Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Meteora, the Second Sky Over Greece

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
The unearthly view of the 700-metre high stone pillars, crowned by monasteries, is a James Bond film décor and an inspiration to the musicians of the neo-metal band Linkin Park who named one of their albums after this place. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, the bright flashlights, the camcorders’ buzz and the tourist bustle, dozens of Orthodox monks live here humbly and somehow more closely to God.

“When do you change the rope?” My question hangs in the air, while the white-bearded monk seems too busy with his primitive hoisting device. Accompanied by incredible squeaking, he is pulling a huge rope basket out of the 300-metre deep abyss. Inside this ancestor of a lift there is another monk, humbly squatting. When the basket finally comes atop and the man from inside it jumps to the wooden platform with a much practiced skill, the white-bearded monk turns to us.

“The rope,” I repeat my question, “When do you change it?”

“When God wills it, my child,” comes the answer, giving us abundant food for thought.

Nowadays, the ropes are strong, made of synthetic fibre and the primitive contraption is seldom used for hoisting up people. It is more of a paid photo opportunity and tourist attraction. More often, it pulls up crates of provisions. But before the road and bridges to the Meteora monasteries were built prior to the Second World War, the hoisting devices provided the only way for people to access the top of the stone pillars. The ropes at that time were hand-woven from hemp and used for as long as possible. That is why the answer “By God’s will” feels somewhat sinister to us.

Meteora is a piece of flat country in North Thessaly. It is littered with dozens of gigantic stone pillars some rising as high as 628 metres above sea level. Hundreds of natural caves give their sides a worm-eaten look, while Orthodox Christian monasteries crown many of the pillars. The scenery is thoroughly surreal, as if God has lowered the whole world, only leaving the temples high above. The impression is much more powerful from the top of the pillars: the monasteries look like they have been built on islands in a sea of nothingness. This surely must be the “second” heaven – a step further up on the way to the seventh, and most blissful, one.

Meteoros in Greek means ‘suspended in the air’. The artistic stone colonnade used to be part of a sea bed about 10 million years ago. Tectonic movements pushed the whole region above water. Squeezed tightly by the surrounding mountains, the ground cracked and water started running through the deep crevices, gradually eroding away earth and leaving these strange islands towering up in the sky.

The first hermits started settling down in the Meteora caves in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The construction of the main bulk of monasteries, though, took place in the fourteenth century, at the time of the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire and the Turks’ invasion. It was then that the monks started turning the upper parts of the stone pillars into fortresses, creating a safe haven from the massive bloodsheds in the region. In its heyday, the strange church colony consisted of 24 monasteries. Some of them were tiny, while others resembled small towns. The monasteries are typical examples of Orthodox architecture: a central courtyard surrounded by monks’ cells, a chapel and a refectory. The courtyards, sheltered from the wind, provide perfect grounds for long walks and the height offers breathtaking vistas conducive to religious contemplation and insights.

Nowadays, there are six monasteries preserved and functioning. If a certain effort is exerted, they could all be seen on foot in a single day.

Moni Megalou Meteoru is the biggest monastery. It is guarded by modern versions of Scylla and Charybdis – a couple of seemingly helpless old Greek ladies dressed in black. From afar they look quite like ordinary worshippers, shifting from one leg to the other in front of the gates. Once they set their eyes on us in the distance, however, they get severely agitated and start shouting in a number of European tongues, waving around tourist leaflets they are trying to sell. Having gone through the siege, we climb three hundred meters of stone steps. The view from the top, however, makes us quickly leave all bad thoughts behind.

Moni Megalou (Monastery of the Transformation of the Savior) is a remarkable monastery in the history of the Balkans. It was founded by St. Athanasios in the fourteenth century, and came to full prominence and splendour during the rule of the Serb dynasty of Uroš. It was there that Emperor Simeon Uroš took holy orders and gave up the crown, having spent almost all his fortune on enlarging and decorating the monastery.

The central, 12-wall nave of the church is richly painted with frescos, which impress not only with their beauty, but also with the violence they depict. The scenes show the Christians’ prosecution by the Romans. The splendour of the internal details stands witness to the riches the Urošes poured into the place as well as to the inaccessibility of the place, which managed to preserve this inheritance despite the incessant forays and plundering.

The monastery keeps a small museum, exhibiting a random collection of documents, traditional attire, photographs from the Balkan Wars, postal stamps, weapons, copies of holy scriptures, and the inevitable stall of local souvenir kitsch, displaying hour-glasses filled with coloured sand and the blue glass eyes used for protection against the evil-eye.

A stone bridge leads to Moni Agias Varvara Rousanu, which stands out among the rest of monasteries with its beauty. The sunshine filtering through the stained-glass windows of its church makes a really magnificent display.

Moni Agias Triados’s interior is rather ascetic but that was probably the reason it was chosen for the shooting location of the Bond movie For Your Eyes Only back in 1981. Worldly fame was also brought to the place recently by the well-known band Linkin Park. They were so impressed by the monasteries and their surroundings that they titled their quite successful album from 2003 Meteora.

Meteora’s incredible world does not end with its monasteries. In recent years it has become a favourite destination for rock climbers from all over Europe. The stone pillars provide different degrees of climbing difficulty, ranked from 2 to 8, and attract large numbers of thrill-seekers.

Annually, over one million visitors find abundant hotel accommodation in the nearby small town of Kalambaka, the starting point for exploring the region. You can also spend the night in the village of Kastraki. It is the last settlement before Meteora, practically a part of its surreal scenery. Dinner over a bottle of retsina under the moonlight here will surely give you memories to last a lifetime.


Trip duration from Thessaloniki by car: 2 to 3 hours.
Altitude: 680 metres.
Tourist overcrowd period: Orthodox Easter.
Dress code: Men are not allowed to enter the monasteries in shorts and women should not expose their legs and shoulders. (Not to worry, though: large scarves and slacks are provided for free at the entrance of each monastery)
In church: You are expected to buy and light a candle. Do not look behind the iconostasis; it is forbidden and, frankly, there is nothing much to see there.
Double room rate in Kalambaka: 40-50 euros.
Double room rate in Kastraki: 30 euros – a tray of traditional sweets and a jar of ice-cold water included.




Mount Athos Area KOUZINA 2014

The most famous Greek culinary event!
With the signature of the famous Greek chef Dina Nikolaou

Mount Athos Area Kouzina is a month long annual food festival which takes place from the 15th of May till the 15th of June, attracting foodies from all over the world.
Full Story

Curiosity Chest

Greece and Albania: In the Kingdom of Ali Pasha

While travelling through the Balkans, Morelle Smith gets to know the infamous Ali Pasha, the “Lion of Ioannina.” First through the eyes of nineteenth-century writer Dora d'Istria and then through the impressive architectural heritage he left in Albania and Northern Greece. And she falls for his charms. And how could she not, knowing how fiercely Ali Pasha treated the women who turned him down? Full Story

Useful Reads

In Sfakia: Passing Time in the Wilds of Crete (2008) | By Peter Trudgill

Crete has long been acknowledged as one of the most singular and unique parts of Greece. Its people keep a fierce hold on their traditions, customs and history. Practically a country of its own, this vast island looms over all others in Greece. Nevertheless, as In Sfakia author Peter Trudgill aptly notes in his preface, “some parts of Crete are more special than others, and Sfakia, on the remote south coast, is certainly one of those.” Full Story


Unbearable Nostalgia, After Theo Angelopoulos

Eleni Karaindrou | Elegy of the Uprooting |Crammed/Dyukyan Meloman, 2006
Full Story