Meteora, Monasteries in the Sky

Meteora, Greece

Meteora, Greece

In central Greece,  near the town of Kalambaka, is Meteora. The name means something like “suspended in air” and describes a collection of Greek Orthodox monasteries perched 1,000 feet above Plain of Thessaly at the top of titanic natural pillars.

The pillars were first inhabited by Christian hermits in the 11th century, seeking solitude and security. They scaled the towers and lived in caves and cracks in the stone. In the 13th century, groups of monks came to the area and began to build. Over the next several hundred years over 20 monasteries were built.

Today, the six surviving monasteries are open to visitors. Inside you’ll find a few monks and nuns and important collections of frescos, manuscripts and icons. It’s over 5 hours from Athens, so you’ll want to overnight in Kalambaka, the small town at the foot of the rock towers. You can get a 2-day motor coach tour to Meteora from Athens or a 3-day tour to Meteora and Delphi, or a 4-day tour that combines Meteora with Mycenae, Epidaurus, Olympia and Delphi.

Visit www.yallatours.com/greece to see tours that include Meteora.

Santorini

 

So many Greek islands, so little time… Cyclades, Dodecanese, Sporades, Ionian…literally hundreds of islands, thousands if you count the uninhabited ones, and why not count them? They’re there, they’re islands, they deserve to be recognized. However, in order to stay relevant, we’ll stick to the inhabited ones, and then narrow it way down to a few that possess just the right combination of scenery, personality, infrastructure and accessibility.

We’ll take one in this post – Santorini

While I’m sure most islands have some drama in their past; on that front, I venture none can compete with Santorini. The island as we know it is the caldera of a volcano which erupted in one of the largest explosions ever known on this planet around 1600 BCE. Ash and debris shot 25 miles into the stratosphere and the massive tsunami that followed brought immediate destruction, as well as prolonged environmental devastation that lead to the extinction of the powerful Minoan civilization.

Akrotiri fresco

Akrotiri fresco

The Minoans were centered in Crete but their influence was widespread and they had colonies on a number of Aegean islands. Akrotiri on Santorini was a Minoan settlement that was preserved in volcanic ash, much like Pompeii. No human remains have been found, so it would seem the inhabitants got out in time. What remains is evidence of a very wealthy, sophisticated city. A powerful city that sank into the ocean in a single day, hmmm, does that sound familiar? Could it be Atlantis? Some think so, scholars even. Visit Akrotiri and decide for yourself.

Despite an explosive history, Santorini is a very peaceful place, and thanks to its explosive history, Santorini is extraordinary to look at. Santorini is all about the views. You sit on your hotel terrace and look at the view, you eat your meals looking at the view. When walking around, you really must try to stop looking at the view and watch where you’re going because there are some pretty steep drops.

Most habitation is perched on the caldera rim, a sheer 1,000 feet over the sea. Fira is the main town, with the most happening. Oia is a little out of the way, quieter and more romantic. Imerovigli is closer to Fira but quiet and sits higher than either Fira or Oia, so claims superior views. Really, the views are good everywhere, as long as there’s nothing in the way.

Most (if not all) Greek island cruises stop in Santorini for a few hours at least. In season (April/May-October) there are frequent flights and ferries from Athens.

Epiphany and the 12 Days of Christmas

In the Christian calendar January 6 is Epiphany or Theophany, which means the manifestation of God. The day celebrates the revelation of Jesus as the son of God when he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptist and/or when he was visited by the three wise men, at which time he was revealed to the gentile world.

A few Orthodox churches adhere to the ancient Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, making Julian January 6 = Gregorian January 19. Likewise, Julian December 25 is Gregorian January 7, and that is why some Christians seem to be celebrating Christmas on January 7; really, they are celebrating on December 25 but in a different calendar.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Bethany Beyond the Jordan, widely believed to be the site of Jesus’ baptism, celebrated on the feast of Epiphany, January 6

frankincense - one of the gifts brought by the wise men from the east, an event celebrated on the feast day of Epiphany, January 6

frankincense – one of the gifts brought by the wise men from the east, an event celebrated on the feast day of Epiphany, January 6

This brings me to the 12 days of Christmas. As a secular American, mostly familiar with 2 days of Christmas, if you count Christmas Eve (not to mention the 50+ days of commercial-Christmas inundation), I was always vaguely baffled by the 12 Days of Christmas song. I guess I half-consciously assumed it was an old and/or foreign custom and left it at that. Maybe some of you can relate and will appreciate a bit of clarification on the subject; maybe this is all common knowledge that was passed out while I was daydreaming about the piles of loot Santa was going to leave under our tree.

It turns out my dismissal of the 12 days as old or foreign is pretty much correct. For the record, I find old and foreign customs very interesting, unless associated with an annoying and endless song. To this day, the 12 days of Christmas are acknowledged by Christians around the world, outside the United States of America. Generations ago, in the U.S., the rhythms of commercial Christmas swallowed those of liturgical Christmas and now we count the shopping days before Christmas Day rather than the holy days after.

The 12 days of Christmas, also known as Christmastide = December 25-January 5. January 5 is 12th Night, the bridge from Christmastide to Epiphany and the festival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras. As far as I can tell, there’s no particular significance to each of the 12 days, rather it’s a prolonged celebration of the birth of Jesus. In some traditions, gifts are exchanged on each of the 12 days.

In Greece, gifts are typically exchanged on January 1st, St. Basil’s Day, rather than on December 25th. There’s not much of a tradition of Christmas trees in Greece but it’s common to keep a sprig of basil wrapped around a small cross hanging over a bowl of water. During the 12 days, the basil-cross is dunked and water is sprinkled throughout the house to ward off the dark elements of the season.

In Greece, during the 12 days of Christmas, the country is plagued with little demons called kallikatzaroi. They hide in dark crevices during the day but come out at night and subject the land to rampant mischief. Yule logs are kept burning day and night to prevent them from coming down the chimney or old shoes are burned as a smelly repellant.

With the traditional blessing of the waters on Epiphany, the kallikatzaroi are sent back underground, where they spend their time sawing at the world tree in order to topple the earth. While they are wreaking havoc for 12 days on the surface, the world tree heals and they must start sawing anew on January 6th. Essentially, the Greeks endure chaos for 12 days in order to save the world. (Thanks, most grateful!) Conversely, the kallikatzaroi sacrifice the fruits of 353 days of hard labor for 12 days of utter abandon, the mother of all frat parties.

The kallikatzaroi may be cultural remnants of the Dionysian rites of antiquity, when possessed and intoxicated devotees of the god of the vine ran around behaving in extremely uncivilized ways.

Happy Epiphany to all who celebrate and congratulations to Greece (and the world!) for surviving another year despite the best efforts of the kallikatzaroi.

What Are The Greeks Up To For New Year’s?

Vassilopita, photo from Greek Reporter

On New Year’s, Greeks will be partying and enjoying fireworks, along with the rest of the world. But, also like the rest of the world, they will partake in some local, age-old traditions as well.

In some Christian denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, January 1st is the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. According to Jewish tradition, male babies are circumcised 8 days after birth. The day is honored as Jesus’ first sacrifice for human kind.

January 1st is also celebrated as the anniversary of the death of St. Vasilios (Basil), an early church father remembered for his generosity, especially to the poor. Holiday gifts are traditionally exchanged on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, rather than the 24th or 25th of December and it’s St. Vasilios who brings gifts for children instead of St. Nicolas.

St. Nick does get a nod though. His feast day on December 6 opens the Christmas season, which ends with the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. The 12 days of Christmas begin with the birth of Jesus on December 25 and end with the visit of the Magi on January 6th. So, while many Americans close the holiday season on January 2nd, Greece remains in the thick of it for a few more days.

On New Year’s Eve, it’s traditional for family and friends to gather for a big meal and stay up waiting for the New Year and St. Vasilios to arrive. They might pass the time playing games of chance, this being a particularly lucky day.

An onion is hung on the door overnight as a symbol of renewal. Once the New Year rings in, a pomegranate, symbol of prosperity, is smashed on the doorstep before entering the house the 1st time.

The Vasilopita is a traditional cake baked with a coin inside. On New Year’s Day, the cake is served and whoever finds the coin in their cake can look forward to a lucky year.

Cheers to all and best wishes for a healthy, prosperous and peaceful 2019!