Easter was spent in, for once, a rather appropriate place. Meteora in Greece which literally translates as suspended in the air and this extraordinary place, around three hours from Greece?s second city, Thessaloniki, is home to six monasteries built on top of rocks. I can only say that it is one of the most remarkable places I have had the fortune of visiting.

I put up in the Travelodge at Gatwick the night before a very early flight on Good Friday. The hotel was fine but not much went according to plan beforehand with horrendous Swindon traffic meaning a later than hoped for train, missing an onward train from Reading by seconds and then not being able to check in my bag the evening before the flight because the easyJet staff were otherwise engaged in the North Terminal. Never mind, I was more concerned at waking up at 3.20 am in time for the 5.50 am flight. Three alarm clocks, all worked and everything went well.
I spent the afternoon of Good Friday in the port town of Thessaloniki which is very pleasant. I put up in the Hotel Rex for its convenience and proximity to the Railway Station and it was fine for such a budget price. Friendly staff, a top floor room with balcony and a simple breakfast included. It is also quite convenient for the centre which I had a walk around. The main area of Aristotelous Square is marked by a series of grand buildings and the promenade leading to the city?s famous landmark, the White Tower, was delightful. I normally take exception to waiters, restaurant owners etc trying to coax you into their place when looking at their menu but, for once, I returned later as the chap was pleasant and the food and surroundings looked ideal. It turned out that way and gave a lovely sea view. The Greek people were extremely friendly and helpful.
It was nice having a lie-in the next morning ? well, I suppose that 6.20 am would have seemed a godsend ? as I only had to take two trains to Kalambaka at just after 10 am. The more usual way is, I suspect, by coach but the Greek Railways website, Trainose, was remarkably easy to book and pay for tickets and, although the return time wasn?t ideal, I had picked the Hotel Rex for its convenience and was pleased to have done so. The journey down is interesting with excellent views of the mountain of the Gods, Olympus, appearing majestically and without a cloud covering it. Sadly, I was on the wrong side of the train for photos especially as the window in the corridor was misted over but never mind.

I found Greece an odd place. Let?s say that, lovely people and wonderful scenery that they have, the place does appear a bit, well, relaxed. It was lovely that they were so relaxed about payment in the hotels but certain aspects weren?t ideal. I should proudly point out that, at prep school, I never came lower than second in Latin and Greek. My mother taught the same subjects but not me although I might have benefited from her advice and wisdom but it was almost forty years ago and it?s all gone, I?m afraid. My father once saw a statue of Atlas within the grounds of Castle Howard and remarked about ?chummy with the world on his shoulders? and, needless to say, it wasn?t well received. ( I also went on a Bill Frindall tour to Paris which took in the Palais de Versailles. One of the tourist's offspring, on seeing a statue of Poseidon, remarked " Look, mummy, it's Bill!" Needless to say, Frindall was delighted.) So, what I?m leading up to say is that Paleofarsalos Station, in the middle of nowhere, presented a dilemma in as far as the Arrivals and Departures board were completely blank and devoid of any information and communication wasn?t always easy. I?ll always stand up for those unable to speak much English if I can?t speak their language but I did take the connections in both directions with a degree of trepidation. Time-keeping for buses also didn?t seem, at times, ideal.
Thessaloniki promenade and White Tower Aristotelous Square, Thessaloniki at night
Kastraki centre
View from my room at the Guesthouse Patavalis, Kastraki
General view of Meteora
Roussanou Nunnery and St Nicholas Anapafsos Monastery
The way up to the Holy Trinity Monastery
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora
Roussanou Nunnery, Meteora
Varlaam Monastery, Meteora
Kalambaka, an hour by local train from Palofarsalos, makes for a remarkable arrival dominated by the vast rocks on which the monasteries are sited. More bizarre as the Meteora area, famous for these strange crags, has totally different terrain a few miles away. The monasteries date back to the 14th century and are a feat of construction considering the heights of the rocks and the efforts in lifting the materials on to the top to build the monasteries. They really have to be seen to be believed and marvelled at. It is one of the most-visited cultural sights of Greece and brought back happy memories of the early 1990s when I visited another classical sight. At Delphi, dedicated to Apollo, situated close to Mount Parnassus, one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient Greek world and reputedly the navel of the earth and the home to the Delphic Oracle well-known for its riddles, I found myself walking up the fairly long path behind an elderly American couple to the historic temple. The lady, struggling, was reassured by her husband?s reassuring but ultimately doomed and flawed words.
? Don?t worry, honey, they?ve bound to have gotten an elevator.?
No elevators either in Meteora. Tour buses abound but it?s easy enough to walk and, despite what looks quite a steep climb, I didn?t find it that taxing and was amazed at how quickly I made it down ? and up. I stayed in the Guesthouse Patavalis ? available through booking.com ? and it was a lovely place with the most dramatic views of the village of Kastraki, just 2 kms from Kalambaka. I knew that these rocks reminded me of somewhere else I?d visited and it was only when I remembered that the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, was filmed at the Holy Trinity monastery in Meteora that I remembered. It was in Thailand that another Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun, was filmed amidst similar looking rocks albeit in the sea. I may travel to find bends in the road for Where Eagles Dare but Bond film locations, with the exception of The Man with the Golden Gun, have not been sought out deliberately although I realise now that I have been to the sites where Octopussy, The Man with the Golden Gun, On Her Majesty?s Secret Service and now For Your Eyes Only have been filmed.
The Patavalis owner was delightful and the room, for just 22 euros including a simple breakfast, was a good size. The village folk are very friendly and one chap rushed out of a restaurant seeing me with my suitcase ? had my reputation of looking and getting lost preceded me? ? to ask if I were okay. One good turn deserved another so I returned to eat there on both days and I ate well too. The Taverna Gardena was right in the centre and offered a dramatic view from its terrace.
Most people tend to go on tour buses around the monasteries but I preferred to go on foot and, whilst it looked slightly daunting, the incline is gradual and I was amazed at how quickly I came back down along the same road. I had a quick recce on the first afternoon seeing the first two monasteries of St Nicholas Anapafsos and the Roussanou Nunnery but didn?t venture higher and went back to buy souvenirs ? souvenirs, I might add, which were remarkably cheap so I was always likely to enjoy my shopping for once. I tried to find out if there might be an Easter service but, unfortunately, no-one could enlighten me so, after my meal, I went around the village trying to film the rocks by night but it wasn?t a roaring success.
After another simple but adequate breakfast in the Patavalis, I walked along the same road and visited firstly the Roussanou Nunnery. The monasteries are open to visitors between usually 9am and early to mid-afternoon but remain closed on certain days of the week but not weekends. The Roussanou Nunnery is perched high on a rock with a sheer drop to the road and the nuns were well-prepared with a souvenir shop. Souvenir stalls were also outside Varlaam and the Great Meteoron Monastery fairly close by but the Holy Trinity was devoid of any such stalls. Entrance into the, if you like, inner sanctum costs 3 euros and, on Easter Sunday, it was a wonderful feeling having the small Chapel in the Roussanou Nunnery all to myself. The views from the Nunnery are stunning and afterwards, going higher up the same main road, different angles gave even more dramatic views of the angles at which the monasteries are sited.
My second visit was to the Holy Trinity Monastery. Famous for its view with snow-capped mountains behind, from a distance it looked as if entrance was by a small cable-car but it so happened to be a large container presumably ferrying goods to the monastery. Entrance for visitors was by a slightly windy path followed by a walk up a path hewn out of the rock. It looks larger than it feels and again the Chapel was very small but tranquil. Walking on the rocks behind the monastery gave wonderful views of Kalambaka.
The weather might have been slightly better with drizzle in the air but, when the sun did come out, it was a wonderful sight. I cannot recommend Meteora too highly and would encourage anyone to visit. Unless one stays nearby, it will take a while to reach but it is very well worth the effort. I ate in the Taverna Gardena before traipsing down to Kalambaka for the 5.30 pm train to Paleofarsalos and, ultimately, Thessaloniki. I wondered if the Thessaloniki train would be on time having seen a fair number of late trains but it was okay and I was back just ten minutes later and very pleased to be putting up in the Rex again as I was in the same room with balcony just ten minutes after alighting from the train.
The last morning found rain falling and a grim ride on the Airport bus made worse by considerable overcrowding and a leaking roof... I hadn?t really wanted to reach the airport two and a half hours before the flight but it worked out well as it wasn?t the quickest or easiest airport. The Duty Free is good, mind you, and, after a decent easyJet flight back, everything went so swimmingly at Gatwick that, despite my case being last off, I was still on the train home just over half an hour after disembarking.