The Majestic Mountains of Meteora
When most people think about Greece what immediately comes to their minds are the gorgeous Greek islands surrounded by clear azure waters, countless pristine beaches, and sunny blue skies. They may think of white stuccoed towns with narrow mazelike streets where the sounds of Greek music and the smell of fresh souvlaki completely permeate the air. But another gorgeous terrain awaits Greece-goers that is in stark contrast to the island scene but NO LESS beautiful. The mountains of Greece. The current, cool, crisp days of autumn, inspired me to write about the mountainous terrain of Greece. When I think of Greek mountains, two things immediately come to MY mind ... goats and Meteora. The FAR MORE interesting of the two is Meteora.
Protruding from the Thessaly plains beside the Pindos Mountains on the mainland of Northern Greece is a grouping of irregular sandstone formations that were formed about 60 million years ago. Perched tenuously atop the pinnacles of these mountainous structures are monasteries, that from the 11th c. onward offered true isolation to the solitude-seeking eremites. While hermits lived in caves and crevices within these rocks since the 11th century, the Turkish invasion of Greece, bandits, and lawlessness forced the rock-climbing ascetics to ascend higher and higher up the mountains to preserve their solitude and obtain protection. By the 14th c., monks began to inhabit this region and build small churches and monasteries on the brinks of the precipices. This conglomeration of monasteries is called 'Meteora' and is included on the World Heritage List of UNESCO. Meteora means 'suspended in the air', appropriately describing the appearance of these monasteries. Located in the valleys at the base of these rock formations are the picturesque villages of Kalambaka and Kastraki.
How did they build them?
The hermits and monks were very agile rock-climbers. Once atop, they hoisted materials, rocks, lumber, tools, food, and the supplies needed for their minimalistic lives up to the mountain tops with ladders, pulleys, ropes, and baskets. Over a period of two centuries 24 monasteries were built, each on its own pinnacle. Today, only SIX remain, as described below, and they can all be visited. Four of them are monastic and two of them are convents.
Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron
In about 1340 a scholar-monk from Mount Athos, by the name of Athanasios, brought a group of followers with him to the region to learn the devout ways of the cave-dwelling hermits that inhabited the crevices of the unusual rock formations in the region. He employed the ascetics to teach the followers how to climb the steep rocks and soon they formed a small monastic community atop the mountain. This was the FIRST monastery to be established between 1356-1372. The new flock soon conquered the surrounding mountains with the desire to create their own holy sanctuaries on adjacent mountaintops. The interiors of the Great Meteoron's Narthex and Catholicon, shown in the photos below, are exquisite!
The first holy hermit likely settled in a cave atop this peak in the 14th c., but a monastic colony was not established until the early 15th c. The church of St. Stephan was built in 1545. Tradition holds that this monastery historically is connected with FEMALE monasticism. It became abandoned, then inhabited by over 30 male monks, then deserted again. Since 1961 it became a convent and now houses nearly 30 nuns!
It is believed by historians that the steep peak of St. Nikolaos was first ascended and settled by ascetics in the early 14th c. This theory is based on the dating of fresco remains found in the small St. Antony chapel on the first floor (shown in the photo below). The church and monastery were built in 1510. Because the peak of this rock has a very small "footprint", construction on it needed to extend vertically, rather than horizontally. This monastery consists of three stories. It is unknown how many monks lived in the complex at the height of monastic life. Now it is home to one abbot.
This peak was initially settled in 1350 by an ascetic named Varlaam, who built 3 small churches, a tiny cell, and a water reservoir. When he died the peak became abandoned for nearly 200 years. In 1517 it was rediscovered by two brothers who were priest-monks. They re-settled it and began building the church and monastery which currently reside there. Transporting materials to the peak took 20 years, hoisting them by hand to the top with a rope net! They also renovated one the Varlaam's original small churches and ultimately named the entire complex after him. Upwards of 35 monks inhabited the monastery in the 16th c., but in the early 17th c. their numbers began to dwindle to just a handful, today. Early on the monks ascended the peak by multiple wooden ladders held in place with pegs, each with about 25 rungs; often JUMPING from one ladder to the next 😳. (Or, by getting their buddies at the top to hoist them up in a rope net.) Since the early 19th c., steps have been carved into the mountain that lead to the top and a small walk bridge from an adjacent mount was built.
Agia Trias ('Holy Trinity)
This peak, like the neighboring others, was likely settled by an ascetic in the mid 14th c., but according to historical sources the church and monastery weren't built until the mid 15th c. Again, rope ladders and traditional nets were used for MANY years to ascend the peak. In the early 20th c., steps were hewn from the rock to ease the ascent. In its former glory, this monastery housed the greatest number of monks and was the center of the monastic community. Today less than a handful reside there.
The promontory hosting this monastery is very steep, vertical, and narrow. The peak was originally settled in 1388 by two priest-monks, named Nikodemus and Benedict. They built a small church and a simple monastery. The current monastery, which appears as a large singular construction was later built in the second half of the 16th c. over the ruins of the abandoned site. Gradually it fell into decline and was plundered during the German occupation in 1940. More recently it was renovated and restored and now functions as a convent, similar to St. Stephanos.
Visiting Meteora and the Monasteries
At the Monasteries, a dress code is enforced. Men must wear long pants. Women must wear skirts that extend below their knees and shoulders must be covered. They do provide wraps and covering if you don't have them with you.
Reaching Meteora has become quite simple. Exceptional connectivity exists to Meteora/Kalambaka from both Athens and Thessaloniki by both train and bus service. If driving from Athens then detouring via Delphi, makes for a fantastic 2-3 day excursion, as it is right along the way. (I will cover Delphi in a future blog.)
Most people take a couple of days to just visit either some or all six of the monasteries. However, hiking around the rugged terrain and rock climbing have also caught favor with adventure seekers.
Both Kalambaka and Kastraki are beautiful nearby towns that offer a wide selection of charming accommodations and authentic Greek cuisine.
Meteora is unquestionably a gorgeous natural terrain hosting exquisite holy sanctuaries. The construction of these massive, yet welcoming, monasteries atop the steep rock formations is absolutely spectacular. When venturing to Greece, I highly recommend incorporating this beautiful mountainous area into your itinerary. While the Greek islands are unarguably exceptional, there IS MORE to Greece than "just" the islands!