Journey through Ancient Greece  
The Monasteries of the Meteora

If this is your first visit here I can guarantee you will not be disappointed; the scenery is unlike anywhere else you have seen: strange, smooth, dark grey pinnacles of rock rising up vertically towards the sky everywhere you look, and then, on closer inspection, you can make out buildings perched precariously up on the tip of some of the highest pinnacles. These are the monasteries known as the metora (metora means 'in the air'), built in the 14th and 15th centuries to house the growing number of hermits or anchorites who were living here.

There are no fewer than sixty pinnacles, some stubby and smooth, some towering to heights of 400 metres, and many with large round holes looking like the surface of the moon. These phenomena were caused some twenty five million years ago when erosion by rivers washed away the limestone leaving behind the harder sandstone.

In the late 10th century they began to attract men who wanted to get away from it all and came to live in the many caves in the rocks. They were following the example of the 5th century St. Simeon Stylites who spent 36 years perched 25 metres above ground on a column. In 1336 Abbot Gregorios and Athanasios, one of his monks, came here from Mount Athos; shortly after Gregorios went back to Athos leaving Athanasios with instructions to build a monastery. By 1372 nine monks were living in the Grand Metoron (Megalo Metoro); no-one knows how it, or any of the 23 other monasteries which followed, were built. Probably Athanasios didn't fly up on the back of an eagle as legend has it, but bearing in mind there were no roads then and the climbs are classed as 'advanced' even with modern mountaineering equipment the achievement does seem nothing short of miraculous.

Cut off from the outside world by vertiginous cliffs and chasms the monasteries were reached by wooden ladders up to 40 metres long which were withdrawn at night, or in a net or basket on the end of a rope pulled up with a windlass. Nowadays, you will be relieved to hear, we can go up in the coach and reach the monasteries by footbridges and steps cut into the rocks.

In 1388 Joasph Uros refused the throne of Serbia to become a monk at the Grand Metoron endowing the monastery with riches and fabulous works of Byzantine art, attracting some of the best artists of their day, many, including the monk Theophanos, from the Cretan School.

The monasteries thrived through the 15th and 16th centuries and were still active in the 18th century after which monasticism began to decline throughout Greece.

All the monasteries suffered damage from bombing in the Second World War and many treasures were pillaged. Their survival has been assured by the advent of mass tourism and whilst the dozens of coaches at the biggest monasteries inevitably destroy any illusion of monastic seclusion these are still pretty wonderful places to visit.

Today six monasteries and convents are occupied but only two of these are primarily religious houses, Ayos Stefanos and Aya Triada (Holy Trinity), the others are essentially tourist sites. We should have time to visit three of these - probably the Grand Metoron, Varlaam and Ay Stefnos.

The first monastery on the hill up from Kastrki is Ayos Nikalaos, a small monastery established in the 14th century. with superb paintings by Theophanos in the 16th century church. Because of the rock shape this monastery faces due north rather than the usual east.

Further up and round many bends is the tiny convent of Roussanou,or Aya Barbara built in the 14th century with its walls taken to the edge of the rock on all sides! Originally it would have been occupied by monks as no women were allowed in the Metora. The chapel has some gruesome 16th century paintings. We get a lovely view of the convent on our way back down.

Up more winding road, the view ever more breathtaking, we come to a junction. The left turn takes us to the two biggest (and busiest) monasteries. The first of these, on a 373 metre peak, is Varlaam which is reached today by a footbridge and 150 steps, there are remains of the vrizoni or winch tower which until the 1920's was the only access.

The monastery was built on the site of the hermitage of Ay. Varlam in 1517 by two wealthy brothers from Ionnina who came here soon after Athansios. Legend has it that it took 22 years to gather the material for the katholikn and only 20 days to build it in 1542!

In the katholikn are painted beams and superb frescoes from 1548, by Frango Kastellano, including in the narthex the Last Judgement, the Life of John the Baptist and in the domes the Ascension and a Pantokrator

In the refectory are fabulous gold embroidered vestmentsand a Gospel dating from 960, and in the storeroom is a wine press and an enormous barrel, two metres diameter, which can hold 12,000 litres.

Going on from Varlam we come to the Grand Meteoron (the Transfiguration)), the highest of all at 615 metres above sea level; we climb 115 steps down and 220 up to enter the monastery, passing on the way the cave where Athansios lived. Access to the monastery was by rope and net and we can see it still hanging from the vrizonitower; today it is used only for supplies, not people, and the mechanism is electric. There is also a bucket on a cable slung across the chasm also used for supplies. There is a stunning view of Varlam from here.

The katholikon is particularly fine, some say the finest in the Meteora; based on the churches of Mount Athos it is a cross-in-square, with a lofty dome supported by columns and beams, originally built in 1383 and enlarged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Athansios and Joasph are buried in the narthex. The iconostasis has some superb icons. The 16th century frescoes, probably by Theophanos, depict grisly martyrdoms. Also decidedly grisly is the display of skulls in the ossuary! We can also visit the vaulted refectory where there are more icons and the domed kitchens which are arranged as if they had just been left; there are two huge barrels here.

If we now turn back and go straight on at the junction we will come to two more monasteries. First is Ayias Triados (Holy Trinity) where according to legend it took 70 years to get all the materials to the site. Here again there is a winching system, access today is via 130 steps and a tunnel. The monastery, which was built in 1438, was restored in the 1980's. There are magnificent frescoes in the katholikon and some splendid icons. Four monks still live here.

The last monastery is Ay. Stefanos which we reach now by a narrow stone bridge which crosses the ravine. There are no steps! The nuns who live here will offer you skirts and wraps to cover bare legs or trousers, and try to sell you souvenirs. The monastery was built in the late 15th century on the site of a 12th century hermitage. The refectory, which has brick domes, is now a museum with lovely embroidered vestments (C18/19th), altar silver, an ebony and ivory bishop's throne, C17/18th icons and a 6th century manuscript, and others from the 10th - 17th centuries; there is also a dictionary from 1499. The frescoes in the 18th century church are newly restored; those in the 15th century chapel are badly damaged. Last year these were being restored. There is a pretty rose garden with box hedges and a superb view over the plain and Kalambaka. Down the steps in the garden are loos a la Turque!

Note: The dates for these monasteries and the heights of the pinnacles differ in almost every guide book, usually only by a year or two, but in some cases by centuries! In most cases I have used information from a Greek guide which may or may not be any more accurate; maybe it doesn't really matter.


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