Mabel in Meteora

In Mabel’s first entry for this journey she is writing on Thursday February 10th 1887, having already arrived in Meteora and is catching up on events since they set out from England on January 26th 1887.

She also uses the opportunity to write her recollections of a previous journey in this part of Greece.

Thursday February 9th 1887 [Thursday was the 10th].I have certainly a strange enough place to begin this Chronicle in! and one I never hoped to reach. No less than one of the convents situated on finger-like rocks in Thessaly and therefore called Ta Metéora, or the Meteors i.e. the Airy. This is Agios Stephanos. Most of them you can only reach by being hauled up in a net, but this has a bridge overa deep chasm, 12 feet wide. note 1 

Well, here I sit by the prostrate Theodore, who is on the floor with a fever, while Manthaios  note 2  and I have only colds – mine a very awful one in the head. But I think I will go back and write that we left England on January 26th, Wednesday, and stayed 2 days in Paris, leaving Friday 28th at night and embarking at Marseilles for our 4th voyage on the Cambadge next day.  note 3 

We had an extremely calm voyage to Syra. There was a poor Bulgarian on board with his brother. He was going home to Philippolis to die of consumption, but, eventually, his death having been announced to us the afternoon before we reached Syra, it was decided, when he revived, to land him there and he died just as he was going to be put in the boat. Even when well, the arrival at a foreign port is always a wretched time, but I think he can hardly have known what was going on around.

We invited two French people, M. and Mme de Villiers, who were going to Athens like ourselves, to be personally conducted thither. They were delighted of course. They were surprised to see many boatmen coming and saying ‘Oh! my dear little Mr. Theodore! Welcome! I am come for you!’ and to see the greetings of sailors in the streets from various islands and the shaking of hands with the hotel keeper, Kyrios Matses and the waiters and the conversations in the Customhouse; and when, after a day at Syra, we went aboard the Pelops for the Pireaus, the embracing with the Lorenziadis family from los  note 4 , and the great welcome at the Hôtel des Etrangers at Athens.

We were there 2 days and one night, and among other visits paid one to Mr. Penrose, head of the new English School. In the hotel we met Mr. Ernest Gardner and Miss Yenning, both great at ‘Hellenic Studies’.

Saturday February 5th 1887 – Piraeus

On Saturday [February 5th] night we went down to the Pireaus, where we dined and embarked on the little steamer Ellás, of the Goudi company, for Volo.

The day before was a great dinner on the great training ship Ellás in honour of the Heir Apparent  note 5 . It had been beautifully decorated and lit by Electric light and this evening it was permitted for anyone who liked to inspect all this splendour, so as it was close to our Ellás we did so too. We had a poor but clean cabin and a very rough night, and about 2.30 on Sunday reached Chalkis and there we had to wait till the current turns.

We had been here four years ago with Mr. Graham. We had gone to sea to Nauplia and then by carriage to Corinth, stopping at Tyrins, Argos, and Mykene  0n the way. We had an interpreter, Kostandinos Verviziotes, and a cook with us, and all our furniture, and we could not speak a word of Greek. We had great danger and difficulty in getting to the steamer Kreta about one o’clock and
when we got there the storm was so bad they could not bring the mails or other passengers, and there we tossed till next morning when we started for Scala di Salona on the N. side of the Gulf of Corinth. Thence we rode mules to Delphi, where we slept in a miserable ruin. We could see light through the roof and the only light in Mr. Graham’s part of the building came through cracks in the wooden partition that separated him from us: no window glass and ice on the puddles. We continued our ride, sleeping at Aráchova, Levádhia, Eremókastri, and then Chalkis. When we got there we found that the steamer which would take us to the Pireaus had first to go to Volo, we, after a night in Chalkis, went the round in the steamer, touching at many places.  note 6 

It is a picturesque town with 4 or 5 mosques and minarets, and the great snowy cone of Mt. Delphi as a background. It was very amusing landing in a little boat, the current racing against us. We crawled up one side of it nearly to the castle which is built in the middle of the stream, then swirled round at a great rate towards our ship again, and then another twist on the back water landed us on Euboea. We watched all the boats go through the same roundabout little voyage.

We had to wait till 7 for the Evripos to turn, when the drawbridge
connecting Euboea to Boetia is opened. It was really exciting going so swiftly through such a narrow passage. The moon was bright and the scene most lovely. Sometimes the current turns every 10 minutes, sometimes 20, in fact at every kind of interval and no one knows when it will be or what causes it to flow first one way and then another.

Monday February 7th 1887 – Volos

About 8 on Monday 7th February we reached Volo, much enlarged since
our day, and went to the Hotel de France, pretty good for such a place. We
visited our consul (de Bri, I think), who has a very pleasant foreign wife and
2 pretty young daughters. They seemed very pleasant people, but he did not
seem to have much to tell us about these parts.

Monday February 7th 1887 – Trikala

M, who met us at Syra, was greatly excited at the thought of so long a
railway journey, for we were to start for Trikkala on Tuesday and though the
train did not start till ¼ to 9, he wished to leave the hotel, ¼ of an hour’s
walk, at 7. The railway is only just hardly finished; the carriages very draughty
and thus we caught our colds. We had a very windy and not at all pretty
journey and were thankful not to be on mules. All the officials of the train
are Belgians.’

At 3 we reached Trikkala, situated on the Péneios in the very swampy plain
of Thessaly, a pretty and large town, but poor and very feverish, particularly
at this time of the year. We were surprised at this, so took quinine. We were
at a wretched little inn ‘of America’ – All these inns have as many beds (with
each slippers and a comb) put into the rooms as possible, and no one seems
to expect a whole room more than a whole railway carriage.
I cannot make out what decides them to say, ‘Now we will wash the sheets,
towels, etc.’. We left the greater part of our luggage at Volo as we shall return in
about a week. For so short a time M has of course brought nothing but his coats.
One of the bye-laws for passengers is that we must not come on the platform
till we have unloaded our firearms.
We left Trikkala without regret at the same hour yesterday, Wednesday
8th [Wednesday was February 9th], morning for Kalambaka, at the edge of
The region of Thessaly became part of Greece in 1881 and the rail link between Athens and
Kalambaka was completed in 1886, the Bents riding on it now in 1887. (They were lucky: on 17
November 1887, the first rail strike occurred.) Salonika was still in Turkish hands at the time and the
rail link with the Greek capital was not constructed until early in the 20th century.
188 THE Tavu. Ci-lxoNIcIFs OF Mas. J. THEODORE BENT, 1883-1898
the plain. It was snowing and all the country covered about 4 inches, but
not freezing – so we had wet walks to and from the stations. At Kalambaka
there was a much dirtier inn, so after luncheon we mounted mules and rode
hither, 11/2 hour. The secretary of the nomarch of Volo, to whom we had a
letter, visited us, a lovely man in clean white petticoats.
It would not stop snowing and it was so cloudy we could but dimly
descry this strange valley with thorns and fingers and pillars of pudding
stone standing up in the air hundreds of feet high. Once there were 24
monasteries, now only 7 inhabited, and holes high and low full of hermits,
now there are none. They began these monasteries in the first centuries of
our era. Some have ladders hung on pegs driven into the rocks and easily
removable, and the bridge to this has only been fixed a year or two ago. In
the time of the Turks it was not safe to venture beyond the drawbridge.
We had to stand outside for some time shouting in the snow till a monk
examined us and asked who we were. At length the iron door was unbarred
and we found ourselves in a kind of vault with an uneven rocky floor, from
which we emerged into an equally uneven courtyard and after some waiting
were led to the reception room where our eyes were gladdened by a huge
wood fire blazing on a hearth at the level of our knees.
The Egoumenos, or Abbot,” was away, but the Antigoümenos,
Sophronios, received us very kindly. There is a wide divan all round the
room with mattresses and carpets over them and pillows against the wall
and the fireplace in the middle of one side with a projecting chimney and
a stone hearth bound with brass on the divan. We were soon lying on each
side of the fire drying up deliciously – When warm we were taken over
the establishment, as usual, an irregular pile of buildings with precipice all
We saw the common dining room and sat on the Antigoümenos’ bed in
his cell, and warmed ourselves at his brazier while he made coffee and gave
us grapes which had hung since August. Of course, his bed was on the floor.
Then we returned to the fire after having chosen one of the spare rooms,
just like the reception room but carpeted all over, and as no one walks in
shoes on the carpets, very clean. We have our own bedding and use it as in
that respect the monks do not shine. The Antigoümenos and we 3 dined in
the drawing room, I sitting cross-legged on the divan. A small table was first
brought in and put upside down, and on the upturned legs was placed a large
round copper tray and then a blue checked duster over that and we had a
pretty good dinner off very nice old copper tinned plates.
‘° The head of a monastery is an Egoumenos’ or (female) Egoumene, often called abbot (and
abbess). An Antigoumenos’ is the deputy.
Today there is thaw, rain and mist so T is as well in bed as anywhere. I should
not be badly off up if I had not such a cold and headache, but, of course, we
could not both stay in bed and at all events we have quiet, cleanliness, a good
brazier, and not bad food. I am looking forward with great pleasure to going up
in a net but I believe going down is rather nasty.
The Antigoümenos has been up to see us but otherwise we have been left
to ourselves. This rocky tower is actually exposed to fevers when the S. wind
blows from the plain. We saw many troops of horses and other cattle, but till
the plain is cultivated it can never be healthy. There are about 15 monks and
servants here, and only one monk in the Agios Nikólaos one. He was here
last night and told us he has 2 rooms and a staircase zigzag up the rock and
had come here for company. Five policemen who were roving about to seek
brigands were kept 2 hours in the snow yesterday afternoon before they were
let in.
Saturday [actually Friday] February 11th. Yesterday my patient was
better, so I got up, dressed, gave him his breakfast and boiled water for
him to wash, and he rose, but not till we had had our visit from the Holy
Antigotimenos. I attended to my patient’s toilette and as soon as he was
on his legs got off my own and into my blankets, and he received speedy
degradation from an honoured and respected convalescent to a nurse. He
confessed to a nose-out-of-joint feeling, but after all when you dine in your
drawing room and your patient takes to bed there it simplifies things. My
head ached so and I was so shivery that in spite of retiring to the interior of
my bed and having blankets, down quilts, and everything warm we possessed,
including all the petticoats in the family, nothing would warm me till I drank
two tumblers of tea.
T donned his Ulster” and hat from time to time and took walks in the
passages, and M brought us food and fire, but otherwise we had a very quiet
day seeing nothing and cheerfully assuring each we were distinctly killing 3 birds
with one stone – the bad weather and the 2 illnesses.
This morning I was much better and had my breakfast in bed. Holy
Antigoümenos didn’t pay his accustomed visit. I think he was afraid of seeing
me in bed as I heard him the first morning being assured that I was dressed.
He was not so bold as a wicked Dhókimos, or novice, who T said had been
hovering at our threshold, longing for a chance of getting in and at last in he
came with the lamp. But alas! poor novice, all he saw of the very interesting
me was the edge of my book sticking up as I read on my back. I was sorry
for him –
11 The essential travel item for both Mabel and Theodore – the sleeveless coat – and much referred
to throughout.
I was horrified when M told me that to the Great Meteora and Agios Varlaam
I could not go as women are forbidden.
Today we started off after luncheon to Agiá Triada, or Holy Trinity. It took
us about a quarter of an hour. Holy Antigotimenos Sophronios accompanied
us. He certainly has no objection to me. The Holy Nicholas, who is still here,
and another monk stared at me while I put on my mackintosh with the same
kind of silly expression of wonder and delight with which very little children
would gaze at a Christmas tree. Away went Holy Antigotimenos, dancing
down the rocks and over streams and I skipped and sprang closely behind
him like a little dog, feeling very hollow from having only fed on soup and
tea 2 days, and wondering how I should get back again.
The mist was such that we were all very much taken aback when Holy
Antigoümenos ‘let a screech’ and looking up we saw one of these strange towers
looming over us and found ourselves under a shower bath from its summit
There is another peak quite near. Great shouting took place. ‘Oh! Gerásime!
Gerásime!’, and at last shouts of Who are you’ from the top. ‘Let down the
rope!’ But no rope came down, so M said he would go up the ladders and
explain. Holy Antigoümenos told me I should be terrified in the net from the
twisting but after much colloquy I had to take the ladders, though it had been
proposed that I alone should be hauled up.
The monks were afraid their feet might slip at the capstan on the wet rock
and the rope might go down with a run. After all I am glad I went up the
ladders. First there was a rocky stair then a wooden one, easy enough, then
a horrid ledge in the rock, about 50 feet, with a wooden railing and bits of
wood on which we must put our feet on account of the narrowness of the
ledge, though we were warned not to trust to the wood. We had to stoop all
the way.
Then a very steep ladder in a sort of cleft like a chimney and then a squeeze
through a little iron trap door, which I nearly pulled down on myself, then
another turn up a real chimney in the rock with a perpendicular ladder hung
from the top. The rungs, far apart, were slipped through quite loosely and we
had to hold them quite in the middle and use both hands. When a joint came
they passed the rung – a very large one – through both, almost too large for
my hands. Sometimes the ladder swung out to meet one and sometimes was so
close to the rock one could hardly get ones toes on.
My arms ached but there was no going back and I was delighted and
quivering when I reached the top. Gerásimos, a most gay old man, received us
with a mingling of welcome and fears at our having had to climb the ladders. He
is much more like a Jew than a Greek, and had his shirt open and his collar stuck
up in a Gladstonian fashion.
He flew at my eyeglass and wanted to know why I had had only one: he has
two. He looked through it as we stood near the capstan and said ‘How do you
keep it in your eye? Have you a magnet in it?’ He examined my eyes closely
and many a time did he try to stick it in his eye while he called out to M and T,
‘Oh! Brother, how does she manage it?’
We examined the little frescoed old church and our St. Stephen said ‘it was
a wretched one’. Then we retired to a nice little guest chamber with a Dutch
carpet – ‘A poor place this’, said our friend. ‘How different to ours. We have
such good furniture’.
Wine was brought and I said ‘This is very good wine.’ ‘Miserable stuff’
said our St. Stephen. T said ‘It is like the French wine we drink at home’. ‘Not
like our wine’ said M ‘It suits our taste better than that of the islands’ said T
‘This!’ said M, who had put down his glass with great contempt and disgust,
now taking another sip that he might make a worse face, We would not drink
such stuff, colour and water!’ Gerásimos and co. may not have liked it but it is
the very way they would receive hospitality elsewhere.
By the bye, at Volo there is some honey M has brought us from Anaphi
which will be the cause of very crushing insults as long as it lasts.
Having asked whether we had come from the interior of the United
Kingdom and whether we had a king, and M having told them, when I said
‘No, a queen’, that the king was dead, and we having given all statistics of our
royal family, we left and this time I took the 3rd place on the ladder and of
course we got down quicker than we came up. Very funny M looked as his
hind-legs emerged from the chimney and glad was I to pass that nasty shelf
and get to the ground in safety.
To my surprise I managed to follow my leader closely and we again had
the same surprise of the Antigoümenos’ screech announcing our return home
and the door was swiftly opened and we retired to our abode.
Our washing arrangements are more comfortable now than at first, for
yesterday we had a soup plate and today a very nice large blue slop-bowl. The
first day I had only a copper basin with a grating over it and inside the slime
of ages and a coffee pot with a slender spout and very hard it is to wash single
handed with this apparatus. I filled my sponge with water, and also a tumbler, so
I managed, but the trickier and drip-catcher are not suited to Britons, and I wish
we had not left our basin at Volo.
On Sunday [February] 13th, M and T, after breakfast, set off, guided by
a novice, on foot and went to visit the convents, or rather monasteries of
Varlaam and Meteora and I remained at Agios Stephanos. M utterly declined
to go up at Varlaam by either the rope or the terrible ladders, so T went up
in the net alone. It swings round and round like a bottle-jack. At Meteora he
192 THE TftAvar. CFIltoNIcIEs OF Mits. J. THEODORE BENT, 1883-1898
went up telling M he must follow, and was made by the monk to take a bar
at the capstan to haul him up. They went down both together and now M is
filled with delight at having been up by the rope.
When they came in I dressed quickly, and T and I rushed out to Agfa Triada
again and saluted our acquaintances there with our whistles. They invited us
up, but as they were using the rope to haul up wood we declined the ladders;
we set off home again climbing about to view our airy home with ideas of
On Monday we took 3 mules and made the complete round of all the
Meteors. All the community came to see us off and choose ‘the very tamest
mule’ for me. I think there was not much to choose between them; they were all
excellent or we should never have got over the ground we did. I took my camera
and a good many photos.12
We whistled at Varlaam, but though all came to see me, they would not have
me up at any price. The ladders are just fearful, the joints take place every 4 feet
or so, and they hang and swing and the upper part is loose from the lower, which
hangs on a peg, that it maybe drawn up by a chain.
We went to Agfa MonI by a very rough road round and over impossible
rocks clinging to little nubbles13 of pudding stone and at last struck into the
path and reached the foot of their ladders, but all our screaming brought no
one out for there was no one there. At Aglos Nikólaos they said their rope
was broken and the ladders were too awful to attempt. The rocks are all green
with moss and ferns. We saw one smooth sheet of ‘common Polypody’ about
30 feet square. It was a really exciting day from the extreme strangeness of
the scenery.
Yesterday, [Tuesday, February] 15th, we bade farewell to Aglos Stephanos
and all its kind inmates, except the Antigotimenos who saw us off at Kalambaka.
I, only, rode and the others and the mules came on foot, a lovely way down into
that marvellous valley. We passed quantities of vultures sitting in a pack, and
went at Kalambaka to the house at which the Egotimenos of St. Stephanos,
Meletios by name, had arrived the night before. We were given coffee and the
Egoilmenos gave me a pretty thing of plaited barley, which hung from the
ceiling, something of the same kind as our harvest dolls in Ireland.14
12 Mabel is now very much the expedition photographer, but so few of her plates and films have
13 Nubble = an infrequently used word for small lumps of rock. ‘Common Polypody’ = Polypodium
vulgare [and related species], a fern with creeping rhizomes which typically grows on trees, walls
and stones.
14 It is hard to believe that such a fragile souvenir (480 x 200mm) could have survived. But this
very item was presented to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 1888 (1888.37.2). It is described
as a harvest trophy of stalks (and ears) of wheat (sporran shaped) which hung in the house of the
Bishop of Kalabaka in Thessaly’.
We then went to a very interesting old church built by the Emperor
Andronikos,’5 and I tried to take a photo of an old bishop’s throne; very dark
—20 minutes. And then Papa Sophronios, the Antigoümenos, came and fetched
me to the bishop’s, where T was – a very clean neat place. Coffee again and
several introductions, including some female relatives of the bishop, who ‘if
they had only known would not have failed to come up and be my companions’.
What an escape!
Of course I was very uneasy in my mind till I could conjure up a return gift
to the Egoümenos for the barley, but fortunately in my camera-box I came on
3 candles, paraffin ones, so I presented ‘these candles of England, thinking he
might like to use them at Easter’. They were eagerly accepted. We had already
known them to be handsome and welcome offerings.
At length we put ourselves into the train for 7 hours.’6 There is only one 1st
and one 2nd class carriage. These communicate by a sliding door, constantly
open to facilitate continuous visits, passing of bottles, cigarettes, jokes, etc.
People spend rather the larger part of their journey in the carriages for which
they have a ticket, but that is all that can be said – During the stops we were
invaded with 3rds or ragamuffins from the station to visit or sightsee –
We are now the only I sts on the steamer Vy for such quiet. We had only time at Volo to dine and come on board, T having
a bundle of clean clothes, neatly twined in his jersey drawers. But no one here
would think this very odd. As we have the ship to ourselves we are allowed to
choose our meal hours. This is the ship in which we first came to Volo, and
where we and Mr. Graham had all to sleep in the ladies’ cabin together.
We were to call at Skiathos and Skopelos (islands) and get to Thessalonika
tonight, but having duly called at these islands we have found it too stormy, so
here we are back at Skiathos to shelter till midnight, when it is hoped we may
proceed to Salonika and be there in the morning. We are having great rain. We
went on shore with the purser and roved about the tidy town (600 inhab.), spent
a good deal of time in a pot house, bought a prettily made whip” of plated brass
for 4f.: it cost 3 originally –
Here we are back very cold but in a clean ship. These people look very
superior to the animals in Thessaly.
15 Apparently the Byzantine emperor Andronikos Palaiologos (1328-1341) visited the monastery
in 1333. The Church of the Dormition of the Virgin at Kalambaka is a spacious basilica with nave.
Part of the floor mosaics survive and much earlier material has been recycled. The twenty minutes
referred to by Mabel is, of course, the extremely long exposure time required for her camera in the
dark confines of the old church.
16 The party is returning south to Vôlos.
17 This whip is now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (1888.37.3), as is one (‘…with chain rattle and
hide thong lash’) they brought back from an earlier trip to Mytillni (1888.37.4). Like a character from
Rider Haggard, Theodore sports a whip and solar topee in his photograph on p. xxii.


Note 1: The Bents are visiting the remarkable group of Orthodox monasteries known collectively as ‘Metéora’. Of the many books on them, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account in Roumeli (London, 1966) is the one to have.
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Note 2: We closed Mabel’s previous Chronicle (May 1886) with Theodore ill of a fever and we open this one to find him similarly unwell: he was obviously susceptible to infections of this kind. These are worrying indications and in just eleven years now he will be dead. Manthaios Simos has rejoined the Bents for this expedition from Anáfi in the Cyclades.
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Note 3: In November 1883 (and the year before), the Bents arrived in Greece on the M.M.S.S. Cumbadge.
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Note 4: See p.38 in the full version of the Chronicles for this los family – great friends to Mabel. The Bents favoured the Hôtel des Etrangers when in Athens.
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Note 5: George I (1845-1913), from the Germano-Danish House of Oldenburg, King of the Hellenes (1863-1913), had eight children with his consort, Olga Konstantinova of Russia. Their eldest son and Heir Apparent was Constantine (1868-1923), who succeeded his father as king. See (summer 2006) for photographs of the Greek royal family at the time the Bents were travelling in Greece. They were friends of various courtiers.
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Note 6: These few paragraphs of their trip in 1883 are important for being the only account Mabel has left of their first tour around the great sites of Greece: ‘Corinth’, ‘Tyrins’, ‘Argos’, ‘Mykene’, ‘Delphi’…
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