Monthly Archives: September 2012

Meteora

There are few places in the world that evoke a sense of wonder like Greece. From ancient monuments to the mighty Gods, to the deep blue sparkle of the Aegean Sea that surrounds windswept islands where white washed houses hug the cliffs; to the  cosy tavernas that serve up homemade ouzo and crusty white bread with kalamata olives and pungent fetta cheese. While the lure of basking in the sun on a rugged island has always been irresistible, I finally managed on my last trip to Greece to drag myself away from the beach and head to the mountains. A picture spotted on a postcard had drawn me to the fabled monolithic rocks of Meteora where monks have long sought solace in the monasteries that perch like birds nests on top of them.

The bus wound higher and higher into the forested mountains and we were enveloped in a thick soupy fog as we crawled over the Koziakas Pass. It was after midnight  by the time we descended into the town of Kalambaka and I was battered by pelting rain as I stepped off the bus. Everything was closed and I wandered alone in the dark. I knew the town was nestled under the rocks of Meteora but I could barely see a few feet in front of me.  My spur of the moment decision to come here suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea and I cursed myself for not having a guide book or at least some idea about where to stay. The road eventually gave way to a dirt track, a loud crack of thunder made me jump, and was followed by a brilliant flash of lightning that illuminated a small guest house crouched under a great big monster of a rock. I had found my bed for the night.

The rain had cleared by morning and stepping onto my balcony I  was all but surrounded by giant rocks. I say rocks, but that goes no where near capturing the enormity of these monoliths – some of which are 600 meters high and bizarrely enough have monasteries sitting on top. Meteora translates as ‘suspended in air’ and at one time there were 24 rock-top monasteries scattered through the valley, now just six remain and a few monks still call them home.

I followed a sign that said ‘pathway to Meteora’, and clamoured up the steep trail which traversed boulders and thick forest and finally emerged at a plateau. Before me the mighty rocks of Meteora rose like natural skyscrapers from the valley floor. A climbers dream with over 50 rocks to conquer. Some were tall and spindly, others were bent and twisted,  and a few had boulders balancing precariously on top, stone faces were so sheer that they looked like they had been sliced in half by a giant carving knife. They rise so abruptly from the plain that they seem to have been thrust through the earths surface, but were actually formed by gradual erosion over 60,000,000 years ago.

Meteora has been a stronghold of the orthodox east since the eleventh century. Hermits were the first to dwell amidst the rocks, living high in the caves and crevices. By the 14th century monks were climbing the stone towers  and building churches on top, enduring incredible hardship in their efforts to be closer to God.  Cut off from the rest of the world they indulged in a life of praying, fasting and chanting, with rope ladders providing the only access until the 1930’s.  These days access is easier, via stairs and tunnels carved into the rocks or bridges from the hills behind. Most people visit on tour buses or by car but I preferred to walk, approaching each rock and monastery slowly, enjoying the different perspectives and the all-encompassing silence. For the first couple of days the sky was dark and overcast and the rocks seemed cold and hard, almost menacing, but on the third day I woke to brilliant sunshine. Under a luminous sky the rich layers of colours in the rocks revealed themselves, streaks of yellow, pink and red; the hardness softened by wild grasses and ivy, and the rocks suddenly seemed more gentle, more friendly.

I visited Gran Meteora first,  the largest of the monasteries and was excited to hear chanting as I climbed the stairs, but was disappointed not to find monks, but rather a gift shop playing a CD. Somehow I hadn’t expected a shop or to see the guy at the till sending a text message. My Greek friend tells me that very few monks live here now, as tourism and asceticism make a poor mix. “They have turned Meteora into a supermarket”, he laments. He was here years before working on the production of Tomorrow never dies which saw Roger Moore (or more likely his stunt double) climb one of the stone faces. There were delta planes, helicopters, a crew of 200. “The monks went crazy”, he told me, “but they made a lot of money so they couldn’t say no”. Although Gran Meteora now operates chiefly as a tourist attraction it still provides a  fascinating insight into life in a religious order. The chapel is thick with the smell of holy incense, and burning candles and smoky oil lamps illuminate beautiful frescos and ancient artefacts.  One room is dedicated to skulls, bones and relics of various saints, while the museum has an interesting collection of relics, including some amazing old photos. One depicts a monk with a full  black beard dressed in flowing black robes and a  tall black hat. Staff in hand he is leading the Greek revolutionary fighters into battle and cuts an imposing figure.  Other photos depict the rocks covered in snow and swirling mists.

I came across a sign in the valley proclaiming, “Do not shout, respect the unequalled character of the place”,  and although thousands of tourists descend on  Meteora every year, people are remarkably quiet, it is a humbling place. The other monasteries are much smaller and less visited. Rousano is reached by climbing down a lush leafy path which passes through two giant boulders then crosses a bridge to the rock itself into which is carved a stone staircase. It now acts as a nunnery and the  courtyard is filled with brightly coloured flowers. While  the other monasteries are dark and austere, this one is bright and cheerful with a  woman’s attention to detail. The gift shop sells the usual iconography and religious paraphernalia but also lace embroidery worked by the nuns and mint tea cultivated from the garden.

After dark the main square in Kalambaka bustles with activity. Tables with checked table cloths spill onto the sidewalk and are filled with a mix of tourists and locals. Some of the rocks are illuminated by spotlight and on a clear evening appear to hover like ghostly apparitions above the town, a silent reminder of the extraordinary feats of nature and of man.

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Food of the gods on the island of the gods….

Chocolate truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

The magical world of raw chocolate

A few years ago my  friends had a ‘decadent dessert party’ and we all took along a dessert of our choice, not surprisingly there was a lot of chocolate – including my own triple chocolate cheesecake. What had started as a very chilled affair suddenly turned into a mad crazy night of dancing, I assumed we were all on a  sugar rush, it only occurred to me recently that we were more likely high on chocolate.

Few foods can evoke such passion, sensuality, comfort and addiction.  What is it that makes chocolate so special?

Legend has it that the first cacao beans came from paradise and lent wisdom and power to the person that ate them.  Deep in the tropical rainforests of central America, ancient Mayans  used ground cocoa beans in wedding rituals and for healing magic. To the Aztecs it was known as the food of the gods; and it is said that the  god Quetzalcoatl, was  kicked out of paradise for giving chocolate to the human race.

Most of us have experienced the ‘feel good factor’ of chocolate, its smooth exotic taste known to induce feelings of euphoria, even its aroma is enough to promote feelings of well being and happiness.  But if you are reading this while munching on a Mars Bar, its time to think again. While mass produced store bought confectionery might taste good and have a small amount of nutritional benefits,  this is sadly outweighed by vast amounts of chemicals, refined fats and sugars.

Raw chocolate, on the other hand provides a dose of pure natural goodness and is packed with magnesium, antioxidants and  a taste far superior to anything you will find on a supermarket shelf. In its purest form chocolate contains  an abundance of Tryptophan, a substance which triggers a reaction in the brain and creates a feeling of elation and giddiness. It is also packed with  Anandamide a name derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Also known as the love chemical, Anandamide induces feelings of euphoria…. just like falling in love. While cooking and processing chocolate destroys much of its natural goodness, raw chocolate is healthy for the mind, body and soul.

Raw Chocolate cake at Alchemy, photograph courtesy of Suki Zoe

A number of places in Bali are now making raw chocolate, but Alchemy, a quirky health cafe in Ubud has the best,  with its  gleaming refrigerator shelves stocked with a dazzling display of cakes, candy and chocolates that don’t just taste good, they are good for you. The slabs of dense chewy chocolate bars are seriously ‘to die for’ (or at least to ‘drive to Ubud for….’) I also love the homemade bounty bars filled with fresh shredded coconut, the dark peppermint infused Stevia Mint Drops and the coconut dusted truffles. Bali Buddha also has a good selection, including lovely heart-shaped chocolate truffles, while Desa Seni serves up a tasty range of energy balls – just the thing after a yoga session. The raw chocolate dream pie at Clear Cafe in Ubud also deserves a mention – it is positively dreamy! It is also worth paying a visit to Five Elements in Mambal, a divine eco retreat offering gourmet raw cusisine that provides one of the most profound dining experiences on the island. Actually, the first time I tried raw chocolate was here and it was a moment I will never forget.

One of the newest venues on Bali’s raw chocolate scene is the inspiring Bamboo Chocolate Factory, also in Mambal (just near the Green School.) The soaring bamboo building rises from a sea of tropical forests and has been created by Big Tree farms who work with local farmers to produce organic ingredients such as salt and pepper, vanilla, cashews and honey.  You can join a tour of the factory, which starts with  a cup of thick and creamy organic hot chocolate to get you in the mood. A guide will then lead you along the labyrinth of bamboo hallways and cavernous rooms, following the trail of the humble cacao bean as it is transformed into a delicious chocolate bar. If images of oompa loompas and rivers of chocolate are flowing through your mind, think again; but if you are remembering the movie ‘Chocolate’, with the beautiful Vianne sensually grinding beans on a stone you are a little closer, but still not thinking big enough.  Actually, the six tonne, 70-year-old Mélangeur is so big it has its own room – with two giant granite rollers that crush the cacao beans (fermented, not roasted) into a thick paste.  Twelve hours later the paste is ready for the conche which turns it into a smooth liquid, while a cold press separates the butter. In the cashew sorting room, nuts are hand selected and trimmed, before making their way into chocolate bars.  Back in the tasting room you can try the fresh slabs of 70% bitter chocolate, which is also on sale, along with cold processed cacao powder, and cashew chocolate nibs. Chocolate-making workshops are planned to start from August so you will be able to create your own sublime concoctions.

cocoa dusted truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

Desa Seni Magic

 

At  Desa Seni  the path to well being is scattered with flowers…..

As my friend and resident Kundalini yoga teacher Daphna says, “It’s a place of peace and joy, from the moment you enter any stress evaporates…. it’s a happy place.”

Desa Seni has been keeping me sane for the past two years, a sanctuary that is most certainly my happy place, where I can escape from work and every day pressures, and  lose myself in the beauty of my surroundings and in the ancient practice of yoga. At early morning classes  I  watch the flowers unfurl as I stretch into sun salutations, while sunset classes are filled with the golden glow of dusk and the flickering light of candles against a crimson streaked sky.

I always feel like I am stepping into a fairy tale as I follow the stepping stones that lead through colourful vegetable patches and heavily laden fruit trees. Everywhere I look there is something of beauty that has been thoughtfully placed to create joy ; a quaint wooden bridge, an  ancient dug out canoe filled with flowers, a wooden statue decorated with frangipani, or a carefully labelled tree or plant.

I once spent a weekend at Desa Seni staying in one of the charming antique wooden houses gathered from across the Indonesian archipelago. My beautiful house came with a  written story that detailed its origins, and that of all the antiques that filled it. In the afternoon one of the staff dropped by with fresh fruit and herbal tea and when I woke in the morning there was a traditional Balinese offering placed on my verandah with a card explaining how to make the offering to my own small temple.

Tom, the ever-inspiring man behind Desa Seni describes how he saw the island “blooming and growing” but felt that no one was staying true to Bali. His vision incorporated farming, yoga, unlimited potential for creativity, and integration with the local community. His founding belief , “If we all give back, educate, inspire and nurture, the world will be a better place.” I love that Tom is a man of his word and Desa Seni gives back to the community on so many levels, from being organic and green, to free English and yoga classes for the staff, to organising beach clean ups and to sponsoring worthy organisations such as Sacred Childhood Organisation http://www.sacredchildhoods.org/ and initiatives such as Ayu Kita Bicara which raises awareness about AIDS in the community.  Through Kula magazine Desa Seni continues to spread the word and promote like minded people and businesses on the island.

Desa Seni reminds me to always take a little time for myself to reconnect with the magic and beauty of life – something that I sometimes forget. Here I see positive vibrations leading to action, and remember that we can make a difference. Love certainly isn’t all you need – but it’s a great place to start!

www.desaseni.com