Saturday, 24 December 2016

Touching the sky: the monasteries of Meteora

Meteora has a place in every tourist brochure of mainland Greece, and for a reason. These huge monolithic pillars and the surrounding hills, located in the region of Thessaly in central Greece, were definitely worth the long hours I spent on the buses to reach them (3 hours from Thessaloniki and 6+ onwards to Delphi).

The landscape looks like that of an old-fashioned videogame, with a character jumping on top of a mushroom. On the background there are mountains that I kept on thinking they couldn't exist in the real world. The atmosphere is surreal, magnetic, almost spiritual. Needless to say, it is one of  my favourite places in Greece.

View of Meteora

The history of these monasteries is compelling. For centuries hermits had found this area of huge isolated pillars, caves and hollows ideal to meditate and reach new forms of spirituality. Starting from the 14th century, when monks were seeking refuge from the continuous threat of a Turkish invasion, 24 monasteries were built, some of them on top of the pillars. 

Originally they could be reached only by large nets that were hauled up for 300 metres or by wooden ladders lowered down from above. The stone stairs that make it easier for tourists and monks to reach the monasteries were added only recently. The isolation was deliberate: the monasteries were in this way protected and at the same time they symbolized the attempt to connect with God. If you think this sounds familiar it is because the monasteries were an inspiration for the Vale of the Eyrie in the Game of Thrones books.  

The beautiful landscape
On a most practical note, most accommodation is in the towns of either Kalambaka or Kastraki. From the former you can get a shuttle bus a few times per day that stops in every monastery. If it's not too hot, I would suggest you to go until the last stop, at the highest and biggest of the monasteries, Great Meteoron, and from there descend on foot. The other monasteries are reachable with an easy 20-30 minutes hike each.

It is really  worth walking in this area because of the beauty of the incredible landscape and the sight that changes at every angle. If you start reasonably early in the morning - I remember that there was a bus from Kalambaka at 9 - there won't be many tour buses around. It can be done easily in a day, but you may want to go back again and again the following days, just for the beauty of the landscapes.

One of  the monasteries
Six monasteries can be visited in  total: the biggest and most impressive is the monastery of Great Meteoron, built by an erudite monk called Athanasio. Every monastery is a bit different: Roussanou, Varlaam, Agia Triada, Agios Stefanos and Agios Nikolaus all deserve a visit, but I would suggest to choose two or three where you want to enter and just hike to the location of the others. It is advisable to check the opening hours of the monasteries, because they all close one day per week.

One of the monasteries

They are simple inside: don't expect many decorations apart from some small flower gardens or areas to relax. You pay a symbolic fee to enter each of them (3€), and sometimes the monks and the nuns sell their products. At certain times of the day, when the tour buses congregate, they can get crowded and you may find it difficult to enter inside the small churches to get a look at the interesting frescoes. Do wait for your turn to enter, though, because it's worth it.

Fresco inside one of the monastery

The town of Kalambaka, where I stayed and where you'll be too most likely if you decide to visit Meteora, is obviously a bit touristic, but not overtly so. The areas closer to the rock are pleasant, especially at sunset, and there is even an 11th-century Byzantine church. It's still the kind of town where you may find friendly locals. I sure have, and this made my time in Meteora even better.

No comments:

Post a Comment

01 09 10