Meteora Monasteries, Greece – high in the sky, almost in heaven

What’s most impressive about the Meteora Orthodox Monasteries – a UNESCO World Heritage site in a remote corner of Greece – is that they were built atop impossibly high stone pinnacles, at a time when no machines were available.  Some even attribute their existence to divine intervention. But whatever made them possible, I can’t think of better examples of how determination trumps logic, of how faith can actually move mountains (or build on top of them). People who have visited Meteora say that seeing the monasteries almost touching the sky was a “humbling experience.” I couldn’t wait to check it out. 

The Meteora rock formation, in the geographic middle of Attica province, is near a town called Kalambaka, 217 miles north of Athens. My friend Margo and I were already in the capital and had planned to rent a car to go there. But our plan changed when the concierge at the Hermes Hotel pointed out that all the road signs would be in Greek. Also, she added, the car rental agencies in Greece require international driver’s licenses, which neither of us had.  

gran meteora stairs
Line to get to Megalo

Instead, we joined the guided tour that she suggested, and left the hotel early the next morning on a comfortable bus with air conditioner and a talkative guide. As we got on the road and she started telling us the difference between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox religion – to which the majority of Greeks belong – I fell asleep on my seat. When Margo woke me up, the landscape was totally different: we were on a hilly, rocky area, parked in front of a roadside restaurant, with nothing else around. “Where are we?” I asked. “No idea,” was her reply. “It’s not Paris,” she joked, alluding to her hometown. 

After a simple but delicious lunch – food seems to always be fresh in Greece – we were back on the bus and I was ready to listen when the guide started to talk about Meteora Monasteries.

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Of the 13 monasteries, only 6 are still open

The origins of the Meteora rock formations are an enigma, as the land is flat all around them. The monasteries perched atop these rocks were funded by Byzantine emperors in the 14th century, to lay claim to the fertile valley around and to protect the monks against the invading Turks. In 1356 AD, the construction of the largest of the monasteries – Megalo Meteoro – was begun by monks using only ropes and pulleys to haul the materials to the top of the rocks. By the 16th century, 13 monasteries had been established in the same fashion, serving as bastions of Christianity. They are even  credited with having helped save the Western civilization from the frequent inroads of Turkish domination and destruction.

These days largely supported by tourism, the monasteries were once the privilege of emperors and kings. For centuries, the only access to them were jointed ladders and descending nets, also used by the monks to get food and water. Stone bridges and stairs, added much later, in 1920, now take visitors up hundreds of steps to the six monasteries that are still open.

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Aya Triada, location of James Bond’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’

We were going to stay overnight at Hotel Amalia, near Kalambaka, in order to arrive early at the monasteries the next morning. Our guide kept warning us that they get very crowdedand she was right: when we arrived at the hotel many other tour buses were parking near ours, all full of people.

Later, during dinner – a very generous buffet with Greek specialties – we got acquainted with Mark and Ullisses, also in our group. Mark, in his early 50’s and from Australia, said that the trip to Meteora was a dream come true for him. For Ulisses, a younger Brazilian, Meteora was a good opportunity to take pictures, which was his hobby. The food didn’t disappoint: fresh vegetables and cheeses from the region. The dessert – yogurt and honey – was out of this world; I had never tasted honey so smooth.

After dinner, Margo and I decided to go to Kalambaka to look for our favorite Greek thing, live music. Our new friends joined us, but the Uber driver informed us that,Tonight the only place with live music in Kalambaka is booked for a wedding.” We decided to go to a rooftop bar instead.

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The monasteries defy geography

Kalambaka is just another drab modern town, useful only as a base to explore the Meteora complex, to the north. Yet an overnight stay there gave us a taste of everyday life in a provincial Greek town, something we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It was Saturday night, and in the crowded bars and tavernas on main street people were glued to TV screens, watching a soccer match. When we got to the rooftop bar, all eyes stared at us “foreigners,” only to ignore us a few minutes later and return to their conversations. The impressive detail we noticed as soon as we arrived was that the bar had been erected next to – almost touching – an illuminated and massive vertical rock taller than the eye could reach. “That’s one of the monasteries, up there,” the bartender informed us.

The next morning, after breakfast, we were on the bus at 7:30. We passed Kalambaka, but this time headed north of town onto a narrow and curvy road shared by many other tour buses. The day was sunny and the air was dry, but –  once the details of the buildings became clear – we stopped to take pictures. Mesmerizing! On the way we passed by a nice-looking hotel, Doupiani House,  that most likely has an amazing view of the monasteries. For next time,” I thought. 

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The monks’ working area in Megalo Meteoro

Our guide had selected three monasteries for us. We started by the highest and grandest, Megalo Meteoro. When we got there, the stairs to the top were already full of people. We started to climb with them slowly, one step at a time, while the guide tried the best she could to keep us all together to hear the story of the monastery.

Megalo was built of massive stones 1,361 feet above the valley – we were facing no less than 400 steps to get to the top. Once up there, the view was fantastic, like entering another world. The first thing we saw was the room of the founder – St. Anasthasios – and the richly decorated Greek Orthodox chapel with a bishop’s throne dated back to 1617. The monastery’s kitchen – blackened by centuries of cooking – led to a massive wine cellar with huge wine barrels, where a monk dressed in black was all smiles when we passed by. Only six monks live there now, and in the six monasteries that are still open, there are 22 monks and nuns altoghether. People in Kalambaka told us that the monks have become rich, due to the revenue brought by tourism, and that some drive new cars to go shopping in town. Probably true, after all, tourism is the second-highest source of income in Greece, after shipping.

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Medieval frescos

What impressed me the most, though, was the carefully tended flower gardens, and the magnificent views of the valley below. From where we were, we could see the other monasteries close by, as if we were suspended in the air looking down. I had never seen anything like that. Not even the beautiful statue Christ the Redeemer, in Rio de Janeiro, comes close. Meteora is different, it’s a spiritual experience. It’s hard not to feel humbled.

But when the crowd we climbed the stairs with  made it to the top, it got so crowded that one group had to move to make way for the next. Many tour guides shouting in different languages added to the confusion – it was like being in the Tower of Babel of the Bible. But not even that detracted from the sensation that I was living a very special moment, in a place built many centuries ago by nothing else than faith.

Next on the list was the Varlaam monastery. We were relieved when the guide said that we would easily reach it by bridge and “only” 195 steps. The monastery was rebuilt in 1515 by two monk brothers from a wealthy family, and church documents found there revealed that the construction itself took only 20 days – after the material had been accumulated atop the rock over a period of 22 years! The 16th century frescoes covering the walls looked fresh, as if just painted – work of a famous hagiographer of the time, Frangos Katellanos, of Thebes.

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Cats everywhere

At the entrance to our last monastery, Ayia Barbara, young and smiling nuns sold tickets and took pictures with tourists. The early monks refused to allow women in to Meteora. The first one ever to set foot in one of the monasteries was Queen Marie of Romania, in 1921 (she arrived at the Megalo on a donkey, and had to be pulled up with a rope). Ayia Barbara sits on the lowest rock of the complex, and for centuries was the only nunnery there. Its gardens were very well tended to, beautiful, and the red-and grey- stone of the walls make it a favorite of photographers. The building was abandoned in 1900 and stood empty until a new order of nuns moved in recently and restored it.

Back on the bus to return to Athens, we were all tired, but still in awe of what we had just seen. Some people showed each other their pictures, but most were quiet and reflexive. I told Margo that I was wondering what it would be like to visit Meteora during a calmer season. She looked at me attentively, as I explained that there were still three monasteries to see, including Ayios Nicholaos Anapafsas, famous for the quality of its frescos. “Maybe I will be back some day,” I concluded, not very sure that would happen. “Maybe,” she replied. “After all, we just saw that everything is possible.”

 

Practical info:

The Meteora is a rock formation outside the town of Kalambaka, hosting one of the largest built complexes of Eastern Orthodox Monasteries. The six (of an original 24) monasteries are built on immense natural pillars that dominate the area in the middle of the Attica region of Greece, 218 miles from Athens. Kalambaka is  accessible by trains and buses from Athens – or take a guided tour from the capital.

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