Sunday, June 14, 2009
Our guests departed at 7:00 a.m. The taxi arrived at our front door and we said our goodbyes and away they rushed. It was sad to see them go. Their visit was the highlight, for me, of this stay in Greece. Sylvia tells me they arrived home safely and with no problems, other than the last flight being delayed a couple of hours.
At noon, Chrysostomos and Roula came in their car to pick us up. We had no idea what the plan was, but were delighted when told the program for the day was to visit Mount Olympos!
Okay, so who can tell me three significant facts about Mount Olympos?
• It is the highest mountain in Greece (9,570 feet).
• It is the original home of the Olympic Games.
• It is the stuff of fairy tales, of legend, of myth, because it is the home of the twelve gods of ancient Greece, of Zeus, the father of all the gods, and his wife, Hera, and the rest. At the top of Mt. Olympos was (and still is, as a rock formation) the Throne of Zeus, from which he hurled his lightning bolts and thunder-hammers. That’s the throne upon which he invisibly sat to watch the Olympic Games on the plateau spread out before him.
And I’ll tell you a fourth significant fact about Mt. Olympos: a saint lived there in the 1500’s, named Dionysios, who built a monastery there. The Germans destroyed it on suspicion it was harboring resistance fighters, and now there is a new monastery nearby, but the old one is also being restored, ever so gradually.
Our first stop was for lunch in a village at the foot of the mountain. We sat outdoors on a perfect day, admiring the views of the snow-capped peaks.
Then we entered the Mt. Olympos National Park. A ranger at the gate jots down your license plate number, “in case of fire,” Demetrios told me.
“Do they have fires very often here?” I asked.
“Oh, yes! Every year. They can’t prove it, but they think there are arsonists.”
It’s a beautiful mountain, actually a group of peaks, heavily forested with hardwood and evergreen trees, with ferns and all sorts of other flora and fauna. Roula picked a handful of herbs and handed them to me, saying, “Rigani.” Oregano! Imagine, finding oregano growing wild. Roula says many species here are unique; they don’t exist anywhere else.
We stopped at the new monastery of St. Dionysios, had a look around, and continued on our way, stopping at one or two scenic overlooks. The road is somewhat narrow, with hairpin turns and no guardrails; Chrysostomos drove nice and slowly, so I was never scared. We weren’t in any hurry, after all. The idea was to enjoy ourselves, and we were definitely doing that!
We stopped beside a mountain stream and Roula and I went to collect a few pebbles each. We didn’t find any smooth ones, probably because that’s where everybody else also stops to look for pebbles, but we took three of four apiece anyway.
You can’t go all the way up the mountain by car, only as far as a café a little less than halfway up. You have to hike the rest of the way. I’m told it’s about a 4-hour climb for experienced people, plus four more hours back down. We just stopped at the café and had cold drinks.
On the way back down, we came to the older Monastery of St. Dionysios of Mt. Olympos. It is interesting to walk around through the ruins. The main church has already been restored, and so has the refectory, where meals are served to pilgrims after church; donations accepted.
What they do is shoot cement into the old stone walls with a compressor engine, and it spreads through all the cracks and dries into concrete, sealing and strengthening the structures. There are piles and piles of the original stones, which are used for re-building the destroyed parts.
There was a kindly priest-monk there, who chatted with us, then disappeared with Demetrios in tow. Demetrios returned to us 20 minutes later, his face all radiant, so we knew he’d had Confession.
Then, continuing back down the mountain, we came once again to the new Monastery of St. Dionysios. This time, Chrysostom made a request for the museum to be opened for us, and is request was granted. A monk took us there and unlocked the door and showed us around. The museum contains some very old, valuable manuscripts, some hand-written New Testaments, some very old vestments and church vessels. But its main treasure is a room full of bones. They range from a couple of large bones, a couple of skulls, to tiny slivers, most being somewhere in between. They are relics of 40 saints: St. John Chrysostom, St. George (yes, THE St. George), St. Paraskevi, and I cannot remember who all else. The elaborate silver reliquaries in which these bones are kept are of course also treasures,in their own right, of an altogether different sort.
Demetrios bought a book in the gift shop before we headed home.
We didn’t get there until midnight, the traffic was so heavy. The drive, which should have taken less than one hour, took four. The highway between Mt. Olympos and Thessaloniki was bumper-to-bumper, stop and go, and so were the city streets. Sunday night is when everybody returns from their weekends in their villages. Lesson learned.
But what a wonderful day, what a dream come true, to stand upon the shoulders of this legendary mountain, this mountain of ancient lore! And to do it with such dear people as Chrysostomos and Roula made it a hundred times more wonderful yet.
(Roula says someone recently mentioned to her something about wanting a cat. She will ask for me.)