Suspended in the Air
[Kalabaka, Greece, Sept 19, 2017]
Meteora means “suspended in the air” in Greek. This name quite aptly describes the collection of monasteries precariously built on the rocks just North of the town of Kalabaka, in the Thessaly valley in Northern Greece. Meteora was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
The rocks upon which the monasteries were built are a result of sandstone and conglomerate deposits being pushed up into a high plateau, then weathered down along fault lines by wind, water and extreme temperatures.
Between the 12th and 16th centuries, monks built many monasteries perched up on several of the rocks here. The first monks started inhabiting the caves and formations up in Meteora in the 9th century. By the 14th century, the Turks, who eventually took over all of the Balkan peninsula and pushed as far west as modern-day Austria and Hungary, had their eye on the fertile valley of Thessaly. The monks retreated higher and higher up the rocks and eventually built more than 20 monasteries there. Today, six remain inhabited. The monasteries of Meteora are one of the most important sites of the Eastern Orthodoxy, second only to Mount Athos. The monasteries were difficult to reach on purpose, which also meant that goods and people had to be delivered via methods such as rope ladders and nets. We saw several of these methods as we toured each monastery.
The six monasteries that remain today are linked by a small two-lane road with turn-offs for scenic views and access to the monasteries. This does not mean, however, that access to these monasteries has gotten all that easy in the modern era. Only one of the six is accessible without having to climb any stairs. The rest of the monasteries are only accessible through staircases carved in the side of the rock that bring you up to the top. No elevators, no lifts. There aren’t any Western-style toilets, either – just squat toilets. Because of this, mom and I decided to tackle 4 of the monasteries our own, and leave the one that’s accessible and the one that’s closed today for the next day with dad.
The first monastery we visited was the hardest one to reach – Holy Trinity. I couldn’t even imagine how we were going to get to it the way it was perched up on a tall rock.
We first took a little trail off the paved road until we reached a wider road that was clearly not meant for cars. The rock was still towering high above us.
Once we reached the bottom of the rock, there was a staircase carved into the side of it. We started climbing! About half way there, we saw a couple of women coming down and they commented on my Ragnar hat. 🙂 They were American and one of them had done a Ragnar. Small world! Anyhow, 140 stairs later, we were at the monastery!
The monastery was established in the 15th century; there were 5 monks in residence as of 2015. It is a small monastery but beautiful monastery. We were able to see the entire valley from there.
Here is where we also saw the first contraption used for hauling goods and people to the monastery. This was a lift-like thing, so it looked more modern than the ropes and nets we were expecting.
From Holy Trinity, we headed to Varlam. This is also called “Small Meteora”. Mom and I thought it was the most beautiful of all the ones we visited today. While Holy Trinity was small and nice and quiet, probably due to the early hour as well as the stairs, Varlam was full of people already. It is the second-largest monastery and has the largest number of monks, seven as of 2015. It was built in 1541.
Here is where we saw evidence of the net used to haul people up the monastery. Here’s the tower that the net would go up to. There was a picture of a monk being taken up this way in the museum in the monastery. The rope ladders, steps and the net, called vrizoni, were the only way to get up here until 1921, when the steps were hewn into the rock.
Next up was Roussanou, which was founded in the 16th century and today is home of 13 nuns. Roussanou was one of the prettiest ones, but it was also tiny. The rock it sits on juts out quite a bit, and I had a chance to take photos of it from many angles throughout the day! We also saw a rope ladder here – it’s in the second to last photo.
The last monastery we visited was St. Nicholas. Although it doesn’t have as many stairs as Holy Trinity, I thought this was less accessible because the stairs were so steep! It was already in the mid 30s C / 90s F by the time we got there, so the heat didn’t help. This monastery fell in disrepair in 1900 but was repaired in the 1960s by the Greek archaeological service. It was then inhabited by one priest who died in 1982 and the monastery closed. It reopened again in 1997 and now there is one monk in residence.
After resting at home in the afternoon (this included a nap), we returned to Meteora to watch the sunset. Our AirBnB host, Keti, had told us which turn off was best. We found a wedding party there taking photos on the rocks!
It was a gorgeous sunset! I took way too many photos.
Someone also was playing the flute, which added to the ambiance tremendously. You can hear it in the beginning of this video.