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The name “Meteora” comes from the Greek word “meteoros”, which means “suspended in the air”. It is also where the word “meteor” comes from. It is a perfect name for the 12th century monasteries suspended upon pinnacles of smooth rock way up high above the surrounding landscape.
Hermit monks started making the area home in the 11th century, living in caves up in the cliff faces. Their numbers grew over the next few centuries as the Roman empire began to lose power and the Turks started invading.
Monks found security in the inaccessibility of the cliffs at Meteora. They built monasteries with removable ladders, rope nets, and pulleys. At one time, there were 24 monasteries, but over time, a number of them have decayed and are now mostly rubble.
Today there are 6 functioning monasteries – 4 used by monks, 2 used by nuns – and the area has become a Unesco World Heritage site.
The drive to the monasteries winds through the town of Kalambaka and the village of Kastraki before beginning the climb up to the top of the cliffs. From down below, you begin to see a building here or there, and as you turn a corner, another will come into view.
Once at the top, every view is breathtaking. Even on a gray day like this day, the beauty was inspirational. It’s so easy to see why the monks chose this place, for it’s beauty and difficult accessibility.
The monastery of Great Meteoron dates back to 1340 AD. It is the largest and most visited of the monasteries, and contains a museum outlining the history and daily life at the monasteries. One of the rooms contains the bones and skulls of previous monks who lived in the monastery. Unfortunately, we picked the one month of the year it is closed for maintenance. We could only view it from across the chasm.
The second monastery we visited was Varlaam.
In 1350, a monk named Varlaam settled at the top of this point. He built three churches, which fell into ruin after he died.
In 1517, two monks from Ioanina, Theophanes and Nektarios Apsarades, climbed up here, renovated the church, erected a tower and built a Katholicon (a cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox church).
It took them 22 years to pull up all the building materials using ropes, pulleys and baskets. The building only took 20 days.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Varlaam was cared for by the, up to 35, monks who lived here, then it began to fall into decline.
In the 19th century, the steps were carved into the rock face. They have been re-worked a number of times since.
The monastery houses a small museum and has a number of 16th century paintings. Notice how the eastern Orthodox painted all of the men and women of the bible as middle eastern looking, instead of how whitewashed they have been in North America.
The most impressive part of this monastery, after you get past the fact that they had to pull all this stuff up miles of cliffs and trails, was the Katholicon. There was a sign forbidding photos so we didn’t take any – something I see a lot of other people didn’t pay attention to, since there are many images online of it. The photos don’t do it justice.
I am in no way spiritual, religious, or pious, but I could understand the awe and wonder the monks were trying to inspire. As I stood there and took in their masterpiece, I could feel how they felt towards their God. This was a feeling I had found lacking in the Sistine Chapel, but the emotion found me here.
This is a photo of the Roussanou Monastery. It was built in 1545 by Maximos and Ioasaph of Ioannina. Looted during WWII, it is now run by nuns.
We stopped at a vista point to take some photos, and as we got out, this car pulled up with this very tall man and his wife. It was amusing to watch them both extricate themselves from the tiny vehicle. “This was much more fun when we were younger.” the man said to me. “This is probably going to be our last trip in it.”
This is a strange and bad picture, I know. I was trying to take it surreptitiously, and it would have been more interesting if I’d videoed it. The man shown here drove up with political Greek angry ranting blaring from his radio and all his windows open. It sounded to me like a Greek Rush Limbaugh, sputtering in indignation. He turned off the car, got out, but left the radio blaring for us all to hear. It seemed strange since we were pretty much all tourists and few of us could even understand.
The third and last monastery we visited was Agios Stefanos. Built in the 14th century, most of the monastery was destroyed during WWII, so alot of it is new. Still, it is a beautiful location and vista.
Now run by nuns, they do not make women wear wraps over their pants like the men at the monasteries do. They have the wraps hung nicely on the wall (in sharp contrast to the messy pile of wraps at Varlaam), probably for those who come during the hot weather, in shorts and skimpy clothing. I felt much more welcomed here, greeted by a diminutive and ancient nun with a smile almost bigger than her face could handle.
The Katholikon here contains the head of St. Charalambos and is dedicated to him. The pious believe the head prevents illness.
On our way back, we wondered if we’d have to take the same hour long detour we had on the way up, but thankfully when we got to the roadblock location, there was nobody there. Sunday is a day of rest after all.
That afternoon, we took a detour on our way back to Athens, and stopped in the port town of Rafina. This is the ferry port for islands on the east side of the country. I had been planning to take the bus out here later in the week, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity so Harold could also see it. The port is lined with restaurants, making it difficult to choose one. We opted for one that had an open second story balcony and had a wonderful meal watching the ferries come in and out.
Overnight spot: Hotel Kaikis
Price: 40 Euro
Includes: breakfast, wifi
Notes: The hotel is dated, but clean, and the views of the cliffs of Meteora are outstanding. The woman at check-in gave us a map of the area and went over the must see places with me. Breakfast was fantastic. In season, they have a buffet, but there were only a few people staying here so we each had our own tables and the server brought out a veritable bounty of food – way too much for us to eat.
Oh! I can’t forget – HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my wonderful husband!!! Here I caught him in a super hero action shot at Meteora.
And here’s a close-up!