The Meteora region of northern Greece doesn’t just provide jaw-dropping landscapes, but perhaps the most improbably located, gravity-defying World Heritage Sites anywhere.
Words Brian Johnston
Spectacular landscapes start just beyond Kalabaka, the nearest transit town and main accommodation centre for a visit to Meteora. Great outcrops of stone loom above the Pineios Valley, all the more dramatic if you approach from Athens across the flat plains.
The surfaces are grey as elephant hide, some smooth, others pitted with indentations from eons of weathering. Some stone pillars with almost vertical sides soar 300m above the valley floor. In misty weather, the scenery looks as surreal as the movie set of an otherworldly planet. In winter, the surrounding mountains are snow-capped, adding to the drama.
The Meteora landscape is dramatic enough, but human ingenuity has provided more astonishment: some of these rock pillars are topped by monasteries as seemingly inaccessible as eagles’ nests. Indeed, birds of prey are often seen wheeling over their roofs, and legend has it that St Athanasius, founder of the first Meteora monastery, was carried to the summit in the beak of an eagle. Travel into the stone forest until you’re surrounded by giant towers of grey stone, and you’ll spy the monasteries high above you. Meteora means ‘suspended in the air’ and that’s hardly an exaggeration: the monasteries’ walls merge with cliff faces. In the early years, goods and monks were hoisted up to the monasteries in baskets attached to ropes and winches; the ropes were reputedly not replaced until they broke. These aren’t religious retreats for the faint of heart.
Early Christian anchorites lived in caves in this region as early as the 11th century, and most of its monasteries were built in the 14th century. Twenty-four were constructed, of which six are still inhabited. All six are open to visitors, albeit with sometimes unpredictable hours. The most splendid is Grand Meteora, sometimes referred to as the Monastery of the Transfiguration. It’s the oldest of the monasteries, approached up 115 stairs that traverse the rock face, and centred on a 12-domed church crammed with elaborate frescoes. Monks are occasionally still encountered here, and may offer you chilled water and slices of candied orange.
Grand Meteora was founded in 1362 under the grant of a Serbian emperor whose son became a monk here. Hefty royal endowments have bequeathed it a rich interior, not to mention a wine cellar full of giant wooden barrels. Subsequent Meteora monasteries all follow its design. At the centre of each complex is a church, and usually other smaller chapels as well. Churches are cruciform in shape and lavishly decorated with icons depicting saints. Surrounding this are the refectory, monks’ cells, infirmary and bakery, though these vary with the importance of each monastery and the available rock-top space. Everything is built of stone, topped with red roof tiles.
It’s three kilometres from Grand Meteora to Ayia Triada (Holy Trinity) monastery. It’s well worth walking between the two so you have the leisure to soak up the landscapes that rise all around. Built in 1476, Holy Trinity is the most spectacularly sited of the monasteries, since its pillar sits out in isolation from the others. It featured memorably in the 1981 James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. Further on at the Monastery of Varlaam, you can see the alarming remnants of wooden ladders fixed to the cliff face, once used by monks to access the summit. Fortunately these days a bridge provides easy (if still dizzying) access. You can spot small caves scooped out of the rock where disobedient monks once served time for transgressing monastic rules. Varlaam’s church screen depicts two peacocks standing on acorns under an oak tree, a warning against pride: as the wisdom runs, you may think you’re only standing on an acorn, but it may grow into an oak tree.
The church also features a bishop’s throne made of ivory. Outside, the monastery manages to squeeze in a pleasant little garden where monks doze and views
fall away into the valley.
Another of the Meteora is St Stephen’s, a nunnery that overlooks the town of Kalambaka. At night you can see the nunnery’s lights from town, seeming to float in the darkness like a spaceship.
It gets relatively few visitors, perhaps because it isn’t as picturesque as some of the other Meteora. Its church is a jewel, however, with an uncommon whitewash in the interior and only a few outstanding icons, giving it a light, airy feel uncommon in Greek Orthodox churches. There are views all the way to Mt Olympus and the distant sea on the horizon. Nearby Roussanou (happily reached by a bridge rather than a climb) is also a nunnery, where well-scrubbed pinewood and whitewash is decorated with flowerpots. Cats loiter in corners. Sit and nibble on sweets offered by the nuns as you stare at the views and marvel.
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From Colours July 2016
5 Senses – Sight
Meteora is surrounded by the Pindos ranges, which form mainland Greece’s backbone. The ancient volcanic range is cut through by rivers and deep canyons, reaching its highest point at Mt Smolikas (2,637m). Oak, pine and beech forests are home to deer and brown bears. It’s well worth touring through the beautiful landscape to Metsovo, about an hour from Meteora. The traditional mountain town features old wooden houses and is notable for embroidery and woodcarving.