Meteora : The Mystical Monasteries of Greece
Deep in the heart of Greece at the north western edge of the rich Thessalian plain, is a place of mystical awe and medieval mystery. Meteora is the plural of a Greek adjective meaning “hovering above ground.”
This word perfectly describes a number of monasteries that are built on monumental monoliths made of dark grey sandstone—some of them five hundred meters high.
People who look at pictures of Meteora monasteries for the first time, often think that they are artwork for some fantasy novel. The monasteries are built like forts on the sky with no apparent entrance.
It puzzles the mind. “How did they get up there?” Even more mystifying “how did they build them?” The rock walls are vertical and smooth. Back in the 14th century when the first ones where constructed there were no bridges or steps nor cable cars.
It all started at the end of the first millennium when the first hermits arrived on nearby caves and soon after created the first sketes (small monastic communities). Later they turned into bigger monastic communes which built the first monasteries. It is indicative that the monastery of Holy Trinity took around seventy years to be completed.
Initially the monks wedged beams into the rock and connected them with scaffolds. That was the only way for people and materials to reach the top. An extremely risky business. Later they were replaced with nets and baskets that were pulled to the top with a rope. Still, a leap of faith was needed. According to the legend, monks didn’t replace the rope until “God’s will decided it was time.”
From a total of twenty four monasteries when monasticism was at its peak (15th century). Today only six remain. Among them the monastery of Transfiguration on top of “platis lithos” (wide rock) which a monk first named, “Great Meteoron.”
Normally we would use the trails to reach the monasteries but coming straight from a 100km hike in Zagori we decided to go around by car leaving the trails for another time. We arrived mid–afternoon in Kastraki—a small settlement at the base of Meteora. After checking in we left immediately for the gigantic formations which stood impressive above the little village. An hour later, after driving around and stopping here and there to shoot some photos, I decided that the best place to set my camera for the sunset was outside Varlaam pointing south to Rousanou monastery and the city of Kalambaka far away in the background. I wasn’t disappointed, the sunset was fabulous.
We were late to visit any monasteries, so we returned to Kastraki for the night.
In the morning we decided to visit the Great Meteoro since it is the biggest of them all and has some very interesting historical exhibitions including one for the Greek revolution and the resistance in WWII. Now, for people who want to visit the monastery for religious reasons there may be a slight disappointment. There were numerous buses outside the monastery and hundreds of tourists flooding it. Basically the whole experience is more museum-like than religious. As for monks, I didn’t see any. Obviously they were isolated in the forbidden areas of the monastery.
The Great Meteoro is renovated and all the structures are in excellent condition. Because Meteora monasteries were so isolated, they were also used for safekeeping many valuables like old books and several relics.
I was also impressed by the codex collection. Codex copying was a great part of monastic life during the Middle Ages. Having no other means for copying the codices meant that everything was done by hand. Consequently some of them are exquisite pieces of art. They also reinforce the mystic ambient that surrounds the place. So does the skull chamber—a small room where the skulls of the monks who lived and died in the Great Meteoron are stored.
The visitors can see the monastery’s old kitchen, intact as it was centuries ago and the cellar with the impressive 12.000 liter old wine barrel.
In all, the visit took us a couple of hours and I can say that it was definitely worth the time.
Meteora is one of the most interesting Unesco Heritage sites and undoubtedly worth a visit by anyone who plans to travel in the Greek mainland. An ultimate photographic destination all year round. It is not very big so a day or two should be enough for most people to go around.
I would like to go again, for the trails and perhaps to try rock climbing.