Greece (+Mt. Athos)

Greece is a fascinating country filled with fabulous and unique places. One interesting location and a place of great spiritual significance is Meteora with its fairy-tale-like monasteries built on giant stone pillars. The name Meteora comes from Greek meteoron meaning lofty (that's where the word meteor also comes from). I visited the six active monasteries in Meteora - Great Meteoron, Varlaam Monastery, Monastery of the Holy Trinity, St. Stephen Monastery, Roussanou Nunnery and Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas.

My favorite was the smaller, beautiful and very peaceful St. Nicholas, while Great Meteoron and Varlaam were absolutely impressive; but all of them are absolute jewels and a delight to visit. You'll find loads of tourists in some locations and some of the monasteries require climbing lots of stairs, but those were minor issues.

The landscapes in Meteora with their impressive stone formations were fantastic as well and made me feel like I was in the land of giants. Don't miss the beautiful sunset or a star-filled night sky while in the area.

Greece also has the unique Mount Athos ("the Holy Mountain"), the most important centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism which is governed as an autonomous polity within Greece. This area of Greece is fascinating, having distinct customs, rules and ways of living; a notable one is that women aren't allowed anywhere on Mount Athos.

There are 20 gorgeous monasteries located on Mount Athos. You cannot just visit the peninsula like you would any other place though, as special permission and arrangements are required. I arranged my own trip and spent three nights at the monasteries following the helpful information found on the Friends of Mount Athos website. Be sure to make your arrangements well in advance, as the number of entry permits is limited.

I visited three fascinating monasteries on the peninsula: Simonopetra, a stunning work of architecture located on a cliff and home to some very kind and welcoming monks; Megisti Lavra, the most important monastery and the first one to be estabilshed on the peninsula; and Vatopedi, the second most important monastery on Mt. Athos and an absolute delight to visit. They were all interesting to experience, and are significant landmarks from historical, cultural, architectural and spiritual points of view.

Each of the monasteries' churches is beautifully decorated and holds important relics for Christianity such as pieces of the True Cross (Simonopetra, Vatopedi), the left Hand of Mary Magdalene (Simonopetra), a piece of the holy reed (Vatopedi) and the Cincture of the Theotokos (Vatopedi), among others. Megisti Lavra has the tomb and the cypress tree of St. Athanasius (founder of the monastic community on Mount Athos in the 10th century). The cypress is allegedly over 1,000 years old.

There were plenty of quiet and charming spots ideally suited for meditation at each of the monasteries. Church services at all of the three were very special experiences with some beautiful chanting performed by the monks, and my entire three-night trip spent at the monasteries was profoundly meditative, intriguing and relaxing. There's so much more to be said about Mount Athos, and the entire experience is hard to put into words.

One curiosity of note: there's no need for toilet male/female signs on Mount Athos, which was a bit weird ar first.

I also spent a bit of time in the peninsula's "capital", Karyes, visiting its first church (the Protaton), St. Andrew Skete and Koutloumousiou Monastery. You can do some nice hiking routes between the monasteries. Also,there are lots of beautiful cats everywhere you go.

Athens, the capital city of Greece, is fantastic if you're into ancient history. The Acropolis, home to the world famous Parthenon and to other equally impressive ancient ruins, is located on a hill overlooking the city; get there at 8:00 AM before the crowds invade and enjoy the marble masterpieces in the warm morning sun - it's magical.

As the birthplace of modern Western civilization some 4,000 years ago, Athens is full of impressive sites (many are close to the Acropolis): the Ancient Agora with its museum housed in a reconstructed ancient building; the beautifully preserved Temple of Hephaestus; the stunning Temple of Olympian Zeus; and the New Acropolis Museum.

Outside of the Acropolis area my favorite places were Plaka (a bit touristy but fun) and getting on top of Mount Lycabettus by cable car to enjoy stunning views of the city and a cool Greek Frappe.

In the very good National Archaeology Museum of Athens I was thrilled to discover the original Antikythera Mechanism on display - an ancient analog computer built in the 1st century BC and used to calculate astronomical positions. It baffles the mind that similar technology did not appear again until some 1,500 years later, in the 14th century AD.

Outside of Athens, Greece is a great country for vacations, sunny beaches and a laid-back atmosphere. In Thessaloniki check out the Rotunda, the Hagia Sophia church and the White Tower, and have a coffee in the rotating cafe of the OTE Tower.

Additional info:
- country entry on Wikipedia
- country profile on Wikivoyage
- Mount Athos entry on Wikivoyage

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