Contemplating Meteora, the monasteries in the sky

Meteora was unreal. I knew from photographs that it would be a treat for the eyes but wasn’t quite prepared for the spectacle that awaited me. I ended up hiking all around the rocks, visiting five monasteries in total. Having been told how difficult it was, I was expecting to visit maybe one or two, but it wasn’t really a tough hike, other than being in the heat of the sun.

Despite getting up late, the day started well. This was the view from my hotel room:

I stopped at a supermarket on the way through town for some supplies. I bought a 1.5 litre bottle of water, and on reflection, another. A good decision, as I ended up needing all three litres on my day-long trek.

I started out heading into the small village of Kastraki, a short way out of town. Expecting a long steep climb, I cursed my inability to get up earlier. It’s strange that I can be so lazy and undisciplined when it comes to early rising, yet still prefer a long hike to an easier option.

There were many staggeringly high rocks visible from town, but I didn’t get my first glimpse of monastery until I had nearly left Kastraki.

This was St Nicholas Anapafsas, one of the smaller of the sextet. It was only a short trek up a hill to the site, and I was already treated to one of the best views of my travels.

Here’s me with a rock.

I could have lingered here, but I had many more sites to visit and the day wasn’t getting any cooler, so I moved on, and found the hiking trail through the woods. I added amateur wildlife photographer to my expanding list of experience when I made a friend of the Esio Trot variety. He didn’t seem too bothered by me but scorned my attempts to feed him: I think he’d found a truffle.

The hike through the woods led steeply uphill through thick undergrowth to Great Meteoron, the largest and most visited of the monasteries. A sign outside warned: ‘Shorts are not allowed. Ladies in sleeveless dresses, slacks or pantaloons will not be admitted’. I had brought long trousers in anticipation of this, but I saw loads of people in short skirts and shorts, so didn’t bother. Nobody seemed upset by my sinful knees.

My camera didn’t stay in my pocket for long in Great Meteoron. Every time I turned a corner I was treated to a new sight – an enclosed courtyard, a decorative church, an amazing panorama. The views from the top were some of the most breathtaking I’ve encountered, and I was only getting started.

My next stop was in sight, but required a lengthy walk down a road full of passing tour buses and taxis. I saw a lot of vehicles from Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria, the furthest afield was from the Netherlands.

Varlaam monastery wasn’t quite as crowded, but it was still very much on the tourist map. Since each monastery required a separate entrance fee (€2 each), I decided to skip this one and move on.

The heat was really oppressive as I walked the road to Roussanou, and there wasn’t much in the way of shade. On arrival at the footpath above the monastery, I took a moment to step onto the rocks and stand at the top of the world.

With the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, I sat on the rocks, unwilling to leave. I think I’ve found my favourite spot in all my travels. This place is surreal; it looks like a location from fantasy. If it wasn’t for the tour buses and roadworks this could be Middle Earth, or perhaps Fantasia. I’m not religious, but I can understand why the earliest monks attached spiritual connotations to these rocks.

Eventually, I left to descend the cobbled footpath through the trees to Roussanou. Here I found nuns, who politely asked me to put trousers on. I guess I needed them after all.

At this point, I need hardly point out that Meteora is a location of breathtaking natural beauty, monasteries or no, but what staggers me is how these buildings were constructed. I have no idea how the monks even got up the rocks in the first place, let alone haul all the construction material up there.

Hermit monks have been living in the rock pillars since the 9th century, and we don’t even know when the first monasteries were built, but I’d be willing to bet they didn’t have tarmac roads and articulated lorries.

The final monastery on my tour was the most impressive in terms of location, balanced precariously at the pinnacle of a sheer column of rock. I had to redon the trousers for this one, but the sight of the town from the top of the rock was not to be missed. Plus I saw a monk in traditional Orthodox dress carrying a vacuum cleaner, which for some reason I found hilarious.

My hotel was somewhere down there, and I was rapidly running out of water, so I made the long trek down through the woods, back to civilisation and the end of a fantastic day.

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4 Responses to Contemplating Meteora, the monasteries in the sky

  1. Karly says:

    Wow, Mark! This is incredible!

  2. Karen says:

    Another place on my list of “must go and visit!”

  3. The World is my Cuttlefish says:

    I find those juxtapositions of modern and ancient, everyday and spiritual, like the monk and vacuum cleaner, most enjoyable too. It gives a place to both.

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