Meteora, Greece.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit Metora, in Northern Greece. The name means ‘suspended in air’, and you can probably see why.

I mean, look at it:

Panorama Meteora, Greece.

In the past few years it’s become easy fodder for the fantasy travel bucket lists that float around on Pinterest collected by wide-eyed teenage girls, and for whatever reason, I didn’t really ever expect to get the chance to go there. Particularly because whenever I visited Greece I was in Athens… and it just seemed so far away.

I was talking to Al about this before we left for this trip, and he caught me off guard somewhat by saying something like: if any time was the right time to go, it was now. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that we could actually just… go. It had become so much of an expectation that it would always just be somewhere amazing that was out of reach.

So, we booked somewhere to stay, got on the train, and took the five hour journey up from Athens last week to the town of Kalambaka.

L1006475 Meteora, Greece.

What strikes you from the moment you step off the train is the scenery. The rocks are unmissable, as they loom up behind the buildings.

L1006314 Meteora, Greece.

We had been told that the best way to get to our AirBnB was to get a taxi from the station. It didn’t seem like that far a walk on the map though, so we wandered down the road, stopping every few minutes to take pictures of the increasingly amazing scenery.

L1006281 Meteora, Greece.

The air was clean… and it felt like we were out in the country. All around was the tinge of that that pleasant burning fireplace smell that I associate so readily with the Highlands. Infact, if it had just been a little cloudier, it could just as easily have felt like somewhere in Scotland. That might seem trite to say, but that’s how it felt.

L1006291 Meteora, Greece.

The shapes in some of the rocks were fascinating.

Apparently these holes were used by hermits for centuries, who would live in the caves… supported by the local people bringing them food, water, and supplies through a simple pulley-rope system.

L1006278 Meteora, Greece.

We were staying in a wee village round from the main town of Kalambaka, called Kastraki. The view from there was even more amazing; the rocks becoming more jagged and charismatic.

We were at the very very end of the tourist season, and so the place was almost literally dead. As in, not a soul around. It was quite nice, especially compared to how busy Santorini had been just a couple of weeks prior.

That said, the place clearly filled up in the high season. I’m glad we saw it when we did.

Despite being somewhere that would attract large numbers of tourists, almost everybody we met was incredibly friendly. They took the time to ask about where you were from, and always seemed to genuinely be interested. You weren’t treated as just some annoyance that had to be tolerated for economic reasons.

The first night in particular was one of the best. We found a place online called Skaros that came highly recommended as an authentic place to eat, and so headed down after exploring throughout the day. It was slightly out of the centre, which meant not quite on the radar of those just looking around the main street. The menus were all in Greek (always a good sign!) and the staff were unbelievably friendly.

I started off by speaking a little Greek, and instead of acting surprised, or then being patronising when I didn’t quite understand something, the owner patiently took the time to speak slower, and more clearly till I worked it out – even asking how long we had lived in Greece (which I was quite pleased with). This came after an amusing incident where he had evidently said to let him know when we wanted to order, and I hadn’t quite caught this. We sat for about 40 minutes wondering why they were ignoring us before realising what he had said. Woops.

The food was amazing though – including the best tzatziki I’ve ever tasted. He took great pride in telling us that it was all made fresh, and not just bought in for tourists from the supermarket. We sat for hours drinking wine and enjoying the atmosphere, surrounded by Greek families. It was nice.

L1006302 Meteora, Greece.

The plan was to use our one proper full day in Meteora to visit some of the monasteries that sit atop the cliffs which the area is famous for.

You can either drive, walk, or go on a private tour. The most sensible option for us was to pay for a tour given the time constraints, which was cheaper than renting a car as well.

We were all booked up, and then disaster struck. We awoke to the sound of rain. Not just a drizzle, but the skies completely pishing it down. The spectacular scenery was rendered completely invisible through fog, and the forecast said that it would stay that way until the next day – when we were meant to leave.

None the less, we were still determined to go… but we had no appropriate clothes. Rain jacket? Greece? Don’t be silly! I don’t even own a raincoat in Scotland. So we were woefully underprepared. The hotel gave us two umbrellas, but they turned out to be tiny and broken. Cue a comedic scene of us (clearly foreign) wandering around the desolate streets in the pouring rain trying to find replacements. We finally found one, but it seemed like it was the only umbrella in Greece. It was also terrible.

There wasn’t much we could do with the weather battering down as it was, so retired to the hotel to hide and wait it out. I was unbelievably disappointed at this point. We had travelled all this way to see this amazing place and… the rain was going to foil the trip. We said we would walk up the next day ourselves and see what we could before having to get the train, but it seemed like a bit of a lost cause.

However, the tour folk got in touch to save the day – saying that they could reschedule for the next morning if we wanted. Yes! Thank you!

The next day, this was the first stop:

L1006318 Meteora, Greece.

The tour guides were also really nice, and it was definitely the right choice to go with them. I usually hear ‘tours’ and shudder, but it was just a small group of us in a people carrier van, and turned out perfectly.

L1006326 Meteora, Greece.

L1006287 Meteora, Greece.

The views up there are pretty amazing, to make a massive understatement.

L1006338 Meteora, Greece.

Some of these monasteries apparently took 22 years to get the material to the top of the cliffs, and then just 20 days to build. They were used as a shelter away from society – to live a monastic life – but also to escape the maurauding attackers who would target these places for their wealth and supplies. Couldn’t help but feel the parallels with Iona, given that we were there only a few months ago.

L1006347 Meteora, Greece.

There is a dress code for entering many of these places. Legs must be covered, and no sleeveless tops. That means that women have to wear a long skirt (even over jeans!). These are provided at the entrance for people who come un-prepared.

Women were not admitted for centuries, until a fire threatened the destruction of one of the monasteries. The monks put out a call for help, and the first people to arrive from the neighbouring towns were female. They were faced with the dilemma: Let the sacred places burn down, or break with the traditions. They chose the latter, and women have been allowed in ever since.

L1006352 Meteora, Greece.

This little box thing used to be the sort of system that the monks would use to get out to the monasteries – long before there was any sort of steps or roads carved into the cliffs. They still use it to this day for supplies.

They apparently used to joke with any visitors who would have to use the pulley system that they only changed the rope when it broke – and that if it did so, it was just the will of God; encouraging people to pray that it wasn’t their time to go.

You’ve no idea how high this thing was above the ground. Grace’s fear of heights went into overdrive when I said that was how we had to get across.

L1006356 Meteora, Greece.

L1006365 Meteora, Greece.

Panorama2 Meteora, Greece.

And of course, like everywhere else in Greece, cats seem to be omnipresent.

L1006392 Meteora, Greece.

L1006473 Meteora, Greece.

The biggest monastery (Megalo) was pretty amazing. It wasn’t too busy, and we got to look around the chapels in the silence for a bit. It had a calming feel, with beautifully ornate iconography on the walls and ceiling – a smell of incense wafting through the air.

L1006354 Meteora, Greece.

L1006398 Meteora, Greece.

L1006402 Meteora, Greece.

L1006409 Meteora, Greece.

The view alone was enough to make anybody feel spiritual.

L1006408 Meteora, Greece.

L1006431 Meteora, Greece.

We stopped off at a particularly picturesque point to get pictures.

People were literally right at the edge of the rocks, and the wind was blowing pretty hard.

L1006442 Meteora, Greece.

Sack. That.

L1006443 Meteora, Greece.

This monastery was apparently used in a James Bond film, which I’m not sure I wanted to know.

L1006449 Meteora, Greece.

The last place we visited was a convent, on the opposite side of the formations. It was much smaller than the monastery we had gone to, and I kind of wish we hadn’t gone.

A cruise ship had come in somewhere, and there was a whole host of tour busses filled with French tourists that had pulled up at the same time we did. They swarmed into the place, pushed past the nuns at the entrance without paying, and didn’t bother putting on the skirts that they were asked to. They crowded into the tiny chapel with casual disregard, and were unbelievably ignorant and obnoxious – with the nuns visibly distressed. It made me really angry.

It should have been a holy place. It didn’t feel very holy on that day.

The convents and monasteries are only sustainable today through the money that they receive from visitors, and it would be naive to suggest that they simply shut that off – especially as I myself was just a visitor.

What infuriated me was the sheer volume of people who clearly had little real interest in being there, except to check it off as something on a list – treating it like an attraction that only existed as an interesting stop-off on their cruise. The complete lack of respect for the place and people there almost spoiled my feelings about the whole thing.

Almost.

But then I was reminded of where we were.

L1006458 Meteora, Greece.

Despite one blip, it was an incredible place to visit.

L1006462 Meteora, Greece.

Meteora is probably one of the most amazing places on Earth.

Panorama3 Meteora, Greece.

say hello: ~@stephenemm or ~Google+

Όχι Day 2014 – Athens

Today is Όχι (or ‘No’) Day in Greece, which marks the beginning of the formal Greek involvement in the Second World War.

Across the country there are parades of school children, marching bands, and military outfits. Shops close down, people flock to the squares to drink coffee, and Greek flags fly from almost every balcony in Athens.

L1006476 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

We headed to the centre of the city to see what was happening, and catch the main parade that would pass through Syntagma square. The city felt like a different place, and there was more than a couple of bemused tourists wandering around not knowing what on earth was going on. Even the large hotels like the Grand Bretagne were decked out with rows of flags.

L1006585 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

In 1940, Mussolini, fresh from a successful (and rapid) invasion of Albania, decided to flex Italy’s military muscles and demonstrate their power to Hitler by occupying parts of Greece.

L1006578 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

Infamously, he delivered an ultimatum to the then Greek dictator Metaxas. Either soldiers were allowed into Greece to occupy areas that they chose, or they would face war. Irrespective of what he actually said, the response was a defiant No, with Greeks in Athens taking to the streets to shout Όχι!

L1006526 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

The Italians attacked, and got their asses royally kicked. Infact the defeat was so bad, that the Greeks pushed them not just out of their own country, but right back deep into Albania itself.

L1006500 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

Ultimately, Hitler was forced to come to the aid of his Italian allies and crush the Greek opposition. But this moment is one of the defining parts of the Second World War, with (British) historians observing that the unexpected problems caused by Greece helped lead to the ultimate downfall of the Nazis.

L1006504 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

As Churchill reportedly said:

‘until now we would say that the Greeks fight like heroes. From now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.’

L1006499 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

I’ve always found the history of Greece with relation to the Second World War fascinating – partly because it’s a side that we never normally hear about in the UK, but also because of the passion and fierce resistance that the stories are filled with.

When the Nazis did finally invade Athens, they headed immediately to the heart of the city, and ordered the guard stationed at the Acropolis to replace the Greek flag with the Swastika. Even in pictures there is something chilling about seeing that image of hatred flying over such a symbolic place… and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a proud nation like Greece at the time.

L1006502 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

Distraught, as the guard brought the blue and white flag down from its position, he wrapped it around his body and threw himself off down the sheer rock face.

L1006524 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

That was then though. Greeks face a whole different set of challenges today, but the passion and spirit of resistance remains.

L1006547 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

As a result, Όχι day has become a focal point in recent years for protests against the sweeping austerity cuts imposed by a Government tied by the European Union, and importantly, German money.

L1006551 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

Today, Syntagma square that sits in front of the Parliament was completely barricaded off by riot police and armoured vans.

L1006549 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

Droves of police and soldiers gathered along every street, armed with shields, gas masks, and guns. (They may just have been police, but it’s pretty difficult to tell at times here.)

It really was a sight to behold.

L1006559 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

L1006482 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

The protest itself was small, and I’ve never seen such a massive police presence before, with the exception possibly of previous G8 summit related riots. The fiery, stubborn Democratic will of the Greek people could flare up at any time though, and they weren’t taking any chances. Whether or not the show of strength from those in power would placate or antagonise is a different question.

L1006554 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

There’s a beautiful irony in that today the police were barricading off the main square in Athens against their own people, rather than an outside force.

L1006565 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

and in the midst of it all, the dogs reclaimed the streets alongside those that were protesting. Something that seems to be a recurring theme during Greek demonstrations.

L1006552 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

L1006543 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

Greece is filled with rich imagery, everywhere you look.

Through the small crowd shouting and throwing flyers, and directly in front of the police with their weapons, passed a Greek Orthodox Priest, with nuns closely following behind. Photographers scrambled to get a picture of the deeply symbolic scene.

L1006568 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

L1006569 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

Wee boys weaved their bikes in between…

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…and suddenly, just like that, the protesters seemed to disappear; the police busses started up their engines.

L1006588 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

The square re-opened, and within just a few minutes it was as if nothing had happened.

All that was left was the lingering TV presenters…

L1006586 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

and the odd iced coffee abandoned by the police, who always seem to be either drinking them, or smoking.

L1006594 Όχι Day 2014   Athens

To have such a significant police force just pack up and leave all at once was an extremely bizarre thing to witness… though in some ways it makes sense. The event was over. There was nothing left to protest. The focal point of the day was gone.

Greece (and in particular, Athens) is a fascinating place. I love it.

say hello: ~@stephenemm or ~Google+

Santorini, Greece

A couple of weeks ago our pals Al and Becky joined us out in Greece for a week. We took the chance to visit the island of Santorini together, as it’s just a quick hop over from Athens by plane. I’ve been slow in getting these pictures up as my Leica’s sensor was apparently covered in dust. It’s not been a fun discovery!

L1005946 Santorini, Greece

We arrived just before sunrise, and decided we should have a wander around as it began to get light, as chances are we wouldn’t be awake at that time again. Our hotel was right on the end/beginning of the town’s front, and so we got to explore the tiny streets from the bottom up, with the view getting more and more impressive the further we went.

We were all a bit groggy and delirious, so we probably didn’t really take in how amazing it was at the time. We were the only souls around at that hour aside from the odd man leading a trail of donkeys down the cliffs, and it wasn’t till a few days had passed and we’d seen the place teeming with boat loads of tourists that it became clear how lucky we’d been that morning.

L1005756 Santorini, Greece

There are some strange buildings kicking around that seem to have been half finished, or closed up indefinitely. Perhaps as a consequence of the crisis?

L1005760 Santorini, Greece

L1005786 Santorini, Greece

L1006132 Santorini, Greece

The view really is unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. In Al’s words, it was almost ‘oppressively beautiful’.

L1006141 Santorini, Greece

If you’re not familiar with Santorini, there are a group of islands that make up the edge of an active volcano, with a large island in the centre created entirely from lava. The buildings of various towns such as Fira (the main one in Santorini) are built onto the cliff face looking outwards over the ‘caldera’, resulting in some staggering views.

L1005949 Santorini, Greece

The streets themselves are small and winding, making their way through various colourful buildings and up tiny staircases – just adding to the atmosphere of the place.

L1005956 Santorini, Greece

I had planned to shoot a lot of these pictures in black and white, but to do that would be to do the place an injustice.

L1005960 Santorini, Greece

L1005952 Santorini, Greece

Just as in other parts of Greece, stray cats were everywhere.

L1005971 Santorini, Greece

One of the things that you can do whilst on the island is take a boat trip out to visit the volcanic island, and swim in the hot springs, so we did. How often do you get to say you are actually exploring a real volcano? I tried to get that scene out of my head in some doomsday film where people are skinny dipping in a similar location and get boiled alive by an unexpected eruption.

L1005919 Santorini, Greece

It also didn’t help too much that on my one and only previous trip to Santorini, I got stung by a jelly fish whilst swimming out to the hot springs, but that’s neither here nor there. We were slightly worse for wear after celebrating our travels by drinking a fair amount of Jack Daniel’s, then heading out to a local bar named ‘The Highlander’, which is owned and run by the family of an old school pal from Kirkintilloch.

L1005902 Santorini, Greece

The lava island itself is pretty cool, though mostly for the views and the knowledge of what it actually is rather than anything particular interesting that’s on there itself (unless you’re more into geology/geography than I).

We witnessed a particularly hilarious moment where a South African tour guide spat the dummy at some women who strayed off the official ‘paths’, dramatically shouting: ‘You don’t want to die today!’. This became one of the memes of the week, with each subsequent rendition becoming more and more like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

L1005866 Santorini, Greece

The Greeks that we were with, of course, couldn’t care less for rules, and so we wandered all over the place to get some cool pictures.

L1005895 Santorini, Greece

There are three ways to get to and from the port where the boat arrives and departs from. Those are either a cable car for 5 Euros each way, walking the steep path along the cliff face, or paying 3 Euros for a ‘donkey donkey ride’.

L1005921 Santorini, Greece

Ever cognicent of the lack of cash we had, I decided not to fork over another bunch of Euros to the cable car operators when I had a perfectly good set of legs, and opted to climb back up the hill – especially as Al had done the same coming down.

Now, let’s not under play how steep or tough this walk was by the way. It was pretty gruelling on the old muscles, especially when you throw in the additional variables of heat, and… donkeys.

L1005941 Santorini, Greece

Picture the scene. You are hot, tired, and ascending a steep staircase up a cliff when you turn a corner and see a herd of donkeys literally running towards you.

Luckily these gentle beasts are kind-hearted and well trained, so will move out of the way before trampling you to death, but the fear still remains palpable. I’m not sure whether it was worse looking up to see their rapid descent, or to have to squeeze past the piles of them further down that were just standing about looking you dead in the eye.

I felt pretty sorry for them actually. Is there any other animal so over-worked by humans?

L1005926 Santorini, Greece

No matter how exhausting it was, it was difficult to feel hard done to when you reached the top and got to have a freshly squeezed orange juice overlooking… this.

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L1005984 Santorini, Greece

The last time I visited Santorini it was in the dead of summer – at peak tourist time. However, it felt like there was a lot more visitors this time. At some points there was so many that it almost seemed to spoil the magic of the place a bit.

Restaurants would default to speaking in English to everybody, and weren’t interested if you tried to speak any Greek. On top of that, some of them were downright rude. We tried to go into one place in particular, and had the most bizarre experience when the waiter went off on some rant about how we had looked at his menu the previous day, but decided to go elsewhere. Apparently this was unforgivable, and he became quite aggressive.

That said, I’m not surprised that people get fed up visitors, when their homes get over-run by tour busses full of gawping, obnoxious idiots that pile off of cruise ships. I more than empathise. When a beautiful place becomes simply a place to go see, like a museum, then it loses what makes it special in the first place. Treating everybody with contempt as a result though, particularly when you run a business that relies on their income is a crap state of affairs to be in.

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There seemed to be a huge number of Asians when we were there, perhaps because of the time of year, or the relative strength of their economies. One thing that we saw a lot was couples who had flown in with professional photographers to get what looked like engagement pictures with the backdrop of the island. Take a look in the bottom left corner of the below picture and you can make out a couple doing just that.

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So weird.

L1005995 Santorini, Greece

One of the things that Santorini is famous for is its sunsets. Bold, colourful, and the towns perfectly placed to enjoy the view over the caldera.

L1006025 Santorini, Greece

Sunsets are tough to photograph well, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

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Next we took a day trip up to the town of Oia (pronounced EE-ah). This is the place that you probably see in postcards, with the white buildings topped with blue domed roofs.

L1006037 Santorini, Greece

This is somewhere I had never made it to before, and I can tell you: it was just as beautiful as it looks in pictures, if not more so.

L1006078 Santorini, Greece

Smaller, with even tinier warrens of paths (you couldn’t call them streets) between immaculate houses, and far fewer tourists swarming all over them, the place was gorgeous.

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The view from Oia was even more impressive than from Fira… with the patterns in the water below incredibly detailed and inviting on a hot day.

L1006040 copy Santorini, Greece

Sadly, we saw plenty of completely F&*%$£ idiots here as well, climbing onto the tops of people’s houses, or the roofs of the churches to take pictures.

It’s sad that in such an amazing place, people have to put up big notices like this on the top of their home:

L1006043 Santorini, Greece

We spent the day literally just drinking coffee, then beer, then coffee, then beer, at some of the tiny cafes. Oia felt a lot calmer and less cluttered than Fira had the past few days.

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Spot the doggy.

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It’s a hard place to take in properly. Every time you looked up from what you were doing, you almost had to catch your breath again as you forgot just how incredible it was.

There’s that phrase again… oppressively beautiful.

L1006048 Santorini, Greece

The sunsets in Oia are meant to be some of the best around, and people lined up all across the side of the island to get a glimpse. Again, the visitors weren’t exactly showing themselves in a great light – with an American woman fighting with a group of people after she pushed in front of them to take pictures, and a bunch of Italians climbing over a fence and ontop of somebody’s roof.

Sigh.

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We headed down a bit to get away from the throngs of people, and found a nice quiet spot on a wall.

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The saving grace of Santorini is that no matter how many idiots there are around, the spectacular beauty of the place is over-powering. It’s hard to stay too riled up when you are bathed in an orange glow, overlooking old ships passing through the volcanic waters.

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Whatever the pitfalls of the tourist economy may bring to this place, it’s still one of the most beautiful places in the world.

L1006114 Santorini, Greece

say hello: ~@stephenemm or ~Google+