Meteora Monasteries, Greece – on earth, close to heaven

What’s most impressive about the Meteora Orthodox Monasteries – a UNESCO World Heritage site in a remote corner of Greece – is the site where they were built. Sitting atop impossibly high stone pinnacles, erected at a time when all work was manual, some people even attribute their very 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 had visited Meteora had told me 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 the Attica province, is located next to a town called Kalambaka, 217 miles northwest of Athens. My friend Magy and I were already in the Greek capital and had planned to rent a car to go to Meteora. Our plan changed when the concierge at the Hermes Hotel we were staying at pointed out that all the road signs would be in Greek, an obvious detail we had not though about. She also said that all car rental agencies in Greece require international licenses, which neither of us had.  We then decided to join a guided tour to Meteora.

gran meteora stairs
Line to get to Megalo

The next morning we left the hotel early. We found our seats in the comfortable bus with air conditioner (it was the month of May and already hot). The talkative guide greeted us with a smile as we drove away.

As we left Athens the guide started to tell us the difference between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches – to which the majority of Greeks belong. I fell asleep on my seat, and when Maguy woke me up the landscape was totally different: we were on a hilly, rocky area, and the bus had parked in front of a restaurant sitting alone by the road. “Where are we?” I asked. “No idea,” was Maguy’s 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. I then felt ready to listen when the guide started to talk about the monasteries we were about to visit.

The origins of the dramatic 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 of the Ottoman Empire, who occupied Greece for 400 years. In 1356 AD, the construction of the largest of the monasteries – Megalo Meteoron – was begun by monks using only ropes and pulleys to haul the materials to the top. By the 16th century, 13 monasteries had been established in the same fashion; they served as bastions of Christianity and are even  credited with having saved the Western civilization from the Islamic Turkish domination.

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The monasteries are monuments to faith

Visiting the monasteries was 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 from the land below. Stone bridges and stairs, added much later, in 1920, now take visitors up hundreds of steps to the six monasteries that are still open.

The four-hour trip from Athens meant we could not see the monasteries and go back on the same day, so we stayed overnight at Hotel Amalia, near Kalambaka. The idea was to arrive at the monasteries early the next morning; our guide kept warning us that they get very crowded. She was not kidding: when we got to the hotel, the parking lot was full with many other tour buses.

During dinner at the hotel we got acquainted with Mark and Ullisses, also part of our bus 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, his hobby. The dinner 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, Maguy and I decided to go to Kalambaka to look for Greek 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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Kalambaka is nothing special, just another drab modern town, but it’s a good base to explore the Meteora complex nearby. Yet the overnight stay there gave us a taste of everyday life in a provincial Greek town. 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 a rooftop bar, all eyes stared at us “foreigners,” only to ignore us a few seconds later and return to their conversations. The impressive detail we noticed, as soon as we found a table, was that the bar had been erected next to – almost touching – a massive vertical rock going up further than the eye could reach and illuminated with a massive flood light. “There’s a monastery up there,” the bartender informed us.

The next morning we were on the bus at 7:30. We drove through 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 dry, and once the monasteries came into full view we stopped to take pictures. It was an impressive view.

inside meteora
The monks’ working area in Megalo Meteoro

Our guide had selected a few monasteries for us to visit, starting with the highest and grandest, Megalo Meteoron. When we got to its entrance, the 740 stairs leading to the top were already full of people moving up. We joined them and walked slowly, one step at a time, while our 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. Once we got to the top, the view was fantastic – it was like entering another world. The first thing we saw was the bedroom of the founder – St. Anasthasios – and the richly decorated Greek Orthodox chapel with a bishop’s throne dating 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 greeted us with a broad smile when we passed by him. Only six monks live there now. In the six monasteries that are still open, they are 22 monks and nuns. People in Kalambaka had told us that the monks have become rich with the revenue brought by tourism, and that some of them now drive new cars to go shopping in town. I believed them: 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 at the Megalon, and the magnificent views of the valley below: we could see monasteries atop the other hills, and they all looked suspended in the air. I had never seen anything like that, not even the statue Christ the Redeemer, in Rio de Janeiro, impressed me as much. Meteora is different, it’s a spiritual experience, and it’s hard not to feel humbled by it.

Next on the guide’s list was the Varlaam monastery. We were relieved when she said that we would have to climb “only” 195 steps. The monastery was rebuilt in 1515 by two monk brothers from a wealthy local family. Church documents 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; they are the work of a famous hagiographer of the time, Frangos Katellanos, of Thebes.

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The grandiosity of the Meteora monasteries is breath-taking

At the entrance to our last monastery, Ayia Barbara, young and smiling nuns sold tickets and allowed us to take pictures with them. The early monks refused to allow women in the Meteora monasteries; the first female that ever set foot on one was Queen Marie of Romania, in 1921. She arrived at the Megalon on a donkey, and was 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 and the red-and grey stones of the walls make it a favorite spot of photographers. The building was abandoned in 1900 and stood empty until a new order of nuns moved in recently and restored it.

We were all tired when we returned to the bus to head back to Athens, but all in awe of what we had just seen. Some people showed each other pictures they had taken of the sites, but most were quiet and reflexive. I told Maguy that I was wondering what it would be like to visit Meteora during a calmer season, without the crowd we had encountered. 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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