirabell park is not only relaxing, but academic as well. There are sculptures of notables such as Paracelsus and Copernicus.

In the fortress is a marionette museum showing the puppets in all their old glory — as well as some which actually participate in puppet versions of Mozart’s operas!

It’s another day gone, and after an overpriced dinner, we are on our way home. Our pensione also exports milk to Germany, and keeps cows in a long barn. Not very nose-friendly, but interesting. Also worth mentioning is Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s hideaway, which stands atop the Bavarian Alps, and which we can see through our terrace. Hail the Fuehrer whose racism hasn’t stopped in his countrymen to this day. Collective sighs all around.

May 29
Salzburg, Austria
The Sound of Music tour, et. al.

I am keener on the Sound of Music Tour than I am on the musical itself. The songs play endlessly in my head, though, as we make it to Mirabell Park, and as we have our pictures taken in the plazas where part of the movie’s sequences were filmed. All around the fountain are the four elements, represented by symbols of flight, which are in turn embodied by statues: Paris abducting Helen over water; Hades abducting Persephone to the bottom of the earth; Aeneas rescuing his father from the burning city of Troy; and Hercules lifting the giant Anteus into the air.

After a few more pictures, we take a four-hour tour through a combination of the real life landmarks of the Von Trapps and filming locations. The gazebo stands near Hellbrunn palace, locked after a good deal of 16-going-on-17 escapades that ended on broken legs. The lake near Leopold’s castle is quiet now, when it once served as the summer getaway in the movie (a swimming resort is nearby, and that’s where most of the noise is).
After a long bus ride through the mountains, we get to the lake district, in St. Gilgen’s, where Mozart’s mom was born, and where his sister settled; and Mondsee, where the wedding scene [in the Sound of Music] was filmed.

It’s another kind of Paradise, with green mountains swarming with pines and cypresses, all of them sloping gently down into pools of greenish water. The church where the wedding was staged is dark but golden, and welcoming indeed — as is the cafe Braun, where we stop for very good coffee, coupled with Sacher Torte, strawberry yoghurt cake, and a good, highly delightful helping of apple strudel.

With the tour done, we are driven back to the city, where we rest in the park, then set out for more adventures. There’s the church near Mozart’s home, a small Gothic enclosure with candles and a few statues and icons.

Further down the road is Mozart’s house, where we get to see where he was born. There’s his old kitchen, the family’s furniture, letters, stories about life on tour, costumes, and so many other attractions that, with the music of his operas, make the journey to the past more believable.

A few more steps, a few more looks, and we’re out on the riverside, looking at the local flea market. Nothing matches our tastes, however (since everything can be bought at a much lower price back home!).

May 30, 2005
Munich en route to Athens, Greece

It’s the final leg of our journey, and the final country, but with only prayers can we get there. Flights to Athens from Munich are overbooked; even with the pretty hills and villages all the way from Salzburg Hauptbanhof, there’s no stopping the dreadful air of waiting (and praying) for passengers to change their minds at the last minute so we can leave for Greece.

After all the nerves and prayers and hastily managed pleas through bouts of laughing, coffee drinking, and wise-cracking, the flight has miraculously opened. Yes, oh yes, that’s right! We are on our way to Athens! And we have to spend one night at a hotel and waste our money! And we’re going to Meteora tomorrow! And I’m hyper because nothing this good has happened to me, and I am more than excited: I am enthralled, enthused, and invigorated put together, and so much more.

Before I launch into another intense and all-too-happy description of my feelings, let me describe Munich airport. It’s been ten years since I last set foot on Papa Ludwig’s domain, and so much has changed that I don’t quite remember what the original was like. Today’s Munich is more industrial, less rustic, but as clean as ever. Its airport is bright, and airy, very much like a grassless park set amongst shadows of pines on the horizon. Munich bears far, far fewer artifacts of Ludwig, and less of the traditional German cups and magnets and cuckoo clocks once laid hard upon my memory. Still, with clean floor below and my favorite gray, cloudy sky above, the Munich of old shines through.

Back to Greece! The plane hasn’t taken off yet, but I can hear its underbelly rumbling. Everything is being made ready — and for some strange reason, I am praying that we go below cruising altitude over the Thessalian plains so we can see Meteora from above.

And here we go again — Meteora, Meteora, Meteora, and even more of the Meteora I have loved without seeing, described without knowing, and taken others to without having been there myself. Me and My Big Fat Greek Novel — not quite fat, not quite Greek either, but according to critics and readers, a joy to read.

At least that’s what I hope they meant.

On with the show! Meteora is now less than 24 hours away from me. By this same time tomorrow, I will either be: 1) jumping out of the bus and shouting, “Efkharisto! Efkharisto!” to every man, woman, and sheep in sight; or 2) running for cover behind the nearest family member to avoid the back pains that come with the low bow of disappointment. I hope for the former, of course, as well as to:

a) Feel like Catherine in Kalambaka
b) Find my own Leonidas
c) Feel rich ala Lord Lykaios
d) Be appealing like Lord Zenobio
e) Be healthy UNlike Lord Cyril
f) Be suddenly fortunate like Lord Vasilios
g) Be a great traveler like Brother Nestor
h) Have a healthy heart UNlike Brother Bastiaan
i) Be proper like Brother Panos, but…
j) …still be full of life like Brother Anatole
k) Get good food like Brother Andreus
l) Be smart like Brother Xylon
m) Be friendly like Brother Adelphos
n) Write a lot like Brother Zeth
o) Be wise like Brother Moses
p) Know a lot like Brother Erasmus
q) Be gentle like Brother Damian
r) Be warm like Brother Demetrius
s) Have control over my spirit like Brother Battista
t) and be SOMEBODY…unlike Lord Adrian

Ahahahahaha…SANCTUARY (and writing it) have driven me NUTS!

METEORA! METEORA! METEORA here we come!

For:
May 31-June 3
Athens, Greece
Meteora, Greece

It took me a very long time to write anything down. For the first time, I am in a country that represents all the lessons I ever had, and a country whose culture forms the base of many of those in the west.

Everything I’ve ever learned, from the Punic to the Pelopponesian wars, from Athens to Sparta, from all the mythology I so love and admire to the plays and poems I studied — everything now comes to life here.

So, all my years of research in history and art finally come down to this. Our first night in Greece is spent at the Airport Hotel — that is, the departure waiting area which serves the dual purpose of sleeping quarters. By the next morning, daddy has reserved a hotel and a tour to Meteora. Hurrah for us! Not for our wallets, but still, hurrah for us!

Our first day is spent at the Parthenon, where we go for a walk around hills dotted with olive trees. Most of the original restoration work on the temple complex was ineffective; most of the pillars have been removed and replicated in cement or marble. What remains are many of the skeletons of the temples: the caryatids — Greek maidens holding up one of the temples as pillars — still stand, only as copies, since the originals have been nearly destroyed by pollution.

A museum holds many of the archaeological finds from the site, including the original caryatids, jars, wall engravings, and sculpture. Steps lead from the ordinary world and into a palace of the past, made of marble and rock, and standing high above the plains and mountains of Athens. Everything below seems to be new, from the white dwellings of the city creeping far onto the foot of surrounding peaks, to the gleaming walls of the government buildings that stand amongst parks and ruins.

The afternoon has brought rain, and though it showers readily, it disappears as soon as the late afternoon sun escapes once more to don the temples a brilliant, sparkling white.

Down from the Parthenon we go to take a walk through a mix of Modern Athens. Zeus’ temple stands in a park, and what once must have been dozens of tall, proud pillars is now a chipped, broken conglomeration of gravel and marble.

Farther down the road, the site of the 1896 Olympics: a magnificent amphiteater opening out onto the street, and showing dark lines where white, empty seats now stand.

Round the corner near the park is the presidential palace, before which guards hold sentry in their traditional uniforms of light brown, with furball shoes to match. All through the avenue are orange trees and purple flowers, as we make our way from the corners of Athens to Syntagma Sqyare and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There, we pounce upon the last few steps in the changing of the guards, and watch as they lift their feet slowly and sweep the ground as they march along.

Nearby is the training officer, tasked perhaps to taunt the guards, as we see him ridicule one guard’s uniform, and order another to watch the opposite side of the street away from his post.

The night has fallen at last, but all the lights go on in Athens’ shopping center. All through the streets are wide stores selling replicas of amphorae, jars, and stellae; mementos bearing images from Greek myth; olive oil soaps; CD’s and books of the country’s history; and clothes and slippers. Greece is famed for its slippers and sandals, and our shopping experience is capped by buying a few of them.

Our dinner is no less Greek: Greek salad with lots of Feta cheese and plump, fleshy, juicy tomatoes; moussaka, tender and soft; pasta baked with meat, then cooked in phyllo dough; and lamb chops with mushrooms. Everything is washed down with shots of mastic — the “Greek gold” exported for use in toothpaste — and a good helping of Greek folk music in the background.

The next day marks our journey to Meteora. The rocks are in Thessaly, a good day’s trip north, but a promising one, as we can see the unique terrain that makes up Greece.

Through the guide, we find out that Athens once had a law to limit the growth of buildings, keeping them at a maximum of four floors so that people could view the Acropolis from any location in Athens. The law hasn’t been followed, of course, turning the city into a sprawling, disordered metropolis that stretches far out of the city center and into the plains.

Riding out of Athens, however, brings us closer and closer to what the country once was. All around are mountains and olive trees; beneath them is light colored ground, giving one the illusion of walking through a desert, and into the land of the bible. Up rises the ground, over rolling hills, or onto heights of mountains cloaked in green and brown stone. In the distance stands Mount Parnassus, sprinkled with snow, and yet shadowy in the sunlight.

The first city we pass is Thebes, once home to Oedipus, Jocasta, Antigone, Ismene, and everyone in Sophocles’ great tragedy. Now, the city of the seven gates is an agricultural center, producing cottons and vegetables for Greece.

Next is Levadia, where we break for snacks. Further up is Ahora (?), built into the mountains near the ruins of Delphi, and consisting of tiny roads and low houses selling pasta, sauces, and even ski equipment. It almost escapes our notice, but we have gone through mountains and plains, and now look down upon a fertile valley from the heights of mythology’s Parnassus.

Today’s temple at Delphi stands in ruins. Where the oracle once foretold events through sniffs of sulfuric gass is now crumbled marble and stone standing on levelled parts of the slope. All through the mountain are trees and springs, as well as the air that one has trespassed upon an old, old place made modern only by tourists.

We’re off to the north after lunch, passing through more towns before coming to the wide, fertile Thessalian plain. We go by Trikala, now a quiet town where people sit at tables for afternoon snacks and watch the buses go by. Trikala is not what I expected it to be: I thought I would meet up with a walled fortress, with castles or villas, or big houses that would perhaps call to mind Lykaios Xenos’ estate. Then again, Lord Lykaios lost all his money, so I can forgive the man his disappearance.

I do believe I am the first to mark the rocks of Meteora from far away. We exit out of Trikala and onto a road to Kalambaka, and are a good 30 or so kilometers out; but I can see the rocks immediately. What were once shadows of rocks in the north soon resolve into the pinnacles of Meteora.

Above us tower the fingers of sandstone, pointing to the sky; and, right in front of our hotel, viewable from the terrace, the monastery of Agios Stephanos standing agiainst a rapidly graying sky.

This is the luckiest day of my life: not only do I get (and my mom and sister get) good gifts at pretty good prices, we get a free dinner too! It’s courtesy of the tour, of course, but it’s a hearty one, with canneloni, Greek salad, and porkloin and gravy, fries and vegetables, plus a light flan for dessert.

We plant to walk outside for dinner (it’s something I;d like to do, as I want to see Kalambaka and find out if there’s a real Xenos-like summer house somewhere) but the rains start pouring, and we’re resigned to viewing the rocks getting wet as we watch them from our terrace. The nice thing is that this is a thunderstorm, and with the rain comes a spectacular lightning show that showcases bright flashes of light behind the rocks.

Miraculously, I find sleep, and awaken the next day to a cold, gray morning. The somber atmosphere is soon overtaken by sun, and its golden light that leads the way out of Kalambaka and into the rocks of Meteora.

The garden of rocks is bigger, wider, and more precarious than I either described or expected it. Still, the atmosphere of Sanctuary is here, and that of the rocks in the book. First to be passed are the monastery of St. Nicholas Anafpausas, and Roussanou; then Varlaam; and then the monastery of the Great Meteoron, dedicated to the transfiguration.

There is so much to see and learn that I am tired out trying to remember what I have vowed not to forget. The Grand Meteoron is reachable by a series of steps that cross the valley and rocks, surrounded by flowers that immediately catch my attention and command me to look for bluebottles. Upon entering the monastery, we are greeted by dark hallways, first leading to a terrace, then to a primitive pulley system used to haul baskets up the monastery, then to the monastery’s main reservoirs; an old kitchen, a long storage room, and the ossuary.

We are led to the Katholikon, where I learn the intricacies of Orthodoxy. Jesus welcomes all over the door, and stands with an open book; inside, he grows more austere, closes the book of Heaven, and becomes the Supreme Judge. Every molecule of wall is covered by paintings in the Katholikon; and in the center of the room is a wide, magnificent candelabrum decorated with images of the apostles.

Outside, we are free to explore on our own, and I immediately take to running around through the museums. One wing has black and white pictures of the monks and their activities at Meteora. Farther in are exhibits of weapongs, uniforms and costumes. Through one door is the old refectory, where my 6610i works to death as I take pictures of the monks’ dining hall. In yet another room are preserved manuscripts and letters. In another are intricately carved crosses.

Another museum holds robes, religious objects, and bibles. Finally, there is a wide, flowered viewing point that looks out over Kalambaka, Kastraki, and Meteora. The rumors and my book are right: there is a place between heaven and earth where the heart slows and the soul listens.

Soon, we are off once more, this time to Agios Stephanos, a nunnery. The walk is easier this time, and as soon as we reach the place, we are provided with skirts and a good clear view of a whole lot of flowers. There’s nothing like a woman’s touch to bring a place to life, so goodbye goes one deep crimson rose as I take it in memory of Sanctuary.
Agios Stephanos’ katholikon is under reconstruction, and its colors are now more vibrant. On the wall of the narthex is a vision of the last judgment, with the souls of the damned being eaten by a dragon, and a the souls of the good being admitted into heaven. In the vision of the heaven is the first soul who entered: Cosmas, whom Jesus promised Paradise as they both lay dying on their crosses. In heaven as well is the virgin, in robes of crimson, flanked by two angels. This one calls to mind another picture, and I promptly snap it up.

Agios Stephanos is small but pretty, with a vista point and garden overlooking Kalambaka, the old Katholikon open for viewing, and manuscripts and letters for exhibit as well. Our visit is also brief: we break for a lunch of roast pork, fries, stuffed tomatoes, and a Greek salad down in Kalambaka before riding off to an icon workshop.

What greets us is a simple, practical warehouse, where we make our way to the 2nd floor to see how wood is prepared for iconography. The hagiographers use various types of wood for their masterpieces: walnut, pine, linden, and oak are only a few. They, moreover, do not paint on the wood itself, and instead make ready cotton canvases by baking and coating them with a substance to make them smooth.

From the kilns and canvases, we are led back down to the first floor, where our guide introduces us to an Orthodox priest, who is also a hagiographer. He demonstrates his craft by showing his sketches, and how they are painted, starting with light colors and ending with the dark. Next, the priest brushes his beard with a little brush in order to create static electricity, which he uses to apply 24K gold leaf to the background.

All the icons are beautiful, but they come with a heavy price. They are rightfully expensive, of course; their craftsmanship is perfect, their images haunting. Never have I seen a Baby Jesus so affectionate with his mother, nor a Virgin Mary laying her cheek so caressingly against her Son’s.

We are back on the road again, on a return trip to Athens. We stop by the battlefield of Thermopylae on the way, where 300 Greeks, grossly outnumbered by Persian invaders, stood and fought and held their ground. As Tom Cruise said in The Last Samurai: they died, ever last man. Leader of the small army was Leonidas (ahem! ahem!), King of Sparta. His statue now stands where the battle once was, and our bus pauses for pictures before we start off for Athens again.

The trip back is uneventful, save for one instance where we stop by the closest point to the Aegean, and glimpse another Greek island. After the sea, we’re back inland again, non-stop to a rather busy Athens. Syntagma square is blocked off with press vans, but all of Athens is still in fun mode, with cobblestoned avenues lighted by blaring floodlights from stores, and an evening sky gray with coming rain.

Soon, it is raining, bringing my last night in Athens to an end.

The Departure
June 4, 2005

The fun thing about this trip is the visit to Meteora was placed at the very end, so that I kept on looking forward to it and risked losing sight of the natural excitement that would come with the rest of our visits. Thankfully, I lost nothing — except lots of money, of course — and I discovered a great many new things. First, I have not lost any of my old love for Rome, and I am thankful for having been given a chance to see it again.

Second, I never thought Austria could be so beautiful; I never knew that living so near the Alps so peaceful and soothing. I have another bright idea for my parents’ retirement, I think.

Third, I do love opera and Mozart! I really do!

Fourth, the charm of Medieval castles has still not left me, and after seeing Salzburg’s fortress, I believe I’m excited to restart my work on The Guild.

Fifth, I remember all my lessons in Greek history, and it has made my appreciation of Athens and Greece deeper.

Lastly, I just love Meteora, and I hope that says everything about what I want to express.

For now, it’s adio, or kalimera. This is Inez, signing off for another trip, June 4, 2005, flying over Guangzhou, China, on the way back to Manila