Kalambaka: Grecian Ghost Town

The bus pulled over to the side of the road as soon as we got to Kalambaka. We were expecting to stop at the bus station but the driver hurried us out of the bus, unloaded our bags on the side of the road and then roared off in a cloud of exhaust and dust. When the dust cleared and we caught our breath we saw the imposing stone pinnacles of Meteora rise above the town of Kalambaka. We also saw that in addition to our 10 scruffy, dark-colored bags there was also a large, red travel bag that none of us recognized.

With neither bus nor bus station in sight we loaded up the red bag with ours and started walking to our hostel. It was late afternoon and overcast in Kalambaka with very few people on the streets, many businesses closed and no taxis in sight. The hostel where we had a reservation was over a mile away so we started walking while looking for a taxi. After 40 minutes of uphill walking we arrived at our hostel and found out why the town was so empty: there was a taxi strike and the following day was a national holiday. The son of our hostel owner told us that we should immediately buy food because nothing would be open tomorrow. He graciously offered to take the red bag to the police station for us. Our plan for the next day was to hike through Meteora, a forest of towering stone pinnacles, many of which were crowned with monasteries.

My wife and I walked to town to find a supermarket while the kids did their homework. We could find nothing open in this Grecian ghost town until we found a solitary older man who spoke a little English. He greeted us in English and we asked the one-word question “Supermarket?” He energetically told us to follow him and led us through a parking lot, a back lot and a deserted alley. “Tomorrow holiday. Everything closed,” he said. “Yes, Greek independence holiday,” I said, referring to the anniversary of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. At this point he stopped, impeded my progress with the back of his hand against my chest and said “We beat those bloody Turks. We keep Europe safe from those barbarians!” We were taken aback at how deeply he felt about this. His arm dropped from my chest and we started to move forward when the arm shot up again. “We keep the world safe for YOU!” he said. After this he seemed satisfied that he’d made his point and we continued walking. We rounded a corner and came to a Carrefour supermarket, possibly the only place to buy food in town. We thanked our patriotic guide and bought our food supplies for the next day.

The next day we started out early with lots of food and water to explore Meteora. There was no one else staying at our hostel and we saw no one on the trail until we reached the first monastery. Meteora is the name given to a group of massive stone pinnacles that were formed by weathering and erosion over thousands of years. At one time twenty pinnacles had monasteries on top but nowadays only six or seven of them remain. Without taxis or buses, we would try to see as much of Meteora as possible on foot. We walked up the trail leading to Agios Triados, the monastery made famous in the 1981 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only.” In the film Roger Moore climbs with ropes and technical equipment to reach Greek bad guy Kristatos’s hideout. Instead of ropes, we climbed the stone steps that circled around the pinnacle until we came to a door and found that it was closed. No taxis, no buses and now no monasteries.

Our luck was better at the Agiou Stephanou monastery, which was open and had a large tour bus in the parking lot. The impressive site was high above Kalambaka and was accessed only by a narrow wood drawbridge. There was a small museum and some newly painted frescoes in the church. While the monastery was interesting, the inside was nowhere near as dramatic as its physical location. After a picnic lunch with a panoramic view, we walked to the Agias Varvaras Rousanou. Again, it was a nice monastery – frescoes of the resurrection and transfiguration of Christ -- but the site was what was interesting. Rousanou had a rope ladder hanging from the side of the building – a throwback to the days when monks climbed them and pulled them in to escape invading Ottomans. We hiked back on one of the monopati (footpaths used by monks) but must have got lost en route. We spent more time crawling though bushes than walking on a trail or path. Aside from the tour bus, we saw very few people in one of Greece's largest tourist destinations. We arrived late in the afternoon and got to bed early that night.

Next morning was Friday and Kalambaka was back to normal. We walked down to the bus station and watched old men chat, flip their worry beads and drink strong coffee in cafes while women bought produce at the bustling market near the main plaza. The sun was shining, people were smiling and the town was jumping. Apparently the taxi strike was over -- we saw a line of them near the market. We'd caught Kalambaka on an off day; it was no longer a Grecian ghost town but a vibrant and festive community.

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