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Amazing Meteora – “Suspended in the Air”


Meteora is one of those places in Greece that simply takes your breath away.  We were told that we had to visit this place and it did not disappoint.

The road to the area was unexpectedly long and wound through some semi-alpine areas with extensive snow on the ground in the late December.  Parts of the road were great, other parts were narrow and rutted.  Pretty typical for Greece really.

On arriving in the Kalabaka, the largest town in the region, the spires of ancient rock that mark this area towered over us.  We wound through the narrow back streets, and there was a feeling of quiet anticipation while following Emily (our Garmin) to the GPS coordinates of a parking spot some other generous travellers had provided.

Kalabaka is overshadowed by the imposing sandstone peaks of Meteora

The evening was drawing in as we came around the last corner and spied the gravel parking area dwarfed by two mountainous rock pillars crowned with monasteries bathed in the last of the wintery sun.

Our parking spot for the night under the watchful gaze of the Varlaam Monastery

We were both rather spellbound at the magnificence and wonderment of the vista.  Beautifully constructed stone monasteries perched over sheer cliffs at the top of the world.  How did they build these so many hundreds of years ago without modern equipment and technologies?  What devotion to their cause or God compels people to spend their lives, or even generations of lives, building these testaments to their faith?  The thought that we would be sleeping under their watch and waking up to this in the morning was rather exciting.

After positioning Betsy on the most level spot we could find, we hurried off to enjoy our first close up experience of a Meteora monastery.  On exiting Betsy we were met by a small dog who seemed to adopt us during our stay.  With little encouragement from us, she stayed nearby, slept on the ground outside Betsy and trotted alongside as we explored the area.  She didn’t bark once and just seemed content with even the small morsels of attention we threw her way.

The Agioi Pantas also known as Varlaam Monastery was the closest monastery to us and the light was already beginning to fade as we walked up the road and through the gates, but we couldn’t help having a quick look before coming back the next day.  This brief exposure whet our appetite for the day to come.

Evening setting in on Varlaam Monastery
She who adopted us

The rocks of Meteora are weathered sandstone spires reaching over 600 metres from the valley floor.  Their unique shapes were formed as a result of earthquakes and weathering over 60 million years.

Local myths and legends indicate that hermits dwelled among the inhospitable rocks and caves from the 9th or 10th centuries in an attempt to leave behind the morally corrupt world and unify with God through meditation and prayers.  The vertical cliffs of Meteora were regarded as the perfect place to achieve absolute isolation, to discover peace and harmony, and seek spiritual elevation.

The first church, dedicated to Theotokos, was built around the early 12th century as a place where the devout could worship together.  From here on a more organised and unified monastic way of life developed, culminating in the construction of the first monasteries in the 14th century.  Ultimately 24 monasteries were built however just six remain operational today.  The Meteora area is second only to the Athos Peninsula in the Halkidiki region (a place we particularly love) in importance to the monastic orders.

The next morning, we both rose early to see the sunrise.  The gentle morning light playing on the golden stones, the distant snowy peaks, and the surrounding mountains were stunning.  We shot off photo after photo as the early sun rays bathed first the Holy Monastery of Varlaam and then the Holy Monastery of Transfiguration of Christ or Great Meteoron, initially with a soft pink hue, then a golden glow.  As the sun gradually crept across the valley floors, the photo shooting fingers continued to fire which led to a lot of culling and photo editing in the days to come.

The pink light of early dawn bathes the Varlaam Monastery

Varlaam Monastery

The path to the Varlaam Monastery winds back and forth, across and up the cliff face.  Originally the monks accessed the monasteries using rickety wooden ladders (they had to jump from one to the other) or winching each other up the cliff face in nets, so a steep climb up a path didn’t seem too much of a hardship.  This monastery was named after the first inhabitant of the rock who built three small churches, a water tank and a cell (where the monk would sleep and pray) around 1350.  After his death, the rock was abandoned for about 200 years until two monks sponsored the construction of the buildings which make up some of the current monastery.  Just transporting the materials for the next phase of building reportedly took 22 years!

The path eventually opened up into a tidy courtyard with unhindered views in virtually every direction.  On examining the buildings, they were in very good condition, which is a testament to the careful and thoughtful restoration that the monastic brothers have carried out over the years.  Many of the original buildings date back to the 1500’s but you wouldn’t guess that by looking at them.

View from the courtyard at Varlaam
The Katholicon is the name given to the part of the monastery used for services and the one here was built and decorated in about 1560.  Walking into this is like walking into another world.  It is dimly lit and all of the walls are painted with a dark background and countless frescos depicting scenes from the Bible and church history.  The lives, deeds and martyrdom of long-dead saints and heroes of the faith are captured in stunning colour and exquisite detail in these 600-year-old visual records.

The Katholicon is divided into several rooms, most with richly decorated domes and some with rows of rather uncomfortable looking wooden chairs running along the walls.  Various podiums, altars, collections of church relics and other paraphernalia of the Greek Orthodox Church are placed throughout the building.  This is a sacred and holy enclave and you cannot help the feeling that comes with being in a place where countless dedicated holy men have prayed for hundreds of years for God’s blessing and a better world.

Varlaam Katholicon

The massive 16th century barrel in the storeroom at first appeared to be a wine drinkers dream but was actually used for storing water because originally there were  no water tanks. Twelve tonnes of fresh rainwater could be collected in this impressive tub.

16th Century water storage barrel

Great Meteoran Monastery

We next visited the Great Meteoron Monastery, which looks like it is “suspended in the air”, which is what “meteoro” literally means.  This is the oldest and largest of the monasteries, being founded around 1340 and in the 16th century was the most powerful and influential of the monasteries.  Now however it is occupied by just three monks.

Great Meteoron Monastery – The Holy Monastery of  the Transfiguration of Christ
The old kitchen still contains the original bread oven and soup hearth, and the roof is black from hundreds of years of smoke.  It was possible to get a sense of how spartan life was up here in the clouds back in the heyday of the monastic era.  How peaceful, quiet and serene life must have been, despite a life devoid of creature comforts, especially during the harsh long winters.

The old workshops contained a fascinating assortment of tools dating back hundreds of years, including wooden garden implements such as spades and forks, plus wine and olive presses and various barrels, jugs, bowls and ploughs.

Original Monastery kitchen
Museum of tools and implements

More recent additions include the ‘Martyrs Hall’ which celebrates church and Greek martyrs and a manuscript room which displays some of the many rare documents that date back to the 9th century.

By the time we had enjoyed all that was on offer the day was moving on and the weather was closing in.  There were other monasteries available to see, however our heads and hearts felt full to overflowing with what we had already seen and we decided to move on.

Our next destination was Ancient Delphi with an overnight stay beside a fast flowing clear thermal stream at Thermopillion.  That, however, is a story for another blog.

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