There are few places in the world that evoke a sense of wonder like Greece. From ancient monuments to the mighty Gods, to the deep blue sparkle of the Aegean Sea that surrounds windswept islands where white washed houses hug the cliffs; to the cosy tavernas that serve up homemade ouzo and crusty white bread with kalamata olives and pungent fetta cheese. While the lure of basking in the sun on a rugged island has always been irresistible, I finally managed on my last trip to Greece to drag myself away from the beach and head to the mountains. A picture spotted on a postcard had drawn me to the fabled monolithic rocks of Meteora where monks have long sought solace in the monasteries that perch like birds nests on top of them.
The bus wound higher and higher into the forested mountains and we were enveloped in a thick soupy fog as we crawled over the Koziakas Pass. It was after midnight by the time we descended into the town of Kalambaka and I was battered by pelting rain as I stepped off the bus. Everything was closed and I wandered alone in the dark. I knew the town was nestled under the rocks of Meteora but I could barely see a few feet in front of me. My spur of the moment decision to come here suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea and I cursed myself for not having a guide book or at least some idea about where to stay. The road eventually gave way to a dirt track, a loud crack of thunder made me jump, and was followed by a brilliant flash of lightning that illuminated a small guest house crouched under a great big monster of a rock. I had found my bed for the night.
The rain had cleared by morning and stepping onto my balcony I was all but surrounded by giant rocks. I say rocks, but that goes no where near capturing the enormity of these monoliths – some of which are 600 meters high and bizarrely enough have monasteries sitting on top. Meteora translates as ‘suspended in air’ and at one time there were 24 rock-top monasteries scattered through the valley, now just six remain and a few monks still call them home.
I followed a sign that said ‘pathway to Meteora’, and clamoured up the steep trail which traversed boulders and thick forest and finally emerged at a plateau. Before me the mighty rocks of Meteora rose like natural skyscrapers from the valley floor. A climbers dream with over 50 rocks to conquer. Some were tall and spindly, others were bent and twisted, and a few had boulders balancing precariously on top, stone faces were so sheer that they looked like they had been sliced in half by a giant carving knife. They rise so abruptly from the plain that they seem to have been thrust through the earths surface, but were actually formed by gradual erosion over 60,000,000 years ago.
Meteora has been a stronghold of the orthodox east since the eleventh century. Hermits were the first to dwell amidst the rocks, living high in the caves and crevices. By the 14th century monks were climbing the stone towers and building churches on top, enduring incredible hardship in their efforts to be closer to God. Cut off from the rest of the world they indulged in a life of praying, fasting and chanting, with rope ladders providing the only access until the 1930’s. These days access is easier, via stairs and tunnels carved into the rocks or bridges from the hills behind. Most people visit on tour buses or by car but I preferred to walk, approaching each rock and monastery slowly, enjoying the different perspectives and the all-encompassing silence. For the first couple of days the sky was dark and overcast and the rocks seemed cold and hard, almost menacing, but on the third day I woke to brilliant sunshine. Under a luminous sky the rich layers of colours in the rocks revealed themselves, streaks of yellow, pink and red; the hardness softened by wild grasses and ivy, and the rocks suddenly seemed more gentle, more friendly.
I visited Gran Meteora first, the largest of the monasteries and was excited to hear chanting as I climbed the stairs, but was disappointed not to find monks, but rather a gift shop playing a CD. Somehow I hadn’t expected a shop or to see the guy at the till sending a text message. My Greek friend tells me that very few monks live here now, as tourism and asceticism make a poor mix. “They have turned Meteora into a supermarket”, he laments. He was here years before working on the production of Tomorrow never dies which saw Roger Moore (or more likely his stunt double) climb one of the stone faces. There were delta planes, helicopters, a crew of 200. “The monks went crazy”, he told me, “but they made a lot of money so they couldn’t say no”. Although Gran Meteora now operates chiefly as a tourist attraction it still provides a fascinating insight into life in a religious order. The chapel is thick with the smell of holy incense, and burning candles and smoky oil lamps illuminate beautiful frescos and ancient artefacts. One room is dedicated to skulls, bones and relics of various saints, while the museum has an interesting collection of relics, including some amazing old photos. One depicts a monk with a full black beard dressed in flowing black robes and a tall black hat. Staff in hand he is leading the Greek revolutionary fighters into battle and cuts an imposing figure. Other photos depict the rocks covered in snow and swirling mists.
I came across a sign in the valley proclaiming, “Do not shout, respect the unequalled character of the place”, and although thousands of tourists descend on Meteora every year, people are remarkably quiet, it is a humbling place. The other monasteries are much smaller and less visited. Rousano is reached by climbing down a lush leafy path which passes through two giant boulders then crosses a bridge to the rock itself into which is carved a stone staircase. It now acts as a nunnery and the courtyard is filled with brightly coloured flowers. While the other monasteries are dark and austere, this one is bright and cheerful with a woman’s attention to detail. The gift shop sells the usual iconography and religious paraphernalia but also lace embroidery worked by the nuns and mint tea cultivated from the garden.
After dark the main square in Kalambaka bustles with activity. Tables with checked table cloths spill onto the sidewalk and are filled with a mix of tourists and locals. Some of the rocks are illuminated by spotlight and on a clear evening appear to hover like ghostly apparitions above the town, a silent reminder of the extraordinary feats of nature and of man.