At the end of September, after a much too long bus ride, we reached Thessaly Plain at midnight. We stopped in Kalambaka, a small city built over the ancient Greek town of Eginio, renowned for its heroic resistance against the Romans. We were so exhausted that we checked into the first hotel we found without giving it much thought and unaware of the beauties that lied hidden in the darkness of the night. With only a few hours of sleep, we woke up early the following morning and set off on the neighboring narrow streets to discover a scenery that was, as cliché as it sounds, simply breathtaking. It was as if we had suddenly stepped into another world, ripped out from the pages of some fairy tale book, where a bunch of weird-looking cliffs surrounded the houses, glittering in the early sun beams. The tidy and fancy homes, with terraces instead of regular roofs and minuscule yards paved in stone and decorated with lively flowers made us wish we were born here. The cafes and souvenir shops just opened. We were living the dream and were grateful for the privilege to visit these great wonders of the world.
We had a long day ahead of us. We reached Thessaly Plain for a reason as we had planned to visit amazing Meteora, one of the great wonders Greece has to offer. We drove on a sensationally steep road, interwoven by a series of dangerous turns, unwinding along huge cliffs sculpted by father time into a variety of shapes resembling sharp colonnades and pointed towers. We were heading towards a rocky ridge that seemed inaccessible for cars, just beneath the “suspended monasteries”, which is exactly what the Greek Meteora means in translation. Here and there, teams of rock climbers were fighting to ascend the routes that crossed the rocks near the access road to the plateau. These gray limestone cliffs, over a thousand of them, were born on the seabed around 30 million years ago and their strange shapes are the result of water erosion. While their origins are somewhat clear, the unique concentration of megaliths remains a mystery of nature, forming one of the most beautiful landscapes not just in Greece, but throughout the world. So we booked a last-minute guided tour of the Meteora monastic complex, whose monasteries truly deserve their place in the UNESCO world heritage list as invaluable assets of humanity.
Perched high on the peak of the cliffs, Meteora is a complex of 24 monasteries out of which only six are still inhabited to this day. Out of these, five are nunneries and the sixth is a convent. It is the second Orthodox monastic center in Greece after Mount Athos. Monasteries built on rough terrains, in inaccessible locations and almost impossible conditions, without any access roads, and solemn limestone megaliths form a landscape that is simply too incredible to be true. Access was made possible using ropes that were often stretched over hundreds of meters. What better way to symbolize the fragility of life and divine will? It is said that a medieval monk, when asked how often the ropes with which people and provisions were pulled up were changed, responded that they were replaced whenever they broke. And yet, the monastic complex survived for centuries. Beginning with 1920, with the increasing number of pilgrims come from all corners of the world, access to the monasteries was much improved. Steep steps were carved into stone and elevated bridges were built toward the places of worship to facilitate visitor and priest access. During World War 2, the monasteries were bombed and robbed of some of their centuries-old artifacts. Later, some of these great historical values were recovered and returned to the monks who chose to continue their hermitage on the peaks of the cliffs.
The beginnings of the monastic community at Meteora can be traced back between the 9th and 11th centuries, when a group of hermit monks built cells inside the inaccessible caves and grottoes at Meteora. At the end of the 12th century, the first monastic settlements were built. Toward the end of the 14th century, Saint Athanasius came to these parts followed by an important group of monks from Mount Athos. He founded a monastery that would soon become the largest and most impressive in the entire Meteora complex, Megalo Meteora (the “Great Meteoron”). Athanasius’ rules were very strict. Women were not allowed in the complex. Over the following century, twenty monasteries were erected on the staggering heights of Meteora. They flourished between the 15th and 16th centuries after which the community slowly fell into decay. It is said that the entire ancient Greek culture is preserved inside Meteora. Inaccessible to Turkish invaders, these monastic settlements provided shelter to the country’s documents and artifacts that would have otherwise been lost under the Ottoman assaults.
Out of all the monasteries that were once built here, nowadays most are ruins while others have been well-preserved and are still functioning today. They have become a famous and coveted attraction for pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. The six remaining monasteries at Meteora are the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, the Holy Monastery of Varlaam, the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Monastery of Rousanou, the Holy Monastery of Saint Stephen, and the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapausas.
We visited the most imposing of all the monasteries perched on the cliffs, the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, or Megalo Meteor in Greek, with its impressive church consecrated in honor of the Transfiguration of Jesus. The most representative monastery in the entire ensemble is perched on the top of a cliff over the Pinios River, covering a surface of 10,000 square meters. From a distance, we could see the high bell tower with its large balcony from where the old elevator cage is activated by a pulley. It is still functioning to this day but it is only rarely used for lifting supplies or, in some cases, old and sick monks or pilgrims. We climbed the 115 irregular steep stairs carved into stone and gained about 250 meters in altitude all the way to the entrance to the monastery.
Inside the monastery, we saw the tombs of its two founders, Saint Athanasius and the Serbian Tsar Simeon Uro, who donated their entire fortune to the monastery. There is also a painting depicting the two holding the church in their hands. The church consecrated in the honor of the Transfiguration of Jesus is the most imposing throughout the ensemble at Meteora. The interior frescoes of a high artistry are the works of the Cretan schools. The monastery is home to old books, approximately 600 of them, codices, manuscripts, patriarchal seals and many precious historical documents. It shelters old and rare craftworks: post-byzantine icons dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, wooden sculptures, and silver and golden embroideries.
We took photographs of an old monk with an enlightened figure which simply exhaled of inner peace. This was our unique souvenir. Then we set off, still troubled by the sight of these holy buildings perched on the top of the gray limestone megaliths, so far away from what we perceive as tangible.