It is a perfect marriage of nature and of manmade beauty. Crowning the tops of otherworldly rock formations are Eastern Orthodox monasteries, some constructed more than 700 years ago. Built by monks who were trying to escape persecution, there were once more than 20 monasteries. Over the centuries, however, weather and neglect took their toll, leaving today’s six active monasteries, several that are closed to the public, and others in ruins.
In an age of sophisticated construction equipment, it’s easy to take the building of the Meteora monasteries for granted. Yet, imagine how difficult it was to carry the building materials to the peak of the mountaintops centuries ago, which are on average 300 meters (or 1,000 feet) high. And, consider the challenges monks faced in getting themselves up there. With no staircases as there are today, they rode up in nets, surely relying on their faith to banish any terrifying thoughts that the rope on which their life depended might break.
When approaching these magnificent structures for the first time, Shawn and I decided to take the traditional approach – on foot. Starting on our journey, we met a few creatures along the way – most notably a tortoise and viper snake – and were eventually rewarded with glimpses of several monasteries high above us. Yet, with the evening hours quickly approaching, and being uncertain which path to take, we decided to turn back.
The next day, our energetic tour guide, George, from Visit Meteora led the way and literally took us off the beaten path as only a local can do. During an overcast morning, we passed a kaleidoscope of wooden beehives, a shepherd and his flock, and a small prayer shrine.
Soon, the clouds burned off, exposing aquamarine skies, patchwork quilt-like tracts of land, and snow-capped mountains. We wandered off a bit away from the rock formations, into a lush forest filled with a plethora of wildflowers, areas carpeted by shag-like moss, and mushrooms. Tank-like beetles, mammoth-sized wasps, alien-faced grasshoppers, geckos and industrious ants also made their presence known.
As we wound through an oak tree’s branches, we spotted a monastery that most visitors to Meteora never see – the Ypapanti Monastery. It doesn’t sit atop rock formations, rather it appears to be clinging to the side of one. George explained that the Ypapanti Monastery is one of several monasteries that is no longer active, and presently closed to the public.
Hiking a bit farther, we approached an odd landscape, realizing that we were actually now walking atop some of the rock formations. Sections of the mountain were smooth, whereas others had straw-colored grass. George stopped to add a rock to a makeshift tower, a custom that we’d later see practiced on hiking trails elsewhere in the country.
Like children playing the ‘cloud game’ (seeking to find familiar forms in the clouds), we tried to make out faces and shapes in the rugged rocks. Then we just took in the serenity of the spot. We were the only people in sight. Birds soared overhead, showing off their ability to flit from one precarious boulder top to another. There were no other people in sight.
As we continued our trek, we caught glimpses of three additional monasteries. Having been surrounded by nature for the past hours, it was jarring to see tour buses whizzing by, and visitors being hurried from monastery to monastery.
On the stairway leading down toward the Great Meteoron Monastery, we glimpsed thousands of caterpillars rappelling down from the trees, building chrysalises. It seemed fitting that the insects swung on silk cords in the foreground of the spot where monks once rode up to the monastery in a rope basket.
Several caterpillars tried to stow away with us during the hike down to the village of Kastraki. On the way, we also spied ruins of monasteries that once graced the boulders’ tops, as well as just two of the many adventure seekers who regularly climb these rugged rocks. George had given us the option of touring some of the monasteries’ interiors, but we decided to save the interiors for the next day. We wove down a well-shaded trail back to our home away from home, on paths covered by twisted roots, and an occasional glimpse of the majestic monasteries now overhead.
Visit Meteora hosted us for this hiking adventure.
ευχαριστώ πολύ/ A big thank you to George for guiding us. We loved getting off-the-beaten path with you, hearing your insights about these magnificent monasteries and learning more about Greek culture.