Sunday, October 31, 2010

St. Demetrios' Parade

Although St. Demetrios' feast day was Tuesday, the festivities in Thessaloniki last much longer than a single day. The Dimitria Festival, which began in the 14th century, runs around two months and is basically an international trade and culture fair.

In the Church of St. Demetrios itself, there is a Holy Week of St. Demetrios leading up to his feast, and nearly a week of afterfeast.

Every year, there is also a big parade that takes the saint's relics throughout the city. Last year, it was on the feast day itself, immediately after the Liturgy, and I was fortunate to participate. This year, it was on Monday, the day before his feast, and I decided to hang out with kids and enjoy watching the parade with them.

We went down Monday morning and parked a good distance away, and then walked over. On the way, we passed the Rotunda from 299 AD and the babies spotted an old play train that we stopped to play in. You can see the Rotunda in the background in the photo above.

We got to the parade just as it was about to begin and got a great spot near the beginning of it. In the photo above, you can see the Church of St. Demetrios in the background and the parade lining up from inside the church all the way to where we were. You can also see many nuns, most of whom were from Panorama's two women's monasteries. They all noticed the babies, of course, and were glad to see them.

All three of the babies wanted mom to hold them so that they could see more of what was going on.

Here's the parade going by us. You can see my good friend Fr. Panayiotis from our parish in Panorama walking by on the far left, and the icon of St. Demetrios atop a military jeep behind him.

Here are a couple photos from the next day, the feast day of St. Demetrios. In the afternoon, my parents took us all for lunch at a Syrian restaurant downtown. It's in a perfect location for the babies, because there's a small park right across a pedestrian walkway. (When I say "pedestrian," I mean that sort of theoretically, as is usually the case in Greece. As you can see in the photos above and below, there's a van parked right in the pedestrian way, and occasionally cars will use it.) Anyway, in the photo above, you can see Benjamin about to slide down to Pelagia. In the background to the right, you can see the restaurant. We were fortunate with the weather and we're able to sit outside there, going back and forth between eating and playing with the babies.

A view from our table to the playground, where my parents, Pelagia, and the babies were playing. Greek flags were flying this week in celebration of the liberation of Thessaloniki from the Turks just 98 years ago, in 1912, after 500 years of slavery.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Meteora and Makrinitsa

Above and below were the views from our hotel room at Meteora at sunrise the second day.

Our first stop was the nearby men's Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapafsas, which is famous for its iconography by one of the most celebrated Byzantine iconographers, Theophanes the Cretan. As we began the walk up to the monastery, we came across the monastery's abbot, Fr. Polykarpos, who it seems had just finished a morning service in a small cave chapel near the bottom of the rock and was leaving to run some errands. He greeted us and told us to seek out Fr. Dimitrios, the only other monk at this small monastery.

We stopped in the cave chapel on the way up and could still smell the incense burning (see above).

This is a photo of the landscape around St. Nicholas as we made our way up.

We finally arrived up in the small monastery and came across Fr. Dimitrios. Since the monastery is small and somewhat difficult to access, and since it was still quite early, there were no other visitors there when we arrived. Fr. Dimitrios was very kind to us and gave us a tour all around the monastery. In the photo above, he's showing us some of the famous 16th century iconography by Theophanes the Cretan in the main chapel. The photo above is from the exo-narthex.

Here, Fr. Dimitrios showed us Theophanes' iconography underneath the church's altar. Since the altar represents Christ's tomb, it's only fitting that the iconography depict Jonah in the belly of the whale.

We then made our way to the top of the monastery to have a look around. The photos above and below are the views.

Here, on the nearest rock, you can make out some ruins of a former building. This, apparently, used to be one of the 24 monasteries of Meteora -- a very tiny hermitage. None of us could understand how they built what was there, since it seemed to take up almost the whole surface.

When we left, Fr. Dimitrios showered us with gifts and then let us ride down on the monastery's pulley system. Of course, originally, it was simply a net; now it has been modernized as a corrugated metal box with a motor operating the pulley. My dad wasn't too sure about this, but he did finally agree to ride down with us, where we then let him off. Fr. Dimitrios then took me back up and down and we opened the door so that we could appreciate the view. (See photos above and below.)

Our next stop was the neighboring women's Monastery of St. Barbara Roussanou. Here's a view from the entrance at the top of the monastery. Across the way, you can see the Monasteries of Grand Meteoron and Varlaam.

Again, of course, the sisters insisted on treating us to coffee and sweets and speaking with us after we had visited the monastery. The nuns explained to us that there are about 15 nuns there, but only three at a time are in the old part of the monastery that is frequented by visitors. The real monastic life goes on just below the old monastery in a new part of the monastery that is shut off from visitors (see photo below). Still, the nuns do not consider all the tourists a burden, but rather look at it as a witness; it is also necessary for the monastery to survive financially. (Tourists are charged a 2 euro entrance fee at all of the monasteries, plus the gift shops are a source of revenue.) I was surprised to learn that, according to the one nun we spoke to, the number of tourists dropped precipitously (over 50%) this year, almost certainly due to the economic crisis in Greece and abroad.

After a nice visit, we headed out from Meteora. Unfortunately, Holy Trinity Monastery was closed, so that is the only monastery I have yet to visit in my two trips to the region.

Next, we headed east toward Volos.

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It takes about the same amount of time to get from Thessaloniki to Meteora (and vice-versa) by either going along the coast or by going inland. Thus, we decided that, in order to see something different, we could make a big circle in order to return to Thessaloniki. By going this way, it was only a short detour (perhaps 45 minutes each way) to go to the top of Mt. Pelion to the lovely village of Makrinitsa, which overlooks the city of Volos.

It took about 2 hours to get there from Meteora and the weather was still lovely, so we even got to sit outside and have lunch before finishing our return to Thessaloniki. Above, my mom and I are walking down the narrow cobblestone alleys of Makrinitsa.

My mom and dad stopped for a photo overlooking Volos.

In the village's main square, we had a wonderful lunch of traditional Greek food (including many local specialties), with a view about 3000 feet above the city and the water.

We then made our way back home to Thessaloniki, which took about 3 hours.

For more photos from the second day, click here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Metsovo and Meteora

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Last week, my parents and I took a chance that the weather would break and we took a little trip southwest. First, we headed to the traditional, little mountain village of Metsovo, which, with the wonderful, new highway, takes about 2-2.5 hours. There, we walked around the picturesque main square and visited many of the shops selling local goods. We also bought some of their famous meats and cheese to take home.

Then we had a great lunch in a restaurant overlooking the main square.

Here my parents walk down the path from the restaurant to the main square.

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We then got back in the car and headed to the famous monasteries of Meteora. With the recently completed road, the ride took about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

At one point, there were 24 monasteries among the rocks of Meteora, but now just six survive. They all close between 4-6 in the afternoon, so we headed straight to one of them, the Great Meteoron. Above are my parents at the monastery, with the neighboring Monastery of St. Varlaam in the background.

Here's another view from Grand Meteoron, with white ribbons tied on a nearby tree, probably as tamata (the plural of tama). While the article linked suggests that something (such as a small metal plaque) is tied with the ribbon, in practice some times just a ribbon is tied, especially if it is an outdoor place. Although this usually strikes westerners as strange or even "pagan" (inasmuch as they see it as somehow "bargaining" with God), in reality it is nothing more than a material manifestation of a prayer. Since Christianity is a faith based on the fact that God Himself became man, it is not out of character, although it has become so in the last few centuries as we in the West have been taught to separate "the material" from "the spiritual." Of course, this does not mean that some nominally Orthodox people do not misunderstand it as some sort of bargain with God, but it's not uncommon in any faith to have people who are nominally committed and poorly informed (see, for example, the recent Pew Forum survey on the jaw-dropping ignorance of many Protestants and Catholics in the US).

After Great Meteoron, we headed over to the women's monastery of St. Stephen's (above). Although it appears daunting in this photo, this is actually the most easily accessible monastery, as they're the only ones who have built a ramp essentially up to the door (see the very left side). The nuns there were very kind to us. At the monastery's older church, one elderly nun was stationed at the back, weaving prayer ropes. She struck me as such a wonderfully simple soul. She told me how the sisters who went shopping would bring her one bag of candy each week that was to be used to offer to the guests who visited the church. She confessed to me, though, that she had a weakness for little kids and priests (and from what I saw, just about everyone else), and so the candy never lasted the whole week. In fact, she had just gotten it that day and it was almost gone. She told me how she just couldn't resist a little girl who had come in earlier, and had wanted to eat all the red ones. Then she gave a Japanese women, who was visiting with a group at the same time, a whole bunch to take with her for the rest of her trip. This all made an impression on me because the monasteries there are literally flooded with tourists, the vast majority of whom are not at all religious. This could be tough for some monks, but here was an example of a woman making the most of it.

We left St. Stephen's about 6, so all the monasteries were then closed. We stopped along the road for some views as we headed to our hotel, which was located in the little town of Kastraki, very close to the first monastery of St. Nicholas. Above and below, you can see the sun starting to set on the road between Holy Trinity and St. Stephen's.

Here's my dad on a rocky outcrop, looking out over the valley at the magnificent rocks.

We went down the road to the hotel and checked in and found this view awaiting us.

For more photos from the day, click here.

For comparison purposes, check out the blog from way back in August 2007, when I made my only other trip to Metsovo and Meteora, with my in-laws.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Parents' Visit

Well, my parents just left after visiting us for a couple weeks here. Unfortunately, the weather was really rainy basically the whole time they were here, but that left plenty of time to just play with the babies inside.

Above, you can see Phoebe's new favorite activity -- looking at a book of photos of animals. She loves animals, and she loves for someone to tell her the names of the animals she's pointing at. She especially liked for my mom to read the book to her.

One day, in between the rain drops, we went into downtown Thessaloniki and had a coffee up in the rotating OTE tower, which provides a panoramic view of the city and the water. Above, you can see Phoebe eating one of the cookies that came with the coffees, while Thessaloniki's waterfront spins by below.

Here, my dad was helping Paul and Phoebe have a drink up in the OTE tower. In the background is the very center of Thessaloniki.

Here are my dad and Phoebe as we walked back to the car.

Another day, while I had some work, Pelagia and my parents took the babies to the Thessaloniki zoo. Here they are in a group shot outside the zoo.

Another attempted group shot outside the zoo.

On another clear afternoon, we managed to get outside and enjoy our yard. The clouds were interesting, so Pelagia laid down and tried to show them to the babies. They, of course, enjoyed climbing on her more.

All the babies like the pomegranates that grow on our tree. They're all ripe now, so here's Phoebe going to pick a low-hanging one off the tree.

And here she is enjoying it.

For more photos, click here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Trip to St. Dionysios Monastery on Mt. Olympus

About 10 days ago, my friend Brendan needed to go out to the Monastery of St. Dionysios on the famous Mt. Olympus, which is about an hour west of here, so my dad and I gave him a ride. It was also an opportunity for me to visit the monastery for the first time.

It was beautiful and quiet, with the monastery tucked away on the mountain and the leaves beginning to change colors.

The photo above is a shot of Brendan and me at the entrance to the katholikon in the monastery's public courtyard. (There is also a private part of the monastery, with the older, smaller church in the center.)

Here I am outside the church.

My dad standing on a balcony overlooking the church and the courtyard.

A photo of the guest house from the balcony.

A photo of the church from the balcony.

A photo of the monastery from the entrance.

Just to the right of the entrance is a well-stocked bookstore, which also contains the monastery's numerous products -- meat, cheese, honey, jams, etc. This mountainous area of Greece is well-known for its meat and cheese, so we seized the opportunity to buy some produced by the monastery itself.

Before we headed back to Thessaloniki, we were also kindly invited into the private part of the monastery to eat lunch, which consisted of some great eggplant, a traditional cucumber and tomato salad, and local bread.

For a few more photos, click here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Babies Around Town

Last week, just before my parents came, our friend Angela came over to play with the babies and let us go out and run some errands. We took Paul with us for some special one-on-one time. In the photo above, Paul is walking up and down the ramp into the Rotunda, which was built in 299 and served as a Christian church beginning in the early 4th century.

Here's Paul playing at the entrance to the Rotunda. He found a puddle in a small hole in the marble that he was sticking his foot into.

Pelagia met us there at the entrance and brought a toy she had found at Thessaloniki new (and only) second-hand store (which is a new concept in Greece). It's a wooden click-clack toy that the babies can pull behind them with a rope. They seem especially taken with this kind of toy these days. Paul tried it out here on the well-worn stones outside the Rotunda.

On another day, we took the babies shopping at Carrefour, which is sort of the French Walmart. The babies love riding in the toy vehicles. Here, Paul is preparing to defend Greece in the Greek army.

Here are the babies playing in the new backyard one sunny afternoon last week. The pomegranates on the tree are ripe -- so ripe, in fact, that they're splitting open on the tree. So the babies got to try some last week, and they love them.

Here, Argo is interested in sharing some of Paul's pomegranate.

These photos are from after my parents arrived. A couple days ago, while Pelagia was still working on her painting project, we took the babies to the mall, to have some place to walk around outside the rain. Of course, they love the big water fountain. On the opposite end of it here, you can see my mom and two of the babies.

As we walked around the mall, they keenly spotted the toy vehicles and wanted to get in. Here all three of them are driving, with my parents on the side.

For a couple more photos, click here.